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- Let’s first consider the statement attributed to Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”.
One of the Greek texts most frequently quoted in support of this statement -we’ll see whether rightly or not- is Plato’s ‘Apology of Socrates’ § 23 B, which has Socrates say:
“ὤσπερ ἄν εἰ εἴποι ὅτι οὗτος ὑμῶν, ὦ ἄνθρωποι, σοφώτατός ἐστιν, ὅστις ὥσπερ Σωκράτης ἔγνωκεν ὅτι οὐδενὸς ἄξιός ἐστι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πρὸς σοφίαν.”
This text can be translated as follows: “It is as if (the God) were to say that the one of you, o men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, acknowledges that he is truly incapable of reaching wisdom”.
Socrates makes this statement at the beginning of his defense, and in the context of a speech about the unexpected consequences that had his survey of the politicians, poets and craftsmen of Athens, aimed at understanding the meaning of the oracle of Delphi that described him as the wisest of men. This survey earned him numerous and violent enmities, and was the origin of the process of which he is now a victim. This survey even earned him the title of ‘wise man’, while, according to Socrates, it’s likely that the only ‘wise’ is the God of Delphi, and that the task entrusted to him by Apollo was simply to show people that men know nothing worth in comparison to the divine knowledge which only can be qualified as the true wisdom.
This is what Plato makes Socrates say. However in all likelihood Plato, as he usually does, puts into the mouth of Socrates something that only he, Plato, believes: that wisdom is an abstract, immutable and unreachable entity: in fact, an ‘idea’.
As is evident, Plato doesn’t make Socrates say: “I know that I know nothing”, because this would be a rhetorical play on words. Rather, Plato makes Socrates say that his knowledge is worth nothing in comparison to the divine knoweldge that is the true wisdom and that is a prerogative of the God only. This concept is indeed clearly reaffirmed by Plato in the last words of the ‘Apology’, words that sound like this: “Now I (Socrates) go to die and you to live. But which of us goes to the better lot is known to none but God”.
Therefore if we want to save the pun ‘I know that I know nothing’ and give it a non-contradictory sense, we must turn it into this form: ‘I don’t know what only the God can know’ or, at a minimum, in this other form: ‘I don’t know what the politicians, poets and craftsmen of Athens claim to know but do not really know’.
I believe that the interpretation I am suggesting is prudent and appropriate, because we are sure that there is at least one thing that Socrates knows perfectly well, and that Plato makes him say in § 177 D of the ‘Symposium’. These are the words of Socrates: “No one will vote against you, my dear Eryximachus. Surely not I, because I declare to have a perfect knowledge, if anything, of love-matters”.
But now comes the funniest part of the story, and one that questions the validity of the common interpretation.
In fact, there is at least one more Greek text that is used to support the statement with which we are concerned. This text appears in § 32 of Book II of Diogenes Laertius’ the ‘Lives of the Philosophers’, a book dedicated, in part, to the life and philosophy of Socrates. The text reads as follows:
“ἔλεγε δὲ καὶ προσημαὶνειν τὸ δαιμόνιον τὰ μέλλοντα αὐτῷ`τό τε εὖ ἄρχεσθαι μικρὸν μὲν μὴ εἶναι, παρὰ μικρὸν δέ` καὶ εἰδέναι μὲν μηδὲν πλὴν αὐτὸ τοῦτο εἰδέναι”
For clarity and in order to understand it better, it’s useful to divide this short text into its three parts and examine each in turn.
The first part:(1) "ἔλεγε δὲ καὶ προσημαὶνειν τὸ δαιμόνιον τὰ μέλλοντα αὐτῷ"
presents no difficulty of interpretation and all scholars translate it more or less like this:
‘(1) (Socrates) used to say that his demon warned him in advance of what would happen to him’
The second part: (2) "τό τε εὖ ἄρχεσθαι μικρὸν μὲν μὴ εἶναι, παρὰ μικρὸν δέ"
on the other hand, looks quite puzzling, and thus has over the centuries confused and troubled many scholars.
Aldobrandino’s Latin translation, dated 1594 a. D., runs as follows:
- (2) ‘et bene incipere non parvum illud quidem esse, sed parvo proximum’.
During the nineteenth century, the famous Cobet brackets the verb ‘ἄρχεσθαι’ and translates:
- (2) ‘et rectum non esse quidem parvum, sed in parvo momento positum’.
In the same century, Apelt translates the passage in this way:
- (2) ‘Das gute Gelingen sei zwar nichts Geringes, fange aber mit kleinem an’.
In the twentieth century, R. D. Hicks also brackets the verb ‘ἄρχεσθαι’ and suggests this translation:
- (2) ‘that to make a good start was no trifling advantage, but a trifle turned the scale’.
Also in the twentieth century, M. Gigante translates the passage in this way:
- (2) ‘il saper obbedire non è poca cosa, ma si conquista a poco a poco’.
I contend that the second part of this text cannot be analyzed or understood in isolation from the first. Specifically, I argue that, since Socrates has just mentioned the presence of a demon that gives him advance warning of future events, we must make this ‘demon’ the subject of the infinite medio-passive verb ‘ἄρχεσθαι’; a verb that, in this context, can quite properly retain its main meaning of ‘to command oneself/to be commanded’. ‘εὖ ἄρχεσθαι’ would therefore mean ‘to be well commanded’ by the demon, and the phrase translated quite naturally in the following way:
- (2) ‘that to be well commanded (by the demon) even on small matters, is no small thing’.
We now come to the third and final part of the text: (3) "καὶ εἰδέναι μὲν μηδὲν πλὴν αὐτὸ τοῦτο εἰδέναι"
If you have in mind the Socrates who declares “I know that I know nothing” you are now quite sure to be able to understand the meaning of this sentence without ambiguity.
In fact, the two most authoritative translations that I have before me speak for themselves.
R. D. Hicks brackets the second infinite perfect ‘εἰδέναι’ and proposes this version:
- (3) ‘and that he knew nothing except just the fact of his ignorance’.
In turn, M. Gigante, who does not bracket the second infinite perfect ‘εἰδέναι’, translates as follows:
- (3) ‘nulla sapeva eccetto che nulla sapeva’.
Now, since Greek grammar and syntax here permit us to do so, we shall preserve the close relationship of dependence with the first and the second parts of the text, and as a consequence the reference to the ‘demon’ from which, like Socrates, we were inspired so far. In this case, the simple and natural translation of the third part becomes:
- (3) ‘and to know nothing except knowing that this demon exists’.
Let’s sum up the whole story and compare the three complete translations of this interesting fragment of Diogenes Laertius.
According to R. D. Hicks: ‘(Socrates) used to say that his supernatural sign warned him beforehand of the future; that to make a good start was no trifling advantage, but a trifle turned the scales, and that he knew nothing except just the fact of his ignorance’.
According to M. Gigante: ‘(Socrate) diceva che un demone gli prediceva il futuro; il saper obbedire non è poca cosa, ma si conquista a poco a poco; nulla sapeva eccetto che nulla sapeva’. ‘(Socrates) said that a demon warned him in advance of what would happen to him, that to know how to obey is no small thing and you conquer it little by little, and that he knew nothing except that he knew nothing’).
According to F. Scalenghe: ‘(Socrate) soleva ripetere che il suo démone gli segnalava in anticipo quel che gli sarebbe accaduto; che l’essere da esso ben comandati, anche su piccole questioni, non è piccola cosa; e di nulla sapere se non sapere che c’è questo démone’. ‘(Socrates) used to say that his demon warned him in advance of what would happen to him, that to be well commanded (by the demon) even on small matters is no small thing, and to know nothing except knowing that this demon exists’.
Because the awareness of not knowing something is still a knowledge, and since Socrates is not an amateur in philosophy, I suggest ruling out the possibility that he seriously fathered a statement like “I know that I know nothing”.
- Does the ‘demon’ of Socrates foreshadow the ‘proairesis’ of Epictetus?
My answer is: yes. It seems to me that Socrates wants to tell us something much deeper and more intriguing than a simple pun or an intellectual novelty. We must keep in mind that Socrates’ ‘demon’ is expressly mentioned in the indictment presented and sworn by Meletus, and which is at the origin of Socrates’ process. Socrates is telling us that his true and only knowledge is the awareness of a ‘demon’ within himself that guides him to make correct choices.
The issue, therefore, is not about what Plato puts into his mouth: in this case a statement that looks very much like the ‘docta ignorantia’ (‘learned ignorance’), or the state no human can transcend because ‘scientia’ is in the exclusive power of the God. This is the wicked road that leads to the ‘omniscientia’ of the monotheistic Gods and that comforts and delights many people. The ultimately deadly game that Socrates is playing entails repeatedly swearing that he hears an internal voice -what he calls his ‘demon’- that never compels him to do something, but speaks only to advise him to refrain from doing something. This ‘demon’ is Socrates’ novelty, the guide upon which he always relies and that has never betrayed him. Moreover, what Athenians find most unacceptable is Socrates telling other people that they are also endowed with this demon even if they don’t know it.
Does not this seem the dark, uncertain, confused anticipation of something? Something whose presence Socrates, at the cost of his life is adamant in witnessing, even if he is unable to structure it in philosophical terms or to place it in a context larger than his individual psychological experience? Does it not seem the dawn of what always was, is, and will be the cornerstone, the criterion, the absolute and invariant reference vainly sought by Plato in the ‘idea’? In short: does not the ‘demon’ of Socrates seem to anticipate what Epictetus five hundred years later will call ‘proairesis’ and that we could also safely call the ‘nature of things’?
So it seems to me that Socrates is not the father of the statement “I know that I know nothing” but the grandfather or the ancestor, if you so desire, of the statement ‘I am proairesis’.
What will be written on the T-shirt that every small shop of the Plaka in Athens will sell in the future is unknown to all but to God.