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Wisdom and Antiquity

October 17, 2010

How much wiser people in ancient times would have been had they been able to look into a future – to a time that for us is the past. We are wiser because of our advantage in seeing a broader scope of history than were the ancients.

That aside for the moment, looking at those considered by many to be Europe's wisest in ancient times, or looking at Confucius and his rivals in ideas, we find disagreement and confusion. The wise, one might think, would agree.

As for Socrates, he is said to have studied the art of debate and to have become a master at cross-examination and irony. He questioned Homeric religion and ethics, but it is said that he took oracles seriously – as described in Plato's Apology. Socrates is described as hearing an inner voice that he believed was God's. Like others of his time he had only a primitive understanding of human psychology. He was a monotheist who believed that knowledge about his god would diminish wrongdoing, confusion and ugliness. And we know today how that worked out.

According to Xenophon, Socrates called people fools for studying the mechanics of nature – the wind, rain, physics. Calling people fools in this instance was a product of his assuming knowledge that he didn't have. Socrates, and Plato (who described Socrates), were concerned with the divine as opposed materiality, and we can describe Socrates as in error in his "nothing practical" remark. And maybe we can excuse Socrates because he wasn't aware of the future that we now know well.

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