Are there times when a man’s ignorance is acceptable, or even necessary?
If I ask Jessica “What’s 2+2?” and she responds “5”, that’s the wrong answer. But at least it’s a reasonable response. Jessica has responded numerically, which indicates that she understood the nature of the question. If I ask little Jimmy “What’s 2+2?” and he responds “APPLE”, that’s a much bigger problem, because his response fails to acknowledge the nature of the question.
If I ask Bob and Sophia “What’s 2+2?” and they both say “4”, you might be ready to reach for your gold star stickers. But the Socrates of The Republic would stop you. He’s not satisfied. Not yet. Like that annoying math teacher who wouldn’t give you full marks until you showed him all your work, Socrates wouldn’t give Bob and Sophia gold stars until they had demonstrated to him that they understood precisely why 2+2=4. He interrogates Sophia first, after separating them. Using four of the fingers on her left hand, she shows him that she understands what numbers are, what they represent, and how they can be added to each other. Socrates smiles, pats her on the head, and gives her a gold star.
He then turns to Bob, who’s thoroughly baffled. As it turns out, he really doesn’t know why 2+2=4. When pressed, he tells Socrates that he “knows” that the answer’s “4” because his father told him so. “And how did your father come to know that 2+2=4, Bob?” “His father (my grandfather) told him.” “And how did your grandfather come to know that 2+2=4?” “Well, um, I’m pretty sure that his father (my great grandfather) told him. It’s been, like, you know, passed down, from generation to generation.” Alas, the stony stare says it all: Bob’s not getting his gold star.
The Socrates of The Republic would say that Bob’s “4” is inferior to Jessica’s “5” and really no better than Jimmy’s “APPLE”. But the Socrates of The Laws, the Athenian Stranger, seems to have come to the conclusion that civilization depends, to a large extent, upon people like Bob: people who live by rules they don’t understand, people who’ve inherited a wealth of folk wisdom from their ancestors. Bob may not be able to explain why willow bark tea takes away your aches and pains, but he knows it works. He lives by a bunch of handy heuristics which keep him out of trouble (for the most part). Besides, expecting everyone to be like curious, philosophical Sophia is absurdly idealistic.
Most people simply aren’t interested in figuring out how things work. They’re too busy living life, raising kids, having fun, working hard, and thinking about what to have for dinner. So long as a thing works, and works well, most people really don’t care how it works. We drive cars that we don’t understand, use computers that we don’t understand, talk on cellphones that we don’t understand, pay taxes to a government that we don’t understand, obey laws that we don’t understand, and subscribe to scientific theories like evolution that we don’t understand. The way that most of us sleepwalk through life horrified the idealistic young author of The Republic. But the older, wiser Plato, who penned The Laws, is far less troubled by the Bobs of this world.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)
This article was originally published on Committing Sociology.
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