Socratic Wisdom And The Limits Of Knowing Thyself

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Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Bold, right? But consider the statement in its historical context. Sure, he tackled some head-scratchers in his time, but it’s not like he ever calculated how fast water poured out of a cylindrical cone. Never had to translate The Aeneid for that shrew Mrs. Throckmorton, or apply game theory principles to solve pressing global problems. Such as how should Tangerine Dream, 38 Special and Survivor behave to ensure that together they get every movie soundtrack in the 1980s? Oh, wait, that already happened. Still, no insights from Socrates, who let’s face it, would have to cheat like a banshee just to get through Wood Shop.

My goal isn’t to undermine the pillars of Western Civilization. I’m just saying things aren’t always what they seem, and in every age man must learn to think critically. Example: though you adore the novels of E.M. Forster, if in your hotel room you order a movie from the adult section called Howards End, you’ll only have yourself to blame. Besides, it’s not wrong to do what we’re doing here. I’m sure in antiquity they said snide things about Grok the Wise, a leading light from the Paleolithic Age, whose brilliance consisted of nuggets like don’t piss off the Mastodon and when returning from unsuccessful hunt, nothing lifts spirits like screeching pterodactyl gag.

Socrates later dialed it back with that aw-shucks, I know that I know nothing routine, but recent scholarship suggests it was just false modesty employed to pick up South Athens barflies. For here’s what usually followed his humble assertion: But I do know this – I shouldn’t be alone tonight. And then something I can only paraphrase, about showing her the real meaning of the Socratic Method if she played her cards right. Truth? If still uncoupled at last call, he’d tell any woman who’d listen that he’d help her Know Thyself. Sad, really.

I don’t mean to pick on the Greeks – little known fact, but a young John Calvin crushed it on the speed-dating scene with his manipulative use of predestination — but that last bit of Delphic wisdom makes me wonder. What do we really know about ourselves and the world around us? Does it even matter? Just because I don’t know the laws of nature doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t understand Bernoulli’s Principle – it does sound like a money-spinner of a pizza franchise for Cambridge, Massachusetts — yet I’m confident my airplane will achieve lift-off by runway’s end. Not since trying to pick up chemistry majors in college using the classic Avagadro line – call me, you know my number – has my misunderstanding of science mattered less.

There’s no sense sugarcoating it — what I don’t know about the universe could fill a warehouse. This wouldn’t please the Oracle at Delphi. But she would be happy to know one thing. I know quite a lot about myself. That’s the good news. The bad news is they are useless insights, such as:

I will never throw a pot, bake a soufflé or read anything by Theodore Dreiser. I’m fine with all of this.

Mastery of Venn diagrams gives me confidence to make sweeping statements during lulls in conversation. Did you know there’s not a single United States Marine living in North Carolina who’s seen Harold and Maude?

Gerund, preposition, proper noun — Leg-Wrestling with Wilford Brimley, Flex-Spending With Bert Blyleven, Crop-Dusting With Juice Newton – slays me, I don’t know why. I also don’t know why these images visit me only during Parent-Teacher conferences.

The universe occasionally sends clear and certain warning signs which we ignore at our peril. One of them is to never get serious with a girl whose favorite song is Crazy on You by Heart.

There are two kinds of American males in the world: those who get choked up at “you wanna have a catch?” at the end of Field of Dreams, and liars.

Fair-minded people can admit that haikus don’t give you enough time to say something meaningful. I bet originally they were just drafts, but his poetry teacher was like “Robert, these are wonderful” and then Bob Haiku was like “yeah, I know. I call them haikus.” Time to come clean, Japan.

I would be horrified to learn that Liam Neeson relaxes by listening to Enya. But I wouldn’t put it past Rutger Hauer or Sean Bean.

I can’t help but think that this isn’t the self-awareness that the Oracle at Delphi had in mind. So in a way, Western Civilization owes me one. Had I approached the high priestess, she’d probably have quit on the spot, opting for easier money timing the Peloponnesian currency markets. You’re welcome.