Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Socrates: A Lesson in Humility

The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates
By Xenophon
Editor: Henry Morley
Translator: Edward Bysshe
 Book IV, Chapter II.  Conference Between Socrates And Euthydemus, In Which He
Convinces That Young Man, Who Had A Great Opinion Of Himself, That He
Knew Nothing.

When Socrates…found any who soothe themselves up in the belief that they are well instructed, and who boast of their own sufficiency, he never failed to chastise the vanity of such persons.  Of his conduct in this particular I will relate the following instance:

He had been told that Euthydemus had bought up several works of the most celebrated poets and sophists, and that this acquisition had so puffed him up with arrogance, that he already esteemed himself the greatest man for learning and parts of any of the age, and pretended to no less than being the first man of the city, either for negotiating or for discoursing in public.  Nevertheless, he was still so young that he was not admitted into the assemblies of the people, and if he had any affair to solicit, he generally came and placed himself in one of the shops that were near the courts of justice.  Socrates, having observed his station, failed not to go thither likewise with two or three of his friends; and there, being fallen into discourse, this question was started: Whether it was by the improving conversation of philosophers or by the strength of his natural parts only that Themistocles surpassed all his countrymen in wisdom and valor, and advanced himself to such a high rank and to so great esteem, that all the Republic cast their eyes upon him whenever their affairs required the conduct of a man of bravery and wisdom? Socrates, who had a mind to reflect upon Euthydemus, answered that "a man must be very stupid to believe that mechanic arts (which are comparatively things but of small importance) cannot be learnt without masters; and yet that the art of governing of States, which is a thing of the greatest moment and that requires the greatest effort of human prudence, comes of itself into the mind."  And this was all that passed in this first interview.

After this Socrates, observing that Euthydemus always avoided being in his company…and once when he happened to be where he was, addressed himself to the rest of the company in these words:

Certainly, gentlemen, by what may be conjectured from the studies of this young man, it is very likely that when he shall have attained the age that permits him to be present in the assemblies of the people, if any important affair come to be debated there, he will not fail to give his judgment of it; and in my opinion he would introduce his harangue by a very pleasant exordium, if he should begin with giving them to understand that he had never learnt anything of any man whatsoever; he must address himself to them in words to this purpose:

“Gentlemen, I have never been taught anything, I never frequented the conversation of men of parts, I never gave myself the trouble to look out for a master that was able to instruct me.  On the contrary, gentlemen, I have not only had an aversion to learn from others, but I should even have been very sorry to have it believed I had done so; nevertheless, I will venture to tell you what chance shall suggest to me in this present occasion.” At this rate they who present themselves to be received physicians might introduce a like discourse as thus: “Gentlemen, I have never had any master to teach me this science; for, indeed, I would never learn it, nor even have the repute of having learnt it; nevertheless, admit me a physician, and I will endeavor to become learned in the art by making experiments on your own bodies.”

All the company fell a-laughing at this pleasant preface, and from that time Euthydemus never avoided Socrates' company as he had done before; but he never offered to speak, believing that his silence would be an argument of his modesty.  Socrates, being desirous to rally him out of that mistaken notion, spoke to him in this manner:

"I wonder that they who desire to learn to play upon the lute, or to ride well, do not endeavor to learn it alone by themselves; but that they look out for masters, resolved to do everything they bid them, and to believe all they say, there being no other way to arrive at perfection in those arts; and that they who hope one day to govern the Republic, and to declaim before the people, imagine they can become fit to do so of themselves all of a sudden.  Nevertheless, it must be owned that these employments are more difficult than the others, since among the great number of persons who push themselves into office so few discharge their duty as they ought.  This shows us that more labor and diligence is required in such as would capacitate themselves for those offices than for anything else."

By these discourses, Socrates having prepared the mind of Euthydemus to hearken to what he intended to say to him, and to enter into conference with him, he came another time by himself into the same shop, and taking a seat next to this young man. "I have heard," said he to him, "that you have been curious in buying a great many good books." 

"I have," said Euthydemus, "and continue to do so every day, designing to have as many as I can get." 

"I commend you very much," said Socrates, "for choosing rather to hoard up a treasure of learning and knowledge than of money. For you testify by so doing that you are not of opinion that riches, or silver and gold, can render one more valuable. That is to say, a wiser or a better man; but that it is only the writings and precepts of the philosophers and other fine writers that are the true riches, because they enrich with virtue the minds of those that possess them."  Euthydemus was pleased to hear him say this, believing that he approved his method; and Socrates, perceiving his satisfaction, went on: "But what is your design of making a collection of so many books?  Do you intend to be a physician?  There are many books in that science." 

"That is not my design," said Euthydemus. 

"Will you be an architect, then?" said Socrates, "for that art requires a learned man.  Or do you study geometry or astrology?" 

"None of them." 

"Do you mean to be a reciter of heroic verses?" continued Socrates, "for I have been told that you have all Homer's works." 

"Not in the least," answered Euthydemus, "for I have observed that men of that profession know indeed a great many verses by heart, but for anything else they are for the most part very impertinent." 

"Perhaps you are in love with that noble science that makes politicians and economists, and that renders men capable to govern, and to be useful to others and to themselves?" 

"That is what I endeavor to learn," said Euthydemus, "and what I passionately desire to know." 

"It is a sublime science," replied Socrates, "it is that we call the royal science, because it truly is the science of kings.  But have you weighed this point, whether a man can excel in that science without being an honest man?" 

"I have," said the young man, "and am even of opinion that none but honest men can be good citizens." 

"And are you an honest man?" said Socrates. 

"I hope I am," answered Euthydemus, "as honest a man as another." 

"Tell me," said Socrates, "can we know who are honest men by what they do, as we know what trade a man is of by his work?" 

"We may."

"Then," said Socrates, "as architects show us their works, can honest men show us theirs likewise?" 

"No doubt of it," replied Euthydemus, "and it is no difficult task to show you which are the works of justice, and which those of injustice, that we so often hear mentioned." 

"Shall we," said Socrates, "make two characters, the one ‘J’ to signify justice, the other ‘I’ to denote injustice; and write under one of them all the works that belong to justice, and under the other all that belong to injustice?" 

"Do," said Euthydemus, "if you think fit."

Socrates, having done what he proposed, continued thus his discourse: "Do not men tell lies?" 

"Very often," answered Euthydemus. 

"Under which head shall we put lying?"  

"Under that of injustice," said Euthydemus.

"Do not men sometimes cheat?" 

"Most certainly." 

"Where shall we put cheating?" said Socrates. 

"Under injustice." 

"And doing wrong to one's neighbor?" 

"There too." 

"And selling of free persons into slavery?"

"Still in the same place." 

"And shall we write none of all these," said Socrates, "under the head of justice?" 

"Not one of them," answered Euthydemus; "it would be strange if we did." 

"But what," replied Socrates, "when a general plunders an enemy's city, and makes slaves of all the inhabitants, shall we say that he commits an injustice?" 

"By no means." 

"Shall we own, then, that he does an act of justice?" 

"Without doubt." 

"And when he circumvents his enemies in the war, does he not do well?" 

"Very well." 

"And when he ravages their land, and takes away their cattle and their corn, does he not do justly?" 

"It is certain he does," said Euthydemus, "and when I answered you that all these actions were unjust, I thought you had spoken of them in regard only of friend to friend." 

"We must, therefore," replied Socrates, "put among the actions of justice those very actions we have ascribed to injustice, and we will only establish this distinction, that it is just to behave ourselves so towards our enemies; but that to treat our friends thus is an injustice, because we ought to live with them uprightly, and without any deceit." 

"I think so," said Euthydemus. 

"But," continued Socrates, "when a general sees that his troops begin to be disheartened, if he makes them believe that a great reinforcement is coming to him, and by that stratagem inspires fresh courage into the soldiers, under what head shall we put this lie?" 

"Under the head of justice," answered Euthydemus. 

"And when a child will not take the physic that he has great need of, and his father makes it be given him in a mess of broth, and by that means the child recovers his health, to which shall we ascribe this deceit?" 

"To justice likewise." 

"And if a man, who sees his friend in despair, and fears he will kill himself, hides his sword from him, or takes it out of his hands by force, what shall we say of this violence?" 

"That it is just," replied Euthydemus. 

"Observe what you say," continued Socrates; "for it follows from your answers that we are not always obliged to live with our friends uprightly, and without any deceit, as we agreed we were." 

"No, certainly we are not, and if I may be permitted to retract what I said, I change my opinion very freely." 

"It is better," said Socrates, "to change an opinion than to persist in a wrong one.  But there is still one point which we must not pass over without inquiry, and this relates to those whose deceits are prejudicial to their friends; for I ask you, which are most unjust, they who with premeditate design cheat their friends, or they who do it through inadvertency?" 

"Indeed," said Euthydemus, "I know not what to answer, nor what to believe, for you have so fully refuted what I have said, that what appeared to me before in one light appears to me now in another.  Nevertheless, I will venture to say that he is the most unjust who deceives his friend deliberately." 

"Do you think," said Socrates, "that one may learn to be just and honest, as well as we learn to read and write?" 

"I think we may." 

"Which," added Socrates, "do you take to be the most ignorant, he who reads wrong on purpose, or he who reads wrong because he can read no better?" 

"The last of them," answered Euthydemus, "for the other who mistakes for pleasure need not mistake when he pleases." 

"Then," inferred Socrates, "he who reads wrong deliberately knows how to read; but he who reads wrong without design is an ignorant man." 

"You say true." 

"Tell me likewise," pursued Socrates, "which knows best what ought to be done, and what belongs to justice, he who lies and cheats with premeditate design, or he who deceives without intention to deceive?" 

"It is most plain," said Euthydemus, "that it is he who deceives with premeditate design." 

"But you said," replied Socrates, "that he who can read is more learned than he who cannot read?" 

"I did so." 

"Therefore he who best knows which are the duties of justice is more just than he that knows them not." 

"It seems to be so," answered Euthydemus, "and I know not well how I came to say what I did." 

"Indeed," said Socrates, "you often change your opinion, and contradict what you say; and what would you yourself think of any man who pretended to tell the truth, and yet never said the same thing; who, in pointing out to you the same road, should show you sometimes east, sometimes west, and who, in telling the same sum, should find more money at one time than another; what would you think of such a man?" 

"He would make all men think," answered Euthydemus, "that he knew nothing of what he pretended to know."

Socrates urged him yet further, and asked him: "Have you ever heard say that some men have abject and servile minds?" 

"I have." 

"Is it said of them because they are learned or because they are ignorant?" 

"Surely because they are ignorant." 

"Perhaps," said Socrates, "it is because they understand not the trade of a smith?" 

"Not in the least for that."

"Is it because they know not how to build a house, or to make shoes?" 

"By no means," said Euthydemus, "for most who are skilled in such professions have likewise abject and servile minds." 

"This character, then," pursued Socrates, "must be given to those who are ignorant of the noble sciences, and who know not what is just nor what is honorable?" 

"I believe so."

"We ought, therefore, Euthydemus, to do all we can to avoid falling into that ignominious ignorance that sinks us down so low." 

"Alas, Socrates!" cried he out, "I will not lie for the matter; I thought I knew something in philosophy, and that I had learnt whatever was requisite to be known by a man who desired to make a practice of virtue; but judge how much I am afflicted to see that, after all my labors, I am not able to answer you concerning things which I ought chiefly to know; and yet I am at a loss what method to pursue in order to render myself more capable and knowing in the things I desire to understand."  Upon this, Socrates asked him whether he had ever been at Delphi, and Euthydemus answered that he had been there twice. 

"Did you not take notice," said Socrates, "that somewhere on the front of the temple there is this inscription, 'KNOW THYSELF'?" 

"I remember," answered he, "I have read it there." 

"It is not enough," replied Socrates, "to have read it.  Have you been the better for this admonition?  Have you given yourself the trouble to consider what you are?" 

"I think I know that well enough," replied the young man, "for I should have found it very difficult to have known any other thing if I had not known myself." 

"But for a man to know himself well," said Socrates, "it is not enough that he knows his own name; for, as a man that buys a horse cannot be certain that he knows what he is before he has ridden him, to see whether he be quiet or restive, whether he be mettlesome or dull, whether he be fleet or heavy - in short, before he has made trial of all that is good and bad in him - in like manner, a man cannot say that he knows himself before he has tried what he is fit for, and what he is able to do." 

"It is true," said Euthydemus, "that whoever knows not his own strength knows not himself." 

"But," continued Socrates, "who sees not of how great advantage this knowledge is to man, and how dangerous it is to be mistaken in this affair? for he who knows himself knows likewise what is good for himself.  He sees what he is able to do, and what he is not able to do; by applying himself to things that he can do, he gets his bread with pleasure, and is happy; and by not attempting to do the things he cannot do, he avoids the danger of falling into errors, and of seeing himself miserable.  By knowing himself, he knows likewise how to judge of others, and to make use of their services for his own advantage, either to procure himself some good, or to protect himself from some misfortune; but he who knows not himself, and is mistaken in the opinion he has of his own abilities, mistakes likewise in the knowledge of others, and in the conduct of his own affairs.  He is ignorant of what is necessary for him, he knows not what he undertakes, nor comprehends the means he makes use of, and this is the reason that success never attends his enterprises, and that he always falls into misfortunes.  But the man who sees clear into his own designs generally obtains the end he proposes to himself, and at the same time gains reputation and honor.  For this reason, even his equals are well pleased to follow his advices; and they whose affairs are in disorder implore his assistance, and throw themselves into his hands, depending upon his prudence to retrieve their affairs, and to restore them to their former good condition.  But he who undertakes he knows not what, generally makes an ill choice, and succeeds yet worse; and the present damage is not the only punishment he undergoes for his temerity.  He is disgraced forever; all men laugh at him, all men despise and speak ill of him.  Consider likewise what happens to Republics who mistake their own strength, and declare war against States more powerful than themselves; some are utterly ruined, others lose their liberty, and are compelled to receive laws from the conquerors."

"I am fully satisfied," said Euthydemus, "that a great deal depends on the knowledge of oneself.  I hope you will now tell me by what a man must begin to examine himself." 

"You know," said Socrates, "what things are good and what are bad?" 

"Indeed," answered Euthydemus, "if I knew not that, I were the most ignorant of all men." 

"Then tell me your thoughts of this matter," said Socrates. 

"First," said Euthydemus, "I hold that health is a good and sickness an evil, and that whatever contributes to either of them partakes of the same qualities.  Thus nourishment and the exercises that keep the body in health are very good; and, on the contrary, those that cause diseases are hurtful." 

"But would it not be better to say," replied Socrates, "that health and sickness are both good when they are the causes of any good, and that they are both bad when they are the causes of any ill?" 

"And when can it ever happen," said Euthydemus, "that health is the cause of any ill, and sickness the cause of any good?" 

"This may happen," answered Socrates, "when troops are raised for any enterprise that proves fatal; when men are embarked who are destined to perish at sea; for men who are in health may be involved in these misfortunes, when they who, by reason of their infirmities, are left at home, will be exempted from the mischief in which the others perish." 

"You say true," said Euthydemus, "but you see, too, that men who are in health are present in fortunate occasions, while they who are confined to their beds cannot be there." 

"It must therefore be granted," said Socrates, "that these things which are sometimes useful and sometimes hurtful are not rather good than bad." 

"That is, indeed, the consequence of your argument," replied Euthydemus; "but it cannot be denied that knowledge is a good thing; for what is there in which a knowing man has not the advantage of an ignorant one?" 

"And have you not read," said Socrates, "what happened to Daedalus for his knowing so many excellent arts, and how, being fallen into the hands of Minos, he was detained by force, and saw himself at once banished from his country and stripped of his liberty?  To complete his misfortune, flying away with his son, he was the occasion of his being miserably lost, and could not, after all, escape in his own person; for, falling into the hands of barbarians, he was again made a slave.  Know you not likewise the adventure of Palamedes, who was so envied by Ulysses for his great capacity, and who perished wretchedly by the calumnious artifices of that rival?  How many great men likewise has the King of Persia caused to be seized and carried away because of their admirable parts, and who are now languishing under him in a perpetual slavery?" 

"But, granting this to be as you say," added Euthydemus, "you will certainly allow good fortune to be a good?" 

"I will," said Socrates, "provided this good fortune consists in things that are undoubtedly good." 

"And how can it be that the things which compose good fortune should not be infallibly good?"

"They are," answered Socrates, "unless you reckon among them beauty and strength of body, riches, honors, and other things of that nature." 

"And how can a man be happy without them?" 

"Rather," said Socrates, "how can a man be happy with things that are the causes of so many misfortunes? For many are daily corrupted because of their beauty; many who presume too much on their own strength are oppressed under the burden of their undertakings.  Among the rich, some are lost in luxury, and others fall into the snares of those that wait for their estates.  And lastly, the reputation and honors that are acquired in Republics are often the cause of their ruin who possess them." 

"Certainly," said Euthydemus, "if I am in the wrong to praise good fortune, I know not what we ought to ask of the Deity." 

"Perhaps, too," replied Socrates, "you have never considered it, because you think you know it well enough.

"But," continued he, changing the subject of their discourse, "seeing you are preparing yourself to enter upon the government of our Republic, where the people are master, without doubt you have reflected on the nature of this State, and know what a democracy is?" 

"You ought to believe I do." 

"And do you think it possible," said Socrates, "to know what a democracy or popular State is without knowing what the people is?"

"I do not think I can." 

"And what is the people?" said Socrates. 

"Under that name," answered Euthydemus, "I mean the poor citizens." 

"You know, then, who are the poor?" 

"I do," said Euthydemus. 

"Do you know, too, who are the rich?" 

"I know that too." 

"Tell me, then, who are the rich and who are the poor?" 

"I take the poor," answered Euthydemus, "to be those who have not enough to supply their necessary expenses, and the rich to be they who have more than they have occasion for." 

"But have you observed," replied Socrates, "that there are certain persons who, though they have very little, have nevertheless enough, and even lay up some small matter out of it; and, on the contrary, there are others who never have enough how great so ever their estates and possessions are?"

"You put me in mind," said Euthydemus, "of something very much to the purpose, for I have seen even some princes so necessitous that they have been compelled to take away their subjects' estates, and to commit many injustices." 

"We must, then," said Socrates, "place such princes in the rank of the poor, and those who have but small estates, yet manage them well, in the number of the rich." 

"I must give consent to all you say," answered Euthydemus, "for I am too ignorant to contradict you; and I think it will be best for me, from henceforward, to hold my peace, for I am almost ready to confess that I know nothing at all."

Having said this, he withdrew, full of confusion and self-contempt, beginning to be conscious to himself that he was indeed a person of little or no account at all.  Nor was he the only person whom Socrates had thus convinced of their ignorance and insufficiency, several of whom never came more to see him, and valued him the less for it.  But Euthydemus did not act like them.  On the contrary, he believed it impossible for him to improve his parts but by frequently conversing with Socrates, insomuch that he never left him, unless some business of moment called him away, and he even took delight to imitate some of his actions. Socrates, seeing him thus altered from what he was, was tender of saying anything to him that might irritate or discourage him; but took care to speak more freely and plainly to him of the things he ought to know and apply himself to.

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