Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Wiser Man

τούτου μὲν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐγὼ σοφώτερός εἰμι· κινδυνεύει μὲν γὰρ ἡμῶν οὐδέτερος οὐδὲν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν εἰδέναι, ἀλλ᾽ οὗτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴομαι· ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.” (Plato’s, "Apology”)

My world is mostly academic. Five years of study has gained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree and the last 17 years has been filled by my continued employment at a University. We have educated all our children at home and though this is the graduating year for our youngest from High School, this has also been my wife’s freshman year in college. Someone’s either reading or writing or surfing Netflix and YouTube for something educational (and the occasional brainless activity of just watching for entertainment). Regardless, seems there’s a boatload of knowledge around the house. As I reflect on what I’ve learned, the subjects I’ve taught, the papers I’ve written--while considering my bookshelves, notebooks, the near-to-bursting filing cabinets and the unfathomable collection of electronic resources I’ve collected, I’ve come to appreciate the Socratic paradox just a little more, “I know that I know nothing.”

A number of years ago I met a man who set about disposing through various means a room full of books. I stood looking over boxes and boxes of books wondering not how a fellow could have collected so much and wondering what it was that moved the same man to part with the same collection. Asking him about his change of heart, I recall how he looked at me with a hint of visible sadness and said, “I just don’t need them any more.” Needless to say that he blessed me with no small number of his books, but now I’ve found myself nearly in the same position. A point of saturation, as it were. I myself have let a number of books go, but not without some serious soul-searching. I’ve collected with a purpose and that is to leave a legacy (of sorts) of knowledge.

Then there’s that paradox again. What do I know? Of all my learning, teaching, what do I know? “I know that I know nothing.” I find a kind of liberation with the thought in that, while it is impossible to retain much of anything in this addled brain on a daily basis, I cannot hold everything else that makes this person “educated.” It’s fascinating to think that one has been exposed to so much information, but at the end of the day, what does one know? It’s best to say, “I know nothing.” And there’s the beauty. I am liberated to be a lifelong learner. This is where Socrates was leading with the thought--while others considered him to be wise, he considered himself to be a lifelong learner.

What got me thinking of all this was a book I’m presently reading, A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. This is a well researched and painfully documented biography of Nobel Prize Winner John Nash. As a young man rising through the ranks of Princeton and other schools of learning, I found a connection with Nash (though certainly no genius as Nash) in that desire to “own” what is learned. Nash’s learning style was much different than the average student. He was so far ahead of everyone that he felt it a waste of time to attend lectures and instead sought the information he needed by dialogue and personal research. Professors recall being approached by Nash with outcomes already discovered by others--what makes that important is that he was guided by curiosity and found his way to conclusions on his own. There were no “shortcuts” for him--nobody told him the answers were there. He just chased his questions until he found the answers--and in many cases, found answers when others were not aware there were question.

The connection for me was my own desire to know and how I set off on unguided research projects until I found an answer that seemed satisfactory. While first pursuing music education right out of high school in my first attempt at college, I spent untold hours exploring astrophysics and various aspects of religion. Later, upon returning to school I delved deep into theology, philosophy and an comprehensive exposure to variations of worldview. My study in biology even provided an opportunity to perform an actual surgery on a cat (from anesthesia to stitches in the end--yes, she lived). Even in the breaks during my formal education I could not help but pursue a research topic or three now that I was equipped to write academically. I just had to know!

Again, I’m making no declaration that I am any genius level--I just recognized that desire to learn. The older I get, the more I realize I know so very little and, I’ll be honest, tend to forget that I’m hungry for more. Yes, like my friend from years ago have run into the danger of not needing my books anymore . . . but reading of Nash reminded me of two very important truths: that life is for the living, and that in living, one should never stop learning for in a lifestyle of always learning, one is wise.

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