We Know Nothing! Ignoramus with Socrates & Harari

It is true that corruption, poor education and a gamut of other societal ills are responsible for the worlds problems, especially in the developing world. However our inability to say “I don’t know” as individuals or “we don’t know” as a group is one of the major reasons for our problems.

I have long held this belief and shared same with a few people in my circle, but I was motivated to write about it when I read about this in Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book Sapiens. In his book, Harari attributes, with evidence, the rise of Europe through scientific breakthroughs, to a culture of knowing “they did not know”. He called it the discovery of ignorance.

This brings to mind one of our favorite quotes by Socrates “I know nothing!” Socrates repeated this notion time and again in the course of his life and discourses, one of such instances is captured in this excerpt below when he expressed his ignorance concerning justice and asked a friend who claimed to know to educate him.

(Thrasymachus): But what if I give you an answer about justice other and better, he said, than any of these? What do you deserve to have done to you?

(Socrates): Done to me!—as becomes the ignorant, I must learn from the wise—that is what I deserve to have done to me.

(Thrasymachus): What, and no payment! a pleasant notion!

(Socrates) I will pay when I have the money, I replied.

But you have, Socrates, said Glaucon: and you, Thrasymachus, need be under no anxiety about money, for we will all make a contribution for Socrates.

(Thrasymachus): Yes, he replied, and then Socrates will do as he always does—refuse to answer himself, but take and pull to pieces the answer of some one else.

(Socrates): Why, my good friend, I said, how can any one answer who knows, and says that he knows, just nothing; and who, even if he has some faint notions of his own, is told by a man of authority not to utter them? The natural thing is, that the speaker should be some one like yourself who professes to know and can tell what he knows. Will you then kindly answer, for the edification of the company and of myself?”

Excerpt From

The Republic


It would appear as if Socrates was being modest anytime he declared his ignorance, but I think he really believed it, and no wonder he was able to learn enough to become so great. The more we realize we do not know, the more we learn. This is true of individuals, organizations and nations.

The capacity and humility to listen is an essential ingredient for success but is very much lacking. While almost everyone would agree we need to learn to make progress, our egos do not allow us to see we are doing quite the opposite most of the time! Too many times, too many people will either not listen at all, or do so with preconceived responses in mind! Sigh!!!

Next time you don’t know something, simply admit it! It’s not shameful. If not for anything else, it removes pressure from you; and while some even more ignorant people will want to make an issue of it, you will command the respect of the right people… and learn … and succeed!

No one can know everything. This does not mean we should be content with not knowing. When we say “we do not know”, the next step is to research and make sure we get to know, and continue learning. It’s a never ending circle.

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher