Wisdom and Aporia

Who are the wise? What are they like?

Perhaps the image that comes to your mind is one of an old sage who is renowned for his extensive knowledge of the world. When he shares this knowledge, however, he speaks in parables and proverbs, provoking confusion in all of his listeners. By no means does he settle the questions that agitate your mind. Rather, he adds to the agitation, stoking the flames of your curiosity.

When we ask questions of intelligent people, we usually want clear answers from them. We want them to resolve our disputes and tell us the way things really are. And in some cases, that’s fine. If I want to know what two plus two is, I can ask just about anyone, and anyone will tell me that it’s four. But that’s not how wisdom works. Wisdom is not about having the right answers; rather, to be wise is to pursue truth in all things, which requires a passionate and humble disposition.

The process of becoming wise begins with aporia, a Greek word that connotes bewilderment and confusion. That’s why proverbs and parables can be so opaque. Their function is not to present truths to us so that we may apprehend them, but to instill in us an appreciation for the many things we do not know. They show us the vastness of the universe compared to our minds, making us hungry for truth.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates, the world’s wisest man, claims that he knows nothing. And he believes that what makes him wise is his willingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Whereas other men he comes across foolishly think their expertise in their respective disciplines extends to completely unrelated topics, Socrates knows precisely where his knowledge ends.

To act as if you know what you’re talking about when you don’t is the very definition of being a fool. As Wittgenstein puts it at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The book of Proverbs in the Bible agrees: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (17:28).

But we live in a world where many people speak without thinking about it. Expressing our opinions on topics about which we have very little knowledge is second nature to us. In the meantime, it’s hardly ever difficult to find people who agree with us to validate our poorly reasoned opinions. Wisdom is not in fashion, not that it ever has been. Socrates was so unpopular that the people put him to death.

To be wise, we first need to be honest about what we don’t know. Only once we diligently search for truth will truth begin to reveal itself to us, and no one searches for what he believes he already has. So we need to acknowledge that the world is complex, and that answers to difficult questions are difficult to come by. We need to recognize that we do not and cannot own truth, for truth is too great a thing to be owned. Most of all, however, we need to cultivate and preserve our sense of wonder and bewilderment at the inexhaustibly rich world in which we live. Then we will be on the road to wisdom.

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