Ancient and modern

The Socratic approach to Covid

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

Organs of the press are filled with opinion pages. The sublime confidence about Covid with which commentators advance these opinions, day after day after boring day, brings to mind the way in which Socrates dealt with such people.

Plato, our major source for Socrates’s life and teaching, tells us that, on trial for his life, Socrates described how his friend Chairephon had asked the Delphic oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, and the answer came back ‘No’. Baffled, since he was conscious of his own ignorance about almost everything, Socrates decided to put the oracle to the test and find someone wiser than himself. But his efforts were in vain.

First he approached a number of politicians, who certainly gave the impression that they thought they were wise, but became very angry when Socrates demonstrated that their opinions were valueless. Then he tried out the poets — highly regarded as intellectuals in the ancient world — and they were just as bad.

Skilled craftsmen, he found, were certainly wiser than him when it came to describing the technical understanding at the root of their profession — far better than politicians and poets — but this expertise led them to ‘claim perfect understanding of every other subject’. So no cigar for them, either.

Socrates famously concluded that the oracle must have meant that ‘I am wiser than all of them only to this extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. But the result, he claimed, was a great deal of hostility and resentment, and a complete misunderstanding of what he was trying to do.

When even technical experts — scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, and economists — are unable to reach agreement about the nature of the virus and its effects, let alone the best way to deal with it, and attack each other with the same ferocity that they direct against every government decision on the matter, there is something faintly risible about commentators who could not tell a T-cell from a pineapple chunk informing us where everyone else has got it wrong. Some Socratic self-awareness would not come amiss.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments