Socrates Was Wrong

Knowledge is power.

How many times have we heard this one? It is one of the battle cries of our society. It’s an idea so obvious, so undeniable that few ever give it a second thought. We don’t just seek knowledge; we worship it. Even Socrates, a wise man if there ever was one, said, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”

If only it were that simple. The truth is, Socrates was wrong. Here’s why:

First, the pursuit of knowledge often becomes an end in itself. Too many people are living their lives as if they’re just “one secret” away from being able to take action. One secret, one book, one seminar, one whatever away from having the “knowledge” it’s going to take for them to succeed. Then, and only then, will they attempt to do the things they wish to do with their lives. Of course, they never quite achieve the state of knowledge they’re seeking. Why? Because it doesn’t exist.

…this absurd notion that ignorance is “evil” and therefore must be – or even can be – eliminated serves no one but the peddlers of magic wisdom.

In his book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, Sheldon Kopp points out that, “All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.”

Notice he said all important decisions, not some, many or even most. All of them. And if we take this reasoning a step further we can easily infer that all endeavors we may take must be made in the same way – on the basis of insufficient data. In other words, no matter how much we study, prepare or practice, some degree of ignorance is unavoidable and accepting this is what separates those who overcome their ignorance from those who are eaten up by it.

Sure, knowledge can be advantageous, but this absurd notion that ignorance is “evil” and therefore must be – or even can be – eliminated serves no one but the peddlers of magic wisdom.

Second, knowledge can actually destroy your power. Yes, destroy it. Here’s how:
[sociallocker id=”1846″] A few years ago I had a conversation with a very successful entrepreneur. When I asked him what he attributed his success to, he said, without hesitation, ignorance. Yes, ignorance. He said he was grateful he didn’t know how difficult his climb to the top was going to be before he began. If he had known, he would have never begun. For him, knowledge isn’t power. Ignorance is. And he’s not alone.

I‘ve asked the same question of other successful people and almost without fail, ignorance ranks high on their list of success attributes. Whether they knew it explicitly or not from the outset of their endeavors, on some level these people understood that “too much knowledge” could destroy their will to act. If they had entertained all the negative possibilities that could befall them before taking action, they would have never taken action.

According to the narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground,

“…a man of heightened consciousness…often gives up so completely in the face of his antithesis that he honestly feels himself, with all his heightened consciousness, to be a mouse, not a man.”

And cartoon characters aside, the achievements of mice are slim indeed.

And third, knowledge isn’t the sole, nor even primary, determining factor in man’s ability to succeed in life. To elevate knowledge above such qualities as drive, resilience, awareness, cunning and the like, is, ironically, the height of ignorance.

Dr. Christopher Hyatt, in the introduction to his deliciously irreverent book, The Psychopath’s Bible puts it this way:

There is a lot of slop in life. You can make a ton of mistakes, be the biggest screwup and still survive and even succeed. Don’t let anyone fool you about this. There are millions-billions-of people who believe all kinds of lies and still do well. Some people believe the truth and are utter failures. Life is tolerant, even stupidly so.Dr. Christopher Hyatt

You might want to read that one again. Maybe even put it in a frame above your desk as I have done as it’s a hell of a lot closer to reality than Socrates’ pithy quote.

Well, there you have it. Three reasons I think Socrates was wrong to classify knowledge as “the one good” and ignorance as “the one evil.” Knowledge is not power. Neither is ignorance. There is, however, a balance between the two and our power lies in finding it. And the surest way to do that is not to worship at the feet of the wise but to fumble and bumble our way through life; if there is something we must learn, we are more apt to learn it by living life and making mistakes than by preparing to live life and hoping to avoid them.

Originally published December 05, 2004
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