Ignorance, wisdom, politicians and poverty…

socrates1I don’t expect much from politicians – but I would have hoped, particularly given the number of them who were educated at public schools and Oxbridge, that they have a little knowledge of Ancient Greece. Indeed, I’d expect Michael Gove to insist upon it. They should at least know a little of the ancient philosophers – and in particular the most famous of them all, Socrates.

Perhaps the most important idea to come from Socrates is also the simplest. Here’s a quote that expresses it directly:

“Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person – I need not mention his name, but it was one of our politicians … – and I formed the impression that although in many people’s opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not. However, when I began to show him that he only thought he was wise and was really not so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present. I reflected as I walked away: ‘Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent – that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”

That’s it in a nutshell. I do not think that I know what I do not know. Socrates was wise because he knew that he was ignorant. He knew his limitations. He knew what he understood, and what he knew – and knew what he didn’t understand, and what he didn’t know.

When I read or hear politicians – particularly politicians in this government, but all too often politicians of all parties – talk about poverty, this always comes to mind. They’re talking about things they don’t understand at all – and they don’t seem to even know that they don’t understand. I’m a privileged person myself, with huge numbers of advantages. I’m male, white, middle class (even according to the new BBC class calculator), went to Cambridge, have a job and a home and a family – and though I’ve been through relatively hard times, to claim that I understand poverty and what it’s really like would be absurd. I’ve studied the subject, under one of the best teachers there’s ever been in this country, the late Peter Townsend, and I’ve travelled around the world and seen many different kinds of poverty. I’ve worked (briefly) with some very poor people indeed, both here and abroad. But to claim that I understand poverty? I don’t. I really don’t. But at least I know I don’t.

Perhaps the politicians know they don’t know, and just bluster about it because they really don’t care. Actually I doubt it. I suspect they really believe that they do know. They really believe the stuff they spout, at least about poverty. They really believe that people are only poor because of their own stupidity or profligacy. They haven’t even understood their own education – which should have taught them to know and accept when they don’t know or understand something.

If they did understand that they didn’t understand, then surely they’d do something to deal with their ignorance. Ask the people who really do know. Talk to them. Listen to them. Accept what they say. Sadly, I suspect it will never happen. Even to acknowledge their own ignorance is beyond their wisdom. Socrates was talking about a politician in Ancient Athens. Politicians today seem little different…


The quote from Socrates is from the Apology, written by Plato about his teacher

4 thoughts on “Ignorance, wisdom, politicians and poverty…

  1. For this problem I’m afraid the only answer is to adopt another Athenian idea: scrap elections and chose our representatives by random lottery, weighted by demographics/income to ensure a good spread. I certainly have never met a politician (and I’ve met many at all levels) who was more qualified than anyone else I’ve met to make policy for others. Plus a) if people knew that they may someday actually be making decisions for others themselves they might be more interested in what decisions are being made on their behalf & b) the decisions makers would be more likely to be affected by their own decisions, especially in relation to poverty. It’s called sortition now, and it’s worth looking into.

  2. Two cheers — one for your blog and one for saintly Socrates, who drank the hemlock solution like a true Roman (or something like that). “When in Rome…” Haha. Hmmm. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this blog entry. Cheers from California, San Luis Obispo.

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