Socrates believed that all “wrong” actions have at their base ignorance—if people knew the truth completely, they would behave in accordance with the standard of virtue. The fully enlightened person knows that only the good is truly beneficial; the wrong, while the ignorant could find it advantageous, ultimately harms. Why would someone choose to do wrong if he knew the full consequences of such an act, which are necessarily bad? Virtue is entirely a function of knowledge. Kierkegaard, who admired Socrates greatly, spent a few pages in his The Sickness Unto Death dispatching of this apparent and rational truth. The point of disagreement is over human nature; Socrates has no concept of human imperfection, just incompleteness, and Kierkegaard’s doctrine of original sin holds that man desires the wrong, even when he fully knows the right. An honest look at human history and our own lives bears the latter out.

If Kierkegaard is right, a cynic might question the point of being Socratic—the practice of rigorously questioning our assumptions and testing the implications of our thoughts. Why undertake the difficult examined life if deficiencies of human nature might prevent you from embracing its conclusions? The Socratic method is annoying to the point that they actually killed Socrates. Interestingly, this historical fact demonstrates that a person’s deficiency is often manifested in a desire to remain ignorant, which validates Kierkegaard’s view of a deficiency, but also affirms Socrates’ instincts in an important sense as well. Knowledge and virtue[1] are indeed linked, just not in the way he (and we) might have originally imagined. That they are should be no surprise to a student of Genesis, who knows that humankind’s first sin was to disobey God, in order to become like him, by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After that didn’t work out so well, we’ve has been trying even since to obscure our consciences, to avoid placing ourselves and our actions to the light of truth, to forget that we ever ate the apple. Why? Because we really know what is right and wrong, and also know that we don’t always desire the right. The cognitive dissonance is the highest form of spiritual discomfort, and is probably why societies often crucify their Socrates, their Jesus, who try (wittingly or not) to bring the matter painfully back to the waking consciousness.

To me, being Socratic is a spiritual struggle in a way Socrates himself could not have imagined without having Kierkegaard’s view of human nature. Being Socratic will eventually present me the opportunity to acknowledge my own pride, my own intellectual laziness, my own sin, which are things I naturally don’t want to confront since I know it will be hard to change. But admitting those things in humility is the only path to becoming right. So, it’s not a matter of knowing what’s right and being bound by reason to do it as Socrates envisioned; it’s consciously knowing that I don’t want to do right and letting my pride be arrested by that fact. The cynic above is answered in this—only by being rigorous and intentionally willing to engage the truth, no matter how uncomfortable the process may be, can we even get to the point of humility that marks the beginning of true righteousness. If we lack intellectual honesty, we join the mob of Athens or Jerusalem without having to think about it.

It usually doesn’t seem as complicated or as heady as all that. But striving after intellectual honesty in everything is the only way to become wise, which, isn’t that the point?

[1] Kierkegaard would probably disagree with the concept of “virtue”—but that’s a discussion for another day.

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