Curiosity, Perplexity, and the Wisdom of Socrates
What we learn from Plato
“I know that I know nothing" - Socrates
Plato begins his dialogue, Meno, rather abruptly. At the very outset, Meno poses the following question to Socrates: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” Meno believes he has a clear understanding of virtue and what it entails. He even suggests as much to Socrates: “I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches I thought.”
Socrates does not attempt to answer Meno’s question, but instead questions him and probes his knowledge of virtue. He asks Meno to define virtue. Meno obliges and provides what will be the first definition of “virtue” in the dialogue. Socrates, however, is quick to point out flaws in Meno’s definition of virtue. He continues to push Meno, adjusting his questions as needed, and after several failed attempts Meno is unable to provide an adequate definition of virtue.
After his relatively short philosophical debate with Socrates, Meno begins to doubt his own knowledge. Before meeting Socrates, Meno was confident in his knowledge of virtue. Socratic questioning has left Meno perplexed, unsure of himself, and unsure whether he actually knows what he thought he knew. Meno then says, “Socrates, before I even met you I used to hear that you are always in a state of perplexity and that you bring others to the same state, and now I think you are bewitching and beguiling me…so that I am quite perplexed…now I cannot even say what [virtue] is.”
Meno was confident in his knowledge of virtue before his conversation with Socrates. He had given speeches on the topic, each successful speech likely increasing his confidence, his certainty. In Meno, like so many of Plato’s early dialogues, Socratic questioning results in perplexity. By questioning individuals like Meno, Socrates is able to shake their certainty.
In Meno, Plato reminds us that all learning, all growth begins when we admit that we do not know everything. When we think we know what is true or are overly confident in our knowledge, we stop asking questions and stop seriously considering other possibilities.
I have always found it interesting, even appealing, that Socrates readily admits his own ignorance in Plato’s dialogues. He is only a man, not some divine authority with all the answers.
If Socrates did know everything, what would be the point of pursuing truth, of doing philosophy and engaging in philosophical debate? Socrates admits to Meno that he does not know what virtue is and has not met anyone who does: “Not only [do I not know what virtue is], my friend, but also that, as I believe, I have never yet met anyone else who did know.”
Many of us, like Meno, take for granted that the world is a certain way, that the account we accept as given is correct. Convinced that we understand, that we are knowledgeable, we stop searching, stop pursuing truth and understanding. Our certainty makes us unable to see other possibilities, other ways of looking at things.
Plato’s dialogues demonstrate the importance of admitting what we do not know. They demonstrate the role curiosity and perplexity play in fostering a desire to know, to understand, and to explore the world around us. Learning, growth—really any sort of advancement or development—requires being open to new possibilities, new ideas, and a willingness to explore the world around you.
Conviction, certainty, makes our world narrow, small. When we think we are knowledgeable, we disregard anything that does not fit the picture we accept and have no desire to dig deeper, to ask questions, and to keep pursuing truth. In contrast, our world expands when we admit, like Socrates, that we do not know everything. Admitting ignorance means we are still searching; we are willing to explore and will consider carefully what we discover.
The road to truth is paved in trial and error, in experimentation, and requires an open mind to navigate it effectively. We should all learn to be a little less certain, to cultivate the wonder and curiosity that expands our world, and to rediscover the love of knowledge and learning that permits self-growth and development.
Like Socrates, we should learn to get comfortable in a state of perplexity. As Plato’s dialogues demonstrate, Socrates is motivated by curiosity and perplexity. He is curious, he has an open mind and is willing to admit what he does and does not know, and he is therefore honest with himself about his understanding of the world.
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