I owe you, dear reader, a post on Classical Greek. It has been some time since I last posted something on the Ancient World. These darned holidays, and vacation from my University work, have been most detrimental to my scholarly writing. However, here we are. Some Greek is in order; and who better to re-start me off than Socrates himself. The all-encompassing man. Famously, Socrates once said:
μοι νυνὶ γέγονεν ἐκ τοῦ διαλόγου μηδὲν εἰδέναι
To me, in this very moment, it had come into a state of being out from the dialogue [we just had] that I know nothing for myself.
Para mi, en este mismo momento, por medio de la conversación [que acabamos de tener,] se que no se nada por mi mismo.
All I know is I know nothing? Where you expecting that? Nope. Not what he said. Although the conversation prior is most interesting, and one should take a look at it, what follows is what matters – and how it follows, of course. Basically, Plato writes that Socrates had just found out that injustice is preferable to justice (Plato Republic 354b). Socrates was so awe struck by this conclusion that he made the aforementioned statement as a result clause. The ὥστε before the beginning of the statement at μοι is very seldom quoted in modern literature. What is the result of this revelation? Well, at least according to Plato, Socrates was so surprised that injustice could be considered any form of good “that” (result clause) the following statement came to mind. The timing of this phrase is just too amazing to pass up. By timing, I mean how quickly Socrates goes from one mindset to another. Νυνὶ here represents the ‘very now,’ the ‘this very second’ idea. It is now strengthened by the marker of the Dative form, the all-encompassing ‘i.’ Socrates held a state of mind, an opinion on injustice; but then, at that very moment, that had changed as a result of a philosophical conversation. Consider this, Socrates, the quintessential philosopher, the ever-reaching hand of truth, changed his mind about a topic he thought nailed down in mind as ‘bad.’ Alas, change; it gets hold of all of us, always. And the greatest philosopher of all time, when faced with truth, did not hesitate for a moment to reposition his ideas to fit said truth.
I love the next word, a verb in fact, in the third person singular Perfect Active Indicative: γέγονεν. ‘it had been born.’ A transitive verb requiring a complimentary verb or clause. Even now, you are waiting for me to write what it is Socrates said next, that is the nature of transitive verbs. However, let us dwell here for a moment as well. Socrates had carried truth within him for a time; he thought ‘injustice’ not preferable to ‘justice.’ He carried this idea, he nurtured it, defended it, his mind gave nourishment to it. However, from his carrying of this idea, something else was born, something unexpected. Perhaps we hoped for a boy when we had a girl; maybe we thought our baby would be more loving, just, or perfect, but the results of birth can only be predicted in vague generalities. What was born to Socrates was not at all what he expected, it was something more refined, more detailed in nature, and intrinsically opposed to his understanding of that which was first conceived. We often feel that, as we think on a topic, our ideas about it change. I have met with many a religious individual who said that he or she did not research their beliefs outside of their religion because they were afraid it would destroy their belief. We are afraid, in essence, of what we carry inside. Our doubts are not due to what we read, but about how we feel, at that time, on the subject we are so carefully nourishing – doubt is already inside; to defeat it, we must address it. In essence, we are afraid that if our little mustard seed is placed where the sun can nourish it, something else will topple it and destroy it. We are afraid of change. I cannot blame you, reader, if you feel this way. After all, we are constantly told, especially in religious settings, that to be subject to the winds of change is not proper behavior. However, what if that new thing you learn, religious or scientific doesn’t matter, becomes a stake to which you can attach your faith? Speaking to the scientists out there, what if the new hypothesis by Dr. X, which seems to contradict your own, can be found to strengthen it? Do not be afraid of giving birth to what you have so carefully nourished. As most women know, carrying a baby past its due date brings only pain and sorrow.
So we continue, as the transitive verb brings us a genitive noun. Of course is not an Indirect object or an Accusative, why would it be? Socrates has just given birth, after all; he gave birth ἐκ τοῦ διαλόγου, “out from the dialogue.” Now, isn’t that just beautiful? Just as it takes two people to have a baby, it takes the words of two individuals (that is what dialogue actually means) to give birth to a great idea. Conversations bring about consensus, it is in talking, not in monologue-ing (do you see it, Monologue vs. Dialogue?) in your head, that you will find the best truth (degrees of truth are a scary philosophical conundrum – run the other way!), and the most pleasing. Why wrap yourself up in your own brain when you can wrap yourself up in the brain of another? Ok, that sounds weird, but we must understand, reader, that we compose as we conversate (that’s a word, look up the Latin). Both composition and conversation require something else, literally. They require something or someone else from which to draw an opinion that can be converted (you turn with it, literal meaning, not even kidding – I love Latin) into something else. We give birth from our conversations and dialogue to something more perfected than we could have ever come up with on our own.
Aha! We arrive, finally, to the much-quoted words of the famed Philosopher. They stand, in their purity, true. μηδὲν εἰδέναι does mean ‘I know nothing.’ However, do not be fooled by the simplicity of the Middle/Passive here. μηδὲν is ‘nothing,’ that much is clear. But εἰδέναι is an infinitive that either refers to the speaker as a verbal action done for his sake or makes the recipient of the verbal action passive. We could say Socrates has passively received this new line of reasoning. The birth may have been unwanted, after all; although I would disagree with that interpretation. After all, the act of conversation, like that of sexual activity, requires activity. Someone did something. I do not think the passive is meant here. Thus we are left to think that Socrates has come to know ‘for himself’ something. The philosopher has come to know for his own sake that this truth is true of itself.
Thus, what is clear to Socrates is not that he ‘knows nothing’ as he is so often quoted. What is clear to him, at least according to Plato in this particular example, is that Socrates found out, in that moment, that our preconceived notions can be proven wrong, and that we cannot know things solely by virtue of our own thinking. We need the thinking of others as well, to come up with concepts that could stand up to criticism and the test of time. Conversation, after all, is what the road is made for (The Symposium), it is what guides us to a better place through the company of others. So, reader, let us have a conversation today. Let’s find out what is hidden in the recondite corners of other minds. We may find, after all, that our preconceptions are wrong and, that like Socrates, we can learn something more from dialogue than what we thought we knew by virtue of our own thinking.