Apology

Matt Colvin offers an apology and a retraction. It is well worth reading, both for its content and for the example it sets.

After I read it I thought about another apology, namely Plato’s record of the defense Socrates offered to the Athenian senate. Part of the accusation against Socrates was that he purported to be wise, and was misleading the youth of Athens and otherwise raising a ruckus via his wisdom. His response was that in fact he had no wisdom, and that the rumor that he considered himself wise was baseless.

He went on to trace the source of the rumor to a prophecy by the oracle at Delphi, who once proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest of all men. Socrates was astonished, knowing he had no wisdom, and alarmed, not wanting such a reputation. He figured the quickest way to disprove the prophecy was to find someone wiser than he was. The search for such a person didn’t go well, though; each time he found folks who had reputations for being wise—politicians, philosophers, poets, artisans—Socrates’ questioning of him revealed that in fact there was no wisdom there at all. (Which didn’t please the politicians, philosophers, poets, and artisans, turning them into enemies who floated calumnies against him, leading to his false reputation for wisdom.)

The puzzle remained: was the oracle correct? Giving the oracle the benefit of the doubt, Socrates finally understood the prophecy to mean that he was the wisest of men simply because he, unlike the rest, understood that he had no wisdom at all:

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

Matt makes more or less the same point by opening his apology with this:

The older I get, the less I know.

I was pleased to read Matt’s apology, and especially the reasoning behind it, because of a trend I described in part of an email to Matt:

Many of us are guilty of placing undue burdens on others through our own self-righteous certainty that we’ve reasoned out the One Right Way. I’m no exception. I’ve learned that through hard experience, and I’ve been working in the last few years to not only understand the true extent of Christian freedom, but also to write of my own experiences without binding the consciences of my readers, intentionally or accidentally. I think the Reformed community is beginning to reap the whirlwind in this area (e.g. the backlash against patriarchal teachings), and I hope we will begin to find suitably irenic ways to couch our testimonies before the watching world writes us off altogether.

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One thought on “Apology

  1. I know how he feels. The older I get, the more I know how little I actually know. I am wiser, strangely, but less sure of many things than I was in my 20’s. I am now 45. The odd thing is, I am MORE sure of certain core beliefs of my faith. But I am less likely to want to debate someone about them. I am getting maybe a bit amish like, in that I would just rather live my faith, than obsess and debate it. I’m happier that way.

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