What is knowledge? Socrates poses this question to a budding young mathematician in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus. Their conversation never yields a clear answer. But it does interrogate several flawed accounts of what knowledge is and how to acquire it, and distinguishes promising lines of enquiry from mere ‘wind eggs’ – Socrates’ term for arguments that come up hollow when you crack into their robust-looking shells.
Most of these dead-end accounts, it turns out, are bound up with problematic views about the proper role of authority and authorities in transmitting knowledge (episteme). The commonest view – one still widely held today – is that we can identify well-founded knowledge by picking out some wise man or men (and the occasional wise woman, even in ancient Athens) who can tell us what’s true or false, right or wrong. To some extent, Plato’s dialogue admits, such reliance on epistemic authority is unavoidable. This is most obviously true in matters of practical knowhow or techne: not everyone can have, or have the time to acquire, the special skills of cobblers, lyre-players, shipbuilders, or doctors. The more complex our world gets, the more we all find it necessary to rely on specialists or highly educated generalists to filter and process information for us, and to help us make well-considered judgements about its implications. But when people rely on others in matters that call for less technical kinds of knowledge, especially in matters of moral or political judgement, authority-dependence carries grave risks.
One danger is epistemic overconfidence on the part of those who regard themselves, or are widely regarded, as authorities. Such overconfidence thrives in societies that give science and higher education an exaggerated prestige, elevating those who have these things to the status of elites and distinguishing them sharply from the less educated ‘non-knowers’. Overconfidence increases the risk of dogmatism, an unquestioned faith in certain facts, investigative procedures, or beliefs that can breed dangerous errors, in natural sciences and human affairs, theory and practice. And dogmatism may lead to epistemic authoritarianism, which arises when ‘knowers’ arrogate excessive authority for themselves, both within knowledge-seeking circles and in society at large. In a vicious cycle, authoritarian attitudes harden dogmatism when authorities discourage enquiries that might threaten their own knowledge-claims, since that would also threaten their privileged social position.
As Plato’s Socrates points out, epistemic authoritarianism is seldom just a top-down affair, imposed by authorities on helpless subjects. Those who defer to authorities are often complicit in their own mental subjection. Unwilling to think for themselves, they rush to take conventional or spurious signs of superior wisdom – higher degrees, titles, a reputation for shrewdness – as sufficient grounds for trusting others’ judgements. Their credulity further tempts would-be authorities to cultivate appearances of superior knowledge for their own gain. One of the most corrupting authoritarian relationships takes the form of a commercial transaction where both buyers and sellers treat knowledge as a kind of merchandise that anyone with a bit of money can acquire. The sellers hawk their meretricious knowledge for financial gain, winning a name for wisdom among consumers eager to possess apparent knowledge without doing the hard work needed to acquire the real thing.
Plato calls these self-serving knowledge-merchants ‘sophists’, an epithet that translates roughly as ‘the so-called wise’. Feeding on their admirers’ trusting naiveté, intellectual self-doubt, or laziness, sophists cast an epistemic fog over entire societies, as Plato says happened in Athens before the Peloponnesian War. Under the spell of orators and politicians like Pericles, whose teachers were skilled in sophistry, Athenians began to question the very distinctions between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes how misplaced trust in reputation can corrode people’s natural capacities to discern simple truths:
They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise [sophois] as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, if only it spoke the truth. But to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from. For you do not consider only whether or not his words are true.
Reverence for spurious wisdom made Athenians lose their moral bearings and sense of political reality. Demagogues skilled in sophistic rhetoric persuaded people that political prudence meant shedding traditional moral constraints – taking advantage of others before they pull one over you – and expanding Athens’ empire by hook or by crook. The upshot was a drawn-out war that ended in disaster for the Athenians and the rest of Greece.
All this suggests that some sort of scepticism about the claims of self-styled ‘knowers’ is good for both epistemic and political health. Especially since the Enlightenment, philosophers, natural scientists, and other thinkers have made us keenly aware of the risks of authority-based knowledge. Yet compared with ancient writers, modern Enlightenment thinkers said far less about another risk, one that looms large in today’s world. This is that epistemic authoritarianism can have long-term, profound effects on human faculties of thinking and judging – effects on people’s brains, we might say, not just on particular opinion-forming processes. When people glean information and form judgements by deferring to authority, their own faculties of thinking and judging remain stunted. They become, to use a familiar figure of speech, ‘sheep’. And ironically, the most educated among those who are educated in this way are often the most deferential to authority, and fiercely protective of their own high status once they’ve earned it by conforming to established knowledge-seeking hierarchies.
This problem is central to a very old tradition of cautious anti-authoritarian knowledge-seeking – cautious because it doesn’t merely rebel against authority, but questions its claims in a discriminating spirit, in the hope of invigorating the quest for knowledge rather than declaring it futile. Plato and his friend Socrates are key figures in this tradition, though it has its roots in earlier Greek literature. Writers like Xenophon, Plato’s contemporary, and later Plutarch also carried the tradition through the centuries. They were rediscovered in the early Renaissance, translated into Latin, and widely read. One of the tradition’s carriers was Niccolò Machiavelli, who in 1513 wrote in his The Prince:
There are three kinds of brains: one that understands by itself, another that discerns what others understand, the third that understands neither by itself nor through others; the first is most excellent, the second excellent, and the third useless.
We find similar passages about the ‘three species of brain’ in Aristotle, and behind him the much earlier poet, Hesiod. The 17th-century English philosophers Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes make comparable arguments about learning to think and learn without too much top-down ‘teaching’, as does Jean-Jacques Rousseau – and to some extent Immanuel Kant, a great admirer of Rousseau, with his credo ‘Sapere aude’ (‘Dare to know!’) – in the 18th century. One of the best kinds of education, they all thought, comes through dialogue among equals or friends. Plato’s Socrates famously refuses to set himself up as a superior knower and insists that he lacks knowledge, constantly questioning his own conclusions. At best, he tells his young partners in dialogue, he is like a midwife who helps bring to light the thoughts of those who already carry them inside. He cannot plant the thought-seeds for them, do the hard work of labour, or guarantee that what comes out won’t be a wind egg; all these things depend on them. The thoughts that occur to them will not truly be theirs, nor will they know how to examine or defend them, if they take them on authority.
Dialogue has knowledge-affirming value because it allows all parties to question everything, from all possible angles. Socrates argues in the Phaedrus that oral discussion is a far better way to get closer to the truth than the written word, because:
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, which is very like painting: for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words. You might think they speak as if they have intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to learn from what they say, they always signify only one thing. And every word once written down gets bandied about, both among those who understand and those who have little interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not. When ill-treated or reviled it always needs its father to help it, for it has no power to protect itself.
It might then seem odd that Plato took the trouble to write down dialogues that future readers were bound to misunderstand, revile, or use in self-serving ways – as indeed they have. But the difference between discussing knowledge, virtue, politics, or the soul through written dialogue or in non-dialogic form is that dialogues – at least Plato’s – do not claim to set out settled truths about any of these subjects. They merely expose fallacies in various ways of thinking about them and, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, plant more constructive thoughts that are ‘not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process forever.’
Beyond dialogue, there are other ways to educate through writing without lecturing readers from a podium. In his essay How to Read Poetry, Plutarch asks what can be done to educate people who ‘like unfledged nestlings are always agape toward the mouth of another, wanting to receive everything ready prepared and pre-digested’. His answer: write and speak in ways that help them to grasp the main points, then allow them to ‘put the rest together by their own efforts, and… think for themselves and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it. For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.’
This non-judgmental style of writing is especially apt for exercising and training readers to reflect more deeply on moral and political questions. Plutarch’s biographies of famous Greeks and Romans provide some good examples. While sometimes offering his own views on each outstanding man, Plutarch more often reports what various contemporaries said about them, while pointing out that few of these reports are trustworthy: those who chronicle the deeds of the famous, after all, tend to be either their flatterers or foes. So Plutarch’s readers learn that they have to take whatever they hear or read with a generous pinch of salt. If they read closely, they might also learn how to form their own non-dogmatic judgements by comparing divergent appraisals of a man’s character with whatever can be known about his motivations and actual deeds, and with the conspicuous effects of his policies on future generations.
Thucydides’ magnificent history of the Peloponnesian War furnishes us with another example of this kind of non-authoritarian education. In his English translation of the work, Hobbes praises Thucydides for not passing direct judgements on many of the decisions that fuelled the war. Instead of praising one policy as wise or just and denouncing others as unsound, the historian, Hobbes writes, ‘so clearly set before men’s eyes the ways and events of good and evil counsels, that the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.’
In their own creative ways, then, all these ancient and early modern authors sought to weaken the link between knowledge and authority. While criticising specific epistemic authorities – whether priestly, poetic, or canonical – they didn’t want to become authorities themselves, but developed moderately anti-authoritarian views of what knowledge is and how people should pursue it. Their concerns were partly ‘scientific’: they were interested in the disinterested search for truth, while remaining hypersensitive to how easily truth-seekers can be led astray by their own emotions, interests, and ambitions. But as we’ve seen, epistemic anti-authoritarians also had strong political concerns. Well-ordered politics, they believed – including the right kind of respect for political authority – depends on citizens who think, judge, and check facts for themselves.
This might seem unlikely in the case of Hobbes whose Leviathan defends a sovereign’s absolute authority to decide matters of state. Yet one of his core arguments, in that book and others, is that each human being has a sacred duty to be ‘one’s own’ judge and to scrutinise sovereign authorities, even if Hobbes gives them no political right to revolt against them. He also insists on the natural equality of human beings in their capacity to think for themselves, though that capacity may be crippled or corrupted. In his Behemoth, a historical dialogue about the English Civil War, he has one speaker say: ‘What silly things are the common sort of people, to be cozened [conned] as they were so grossly!’ His interlocutor replies: ‘What sort of people, as to this matter, are not of the common sort? The craftiest knaves of all the Rump [Parliament] were no wiser than the rest whom they cozened. For the most of them did believe that the same things which they imposed upon the generality, were just and reasonable.’ He continues that it is ‘not want of wit, but want of the science of justice’ on the part of both more and less educated people that drove them to political disaster.
What about Plato, whose Republic has Socrates and his young friends imagine a state where a caste of super-educated philosopher kings and queens rule the rest? It’s important to remember that this is a thought-experiment, not a blueprint for practice – and to notice how Socrates casts quiet doubts on whether ‘epistocracy’, the rule of the knowing, could ever work. The education needed to create supremely wise rulers is so rigorous that only a few could get through it. And those who do might still succumb to the risks of epistemic arrogance and the dogmatism it breeds. Since these tendencies can produce intellectual and political tyranny if unchecked, human beings might have to settle for a ‘second-best’ kind of state that doesn’t try to eliminate ignorance from political life, but works with it and tries to limit its dangers.
Some of the worst consequences of authority-centred learning can be seen in democratic politics, in ancient Athens and our own times. Bombarded with too much information, citizens often let leaders or parties or ideological teammates make decisions for them, thus avoiding hard questions about the wisdom of leaders or policies. Certain educated people might imagine that they’re less prone to error than people who lack their education. Plato and other epistemic anti-authoritarians show why this attitude is dangerous for democratic health. Even the educated, after all, are only human, and vulnerable to the kinds of overconfidence that feed into dogmatism and authoritarianism. One of Plato’s recurring themes is especially worth recalling in our times of tension between so-called elites and the rest: namely, that the worst form of ignorance – worse than mere lack of education or undue faith in another’s wisdom – is an inflated opinion of one’s own wisdom.
This essay by Erica Benner was first published in Knowledge and Information, 2019, Axess Publishing.