Some People Know More Than I Do

“I know how unfashionable it is now to acknowledge in life or history any genius loftier than ourselves. Our democratic dogma has leveled not only all voters but all leaders; we delight to show that living geniuses are only mediocrities, and that dead ones are myths. … Since it is contrary to good manners to exalt ourselves, we achieve the same result by slyly indicating how inferior are the great men of the earth.” ~ Will Durant (The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time)

My son recently shared this quote … so apropos for our times. It got me to thinking about my own experience as a university teacher. For example, I’d critique Aristotle’s defense of the idea of natural slavery (who wouldn’t) but then add that I thought his insights about, for example, how to live well are good ones. Often a student would claim that they reject anything a defender of slavery said. I would point out the ad hominem nature of this attack, often to no avail.  

A connected idea is our rejection of experts today. Generally, people won’t acknowledge that others are smarter than they are or know more about some topics than they do. Insecurity or some other psychological condition probably explains this. How easily people say “well, I have my opinions about physics and disagree with Steven Hawking or Sean Carroll or Brian Greene.” Wow.

Or think of Trump or other Republican politicians saying they sometimes disagree with Dr. Fauci and other scientists about COVID, as if politicians are the equals of scientists regarding knowledge of pandemics. People often pontificate about history, economics, or biology when they don’t know what they’re talking about. (This is the essence of Plato’s critique of democracy—people who vote don’t know what they’re doing.)

Sometimes is best to say “I think the physician or scientist probably knows more about that than I do.” This takes humility but it typically gets you closer to the truth than false bravado.

(Note. One day after I published the above,  a New York Times essay “Should We Cancel Aristotle?” appeared.)
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8 thoughts on “Some People Know More Than I Do

  1. All true, of course. But I think there are several considerations. First, no one can ever know everything there is to know, because of how short life is. Schopenhuaer wrote that it’s too short to learn anything, no less. As you know, I often quote S because I have after all my own limits in knowledge. However, this should not be confused with ignorance, for not knowing everything but still having taken the time to learn as much as possible, it is certainly a lot more than most people took the trouble to do.

    Secondly, there’s people who -think- they know, but know nothing (the fools), and the people who think they know a lot, because they actually do. But the latters have never gone around saying they know everything, or even a lot. So, there’s actually people who know a lot, and people who don’t know anything, inadequate people. That’s a very great difference. After all, one has to realize, and with great clarity, that he doesn’t know enough, for if this realization would not be there, he would never take the trouble to learn. Most people fall in the latter category. Some years ago, I was speaking about how awesome I thought was this or that philosopher, and my father said: “Eh, you and these philosophers. I know all that stuff already”.

    My father is a good person overall, but certainly no intellectual. I remember that it was right there that I truly realized what Socrates really meant when he said: “I know only that I know nothing”. The “nothing” can be substituted with “enough”. Thus, I concluded that my father, in this respect, is like the majority of people, which are fools: they think they DO know enough. So you see, it is as if you were a martial arts grandmaster, in a world where most people cannot even make the slightest leaps without looking ridiculous, ungraceful, and awkward. When thinking of what my father said, I felt pity for him. I remember thinking “here’s the very example of what S spoke about: the person who never developed the powers of their mind. How pathetical, and stupid too. Here I am, taking my time to try to learn something, and this guy who sits in front of the TV for hours a day, numbing his skull, says, to me, that he know all “this stuff” already”. If he hadn’t been my father, I would have laughed in his face:)

    S wrote that modesty, in the case of people with no intellectual talents or abilities, is merely honesty, but in the case of talented people, it is hypocrisy. Now obviously that is not your case, for you truly believe what you say in regard to your supposed ‘inferiority’, but the reality is, you are still a genius amongst fools. You mentioned Trump, look at how pathetical is such an ignoramus. I thought that what happened with him (becoming the president of the United States. WOW. Seriously?) could only happen in a country like Italy, where fools elect someone like Berlusconi as a prime minister, but I was wrong. Obviously Trump is a pretty much a wealthy ignoramus, all the stupid things that get out of his mouth, are ridiculous. I mean, he believes stuff like conspiracy theories, things that are believed only by half baked people. And his “critics” are not much better.

    As you rightly said about Aristotle, one has to judge people on the whole, instead every fool picks up only what they don’t like. Take Churchill. He was racist and I am not defending him, he too had his own confusion and ignorance to deal with, but from this to say that Churchill was a lowlife just because he was racist. There’s a passage in the Hagakure where the author tells the story of how, in his earlier days, he started to keep a journal where he would list all the mistakes he would make for the day. He wrote that very soon the project was out of his control, he could not keep up with him, and in the end, he concluded that it is impossible to live and not make mistakes.

    “ “well, I have my opinions about physics and disagree with Steven Hawking or Sean Carroll or Brian Greene.” Wow.“ “

    Yes, there’s too many fools like these. I don’t suppose they are scientists themselves who are world class experts in black holes. I suppose they are the inadequate fools who write their mindless rubbish on “social media” about how it’s not true that man went on the Moon. Ha ha, you can only laugh.

    But really, of course the philosopher will always say “I don’t know everything I want to know”. But I think it is ok for him to say :”I know a lot. I have taken the time to learn, which requires a lot of work. I know I am not the only one who knows a lot, but a lot is very greatly different than little or nothing”. Really, you are a millionaire in a starving world.

    It is me who feels inadequate compared to you, ha ha (oh no, I just did it myself. 🙂 ). What I mean is that it is natural to feel “small” compared to the giants. But like Cardano wrote: “ You can be a giant amongst minnows, or a minnow amongst giants. Greatness is relative”. Now, obviously no real philosopher puts “personal greatness” before a real and honest desire for enquiry. So you would not do that. But I think that as a student, can fully see even your magnificence. I can just imagine if someone like you were the president of the United States (or any nation) instead of an ignoramus like Trump.

    Two interesting quotes by S come to mind:

    “If one has never developed the powers of his mind because he had to fight for daily bread, he has a good excuse. But to be wealthy, and to remain an ignorant fool, it is unforgivable.”


    “You cannot see in someone else what is lacking in yourself.”. I think that means that when you see greatness in Durant or Russell or anyone worth thinking about, I think that also says something about you. The rest will go “Yeah, I know all this stuff already”. Without having never read a book, or at any rate, a good one, except those about some ridiculous and laughable conspiracy theory….

    PS. I apologize for my somewhat misanthropic addressing of people as fools, I guess that all the Schopenhauer reading took its toll, ha ha. But I think he is mostly right. With various exceptions, of course.

    Thanks for the article!

    Kind regards,

  2. PS. sorry for the many typos and confusion, I really have to learn reading a message over before I click ‘send’, but am too lazy to do that.

    “I know only that I know nothing”. The “nothing” can be substituted with “enough”.

    I meant that what Socrates said, could also be interpreted as “ I don’t know enough.” rather than “ I don’t know anything”.

    As for people who would “criticize” Aristotle with intellectually inadequate ad hominem attacks, it’s always these ‘social justice’ fools, i.e. self-righteous ignoramuses who are good only for point ping out other people’s ignorance, but never their own. Their stupidity and narrow mindedness cannot make them accept that the world is never just black or white, that imperfection and fallibility is the rule, and that is already a sort of miracle if one really tries to learn anything, and also takes a good look at themselves.

    You see, that is why I pretty much call most people “fools” except people like you. Intelligent people learn, and also, they are capable of taking a deliberate look in the mirror and ask themselves “ who am I ? “. No man can do better, I think.

  3. To conclude, in the main I agree with Durant, but after all, every good philosopher spoke highly of others rather than themselves. Ironically, it is this perceived sense of personal inadequacy that makes one learn a lot, for if they didn’t feel inadequate, they would go “Yeah, I get it. What’s on TV ? “ 🙂

    Or worse: “ I don’t care who Aristotle was, or what else he wrote, he was racist!”.

    I have more respect for people who numb their skulls in front of a TV. I always thought that to be a bad student of philosophy, is much worse than being no student at all.

  4. Personally I ‘Pick and choose’ what I believe, I wasn’t always so skeptical but Science has changed, been exposed, or corrupted, now everyone has been conditioned to work for Money, not Truth and Virtue, Money has become the ‘Highest Good’ and our Heroes are those with the most Money, no one cares how they got it, , all Scientists can’t be bought I’m sure, but they won’t be the ones in the Media Herding the Cattle into the pen the People who write the checks want them in!
    Of course most people know more about something than I do, I recognize that, and i look for it, I also look at the World to see if their ‘Knowledge’ corresponds with and explains reality! What is their motive, what effect are they trying to achieve?
    You seem to suggest that we should uncritically believe what ever the Scientists (Priests of the New Religion of technology) tell us, if this conclusion is true you perhaps also aren’t as smart as you think you are!

  5. Sometimes as I listen to our self-proclaimed genius president, I find myself saying: What this country needs is a good, well prepared Philosopher King.

  6. for more see the many posts on critical thinking, truth, and epistemology on the blog. JGM

  7. as always there are many interesting ideas in your comments. Perhaps one of my readers might respond? Also, many of my posts on truth, critical thinking, and epistemology ocver some of this material. JGM

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