The Greek oracles didn’t work the way most people imagine. An oracle was not a person you could talk to, but the spirit of a holy place. The most famous oracle, at the temple of Apollo at Delphi, revealed itself through fumes that issued from the ground there. Women priestesses of Apollo would breathe in the vapors, get a little high and babble. The male priests would then interpret the priestesses’ ravings and come up with a brief statement about what they meant. Greeks thought that women, who were primarily emotional and instinctive, could better get in touch with the divine spirit, but it took men, with their greater intellect and reasoning ability, to figure out what the oracle meant.
I know this is terribly sexist and wrongheaded from our more enlightened viewpoint, but if we #MeToo everything that is now offensive and wish Greek civilization away to the cornfield, we are going to lose some concepts that we are still using, such as freedom, justice and the value of the life of the individual. The ancients did get a few things right. Stick with me; this has a happy ending.
Some answers the priests came up with were cute. A Greek general headed for a battle asked what was going to happen. The oracle (actually, the priests) said, “There will be a great victory.” The general lost. There was a great victory, but for the Persians or the Scythians or whomever the Greeks were fighting. The priests couldn’t afford to anger the general. People like him supplied the drachmae to keep the temple going.
A friend of Socrates asked if anyone was wiser than the philosopher. The answer was “No one is wiser than Socrates.” (This was cute, too. Read on.) Socrates was surprised to hear this. He insisted on facts, evidence and logical reasoning, concepts that he helped to develop. Because of those criteria, Socrates thought that what he knew for sure wasn’t much. So he went around to others who were thought to be wise and asked them about their fields of learning. Turns out they hadn’t found out about facts, evidence and logic. He tied them in knots. Finally each one said, “Look, I just know that I’m right. I’m an expert. Trust me.”
That wasn’t enough for Socrates. He still felt he didn’t know enough to be wise. Finally, he realized that the difference between him and the not really wise men was that he was willing to admit he didn’t know what he didn’t know. If the oracle was right, that meant that wisdom is based on one’s awareness of how much one has yet to learn, keeping the mind open to new ideas. So he was one of the wisest because he recognized how ignorant he was.
He was one of the wisest because the oracle had said no one was wiser than he was. Socrates found that people who claimed to be wise were not wise, but those who admitted their inadequacy were truly wise, and he was just one of them — there are lots more. The same description is used in advertising: “Tests show that no motor oil is better than our brand.” If the brands all perform about the same, which the laws of physics require, none is better than any other, including the brand making the claim. Big deal.
This is where you come in. You act foolish sometimes, right? Don’t despair. I was once in love with a woman whom I found making a play for another man. I was shattered. I thought I knew this lady, and I didn’t. I thought I was a fool. No, I had evidence that I was a fool. That’s great! I knew that I didn’t know much, but I also knew from Socrates that that realization was the beginning of wisdom. Things have been improving ever since. So when you feel like a fool, embrace that experience. You may be a wise guy, too.