An inspiring read for even those who have never been introduced to philosophy is "The Apology" written by Plato. Here Socrates, who we consider the father of philosophy, gives a speech to defend himself against the charges of corrupting the youth and teaching atheism. From this speech we get the popular quote "The unexamined life is not worth living". But we also get something even more important: a lesson on humility.
You see, in his defense, Socrates explains what sort of wisdom he possesses. He recieves word from an oracle of the gods that he is the wisest man. Socrates is stumped by this. He didn't think himself wise at all. In fact, he believed he knew nothing.
Eventually, Socrates realizes what the oracle meant. That the wisest man is the one who knows the limitations of his own wisdom. "For only god is wise" he proudly declares to his accusers.
Through the centuries our study of philosophy has continued to come back to this initial conclusion. That we really know nothing at all. From Hume who argued that almost everything we know is wrong or, at least, unreasonable to Neitsche who demanded that all morality is a sham.
Yet somehow the doctrines we have adopted have borne fruit. I can step into my automobile confident that if I have enough gasoline, I can start its engine and travel to work much quicker than if I had walked. We accept that a time of peace is more tranquil than a time of war and so we try to keep peace as much as possible. Few would reject that many of us live better and easier than those who lived centuries past.
Yet it would be easy for us in our modern world to tell Socrates as if he was alive today "We know so much more than you did in your time. We know that all material things are made up of atoms and even they are composed of much smaller things. We have built machines that can propel themselves, machines that can compute billions of times faster than any man could. We know the secrets of the farthest of the universe and of the life that lives on our eyelashes. Surely, we are wise."
But knowledge isn't the same as wisdom, Socrates would surely say. In fact, they are barely related.
This article isn't merely about a conceptual consideration of wisdom. The philosophy of humility applies to all sorts of debate and discussions and decisions we participate in everyday.
An Example: Ethics and Humility
Modern ethical arguments commonly come between two sets of beliefs. One is that there is an absolute right and wrong. The other is that morality is subjective based on culture, experience, or even the individual. The ethical absolutist sees the relativist as immoral and unable to see the obvious truths of right and wrong. The ethical relativist sees the absolutist as dogmatic and unreasonable. Eventually the relativist pulls the contradiction "Who are you to tell me what is right or wrong!" And the absolutist responds "Because I know I'm right!"
What is the solution to this rhetorical crisis? No line of reasoning can untangle this rhetorical web. By the title of this article you might think the answer lies with the relativist. The absolutist seems the least humble by claiming to know the truth as if handed to him by God.
But the answer rather lies with the ethical absolutist. Because the relativist is accusing him of a lack of humility, only he can prove otherwise. With ethical relativism, there is no capability of it being an unquestioned doctrine because it accepts all things as being true. Relativism is a stalled philosophy that can not build upon itself because without the ability of being unquestioned also takes away the ability of being humble. Humility and unquestioned allegiance are complements that, like good and evil, and light and darkness, the possibility of one must include the possibility of the other.
The proper response by the ethical absolutist is thus: "I know I am limited in my faculty of the mind and I can not say for certain that I am wiser than you. However, I must assume that I am a reasonable being and because I am convinced of my belief, it is up to you to convince me otherwise."
Humility is hard
Beyond reason, humility is the most important aspect of any discussion. In contrast to reason, I doubt it can ever be mastered. We all have found ourselves fallen into the pit of unquestioned allegiance. We will probably fall again in the future. But if we all have Socrates over our shoulder reminding us "I have no wisdom," then it can make it easier to climb out of the pit and accept our limitations and move on, pride intact.
I don't think I have to explain now how the above relates to almost any discussion, especially one about politics. Once you have given your unquestioned allegiance to any idea, political party, even reason itself, then you have stalled your own development as an intellectual.
For the rest of you who remain humble, then needs to be a way of detecting this. To sense whether the person you are debating with is looking for answers or is preaching his pre-established faith can decide how you intend to respond. What I have found is that when a person begins getting crafty with their rhetoric is a sign for suspicion. It is as if they have run out of plain arguments and facts that now they need to convince people out of wit or aggression.
The point I want to make is that debate is good, even political debate. But it can not progress to a conclusion without a sense of humility on the side of all participants. Humility is even more important than reason, in my opinion, because logic can always be corrected but never a lack of humility.