You Are Not Smarter Than Plato: The Importance of Intellectual Humility

Detail of The School of Athens, Raphael (source)

When culture goes over your head, you can react in two ways: humbly or arrogantly.

When I was fifteen, I watched La Dolce Vita, a three-hour movie about well-off Italians. It went over my head. I found it boring and meandering because I had no idea what it was about. Even as a fifteen-year-old, however, I knew this was my fault. I saw nothing in the movie because of my own blindness, not the film’s failings.

This is the humble way to approach culture you don’t understand. Humility acknowledges that the work has something for which you are not ready. Humility recognises that you must try harder.

Arrogance obstructs culture. The belief that you know better than the work permits you to stop thinking about the work.

As a fifteen-year-old, I was arrogant towards the works of Michel de Montaigne, Plato, and Shakespeare. I thought Montaigne was platitudinous when he talked about great men crying at their enemies’ deaths. I thought Plato was sophistic when he compared hedonism to filling a leaky pot. I thought Shakespeare was simplistic when he showed the perils of seeking power.

(It is an open question whether Montaigne, Plato, or Shakespeare actually said what my fifteen-year-old self thought they said.)

It took me years to go back and reread these greats. My arrogance assured me I was already far beyond them.

This arrogance is not limited to adolescents. In one of the Great Courses lecture series about Confucius (I think this one), the lecturer recounted how even very intelligent and mature people can be blinded by arrogance. The lecturer recalled a time when he told a Western philosopher that he was studying Confucius. The Western philosopher didn’t bother hiding his condescension. There was (and is) a belief in the West that the grand-sire of Chinese thought is a platitudinous granduncle.

Westerners aren’t much kinder to their own intellectual grand-sires. In the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast, the host reads an email from a man called Bill. Bill was underwhelmed by the first book of Plato’s Republic. (Bill would get along with Richard Dawkins.)

The host says:

A lot of people today think that this stuff [The Republic] is sophomoric, as Bill put it. They look at these definitions [of justice] like “giving to each his do” or “helping friends and harming enemies” and they find them so almost cartoonishly simplistic that they think this stuff must represent an earlier, more primitive stage of human thought. Nobody today would offer such simple definitions. We’ve surpassed that way of thinking.

The host goes on to rebut the idea that we’ve moved past Plato, but the arrogance of Bill should be plain to see.

The misguidedness of this arrogance is obvious. Bill thinks that despite The Republic surviving 2500 years, despite receiving impassioned engagement from the finest minds of multiple civilisations, despite it being studied even to this day — Bill thinks he of all people has seen through the sophistry on his first reading.

I am not claiming that people such as Bill haven’t checked for themselves. When they dismiss Plato, Confucius, modern art, foreign cinema, literary fiction, entire fields of human endeavour, I assume they’ve given these areas a once over. A once over is not enough.

The academic Michael Caulfield criticises our society’s naïve faith in “checking for yourself”:

Somehow we believe that diving directly into the Excel spreadsheet is a more noble endeavour than trying to find somebody [and ask], “Hey, if I was to look into this Excel spreadsheet and there was [election] fraud, what would that look like …”

It’s not as simple as seeing for yourself. Often you don’t know what to look for or even what you’re seeing.

When you come across a book, film, piece of art, etc. that is called great, and you don’t see what’s so great, tell yourself that maybe — just maybe — you need to look a bit deeper. Be humble before great works.

Just an essayist and aspiring novelist.