Spanning over 2300 years, there’s one thing that bound Plato’s Socrates, Henry David Thoreau and Confucius together: They all knew nothing, and they knew it.
This was a song Thoreau sang to himself while cutting, hewing and chopping wood in 1845¹:
Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings, –
The arts and sciences,
and a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
Socrates, expressed through his student Plato, thought along the same lines over 2200 years before that. In Christopher Rowe’s translation of Plato’s Euthyphro in The Last Days of Socrates, he says:
‘Its [Plato’s view on philosophy] outcomes will tend always to be, in principle, provisional; that is one important reason for his [Plato’s] Socrates’ continuing reluctance to claim that he knows nothing, or anything very much.’²
And a further 100-200 years earlier than that, Confucius said:
To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.
No one knows anything and never has and probably never will
The one thing they all had in common: they all knew they didn’t know. They were aware they knew nothing, or at best, very little. And that’s the reason that lead them to be constantly asking, exploring the truth and wanting to know more about themselves and everything else.
¹ Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (Boston, 1854).
² Christopher Rowe (ed.), Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, (London, 2010).