One of the most important steps on the path of knowledge, whether scientific, spiritual, or otherwise, is to admit that we do not really know. If we really believe that we know something, then we no longer feel compelled to question what we believe we really know. Of course, we have to pretend that we know all kinds of practical things, such as believing that I know I am typing this sentence, or that garbage day is on Wednesday. But when we start to question with increasingly detailed logical scrutiny what we believe we know, we soon realize that we don’t really know what we are talking about. It is this sort of self-aware ignorance that is essential on the path to all forms of knowledge.
Socrates was wise because he knew that he did not know. But there is an important caveat here: he did know what could be truly known. That may sound weird or trivial, but it is actually a very powerful statement. For example, he knew that if anything was beautiful here in the physical world, it could only be beautiful to the degree that it participated in absolute Beauty. That sort of spiritual or philosophical knowledge is unchanging, and so it is something that can genuinely be known. However, which particular things in the physical word are beautiful, and to what degree they are beautiful, is very difficult to know objectively. In other words, because all things in the physical world (including all types of matter and energy) are in some way and to some degree always changing, then we can never really have complete knowledge about any particular thing in the physical world. By the time we have knowledge of something, it will have already changed in one way or another. (How this fact relates to scientific knowledge will need to be addressed in a separate post.)
So we can say that Socrates knew that he did not know what he really did not know, and that he knew what he did really know, which was part of what made him so wise. Only fools believe they know what they do not. Indeed, given the infinity of potential knowledge that awaits discovery, we can be sure that we know very little. Let us humbly work on reducing our own foolishness.