Wanted: What to Say or Do

"Wise and just are they alone who know what acts and words to use towards gods and men," we read in Plato's Alcibiades Minor (150b).  You may find this interesting if you are sometimes at a loss of what to say to certain people.  I was thinking about Plato's Socrates in recent days in terms of how he varied his approach to his interlocutors: sometimes almost ironically deprecatory (e.g. Hippias Major), which is an interesting twist to the maieutic in that as he continues nonetheless to elicit answers if through flattery, we see the limits of the midwife who is not able to deliver one who has not passed through not being to being, to paraphrase the Symposium (205).  In the Symposium we also learn that pregnancy of soul is prudence and virtue in general (208).  So to speak with the barren, to speak with those who instead of wonder speak categorically as if all knowledge could be put in a little box-one far inferior to Persephone's κίστη, one's words and acts are to be adapted.
Plato's Socrates sometimes presents himself as "eager to get" the kind of knowledge that we know he does not view as that which is truly desired: take for example Euthydemus, where he notes the existence of the "sport of the sciences" wherein one may learn verbal tricks but be none the wiser about matters at hand (278) yet also demonstrates an eagerness to pick up on that "skill" (301).  It can be very handy to play along with people who claim to have more answers than questions, taking a perfectly good foundation for a finished edifice.  Zhuangzi writes in 外物, "Put away your small wisdom, and your great wisdom will be bright; discard your skillfulness, and you will become naturally skillful" (6).  But some people focus on their skill and are intent on destabilising people who love asking questions to reach meaning.
It is interesting that Socrates, after whom the elenctic method gets its popular name, says often in Plato's works that those seeking answers are to have courage.  This courage may also be necessary if one is faced with a grumpy and closed-minded interlocutor.  It might also be necessary because it is a general truth that the wise are not necessarily able to save themselves.
When I think of what it means to "know what acts and words to use" I think also of the ability through some form of diplomacy that might have provided an alternative to the Melian demise recorded by Thucydides (though I have yet to be able to imagine what argument can be given in reply to one stating might is right, as the Athenians did).  "I wonder if this skill could ever come to me in such manner as to be my own," says Socrates in Euthydemus (301).




But not all skills are given: if we are to agree with Socrates in the Republic, each person has a single activity they excel at: some may be wise, others may be farmers, both are necessary.  Socrates reworks lines from Homer to state: "Full many crafts he knew, but it was evil for him to know them all" in Alcibiades Minor (147d).
It is the wise man who knows what to do and say, but the wise man representative of the ideal and not necessarily practice at all times.  Rather, wisdom may be wise in terms of wisdom and not always material result.  Many times on this blog I've cited the passage in Zhuangzi listed above that states: "wisdom is not without its perils".  In that passage, the wise tortoise that was able to appear in a man's dream was not able to disappear from the scene of its premature death, although it may be worth noting that its death brought fortune, i.e. it was killed to be used in divination.
There may be "myriad men scheming" one's destruction, but Zhuangzi advises that people shine forth with their search for wonder.

It may happen many times that one does not know what to say or do.  But the desire to get it right does not leave one wanting. To not parrot books and run the risk of saying the wrong thing also brings the possibility of allowing what one has taken in to come together in a new way in one's mind, inspiring new words and actions.
By not holding on to the possession of crafty words, it may return of its own accord.  That which is lacking, perhaps by having been set aside, is brought forth through desire (inspired by Symposium 200).



Brush: Watercolor by Pugly Pixel.

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