Searching for Truth

I read Plato’s Apology for the first time at 17 for Christendom College’s high school summer program.  As you can see I obviously took it deeply seriously and this is most certainly not a picture of me giving a lengthy comedic monologue at the mandatory talent show on how my only true talent was knowing that I had no talent.

Clearly one of my take-aways was that Socrates may have been brilliant but you could see how his sarcasm might make the Greeks think “oh go drink hemlock!”

In facsocratest, I did take a great deal away from that first reading.  It was part of my drastic change from fiercely rejecting the idea of attending any small Catholic liberal arts college to falling in love with one. But I do think it’s a both a blessing and a curse to read great books young.  The upsides are obvious, but the downside is, you’re still young and silly.  You will learn certainly, but maybe then you add that book to your “read” pile and never pick it up again in your search for new things.  A truly great book always has new things in it.  Lately I’ve had a niggling feeling in the back of my brain that the breakdown of public discourse today reminded me of something.  Turns out it was the voice of my old friend Socrates, trying to find a man wiser than he.  So I picked up the Apology for a third time and re read it last week.

Now Socrates was sure he could not be the wisest man, and he set out to prove it by going to all those esteemed wise in one area or another.  As it turned out however, each time he questioned them he found that there were many things they did not know.  More particularly, there were many things they thought they knew that they actually did not.  So it was that Socrates arrived at the conclusion that although he did not know everything, he was wisest in that he knew what he didn’t know and sought always to know more.

Now it seems to me we live in a time where many people claim to know things they do not.  Many are spoon fed opinions by political parties, pundits, or even celebrities.  The things they “know” identify give them a sense of comradeship.  They are part of a tribe, a monolithic group believing exactly the same things.  There’s no room to learn or change.  To give an inch on any one point would be a betrayal of their whole identity and their tribe.  But to conduct discourse, of which Socrates was so fond, we must know that there are things we don’t know.  Otherwise why even begin?

There are lots of different ways to apply this simple rule.  We can remember that while we may know the opinions a person holds are wrong, we do not know all about that person.  We do not know what factors may be influencing their opinion, what life they have may have led, or the state of their soul.  Remembering we do not know things of this nature would help us to be charitable.  It would also help us to win arguments. If we spend a little time getting to know the person behind an opinion we could tailor our approach to an individual’s needs.  Different arguments might sway them; different tone might open their hearts.  This is especially important in areas like the pro-life movement, where what is at stake is not simply winning an argument but saving lives and souls.

We must also remember that while there are many things we know by faith, the Catholic Church leaves many things to private conscience.  For example we know certain laws about human sexual morality.  Certain acts are intrinsically wrong, others wrong outside marriage.  In discussions of such things we must hold closely to what we do know by faith and reason, while remembering what we do not.  We can know that homosexual acts are wrong while acknowledging that we do not understand everything about same sex attraction, its causes, its burden, or the best pastoral approach to persons with this particular temptation.  Similarly, we can know the church’s social doctrines but differ on how best to enact them in government and in personal charity.  Here we can discuss and learn from each other if we are willing to humbly ask questions, genuinely listen to answers, and respond thoughtfully.  It is important to know your dogma, and now when you’ve left dogma behind and entered personal opinion however well founded, and conscientiously believed.

A third way to know what we don’t know is to acknowledge when we really haven’t given something any thought whatsoever.  We all have our own interests and talents that urge us to pursue some knowledge over some other.  When we run into something that we haven’t ever given any attention, we would do well to stop and think before we express an opinion or dismiss the whole topic as unimportant.  Also, we should not lazily take our opinions on topics we haven’t examined ourselves from a list of talking points by those we perceive as of our tribe.  Today we are all expected to fit ourselves into one of two boxes and hold the party line across the board.  Do we have to pick a side and refuse to learn anything about the other half of the story? Can we not acknowledge that most big issues are filled with complexities? Nuance on an issue?  No room for it. Disagreement on an issue?  Anathema! Go get in the other box.

And finally, we can know that whatever we do know, we can always know more.  Our job in this life is to know, love, and serve God so we can be happy with him in the next.  All of God’s creation shouts out truths about Him.  There is always more to know. There are always things you can know better, always things you once knew but have forgotten.  Sometimes they are even back in those books you read when you were 17 and green and flippant.  Maybe it is time to pick those up and find out what you do not know about them.

image: MarcelClemens /

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Caitlin Marchand is a home schooling mother of 6 and a graduate of Christendom College. She enjoys writing in her spare time and blogs at

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