What is Good?, What is True?

How to Be the Smartest Person in the World

Would you like to be the smartest person in the world?

I think a lot of people would like to be. But perhaps most of us think such a goal is impossible. And, logically, it is in fact impossible for everyone to be the smartest person in the world.

But what about being one of the smartest people in the world? Many of us might like to be one of the smartest people in the world but we may still feel like such a goal is impossible. Believe it or not, this goal is much more achievable than you might think—for everyone.

To understand this claim, let me tell you a story about the ancient philosopher Socrates.

“The Statue of Socrates at the Academy of Athens. Work of Leonidas Drosis (d. 1880).” Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the classical dialogue The Apology, Socrates tells us about his friend Chaerephon.

Apparently  Chaerephon was really impressed with Socrates’ wisdom. So much so, we learn, that Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi, a prophetess famous for her prophecy and truth-telling abilities.

As the story goes, Chaerephon asked the Oracle if there was anyone smarter than Socrates. The oracle replied that there was not.[1]

Socrates, to his credit, doubted the Oracle’s pronouncement. Surely there were so many people that were wiser than him. So, Socrates decided to go around asking folks, famed as very smart, questions about truth and the meaning of life.

In doing so, Socrates aimed to prove that he was not in fact the wisest person in the world.

“Oracle of Delphi: King Aigeus in front of the Pythia”. Painting by Kodros, picture courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons.

However, through his questioning, Socrates soon discovered that these supposedly smart people in fact knew very little, even though they thought they knew a great deal.

Consequently, Socrates discovered that there was no one wiser than he was. But this was not because of all the knowledge he possessed. Rather, there was no one wiser than Socrates because he knew how much he didn’t know.

It’s temping when reading this story, perhaps, to view it as a nice morality tale that teachers tell their students to inspire them to be lifelong learners.

In fact, I have sometimes viewed this story as such.

But the older I get, the more I think this story contains profound truth about what it means to be wise. It’s a truth we often overlook.

For instance, consider how we often view wisdom or intelligence. Frequently we think someone is wise or smart when they always have the right answers and accompanying self-assuredness. Or we think people are smart if they possess a fount of knowledge they can rattle off at any moment. Or if, perhaps, they can defeat any opponent in any argument.

We are often impressed with such displays of knowledge.

Laurentius de Voltolina”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But consider how such behavior often leads to, or reinforces, ignorance.

For example, people who believe they always have the right answer stop listening to other people. And they will ignore counter-evidence that suggests their knowledge is incomplete or inaccurate.

And people who regularly make a display of their knowledge become very attached to being “a smart person”. As such, they often shy away from subject areas they know little about or that reveal how little they know.[2]

This prevents them from deepening, enriching, and rounding out their knowledge.

And people who stake their identity in defeating their opponents often refuse to listen to any views different from their own.

As such, they close themselves off from new ways of looking at the world, which would deepen their understanding of reality.

When people behave in these ways, their “intelligence” eventually turns into profound ignorance.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, drawing by Markus Maurer. (You can read more about such ignorance here: Are You in Plato’s Cave?)

I remember a vivid encounter I had with my own such ignorance.

To provide some context, I have always had a keen interest in religion and various faith traditions. Because of this, growing up I spent hours thinking and reading about God.

At one point in my life, I felt like I knew quite a bit about God, and I could discuss many “impressive” theological points about God in everyday conversation.

And then one night as I was lying in bed thinking about God, I was struck with a shocking realization that went something like this: “God is infinite. And I am finite. So how could my drastically limited, finite understanding ever comprehend an infinite God?”

This truth was so obvious to me, and it shocked me that I hadn’t realized it before. And I suddenly realized that any knowledge I thought I possessed about God was at best like a shadow on the wall.

I also realized that recognizing my profound ignorance of God was probably the wisest thing I had ever thought about God. In fact, acknowledging that ignorance opened the door for me to deepen my understanding of God in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined.

“Adam’s Creation”. Painting by Michelangelo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I have experienced this same realization in other areas of my life. The more invested I become in parading my knowledge, defeating my opponents, or proving that I am smart, the more ignorant I become.

That’s because I stop searching, questioning, and seeing the world in new ways. And I become attached to the views I already possess that are always necessarily limited and may in fact be completely wrong.

Socrates was right.

Once we realize how much we don’t know and how deep our ignorance runs, the more we create the perfect conditions to deepen, enrich, and even transform our understanding of the world.

Now, it may be tempting to think that Socrates encourages a type self-destructive humility.

People display this type of unhelpful humility when they say things like, “I’m so dumb. I don’t know anything.”

But this type of attitude is the furthest thing from the attitude Socrates suggests. Rather, Socrates invites us to cultivate an attitude of wonder, enchantment, and adventure as we view the world and try to understand it.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Such an attitude shows humility in the best sort of way.

It is the kind of attitude a Lover takes towards her Beloved. When we truly love someone, we recognize our beloved is a beautiful mystery that we get to take our whole life to understand and cherish.

And in fact, we realize there is always more mystery and adventure. This is a profoundly loving and humble attitude.

Anyone can  such practice such loving humility. And the moment we do so is the moment we become one of the smartest people in the world.


On a related note, you might also like these posts: Idols of the Mind: Common Thinking Errors; Are You in Plato’s Cave?

For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people develop good thinking habits.

My books are The Argument Builder, The Discovery of Deduction (co-author), and Everyday Debate.

You can find these books at Classical Academic Press here.

And you can also order them from Amazon:

Everyday Debate (I recommend starting with this one.)

The Argument Builder

The Discovery of Deduction


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[1] You can read this story in Plato’s Apology (lines 21a-23b).

[2] By the way, I have had all these problems before in my life. And that is, in part, why I write this post.

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