The Great Paradox of Socrates

In an interview, the philosopher Jacob Needleman states, “That wisdom comes pouring in when you really see you don’t understand. That was the great paradox of Socrates.”

We must let our guard down and let the guest in: this is what Socrates is saying. We mustn’t go around making assertions but must listen to the words of the other, first making sense of their opinions, their views, their arguments, inviting them into our thoughts, our blessed and most gracious considerations.

But there is so much that blocks us from letting the guest, that alien thought or hinterland suggestion, that fierce stranger in. I must know, I must know, I must know. It, he, that is not welcome. And what I must know is what, basically, what identity I have and cling to, what I believe in, which position I hold, what allegiances are mine. With the most violent and the coldest gesture do I resist you, refuse you, you dangerous, nasty guest.

I need a teacher: this is what Socrates said first. If we find a wise man, don’t let him go but let’s become his pupils. My sense is that this teacher would break us in two, probably with a few words, showing us what, and how much, we don’t understand. And it would be nasty and generous of him to offer this to us.

Do you know what the hope for us would be? To really see that we don’t understand. That is not a mere release like a relaxed muscle after a massage. That is liberation. And that liberation is just what is experienced when “that wisdom comes pouring in,” pouring in, pouring over us, pouring out of us.

The wrap on Socrates is that he is just a shrewd “all-destroyer.” He can only attack verities, pull down idols, tear into shreds common sense. His is the power of the negative and that is all. And after the demolition (if such it be), then what? What for us? 

The charge against Socrates is unjustified. Only in pure receptivity can one be opened up to see a new clearingWe must burst ourselves openWhatever is most cherished must first perish; we must let it; I must let it. So must you.

Say what you believe, do not insist, be open: A paradox

Say what you believe. Do not insist that it is so. Surrender in openness.

Can any sense be made of these three statements, of this apparent paradox?

Yes. ‘I believe that P’: this is where we begin.

You do not claim to know that P. You do not insist that P must be the case. (When you say that P, you add, ‘but I may be wrong.’) So, we inquire to discover: is it true that P?

As we inquire, we surrender in openness. Could it be Q? Or R? We ease into the otherwise.


A case may illustrate the three-fold character of stating what you believe, of not insisting that it is so, and of being open to whatever comes to pass.

You believe that X is the best way to proceed with this business project. But you do not know that X, and you could be wrong about X. We inquire about X, both of us being open to the possibility of Y or Z, etc. It turns out that X is not the best way to proceed. We discover that Y is.

We affirm the conclusion Y.

And… we begin again with another question by saying what you believe, by not insisting that it is so, and by being open to whatever comes to pass as the line of inquiry unfolds…