Jeopardy! category: WISE GUYS (02-07-2014)
$800 clue: An oracle said no one was wiser than this ancient Greek, who said, if so it’s because I know how little I know
The gist: Hmmm. Could the slightly awkward first-person phrasing of this clue be the writers sending a subtle jab in Alex’s way? Chaerephon, a loyal follower of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy and the gadfly of Athens, is said in Plato’s Apology to have gone to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to ask who was the wisest of all the Greeks. The ever-modest Socrates was of course appalled that Chaerephon would go on such an undertaking, and upon hearing the inevitable response that it was none other than him, gave the classic humblebrag response featured in the clue:
I know that I know nothing
Of course, understanding what Socrates meant with this statement depends on parsing the sentence correctly. He is decidedly not saying that he is wise because he “knows nothing” – that would certainly not be wisdom, even to the doggedly counterfactual Socrates. What he means, rather, is that others believe they know many things, but if they were to stop and examine their assumptions they would find their knowledge to be baseless. Socrates, on the other hand, is fully aware that what he believes to be true is likely to fall apart on examination – he knows how hard, impossible perhaps, it is for the human mind to truly know anything for certain.
The idea relates to Socrates’ whole milieu. His greatest joy, as Plato tells it, was hounding the bigwigs of Athens and forcing them to engage him in dialogue about the fields in which they are supposedly expert: a judge on justice, a general on courage, and so on. These sorts of highfalutin’ aristocrats, far removed from Socrates’ humble upbringing as the son of a sculptor and a midwife, were brought up believing they knew what they were doing. Socrates considered it his calling to show them they didn’t.
The clue: To someone like me (who majored in classics), this clue’s a walk in the park, but of course that makes me a terrible judge of how well-known this Socratic anecdote is. Still, the clue tells us the philosopher in question is Greek and wise. Certainly there are plenty of other wise Greek philosophers, but Socrates should be among the first that come to mind, especially for an $800 clue, where the writers aren’t likely to be going for someone too obscure, and especially for a clue like this one, spare on philosophical specifics.
In Jeopardy!: Socrates, unsurprisingly, appears in plenty of clues in the J!Archive – 82 and an FJ!, plus many more where he was given as an incorrect response. Like Confucius, he’s usually referred to as a teacher, philosopher, thinker, or something else along those lines, and Greece and Athens comes up a lot as well. More specific to him, though, are hemlock (28 clues), the poison that killed him after his trial; Plato (29), his student who wrote all the first-hand accounts of Socrates’ life that we have today; Aristotle (20), the student of Plato who owed much to his teacher’s teacher; and less commonly, his shrewish wife Xanthippe (8), described as a homely woman but with a rare wit able to match her husband’s. There’s plenty to know about when it comes to Socrates, and too much to go into here – I heartily recommend doing some reading.