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  • Writer's pictureShannon Lantzy

Wisdom from the Ancients

ChatGPT's rendering of Socrates talking to a contemporary
DALL-E's rendering of Socrates talking to a contemporary

I recently picked up The Oldest Book in the World by Bill Manley based on a WSJ review and nostalgia for my undergraduate days in the philosophy department. It is a translation of ancient Egyptian philosophy, predating Socrates and Aristotle. The introduction is preceded by a quote from a conversation between Socrates and his contemporary, who chides Socrates for making up stories from Egypt.

I was blown away by the applicability of Socrates’ words to today’s work, especially in relation to regulating technology and artificial intelligence. (No doubt, this is why the author chose the quote…I guess it is hard to find relevance for a widespread audience.)

Takeaways from the quote:

  1. Beware of bias: the producer of technology should not be the evaluator of the same technology

  2. Benefits versus risks: The seemingly positive benefits of innovation could actually have the opposite effects

  3. Different effects for different users: New technology could make many people more ignorant, and others more capable

In Socrates’ time, the technology was writing. Today it is “artificial intelligence.” In both cases, the technology encodes knowledge. I am tickled by the similarity of this quote to debates about today’s new tech. What a fun read.

~Shannon, the Optimistic Optimizer


Here’s the quote in its entirety:

SOCRATES: They say that Thumos told Thoth many things- which would take too long to go through - praising or criticizing each technology. When they reached letters, Thoth said 'King, this is the discovery that will make Egyptians wiser and improve their memories. I have discovered the drug for thinking and wisdom.'

However, he said 'Ingenious Thoth, one person should invent technologies, then another assess whether they are helpful or harmful to their users. Now, you, father of letters- your favouritism has made you describe the effects of them as the opposite of what they are. Actually, this discovery will make the minds of those who learn it careless and not practice thinking for themselves precisely because they put their trust in writing -which comes from outside and the opinions of others -rather than reflecting within themselves and by themselves.

"You have not found a drug for thinking but for quoting. You have provided your students with the appearance of wisdom, not the real thing, because they will have read lots without learning, and they will feel educated when essentially they are ignorant. They will also be tough to put up with because they will end up smug rather than wise.'

PHAEDRUS: O, Socrates, you are too quick to make up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want!!

PHARDRUS, sections 274-5, Plato, c. 360 BC



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