Socrates Knew that He Didn’t Know

Looking Forward to Occupying Studio Eidolons Later Today

Reason indeed demands unity, but Nature demands multiplicity, and both systems of legislation lay claim to man’s obedience.

Friedrich Schiller,, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Fourth Letter

I recall how flummoxed we all felt sitting in a doctoral seminar years ago when Professor W. D. Davies held up a monograph that all of us had read and deeply admired for its scholarly erudition. The professor said: “The conclusions are so clear and simple that I cannot bring myself to accept them. Nothing is simple.” A few years later, while taking a walk, another dear friend and mentor, Dr. L. Robert Stevens mused: “In a world so complex, I am convinced that it is far easier to be wrong than right.”

Now, reading Schiller’s maxim above, the words of these reflective men re-visit me forty years later. Something in our nature compels us to make sense of our complicated surroundings, and then our simplifications become canonical to us. The reason I am pondering this matter is because I have started out this New Year convinced that if I am to continue to grow in my watercolor pursuits, then I must adopt the perspective of the curious, inquisitive student in the laboratory rather than the seasoned teacher in the classroom. Being now retired, I am happy not to be called upon daily to set forth propositions that I thought were churned out by boards and committees to satisfy testing standards. I found little satisfaction over the years knowing that if I simply put numbers in the spreadsheets for grades by deadline, that I had done my job satisfactorily. Believing that educational quality could not be quantified, I remained bothered that students’ successes would depend on the damned numbers more than thoughtful letters of recommendation.

What is on my mind this morning is this: I will soon be teaching on Watercolor Wednesdays again in Arlington, Texas. And my method will be to line up steps for students to follow as they attempt to paint selected compositions in a three-hour period. I have never had a problem with that. My problem is the suspicion that I am following my own steps, convinced that the pattern is adequate for its particular subject. I don’t want to do that any longer. The next painting I pursue, once I am back in my own studio (today is a travel day–at least six hours on the road before home is reached once again), I intend to tackle a familiar subject but to try and paint it as if it were my first attempt. When I taught phenomenology, I told my students that epoché was the suspension of judgment, one’s willingness to put preconceived notions back on the shelf in order to approach a subject with more openness.

Schiller argued that nature represented multiplicity while our reasoning faculties demanded simplicity. As a teacher, I always understood the necessity of breaking complicated issues down to simpler steps for students to absorb. But I also tried to urge them that the issues were always more complex than the way we presented them. So also in making art–we approach the complexity with simpler steps, but must always admit that more is required if Quality is to be approached. So . . . in the future when I teach, I’ll try to urge my participants to stretch beyond the steps I present, to dare to explore, to stretch, to expand the possibilities.

The story is told that Socrates, when questioned whether or not he was the wisest in the land, answered this way (I paraphrase): I did not consider myself the wisest, so I went about seeking counsel from others considered wiser. When I asked about issues I did not understand, I listened to their answers and soon concluded that they didn’t know either. However, they were convinced that they did in fact know. So, I suppose that alone makes me the wisest in the land; I know that I don’t know, whereas they continue not to know that they don’t know. To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowledge.

Beginning this New Year, I acknowledge that I know less about making art than I thought I knew in the past. With that mindset, I am ready to explore and learn. I’m excited to find out what can be discovered in the days ahead, and grateful I still have the ability to pursue this passion.

Thanks for reading, and please follow your bliss in this New Year stretched out before you.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Back Home Soon

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2 Responses to “Socrates Knew that He Didn’t Know”

  1. sienablue Says:

    It must be something in the air. I am an amateur at all things art and I am starting the year in a very experimental mode, giving myself permission to waste paint and paper trying new approaches to color and value.

    Liked by 1 person

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