Amathia. It is often translated as “ignorance,” as in the following two famous quotes from Socrates:
“Wisdom alone, is the good for man, ignorance the only evil” (Euthydemus 281d)
“There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance” (in Diogenes Laertius, II.31)
But just as in the case of other ancient Greek words (like “eudaimonia,” about which I will write later this week) the common translation hardly does the job, and indeed often leads people to misunderstand the concept and quickly dismiss it as “obviously” false, or even incoherent.
This topic comes up often in discussions of Stoicism, since the Stoics adopted Socrates’ view that “evil” is the result of “ignorance.” This, rather naturally, strikes most people as simply ludicrous. Of course people do evil in a calculated manner, and being educated is no guarantee at all against being a crook or worse, as plenty of historical and contemporary examples seem to show. I mean, seriously, can anyone maintain that the Nazi were just ignorant of what they were doing to the Jews?
Yes, if instead of “ignorant” one uses the proper Greek term, amathia. I’ll get back to the Nazi in a bit, but first let me give you a better idea of what amathia means and how it is properly used. A good article about this, aptly entitled “Ignorance vs. Stupidity,” has been penned by Sherwood Belangia, a philosophy teacher at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, GA. I’m going to quote extensively from it.
Belangia begins by transcribing a conversation (from Plato’s Alcibiades Major) between Socrates and his friend Alcibiades, an Athenian general and politician with, shall we say, a more than checkered record, from an ethical point of view:
Socrates: “But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant (ἀγνοεῖς) of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?”
Alcibiades: “I am afraid so.”
Socrates: “Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.”
The two Greek words in parentheses are ignorance (agnoia) and stupidity (amathia), though even “stupidity” really doesn’t do the job, as it will soon be clear.
Alcibiades was one of the most educated — in the normal sense of the word — of the Athenians, and he was obviously intelligent, again in the normal sense. So neither the English word “ignorance” nor “stupidity” really describe what Socrates is getting at. Instead, Alcibiades is unwise: he “dashes into politics” without the proper “education,” meaning without the sort of wisdom that comes from being virtuous (another tricky word, to which also I will turn in more depth later this week).
The contrast with Pericles is particularly illuminating: Pericles was famous for being not just educated and smart, but also wise. That is what made him a good politician, and that is what — tragically, as it turns out — was missing in Alcibiades. Amathia, then, can best be thought of as lack of wisdom, i.e. the opposite of sophia.
Belangia helpfully adds: “A-gnoia means literally ‘not-knowing’; a-mathia means literally ‘not-learning.’ In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. … Robert Musii in an essay called On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called ‘an honorable kind’ due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called ‘intelligent stupidity.'”
Belangia also quotes Glenn Hughes, from an essay entitled “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans,” providing a further elucidation of the concept of amathia (italics in the original):
“The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right … The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. … [S]ince the ‘higher stupidity’ consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings … We may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure.”
I uncovered another interesting essay that also helps get clear on amathia. D.R. Khashaba wrote a piece entitled “The Euthyphro as a Philosophical Work,” which makes for an interesting reading on that most famous Platonic dialogue (see my two part essay on it). Toward the end of it, however, Khashaba gets to amathia:
“Socrates’ life-mission was to combat amathia (‘ignorance’) by helping his interlocutors examine themselves. Amathia, the evil of which the Socratic elenchus rids the soul, is not lack of knowledge: in its milder variety, it is obscure and confused thought; in its more pernicious variety, it is ‘disknowledge’ instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs.”
This is the best definition of amathia that I was able to find so far, so it’s worth highlighting it:
Amathia = ‘disknowledge’ instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs.
Back to the Nazi, arguably the quintessentially difficult example for the Socratic / Stoic idea that people commit evil out of “ignorance.”
You may be familiar with philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous description of what most Nazi bureaucrats did as the “banality of evil.” She was criticized for that phrase in a manner similar to the criticism Stoics get whenever they use the English translation of amathia, and the parallel is indicative and instructive.
Here is the last interview given by Arendt, from which I will quote a few selected bits that are very pertinent to our discussion (boldface is mine, the interview is also found in the book Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview And Other Conversations):
“During the war, Ernst Jünger came across some peasants and a farmer had taken in Russian prisoners of war straight from the camps, and naturally they were completely starving — you know how Russian prisoners of war were treated here. And he says to Jünger, ‘Well, they’re subhuman, just like cattle — look how they devour food like cattle.’ Jünger comments on this story, ‘It’s sometimes as if the German people were being possessed by the Devil.’ And he didn’t mean anything ‘demonic’ by that. You see, there’s something outrageously stupid [dumm = ignorant, unwise] about this story. I mean the story is stupid, so to speak. The man doesn’t see that this is just what starving people do, right? And anyone would behave like that. But there’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [Dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting]. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it [the ignorance] — nothing demonic! There’s simply the reluctance ever to imagine what the other person is experiencing, correct?”
I suggest, not just to my fellow Stoics, but to anyone interested in ethics and the human condition, that we should resurrect the word “amathia,” just like we have resurrected “eudaimonia,” because it is a crucial concept for which — interestingly — there is no adequate English translation, or comparable concept in the English language.
This problem caused by the conceptual richness and nuance of ancient Greek is not at all new. Cicero, in De Finibus, has Cato explain it:
“(III. 3) the Stoics, as you are aware, affect an exceedingly subtle style of argument; and if the Greeks find it so, still more must we, who have actually to create a vocabulary, and to invent new terms to convey new ideas … (III.4) even artisans would be unable to preserve the tradition of their crafts if they did not make use of words unknown to us though familiar to themselves … All the more is the philosopher compelled to do likewise; for philosophy is the Science of Life, and cannot treat its subject in language taken from the street.”
Indeed, let us use the proper language when we discuss philosophy, and let us include amathia as one of the most important concepts we have to meaningfully talk about ethics and how to live a eudaimonic life.
Acknowledgments. Many thanks to my CUNY-City College colleague Nick Pappas for confirming that the crucial word I was after is indeed amathia. I am also indebted to my friend Amy Daken Valladares for providing me with the translations from German of the quoted excerpts from the last interview given by Hannah Arendt.
Categories: Virtue Ethics