One crucial word

Hannah Arendt
Hanna Arendt

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.

25 thoughts on “One crucial word

  1. I think the use of Hannah Arendt here was spot-on. The misuse and controversy over “banal” reflects the same issues. I also am curious about what relation there is between amathia and hamartia.


  2. Hi Massimo,

    I have personally lived this problem by growing up as a ‘white’ person in South Africa, accepting the status quo by and large. Fortunately, due to my circumstances, I was not totally blind to what was going on:

    ‘Non-whites’ (blacks, coloreds, malays, indians, chinese but not japanese) were accorded little or no dignity, could not live where they wanted in their country, could not aspire to do anything but menial work as defined by law and were afforded little education in grossly underfunded schools. Families were torn asunder and communities callously ‘relocated’. Brutal law enforcement created a stable system that worked very well for the fortunate few.

    The supporters of this system were persuaded by the easy life: better paying jobs were reserved for them. Services were cheap, ‘everyone’ had gardeners, household workers and babysitters, etc., etc.

    I do remember the incessant telling of racist jokes at social occasions. By humiliating and diminishing the oppressed it seemed that the ‘whites’ were trying to convince themselves that their beliefs were correct and that the system was justified. As everyone laughed, all were reassured. Churches did their part by preaching that apartheid was consistent with god’s will. (Surprisingly, I found vestiges of these attitudes when I settled in the US.)

    Hannah Arendt’s reference to the banality of evil has therefore long resonated with me. The vast majority of those racist white south africans that I came into contact with during my youth were ‘good’ people: educated, talented, successful, they loved their children, were kind and generous, worked hard, contributed to the community. They were just blind to the evil that was being perpetrated on their behalf.

    So, I am not sure that sophia or scientia are the cure for moral blindness either. Hannah Arendt’s good friend Heidegger accommodated the nazis to further his career. Althusser and Sartre supported the stalinist soviet union till the end.

    It seems to me that the germs of good and evil reside within each one of us where they can be activated by circumstances. Each community and generation will have to struggle with these powerful internal forces.


  3. Brock,

    Good question. I checked with a couple of ancient philosophy scholars who are colleagues of mine, and they assured me that the Socratic term is amathia, not hamartia.

    That said, there is a similarity.mhere is (in part) what Wikipedia says about the latter:

    “In tragedy, hamartia is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from their good fortune to bad. What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or sin. The spectrum of meanings has invited debate among critics and scholars, and different interpretations among dramatists”


  4. Massimo, this may be a silly question, but what happened to the word evil? Why do we need a new word? What more does it say and how does it improve on the established word.


  5. Liam,
    Churches did their part by preaching that apartheid was consistent with god’s will.

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu(Anglican Church) and Archbishop Dennis Hurley(Catholic Church) were at the forefront of the resistance to Apartheid. Tutu received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work and had Hurley lived longer he would certainly have shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Tutu.

    There was a small but vocal white opposition that fought vigorously against Apartheid. We did so at huge risk to ourselves. Some of our compatriots died and I was personally targeted(more as a kind of warning off since I played such a trivial and insignificant role).

    Broad brush portrayals like yours are not useful. Were you here now you would see the worst fears of the white minority on the path to realisation. I don’t defend the Apartheid regime and indeed I opposed it at risk to myself but the truth is considerably more complex and nuanced than the way you portray it.

    The real victory was not a military one. I did my active service in the bush and saw that for myself. The victory was a moral one, led by churchmen such as Tutu and Hurley. They destroyed the moral certainty of the regime until their determination to resist crumbled. Even that is a simplification but I think we should not hijack this thread.


  6. Liam,

    “I am not sure that sophia or scientia are the cure for moral blindness either. Hannah Arendt’s good friend Heidegger accommodated the nazis to further his career. Althusser and Sartre supported the stalinist soviet union till the end.”

    But Socrates sacrificed his life for what he believed in. I don’t think scientia is going to do it, because that’s knowledge of the type one gets from the natural sciences. As for sophia, it does it by definition, since amathia is lack of sophia. The crucial question is whether sophia can be taught, a question that both Socrates and the Stoics debated. I believe it can, but not by formal philosophical training. As one of the authors I mentioned wrote, it almost requires a spiritual conversion. Or the development of a good character.


    “what happened to the word evil? Why do we need a new word?”

    Well, to begin with I actually don’t think the word “evil” is particularly useful, especially if intended as a metaphysical category. If it is intended as descriptive — as in Arendt’s “the banality of” then it’s fine, but it is not explanatory. I find amathia a good concept because it provides an account of why otherwise intelligent, educated people commit acts of evil.

    “Broad brush portrayals like yours are not useful”

    You may be uncharitable to Liam. The two of you have actually lived through apartheid, so I can only comment as someone who has read history. But if it is the case that a majority of religious authorities were complicit in it, then Liam has a point, regardless of the existence of worthy exceptions to the general rule.


    “was agnoia, amathia, or both characteristic of George W. Bush?”

    I think both, though mostly agnoia. Cheney, on the other hand…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo,
    it was not my intent to be uncharitable but that really was a broad brush portrayal that concealed important facts. For example, the South African Council of Churches was a real thorn in the side of the National Party.

    It is hard to know what a majority is but the churches played a large and significant role in the opposition to Apartheid. Liam made no mention of this and portrayed the churches as uniformly supporting Apartheid(there was no qualification in his statement). That is simply untrue and this needs to be said. Some churches(the Afrikaner Churches) did, to a large extent(and their enduring shame), support Apartheid and I presume that was what Liam meant. Even so, within the Afrikaner churches there was opposition and Beyers Naude was a good example of this.

    I also think Liam’s understanding of the motivation of the whites similarly lacks nuance and context but to go down that rabbit hole would take us far from the central point of your post.


  8. Dear Massimo: this is ‘amathia’ INCULTURA: traduce il sostantivo ἀμαθία (‘amathìa’). Com’è noto, per Epitteto la sola incultura di vero rilievo è l’ignoranza della diairesi (q.v.), ossia l’ignoranza della fondamentale azione proairetica che consiste nel riconoscere la natura delle cose e nel distinguere ciò ch’è in nostro esclusivo potere e ciò che non lo è.
    I,11,14; II,1,16; II,3,5

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  9. It seems than that amathia is a central feature of ideology, since ideology works by shutting down certain components of normal cognition, resulting in an artificial stupidity. The human mind is, in a way, universal. One of its capacities is to destroy this its own universality, leading to ideology in the realm of politics and to kitsch in the realm of arts (and the two are closely linked). Ideology could be defined as an as-if-construction that pretends not to be an as-if-construction. It pretends to itself to be true reality. In order to do so, part of our rationality has to be shut down. The knowledge that our knowlede is necessarily incomplete is shut down. The nazis are a prime example, and we can currently observe other examples in different parts of the world.
    If you think of somebody like Alcibiades (or Hitler), i.e power-people, it looks like amathia may not only a lack of something, a passive property, but an activity, a form of violence.
    It is interesting that this concept, although occurring in Plato’s writings, is absent from modern languages like English and German.

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  10. Massimo,

    This article brings me to the relationship between map (set of beliefs about reality) and territory (objective reality).

    It seems that amathia results from a failure in the updating process of the map. There is a disregard of the territory in favor of a map that is considered already perfect. For some reason, the person believes he already knows enough, and so despises new information, or even actively resists it when perceived as a threat to his status quo. I think stupidity (and amathia) are atitudes (in the psychological sense). One puts a value in his map, which is higher than the value he puts in the territory itself. The more he values his map, more dogmatic is his thinking, and more prone to failure is his judgement. When incorherences appear, gross irrationality is required to keep the map intact.

    I believe the use of the map-territory relation is useful to further exploration of amathia (and stupidity too).

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  11. It would make sense that amathia (ἀμαθία) would mean “unlearned” since it comes from the verb learn/understand (μανθάνω) and that this could imply either willful ignorance or accidental. Without context, such connotations are difficult to discern so I appreciate the reference to Alcibiades. He is an especially notorious figure in Athenian history because he had everything going for him but instead became a traitor.

    Btw, hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is an entirely different word that means “mistake.” I have seen it also used in the sense of “transgression” and, in the New Testament, it’s translated as “sin.”

    Since we’re reviving ancient notions, what are we to make of eudaimonia, which would mean “well spirited”?

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  12. Hi Massimo,

    “I don’t think scientia is going to do it, because that’s knowledge of the type one gets from the natural sciences.”

    If scientia is knowledge about the world, including knowledge about ourselves, then I would say that it is very important in the campaign against amathia, for two reasons.

    (i) Cultures are riven with false beliefs about basic things. Clearing these up would be a virtuous blow against ignorance and prejudice.

    (ii) Understanding ourselves and others better should help wisdom seekers come up with better formulations. Understanding our motivations and fears, our similarities and differences would be helpful when considering the structure of our communities for example.

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  13. I agree with nannnus that ‘amathia is a central feature of ideology’.

    To give one example: maybe the most important news this week is Oxfam report about absurd levels of inequality (see for example Guardian: and key importance of tax havens to enable it.

    So my thesis would be, maybe we need to redefine what is ethical: the first criterion would be, will mu action contribute to decrease the level of inequality in the world.

    The second example(s): ‘Should college be free?’ (today’s NyTimes Room for Debate), what about universal health care?, maternal leave, ‘War on drugs’, etc.

    My second thesis is, that the only ‘virtuous’ presidential candidate is Sanders and anyone not seeing this suffers a non-negligible degree of amathia 🙂 (argumentation on request)

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  14. Massimo, Thank you for this post, it has really stimulated my mind.
    I was wondering today, do the Stoics always refer to “sophia” when they talk about wisdom? Or are there other ancient Greek words for different types of wisdom that they (or Socrates) intended in specific situations? For instance, now that we know about amathia, is there a use in the literature of “mathia” as a type of wisdom?

    Also, according to Socrates in Euthydemus, a person is wise if:
    1. S/he acts rightly and succeeds (…that’s a tall order!)
    2. S/he uses “a thing” in the right way

    In your opinion, are these necessary and sufficient conditions for wisdom?
    Are there any other necessary and sufficient conditions for wisdom? (like Becker’s “fully rational agent,” for instance?) It looks to me like the ability to know “right” from “wrong” is implied–is this a condition for wisdom?


  15. Hi Massimo,

    You inspired me to scratch around a little more in Google and my trusty old Compact OED. There wasn’t much except for the archaic english word mathesis – Mental discipline; learning or science, esp. mathematical science; directly from the Greek meaning action of learning, from base of manthanein learn. The word mathematics also shares the base of manthanein. This suggests to me that we are talking about a more structured and disciplined form of learning, perhaps of a conscious kind, open and honest. Hence Socrates maxim know thyself.

    Perhaps scientia is related to sophia through mathesis. Amathia would be the antithesis leading to ‘disknowledge’, confusion and possibly evil.

    Of course, English does have a history of corrupting itself. In 1742 Pope wrote “Mad mathesis alone was unconfin’d, Too mad for mere material chains to bind.” No amount of vigilance can prevent this kind of dissipation.


  16. Hi Labnut,

    “it was not my intent to be uncharitable but that really was a broad brush portrayal that concealed important facts.”

    My intent was to recount my personal experiences as a young man in South Africa and how I perceived ‘banality of evil’ (amathia) in action.

    I left SA more than 20 years before the end of apartheid, but kept an eye from a distance. I am sure some churches made a valuable contribution in the struggle, yet it seemed to me what really got the attention of the Nationalists was the exclusion of SA from international sport. Rugby and cricket meant a lot more than religion. International political and economic pressure was also crucial. I remember an aging Bertrand Russell leading the fight, addressing thousands in Trafalgar Square, in front of the SA embassy. That was mathesis!

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  17. vienna,

    “I was wondering today, do the Stoics always refer to “sophia” when they talk about wisdom?”

    As far as I know, yes, but I need to check with people who actually read ancient Greek.

    “In your opinion, are these necessary and sufficient conditions for wisdom?”

    Hmm, good question. I think the most commonly accepted concept of wisdom is the ability to understand things and act appropriately. “Succeeding,” if taken literally, is too tall an order, as you point out. But I think the idea is that the wise person is, generally, effective, meaning that he can navigate the world in practice, not just theory. That’s certainly the meaning you get from Epictetus.

    “Becker’s “fully rational agent,” for instance?”

    Becker talks about maximization of agency, but I think that’s in the context of virtue, i.e., arete. See my new essay today.

    “It looks to me like the ability to know “right” from “wrong” is implied–is this a condition for wisdom?”

    Yes, the ability to discriminate right from wrong (or better from worse) is part of what it means to me wise.


    “This suggests to me that we are talking about a more structured and disciplined form of learning, perhaps of a conscious kind, open and honest. Hence Socrates maxim know thyself. Perhaps scientia is related to sophia through mathesis. Amathia would be the antithesis leading to ‘disknowledge’, confusion and possibly evil.”

    Interesting, thanks for digging further! My take is that scientia is knowledge of the type one gets from the natural sciences, which — especially for the Stoics — is certainly necessary for wisdom, hence their connection between physics and ethics. But I also think the point of amathia is that the knowledge one gets through standard education is insufficient for wisdom, which explains why some “educated” and intelligent persons are not wise, or even incur in amathia.

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