Euphron: Why is it, Socrates, that so many of our young, and even we ourselves, know so little, when we are being taught so much?
Socrates: The truth is that most citizens know much more than they are aware of
Euphron: How can that be, when there are prizes for displaying knowledge, which are forfeited time and again? If, as you say, people know more than what the competitions show, then why are they holding back?
Socrates: Because we do not teach them about inequalities.
Euphron: Indeed we do not teach them that! We are bent on showing that equality must be our guiding principle, and that inequality is to be eradicated at all levels. Is it not true that all citizens of Athens are equal?
Socrates: It certainly is. But are five not more than three?
Euphron: Five are more than three.
Socrates: Then that is an inequality. Is it not also true that five are less than eight?
Euphron: It certainly is.
Socrates: And can we then not say that we know with certainty the magnitude of five?
Euphron: We can.
Socrates: Thus by way of using the concept of inequality, recognizing that while we may not know much about an entity, we often know with certainty that it is more than one thing and less than another.
Euphron: Quite so, but this is not what the young have a problem with.
Socrates: I think that it is. But give me an example of where they failed in an examination.
Euphron: They were asked, for example, how fast an eagle could fly. They invariably could not answer that question.
Socrates: What did their teachers say?
Euphron: They praised the students, for they said that it is more honest to admit not knowing than it is to pretend to know something you do not in fact know. You yourself have admitted that you know nothing!
Socrates: Quite so, but I will tell you that in this case the teachers are either fools or crafty misleaders, and thus should not teach these students.
Euphron: Why is that so, Socrates?
Socrates: Because the teachers know with certainty how fast an eagle can fly.
Euphron: They say not.
Socrates: Even the most ignorant among them knows that the eagle can fly faster than a snail can crawl and not as fast as an arrow leaving the bow.
Euphron: Quite so. But is that not small knowledge?
Socrates: Most assuredly. But is not small knowledge, if it is certain, better than no knowledge at all?
Euphron: I am obliged to admit that you are correct. However, I fail to see how any of this is of practical use.
Socrates: Well, would not some of the boys who hear their teacher state this inequality immediately say that the eagle also flies faster than a man can walk?
Euphron: Nearly all boys would say that.
Socrates: And is it thus not true that the exactitude of knowledge has been increased?
Euphron: It is true.
Socrates: Consequently, if the boy who reasons thus is asked how long it might take for an eagle to fly from Sparta to Athens, he could say with certainty that the eagle could do so in less than five days time.
Socrates: And is this not better than to acknowledge not knowing?
Euphron: To be sure. But for practical purposes it is not enough.
Socrates: I fully agree with that observation. However, we may well assume that the boy who recognizes that he knows some small thing with certainty, would pursue the subject and empirically or rationally, as we have done, narrow the limits of the inequality. As he proceeds in this way, he will arrive ever more closely at the truth, whatever it may be.
Euphron: Some boys would.
Socrates: Yes. And, given that the teachers would dwell on inequalities, more boys would than given that teachers dwell instead on equalities.
Socrates: Moreover, does not the mindless statement “I don’t know” close the door to anything but hoping for, and accepting when given, a professed certainty? Such as the statement “An eagle can fly to Sparta in four hours?”
Euphron: I am beginning to see what you are driving at. You are saying that a boy who has not been taught inequalities will think that he does not know how long it takes to move an army from here to there, and thus despair of ever becoming a general, because a general must know how long it takes to move an army from here to there.
Socrates: Exactly so.
Euphron: And, more generally, the man who thinks he does not know many things which, in however small a way, he does know, becomes a less constructive member of the agora.
Socrates: You are right.
Euphron: But surely not all men should want to become generals.
Socrates: Probably not. But we know for certain that not all men will become generals because gifts of the Gods other than knowledge are required for a man to achieve this honor. Suppose that you wanted to suppress in the young a striving for higher things. What is it then that you would teach these men?
Euphron: That facts about nature are unknown, even approximately, and that only perfect knowledge, or perfection, is permissible. We must teach them only about equality and we must teach them to fear even to talk about inequality.
Socrates: Yes. And what would you say about teachers who teach that to all their charges, and the public officials who coerce them to adhere to that doctrine?
Euphron: I would know that they are either ignorant (and thus should not teach), or they are malevolent (and thus should not teach).
Socrates: I will drink to that.