What You Don't Know

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

"Every person you meet knows something that you don't know."

That was one of my grandfather's favorite adages.

He died when I was quite young, so I don't remember him well. I remember his appearance, his book-lined study, his beloved pipe, and the top left drawer of his desk that always had a fresh bag of M&Ms candy in it. I also remember the tree that I liked to climb in his front yard. That's about all.

But my grandfather's adage reflected millennia of human wisdom.

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496-406 BCE) wrote about Antigone, whose brother had been killed in battle. In the play, the king declares her brother a traitor and orders that his body be left unburied.

Antigone defies the decree and buries her brother as required by moral law. She knows that she'll probably be executed, but she faces her fate calmly, confident in the justice of what she has done.

As expected, the king orders her put to death. His son Haemon then tells him what no one else dares to say:

"‘No other woman’,
So they are saying, ‘so undeservedly
Has been condemned for such a glorious deed.
When her own brother had been slain in battle
She would not let his body lie unburied
To be devoured by dogs or birds of prey.
Is not this worthy of a crown of gold?’
Such is the muttering that spreads everywhere."

The king doesn't want to back down. He thinks that changing his mind would show weakness.

But -- getting back to my grandfather's adage -- Haemon argues that open-mindedness isn't weakness:

"The man who thinks that he alone is wise, that he
Is best in speech or counsel, such a man
Brought to the proof is found but emptiness."

He concludes:

"There is no disgrace, even if one is wise,
In learning more, and knowing when to yield."

The American President Franklin Roosevelt had a group of advisors called his "brain trust."

If we're wise enough to listen to each other, consider opposing viewpoints, and work together, then we don't need to be elected president to have a brain trust.

Then, the whole world becomes our brain trust.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."