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The Willfully Ignorant and Morally Detrimental: Socrates Vs Sophists

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The world as we know it is an overflowing plethora of information. The Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term tabula rasa to describe the human process of collecting information; meaning, we derive all information from our senses. With input from our senses, we form preconceptions about the world and how we interact with it. But, humanity is ignorant. Many of the things we believe about our world are false. This is due to discrepancies between our memory of an event and the actual happenings. But, all too often, people ignore evidence which proves them incorrect by reinterpreting the information so that it supports their stance. These people are examples of the willfully ignorant. Willful ignorance is defined as intentionally and blatantly ignoring the truth because it opposes your existing belief. Through repeated examples in their works, Jostein Gaarder and Plato prove that willful ignorance is morally detrimental.

Ignorance, in general, describes individuals who are lacking knowledge, information, and awareness. Everyone is ignorant of a particular subject. For example, Socrates was incredibly knowledgeable in the realm of philosophy, yet knew nothing about Greek ship-building methodology. The distinction between willful and unwilling ignorance is necessary when evaluating one’s intentions. Eliminating ignorance from an individual is impossible, yet small steps towards knowledge can have a significant impact.

The Apology by Plato is an account of Socrates’s defense of himself against false charges brought on by his accusers. Socrates was brought to the Court of Athens for the charges of corrupting the youth and impiety. Socrates begins his defense by condemning his reputation as a sophist; a paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric. Socrates counters this claim by identifying as a philosopher or teacher or wisdom. Socrates equates himself to a gadfly; meaning an individual who stimulates others through the questioning of their actions and beliefs.

Socrates believed that the work of Sophists was causing the corruption of youth, not philosophy. In his defense against corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates states that the Sophists “got hold of the many of you from childhood, and they accused me and persuaded you.” (Apology, 18B). This is precisely what makes Sophists the most dangerous of Socrates’s accusers. They are willfully trying to deceive children, the most vulnerable population of society.

Sophists use rhetoric as a persuasion technique to win arguments. Sophists are an example population of the willfully ignorant. Their arguments are typically littered with fallacies and misconceptions that are used to their advantage to triumph in rational discourse. Socrates believed that this form of ignorance is not only dishonest and immoral, but also self-deceptive.

Socrates’s resentment towards willful ignorance allows him to use the concept as a tool for enlightening others. Those who follow Socrates of their own accord are unwillingly ignorant. They strive for knowledge, understanding, and truth. In contrast, Sophists simply pretend to know, yet continue to know nothing. Socrates found this sort of self-deception morally reprehensible because of the knowledge and truth that it prevents that individual from achieving. Even worse, this self-deception tends to be a lasting state of mind rather than a temporary moral hiccup. This reasoning suggests that self-deception, is ultimately, morally detrimental.

Socrates’s philosophy also is demonstrated in full by the characters in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. The story follows Sophie Amundsen, a Norwegian teen, as she is introduced to philosophy by the elderly philosopher, Alberto Knox. Sophie begins receiving mysterious, unsigned letters from Knox, and eventually “enrolls” in his informal philosophy course. The weekly letters and postcards from Knox contain the basic teachings of philosophy, especially early Socratic works. Knox’s lessons are a mix of ancient philosophic teaching and commentary.

In a letter to Sophie, Knox outlines the importance of inquiry and doubt of the physical world. He introduces these philosophical concepts by stating that “philosophy had its origin in man’s sense of wonder” (Gaarder 15). Life itself is like a magic trick that we all observe in wonderment. A magician pulls a rabbit out of what seemed to be a top hat filled only with silk scarves. We do not understand how the trick is done, so we examine and question it. This concept, in essence, is what Alberto Knox sought to teach Sophie in his comparison of life with a magic trick.

As Knox’s argument progresses, he unpacks and explains the top hat metaphor to Sophie. Knox states that all humans are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s hair, where they are in a position to gaze and wonder about the majesty of the trick. Initially, the trick is exciting and puzzling for us. But, as mortals grow older and become accustomed to the ever-changing world around us, we slowly begin to slide deep into the rabbit’s fur. Once nestled into the fur, almost nobody returns to the tips of the hairs. The exception being philosophers and children. This metaphor was impactful on Sophie and her passion for knowledge and truth.

Shortly after reading Knox’s top hat metaphor, Sophie realized that she had been saved by the philosopher. She had already begun to burrow deep into the rabbit’s fur, but the philosopher had stopped her with his teachings. In choosing to accept Alberto Knox’s philosophy, Sophie rejected living in the triviality of everyday existence. Before taking Knox’s course, Sophie was a member of the unwillingly ignorant. She knew nothing, yet didn’t know that she knew nothing.

Much like the work of Socrates in Ancient Athens, Knox is acting as a gadfly to Sophie. Meaning, he questions Sophie’s actions and conclusions about life. Socrates perfected this ideology in his teachings, prodding Athenians to question the world. The highest function of philosophy is understanding the consequences of enlightening people.

In Plato’s Apology and Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, both Socrates and Alberto Knox are portrayed as gadflies and master philosophers. Socrates sought to save Athenians from the deception and ignorance of sophists. Knox enlightened Sophie to her ignorance of the world and philosophy. While the Athenian people chose to be willfully ignorant, Sophie, much like Socrates’s followers, embraced knowledge.

Sometimes people can be pulled out of their willful ignorance with intellectual prodding or the presentation of data. Sophie perfectly displays this notion in her repeated interactions with the philosopher. Ignorance is rooted in human nature, so not everyone can aspire to Sophie’s realization of knowledge. The Hoi Polloi, or general masses, by definition, are not enlightened people. If everyone was enlightened, nobody would be.

Be it through an individual or society, willful ignorance will always have its place in humanity. No human can possibly know everything, so we just pick and choose what to retain. We typically remember things that triumph our character and stroke our egos, while filtering out the negative. Blindness to our shortcomings is a natural human tendency. But, it is entirely within an individual’s capacity to right this imbalance and maintain an open mind. The rejection of this ability makes someone willfully ignorant and morally detrimental.

Works Cited

  • Alicke, Mark. “Willful Ignorance and Self-Deception.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 10 Sept. 2017,
  • Gaarder, Jostein. “Chapter 2.” Sophie’s World, Berkeley Books , 1991, p. 15.
  • Grube, G. M. A., translator. “18 b.” Apology, edited by John M Cooper, by Plato, Third ed., Hackett Pub. Co., 2000.
  • Mastin, Luke. “A Quick History of Philosophy.” The Basics of Philosophy, Luke Mastin, Jan. 2009,
  • Oppong, Thomas. “The Psychology of Willful Ignorance: Margaret Heffernan on Why We Ignore The Obvious.” Medium,, 12 May 2018,
  • “Philosophy.” The American Heritage College Dictionary, Edited by David A Jost, Third, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
  • Plato. The Trial and Death of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Death Scene from Plato. Edited by John M Cooper. Translated by G. M. A. Grube, Third ed., Hackett Pub. Co., 2000.
  • “Wisdom.” English Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2018,  

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The Willfully Ignorant And Morally Detrimental: Socrates Vs Sophists. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from
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