As Carl Sagan famously once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Human knowing is similarly self-contradictory—if each human begins their knowledge “from scratch,” from where does knowledge originate? Plato’s dialogue Meno, Thucydides’ groundbreaking historical account, The Peloponnesian War, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew answer this question indirectly, but uniquely. While at first glance seeming disparate texts from two millennia ago, with deeper analysis, their similarities in “ways of knowing“ become clear. In the face of an endlessly-subjective reality, both Plato and Thucydides utilize grounded evidence and logical fact to reach conclusions about reality. Meanwhile, the Gospel relies on faith over evidence to know things.
In Plato’s recounting of a 402 BCE dialogue between Socrates and the aristocrat Meno, there is an overwhelming focus on Socrates’ way of knowing by self-evident proof resulting from step-by-step reasoning. With Meno, he reasons through the concept of “being good.” To Socrates, information is only valid when it comes from direct evidence. He places extreme—and exclusive, it seems—trust in logic. One cannot take any assumption for granted, he implies, but instead must discover every piece of information for themselves through logical process. His “Socratic method,” oral in natural (he was suspicious of writing, especially due to the tendency to forget what is written), features each line building upon the last, a process of compound induction. “…After remembering just one thing – most people call it ‘learning’ – to go on and figure out everything else…‘finding out things’ and ‘learning’ are entirely a matter of remembering,” he explains (Meno 102). Though his seeming preparedness for the conversation could lead readers to believe he thought through the problems discussed beforehand, from the reader’s perspective, he seems to make conclusions exclusively through facts established by the dialogue. His knowing is wholly inductive and originates in the reality before his eyes.
In a similar fashion to Socrates, Thucydides attempts to catalog truth based on evidence. Believing the events of the war he personally witnessed to be of lasting importance, for the first time in human history, Thucydides attempted to archive them with accuracy. (Considering the current reading of his text over two millennia later, history proved his theory correct.) Over several hundred pages, he chronicles the intra-Greek Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE). He spends the majority of its pages stepping through each event and character in detail, providing future readers with a trustworthy account. But twenty paragraphs into the significant volume, he breaks from his retelling of the war to describe his process in collecting this history, suddenly distilling and clarifying his philosophy. “All men show the same uncritical acceptance of the oral traditions handed on to them…” he states (Thucydides 11). Listing various apparently-commonplace incorrect beliefs, he says, “This shows how little trouble most people take in their search for the truth—they happily resort to ready-made opinions.” While previous “history” remembered an exaggerated highlight reel as song or poetry, he finds this deeply offensive to reality. “It may be that the lack of a romantic element in my history will make it less of a pleasure to the ear: but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those who will want to have a clear understanding of what happened…” (12). His primary way of knowing relies on historical fact, gathered from many sources and synthesized as accurately as possible. He simultaneously incorporates relevant personal experiences. Describing the plague in Athens, he mixes in his own eyewitness (though considering he notes many survivors of the plague lost their memories, his may not be infallible). But readers are inclined to trust these accounts as well, due to the rest of the text seeming so objective—though are reminded there is no competitive alternative to his stories, only a lack of other surviving written evidence. By contrast to Plato’s text, there is some element of faith—answers to questions posed to the oracle are presented as just as valid as the real history. However, tucked into a lasting compendium of historical knowledge-gathering, the element of faith is a small element.
By contrast, The Gospel According to St. Matthew presents unclear boundaries in knowing—instead of a clear-cut basis in hard evidence, knowledge instead exists on the premise of faith. Where is the line between knowable fact and faithful experience when miracles only exist for the faithful, for example? Even examining a small section of the Gospel, the way of knowing is clearly not evidence, traditional fact, or logic. The description of “the birth and infancy of Jesus” at the very start cannot be analyzed objectively, removed from faith. The Bible describes how “an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home with you to be your wife. If is through the Holy Spirit that she has conceived’” (Revised English Bible, Matt. 1.20–21). What are readers to make of this through a lens of scientific fact? Later events we have no reason not to believe, but evidence of a similar miracle of human conception remains undocumented since. Hence, the way of knowing is based not on self-evident proof, but relies on an inseparable element of faith. Jesus’ frequent declarations cannot be proven or disproven, only believed.
The analysis of knowing relies on sometimes-misty concepts. But one division draws itself clearly: knowing based on solid evidence versus knowing by belief and assumption. In these texts, the delineation is apparent, with Socrates reasoning through the problem of human goodness and Thucydides reasoning through the facts of the war, while the Gospel chronicles a knowing clearly rooted in faith. Human knowing fills the vague gradient stretching between, and ultimately, we are left to understand it for ourselves.