One fine Athenian morning, Socrates, the wisest of men, sat warming his bones in his favourite spot in the old marketplace. Around him sat his students, fiercely arguing in the hope of impressing their teacher. Nothing made Socrates happier than listening to young people debate the issues of the day, so much so, in fact, that he didn’t even notice when one of the local farmers appeared in the square and came hurrying towards him.
“Oh, great Socrates,” cried the farmer, breathless as he fell at the old philosopher’s feet, “tell me what I should do! I’ve enjoyed a good harvest this year and have more than enough to feed my wife and children. However, the family across the street are going hungry. My wife says we should help them, but I worry we won’t then have enough to sell at market.”
Socrates, though startled by this appeal, thought only briefly before he nodded. “You have good reason to worry,” he said, his smile radiating the wisdom that would illuminate millennia, “but we are all stronger if we work together. The right thing to do would be to lend aid to your neighbour. One day it might be you who needs their help.”
It was a wise judgement and there was much muttering of agreement, especially from the favourite student of Socrates who was on a step near his master’s feet.
“Such immortal words, oh Teacher!” said Plato, who would later become the famous philosopher of the same name.
Socrates smiled, as though it was only a trifle to have solved this riddle so quickly.
“Only,” added the younger man, “are you quite sure?”
Socrates brows narrowed. “Am I sure? Why, of course, I’m sure! The very logic of my argument makes supreme sense. What reason would you have to doubt me, Plato?”
The young philosopher shrugged. “It’s just that I happen to have the latest polling data and 54% of people say they’d keep the food for themselves.”
“What is this nonsense?” cried Socrates. “54%?”
“Well now it’s gone up to 56%,” said Plato, looking down at his slate. “That’s a clear majority who believe it’s morally right to be selfish.”
The farmer looked pleased with the news, but Socrates just frowned. “What about the logic of human compassion? What about…”
“Oh, hang on!” said Plato. “The new Rasmussen is just out and… yes… selfishness has dipped to 48%. You were right all along, Master! Carry on!”
Socrates fixed Plato with a long hard stare before he turned to the farmer.
“As I was saying, men should be ruled by compassion and are strongest when they…”
“Me again with a quick update,” said Plato, chipping in. “News of our debate has now spread throughout the city and popular opinion has now leapt to a staggering 74% in favour of keeping the food for themselves.”
“Excellent,” said the farmer, clapping his hands together.
“Madness!” cried Socrates. “They would allow a family to starve when there’s food available?”
“Not only starve,” said Plato, “but 51% of people believe it’s only right to cross the street and slaughter the family in their sleep lest they decide to do the same to you in order to steal your food.”
“I’ll go get my axe,” said the farmer.
“I don’t believe this,” said Socrates, grabbing the farmer’s arm before the man could go commit an atrocity. “My friend, let me assure you. My student is wrong. There is no such thing as the wisdom of the crowd.”
“Don’t blame me,” replied Plato, sounding affronted. “As you know, I think you’re the wisest man to have ever lived…”
“Thank you,” said Socrates.
“… but I’m afraid that only three percent of people when surveyed listed you as the wisest person to have ever lived.”
“But that’s only three in every hundred,” replied Socrates, who was clearly no slouch when it came to arithmetic. “If I’m not the wisest person to have ever lived, then who do the people hold in higher esteem?”
“84% of people say the wisest person to have ever lived is… well… er… Kanye West.”
“Oh, he’s very wise,” agreed the farmer. “I would have gone to ask him but he’s so very popular. You just can’t get the tickets, you see…”
“Tickets?” cried Socrates, who was now pulling at his beard in frustration. “But I’ve never heard of this Kanye West!”
“He’s certainly an enigma,” explained Plato. “If you like that sort of thing…”
“I certainly like that sort of thing,” proclaimed the farmer. “I once heard him say the wisest thing. He said. ‘I think people think I like to think a lot. And I don’t. I do not like to think at all.’”
“That’s certainly a lot of thinking,” agreed Plato. “Clearly a disciple of Empedocles of Akragas. What say you, Master?”
Socrates gasped. “What do I say? I say I’m Socrates! Fabled from one end of the land to the other for my wisdom. And, since you ask, I do like thinking. I happen to love thinking! Thinking, you might say, is very much my thing…”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, master, twenty five percent of people now say that you’re the wisest person to have ever lived, though I think that’s largely a sympathy vote.”
“A sympathy vote? But what about reason? Logic? The force of arguments based on the observable universe?”
“All very persuasive,” said Plato, “but not half as good as a sympathy vote or, I should add, a famous wife.”
“Oh, Kanye’s wife is very famous,” agreed the farmer. “I wouldn’t complain is she asked me for a bushel of wheat…”
Plato and farmer sniggered but Socrates just sank deeper into his misery. “Why are the Gods are tormenting me, so?!”
“Let’s see, shall we?” answered Plato. “According to YouGov, 24% of Gods say they torment you ‘because they can’, 11% say they do it ‘to test you’, whilst 7% say it’s all down to your hubris, though you might also like to know that a surprising 64% of mortals don’t know what ‘hubris’ actually means and 3% think it’s a kind of brush…”
“I’ve had enough of this,” said Socrates, standing up. “If anybody needs me, I’ll be home oiling my beard.”
“So much wisdom!” said the farmer as the old man disappeared into the crowd. “Completely wrong, of course… Now let’s go and find that axe.”