Truths from an ancient Greek maverick

Socrates was arguably the first philosopher, in the conventional sense of the word, in the history of intelligence. A stocky, bare footed man, he used to wander the streets of Athens, in his red robe, proclaiming his foolishness and engaging young men in interrogative conversations. His hope was that this dumbing down and constant questioning would lead the individual to their own realisations; this is what’s known as the Socratic Method and it’s wholly infuriating.

Imagine you have just met someone, they are older and appear to flaunt their age, and as such their wisdom like a new designer handbag. They are cocky, smug and incredibly sure of themselves. Yet they constantly play the fool and assert that they actually know nothing. They deny the existence of said designer handbag and despite constant, unending questioning (flaunting their ridiculous bag), which start with getting you to define certain complicated ideas like your own belief system and values, and then end with every detail of your answer being interrogated and analysed; they deny they have any intelligence at all. But we can see your handbag you’d be screaming!

A situation I found myself in recently that it is quite a good example of just how annoying the Socratic method could be was an occasion that I’m sure just about all of us have found ourselves in. The dreaded, ‘how do I look?’ question, ‘Do I look OK?’, ‘What do you think of this?’ or any other way in which you can ask somebody else to validate your own appearance. In short I hate it, but it’s one of these things that the social pressure to conform, leads me to nod favourably, “yea fine, you look great…nice.” God help you if you found yourself feeling insecure in front of someone who prefered the Socratic Method of inquiry. It would go down roughly like this:

“Do I look OK?”

“Can you first give me the definition of what OK is?”

“Erm… like normal.”

“And what is normal?”

“Just like everyone else.”

“Why do you want to look like everyone else?”

“Because it’s helpful to fit in and conform to the status quo.”

“And why is it of such importance for you to fit in and be part of the status quo?”

“Because that’s what everyone does?”

“Do they?

“Erm… well yeah, I think. Oh I don’t know, stop with the questions! I’m wearing this anyway…”

“Great!”

Socrates claimed he knew nothing but the limitations of his own transient knowledge. Ironically, this is what made him wise. “I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know” he protests. If you were to adopt this sort of attitude and seriously apply it to your work you would quickly find yourself lumped in the enigma camp, detached from society’s norms, like Socrates was. Think about it. Seriously, what do you actually know? And every time you walk that fuzzy line of truth/non truth you realise that you know very little if anything at all. My age? Well I’m 23. What about the 9 months in my mother’s womb though. Does that not count? What about the time before that when I was somewhere nestling in my father’s scrotum. Gross thought and not wholly correct but you get my point. We don’t even know how old we truly are and that’s something I thought I was cock sure about since I learnt to speak. For the purposes of society we need these guidelines, these rules, these strategies for navigating this complicate social life. But don’t let the trickery fool you into thinking you know anything about yourself or the world that surrounds you. You don’t.

At work, at school, in life, we learn and are in fact encouraged to pretend we know when we don’t, and if you don’t then you’re just not playing the game right. We take exams; have meeting, hold discussions, conversations, talk about ourselves like we’re somehow fixed. We’re not, and even today we can’t put an exact age on the earth, exact number on the amount of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way—let alone others; or speak with certainty about what goes on in the depths of even meager oceans a mere 4 kilometres deep.

“Are you not ashamed” Socrates would exclaim as people flaunted their obsessions with looks, materialism, spin and fame, over wisdom, truth and the improvement of the soul. The philosopher genuinely believed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Another pertinent belief he lived by was that one should never take revenge, ever. You only harm yourself and take away your own chance at a happy and virtuous life. After all, nobody can harm their own souls but themselves. Socrates gave total responsibility to the people. He made everyone their own free agents. No dogma, no religious belief required; although he was a pious man. In today’s world this sort of responsibility would manifest itself in people not blaming, getting angry at others or thinking that anything outside of themselves even had a remote influence on their behaviour or emotions. There would also not be this trend for over reliance on others for stimulation or distraction. We, and we alone choose to feel, act and think the way we do. Socrates ultimately empowered people to live a life closest to the truth of the individual, a life that was ethical, happy and full of virtue. The only real evil he believed was ignorance and this is as relevant topic today as it was two and a half thousand years ago.

Prejudice in all its manifest forms, sweeping judgements and clinging onto certain outmoded and stagnant beliefs are just not given any room in the philosophy that Socrates spoke of. All of these are born out of ignorance and this absolutely must, through the individual’s efforts of internal inquiry be removed.

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