Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 469/470 BCE to 399 BCE. He is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in Western philosophy and is known for his contributions to the field of ethics and his method of inquiry, now known as the Socratic method.
Socrates was born in Athens and is said to have worked as a stonemason before becoming a philosopher. He did not write any philosophical texts himself, but his ideas and teachings have been passed down through the writings of his students, most notably Plato and Xenophon.
I’ve always wondered why he never wrote down his teaching. Perhaps he wrote things down, which have been lost to history. Considering his importance as a historical figure, I believe this to be unlikely because if he had written something, someone else would surely have written an analysis or at least have mentioned it in another book.
So, perhaps it is that Socrates did not believe that the written word was a suitable medium for transmitting wisdom. If you understand his methods, he likely believed that true knowledge and understanding came through engaging in dialogue with the world, facing reality, and constantly questioning your own beliefs and assumptions. Socrates may have been sceptical of the written word itself. In ancient Greece, writing was a relatively new and rare skill, and there were concerns that it could lead to the erosion of memory and oral traditions. Socrates may have believed that writing was not a reliable means of preserving knowledge and that it could lead to a loss of wisdom and understanding over time.
Socrates was known for his outspokenness and his refusal to compromise his principles, even in the face of death. He was eventually put on trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, found guilty, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.
Socrates had a chance to escape from jail and to Thessaly, where his friend Crito had arranged for him to live in exile.
However, Socrates chose not to escape from jail when he had the chance because he believed it would be morally wrong. In his view, to escape from jail would have been a violation of the law and an act of disobedience to the state, which he believed had the right to impose laws and punishments on its citizens. This is the ultimate “disagree and commit” strategy!
Furthermore, Socrates believed that accepting the punishment of death was the right thing to do, even if it meant sacrificing his own life. He believed that by accepting his punishment, he would uphold the principles of justice and morality and set an example for others to follow.
In his final conversation with his friends before his execution, as recorded in Plato’s “Phaedo,” Socrates explains that death is not something to be feared but rather something that should be welcomed as a release from the limitations of the physical body and a pathway to a higher state of being.
Socrates’s death is seen as a symbol of his commitment to the pursuit of truth and his refusal to compromise his principles, even in the face of persecution.
I find that the most important tool that Socrates left modernity is his method of inquiry, which we now call Socratic Questioning. It involves asking a series of questions to clarify and challenge beliefs and assumptions. Socratic questioning aims to encourage critical thinking and self-reflection in the person being questioned.
He believed that by examining our beliefs and opinions, we could discover the truth and become better people. Socrates believed knowledge was the key to living a good life, and he encouraged his students to question everything and strive for self-improvement.
One of the most famous quotes from Socrates about knowledge is “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” This perfectly sums up the never-ending quest for knowledge, and as we dive deeper into a subject, we realise that we know less and less of the overall picture.
The beginner knows a little, but thinks they know most of what there is to know.
The expert knows a lot, but understands that even this is just a small percentage of the knowledge available.
Socratic questioning is often quite humbling and requires the ability to look at your own viewpoint in a truly objective manner. Sometimes, you may realise that you do not know much about some of the most basic concepts you have been carrying with you your entire life.
Overall, Socratic Questioning is meant to help individuals focus on the following:
- The importance of self-knowledge: Socrates believed that true wisdom and knowledge come from understanding oneself. He encouraged individuals to question their beliefs and assumptions and to self-reflect and self-examine.
- The pursuit of truth: Socrates believed that the pursuit of truth was the key to living a good life. He encouraged individuals to question everything and to strive for a deeper understanding of the world around them.
- The value of critical thinking: Socrates believed critical thinking was essential for arriving at the truth. He developed a unique method of questioning, now known as the Socratic method, that encourages individuals to think deeply about their beliefs and to consider alternative viewpoints.
- The rejection of dogma: Socrates rejected the notion that a single, absolute truth can be known or understood. Instead, he believed that truth was subjective and that individuals must continually question their beliefs and assumptions to understand reality better.
- The importance of ethics: Socrates believed living a good life required knowledge, understanding, and ethical behaviour. He believed that individuals should strive to live according to a set of moral principles and values, such as honesty, courage, and justice.
These key concepts have profoundly influenced Western philosophy and intellectual thought and continue to inspire individuals to engage in critical thinking and self-reflection and to pursue truth and ethical behaviour in all aspects of their lives.
These are some examples of questions that you can use in any discussion to bring the conversation closer to the style of Socratic questioning:
- What is your evidence for that claim?
- How does that fit with what we already know?
- What are some alternative explanations or viewpoints we should consider?
- How do you define the key terms in your argument?
- What assumptions are you making about this situation?
- How might someone who disagrees with you see this issue?
- Can you give me an example of what you are talking about?
- What would be the consequences if your argument were true?
- How would you respond to someone who disagrees with your argument?
- How can we test your argument to see if it is true or valid?
My personal favourite and one that I use on myself and others all the time is:
What evidence would you need to change your mind?
This is an example of using our brains to consider a counterfactual scenario. By asking this question, we invite ourselves or others to imagine a situation in which their current beliefs or assumptions might be proven false and to consider what evidence or arguments would be required to convince them to change their minds.
It helps us challenge our assumptions and biases and encourages us to consider alternative perspectives and possibilities. It also helps to emphasize the importance of evidence and reasoning in supporting our beliefs and arguments rather than simply relying on intuition or personal conviction.
However, what is saddening is how nowadays (or perhaps it was always…), even thinking through some counterfactuals is very much taboo. It makes people feel uncomfortable, and just by thinking through certain scenarios, it may make people feel as if they are empathising with points of view that they abhor.
There is a famous quote, often attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
I find it interesting to consider these questions and try to be open-minded about things. For instance, there is a certain amount of evidence that would convince me to believe in God and the Islamic faith. Likewise, there is, hypothetically, a certain amount of evidence that could be unearthed that would convince me that Hitler was a good man and completely misunderstood, did not want WW2, and did not murder millions of Jewish people.
Now, of course, I don’t believe that right now, but I can imagine a world where evidence would come to light where I would change my mind, but it is uncomfortable even typing these words. This is what I mean about taboo, but I think it is important that we can use counterfactual scenarios to review what would have to be true for our minds to change. We can then weigh up the likelihood of the counterfactual scenario being true, and then decide if we investigate further or mark that as a crackpot theory.
One interesting point is that Socrates believed that truth was subject. I disagree with this as I believe there is objective truth, but then I realised I did not quite understand what he meant.
Socrates had a more nuanced view of truth. Socrates believed truth was subjective because individuals can only ever approach it through their own experiences and perspectives. He believed that each person has a unique perspective on the world and that this perspective shapes their understanding of truth.
For Socrates, pursuing truth was not about discovering a single, objective truth that exists independently of individual perspectives. Rather, it was about continually questioning one’s own beliefs and assumptions to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world.
While objective truth may be elusive, pursuing truth is a valuable and worthwhile endeavour that can lead to personal growth and enlightenment.
We all view the world through the prism of our histories, biases, and even brain chemistry. We cannot help that, at least initially. Critical thinking is what allows us to overcome this and allow us to examine our own beliefs from multiple perspectives.
However, Socrates believed that truth could never be completely objective or absolute. Rather, he believed that truth was always approached through individual subjectivity and that each person’s understanding of truth would be shaped by their unique experiences and perspectives.
This view of truth as subjective had important implications for Socrates’ philosophical approach. Instead of seeking to discover a single, objective truth, Socrates was more concerned with encouraging individuals to question their beliefs and assumptions and engage in critical self-reflection.
For Socrates, pursuing truth was not just a matter of arriving at a correct answer or belief. It was also about developing a deeper understanding of oneself and the world around us, and recognizing the limitations of our own perspectives and knowledge.
This can help us overcome dogma — beliefs or principles that are accepted without question or critical examination.