Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers in history, and at the same time, he thought he was not wise at all. He spoke in an understandable language, was inquisitive, eager for knowledge, and held firmly to his principles. Although he lived nearly 2,500 years ago, we can still learn much from his words. Let’s talk today about a man who is an inspiration to me in many areas of life.
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PHILOSOPHY FOR THE GENTLEMAN
Through the pandemic, our daily lives have been severely altered. Social life has noticeably slowed down, if not died down, and image issues are no longer our priorities. At least as much as it was before. However, we should use this space constructively, deepening our knowledge and broadening our horizons. That is why in the nearest future we are going to put a stronger emphasis on spiritual matters. And it is difficult to find better inspiration than the attitudes of one of the greatest thinkers in history. It is worth getting to know Socrates’ beliefs because they are surprisingly close to the ideal of a man of class. Of course, we will find some differences and I will also mention them.
Socrates enchanted me already during my studies. He captivated me with his accessible train of thought and interesting views. He was one of the first great thinkers (ca. 470 BC – 399 BC), a master of Plato, and a philosopher to whom all later philosophers had to relate in some way. He was indefatigable in proving to people that they knew nothing, with which he made numerous enemies. Athens finally couldn’t stand the pressure and old Socrates was sentenced to death. Interestingly enough, he did not defend himself much, but I will talk about why this was so in a moment.
1 – HUMILITY
One of Socrates’ most famous and important thoughts is expressed in the popular phrase “I know that I know nothing”. The philosopher tried to teach humility by proving to his interlocutors that although they think of themselves as omniscient, they actually know very little. However, for Socrates, ignorance itself was not a problem. The awareness of the lack of knowledge could lead to its search and love. This is what was supposed to characterize philosophers and wiser people in general.
Socrates, on the other hand, severely criticized the ignorance of ignorance. He used to say: “only fools are never wrong”. For he knew that the wiser someone is, the better he knows how much he still has to learn. Remember: “The wisest is he who knows what he does not know” and strive to learn so that you can ask more and more complex questions. The following warning may also come in handy: “Beware of people who are sure they are right.
A gentleman should not elevate himself above others and consider himself superior. He can quickly run into someone who will show him where he belongs. I think we should always keep in the back of our minds the idea that even in a field we know well, we don’t know everything. And we should be open to new knowledge and, above all, humble.
2 – HAVING A DISCUSSION
The Dialogues of Socrates, which Plato wrote down, are the primary source of knowledge about his philosophy. They are also a great school of discussion. The Athenian perfectly played the role of a simple man thirsty for knowledge and drew into conversation people who were willing to instruct him. In the course of the debate, he lulled his companion into silence by seemingly agreeing with his theses, but with additional questions, he drove them to absurdity. Finally, he forced the interlocutor to admit that he really knew nothing. He used to say: “Empty bags puff up the wind, thoughtless people – vanity. In this way, he tried to make people self-critical.
On the other hand, he talked to people who were eager for knowledge but did not have it. He used simple words and general questions so that the interlocutor himself could deduce the essence of more complex things. In a way, he led his companion by the hand, allowing knowledge to be “born” by itself. The truth behind this knowledge could no longer be refuted. He said: “I know how to listen to no one and nothing but the argument which, after deliberation, seems to be the most appropriate”.
Both methods are very impressive because of the simplicity of their arguments and their logical thinking. Socrates does not exalt himself (after all, he believes that he himself also knows nothing) and conducts the discussion at most on the level of the interlocutor. Admittedly, he sometimes exaggerated, by rubbing his interlocutors’ noses in it. Nowadays, a gentleman should be more careful not to turn others against himself. Except, of course, for arrogant types who deserve to be brought down to earth. In any case, it is worth taking inspiration from these dialogues.
3 – THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE
Socrates pursued knowledge, but it was not just art for art’s sake for him. He believed that behind knowledge is truth, and behind the truth is goodness and virtue (gr. areté). Without knowledge, one cannot do good or be happy. Evil, on the other hand, is committed either unconsciously or due to a lack of knowledge. He used to say, “Man is never evil voluntarily.” It is worth looking at knowledge as a factor that helps us to act rightly. This is probably a sufficient reason to strive for it and deepen it. It is worth remembering Socrates’ warning: “A thoughtless life is not worth living.”
Note that empathy is one of the ways in which we learn about human relationships. By empathizing with the situation and the motives of the other party, you can better assess the situation and respond appropriately.
It is also extremely interesting how the Philosopher recommended pursuing knowledge. Namely, he urged us to do what he loved to do, which was to talk. He believed that we learn the most from other people, or at least while engaging in dialogue with them. Through discussion and questioning, knowledge is attained most quickly. He said: “I will not be taught anything by flowers or trees, but only by the other person.” Openness to others and not forming an opinion about them based only on one’s own thoughts is a very valuable feature. Unfortunately, it is in short supply today. Or maybe it has always been so?
Discussion is also a great way to get to know oneself. Sometimes a person will not ask himself a difficult question, and in a conversation, it is quite possible, so you can get to know your reaction. Socrates believed that truth is in people. That’s why he helped it to be “born” in conversations with others, and why he advised his students to talk, to let their knowledge come to the surface. Admittedly, I don’t believe that the truth is in us, but confronting another and having discussions greatly accelerates the process of forming a worldview. It’s worth taking advantage of!
4 – GOODNESS AND VIRTUES
Several thoughts were associated with the above point. First of all, the belief that a person can learn to live a virtuous, or as the Greeks called it: brave life. Which meant that he could be a good person and a righteous citizen by deepening his knowledge and pursuing the truth. It’s a bit like my belief that anyone can be a true gentleman, they just have to want to strive for that attitude. However, both Socrates and I will have opponents who believe that such qualities cannot be acquired, but must be born with them.
Second, Socrates criticized the pursuit of such goals as material wealth, fame, or power. In his view, nothing is more important than the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and thus goodness. Instead, the rest comes on its own along with the truth. For only good things are truly useful, not the other way around. It is exactly the same in aspiring to the ideal of the gentleman. All the surroundings associated with it come with the development of the right character, not the other way around.
He also had one very pertinent piece of advice concerning truth: “In all your life honor the truth so that your words are more trustworthy than the pledges of others.” Every gentleman should remember this.
5 – EXERCISING WILLPOWER
Before I started reading the dialogues in college, I read one synthesis of Socrates’ teachings about how he exercised control over his body. He impressed me tremendously. The philosopher believed that the body limits us. He used to say: “If one of us wants to know something in a pure way, one must free oneself from the body and see reality with the soul alone” and “One cannot give in and succumb to the desires and lusts of the body, but one should always act according to reason, which is the best advisor”.
This is why Socrates on hot days wanting to drink water from a well, and remember this is hot Greece, would first pull out one bucket which he slowly poured under his feet. He drank only from the other. In this way, he was trying to control his thirst and not throw himself greedily into the water.
We should not necessarily do the same, but it is sometimes worth checking to what extent our desires control us and to what extent we have control over them. If it turns out that we do not have enough control, we should think about working on this element. Whoever, but a gentleman should control himself, at least to a good degree.
6 – TAKING CARE OF YOUR OWN COUNTRY
Another trait of Socrates that caught my attention was that he was disastrous to himself. The Athenian harassed the people in charge of politics and power with his questions and inquiries. In his mind, he was showing them how little they knew and how much learning still lay ahead. However, in their eyes he simply ridiculed them, and as we know, people in power do not like that.
Some say that Socrates was attacking Athenian democracy, but I would rather agree with Popper’s view that he was actually criticizing it in order to fix it. At his trial, he said: “…you won’t easily find another one who would, dare I say, like a bittern let loose from the hand of a god, sit on the city’s neck; it is like a great and thoroughbred horse, but so big that it languishes and needs some sting to wake it up.”
Socrates’ methods and the answer to the question of how edifying this criticism was may be debatable. However, any effort to improve one’s state, rather than simply lowering one’s head and following the voice of the crowd, is worthy of emulation. I personally also find it difficult to judge Socrates’ avoidance of political activity. As a wise man, he could have done a lot of good. I myself do not know if he judged correctly that it would have been disastrous for him and the city would not have benefited more.
7 – NO FEAR OF DEATH
Socrates did not follow the voice of the crowd, which made him a group of strong enemies. In the end, he was put on trial for spoiling the youth and for impiety towards the Greek gods. This trial is described in one of the most important works on the Philosopher: “The Defence of Socrates” written by Plato, and I strongly encourage you to start your exploration of his thought with this very booklet. You can even find it online, for example at the Free Readings portal (I recommend supporting such institutions, by the way).
Socrates faced the dangerous accusations with his head held high. At first, he tried to defend himself with his own methods, but seeing that these did not work, he did not adopt the classic methods of the accused – sobbing, cajoling, pleading, etc. Although they did not want to make a martyr out of him and there was a good chance he would have kept his life, Socrates mocked the court and ultimately chose death.
Did he want to prove something in this way? To become a hero? Rather not. Socrates believed in knowledge, and since he did not know what was after death he could not logically fear it. He said: “To fear death is the same as to think oneself wise without being so.” Socrates chose to live according to his convictions and did not conform to the will of the court imposed on him. For us, he became a symbol of tenacity, but also a symbol of specifically understood reason. To us, reason would probably tell us to run away from death, because we do not know what comes after it. Reason would have told him that there is no reason to run away because we do not know what comes after death.
More importantly, the Philosopher believed that in life, bravery, or a kind of decency, dictates that one should do good things without considering the risk of private consequences. He put the good of the community above his own. In the past, in war, he stood in battle array, as a hoplite, and did not flee for fear of his own life. So, too, in court, believing he was doing nothing wrong, he did not renounce his stance for the same reason.
Socrates died from drinking poison (hemlock) in 399 BC. I think he did not regret his life, in which he repeatedly showed that he could stand up to lawlessness. He was often alone in his struggle, but even if he eventually died, he became an inspiration to many people. So it cannot be said that he died in vain. It is a shame that such courageous people are born so rarely.