There is little we know about the man who calls himself Socrates. And even fewer would have heard of him save those who have chosen to study Philosophy. But such a course of study is not required to understand Socrates anymore than how trying to understand antibiotics does not necessitate a lifetime of medical training. Though what we know of the man is limited to whatever writing we could preserve from his students, some of his profound insights are more important than ever, especially in this modern era where our attention is repeatedly being pulled in many directions.
A short backstory of Socrates is in order. He was famously sentenced to death by having to drink a mixture containing poison hemlock for the crime of challenging and discomfiting the general populace of Athens. He had taken it upon himself to challenge their views in many issues related to ethics and politics, and incited in them uncertainty about their state of life, often with the intention of hoping to improve their understanding further. But minds change slowly, if at all, with denial as the first phase, and anger being the next outcome. His actions only incurred the ire of the elites, and Socrates was soon to meet his doom.
Chief among Socrates’ concern was why his contemporaries were like dozing cattle, who at the end of their lives, would gaze up, look around sleepily, not knowing who they were, and why they did what they did, or what the entirety of their life was about. In modern climes, we are not too different. There are so many distractions on hand that it’s difficult to not be connected to something. Our phone goes off repeatedly, and our fingers fire off messages rapidly; photos and selfies become our personal stage of admiration; and advertisements, trashy news as well as Netflix / cable dominate our mind in whatever free time we have. What do we really know about ourselves, and if we were busy keeping the ball rolling, what is the ball, and why should it be kept going?
For Socrates, what was important wasn’t our careers or material gains. These can change. What is important is who we are, and who we are trying to become. Is it time to move on and remove some people from our lives, or do we naturally wait for the atrophy to set in, or should we take a stand? What influences do we exert on others, and what influences us greatly? Are certain people in our lives as important as we think they are? How do they change us for better or worse? Are we really understanding someone, or something as clearly we need to? Sometimes, the answers are gated behind our present lack of wisdom or emotions. Sometimes, answers can only be found through loss or gain. Whatever they are, Socrates’ thesis is that the only true goal in life and the key to genuine success is to make yourself as good as possible, and thus Socrates states that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
In a world where the influx of information is disproportionately imbalanced against the scope of critical thinking we receive, (when was the last time anyone challenged us on our religious beliefs or personal views, or even taught us to think this way?) we need to think more clearly to ourselves. Is a certain political view we hold justifiable against all the knowledge we can muster up, or should we, perhaps at last, learn to give up our dreams, and hold fast to the sails with our own two hands? Universally, as far back as I could remember, almost everyone I knew as a student always detested writing reflections. It was uncomfortable to really break down your perceptions and morality of the world, but perhaps as Socrates puts it, it’s a necessary practice because it isn’t about the world. It’s about you and what sort of person you will become, and who or what should be an instrument to that.
And finally, Socrates believed that a good person cannot be harmed by others. If you are truly who you are, real, complete and fully realised, no one can corrupt or damage you from the outside. It is therefore not in the nature of a bad person to be able to harm someone inherently good. While good and evil are two dichotomies that will forever struggle to find their precise bearings, there are perhaps, with enough knowledge, hard work and logical thought, just enough ground to be found for wrong and right to be defined with sufficient clarity. If we allow ourselves to be like driftwood, for the wind to pull us one way, and the stream to carry us off another way, we would forever be vulnerable to the harm and effects produced by others.
On the other hand, we can and we should choose to be the captain of our sailboat. Through rudder and sails, we derive as best as we can from our reflections and experiences, to set new sights and directions. We cannot avoid the winds of society, nor can we not respond to the billowing of social and moral mores BUT we should make the winds serve our larger aims and purposes. We should be in control. And so, with enough self-knowledge, awareness and reflective thinking, we obtain the wisdom to care for the best parts of ourselves, and that imbues us, frees us, and sets us up from the exertions of others, thus allowing us to be self-fulfilled.
And so, while Socrates did get some things wrong, his remaining insights are profoundly relevant and more importantly, secular, without any religious appeal. How, who, what, and in which way, have you directed yourself?
So, have you thought about (HYTA) how Socrates’ advice is more necessary than ever?