Socrates is the father of western philosophy. He became famous for using a method of questioning to arrive at the truth of a statement, forever know as dialectic or the Socratic method. The method consists of challenging certain beliefs with alternatives that undermine the initial answer. The process eliminates shallow conclusions to arrive at a fundamental truth. I found that disease is a lot like Socrates. It eliminates superficial beliefs of justice, fairness and personal divinity by showing us our fragile finitude in a cosmos we couldn’t possibly understand.
Influenced by: Oracle at Delphi.
Was an influence on: Plato, Aristotle, Stoics and every subsequent philosopher.
469 – 399 bc
Born in Athens, Greece.
Socrates wrote nothing down, preferring oral dialogue. Most of what is known about Socrates is through Plato’s dialogues.
When the Oracle at Delphi said there was no one wiser than Socrates, he set out to prove her mistake by questioning the wisest in their fields. He discovered that the experts knew nothing at all. However, there was one main difference between Socrates and the other men; Socrates knew of his own ignorance while the other men weren’t aware of their ignorance. They were deluded by confusing a superficial belief about a topic for wisdom. Socrates’ awareness of his fundamental ignorance is why the Oracle pronounced him to be the wisest of men.
Revealing Athens’ elites lack of wisdom made him many enemies. He was sentenced to death on charges of impiety (not believing in the Gods) and corrupting the youth. Although Socrates had a chance for a lighter sentence, and later to escape, he chose to stay and face the charges. In 399 bc he died in his cell surrounded by friends by drinking a cup of hemlock.
He had a profound influence on Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, Stoics and every philosopher since. He broke away from previous philosophers’ preoccupation with cosmological issues to focus on the here and now and the best way to live. Socrates questioning method is called dialectic and is the method used by barristers in today’s legal courts.
To be honest, when I first read Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues I couldn’t stand the man. Like the Athenians that persecuted him, I thought him to be an arrogant, self-righteous sophist. After all, despite his claim to not know anything, he must have known something to know that the others didn’t. This has been called Socratic Irony. However, after re-reading and thinking deeply about Socrates’ role in Athenian society, he was (as he claimed) the Athenian gadfly, whose purpose was to awaken its citizens from their slumber. Socrates may have held certain viewpoints but knew his finitude and limitations, while others didn’t. Their claim to knowledge was faulty and unexamined; they held a belief with conviction without ever doubting or challenging its truth value. So, here I was being challenged on my beliefs about life by my very own Socrates: Motor Neuron Disease (ALS).
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, this website’s name is Socratic Life. The name is alluding to ALS being the Socrates that shattered my beliefs. A Socratic Life is a diseased (ALS) but philosophical life constantly bringing me down to Earth. However, any tragedy or serious chronic, disabling terminal disease is a Socrates. It appears out of nowhere and keeps chipping away at our shallow, self-serving views until there’s nothing left but a solid acceptance of truth. For me, ALS destroyed my belief in Cosmic fairness and individual power over fate. In the past, I saw misfortune, tragedy and malevolence befall my fellow humans on the news, in person or through rumour. But I lived in denial. I didn’t really believe it would happen to me. I believed my choices kept me safe from apparent random tragedy. To some extent, they do, but there’s a vast cosmic plan made up of an infinite number of variables that has our number predestined somewhat. Every action from everybody, every second creates an unknowable number of reactions, and counter-reactions in turn, and so on. We will never know why something happened, but there is a causal chain linking us to every past event and every future to come.
We are capable of very little in fact, and we know even less, but naively hope we’re immune from the inevitability of life’s tragedies. When Fate comes knocking with a sledgehammer, we cry in disbelief at the injustice. I definitely did—with the ‘premature and unfair’ death of my beloved cousin to leukemia, and one year later with my ‘premature and unfair’ diagnosis of ALS. I have no doubt I’ll cry again, screaming with rage at a disinterested sky. Our frustration stems from the realisation in our apparent impotence to alter fate.
Disease and death are the ultimate Socratic teachers. Like Socrates exposing our ignorance and guile, disease robs our bodies of beauty and function: two things we somehow believe we’re either responsible for or divinely gifted with. In reality, our lives are mostly a mix of luck and a cosmic random causality we have no possibility to ever understand. We are as oblivious to universal fate as the tide is to the gravitational pull of the moon. Yet, we invent or repeat beliefs about life for comfort, vanity or popularity without really examining their validity. Some of us don’t even know what we believe until we’re asked. Then, we may reply with an unexamined answer so as not to appear stupid by admitting we don’t know. Dismissing the importance in examining our beliefs is a mistake. Everything we do and everything we choose is dependent on our beliefs about the world. Those unexamined beliefs determine the course of our lives and our psychological relationship to death and suffering: the inevitability of existing.
For most of us, beliefs are like a half-read borrowed book we shelved years ago. We don’t remember the lender, the author or the content. The book’s place on the shelf makes us feel as knowledgeable as a half-formed, borrowed belief makes us feel wise. Both are lies. It’ll take a Socrates to expose our beliefs, and he’s always around the corner.
The following 12 questions get you to think about Socratic philosophy and how you can put it to use. Take your time and write down the answers if possible; you may want to look at them in the future to compare your understanding.
- Have you ever thought about what you believe?
- Do you hold any beliefs about existence? If so, what are they?
- From whom did you learn them?
- Have you examined your beliefs for validity?
- What views have you chosen on popularity?
- What views have you chosen from vanity?
- What views have you chosen for comfort?
- What tragedy in your past changed a core belief?
- If your core beliefs are true, would you be willing to die for them?
- What is the connection between your beliefs and how you live?
- Inevitably, what is the connection between your beliefs and how you die?
- Is examination of your beliefs too uncomfortable an endeavour?
- The life which is unexamined is not worth living.
- I myself know nothing, except just a little, enough to extract an argument from another man who is wise and to receive it fairly.
- The body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is also liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought.
- False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.
- Base men live to eat and drink, and good men eat and drink to live.
- It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.
- Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.
- The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.
- Anyone who holds a true opinion without understanding is like a blind man on the right road.
- We admitted that everything living is born of the dead. For if the soul existed before birth, and in coming to life and being born can be born only from death and dying, must she not after death continue to exist, since she has to be born again?
- The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die and you to live. Which is the better, only God knows.
- Socrates – Wikiquote. (2018). En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved 3 June 2018, from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Socrates
Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New edn. (reset). ed. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1946.