Dare to Think for Yourself – Socrates
Socrates (470 BCE- 399 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and the main source of Western thought. Little is known of his life except what was recorded by his students, including Plato. Socrates is why we still praise the power of reason in human affairs today, a power we praise more than we practice.
The question that every Greek sage before Socrates wanted to answer was “What is real about reality?” What is the stuff from which everything in the world is made? Socrates started with a different question: “What am I? Who is the self, that is observing?” Socrates concluded that he is not the physical body, but psyche- that part of human being which survives death, and is an original home of intellectual faculties. Socrates notion of the individual rational soul would became an integral part of Western thinking for the next two thousands years. From every angle- historical, philosophical, religious and cultural, the soul of Socrates is the starting point for everything to come. He is recognized for inventing the teaching practice, wherein a teacher questions a student in a manner that draws out the correct response.
Socrates always emphasized the importance of the mind over the relative unimportance of the human body. This credo inspired Plato’s philosophy of dividing reality into two separate realms, the world of the senses and the world of ideas, declaring that the latter was the important one. Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. He pointed out that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness. Ultimate wisdom comes from knowing oneself. The more a person knows, the greater his or her ability to reason and make choices that will bring true happiness.
For Socrates, to be human, is to have a soul. Yes, Socrates said, the world is one of constant change and flux, that’s the visible world around us. In Socrates’ and Plato’s terms it’s the world of Becoming. But there is also a realm of permanence, a higher reality that we grasp not through our senses, but through our reason alone. This is the world of Being, which is divine, the realm of the pure and everlasting, immortal and changeless. Our soul serves as the essential bridge between these two worlds. On one side of the bridge, lies a world of error and illusion, and the other, wisdom and truth.
The metaphor of the cave explains how this works. In his work the Republic, Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall, and those shadows are the only reality they perceive. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave. He or she comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he or she can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. Socrates instructs that those who have ascended to this highest level, must not remain there, but must return to the cave and dwell with the prisoners, sharing in their labors and honors.
“Imagine”, Socrates says, “that everyone inside the cave had been born there and had been forced to watch the puppet show since birth without being allowed to take their eyes off the screen.” “If they were able to talk to one another”, Socrates asks his listeners, “would they not assume that the shadows they saw were the real things and the whole truth?” “Then think what would happen to them if they were released of their bonds and cured of their delusions,” he says. If they were told that what they used to see was so much empty nonsense and that they can now see more clearly, would they immediately affirm the truth or would they return with relief to the shadows as their familiar reality?
According to Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ provocative life in Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone were wiser than Socrates. The Oracle responded that no-one was wiser. Socrates believed the Oracle’s response was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens, statesmen, poets, and artisans, in order to refute the Oracle’s pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded: while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. He showed that the people of Athens, like people everywhere, were confused about their own values and virtues. Socrates has revealed generals who could not define courage, good friends who could not define friendship, religious man who could not define compassion, and political experts who could not define justice. Even those who were paid to teach some lofty matters, turned out to have no clearer idea of what constituted true wisdom than ordinary citizens. He said that the world we live in is created by our unwillingness to see things as they really truly are.
An idea is the blueprint of creation. – GM Brana
Socrates was compassionate and shrewd. He realized the Oracle was correct. While so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Socrates paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role until the end at his trial. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison. His closest students knew that the charge had been politically motivated, that he was the innocent victim of a vendetta. They knew that Socrates real crime had been daring to think for himself and convincing others to do the same.
Based on Socrates, everything that exists in the world we see, taste, feel and hear is only an imperfect copy or reflection of a much higher reality, a realm of perfect standards of all the virtues including health, strength, beauty, and absolute goodness and justice for all. This is the essence of true nature of everything. It’s interesting how many religious and scientific principles derived from Socrates’ teachings. Still today, we have similar challenges, breaking free from dogmas and cults, such as “the world of shadows” described by Plato, is sometimes frowned upon. GM Brana’s main task is to enable her students to think for themselves, and to develop both, their critical thinking and intuition. People often confuse spirituality with a lack of reason, and yet the higher reality consists of ideas, which became thoughts and can be accessed only by our mind.
Quotes of Socrates
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
“The highest realms of thought are impossible to reach without first attaining an understanding of compassion.”
“To find yourself, think for yourself.”
“The mind is everything; what you think you become.”
“When you want wisdom and insight as badly as you want to breathe, it is then you shall have it.”
“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
“It is better to change an opinion than to persist in a wrong one.”
“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”
“Living well and beautifully and justly are all one thing.”
“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
“True philosophers make dying their profession.”
“Those who are hardest to love need it the most.”
“Is it true; is it kind, or is it necessary?”
“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”
“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”
“I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.” Steve Jobs in Newsweek (29 October 2001)
“It was the first and most striking characteristic of Socrates never to become heated in discourse, never to utter an injurious or insulting word—on the contrary, he persistently bore insult from others and thus put an end to the fray.” Epictetus, Golden Sayings of Epictetus #64
“Socrates acknowledged that he knew nothing in relation to absolute wisdom, which is infinite; and because of infinite, much is the same part as is little, and as is nothing (for to arrive… to the infinite number, it is all one to accumulate thousands, tens, or ciphers,) therefore Socrates well perceived his wisdom to be nothing, in comparison of the infinite knowledge which he wanted. But yet, because there is some knowledge found amongst men, and this not equally shared to all, Socrates might have a greater share thereof than others, and therefore verified the answer of the Oracle.” Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) as quoted in the Salusbury translation, The Systeme of the World: in Four Dialogues (1661) p.85
Reference: The Cave And The Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, And The Struggle For The Soul Of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman.