The examined life
A version of this article was first published: Odysssey - January 2012
There is a Kudelka cartoon on the fridge: a scene between Socrates and an interlocutor. It is called Socratic Tea Ceremony and the dialogue goes like this:
Socrates: What is tea?
Interlocutor: It’s the stuff in the pot.
Socrates: How do you know it’s in the pot?
Interlocutor: Just pour the bloody tea, Socrates!
This exchange always elicits a bellowing laugh from me and from my philosophy-curious partner. No matter how many times we read the cartoon, there on the fridge door, we roar the final line in unison and then fall about laughing. Lately, however, there are times when I sneak up to the fridge and frown at the cartoon. I’ve begun to see the dark side of the joke; the dark side of Socrates. In this cartoon, I see a Socrates who is unable to participate in normal social activities. Socrates—for all the questioning that made him famous—is unable to simply sit back, pour and enjoy the tea. What sort of a life is that?
You might say that, of course, this is the celebrated ‘examined life’ that Socrates told us was the only kind of life worth living. Because of Socrates, we are encouraged, even expected, to question everything. It is this mental and social process (for it all happens in conversation with others) that leads us to a level of knowledge and a quality of life that cannot be achieved without it. This quest for the ultimate truth, which Socrates knew was there, but never presumed he had acquired it, was so important, that Socrates gave his life for it. But, again, what sort of a life was his, anyway—this life of uncertainty?
I make an urgent call to Vrasidas Karalis who is the much-adored Associate Professor at Sydney University’s Modern Greek department. I know he will understand my Socratic doubt. All I have to say to him is, ‘So, Socrates?’ And Karalis responds: ‘Now the thing about Socrates, Kathryn, well, you have to understand, it is all about the arrogance of the intellectual.’
Karalis tells me three odd things about Socrates. First, that Socrates ended up ‘more cut off from society, separate from the consent of society;’ Second, that Socrates essentially constructed a ‘social system that excluded rather than included.’ And third, that he set the foundation for ‘the creation of a super advanced individual in isolation.’
But isn’t Socrates the jovial, chubby, and chatty citizen of the world? Isn’t he the man who walked the walk and talked the talk? The man who was forever in the Agora engaging and enraging everyone and anyone with his discourse? The wondrous father of modern philosophy, no less! Karalis is cautious: ‘Look, Socrates was no saint. He wasn’t the devil either. He was something in between.’
I remember a recent Socratic moment with my partner. Question after question after question, I was trying to get us to the bottom of an ethical dilemma. At one point, he paused, leaned in to me head on and said: ‘Pour the bloody tea, Kathryn!’ Yes, Karalis said, ‘the deeper you try to define concepts, the more dangerous things become. Socrates knew this. Socrates discovered what was true by sacrificing who he was. He withdrew into the world of ideas. Now that is a dark place. In one of the early dialogues, there is a choice. By choosing to have knowledge one knows that there could be bad consequences.’
Karalis is right. Socrates’ quest—especially in the politically volatile Athens of the time—was a dangerous one. After a while, Socrates could not just pour the tea. He drank a measure of conium instead.
And it was at that moment that I realised just how Socratic my life had been. I’d started this questioning compulsion very young, before I’d ever heard of Socrates. Back then, it was the constant ‘But why?’ to everything anyone said. Later, philosophy—not just via Socrates, but all the others too—helped me articulate my questions more accurately, sometimes rhetorically. I’ve been asking questions for as long as I have used language to communicate. And what has come of it all? After all of this questioning, I am still uncertain, about everything.
Clearly, then, there is one more important question to ask. This time, however, I will have to ask Socrates himself:
Kathryn: Has my life been worth living?
Socrates: You tell me.
Kathryn: I’m not sure I even know what ‘worth living’ means.
Socrates: Well, that’s a start. We would have to examine the terms. I’m not sure, either. I just don’t know.
Kathryn: Socrates, how can you teach us anything, if you know nothing?
Socrates: I’m surprised you haven’t asked Edward Spence to answer this question. He’s one of the most Socratic philosophers about. What is he up to these days, anyway?
Kathryn: Dr Edward Spence is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University. And, yes, I have asked him.
Socrates: And what did the wise Ed say?
Kathryn: Dr Spence says that you, Socrates, are wise and that the wise show humility. He says that ‘you can always tell a fool because their arrogance is only slightly bigger than their ignorance.’ According to him, your ‘ignorance’ is part of your elenchus, your knowledge or awareness of your own ignorance. Once you are aware of your ignorance you are motivated to acquire the knowledge you lack. Dr Spence says that ‘an arrogant person who assumes they know that which they don’t will remain ignorant simply because they are not aware of their ignorance.’
Socrates: What Ed says rings true—they will never be motivated to seek knowledge. You see, my elenchus is my ignorance; my ignorance introduces aporia—or doubt—which, in turn, as Ed probably explained to you with these exact words, leads me on the path to towards the acquisition of knowledge and then, finally, wisdom.
Kathryn: Yeah. The Socratic Method, as we’ve come to call it. You know, Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, described your method as ‘the greatest achievement of humanity’. Why do you think that is?
Socrates: Well, Kathryn, I believe it is because it makes philosophical inquiry something that all people can do. You know what Cicero once said of me? He said I brought philosophy down from the skies! It just seems a good way to go about things: you don’t need to remain loyal to any specific philosophical theory, technique or even vocabulary.
Kathryn: Yes, as Christopher Phillips, the author of Socrates Café and founder of the Socrates Café movement, says, all you need is ‘common sense and common speech.’ Phillips says that this is precisely the way it should be, because how a person should live is every person’s business. Socrates, what do you think about the worldwide phenomenon of the Socrates Café movement? Curious people around the world meet in cafes (even virtual world cafes) to question everything.
Socrates: It would surely be a good thing.
Kathryn: I spoke to Tim Dean who runs the Sydney Socrates Café. He said he first encountered the idea of the Socrates Café after hearing about the work of Christopher Phillips. At the time, he ‘was contemplating establishing a philosophy discussion group in Sydney’, so he used Phillips’s website as a guide to set it up. Tim thinks that your method is ‘ideally suited for encouraging healthy philosophical discussion.’ He said that it was you who introduced him to ‘another way of thinking—another way of arguing.’ That’s how he put it. Why does he say that?
Socrates: That is interesting that he says that. I imagine it could be because most day-to-day discussion today—as it was back in my time—is discussion full of opinion and no real reflection on the meanings of the terms we use, and no reflection on the assumptions behind our beliefs. I guess that Tim, as was always the case with me, by reflecting on his beliefs and his attitudes, was able to erode some of his confidence that his beliefs must be true. What do you say to that?
Kathryn: Yes, Tim said precisely that, Socrates. In fact, he said that it was actually ‘through the introduction of uncertainty that [his] thinking processes improved.’
Socrates: So, tell me about these modern-day Socrates Café meetings. Do they truly encourage thinking?
Kathryn: Yes, according to Tim, the Socratic dialectic in which he and others participate in at the meetings has ‘heavily influenced his thought and argumentative processes’ and has encouraged him to ‘reflect on [his] own beliefs and attitudes.’
Socrates: And what sort of philosophical enquiry is encouraged during Café meetings?
Kathryn: Well, Tim says that the Sydney Socrates Café has two broad goals. One of them is to ‘encourage philosophical thinking and discourse,’ and the other is to ‘to help bridge the divide between academia and the public by having academics talk about some of the amazing ideas being kicked around in their world.’ Oh, and you’ll appreciate this, Socrates! Tim says that the ‘end goal is actually for people to walk away from the sessions with less confidence in their beliefs rather than more.’
Socrates: Ah, so they do not give answers?
Kathryn: No. Tim says that it ‘isn’t a place for people to go and simply tell other people what the answer is—because there are rarely any easy answers—but to have them expose their own beliefs to philosophical scrutiny, to put them to the test, and to encourage them to reflect on their presuppositions and implications—all in a friendly and respectful environment.’
Socrates: And are members explicitly taught, what you today call, the Socratic Method?
Kathryn: Well, yes, but not explicitly to be exact. Your method of questioning, Socrates, is a practice, not a theoretical idea. And that’s what Tim says. He says that people are encouraged to ‘question assumptions, explore definitions and follow implications in a practical sense’.
Socrates: And do members change or lose their beliefs as a result of this questioning?
Kathryn: Well, according to Tim, it’s not that easy, but ‘many people who have attended the Socrates Café meetings have changed their beliefs and attitudes as a result of being challenged.’ It’s not an immediate thing, he says. More often it begins with members simply ‘reflecting on their own beliefs and beginning to question their veracity.’ And then, over time, he says, they might become ‘less certain about their beliefs and subsequently become open to hearing new ideas.’ Eventually, they might shift their opinions and attitudes. ‘It’s a slow process,’ says Tim, ‘but it works.’
Socrates: So, it works.
Kathryn: Yes, I guess it does.
Socrates and I fall silent. I ponder on the philosophers since Socrates—the ones that don’t walk around the marketplace, but instead do their philosophy in quiet rooms in auspicious sandstone buildings. I send an email to Dr Constantine Sandis—Reader in Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University—and ask him if it is better to do philosophy the Socratic way, in dialogue with people in a busy and noisy marketplace, or if it is better to do it in a somber and solitary way, quietly, in an armchair, within the grounds of a university?
‘I don’t believe that philosophy should be a purely solitary activity,’ Dr Sandis responds. ‘Nowadays we can all comment on each other’s thoughts from the armchair by email, Twitter, and Facebook, etc., but in Socrates’ time, the best place for this sort of exchange was, in the first instance, the market place. Other than the market place, Socrates was also fond of parties. I think he was right that—given the right sort of people, in terms of both number and disposition—such social contexts are ideal for the exchange of thought.’ So, Socrates is still relevant today? ‘As relevant as he ever was or will be,’ says Dr Sandis, ‘because it will always be important to question things that we unthinkingly take for granted.’
Christopher Phillips, in his book Socrates Café, stresses just this when he says that the Socratic method demands that one should ‘honestly and openly, rationally and imaginatively’ face up to their own dogmatism. How does one do this? Phillips answers in lieu of Socrates: ‘they confront the dogma by asking such questions as, What does this mean? What speaks for and against it? Are there alternative ways of considering it that are even more plausible and tenable?’
This seems like such a simple recipe for success. And yet, dogmatic thinking still exists. Just take Anders Behring Breivik, the rightwing Norwegian who killed more than seventy people in a bombing and shooting spree on July 22 2011, just because he thought his world view was right. I turn back to Spence and Dean and ask the following question: had Breivik read Socrates or attended Socrates Café meetings, would he still have been capable of committing that crime?
‘I do believe that philosophical education accompanied by the habitual ethical conduct that Aristotle recommends in his Nicomachean Ethics could have helped even someone like Breivik,’ says Dr Spence. ‘But philosophical therapy has to begin early before the damage is done. It’s like fitness. You can’t expect to get someone to become fit if they have already damaged their bodies through terrible neglect. The mind is no different.’
‘I can’t say the Socrates Café would have prevented Breivik from committing his heinous actions, for a few reasons,’ says Dean. ‘First is that self-selection would have probably meant he would never attend an open philosophical discussion, or if he did, that he wouldn’t return. The indications are that he was a black-and-white thinker who myopically clung to a cluster of radical beliefs, possibly for emotional reasons because they helped him perceive the world in a way that elevated his self-importance.’ Dean says, and it seems quite fair, that individuals with attitudes like Breivik’s ‘are typically not open to having their beliefs genuinely challenged because their beliefs aren’t held dispassionately but are clung to passionately.’
That said, what if Breivik genuinely wanted to challenge his assumptions? Dean says that in that case, Breivik, ‘might have seen that many of the assumptions that underlay them were highly questionable, as were the implications he drew from them.’ The key thing was that Breivik’s reasoning was ‘highly flawed.’ The Socratic Method is ‘a way of thinking, not a belief system in itself.’
And what now? I ask Spence and Dean: Were Socrates alive and sent to the prison to visit Breivik, could Socrates rehabilitate him? Both men are unsure. ‘Possibly,’ says Spence ‘but again, the damage to Breivik’s soul may have already occurred and be in an advance state of corruption. Philosophy can only help those who want to be helped.’ Dean is also not sure that Breivik would respond positively to Socratic discourse. ‘Many in Athens also didn’t respond well to Socrates,’ he says, ‘hence his trial and eventual execution.’ Even Socrates’ own students responded surprisingly. Critias and Alcibiades, for example, became notorious, anti-democratic tyrants. Critias was especially known for being a cruel man.
According to Charlotte Higgins, author of It’s All Greek to Me, Socrates’ teachings are considered by many academics to be heavily ‘anti-democratic’. She writes for the Guardian: ‘there is strong evidence that the execution of Greece’s greatest philosopher was at least partly an act of scapegoating for the actions of the brilliant, ambitious and often dangerous politicians whom, as youths, he had educated.’
Is the line between Socratic reason and dogmatism so fine? Take Fred Nile, the Australian reverend and politician, who recently likened himself to Socrates because—of all things—he questioned the teaching of secular ethics in state schools. I asked Karalis about this. ‘In a way, he is right and he is wrong,’ Karalis replied. ‘Everyone who questions is a Socratic individual, but Socrates tried to find out what was true.’ He was living in a time of major upheaval in Athens and his quest was to determine the truth of things: the truth between nuances of meanings. ‘Socrates,’ says Karalis, ‘was afraid of ambiguity, indeterminacy and confusion.’
But even then, Spence reminds us, ‘Socrates never made any assertions.’ He only ever posed questions. And, once he had posed them, he never answered them.
‘Socrates’ questions were circumstantial; the answers were wrong, but still, he gave us the approach; the freedom to arrive at things for ourselves, to think creatively,’ says Karalis. ‘Philosophers can never be certain. Our daemonion (our inner voice) will always bring in new dimensions to question.’
And what of me? Oh, I’ll keep Socratising, I guess. My own daemonion will keep me forever uncertain, always asking questions. Until, that is, my partner leans in and gives me that look. I’ll know what he means, and that’s when I’ll laugh at myself, and when I’ll just pour the bloody tea.