Socrates… the Craziest of those Old Greeks

So most people have heard about Socrates, but don’t really know that much about him (a week ago, it was all Greek to me… 🔱😁)

Turns out there’s more to him than any of those average fire-throwing, cyclops-hunting myths from his time. His unfamiliar name actually influences our culture to this day beyond just philosophy professors’ lecture halls.

Over this past week, I had the chance to learn more about him and the first big lesson was… we know nothing about him. No really… the issue’s so important it has its own name:

The Socratic Problem: I’ve Got 99 Problems, but I Forgot to Write Them Down

When you’re trying to remember WHY you don’t write stuff down, but you forgot to write it down…

He NEVER documented his thoughts; all we know about him is from what others said he said. (And he was always saying controversial things.)

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

He criticised the typical views of success like that, for one. For him, it was more about truly learning about yourself than pretending to and just chasing materialistic goals.

Well, his criticisms drummed up quite the scandal in ancient Greece (but that’s good because scandalous lives were easier to remember).

And he also had a spectacular death. That really helped continue his legend (people love talking about spectacular deaths 💀🎉). Here’s the shortened version of how that came about:

  • Socrates was from a common family, destined to be an artisan. But he didn’t like that.
  • He started dabbling in philosophy, learning about more than what he was supposed to.
  • Early on, he had controversial philosophical views in Athens. But, people did always respect his military valour.
  • He didn’t believe in democracy (more on why later), so he didn’t support the democratic Athenian government in many conflicts.
  • Eventually, the Athenian citizens decided his actions were treacherous and sentenced him to die by poisoning.

And until the end, he insulted the jury sentencing in him, refused to appeal for lighter punishments, and drank the poison from his own will. Like I said… quite the death.

The few Athenians who respected Socrates (mostly his students — historical rockstars like Plato 😎) then commemorated his death by writing memoirs of his ideas (how we still know about him).

And these memories had lessons that went on to inspire great minds up to this day.

The Socratic Legacy (Best Movie Title 2K19)

That’s not an exaggeration; as I mentioned, Plato (historical rockstar) was one of Socrates’ most well-known students. And he went on to teach what he learned to Aristotle — who then passed on the knowledge to Alexander the Great.

Bet you didn’t learn that in the textbooks… ;-)

Socrates’ ideas influenced some of the most powerful people in history. So here are three highlights from these mind (and world) bending ideas:

1. Knowledge is Virtue

This simple statement was at the heart of all of Socrates’ beliefs. He even thought that his family’s happiness should be based entirely on virtue and not wealth (which his wife didn’t agree too much with… 😳😨)

At this time, Athens was on the losing side of a war against Sparta, so they REALLY opposed his views of not seeking riches, glory, and the like. And that wasn’t their only disagreement.

Remember how Socrates didn’t support democracy? It was because he thought ordinary citizens weren’t capable of being knowledgeable (and thus virtuous).

All I know is that I know nothing, while others think they know what they do not.

So he didn’t see himself as being a knowledgeable leader, but thought the majority of people were too ignorant to realise that in themselves.

He thought instead that Athens should find virtuous leaders that guided the flock of citizens like a shepherd. (Not a popular opinion among the flock…)

However antiquated it sounds to be talking about virtues, the core lesson here is how didn’t let extrinsic things like wealth distract himself from being happy with himself (an idea that still applies now).

2. Approach Learning with Humility

Socrates had a very special method to go about learning (creatively named the Socratic method). He often started philosophical discussions with everyone from the elite to the everyday commoners.

In these, he always asked others a series of questions to reason through answers. This reasoning is still used today (2000 YEARS LATER) as one of the pillars of legal education.

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.

He would never lecture about these discussions. He simply wanted to ask the questions that made others draw their own conclusions.

He never answered his own questions though, always claiming to not have enough knowledge to do so. This humility in pursuing knowledge was one of Socrates’ defining traits (unless you were an Athenian democrat — in which case he was openly belligerent under all circumstances 😃)

One of the main points is how his humility allowed him to be open-minded to new possibilities. He didn’t judge people pre-emptively, so he wasn’t restricted in his learning.

3. We Make all Choices to Find Happiness

He saw this as learning about yourself. Thus, his idea of happiness stemmed from knowing yourself.

Think about it. From little decisions like deciding what to eat to big ones like deciding who to marry, we’re always trying to be happier. But if we didn’t take the time to learn what we’re actually looking for, we’d never get that perfect burger!!! 🍔 (or soulmate… your choice)

Compared the other two big lessons, this one struck out to me because it showed how much he understood the world around him as well as himself.

We have entire herds of economists, psychologists, and sociologists studying people’s choices these days… but he managed to boil it down to this simple understanding. That’s what shocks me in the end: no matter how distant his life may seem, it’s still so relevant to us today because of just how far ahead of his time he thought.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

I thought this would be perfect as the last quotation to reinforce Socrates’ influence. His lessons are still here for us to reflect on, just as they were for the leaders of countless generations. Now, it’s our choice to take his questions and think about it in our own lives.

Key Takeaways

  • He was humble in his goals and pursuit of knowledge. Always keeping an open mind, he wanted happiness over any materialistic reward.
  • He understood the world around him enough to know how we all searched for happiness. And he understood himself enough to show his knowledge by asking questions, not giving answers.

Before you go:

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So I can have moral support to Socratic-method my way out of this dilemma ;-)

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/