Radical Thinking

Radical Thinking: What You Can Learn From the Timeless Philosophy of Socrates

During his lifetime Socrates wrote nothing down. Yet his wisdom has formed the bedrock of western philosophy. Socrates was viewed as a great teacher. But he did not claim to be a teacher. In fact, he frequently said ‘all I know is that I know nothing’. By all accounts Socrates was both poor and ugly. Yet in a society that placed tremendous value on beauty and wealth, people of all classes were magnetically drawn to his teachings and enigmatic personality.As he wrote nothing down, there is some dispute about what Socrates actually said. But, from the writings of Plato and others, we can gain a few glimpses into the character and ideals of this ancient sage and unique philosopher.

The Socratic Dialogue

Perhaps the most arresting feature of Socrates’ legacy is his unique method of teaching and arriving at the truth. Socrates didn’t claim the truth is this or the truth is that. He sought to question students in a way that would lead them to arrive at the truth themselves. Socrates frequently claimed to know nothing. Yet, if Socrates knew nothing, why were people so eager to hear him talk? The reason was that Socrates was able to make people reconsider their own ingrained ideas; Socrates had a way of making people think for themselves and consider truth from different angles.This method of conversation incurred the ire of some people; they were not happy that Socrates was able to show the limitations of their thinking. Yet, the genius of the Socratic method was that he never had to directly tell people their inadequacies; they came to realise it themselves.

Independence of Thought

One of Socrates most admired traits was that he did not follow popular opinion. He questioned every orthodox belief and decided independently if it was worth pursuing. Socrates looked at issues from both perspectives; he did not allow himself to be tied down by religious, political, or social conventions.This independence of thought and mind was particularly powerful given the forces of conformity predominant in Greek society. The importance he placed on independence of thought can be seen by his response to his trial and death. Socrates had numerous opportunities to flee; however, he didn’t wish to flee — he felt that escape would weaken his philosophic independence.Socrates was also non dogmatic; he had friends with both Oligarchs and Democrats. At the same time, he had enemies in both parties; Socrates would never moderate his words to curry favour with others.

Interest in the Welfare of Others

Socrates spent most of his time wandering the streets of Athens, talking with people interested in discovering more about life. Socrates was a great teacher, because ironically he didn’t have an agenda to teach. He was not interested in imparting a certain dogma or attracting followers. He wanted people to think for themselves and consider the real nature of life and truth. As Socrates said to one student.”If you take my advice, you will give but little thought to Socrates but much more to the truth.” [1]Socrates was not just a great talker, but also a great listener. It is this balance which set him apart from ordinary teachers who want only to lecture others.

Fear Not Death

“‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows”- Socrates [2]The authorities felt threatened by the popularity and independent nature of Socrates and sought to have him silenced. The result was a travesty of justice; however, Socrates was able to meet his death with an enviable equanimity. Not only did Socrates maintain a philosophic calm, he also bore little anger or ill feeling to his judges who had unjustly tried him. He magnanimously said:”I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemners; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them.” [3]It is easy for a philosopher to talk about the unreality of death, but the real test is how we respond when faced with it ourselves. The equanimity of Socrates suggests he lived the ideals he spoke of.

Self Control

Socrates once visited a palm reader. The palm reader looked at his hands and said to him: “so many undivine qualities you have: anger, pride, lust…”. His followers were furious — how could she say this about the great saint, Socrates?Socrates replied, “Wait, let us see whether she has anything else to say.” The palm reader continued, “Yes, he has these qualities, but, he also has them under his complete control.” Like all people, Socrates had negative emotions and qualities but he was able to prevent them from controlling him.

Tolerance of Others

Socrates married Xanthippe, who was renowned for her irritating behaviour and quick temper. Socrates didn’t get upset about his wife’s negative qualities. Instead he saw it as an opportunity to develop tolerance, patience and humility. Socrates even made a joke of it saying, “As I intended to associate with all kinds of people, I thought nothing they could do would disturb me, once I had accustomed myself to bear the disposition of Xanthippe.” [4]

Outer Appearances Do Not Matter

It is said even by his admirers that Socrates was ugly. Reports suggest he was short, fat, and had a big nose. Yet, despite his unflattering looks, many eagerly sought his company for his wisdom, counsel and inspirational views on life. Despite an ugly outer countenance people saw in Socrates an inner beauty. As the aristocratic military genius Alcibiades said of Socrates “His nature is so beautiful, golden, divine.”Socrates paid little attention to outer form. This doesn’t mean he could not appreciate beauty; however, as a true philosopher, it was his duty to see beyond the outer form.

Know Thyself

It is said that Socrates once visited the oracle of Delphi, where he was told the most important task in his life was to know his real self. To know the real self is perhaps the ultimate goal of philosophy. If we don’t know who we are, how can we solve the mysteries of life and help other people?For Socrates knowing thyself was more than a mere intellectual quest. It was an idea that shaped his life and inner attitude. He was never satisfied with accepting outer appearances and conventional wisdom, but always strove for a deeper understanding of his real Self.Above all, Socrates taught us not accept our existing thoughts as true. Step back and reevaluate the truth and veracity of your opinions and beliefs. Seek to know your real self and seek truth. It is a lofty philosophy, but one that has retained an enduring appeal and fascination through the ages.Tejvan Pettinger is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre. He lives in Oxford where he works as a teacher. He also offers mediation classes as a community service and updates a blog at Sri Chinmoy Inspiration a collection of articles on meditation and self improvement.