How to think for yourself, and why Socrates is still relevant

Socrates “has done human nature a great kindness, in showing it how much it can do for itself. We are all of us richer than we think we are; but we are taught to borrow and beg…” – Michel de Montaigne

Why Socrates is still relevant

Socrates was the first philosopher to bring philosophy from the realms of the elite to the everyman. He insisted that philosophy should speak to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

Although Socrates lived some 2,500 years ago, he is still relevant today. The stuff Socrates taught has subsequently shaped much of our history. His values and principles can inspire and guide people today to live fuller lives and help create a better society.

Among those values and principles as laid out in Socrates’ Way: Seven Keys to Using Your Mind to the Utmost:

  • Self-understanding is the basis for authentic living
  • We must question “Conventional wisdom” to verify the truth for ourselves, rather than rely on tradition
  • The individual has moral and spiritual authority over his or her own soul
  • Free speech, open dissent, and questioning of authority are essential to a healthy society
  • To be most productive, thinking should be disciplined by logic and personal experience
  • Our human dignity mandates that we rule ourselves through participation in constitutional government
  • A sound economy should have due respect for private property, markets that work, and individual enterprise
  • The state’s military power should be under civilian control
  • We should value and appreciate the body, physical fitness, and the enjoyment of our sexuality

Of course Socrates himself would tell you to challenge all of the above principles to make sure that they are valid for you because one of things we are not always good at is challenging our thinking. We tend to accept our current thinking and beliefs as true and in many case we have accepted them as true without ever having questioned their validity. Socrates dedicated his life to helping his fellow citizens clarify their thinking and beliefs.

How to think for yourself

The beauty of the Socratic Method as a system of thinking is it’s simplicity and accessibility to the average person. Alan De Botton in his book, The Consolations of Philosophy, outlines the Socratic Method thus:

1. Locate a statement confidently described as common truth.

Acting courageously involves not retreating in battle.
Being virtuous requires money.

2. Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.

Could one ever be courageous and yet retreat in battle?
Could one ever stay firm in battle and yet not be courageous?

Could one ever have money and not be virtuous?
Could one ever have no money and be virtuous?

3. If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.

It is possible to be courageous and retreat.
It is possible to stay firm in battle yet not be courageous.

It is possible to have money and be a croook.
It is possible to be poor and virtuous.

4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.

Acting courageously can involve both retreat and advance in battle.

People who have money can be described as virtuous only if they have acquired it in a virtuous way, and some people with no money can be virtuous when they have lived through situations where it was impossible to be virtuous and make money.

5. If one subsequently finds exception to the improved statements, the process should be repeated. The truth, in so far as a human being is able to attain such a thing, lies in a statement which it seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closet to understanding what is.

Here’s a scaled down version from the good folks of the Socrates Cafe franchise:

1. What does it mean?
2. What speaks for and against it?
3. Are there alternative ways of considering it that are even more plausible and tenable?

It is possible to bring a little Socrates into your life by simply cultivating a habit of questioning oneself, especially your tacit beliefs and assumptions.