“The only thing I know is that I know nothing. We’ve gathered at the agora several times and discussed our shared regard for divinity, but I hardly know anything about you! Have you always been a midwife? Would you pursue virtue over material wealth? How many siblings do you have? I am ignorant of many things, but I do understand something about the art of love: it’s just asking a lot of questions until the other person is too tired to go on. Shall I continue?” — Socrates
Imagine the following.
You are in your office doing the job you so much love doing. Years of experience and hard work have earned you the right to be proud of your accomplishments and achievements in your area of expertise, and you have won the admiration of everyone in your environment. People are coming to you for advice and have your name written in golden plates all around the walls for everyone to see. A well-deserved outcome for a hard-earned career.
As you sit minding your business, you see a short bulgy guy approaching you. He seems different, but also interesting and intriguing. He comes up to you and says: “I see you re doing a great job there. Would you mind me asking you a few questions?”. You don’t have much time, but the ingenuity and originality of his approach got your curiosity up. Plus, it’s always nice to occupy yourself with thought-provoking conversations that stimulate your brain instead of the monotony of every-day routine.
“Ok,” you say, “Why not”.
Him: “Ok, so… you’ve been dealing with your work for a long time, is that right?”
Him: “And you have acquired much knowledge and expertise in it, or else you wouldn’t keep doing it. Correct?”
“Yes,” you say smiling.
Him: “So would you say that you are fond of your craft or that you even love it?”
You: “Yes, I love my work. It’s what I keep doing for many years now.”
Him: “And if I may ask you, would you say that love pars with something specific? Like you love your work for what it brings you, or how it makes you feel, for love cannot be conceived on its own?”
You: “Yes, I guess you can say that. But why are you asking me all these questions?”
Him: “May I remind you, my friend, that what is given to us may be taken away equally fast and so I may be keen to end what I was hitherto willing to begin.”
You: “Ok… you can continue”
Him: “So would you say that love needs a subject, as a father needs a son or a daughter?”
Him: “And would you agree that in order to really want something you must somewhat feel the lack of it in the present moment or being uncertain of it?”
You: “Well I do love my job although I have it already.”
Him: “Yes but doesn’t this imply that you would love the idea of keep doing your craft in the future as well which is a matter of luck and circumstances, that you can’t really control at all cases? Things keep changing in the world and so are people and their desires and they may find that your services are not still relevant to their lives.”
You: “Ok, if you put it this way.”
Him: “So do you agree that you can only desire that you don’t have or possess, as a poor person desires riches and as a hungry one dreams food?”
You: “yes I agree.”
Him: “And would you say that if the thing you really desire so deeply, was to given up to you, it would create some sort of symmetry and fulfillment in your life that it now lacks. As we both agreed already that if it wasn’t lacking it wouldn’t be in your mind in the first place?”
You: “Yes,” You say with some uneasiness and inhibition as if you are forced down a path that is highly unfamiliar to you and feels unsafe.
Him: “So would you agree that this thing you lack makes you feel unease and fragmented in a way? and unless you find it you cannot be whole again?”
You: “Yes, I guess I do..”
Him: “So can I dare to say that although rich, with lots of possessions in your life, and fame that only few people can claim to have, you still value yourself less because of this scarcity? And out of all your possessions, you value yourself the least?”.
You stand there looking at him motionless.
“But bare with me my friend because I have a tender matter to attend and I need to leave. As nice as it was talking with you this beautiful morning..”.
And so he leaves. But the thoughts keep spinning in your head like crazy.
The unexamined life is not worth living. One of Socrate’s main philosophical pillars. He was simply the biggest irritant in the whole of Athens, going around triggering anyone who happened to be in his way. Questions were the basis of his approach and arose from his adage: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”. This understanding set the base for his whole approach in life. There was no thought pattern he would fear to walk through and no limit to the thought explorations he would dive into. Coming from the frame of knowing nothing, he would engage with anyone that was keen for some discussion and follow down the path of stream-of-consciousness investigations. Wherever that would lead…
When I first learned about the story of Socrate’s I was dumbfounded. Who would be inclined to lead down a path like that? In what world does this vigorous examination of everything makes any sense at all and how does it serves someone exactly? Why not go the other way and focus on nothing but enjoying our pina colada in our balcony with not much thought going around?
The society we grow up into has a direct impact on our attitude towards life.
And it certainly shapes the values that we carry on later as we grow up. It’s withstanding to realize that the place we currently live in, has no regard for thought-provoking questions. It only seeks and accepts people that seem to have the answers for everything. It considers questions as mindless outbursts of ignorant minds. “Why do we go like this? What’s the reason we feel this is the right approach?”. These are mostly attributed to insecure and anxious people rather than thirsty and analytical ones. Socrates in today’s world would most probably be subscribed for Xanax rather than anything else.
But how did the status quo ended up in such a way to look down upon questioning in such a radical way? How did we manage to abolish such a critical and important tool to our own advancement?
Questioning has negative connotations, realizing it or not. For one thing, you declare your complete ignorance. That may be a simple thing, but maybe it’s not. Somebody like Socrates had his agnosticism as his very premise. Smart move! But who in today’s world would be keen to play such a risky game? It feels like unless you discovered a money-making machine from the future, that is capable to produce money on demand and you are the only one who knows how to handle, you could never survive the competitive world we live in with such a bold move. You would become vulnerable and open to attack by all the vultures.
Further along, asking questions is the standard declaration of not being in control of a situation. At least in today’s standards that is.
As was described in the book “Never Split The Difference”, a question like ‘why’ can be perceived as a harmful one. Imagine you are presented with the new plans your manager is making and you respond with something like:
“Yeah, I see your point but why did we choose this method really?”. Ouch! Couldn’t you just take a knife out and stub him in the heart instead? There is a strong negative vibe in this ‘why’, as it declares you didn’t buy into the whole thing and you don’t trust these new plans as they got shown to you. Now, of course, the reason such a question feels so wrong is because our culture has shaped us into believing its wrong. It is equivalent to a revolutionary coup d’etat that could easily depict you with a mask and a Molotov bringing chaos to everything.
But what is important to realize is that these rules are mostly cultural in nature, and it is in our hands to change them as we see fit. There are already well-established methods trying to facilitate questioning into our decision-making processes. And they are necessary to smooth out the harsh edges of the poignant details they entail.
One of them is the 5 why’s method, which is basically a session dedicated to questioning. It was developed by the founder of Toyota in the 1930s and is deployed even today to solve recurring issues. There is obviously nothing wrong with this method except for the part that it is only deployed for past mistakes. It’s a surprising fact to realize how little time and effort we dedicate to current or future decisions.
The Importance Of Why
Examining one’s life is elusive. There seems to be no reason for it when everything goes well. It rather seems redundant and dull even. That’s the reason it is so heavily avoided unless it is an absolute necessity for someone. Which makes the immediate connection that whoever is questioning things is already in that bleak place of emptying up wine bottles while listening to Radiohead (Not that I would ever do such a thing).
But for a tree to be able to rise high enough, it needs to dig equally deep in the opposite direction. Or the wind is going to take it apart in the first blow. And in the same way, unless you know the deeper reasons you are doing something, you are gonna succumb to the first difficulty and throw in the tower on the first sign of attack. Examining things is a proactive move first and foremost. It sets a strong base in our lives for us to be steady amidst the storm and keep our balance in front of adversity.
What Can I Learn From This
Questioning denotes the attitude you carry along with you. It’s not an end on itself. It implies the fact that you are still a student in life, with a corresponding appetite for knowledge and growth. When you are presented with a bunch of lemons, you ask what you can learn from it and what’s the best way to proceed, instead of sitting around lamenting on the fact that you don’t like the cards you‘ve been dealt with. Anybody can point fingers on how unfair or unjust life is and criticize their circumstances sitting on their velvet armchair, but few can seek out opportunities on whatever the world throws out at them. Because that is how you get to enjoy your nice lemonade.
Why Socrates Did Not Escape
Upon Socrates’ death sentence, his friend Crito visited him in jail and asked him to escape his fate with him. There he was, having the remarkable opportunity to change the flow of things and keep his own life. What an extraordinaire chance and unexpected turn of events! You can only imagine how happy and relieved he was, exasperating a big “Phiew! That was close!”. But It came as a shock to his friend when he actually refused the gift and stamped it with a “return to sender” mark. He simply denied the opportunity to escape his death. A really unfathomable response by all standards. But why would someone do something like that?
The Care Of The Soul
Socrates is the impersonation of integrity and virtue. He bounds to his principles that he so thoroughly examined throughout his life with care and devotion and refused to betray them even in the prospects of his own death. For which escaping prison would save his physical existence but kill everything he had fought for in his whole life.
“Are all our former admissions which were made within a few days to be thrown away? And have we, at our age, been earnestly discoursing with one another all our life long only to discover that we are no better than children?” — Socrates
Socrates made a choice on how to lead his life and stuck to it to the bitter end. His rules had a bigger priority than his feelings and his principles laid out a foundation on which he made his decisions. It is simply unfathomable to consider such an act from a person without a pure devotion to his teachings. They would crumble under the first sign of adversity and run for their lives any way they could. But Socrates realized a bigger truth. The sanctity of his own soul. Evil was very substantial for him and was represented by consciously going against the ideas that serve people as a whole for personal interest. Any purposeful infringement of society’s rules would hurt the soul of someone as it diminishes the things that allowed you to come forth in the first place. It didn’t matter if his sentence was just or unjust, right or wrong as long as it came from the society he spent his whole life in and was serving its needs. Having made up his mind on how he drives his life, he decided to endure the ultimate sentence. For his ideals would be at stake…0