Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 17: The Greek Way, Chapter 6, Questions 1 & 2

12/15/2016 01:10 am ET

1. What is Plato's view of Socrates?

A more important question would be: Was Plato telling the truth about Socrates? Not the Socrates of legend as enshrined in his Dialogues, but the Socrates of history, shorn of literary embellishment and pious myth. Are the stories Plato told of him true or creations of his imagination? Did Socrates say what he is alleged to have said, or did Plato attribute his own views to him to enhance their credibility?

How do we know what Plato intended? Did he assume that everyone would understand that what he was writing were fictional accounts or literal transcripts of what really happened? Or was what he wrote so inspirational that its truth doesn't matter since it did such untold good down through the centuries? And if readers were changed for the better, isn't fidelity to truth an idle quibble? But wouldn't this be dishonest were he telling lies, or would it be a Noble Lie toward a greater truth?

As Achilles needed his Homer, didn't Socrates need his Plato? Have these Dialogues with their majesty of utterance and brilliance of thought become the Gospel of Socrates According to Plato? Was he attempting to immortalize his Master and his golden words? But what about his actual words, which Plato might have changed or invented? How are we to know what Socrates said, or would he even have cared if truth were served? But whose truth?

And whose word should we take about Socrates - Plato's, Xenophon's, Aristophanes', Aristotle's, and what about Antisthenes, Aeschines, Phaedo, Euclides, and Aristippus, since each of these sources is not without problems? These are some of the questions of the Socratic Problem, which has bewildered historians for 24 centuries.

And what of the following view of Socrates? He is said to have been the wisest man of antiquity because he knew he knew nothing. He was a teacher who simply asked questions without giving answers and embodied both inconclusiveness as the heart of philosophy and humility before the unknown. His acceptance of mystery brought him contentment rather than the tumultuous heartache of Faust, who after studying "philosophy, law, medicine, and theology" suffered the tortures of the damned in concluding that "we can know nothing." He had tried everything, even selling his soul for universal knowledge. Socrates, on the other hand, either lacked such cosmic yearnings or rejected them as self-destructive.

Whereas Faust was a romantic who created his own inner turmoil, Socrates was a realist who felt that no divine revelation existed about the Beyond. Reason was his only guide, and even that had its limits. Whether by struggle or temperament, he made his peace with this realization and dismissed as illusory other paths to the truth. Life's purpose was living "the examined life" as the only life worthy of a human being.

He was never a dogmatist committed to any one viewpoint, but childlike in his curiosity about the world. He felt compelled to help others, especially the young, toward living a focused, clarified, and ethical life. By a series of questions he made his fellow Athenians realize that much of their thinking was based on confusion, habit, and faulty assumptions. This wouldn't necessarily mean that their views were wrong, but simply that they couldn't prove them right. After these encounters, they might have suspected that many of their other views might also be groundless, and that wisdom consisted in remaining silent.

This logical confusion seemed to mask a deeper moral confusion that reflected a broader moral breakdown of his times. In this sense, Socrates was a physician of the soul and the source of moral regeneration for many with whom he came into contact. This devotion to truth and ethical conduct might be likened to a religious calling in his concern for the examined life as the only true source of human happiness. He was also a humanist who brought philosophy down from the heavens to deal with human questions as more important than cosmological ones.

Let's assume that the above theory cannot be proven. Would its unprovability matter if it helped people who believed it to grow? Is provability beside the point in questions like this, or not at all? If some hold a view that "works" for them, is that what's important, even though the theory itself may be false? Is this example analogous to those who admire a fictional character like Hamlet? Or is this specious reasoning?

There is also the possibility, as Hegel pointed out, that the inner "voice" which Socrates obeyed in pursuing his higher calling might have had something to do with catalepsy or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, to which he might have been subject. This would explain his occasional curious conduct, his charismatic personality, and his remarkable life and its effect upon his contemporaries. Assuming the truth of this theory, would it detract from one's view of Socrates, enhance it, or would it depend on the person?

2. What is meant by the saying, "The wise are doubtful"?

If I see a clock, I know the time, but if I see several clocks that don't agree, I'm not sure which one is correct. Likewise, if I'm raised with a particular view of the world, I assume that it's right. If I read or travel, however, I discover other worldviews and begin to wonder which one is right. At that moment, I discover my mind. The more theories I know, the more possibilities I have, and my world becomes larger.

I no longer have certainty, but doubt. Never again do I assume that the first theory I learn about anything is necessarily true, but simply the first theory I know about it. Life becomes an odyssey among many theories that call themselves "truths." I may eventually choose one or keep my mind open and savor the mystery.

"Beware the man of one book," for an education isn't knowing more and more about only one viewpoint, but exploring many viewpoints to see the world in various ways. My world is my idea of it, and it now becomes richer, more complex, and multidimensional. So, read everything -- but believe nothing! Consider only what each book is saying. If it doesn't make sense, put it aside. It's either nonsense, or you're not ready for it. Wait a few years and try it again. Most books have three levels of meaning - one when you're young, another when you're not so young, and another when you're old enough to see the big picture.

Take history, for instance. "Not even God can change the past. Only the historian can," runs the old adage. The past is important because it's what happened, or what we think might have happened, or would like to have happened, or what revisionist historians claim has happened. History also explains why the past happened, and there's comfort in that until we discover that other historians disagree, and that's when history becomes interesting.

You need to read at least three or four books with different viewpoints even to begin to understand something. Reading only one book or historian is indoctrinating yourself. You inoculate yourself against growth. Your mind hardens and becomes a fortress against anything new. It's only when you immerse yourself in several viewpoints that you begin to be educated, for the more you know, the less certain you become.

It's only when you grow uncertain that you're getting somewhere! So if you want to be certain, don't read at all, or read only one book. But if you want to leave the Garden of Innocence, read as many books as you can on a question. The best courses are always those which leave you confused and uncertain after hearing a series of plausible theories and let you decide. If you've been given "the answers," you're in the wrong course.

History also explains the present and how we got here, and if we happen not to like the present, it can also teach us how to change it. At least, that's what they tell us when young. But as we get older, we realize that things aren't always that simple. "History is a pack of lies we play on the dead" (Voltaire), or an "agreed-upon fable" (Bonaparte), or "bunk" (Henry Ford), or "the propaganda of the victors" (Ernst Toller), or "of the losers," of course.

But that's just the beginning. You'll find that there are a lot of people who don't want things changed in this world because they're making a profit from the way things are and will stop at nothing to keep it that way. So don't underestimate their opposition for they have only one purpose in life - to prevent change from happening! They don't care if what they're doing is wrong or unjust because these words mean nothing to them. They're about domination and, if they can get away with it, making things even worse! So be ready, because you'll be dealing with a totally alien kind of being which will unleash Armageddon itself to have its way.

So how do we get the facts straight about what happened in the past? Of course, this assumes that we really want to know until we find out, but then we might not like what we find. Which leads us to another question: Is it truth we want from history or consolation? And if it's the latter, does that mean that we secretly want to be lied to that we're always in the right because we're not strong enough to bear the truth?

So if you read to confirm your own viewpoint, you're already dead as a thinking person. An education is opening yourself up to every viewpoint, listening to it, empathizing with it, understanding it from within, and, if you're lucky, speaking to those who share that viewpoint to feel their fervor and truth as they see it. It's knowing all their arguments and counterarguments. It's seeing their strengths, weaknesses, blind spots and, finally, the world through their eyes.

This is why an education is so dangerous, and why governments have never wanted their young to have it, unless they came from the ruling classes. I don't mean the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic, which you need to survive. I'm talking about the things worth surviving for -- a real education that will give you wings to soar to another realm of possibility, and will help you excel and give you the means of doing so. The kind of education that every student should have, not just the few!

A real education that teaches you not only to read, but how to evaluate what you read lest you're brainwashed by reading; how to detect fallacies designed to deceive you or weaken your confidence; how to recognize baseless assumptions and value judgements tricked up as facts when they may be only bigotry, class interest, or lies; how to tell whether the explanations you're given are sound or disguised propaganda; whether the objections to the theory you're learning are dealt with fairly, or simply ignored to create the impression that no other theories even exist; and whether the proofs you're offered are rock-solid or emotional ploys.

A real education that teaches you to think critically, instead of going along with the crowd; that exposes you to all points of view and has you decide for yourself which one is right; that encourages you to ask your teachers to give you the objections to the theories they're teaching, and how these theories would answer those objections; that invites you to ask whatever question you want or what books you should read to deepen your knowledge; and that offers you as many different and challenging courses as possible to better prepare you for college and life.

This is the kind of education that schools and teachers want to give you as students, but which government refuses to allow them to offer. The kind of education that you deserve, that every student deserves, but which government will never permit you to have.