Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Socrates Still Matters

The first time I encountered Socrates was when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman at Fordham University, and like all freshmen, I was required to take an introductory course in philosophy to fulfill my general education requirements,

In all honesty, I didn’t have a clue about what philosophy was. I had come from a fairly conservative Catholic high school—a prep seminary, actually—where we were taught to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church without much questioning at all. I had learned everything there was to know about the Old and New Testaments and the Christian doctrine, but philosophy was one thing that the good fathers who taught me seemed to have little use for.

In fact, when I told the priests at my high school that I was going to a Jesuit college, they responded with actual alarm. I remember one of my teachers telling me before I graduated, “Just be careful that you don’t lose your faith, Michael. Those Jesuits will teach you to QUESTION EVERYTHING!.”

So there I was back in 1982, a freshman in my Introduction to Philosophy class, not really knowing what philosophy was, but having the suspicion that I was going to be corrupted in some way by my encounter with it. When I met my instructor, a young adjunct instructor named Ed, who seemed far too cool to be a professor, I became even more concerned. “You’ve been living in a world where you accept everything as true based upon your upbringing, your faith, or your own biases,” I remember him saying during our first class. “But I’m going to teach you how to challenge your presuppositions about reality and see if they hold up in the light of reason.”

Ed’s plan for the class was fairly straightforward. We were going to be reading what were known as the Socratic dialogues of Plato—those texts that Ed said best represented the actual thought of the philosopher Socrates. And the reason for this was simple: Everything you needed to learn about the methods of philosophy, Ed maintained, you could learn from understanding the approach that Socrates took to the discipline. And that approach could be summed up as “QUESTION EVERYTHING.”

So the priests in my high school were right, I thought. One week in a Jesuit college and they were already trying to brainwash me into abandoning my faith!

The first text we had to read in the class was the Apology, Socrates’ famous speech in defense of his philosophical way of life. Despite my reservations, I found myself being captivated by the person of Socrates, who certainly was not afraid to poke fun at his accusers, even though his life was hanging in the balance. But what impressed me most about Socrates was his dogged determination to discover The Truth about the right way to live, no matter what the consequences. So he spent his life cross-examining those who “claimed to know”—the so-called experts—only to discover that he was far wiser than they were, because at least he realized how little he actually knew.

And this, I believe, is the key to Socrates’ continued relevance 2,500 years after his death.

We live in a world in which everyone claims to know The Truth. All around us we have experts telling us what we need to eat in order to be healthy, what policies we need to support in order to put our country back on the right path, what doctrines we have to believe in order to be saved, and so on. What Socrates teaches us is that we shouldn’t simply accept the opinions of those who claim to know, but rather we should be involved in a life-long process of questioning the so-called experts to see if what they say actually holds up to reason. Sometimes the opinions of the experts will be right, but quite often, we’ll discover that the experts, to put it frankly, are full of shit—that they know even less than we do, but their pride prevents them from admitting their woeful ignorance.

The example of Socrates also teaches us the importance of humility in our quest for the truth. Recognizing the limitations of our own knowledge is a first step to being open to the possibility of actually moving in the direction of the truth. Like Socrates, we may not grasp this truth completely in our own lifetimes, but our lives, like his, will be much better spent for making the effort. And we will certainly become just a little bit wiser as a result.

When my first philosophy class ended, I discovered that the fears of my high school teachers were totally unfounded. My encounter with Socrates in that class didn’t destroy my faith, but rather, helped me to sort through the teachings I had grown up with to see which actually made sense and which were the product of irrational superstition. My encounter with Socrates also began my life-long love affair with the discipline of philosophy that has enriched my life in ways that I could hardly have imagined while I was sitting through Introduction to Philosophy.

I may know less about the really important issues in life than I did as a freshman in college (I knew everything back then). But now at least, I take consolation from Socrates that the recognition of my own ignorance may one day prove to be the source of my future wisdom. 

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