SEEKING LIKE SOCRATES
One of the difficulties with talking about philosophy - or ideas in general - is that it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. It seems that for every idea that I hear, I discover that there’s a whole group of people who passionately argue the opposite. We’ve seen enough comments sections, posts and tweets to know that there’s passionate arguments about everything. Much of the time, it seems an exercise in trying to “beat” someone; to be part of the winning side. As a result it’s easy to feel that “intellectual discussion” doesn’t actually effect day-to-day life. Because in that life, I need to pay my rent, navigate complex relationships, stay healthy, and, yes, have some fun too! As a result, people can understandably become impatient with discussions about “ideas”.
Add to this that now more than ever what we receive is information. Loads of it. Ever-updated, always new, and in highly attractive formats, information is constantly being pipelined to us. Unsurprisingly we grow accustomed simply to being “informed”, to reading headlines, to seeing bits, and watching videos here and there. Yet the more we become accustomed to “being informed”, the easier it is to confuse this with actual knowing. Once that mistake is made - probably without noticing - then being connected becomes a proxy for knowing. We all realise how being busy can feel like working, while in fact it is not productive work. Toggling back and forth between Gmail, Twitter, and Instagram is just, well, being busy! It’s not genuinely creative work. Well, something similar is happening in our information age with regards to knowing. Being constantly informed can make us feel like we are actually thinking and knowing, when what’s most likely happening is that we are just awash in information. We run the risk of not thinking, of not coming closer to what is true.
And yet … can we happily live without getting a clearer grasp of what is true? Is it enough to align oneself with the consensus view, or with popular opinion? Can we flourish without getting closer to the truth of things? These are leading questions, of course, all suggesting a response: “no, we can’t live that way. We need truth!” Maybe that’s how someone “should” answer. But perhaps the sincere answer, the one that should honestly be given from a lot of us would be, “well, yeah, actually I can live with what most people think and say. I’m getting along pretty well, thank you”. Few people would be bold enough to say it that clearly, of course.
These observations do not intend to be a cranky rant that “people” don’t care about the truth of things. Of course they care. “Fake news”, “post-truth society” - these recent terms have been invented because of a very real frustration about not getting in touch with truth. Clearly there’s something in us that resents being lied to. No matter how many clicks it gets, “fake news” is something that we rightly feel dissatisfied with. No one likes to be manipulated, and when we only have information - no matter how much of it! - and no ability to judge whether it’s true or not, well…we’re going to get manipulated. So, yes, everyone in principle wants to know what is true. None of us wants to be lied to.
The thing though is this: what happens when seeking the truth challenges the way we live? Do we want it then? Take justice, for example. All of us would like a more just society. Everyone is fine with that. But what is justice really? Do I know? Have I thought about it? If I try to, I could start with Socrates and other classic philosophers who defined justice as, “giving to each person what is their due”. If someone is starving, while the person next to them is throwing away excess food, it’s not philanthropy to give the starving person some food. It is his due. It is his. Perhaps in that academic formulation, it seems tame enough. Take it seriously, though - seek a truer understanding of justice - and it’s dynamite. Things get upended.
Christianity, of course, is a perfect instance of how truth can be uncomfortable. If Jesus has risen from the dead - if that’s historically and literally true - then that makes a claim on me. I can’t go on as before. Again, not all truth is like this. If I learn more about biological diversity in Croatia, for instance, I will have a better grasp of that topic, but I won’t be compelled to act in the same way. I might feel the need to do more for the environment, or to help people doing that in Croatia. But even then, it doesn’t compel me to change the way I live. Knowing Jesus more truthfully - just like coming to a clearer understanding of what justice is and demands - is knowledge that can rearrange my life. And we tend to avoid that.
So maybe then we need to be more precise. It’s not just that everyone seems to disagree and argue endlessly; nor that we are overwhelmed by a tsunami of information. What really pulls us away from questing for truer knowledge is a fear that we might actually…find it. And if we do, well then who knows where things could go? Perhaps the problem of our times really isn’t cynicism: the suspicion that we can’t really know what’s true, so why try. Maybe it’s a fear of coming to know something more clearly that will make our lives uncomfortable if we do. To put it more provocatively, while “conformity” is a label that nobody wants, it’s a pretty comfortable place to be. And every single one of us is drawn by comfort more than we are happy to admit.
So after all that throat clearing, enter Socrates …
Living approximately from 470 - 399 BCE, he is the origin of philosophic thinking in Western culture. We know about him because of his equally illustrious pupil, Plato, who wrote about Socrates in a special literary genre called “dialogues”. These dialogues are a sort of theatrical representation of the philosophical conversations that Socrates had with all sorts of people in ancient Athens.
These conversations were “philosophical” because they were driven by a desire to know more clearly, more truthfully. So Socrates would ask someone what the general opinion was on a given topic; say, happiness. Or on whether it is worth doing what is right, even though I can get away with doing what is evil. And many other questions like this. Then, once the other person would reply, Socrates would start probing and parsing: “fine, that’s what is commonly said, but…is it the case”? He would then expose contradictions and ambiguities. In so doing it would become clear that the person thought he knew, but in actual fact, he didn’t. In a back and forth conversation, Socrates and his interlocutors explore and sometimes get lost in trying to separate what people commonly think and say from what is actually true. Actually, some of the dialogues, like the Meno, end in what amounts to a shrug of the shoulders - they just agree that they don’t know!
For Socrates, though, this “not knowing” is actually a sort of wisdom. Indeed, it’s the very sort of wisdom that he finds liberating and worth striving for. This is how Dr. Scott Crider very helpfully summarises it:
“In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts receiving some puzzling news from a friend of his: the Delphic oracle proclaimed him the wisest of human beings. Because he believed that he knew nothing, he was perplexed. So he began his philosophic enterprise of interviewing men renowned for knowledge, only to discover that, when he asked them simple, but fundamental questions, they could not answer without internal inconsistency. From these interviews, during which he invented the art of reasoning itself, Socrates discovered precisely in what way the god was right:
“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas, when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”
Socrates discovers that he is wiser than the others since, though he has love for knowledge, he neither has that knowledge nor thinks he does.”
Let’s try to consider how powerful and important that insight is. Socrates is not saying that we cannot know anything, ever, so forget about it and don’t even try. He’s not a pessimist in this way. Rather, what becomes clear in his life and writings is that Truth is vaster, richer, and more complex than anything our minds can comprehend. We catch glimpses; we hear rumours; we grope and grasp, without ever possessing. In short, we know some things, but partially; perhaps very partially. The problem, though, is that we easily forget this. What we don’t know, what we still have to learn and discover, we ignore and claim to “know”. How often do we make claims and affirmations about things that we have only heard about? Perhaps because we feel that we “should know”, but perhaps most typically we tend to prefer the security of a group and of agreeing with them. There’s safety in numbers, basically. Conformity is comfortable.
This is very human, by the way. We are communal and made to be so. But what Socrates sought to bring about in Athens - and what is hugely important for us today - is that we must keep alive our desire for an ever-increasing understanding of truth, precisely with other people, and for the good of our communal life with those people. If I settle for mere information, or if I’m happy to settle with the view that my group of friends holds at the moment, I’ve not only betrayed my desire to better know the truth, but I’ve made myself vulnerable to tyranny.
Maybe “tyranny” sounds “dramatic” or over-the-top. But I’d like to suggest that it’s why Socrates and the philosophic spirit that animated him is of such vital importance today. Philosophy - questing for an ever greater understanding and love of what is true, versus what is commonly held - is not a luxury pursuit. It is an essential part of being free and of promoting the freedom of others.
Of the many examples that could be given, I’d like to consider a recent one: Hannah Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Writing for the New Yorker in 1963, Arendt herself boldly went against common perceptions of what drove someone like Eichmann, an architect of the Shoah. She did not see in him a demonic monster, or a hideous incarnation of evil. Yes, what he orchestrated was an evil that defies description, a horror beyond any human imagining or understanding. But he himself was utterly mediocre, unimpressive, and, well, just boring. As she says:
“What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such” (emphasis mine).
In many ways, Eichmann was the opposite of the Socratic seeker: he accepted what the Nazi government told him, did his job as efficiently as he could, and lacked any desire to think much more about it. More than a monster, Eichmann, Arendt discovered, was a bureaucrat. Questioning and challenging received opinion were absent from his life; he had allowed himself to be shaped by his society in such a way that he became a wheel in its machinery. In short, he was banal.
This led to her famous phrase about the “banality of evil”. What she meant by this was not that the evil of the Shoah was ordinary or commonplace, but that unspeakable horror can arise from the banality of unthinking conformity. It’s the people under the sway of unthinking tyranny who are banal; the evils they perpetrate as a result of this are not. This is how she explains her understanding of evil in a letter to one of her critics:
“You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of ‘radical evil.’… It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical,’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.”
“Only the good has depth and can be radical”, radical as in going to the root of being itself. Evil, on the other hand, is a distortion of the good - a “fungus” as Arendt says. What’s challenging about this observation is that it does not let us make evil “other”. It is not somehow beyond us, out “there”. The bracing reality is that Eichmann’s unthinking and unquestioning banality is all-too-familiar. Indeed it might be fairly common.
What links Socrates in the 4th cent BCE to Hannah Arendt in 1963 is the vital awareness that true human liberty requires the courage to seek what is true, rather than accepting what others say. Acceptance is surely more comfortable in the moment. It probably was for Eichmann too. But it comes at a horrible cost.
And this is why striving to become more philosophical matters. It’s why it is important for us as Catholics, as believers. There may be few people in your workplace who go to Mass on Sunday, or who believe that the Church is in any way related to Salvation. But what they can’t stop doing is hungering to know more truly. Like Socrates, we need to join them, to challenge them. And let’s do this as we humbly acknowledge that while we have received Truth in the person of Jesus, we too only glimpse and grasp partially. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). Therefore we too share with them the desire and the need to become philosophic souls - people who wisely acknowledge that they know that they don’t fully know…yet! But in having Jesus, or rather being held by Him, I am certain that one day my quest to know truly will find endless satisfaction.
(For more on Hannah Arendt’s considerations on the banality of evil, see here.)