Saturday, December 26, 2020

Love of wisdom

For many people, discussion is a battle to be won rather than a route to knowledge. We see this especially in political debates. But it is also common in non political conversations. I, myself, am not a lover of victory but a lover of wisdom. This is a point I made to my old friend Gorgias many years ago. I am happy to be refuted if I say something untrue just as I would happily refute someone else who has said something untrue. You see, my friends, I think it is a greater good to be refuted, for it releases one from the harm of carrying false beliefs. 

- Socrates

Take Care

Most people take great care when walking. After all, stepping on a nail can injure the foot. And stepping in mud can leave the foot unclean. 

This makes sense to me and yet I am often surprised to see how little care people take with their minds. Is it not true that our minds require the utmost care to avoid damage? When we step into certain thoughts we risk injury to our most precious of possessions — our character. Racial biases, xenophobia, and unreasoned superstitious beliefs are scattered everywhere throughout the world and we must take care to avoid them, lest they turn us into the very thing we may once have despised. 

Insofar as it makes sense to watch where we step to avoid damaging our feet, it seems to make equal sense to exercise caution with our minds. Let’s put reason first and let it keep our minds safe. In doing so we maintain the worthiness of our character. 

- Socrates

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Know thyself

Of the many things spoken about me, two quotes appear time and time again. The first, 'the unexamined life is not worth living', was part of my defense during my infamous trial. The second, 'know thyself', was important to me, but did not originate in my mind. Rather, it was an inscription near the entrance of the Temple of Delphi. Regardless of its origin, I offered it as advice to many of my friends.

If you wish to progress in your moral or intellectual life, you must know who you are. This knowledge provides a starting point for learning. Some people pretend to be something they are not, and in doing so they fail to recognize areas in which they may develop. Is it not true that if I think I am morally perfect, I am unlikely to seek improvement? Or, if I think I have great knowledge, I might not be open to new ideas? Or, if I think I am supremely talented, I may stop practicing my craft? Knowing who I am keeps me grounded and helps me become a better person.

So, if you truly wish to be the best person you can be, start by figuring out who you are. Look inward. Examine your life. Know thyself.

-- Socrates

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dignity of the Soul

 I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed people damaging the health of their soul. It can happen in many ways. The most common involves groups of people who mutually push each other to complain about people who are not present. I ask, "is this just?" Usually the response is, "well, she deserves it because she is such a terrible person", or some such thing. There is often some action or offense that underpins this thinking. Still, I maintain, that if the person is not there to defend themselves, then the complainers may have it all wrong. And in acting this way, they are damaging their own souls rather than putting right any offense that may have occurred.

Now, some will ask, "what do I mean when I use the term soul?" A wise and fair question. Where I use this word, you may use the word character. So, when I speak of damage to the soul, I am referring to the character of the person.

Try to conduct yourself in a manner that best protects the dignity of your soul, or character. When you find yourself being pulled into circles of complaint of gossip, hold yourself to a higher standard. Remind your friends that it is best to talk to the person themself rather than to criticize them behind their back. After all, by talking to the person, we may learn something new about them. We might discover that there are good reasons for their action. We may even find ourselves in a position to offer help and advice.

- Socrates

Monday, September 28, 2020

Does feeling good make something good?

I had a most interesting conversation with my friend Paul yesterday. We were deliberating over his passionate addiction to rich food and wine. I asked him whether these things are good, to which he replied "undoubtedly, yes".

I questioned his answer, because he never really seems to put much thought into his habit of eating and drinking. He said that because it makes him feel good, they must be good, so he indulges. But is this true? Does feeling good make something good?

I suggested that next time a bodily pleasure calls to him that he pause and think before accepting the call. I said, "ask yourself whether this pleasure is fleeting or lasting. Will it endure? Will it improve your strength of character? What sort of person will it make you?"

He did not seem convinced that such questions would be of any use. Still, I maintain that if we can calmly distinguish between fleeting bodily pleasures, which we often regret, and the pleasures of the mind, which contribute to the health of our soul, we will find ourselves making wise decisions and living the good life.

- Socrates

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument and the Existence of God

A Socratic Dialogue


I have spent many years engaging thoughtful people in dialogue. This morning I happened, quite by accident I assure you, to visit a small Bible discussion group. The discussion was being led by a wonderful young man by the name of Joshua. Because I arrived late, I sat near the back and listened for a few minutes until the group took a break for coffee and cakes. The food was tempting, but not nearly as tempting as the opportunity to meet Joshua. He seemed like he could use some help in properly formulating his argument for the existence of God. The following is my recollection of our dialogue.

- Socrates


SOCRATES: What is it you are doing here?


JOSHUA: I help people interpret The Bible so that they may learn how to live according to God’s plan.


Saturday, April 25, 2020

Finding happiness in lockdown

The wise country of New Zealand, which I currently call home, has been locked down for the last few weeks. It reminds me of the time we locked ourselves within the walls of Athens to protect ourselves from Sparta.
How many times I have argued that happiness is not to be found in shopping malls and other materialist pursuits, I cannot recall. Over the centuries I have talked to many people about seeking happiness in simpler pleasures. And now we have that opportunity. It seems to me that if we can let go of our attachment to material things, true happiness can be found.
Let us not cling to the things that we can no longer have. Bringing those things back is beyond our sphere of control. Let us focus instead on what we can control. Walking in the sun. Talking with friends. The things that make us truly human.
One day those other things will come back -- brought back by people who control them. And when they return, we may find that we don't need them as much as we once thought.
- S

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sphere of control

Living in times of trouble can bring out the best and worst in people. It can also reveal emotional reasoning that leads to anxiety. I have been meditating on this, and today my friends, if I may have your patience, I shall share my thoughts.

Consider the anxiety you experience if you have to perform in public. Perhaps you have to make an important speech. But why are you anxious? Usually it is because you are worried about what other people will think. You may believe that if something goes wrong, then people would think badly of you. And if they think badly of you, you would be a less worthy person. The emotional reasoning can be expressed quite simply.

1. If I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person

2. I don’t want to be a worthless person

3. So I must have the approval of others (from 1, 2)

4. Because I must have the approval of others, If something could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others, then I must constantly think about it and not relax

5. My speech could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others

6. So, I must constantly think about it and not relax (feelings of anxiety) (from 4, 5)

But why be anxious over something that is beyond your control? We have very little influence over the thoughts of other people. They will think whatever they like, and they are free to do so. Now, you don’t know that your speech will go wrong, but if it does, who is to say that you would lose the approval of the audience? They may admire your courage. And consider the thought that you’d be a worthless person if you don’t have the approval of others. Why base your reasoning on this rule? It can be easily refuted. For example, I imagine during World War 2, someone who hid Jewish people in their attic would not have had the approval of the Nazis, but they most certainly would be a worthy person. And very courageous. So the rule: if I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person seems to be questionable.

Another way to look at your speech would be to accept that the audiences’ thoughts are beyond your control and you should instead focus on what is within your control. Write the best speech you can. Speak as clearly as is within your ability. Then walk away knowing that you did your best. If someone makes a negative comment, you can control your response to their comment. Smile and say “you should see me on a bad day”. But also learn from their comment, if it is reasonable. Learning is within your control. Your interpretation of the situation is within your control.

Consider this. I might say that people shouldn’t die from viruses. That there should be a cure. That scientists should be working faster and politicians should do something different. And I might get very upset while making these statements. But these are all outside of my sphere of influence. Who am I to demand that the world is such that people don’t die from viruses? The world is as it is. My statement is a symptom of the demand for perfection. But if I demand perfection from an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, then disappointment will be my friend. Instead, I should accept that the world is not always going to be the way I want it to be and that a great many things are beyond my control. But I do have control over my own responses to these issues. I can avoid public places and do my best to avoid catching the virus and slow its spread.

Some people might respond to this position by suggesting that in accepting imperfection, we slow or stop improvement. After all, we want to make the world a better place, right? Such wise people make a good point. I respond by agreeing that we should try our best to improve the world. But that we should work within our sphere of influence and not ruminate on things that are beyond our control. Recognize what you can do and accept that there are things that our not within your control.

- Socrates

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Finding happiness during a pandemic

I recall, many many years ago, a troubled time in Athens. The Spartans were on the March and we had been ordered to retreat within the city walls. You moderns would call this a ‘lockdown’. It seemed to Pericles to be our best chance of surviving. However, many didn’t. And not because of Sparta. Our dear city was ravaged by a disease. A plague.

I believe 100,000 people died in the outbreak. By the gods, I can still see the look of worry on the faces of my friends. Nobody understood what was going on. Tyche, (Fortuna) was not smiling on us at that time. But we got through. The plague ended and we rebuilt. Insofar as the future can resemble the past, the same can be true today.

You are more fortunate than we Ancients. You have an understanding of how disease spreads. We knew nothing of this. If we had your knowledge, perhaps more of us would have survived. The idea of keeping physical distance may be contrary to our human nature, but your knowledge tells you that it is the best thing to do in this situation.

Many folk try to find happiness in a shopping mall. Now that you can’t seek it there, you may feel saddened. But is happiness really to be found in the mall? Perhaps we have been over estimating how much happiness consumer pursuits can bring. And perhaps we have been under estimating how much happiness can be found in a simple walk in nature or game with a loved one.

I know many people cannot currently walk in nature. We are locked down. Under curfew. But I believe some lockdown rules allow for a walk around the street for exercise. No congregations, of course. Use this time for quiet contemplation. Enjoy the fresh air.

There is no rush to be anywhere during a lockdown. Is this not the most fortunate way to be? You can read a book. You can stay up late and look at the stars. You can immerse yourself in music. Learn how to appreciate a symphony.

We are undoubtedly finding this time challenging. And much of this is out of our control. And so be it. Let the universe be what it will be. Trust that it inclines towards the good and spend your time focusing on what is within your control. Your impression of things is within your control. Your decision on how to spend your time at home is within your control. Your happiness is within your control.

Scientists are focusing on what is within their control; running experiments and developing treatments.

During our Athenian plague we learned a lot about how fragile a population can be. You are being reminded of this. But you can survive. Stay at home and fill your time. Let go of the consumerist route to happiness. You can find it within yourself.

- Socrates