The Curse of Socrates

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“The life unexamined is one not worth living.” Socrates said that over two thousand years ago. He aspired to a better understanding of his world. He wanted to discover, not just be told, what love, justice, beauty and the good were. To him, just being handed the definitions of these concepts was not enough. He felt we owe it to ourselves and our community to work out what they really mean so we can better live up to them. The opposite side of the coin, of course, is that “ignorance is bliss.” There has been scientific study to back that up, by the way. Also, they executed Socrates for his efforts, so there’s that.

Even considering those last two points I would still have to agree with Socrates. If nothing else we claim to be higher forms of life, though I would question that. We claim our awareness is what separates us from beasts, yet at the first sign of discomfort we are ready to discard that awareness for the simple pleasure of the routine. Falling back on instincts, letting ourselves get drawn into the familiar is so easy, so safe, but is it really?

Yes questioning our values can make us anxious. Going with the flow reduces those fears, but does it really help us? Is it useful, honestly, to continue on a path that may be destructive to ourselves simply because we know that path? Is maintaining the definition of beauty that we have been handed preferable to opening our eyes to so much more beauty that could exist if we just open our minds to it? I suppose in a way there is a happiness to be found in keeping things the same. After all, it works for junkies.

Seriously though, I know it is difficult to take those first steps. I did it willingly and eagerly after my first Philosophy class, and I still found walking that walk perilous. My ideas of right and wrong were suddenly on shaky ground. If I continued on would I be the same person? The answer, all these years later, is of course not.

And I wouldn’t want to be that same person. That person marched to the beat rather than creating her own. That person floated through life, thinking fate would do or not as it wished rather than deciding she could shape her own. That person, convinced that we all had our values and they could never be changed would never set out to change the world by, among other methods, changing the way others see it. If I can open my eyes, so can everyone else.

I won’t lie. It is hard sometimes. There are some days I wish I could crawl into that cave and watch the shadow puppets some more. Once you have crawled out and adjusted your eyes to that harsh light, you can no longer see in the dark, which is just as well. I am better off for it, and while I will not suggest everyone should study Philosophy (seriously, you can get whip-lash) I would suggest you take that ancient Athenian’s message to heart. Once you get past that first push of anxiety you will be happier for it. Maybe you will no longer be able to enjoy the base euphoria of not knowing, but the world will be so much more open for you. Oh, and read his Apology and the Euthyphro, both by Plato, they will change your life, honest.




6 thoughts on “The Curse of Socrates

    • It is one of my all time favorite quotes. Dr. Gilbert, my first philosophy professor and my mentor was fond of it. He also coined a few of his own, my favorite being “you have to expand your cognitive tool chest if you are going to uncover the truth.”

        • He was good. Of course we are talking about the same man who got in front of my Intro to Logic Class and said “you are all f—ing idiots” the very first minutes of the semester. Then he went about showing us why.

          • I had a similar experience with a professor who started the first class saying, “Im telling you why America is going to HELL”, which he wrote in big letters across the black board – broke a piece of chalk – kicked a desk…and then dismissed class.

          • Wow! Nah, that wasn’t Dr. Gilbert, he was just trying to shock us awake. He explained why we were f—ing idiots: the endless logical errors and failures to think critically that our culture, both by accident and sometimes design, conditions us to make. He then spent 15 weeks training it out of us. He’s the one who introduced me to Socrates and the idea that the greatest knowledge you can have is the understanding that you don’t know as much as you would like to think you do.

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