Saturday, 29 August 2009

Part one) The benefits of a Socratic education

The image of Socrates is one that immediately paints an image in our minds of a wise, sagely character in flowing white robes lecturing in a Parthenon. This is an absolutely false portrait of the man, who never washed his clothes and used to wander aimlessly in the markets of Athens in the dirty rags of a crazed tramp. In his wanderings he would ask people the big questions “How can one be happy?” “How should we ascertain justice?” “What is our purpose in life?” He gained his education simply by asking others regardless of class, education or background or how they lived their lives.

This sort of attitude toward thinking carries with it with a great deal of maturity. Firstly he never judged that a beggar would have nothing to say about living the good life compared to, say, a rich merchant and he never assumed that to be a scholar one must only study scholars. Socrates recognised the commonality of human suffering, passion and happiness. That set him free to study life in its entirety and began setting about unifying his ideas so that he might condense them into universally applicable philosophies.

I was initially massively bored by his findings, he thought somewhat blandly “Happiness is important to people” but his genius lay in how he said we might go about the business of happiness. His approach, again, initially bored me as suffering from the usual suspects of happiness being friends, food, clothes but then he dropped this bombshell.

“The unexamined life isn’t worth living”

I immediately debunked this preposterous idea knowing many people, who reflect little, if at all, on the nature of their lives and themselves, and live incredibly happy lives free of any misery. Conversely and perhaps more strikingly is that I know many people who reflect regularly on the life they have lived and their lives are awash with despair. One such fellow remarked to me “To examine my life itself actually furthers my depression not lessens it.” So, I thought, using the basics of Socrates' falsification theory, I myself have disproved Socrates' thesis. Take that philosophy, I thought.

As you will have guessed my victory was somewhat short lived, it kept bugging me. How could there be truth in this statement? I think the answer is that there is some truth in what Socrates is trying to say. His task was a hard one given how different we are and different people have different needs so the path to happiness is a varied one. So when attempting to find out what makes us happy he looked at the far more universal attitude we take towards embracing happiness and avoiding hardship. The variables, that can effect our lives, are almost infinite but we can attempt to plan for them. The only way in which we can plan for these is the learning from our own life experience and learning the lessons others have to offer on the common themes of human existence. To get any clarity on these issues these we must ascertain the truth and relevance of any advice given to us. This obviously requires some thought.

I think this style of self-analysis is something we do already consciously or unconsciously, we all have career aspirations, ambitions for the future all of which requires some degree of self reflection. So Socrates was right! Well sort of, self reflection is not the key to happiness but an examined life certainly paves the way to a happier one because it allows us to better understand how to be happy. Unfortunately that unpredictable jester of chance may indeed conspire to doom us to misery or perhaps unmitigated joy but the examined life allow us to better deal with life’s sorrows and develop strategies to better guide us toward the shores of elation. Allow me to explain my little thesis using the awesome power of math.

Socrates' thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life = Happiness
Dolan’s thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life > happiness or happiness more likely
And conversely
Food + clothes+ friends- examined life < happiness or happiness less likely

If we already embrace self-reflection why is it a problem? I have two problems: firstly we don’t do it enough and secondly we often do it for the wrong reasons. Self reflection commonly takes off often around the onset of grief. Death is the awful wake-up call that makes us muse on the problems of our mortality. Self reflection doesn’t have to be the bastard child of tragedy.

If you will appreciate self analysis as a potential provider of happiness then I would invite you to give a greater importance to self reflection in your life so you might make more informed decisions on how you might be happier. I also hope that we will also embrace a more Socratic attitude toward education, remembering that everybody is an expert in being alive.

It's nothing more than the worst form of intellectual snobbery to assume that some people have nothing to offer us in leading better lives simply because they are a different race/class/religion/education than from ourselves and yet I see people doing it all the time. I laugh to myself a little now because in a roundabout way they are, in essence, denying themselves happiness. Almost Karmic, isn’t it?

Diminishing our ignorance, increasing our understanding of one another, giving ourselves a greater depth of self-knowledge and a better understanding of how we might become happier people are just a few of the benefits of a Socratic education.

Who said philosophy was useless?

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