Recently, I have been reflecting on the philosophical ideas of Socrates. Initially, I thought it would be super difficult to actually relate to the ideas of a guy that has been dead for thousands of years, but as it turns out, that was not the case. Through reading more about Socrates’ life and his beliefs, I became more and more astounded by the timelessness of philosophical ideas, and how the discussions that Socrates had in Ancient Greece with his pupils are still so applicable to how I live my life as a Canadian teenager in the 21st century.
Who Was Socrates?
Born in 399 BC (iPhones didn’t exist back then), Socrates is regarded as one of the most important philosophers to have ever lived. He pioneered many idea and schools of thought that still persist to this day, so I decided that in this article, I would talk about some of Socrates’ ideas that really stuck with me.
One of Socrates’ greatest and longest-enduring contributions to any kind of philosophy was the idea of Socratic Method. This was a method of discourse that Socrates developed, in which questions of increasing abstraction are continuously posed to an individual trying to express knowledge about a specific subject. This is supposed to expose inconsistencies, contradictions and lack of knowledge in an area where a person believes that are well learned.
Ultimately, the goal of the Socratic method was to show a person exactly what was “inside their head”, including the extent of their knowledge about certain subjects, as well as the base axioms of their system of beliefs.
I found myself relating to this idea, but also a little bit unsettled by Socrates’ method . I did some self-reflection about why I felt this way. I think it comes back to my fear of not knowing/understanding the stuff I really love learning about. I really love math, physics, and computer science, and as a result, I spend a lot of time learning as much as I can about these subjects. However, for some reason (I guess this is just due to my personality), I have almost an . obsession with my knowledge being real. When I say real, I mean understanding everything so well that I could teach it or re-derive it on the spot. I crave having this kind of mastery, and I work every day to attain it, but when I hear about methods such as Socrates’, it makes me slightly anxious because I realize the fragility of knowledge: how with the right questions everything that you think you know can crumble away.
Soon after this reflection, I realized that this is silly: we should welcome assaults upon what we “think we know”. In fact, the best way to ensure that you really know something is to questions yourself as much as possible, to attempt to come up with counterexamples and contradictions to the facts you believe to be true.
Once we com to realization that questioning is a good thing, because it allows us to grow and it allows us to improve, I think that this process of trying to “break” your knowledge can become enjoyable. I haven’t completely reached this stage of emotional and “knowledge” maturity quite yet (I’m working on it!) but in the end, learning about the Socratic method really opened my eyes even more to the importance of questioning. After all, as Socrates said:
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
The development of knowledge is not simply the goal of “knowing” as much as possible, but rather an eternal dance, an eternal struggle where we constantly have to re-examine what we know, revisit knowledge, relate new knowledge to old knowledge, and constantly kindle the flame of curiosity and passion to learn more about the world through relentless questioning and scrutiny.
As I continued to look deeper in Socrates’ philosophical teachings, I started to look into his thoughts on wisdom and “wise people”. I was listening to a podcast about Socrates where they told an interesting story about a friend of Socrates who went to consult the Oracle of Delphi. This friend asked the Oracle who the wisest man in the world was, and the Oracle replied that it was Socrates. Socrates was shocked to learn this fact, so he went around and did some investigative work. He simply talked to people he thought were wise about their beliefs and about their knowledge, using the Socratic method.
He found that people actually think they know a lot more than they really do, and that when their beliefs and convictions were put under question by the Socratic method, these so-called “wise people” lacked the self-awareness to even realize that they didn’t knowing what they thought they knew. From this, came one of Socrates’ most famous realizations about his own wisdom:
“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”
I truly think that this is what makes someone wise. Realizing that on this massive planet, in of the infinity of the cosmos, one has to have the self-awareness to not only realize how “small” they are compared to the large physical systems that make up our existence, but also how limited ones’ knowledge actually is. Every single day, as I dive deeper into the subjects that I love, like physics and pure mathematics, I usually have feelings of true stupidity. I legitimately feel stupid, because I when I open up my textbooks or I read something online, I come to two realizations:
- For every single subject that I have spent countless hours studying, into which I have been progressively diving deeper and deeper, there are likely many people around the world who are much more knowledgeable about this subjects than me.
- In the grand scheme of all the knowledge that has existed throughout history, even these experts, who are so much better than me, only posses a tiny fraction of all the available knowledge as well.
Damn. So where does that leave me? It’s crazy to think about how little I actually know. But at the same time, it is an incredibly humbling exercise, and honestly, it is kind of exciting. It is exciting because there is so much to learn. I love learning, so coming to realization that I’ll never be able to learn everything, that my entire life I will constantly be able to learn more and more and more, is a very awesome proposition. I mean, it is kind of intimidating, and it makes mathematics and physics (the stuff I love) seem like massive monoliths that you are battling against in order to maximize your knowledge. In reality, they are more like never-ending mountains, the view of the ground below become progressively more inspiring and breath-taking the farther you climb.
Going back to Socrates, I don’t think I have ever related more to a philosophical idea. I love the fact that people (or at least a person) were already thinking about this as the communication and gathering of knowledge was really taking structure during the “Golden Ages” of Ancient Athens.
It again made me realize the eternalness of knowledge. How even thousands of years ago, humans still were climbing the same mountains as the modern knowledge-seekers are. How people, like Socrates, were already trying to come up with ideas about how people go about climbing these mountains
In Conclusion: Know Oneself
I feel like the two previously discussed idea come together under one single umbrella of “knowing oneself”. In order to actually live a worthwhile life, the pursuit of knowledge is necessary, as it is something eternal, beyond our tangible and our physical lives. To pursue knowledge, we have to keep multiple things in mind about the nature of asking questions, and deciding what is true, but I think that one of the most important ideas to always adhere to comes from deep within: knowing oneself.
We always have to remember that we are finite. The capacity of our brains to learn and understand is finite, and thus, all knowledge is subject to being questioned. We have to know ourselves well enough in order to do two things. The first is knowing what we know. The second is knowing what we don’t know, and having the self-awareness to be able to ask questions that allow us to determine the difference between knowing and not knowing.
This is not an easy task. I don’t claim to have mastered any of this. Like the pursuit of knowledge, self-awareness is a constant struggle and a constant journey. But it is something to always strive for. If you don’t believe me, take it from Socrates:
“An unexamined life is not worth living. “— Socrates
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