How Socrates Could Save America

Socratic Questioning, Stoicism and a Return to Virtue Ethics

Donald J. Robertson
Jan 14 · 8 min read

hy did an angry mob storm the U.S. Capitol Building on 6th January? Perhaps simply because it seemed to them like the right thing to do. In their own imagination, they were acting quite righteously, and felt completely justified in doing things that looked to the rest of the world like madness, and a form of insurrection.

One woman turned to a reporter and said excitedly: “We should all go in, get them, and teach them a lesson.”

On hearing the initial news that the building had been breached, the crowd protesting outside cheered loudly. One woman turned to a reporter and said excitedly: “We should all go in, get them, and teach them a lesson.” Indeed, hot tempers can turn many people into budding educationalists. Take moral confusion, stir in self-righteous anger, and what you end up with, though, is a recipe for all sorts of violence.

A few hours earlier, the crowd had been marching along Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statue of Benjamin Franklin that stands outside what’s currently the Trump International Hotel. Ben Franklin’s reflective, philosophical attitude toward his own values stands in contrast to the brash confidence of the angry mob. They believed an outburst of violence would teach their political enemies a lesson. He believed the republic would flourish only if the freedoms secured by The Constitution could be lived with wisdom and virtue. In a letter dated 17th April 1787, he wrote:

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.

Franklin therefore took the matter of improving his own character extremely seriously.

After reading the dialogues of Xenophon early in his twenties, Franklin fell in love with the Socratic method of questioning. At first he grilled other people, which they found quite irritating. Eventually, though, he realized that it was better to focus on questioning himself. He set about doing this systematically, for the rest of his life, as described in the part of his Autobiography titled Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection. Some of these values would be especially worth reviving in the Age of the Internet:

  • Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation
  • Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Despite the proliferation of self-help books and articles, in print and online, this type of rigorous moral self-examination is actually very rare in modern society. Many people have barely examined their own values and as a result their ethical compass is, arguably, quite broken. For Franklin, though, and the Greek philosophers who inspired him, the quest to develop a rational and coherent set of virtues was worthwhile in itself, and should perhaps even be our supreme goal. Indeed, Socrates famously went so far as to say that, in this regard, the unexamined life was not worth living.

The Socratic Method

Socrates named his method after the technique of cross-examination (elenchus) used in Athenian law courts, where, then as now, witnesses were questioned to expose problems with their testimony. We should rigorously interrogate ourselves, he thought, so that we may expose contradictions in our own morality. He also described this method as a therapy for the mind, using words rather than drugs — a “talking cure”, as we say today. It was designed to overcome a special type of arrogance: the belief that we know things we do not actually know about the most important aspects of life.

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Photo by author, quote from Socrates at US Library of Congress.

The method involves concisely explaining our view of justice, or some other virtue, and then carefully considering exceptions to that definition. Socrates asks an Athenian general how he defines courage, for instance, and he says that it means standing your ground in battle and not running. Socrates points out that, among other things, that wouldn’t apply to cavalry units, who charge at the enemy. So they begin to revise the definition. If we’re willing to question all of our values in this way, he said, we become more open minded. The Socratic method, in other words, was introduced as a remedy for moral conceit and self-righteousness.

This kind of self-examination has profound psychological implications. Socrates, and the Stoic philosophers who followed in his footsteps, realized that our feelings of anger are often rooted in our conception of justice. When we feel strongly that someone’s actions are unjust, it’s difficult not to become angry — they did something they shouldn’t have done. When we respond with anger, though, we tend to feel our own actions are morally just — we’re giving them what we think they deserve in return.

At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Socrates tackles head-on the popular saying, in ancient Greece, that justice consists in “helping our friends and harming our enemies.” He applies his trademark method to this way of thinking in order to expose in it what he considers to be a fatal contradiction. The Greek philosophers say that anger is typically associated with the desire for revenge, harming our enemies. The protestor at Capitol Hill who said “We should all go in, get them, and teach them a lesson”, was putting her revenge fantasy into words. However, the cliche she adopted hints at what Socrates saw as the central paradox of anger — is it a desire to improve things or make them worse?

Any outside observer to an argument will tell you that anger has a tendency to bring about the complete opposite of what it desires — like the mom yelling “Stop crying now!” at her toddler in the supermarket. For the most part, anger is counter-productive, especially when it comes to solving complex interpersonal or social problems. Likewise, paradoxically, armed militia groups in the US who claim to be defending constitution are the ones currently placing freedom and democracy most at risk.

It appears that these groups want to generate the very crisis they claim to be concerned about: a confrontation with the government. — Mick Mulroy, ‘Will there be an American insurgency’, ABC News

Time will tell but it’s likely that storming the Capitol Building also achieved the opposite of what those protestors wanted.

“Do good to our friends and make friends of our enemies” was universally conceded to be one of Socrates’ maxims.

So do we want to harm our enemies or educate them? “Which is better,” asks Socrates, “to live among bad citizens, or among good ones?” Nobody wants evil neighbours. No rational person would, therefore, intentionally corrupt and worsen the characters of their own fellow-citizens. They would merely harm themselves in doing so. Anger, though, is the desire to cause harm, or at least it’s typically at odds with the desire to do good. That’s why it usually leads to escalation. Angry people often behave irrationally, as if they want to make their enemies worse and create more of them — and they easily succeed in doing so.

We see it every day on the Internet. Peter says something that hurts Paul’s feelings. Paul gets angry and says something nasty back, because he wants to hurt Peter’s feelings. Peter, now more hurt and enraged, does the same back. And so it goes on, with the level of hostility often rapidly spiralling out of control. In recent years, hatred being fomented online has started to colour political discourse in general. It’s now given birth to a level of mutual contempt between factions that’s bordering, at times, on mass hysteria, as the incident at Capitol Hill shows.

If you really believe that something is bad for society then, logically, you should be strongly motivated to make things better, not worse. Socrates hints at but holds back from stating the conclusion of his argument in the Republic. However, Plutarch, a later philosopher wrote that “Do good to our friends and make friends of our enemies” was universally conceded to be one of Socrates’ maxims.

Ending Quarrels

If only the female protestor who wanted to “teach them a lesson” had meant that literally. She would have been fulfilling her duty as a citizen, for instance, if she believed an injustice had been done and tried her best to provide evidence. Instead, her anger and intolerance led her to join a mob who were doing the opposite, seeking to cause harm rather than to actually “teach” anyone anything. At the end of the day, their acts of violence are likely to make those who disagree with them more hostile, to create more enemies, and more potential for conflict.

In a sense, she didn’t know whether she wanted to help her perceived enemies or harm them, make them better or make them worse. If she’d followed the Socratic method, like Franklin whose statue she probably walked past that day, it would have led her to question the contradictions in her own moral reasoning. It could also have helped her to focus more on her own character, and making best use of the lawful and rational means within her own control.

Five centuries after Socrates’ death, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus told his students that they should dedicate their lives to emulating him. The main lesson he thought they could learn from Socrates might surprise you. “The wise and good man neither himself fights with any person,” Epictetus says, “nor does he allow another, so far as he can prevent it.” Socrates, he says, provides the best example of this. He exhibited extraordinary tolerance and self-control, never becoming angry with others even when they were insulting him. He was able to have penetrating conversations with others about their deepest values, questioning even their conception of what is just, while still remaining civilized and friendly.

What was his secret? Epictetus says that Socrates always remembered that other people’s opinions were up to them, and not directly under his control. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. He therefore placed more importance on improving himself than upon trying to influence others. Not even a political tyrant, says Epictetus, can stop me from taking responsibility for my own character and actions. If we really loved wisdom and could stand to talk about it rationally with others, while tolerating their freedom to disagree, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The Socratic belief that virtue is the main thing in life, says Epictetus, brings about “love in a family, concord in a state, peace among nations, and gratitude to God.”

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Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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