But why are we talking about Socrates? If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in practical wisdom to help you deal with contemporary crises and challenges. What could possibly be relevant in the story of a philosopher who died 2400 years ago? Isn’t this perpetuating the bad habit of looking to the teachings of long-dead white men for answers in a young, multi-ethnic, post-feminist world? Worse, it seems to be celebrating that hoary old intellectual chestnut, ‘reason’ – and reason has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, deservedly so. The twentieth century saw reason applied to abominable ends: the rational extermination of millions of people in death camps; the establishment of the technocratic state, which claimed the right to socially engineer its populace in the name of rational gain; the ascendency of neo-liberal economic management, which posits every individual as a rational, value-maximizing agent (and too bad for you if you don’t fit the paradigm); the invention of the atomic bomb, turning war into Mutually Assured Destruction and international relations into game theory.
Why should we think about Socrates in the middle of cleaning up the mess that has been made by his descendants? Sure, Socrates is interesting – as a relic. But here in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have more important things to do than reflect on things that happened in the long-distant past.
I hear these kinds of views from people all the time. I agree with the criticisms to a large extent. Still, I think that, in this particular case, there is good reason for us to delve into the story of a dead white philosopher. The story of Socrates has immense value today, especially for those people concerned to address the challenges of the present and our transition into a sustainable future.
Socrates invented a new way of speaking and telling the truth that shifted the foundations of ancient culture. If we are to pass into an age of transition, we need an equivalent shift in the philosophical foundations of our culture. This is what makes Socrates relevant today.
Consider the culture that Socrates was up against: a wealthy aristocratic elite who paid lip service to democracy but who were more than ready to call for authoritarian rule when the populace got out of hand; a priestly class mired in dreams of the past, who refused to acknowledge that the Classical Age was history, and that Greek society was steadily coming apart; a population terrified of change and incapable of thinking for themselves, exemplified by people like Chaerephon, who would rather ask the oracle what she thought of Socrates than make a judgement call himself. The final days of the Greek Classical Age reflect our own times back at us. They reflect a society mired in problems that it was incapable of dealing with because of its commitment to cognitive frames that no longer applied.
Socrates offered a new way of thinking, speaking, and being that blew the old frames apart. He created a new way of thinking about truth that rocked the foundations of ancient culture.
How did he do it? Where did Socrates get his ‘counter-cultural’ insights from? If we can figure out how Socrates successfully challenged the cultural paradigm of his time, it may indicate strategies for addressing the political and cultural intransigence of our own times. It could provide insights into how to drive social innovation through unyielding cultures – to be precise, how to change culture by transforming our relationship to truth.
We can boil Socrates’ strategy down to three principles. The first is: make change fun.
The ruling class of Athens hated Socrates. They described him as annoying gadfly, always buzzing about and pestering them with difficult questions. The aristocratic youth the city, on the other hand, loved Socrates for his insouciant attitude and the way that he encouraged them to think for themselves. Moreover, they appreciated how Socrates’ style of arguing with people – the famous Socratic dialectic – was a principled form of combat, much like the wrestling matches that they enjoyed in the gymnasium. As Friedrich Nietzsche (1855-1900) claims, it was the competitive, game-like, nature of dialectic that appealed to the Athenian youth.
[Socrates] fascinated because he touched on the agonal [competitive] instincts of the Hellenes – he introduced a variation into the wrestling-matches among the youths and young men (Twilight of the Idols, 8).
The Greeks had dialectic before Socrates. They knew the general form of dialectical exchange: one person ventures a statement or claim to truth which the other person disputes, each replying to the other in turn until the parties are reconciled or one or other of them concedes defeat. Prior to Socrates, however, dialectical contests were an unruly exchange of verbal (and non-verbal) blows. Socrates insisted on a different way of conversing and discovering the truth. Drawing on the example of wrestling matches and other competitive games, Socrates introduced an element of rigor to dialectical debate and thereby made it a genuine philosophical method.
The method caught on because it was fun. Socrates knew that young men like to argue. He took the organized sparring system that was popular in the gymnasium and made it central to their debates. He let them wrestle over ideas.
Socratic dialectic is thoroughly institutionalized today. The dialectical form of debate is central to the legal profession and courts, and to debating societies internationally. Dialectic has been normalized, professionalized, and domesticated. This was not how it was perceived in Socrates’ time. In Socrates’ time, dialectic was a tool of war.
Imagine a mash-up of legal cross-examination and professional wrestling and you’re close to imagining how Socratic dialectic must have come across in ancient Athens. We are so familiar today with the idea of debating our way to the truth that it is hard to appreciate how insurgent Socrates’ innovation actually was. No doubt Socrates needed to come out punching, given the implications of what he was up to. Socratic dialectic not only democratized the pursuit of truth, enabling ordinary, unqualified citizens to band together and seek out the truth themselves – it effectively invalidated the methods of producing truth that had dominated society to date. It deprived poets and oracles, and the religious and political authorities who depended on them, of the absolute right to speak without justifying their discourse, claiming the authority of divine inspiration.
This brings us to the second change-making principle to take from Socrates: invalidate the old talk. When a society or organization stands on the brink of radical change, people with a vested interest in the old order will say almost anything to prevent change from taking place. If they are numerous and/or powerful enough, they don’t need to come up with clever arguments to justify their intransigence. All that they need to do is continue talking the old talk – the talk that made perfect sense before people realized that things were coming apart.
People in times of crisis love to hear the old talk. It is comforting. It allows them to believe that nothing is going wrong. If you want to drive change through a society or organization, you need to find ways of invalidating that talk. You need to insist on new ways of thinking and discussing situations that make it impossible to talk the old talk without sounding like a senile fool.
This is what Socrates achieved with his dialectical method. Plato’s dialogues are full of accounts of Socrates’ conversations with politicians, aristocrats, Sophists and seers. Time and time again, Socrates makes them look like idiots. Socrates doesn’t achieve this just by pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies in their reasoning. Socrates gives them a lesson in how to discover the truth.
Ultimately, Socrates had a single message for the old establishment: ‘These are the new rules. This is how the game is played’. Behind each mannered dialectical exchange, the ancient edifice of poetic truth is creaking and crumbling as it sways on its foundations. Only the old talk holds it up.
Invalidate the old talk. New expressions of truth can bring an outmoded paradigm to the ground.
The third insight to take from the story of Socrates concerns personal courage. Change-makers must be ready for war. You can surround yourself with allies and embed yourself in echo chambers, but sooner or later you’ll find yourself confronted by a stern opponent. Be prepared. Have the courage of your convictions. Socrates continued to fight against the paradigm of poetic truth right up to his death. When a tribunal representing the Athenian elite convicted him of inventing false gods and corrupting the youth, he gave them a sound account of his life and motivations and chose to drink hemlock rather than go into exile. Socrates knew that the struggle was bigger than him. Social change requires sacrifice.
What kind of perspective on life does one need to convince oneself that it could be worth sacrificing one’s life for the sake of social change? From where do we get this kind of courage? Nietzsche reading of Socrates provides us with the insight that we need here. Socrates refused to be cowed by the arrogance and power of the old elite. He looked beyond the trappings of power and realized that the old world was already crumbling to bits. As Nietzsche claims:
[Socrates] saw behind his aristocratic Athenians; he grasped that … old Athens was coming to an end. And Socrates understood that all the world had need of him – his expedient, his cure, his personal art of self-preservation… (Twilight of the Idols, 9)
Socrates saw that change was coming – indeed, it was already under way. He affirmed the opportunity to be the voice of change. Athens needed his voice, as strange and unpalatable as it was to some. This new way of talking with others and telling the truth was the voice of the future, crying out from a desperate present. Socrates had the courage to be the voice of change: to speak to the present as if from the future, so to sever the ties of the past that hold history in place.
Be the voice of change. This is the third lesson to take from the story of Socrates. To drive change through a society or organization, we need to find new ways of talking with others and telling the truth that make the old ways redundant. Then we need to embody them.
Take a deep breath. Open your throat and speak the future into being.
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