Capable Men of History: Socrates

Socrates [470/469 – 399 BC] was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. In a time when beauty would have been measured by the standards of well-crafted city sculptures and artistic renderings of the gods—Socrates sat on the opposite side of this spectrum—with a serious reputation of ugliness, in addition to terrible hygiene and personal grooming habits. But don’t let these minor details distract you from Socrates’ more famed accomplishments—notably, holding a reputation as being one of the main founders of modern intellectual thought.


Capable Men of History Series: A bite-sized motivational collection of the thoughts and lessons of a selected assortment of capable men throughout history.

Episode I: Aristotle
Episode II: Marcus Aurelius
Episode III: Socrates
Episode IV: [Coming Soon] Want an update when it’s released? Sign up to our newsletter:


Introduction

There is a classic tale of Socrates attending a symposium (a lighthearted dinner party at which Greek aristocrats could have discussions and enjoy entertainment) that recalls Socrates pressing the various guests of the banquet to prove the very thing of which they are proud of the most. A chap named Kritoboulos stepped up to Socrates’ query and picked his beauty as the thing that he prided himself with the most (Vain much?) before presenting a pretty convincing argument for doing so.

After a back and forth exchange and a moment when Kritoboulos compared Socrates’ appearance to that of a satyr (A woodland-dwelling mythological type creature, which I can assume was a classic burn in those times) Socrates decided it was time to challenge Kritoboulos to a Beauty contest in which both sides would have to form an argument as to why they’re more beautiful than the other. (Like any good dinner party, right?)

It went a little something like this:

Kritoboulos: “I am ready; so come on, and if you have any subtle argument to prove that you are handsomer than I am, now’s your time, instruct us. But just stop one minute; have the goodness, please, to bring the lamp a little closer”

Socrates: “Ok, so do you consider that the quality of beauty is confined to man, or is it to be found in other objects also?”

Kritoboulos: “I consider beauty belongs alike to animals—the horse, the ox—and to many things inanimate: that is to say, a shield, a sword, and a spear are often beautiful.”

Socrates: “How is it possible that things, in no respect resembling one another, should each and all be beautiful?”

Kritoboulos: “Of course it’s possible! If it’s well constructed by the hand of man to suit the sort of work for which we obtained them, or if naturally adapted to satisfy some want, the things in either case are beautiful.”

Socrates: “Tell me then, do you know the reason we need eyes?”

Kritoboulos: “Clearly, the need of vision.”

Socrates: “If that’s the case, then my eyes are proved at once to be more beautiful than yours.”

Kritoboulos: “How so?”

Socrates: “Because yours can only see just straight in front of them, whereas mine by bulging out as they do, can see to the sides.”

Kritoboulos: “And amongst all animals, you will tell us that the crab has loveliest eyes? Is that your statement?”

Socrates: “Apparently, the creature has. And all the more so, since for strength and toughness its eyes by nature are the best constructed.”

Kritoboulos: “Well, let that pass. What of our noses, which is the more handsome, yours or mine?”

Socrates: “Mine, I imagine, if, that is, the gods gave us noses for the sake of smelling. Your nostrils point to earth; but mine are spread out wide and flat, as if to welcome scents from every quarter.”

Kritoboulos: “But consider this, the snubness of your nose, how is that more beautiful than straightness?”

Socrates: “For this good reason, a snub nose does not present a barrier; it allows the orbs of sight free range of vision: whilst your towering nose looks like an insulting wall of partition to obstruct the eyes.”

Kritoboulos: “As to the mouth, I give in at once; for, given mouths are made for purposes of biting, you could doubtless bite off a much larger mouthful with your mouth than I with mine.”

Socrates: “Yes, and you will admit, perhaps, that I can give a softer kiss than you can, thanks to my thick lips?”

Kritoboulos: “It seems I have an uglier mouth than any ass.”

Socrates: “And here is a fact which you will have to reckon with, if further evidence is needed to prove that I am handsomer than you. The divine, have as their company Sileni [Greek woodland spirits that accompany the gods], who are much more like myself, I take it, than like you. Is that conclusive?”

Kritoboulos: “Nay, I give it up (cried Kritoboulos), I have not a word to say in answer. I am silenced. Let them record the votes. I glady would know at once what I must suffer or must pay. Only (he added) let them vote in secret. I am afraid your wealth and his Antisthenes [Pupil of Socrates] combined may overpower me.”

So yeah, that’s a good introduction of Socrates for you. A wise, humorous, linguistic specialist who would have no problem getting a good conversation going at routine social events. But what exactly warrants this man a place on my Capable Men of History series?

Socrates rightly earns his place as a result of his distinguished method of debate, commonly known as the Socratic Method, or Socratic dialogue, a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

A method so valuable, that you’ll still see it utilized within classrooms the world over.

THE SOCRATIC METHOD

Socrates never left behind any words of his own, and the debated specifics of his history have been utterly dependant on the writings of his disciples Plato and Xenophon. Due to this limitation of the historical record, there isn’t a unified method or system that becomes apparent from Plato’s writings that we can endorse as the ‘original Socratic Method’.

Socrates continuously engaged in the skillful questioning of his students in an unrelenting search for truth. This was his modus operandi, and his relentless focus in this area often came at a consequence of his own affairs.

He became famous by the process in which he used to seek out his truths—and this was achieved by Socrates seeking out the foundations of his students’ and colleagues’ views and looking to see if they could hold up to a logical onslaught of questioning that looked to expose the weaknesses in faulty ways of thinking.

Socrates typically applied this method of examination to concepts that seemed to lack any concrete definition; e.g., the fundamental moral concepts at the time: Justice, holiness, wisdom, courage, and temperance—Such attempts directly challenged the unspoken moral beliefs of the time, exposing the inconsistencies of belief, and usually resulting in aporia.

How does the Socratic Method work?

It begins with 2 people.

Firstly, the teacher. This is the individual who poses questions (Also known as the Inquisitor)

Secondly, the student. This is the individual answering the questions. (Also known as the Interlocutor)

With the stage set, the process typically begins when curiosity arises and the teacher’s drive for intellectual exploration naturally leads to a question.

A wild hypothesis emerges…




Within this dialogue, the teacher professed his ignorance of the topic in order to engage in
a debate and reach the source of his student’s assumption. By “acting dumb,” and responding with further questioning for each response received, our teacher can travel further into the depths of the original axiom in search for its legitimacy.

What makes the Socratic Method such an effective way to explore ideas in depth is its ability to traverse complex discussions without the other person’s ego restricting the dialogue’s progression. Asking questions instead of asserting statements forces the listener to see it from your perspective whether they like it or not, because a question psychologically puts them in a position where they have to answer it. Thus, removing the conventional barriers that may be present when discussing controversial topics.

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”
― Socrates

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