Episode 4: Socrates and Wisdom

Updated: May 1, 2021

Read my post on episode three here.


This lecture focuses on Socrates, the personal dilemma he faced during the Axial Revolution and why it matters for the way we live our lives today.


The Oracle


The Greeks believed that they could communicate to the Gods via the oracle. The oracles represented God’s messages to humanity. So for example, Pythia would sit in the Oracle of Delphi in a state of trance by entering an altered state of consciousness and people would ask her their questions. The Oracle always gave vague, metaphorical responses that could essentially be twisted to fit any narrative, which is something we often see in ‘psychics’ or ‘sages’ today. For example, if someone went and asked the oracle if they should marry a particular person, the oracle would say something like ‘sometimes spring comes early.’ Information like that could help a person get insight, but it also could be interpreted to be in consonance with almost any narrative. The oracle claimed to give foresightful information, but it actually did not.


Socarates became famous quite quickly in Ancient Athens. For friends and followers, he was seen as someone who was wise. When his friends asked the Oracle if there was anyone more wise than Socrates, they were expecting a vague, obscure answer. Instead, they got a simple one: no. There is no one wiser than Socrates. When they told Socrates about this he was deeply confused. This is revelatory of who he is a person. If some sacred source were to tell us that we're very wise, we would probably pat ourselves on the back or be self-congratulatory about it. In fact, one of the most persistent biases that people have is that they think they have above average intelligence...which clearly isn’t possible because most people have average intelligence. According to Leo Ferraro we have entered an age of ‘confirmation porn’, where we’re constantly seeking validation for our beliefs through technology and social media. Most of us have a strong confirmation bias where we look for information that confirms our beliefs and avoids information that challenges them. Social media (our news feeds are mainly filled with views that confirm our beliefs, because we rarely ever follow accounts that challenge them) in a lot of ways, exacerbates this bias.


Socrates, on the other hand was presented with a great temptation; to accept the word from the Gods that he was the wisest person in the world. But instead, he challenged it. This gave birth to a new dilemma.


Socrates’s Dilemma


Socrates believed in the Gods as moral exemplars; as exemplars we could use to transcend and morally improve ourselves. This meant that it was impossible for the Gods to lie (note how the concept of ‘truth’ and ‘sacredness’ are intertwined here). But on the other hand Socrates also had profound self-knowledge; he understood how his mind was operating. This meant he was also painfully aware of his constraints and perils, which is why he was convinced that he was not wise. And so he was faced with a dilemma: how could it be that he was the wisest human being when he knew that he was not wise?


To find his answer, Socrates met with two groups of people who were associated with wisdom at the time --- the natural philosophers and the sophists.


Natural Philosophers


Although we only have fragments of their philosophies now, the natural philosophers seemed to represent a fundamental change in human cognition. One of the most famous natural Philosophers was Thales, whose philosophy can be broken down into three lines -

  1. All is the moist

  2. The lodestone has psyche

  3. Everything is filled with Gods





What is important here is not what he said but how it reveals something about human cognition.


All Is the Moist


By this Thales meant ‘everything is made out of water’. He is wrong. But that's beside the point. Think of how he reached this conclusion; water surrounded Ancient Greece, if we dug into the ground we would find water, water falls from the sky, everything needs water in order to live and water can take the shape of any container we put it in. Thales used reason and observation to come up with a plausible explanation of what the underlying substance is behind everything. So although Thales’ conclusion is false, his process of arriving at it is highly plausible and rational.


The Load-Stone Has Psyche


The load-stone is a natural form of magnet, which attracts other objects containing iron. ‘Psyche’ here refers to anything that is living in the sense that it is ‘self-moving’ --- that it can move itself and can cause other things to move. So Thales thought that he could move himself and move other things, and because he saw the magnet doing something similar, he concluded that both he and the magnet share a psyche. Again, he is wrong. But that doesn’t matter. He still used reason to come up with a plausible argument. He was trying to get at the underlying force behind things.


Note: think of why Psyche became the word we use for mind and Psychology. It means to move oneself and to move other things with it. It’s because in order to move anything else, first a shift or a move has to be made in your mind. This way of thinking about ‘psyche’ started with Thales.


Everything Is Filled With Gods


Ontology refers to the study of being and the structure of reality. Ontological analysis refers to using reasoning to get at the underlying structure of reality, to get at the underlying forces at work. It is this line of thinking that drove the scientific world revolution. According to Thales discovering the world in this fashion provokes awe and wonder, and gives people a sense of connecting with what's real. That’s what it is to experience something as sacred.


Socrates Rejects the Natural Philosophers


According to Socrates the Natural Philosophers were seekers of the truth. However he realized that this was not enough. The Natural philosophers gave us truth without information, knowledge without indicating how to become wise and no indication for how to overcome self-deception or how to become a good person. The same problem is reflected in our current scientific worldview --- it gives us all kinds of knowledge but in no way trains us how to become wise or how to transcend ourselves and become better people. The Natural Philosophers pursued the truth, but with no existential relevance.


The second group of people that Socrates interacted with was the Sophists.



As mentioned in lecture two, the Axial Revolution brought about an emergence of democracy in Ancient Greece. Since everyone was given a fair chance to voice themselves, what mattered the most was people’s capacity for debate and argumentation. The better an individual was at arguing and persuading other people, the more powerful and influential they were. So the relationship between language and cognition became extremely important. People realised that there were certain standardised skills that could be practiced, developed and used to influence the minds of other people. This brought about the psychotechnology of the rhetoric.


The sophists had mastered the use of the rhetoric and they were only concerned with teaching these skills to other people. They didn’t care about what they were helping argue for or against. They separated the psychotechnology of rhetoric from any kind of moral commitment. The only thing that mattered was empowering the individual to win the argument, regardless of what the argument actually was.The Sophists picked up on the fact that when we communicate with each other we are not necessarily driven by the truth, rather we’re driven by what we find salient and relevant or what we believe to be the case.


Think about how this plays out in our lives today. Take advertisements for example. The point of advertisements is to make certain things relevant and salient to us so that certain associations are made in our brains, which then lead us to go buy the product. This often happens in a way that is completely disconnected from the truth. Beer advertisements for example often have very attractive people having a really good time. It gets you to associate the concept of consuming alcohol, with attractiveness and having a ‘good life.’ This is not representative of the relationship many people have with alcohol or the actual effects of it. Advertisements do not lie to us, they just don’t make certain things salient so as to avoid any negative associations with the product. We know beer isn’t really liked for being attractive and always having a great time. We know about the associations it has with mood disorders and diseases. But that doesn’t matter, because our beliefs are only a small proportion of what drives our behaviour. What’s relevant in these cases is the notion of bullshit. Harry Frankfurt in his famous essay On Bullshit, talks about the difference between the bullshitter and the liar. A person can be both, but there’s a difference between the two.


Lying depends on the fact that, in general, people are committed to the truth, because people want to be in touch with reality. The liar concerns himself with the truth because it’s what he wants to ensure that you don’t believe --- he wants to make you believe that p is the case, when in reality p is not.


But bullshitting works differently. The bullshitter, unlike the liar, is unconcerned with the truth. When someone is bullshitting you, they don’t care about the truth, they just care about manipulating you (as in the beer advertisements). They work in terms of rhetoric and try to make certain things relevant and salient to you so it grabs your attention and changes your behaviour accordingly.


Take this example from the Simpsons. There are two aliens running for political office in America. This is the speech of Kang, one of the candidates:





‘As a young boy I dreamt of being a baseball, but tonight we must move forward not backward, upwards not downwards...twirling, twirling, towards freedom.’


The speech is meaningless. But it invokes youth, movement, and baseballs...things that are all associated with the idea of being American. It gives them this rush, and primes them into voting for him because of all the positive associations that have been activated.


In fact this prevalence of Bullshit is part of the reason we’re in a meaning crisis to begin with. From advertisements to how we use technology and social media, separating salience from truth is something we’re constantly doing as a culture.


We also cannot lie to ourselves. Although the phrase, ‘stop lying to yourself,’ is used quite often, it is impossible to actually do so. We may for example want to believe that we are the best at doing a certain thing but if we don’t actually believe that is the case, we can’t just flip a switch and suddenly believe it. We cannot lie to ourselves because we are in possession of the truth. Believing is not something someone can just do, it’s not a voluntary action.


What we can do is bullshit, or deceive ourselves. We can direct our attention to a certain thing. When our attention is on something, it becomes more salient to us. And when something is more salient to us, we automatically pay more attention to it, which again, makes it more salient. It's a self-organising cycle. What’s more our attention can also be ‘caught’ (think of all the times you were working on something and you landed on some random page on social media because some notification popped up). Attention and salience go hand in hand and feed on each other; as you keep scrolling through social media, more things are made salient to you; because they’re entertaining you pay more attention to them, which in turn makes them more salient and makes you pay even more attention to them. This cycle gets dangerous when the salience of something distracts, whether or not it's representative of reality. That is how we deceive ourselves.


Because of this, Socrates had an antagonistic relationship with the Sophists. They stood for a kind of thinking that was opposite of what the Axial Revolution represented. They were the opposite of rational knowledge and the attempt to overcome self-deception. They essentially promoted bullshit --- they knew how to make something salient and relevant but they didn’t care whether it holds true or not. Although the Sophists had the power (through the rhetoric) to transform people or deeply influence them, they disconnected their work from any pursuit of the truth.


So if the natural philosophers are truth without relevance, the sophists represent relevance disconnected from truth.


The Natural Philosophers gave us knowledge and facts, but did not make it existentially relevant to us. On the other hand, the Sophists knew how to make something seem relevant but didn’t care for what it was. Socrates wanted both --- individuals who could pay attention to things that mattered or things that were true. He wanted to find people who could find the truth relevant, in a way that was reflected in the way they lived their lives. He wanted truth and salience to go hand in hand. According to him, it was the only way to live a meaningful life.


Socrates also wanted to help people realise how quickly we pursue things that are always salient to us like happiness and fame, and how little we really know about any of these things. This is because we are often driven by powerful motivations that are salient to us, that are in excess of our understanding of their truth or reality. We dive into various pursuits before grasping the truths or reality of them. We constantly bullshit ourselves.


Socrates’s questions would provoke strong reaction in people. They would either get very annoyed with Socrates and dismiss him, or they would have an insight; they would realise the importance of keeping relevance and truth tightly coupled with each other in order to avoid self-deception. When Socrates realised he had this effect on people, he found his answer to his dilemma on whether or not he was wise; he knew that the gods were not lying and that he was the wisest of all humans since he knew what he did not know. He knew what he did not know in a way that allowed him to directly and painfully confront his capacity for bullshitting himself. Not all of us have the courage to say, ‘this is what I am pursuing and I have no Idea what’s going on’, but he did.


Socrates managed to annoy enough people for him to be brought to court. They decided they would let him go if he agreed to stop his pursuit of philosophy and questioning and arguing with people in the way that he did (the ‘Socratic’ method). Socrates' response to this was: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ He knew that a life in which there was no effort made to put truth and relevance together is a life that is not worth living, because it is a life where one is beset by self-deception and engaged in self-destructive behaviour. It is a life full of bullshit.


He also knew ta erotika. This comes from the word ‘erotic’, which didn’t mean anything sexual in Ancient Greece. It referred to the ability to love well. Socrates knew what to care about; he knew how to care about things that mattered and how to ignore everything else. He would often walk into the marketplace and say ‘look at all the things I do not need’ and say to people, 'How much time did you spend on fixing your hair this morning? How much on fixing yourself?’. Socrates knew how to put reason and love together.


Socrates was also compared to a midwife; he knew how to take that sense of what makes life meaningful and help people give ‘birth’ to their better self. He wanted to help people realise the importance of keeping truth and relevance together. Socrates was so committed to this belief, that he was willing to die for it.


In the next lecture we’ll take a look at how Plato took what he learned from Pythagoras and from Socrates, and put it together.


I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked this post, please share it and subscribe to my blog/add yourself to the mailing list so you get a notification when I post. Thank you for your time.

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