Whatever your (political) opinion is, I think we can all agree that we live in a period of change. Sadly, change almost always provokes conflict. When I look at the news these days, I see a lot of angry people. Why are we all so angry? Or, more importantly, is there anything we can do to calm down everyone a little? Is there any solution at hand to bring everyone together again, or at least make us understand each other and stop yelling?
In my view, a lot of stories can inspire us to live more peacefully. In cultures all over the world we know of religious figures (such as Jesus in the West or Buddha in the East) that taught us their ways of non-violent living. And even more recently there’s loads of amazingly inspiring people to be found (think of Gandhi or Martin Luther King), that showed us what a peaceful protest could do. I want to share with you the story of another, maybe less well known, advocator of peace. It’s the story of one of the most influential philosophers of all time, certainly in the West. Let’s explore how we can change the world by asking: ‘What would Socrates do?’.
“THE SECRET OF CHANGE IS TO FOCUS ALL YOUR ENERGY, NOT FIGHTING THE OLD, BUT ON BUILDING THE NEW.” – SOCRATES (469–399 B.C.)
Socrates is widely known and seen as ‘the first philosopher’ of the Western world. He remains one of the few philosophers who made a revolutionary contribution to our ways of thinking, even though he has never written down any of his thoughts himself! Most of what we know about Socrates today is brought to us by the Dialogues of Plato, another great philosopher and one of Socrates pupils. Described in the texts by Plato, we meet a man who was inspiring to some, annoying to others, but – in my view – certainly a great symbol for peace.
Socrates was, as described by others, quite an ugly man who spend his years practising philosophy among the common people of Athens. He gave free lessons to anyone who was interested (or wasn’t, he started talking to anyone he saw on the street) and didn’t care much about material goods, fame or money. Most of the time, you could find him on the streets, talking to random strangers using his own method of discussion.
SOCRATES SHOWED US HOW LITTLE WE ACTUALLY KNOW. BUT FOR THIS VIEW HE HAD TO PAY A VERY HIGH PRICE.
Through his Socratic Method, he questioned the definition of common terms (e.g. ‘courage’ or ‘justice’). He asked questions and searched for situations in which the given definition didn’t apply, so his discussion partner had to come up with a new or adjusted definition.
Socrates challenged the people he met on the streets to think more critically about their opinions and as a result they were often left with a feeling of great confusion. After a life of talking with people who thought to know a great deal about one thing or another, but didn’t have that much knowledge after all, Socrates made a shocking and revolutionary conclusion:
“THE ONLY TRUE WISDOM IS TO KNOW THAT YOU KNOW NOTHING.” – SOCRATES
This idea didn’t make him very popular among ‘the man with knowledge’ in Athens. He got accused of corrupting the minds of the youth and not respecting the gods enough. Although he was sentenced to death, Socrates remained loyal to his own philosophy and kept calm until the very end. He drank the poisonous drink without hesitation and died shortly after among his crying friends.
The core of what Socrates wanted to teach us, I think, is that we should never blindly follow the public opinion. Socrates believed that thinking and good education could help us best to rise above evil and bad behaviour. Evil, he declared, only exists because of ignorance.
Here we come to the point where Socrates can be seen as a true symbol of peace. Socrates believed that nobody willingly chooses to do wrong. In other words, Socrates thought that we always do instinctively what we believe to be good. This means that the source of great evil isn’t bad thoughts or bad people, but a bad understanding of what is good instead.
But what is good if we follow Socrates’ teachings?
“THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING FOR HUMAN BEINGS” – SOCRATES
Saying wisdom is being aware that you actually know nothing and concluding that evil only comes from ignorance, seems to be contradicting each other. But actually, these ideas combined form the core of Socrates philosophy of ‘the good life’.
Only after you accept the fact that you actually know very little (or nothing at all), you can start to reflect your judgements and prejudices on the world and its people. Only once you acknowledge the fact that you don’t hold the truth, you can start exploring new horizons. Only when you rise above your ignorance of your own ignorance, you can really start asking the questions that no one dared to ask before.
NO ANGER. JUST CURIOSITY AND OPENNESS.
Of course the situation in the world today is very complicated. But all we as individuals can do, I think, is stay sane. The world may be angry, but you don’t have to be. Dare to say: I don’t know. It may be the most peaceful protest against everything that’s happening right now.
Socrates taught us that true wisdom is being able to say I don’t know.
No one knows the truth, but we can all see what evil can happen when people think they do hold the truth.
Start with what you don’t know and make this the start of peace.
He wasn’t the prettiest or most popular man during his lifetime, but now Socrates remains one of the few thinkers that still have a huge impact on our thinking today. Not knowing is more powerful than you might think at first.
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