Welcome to this issue of "Dr. T's Timely Tips" by Dr. Tony Alessandra. Please send your feedback to info@alessandra.com!

Socrates - Philosophical Genius

"If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always gotten." In addition, if you keep doing what you have always done when conditions radically change, you will get a lot less than you have always gotten. How much can you accomplish when you really see things as they are - not with your eyes, but with all your heart and your soul?

The Athenian Greek philosopher Socrates, who lived in the fifth century BC, was able to accomplish his genius by opening his perception to the truth - and you can do the same.

Not much is known about Socrates' early life, but he seems to have been quite an interesting fellow - interesting, but not exactly likable to the majority of people. He enjoyed calling people's ideas into question. He enjoyed poking holes in their assumptions. He liked to make waves - and in the end, he paid for it with his life.

After Socrates served in the war between Athens and the rival city-state of Sparta, Socrates worked as a stonemason. He had also inherited a modest fortune from his father, from which he gained freedom to wander the city getting into discussions and arguments.

One of the formative events in Socrates' life as a philosopher was his visit to the sacred oracle at the city of Delphi. The oracle was actually a priestess of the god Apollo. For a slight fee, the oracle would give advice and answer questions on any topic or problem. The only trouble was, like most fortune-tellers, the oracle would never give a straight yes or no answer. Often the questioner was more confused after consulting with the oracle than before, because of the riddles that the oracle passed off as answers.

In any case, there came a day when Socrates visited the oracle at Delphi. Maybe he paused a moment to look up at the motto that was carved above the door of the oracle's temple: it read, "Know thyself." This was certainly the basis of Socrates' philosophy - and it may even have been the basis of the question that he addressed to the oracle that day. Maybe he said something like, "I want to know myself - but who am I, anyway?"

The exact question that Socrates put to the oracle is not known, but the oracle's answer to him is very famous. Socrates himself was very shocked to hear it - because the oracle told him, "You are the wisest man in Athens."

Socrates' reaction to this is very interesting, and it was really the basis of his method as a philosopher. When the oracle told him he was the wisest man in Athens, Socrates simply did not believe it. Not only was he in disbelief about being the wisest man, but he did not even really believe he knew anything. He saw himself as a kind of blank slate, someone who had a lot of questions, but no real answers.

On the other hand, the oracle was the oracle. This was a god speaking, and when it said something - especially when it said something that seemed fairly straightforward for once - some attention should be paid. Therefore, Socrates decided to take action. He thought about the oracle's pronouncement in a logical way. He realized that if he was not the wisest man, it must be because there were wiser men than he was. So he started thinking of who some of these people might be, and he started dropping in on some of them and getting into some thought-provoking discussions.

On one occasion, for example, Socrates was talking with a very important and successful citizen of Athens, a man renowned for his good deeds and his responsible behavior in all areas of life. So Socrates said to him, "I'm trying to understand what it really means to be a good person, and I thought you might be able to help me out. Do you by any chance consider yourself a good person?" And the man said, "Yes, as a matter of fact I do." So Socrates said, "Well, why exactly do you think that? What is it that makes you a good person?"

At this point, the man hesitated for a second - because he was not really used to answering these very direct questions about his virtue. So he thought for a minute, and then he said, "Well, I served in the army, and I pay my taxes."

When Socrates heard this, he was completely stunned. He could not believe what he was hearing. This man was saying that he was a good person because he had been in the army and he paid his taxes - and this person was supposed to be one of the most accomplished citizens of Athens. His heart could be filled with hatred, he could be sneaking around at night setting fires or looking into peoples windows - yet he said he was a good person because he was in the army and he paid his taxes. Obviously, this was someone who had not given much thought to the meaning of good, or maybe even to the meaning of person. However, he seemed quite confident in what he said. He gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about. Yet it was clear to Socrates that he did not know anything. Even more importantly, he did not know that he did not know.

This was the kind of experience that Socrates had repeatedly as he talked to people about important questions and ideas. Repeatedly he found that supposedly smart people were actually quite ignorant - and they were ignorant without even realizing it. And gradually, as if by default, Socrates began to wonder if maybe he really was the wisest man in Athens after all - not because he had a lot of wisdom, which he did not, but because he was at least aware of his ignorance.

Socrates was always quick to question people's assumptions and to reveal the "sacred cows" in their thinking. He kept this up to the point that the rulers of the city of Athens viewed him as a threat. Eventually he was brought to trial on some trumped up charges and was sentenced to death. Socrates accepted this judgment with complete calm. After all, the rulers were just doing what they usually did, just like he was. As it was written at the temple of Delphi, Socrates knew himself - even if nobody else could honestly say the same.

Let me play the role of Socrates with you for a moment. First, let me play the role of the Delphic oracle. Suppose I was to tell you that you have much, much greater capabilities than you think you have. What would be your response? Would it be genuine disbelief like Socrates? Alternatively, would it be denial - maybe in order to not get out of your comfort zone? You need to move past your assumptions and your inhibitions and maybe you will re-think your own limitations. You have created them yourself, you know - or at least that is what Socrates would tell you.

Here's to more personal insight,


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Socrates (470 BC - 399 BC)

"For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul."