Socrates is considered to be one of the wisest people of all time, having laid the foundation of Western systems of logic and philosophy as we know it today. In practice, he was a teacher, scholar, and philosopher in ancient Greece (470 to 399 BCE).
Socrates became known to a wider audience after his most dedicated pupil, Plato, published an account of conversations he had with various people. In particular, the recorded conversations took place near the end of Socrates's life, just prior to his execution. Socrates shows incredible spirit during this time, distilling tremendous life wisdom even with death being imminent.
Today, we will look at the 6 most powerful Life Lessons that Socrates delivered in those final hours of wise conversation.
1. Socratic Questioning
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
Socrates's main method of learning was called Socratic Questioning. It involves playing the role of "ignorant student" and continuously asking deeper and deeper questions in order to holistically learn and understand a particular subject.
For example, imagine that you're having a conversation with Socrates about whether or not you should become a lawyer:
Socrates – "Why do you want to become a lawyer?"
You — "Because lawyers make a lot of money"
Socrates – "Do all lawyers make a lot of money?"
You – "Some do some don’t, it depends if they are good at it"
Socrates – "Well then, what would make someone good at law?"
You — "They would be very interested in the field of law and like to work a lot"
Socrates – "Are you very interested in the field of law, willing to work many hours each day in it?"
You — "Well I don’t really like working many hours each day..."
By continuously asking such questions as who, what, when, where, why, and how, you are able to uncover every detail of the subject at hand. It's a simple matter of persistently asking questions until you get to the bottom of it.
Socratic Questioning is quite easy to apply too; just follow your innate curiosity. If there's a question you have about a subject, ask it immediately. There's no need to refine it, just go with the flow of your thoughts. They'll always lead you to the answer that you're seeking.
2. Seek the truth, not your truth
Socrates: "Piety is then a sort of trading skill between gods and men?"
Euthyphro: "Trading yes, if you prefer to call it that"
Socrates: "I prefer nothing, unless it is true"
People often act as if their opinion is 100% correct, especially in matters that they are sensitive to or prideful of. They prefer their own viewpoint and methods over those of others.
But just because you're passionate about something or think that it's true, doesn't mean that it's actually true. All of human knowledge is our current interpretation of the world, it's what we think is true. But what's far more important is the reality, what is actually true.
Truth needs proof whether by logical or physical evidence. Without that proof, a thing cannot be considered true in reality and should not be relied upon. You should prefer a thought or method because it is true, not because it's yours or it feels good.
If you wish to become wise then seek to understand the realities of the world. Put aside your emotions and biases and take up rationality. See things as they are, not as you or anyone else thinks they should be.
3. Challenge your knowledge
“I know you won't believe me but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.”
There is no knowledge that is set in stone. Even the laws of physics have been made and broken before.
At first, people thought that the earth is flat; Galileo squashed that idea. Later, Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion. Yet fast forward a couple of hundred years and we find that Newton's laws don't work under all conditions. That's why we have General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics today.
No one ever has all the answers. What we really have is a specific idea of the world at this point in time. That's why it's so important to constantly question your own knowledge, as well as the knowledge of others.
Make it a habit to review the beliefs and ideas that you're following and ask yourself:
- "Is this still valid given what's changed?"
- "Does this still make sense given what I've learned?"
- "What would make this become incorrect?"
Asking and answering such questions will help you to refine your knowledge of the world to make it more in line with the current reality. That's true wisdom.
4. Learn from others
“They knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I”
No matter how smart you are, you can always learn something from other people. Even Socrates, as wise as he wise, knew this.
Each and every human being on earth is unique in their experience and personality. We've all gained different knowledge as a result of the life we've gone through. Some of us even go on to specialize, spending many hours, weeks, or even years mastering one key area of life.
Thus, by definition, there will be certain subjects that other people are more knowledgeable about than you. They've simply spent more hours.
This is not something to envy, but rather something to take advantage of.
Learn from other people:
- Observe how they act
- Ask them questions
- Engage in constructive debates
- Reflect on their work and how it influences their results
By being open to learning from others, you give yourself access to incredibly powerful knowledge that would have otherwise taken you a long time to acquire. This gives you a big leg up in life as you bypass the hard work to get valuable knowledge.
5. It's foolish to fear the unknown
"For to fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise without really being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For no one knows whether death may not be the greatest good that can happen to man. And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know?"
In this quote, Socrates offers the most logical explanation for why the fear of unknown things is irrational and not wise.
No one knows if death will be good or bad. In the same way, you don't know whether a relationship breakup, change in jobs, or a new chapter in your life will be good or bad. It might even end up being the greatest thing ever.
It doesn't make sense to fear the unknown. Soon enough, you will find out whether your next step is good or bad. Once you do, you can adapt and succeed in that new condition just as you have done with unknown things in the past.
6. Your mind is your best asset
“If you don't get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”
Your mind is your most powerful asset because it controls your reality.
If you think that you are happy, then you will be happy. If you think you have enough, then you have enough. If you think that you're successful, or that you can achieve success, then you will be successful.
At the end of the day, no one else can force you to think anything. It's all up to you. You can change your reality and broaden your life simply by thinking differently.
Socrates is an amazing philosopher to learn from because he's so simple. He didn't have grand theories. He didn't cover up his ideas with unnecessary complexity. He was just a regular person, doing his best to learn more.
If there's one final, overall lesson we can learn from Socrates, it's to be a courageous and voracious learner for life.