There is much the ancient Greeks have to tell us about happiness. No more so than Socrates and his buds circa two and a half thousand years ago. Socrates was particularly big on thinking as the way to find and develop yourself. To what extent are your beliefs your own? Do you receive your opinions and follow the crowd? Or do you question the accepted wisdom and your own assumptions?
We can all be philosophers. Philosophy is just thinking a bit harder about stuff. Socrates, the classical Greek Athenian philosopher and granddaddy of western philosophy, had the unshakeable conviction that we should all put some thought into what we believe. In fact, he was adamant that it is our moral responsibility to question our beliefs and that the self-confidence this creates is a key to our happiness. By thinking logically we become more independent, less conformist, and build the confidence to believe in our own thoughts and in ourselves.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
There are many reasons why we passively accept what the majority believes. We feel compelled to be part of the group and there’s a lot of happiness to be had from belonging. We imagine others know what they’re talking about especially if these figures are in positions of authority. All institutions provide a pressure to conform with the popular view. We feel lonely by not following, not going along. It can be stressful to stand apart. In the face of the majority we can easily doubt our conviction, even doubt our own sanity.
Socrates was renowned for accosting notable citizens and asking the challenging questions. He found surprising inadequacies in the lives and thoughts of prominent people of his day. Generals couldn’t explain wars, the wealthy couldn’t explain why they had money and others did not. His motivation was to challenge lazy assumptions and pursue the truth. He demanded that his fellow citizens reflect on their lives and then stand by their conclusions.
“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”
He devised a test to determine if your ideas have merit and are worth standing up for; five easy steps to follow that make leading the examined life far less intimidating.
1. Look around for statements that most people regard as common sense; it’s wrong to kill, you should put your children’s needs ahead of your own, etc.
2. Find exceptions to the common view. Are there times when killing is acceptable? Are their reasons to take care of yourself first?
3.Finding exceptions means your statement must either be false or at lease imprecise.
4. Nuance the initial statement to take the exception into account. So, killing is acceptable as a last resort in self-defense or putting your needs ahead of your child’s is acceptable if not doing so would impair your ability to care for them.
5. Continue this process of exception finding and refinement of the common sense statement for as long as possible.
Socrates said the truth lies in a statement that it seems impossible to disprove. His method moves us toward trustworthy and water tight thoughts. His broader point was that employing his method of inquiry makes you far less passive, far less inclined to follow the herd. It also means you can demonstrate why you believe something without resorting to, “because I say so”. The opposition of others becomes far less impactful if it is unfounded.
“There is no greater evil one can suffer that to hate reasonable discourse.”
This line of thinking gave Socrates grave reservations about democracy. Just because the majority hold an opinion doesn’t make it right. What matters is whether an argument is logical or reasonable not necessarily the will of the majority. Socrates stood up courageously and intelligently for this idea. Ultimately, his encouragement of dissent ended with him being charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and not honoring the gods. He told the crowd that if he had time he could convince them of his position but he accepted that it was time he did not have. The majority decided that he was guilty and he should be put to death. This was by means of drinking a cup of poison which he accepted without resistance.
Never fear, you don’t have to think or die. You should also not simply accept Socrates’s method and rationale without question. That would really have upset him. Indeed there is a contrary perspective in Eastern philosophy that sees the mind as a barrier to seeing our true selves and to achieving enlightenment. What these doctrines share though is the belief that we should not passively follow others. We have the capacity and perhaps the duty to be active participants in our individual growth and thereby the progress of humanity.
“Prefer knowledge to wealth, for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.”
Michael Keith is an author for the blog On How to Be Happy. He gathers ancient wisdom and the latest and greatest thinking to connect you to true and lasting happiness.
The knowledge you receive at On How to Be Happy can help you to increase contentment in your own self, your relationships with others, and in the workplace.
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