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Cracker Barrel: The examined life

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By definition, a philosopher is a person who loves wisdom. The Greek words philo (love) and sophos (wisdom, learning) combine to portray a person whose heart quickens at the prospect of coming to understand something that previously seemed unclear or out of focus.

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There are two fundamentally distinct kinds of philosophers. The first tells you what to think; the second, how to think. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) belongs to the second group. Because of this, his insights have never gone out of style and remain as valuable today as they were when he voiced them some 2,500 years ago.

The Roman orator Cicero put it this way: “Socrates was the first to call Philosophy down from the skies, and establish her in the towns, and introduce her into people’s homes, and force her to investigate ordinary life, ethics, good and evil.”

And he did this by encouraging people to perform what is essentially a self-examination.

Socrates was born and lived his life in Athens, in a time not unlike our own. The world was rapidly changing and at times chaos and confusion seemed to trump common sense. A thinker was needed to help sift the true from the false, the essential from the accidental, to help people see things in their right relations — a moderator who might hold an even balance between the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-liberals.

Socrates seemed born for just such a job.

Nothing human was foreign to him, and he loved to talk with all sorts and conditions of men and women, subtly coaxing them to begin examining their lives as the conversation moved over a diverse range of topics: war, politics, marriage, friendship, love, housekeeping, the arts and trades, poetry, religion, science and, particularly, moral matters and how they applied to living a good life.

Though by all accounts kindly and gentle in disposition, and brimming over with good humor, he delighted in exposing the quacks and humbugs of his time and pricking their empty bubbles with his wit and logic.

Central to Socrates’ approach was a desire to help his fellow citizens sort out truth from opinion. To do this, he pretended not to know more about the subject under discussion than the other participants, and on occasion even professed to know less.

But by skillful questioning, he managed to guide others into clearly defining their terms, and to gradually rid their heads of confused, vague and empty thoughts, and to replace them with well-reasoned assertions.

Unlike those who argued that there is no real truth and that one opinion was as good as another, Socrates urged his fellow citizens to penetrate beneath the diversity of thought and see whether below the clash of opinions there may not in fact be a fundamental agreement, some common ground on which all can stand, some principles to which all can subscribe.

To evolve such universal judgments was the purpose of his unique and ingenious form of cross-examination, which came to be known as the Socratic method.

Like Jesus, Socrates himself wrote nothing, yet he was a genuine thinker who, through his disciple, Plato, has exerted an incalculable influence on the entire development of Western thought.

At a time when our nation seems stricken with endemic distrust and bewitched by political misinformation, it might be well to spend some time reflecting on our conceptual origins, including the claim of an old Greek gadfly who insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

www.CraigNagelBooks.com.)

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