Advice from ancient Greece that still applies today.
Image by Raimund Feher from Pixabay
Socrates was a prominent philosopher in ancient Greece circa 470–399 BCE. In all honesty, I hadn’t really thought about him much until I played the game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, in which he is a leading character. However, the more I played the game, the more interested I was learning about his real-life counterpart.
His specific style of questions and dialogue later came to be called ‘The Socratic Method.’ In these conversations, he would ask people probing questions about a topic until he unearthed a contradiction and proving inconsistency in one’s argument. Thus, he was considered quite a controversial figure. However, as a lover of learning, I can’t help admire Socrates’ passion for wisdom.
Unfortunately for us, he didn’t hold the habit of writing down his thoughts and philosophies. What we know of ‘the father of Western philosophy’ is handed to us second-hand through the likes of his students and admirers such as Plato and Xenophon (and Aristotle, Plato’s student).
While we can’t say for certain that each of the quotes I present here came directly from Socrates himself, we can say each of them managed to capture (if not word for word) the gist of his discourses reasonably well.
“An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Let’s start with perhaps his most famous quote. The above phrase could be interpreted as his leading purpose in life — otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked so many questions, right? In all seriousness, let’s unpack the quote to see what we can learn from it.
Socrates clearly felt that one of the only ways to find truth (about all things in life) was to ask logical questions until a contradiction appeared, from which the truth would emerge. Or at least, the truth as not being black and white as originally assumed. In these truths, we would gain knowledge of ourselves and the world we inhabit.
As we’ll see shortly, Socrates felt that ignorance was an evil trait to possess. By keeping yourself ignorant through not examining life is essentially devoiding your life of good and meaning.
How you can use it
We’re all asked questions of ourselves as we slowly rise to adulthood, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” or “what would you like to achieve before you die?”
To truly live an examined and more meaningful life, we need to continually ask ourselves questions about our goals, wants, and needs. Instead of settling on the first answer to questions like, “what would I like to achieve before I die,” ask further questions, “why do I want to achieve this?”.
By digging deeper, you’ll find a better answer, and sometimes the last answer contradicts the first — there, you’ll find out what truly motivates you.
“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”
This quote is a follow on to the previous one I mentioned. However, I interpret this one to be more outward focused than the other but closely related.
Socrates was known to use his questioning method not just for big philosophical ideas towards life and death but also in education and politics of the time (which ultimately led to his demise).
He would ask people questions about their political beliefs or decisions and was a known critic of the democratic process. He believed that voting in an election was a skill you should be taught — rather than just voting based on intuition. Which, arguably, is a problem we see today (thanks to the widespread adoption of ‘fake news’ as truth).
In this sense, asking questions and gaining knowledge to that which you are ignorant of is a way of adding value to yourself and society.
How you can use it
It is perhaps one of the most important times in human history that we should cultivate the habit and skill of questioning what we see or hear. Thanks to the internet giving us global connectivity, our individual ability to influence large groups of people (for whatever motivation) is even easier than ever.
When confronted with problems, topics, or stories that you are ignorant of, instead of accepting it as it’s told, ask questions that help you become more knowledgeable of the subject. This way, you become far more effective in judging what’s in front of you (whether that be political candidates, a business problem, or relationship struggles).
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
This quote is one of my favorites of his. Socrates, of course, was essentially a professional thinker. Therefore, he would have had the time to stop and reflect on aspects of life at any time outside of debating with his students.
However, even back in ancient Greece, it seems many people were busying themselves in a similar way we do today. Some would even call our times a ‘busyness epidemic.’ People sometimes feel, particularly in knowledge work, a certain prestige when they announce to the world, “I’ve been busy.” I get it; I’ve been there.
Socrates is warning us that if we keep ourselves too busy all the time, we don’t have time to think for ourselves and reflect. In this way, our lives become a carousel of wake up, work, eat, sleep, repeat. We find years pass, and we wonder where the time has gone — our lives have been barren of meaning.
How you can use it
If you’re anything like me, you might be living on a relatively tight schedule. In that case, use your epic organization skills to schedule in some down-time for thinking and reflection.
For me, that time is Sundays. I might hand-write in a journal, but other than that, I don’t do any other kind of writing. My computer stays turned off. I give myself a couple of hours to reflect on my life goals and think about personal values.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be thinking time. You can schedule a time to spend making memories with friends and family that you may normally be ‘too busy’ for.
This way, we’re not letting life pass us by, working hard for an uncertain future, we’re taking stock and living more mindfully in the present.
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
I find it quite amusing that looking through ancient Greek history, accounts, and quotes like this one; it seems humans have not changed in all that time. We still have a habit of hoarding material goods and never truly being satisfied with what we have — always wanting more or ‘ bigger and better.’
The above quote reminds us that it’s often the case when living a material-based life, chasing more money for more things, the mountain to climb doesn’t have a summit. And for some, having access to lots of cash can be a curse.
Of course, what Socrates is advocating here is something many of us have come to know as ‘Minimalism.’ A way of life that is purpose-driven, as opposed to driven by the accumulation of stuff.
How you can use it
I've drawn quite a few exercises from my studies and phases of minimalism that can help here. To live up to Socrates' quote, you don’t necessarily need to embark on getting rid of stuff (though decluttering can be quite freeing). But it would be best if you were mindful of what you do already have.
The best exercise suited to this quote would be this:
Suppose you’re thinking about buying something non-essential, hold off from buying it for a couple of days. Often, the immediate “must-buy” effect wears off, and you save money. If that doesn’t happen and it’s still on your mind, consider the following:
- Does anything you own already function the way the new item does? If so, is it still in usable condition?
- Is it something you’re going to use a lot, or very rarely? If the latter, consider renting or borrowing one.
- Ask yourself, “do I really need this in my life” or, “am I trying to cover for an emotion I’m not addressing?”
By considering these scenarios, you’re well on your way to being content with what you already have instead of needlessly going out to buy more random stuff.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”
This quote is pretty meta since you’re doing exactly as the quote says right now, go you! Of course, these days, we’d use more inclusive language (men aren’t the only people who write, after all). But in essence, this quote goes against the now common adage that “mistakes are the best way to learn”.
Sure, mistakes are a great way to learn something that no one has ever embarked upon before. However, if what you’re learning has a previously tread path, why make the same mistakes as others when you can learn not to do them in the first place?
From what I’ve learned about ancient Greece, it was common to have an apprentice/mentor relationship (which often included a physical relationship). So it’s no surprise Socrates would have observed and commented on this method of acquiring knowledge.
How you can use it
You can probably guess what I’m going to say about implementing this quote; it’s so simple, you’re doing it now. Read. But of course, if you’re looking to learn a specific topic more intensely, it would be wise to read seminal books on the subject.
On the note of reading books, I’d recommend signing up for a Goodreads account where you can track what you’ve read and what you want to read. You can also sign up for their challenge, where you set out how many books you want to read in the year, then review them when you finish each one.
Though, to learn as Socrates has intended here, what’s important is quality over quantity and how well you implement the new knowledge. The point of learning from others’ work is so that you can speed up the trajectory of your success.
It’s pretty crazy that we can look at the teachings of a man who lived nearly 2500 years ago and still relate to the lessons he gave to his students. And these five quotes aren’t the only valuable words that came from him, but I chose them because they have both great practical and psychological impact.
Though, to summarize what Socrates has taught us:
- Continually ask questions about your goals, wants, and needs to find the root motivation.
- Adopt a positive skepticism by asking questions to learn more about what you don’t know, instead of pretending you know.
- Schedule time to think for yourself and make memories with the people you love.
- Try being more mindful about future purchases of material (or digital) goods. Do you really need that fancy kitchen utensil?
- Read to learn from others’ mistakes instead of making your own to speed up your path towards success.