The Socratic Effect


 Concerning Socrates, the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, Jacob Needleman, a contemporary teacher of philosophy, said in a recent interview  that "everything we know about him and his greatness is something that took place in the form of dialogue with other people." (Interview by Richard Whittaker, Parabola, Fall, 2012) 

 What was that something that came into play through a dialogue or conversation with Socrates? What was the effect of Socrates

 Was it that some kind of special, unusual feeling or longing was awakened? Was is that a certain clarity of thinking finally broke through in one of his listeners? Was it that the effect of Socrates was to create a state of perplexity, thought to be good for its own sake? 

 Maybe it’s best to say that the Socratic effect involved all of these things and more. The philosopher's stinging effect was to stir the awakening of yearning, to create the possibility of intellectual breakthroughs and, simultaneously, to leave you paralysed and perplexed.

 Well, it may be that the experience of, Alcibiades, in Plato's Symposium, may give you something of a taste of the multi-dimensional impact of an encounter with this master of a great conversation.

 Alcibiades testifies: "Whenever I listen to him, my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy, and tears run down my face and I observe that numbers of other people have the same experience.”  

 Which, says Alcibiades, is an effect unlike any other. As interesting as other speakers or teachers may be in this way or that, there is something that happens when Socrates shows up that is absent everywhere else! 

 Exclaims Alcibiades: "Nothing of this kind ever happened when I listened to Pericles and other good speakers; I recognized that they spoke well, but my soul was not thrown into confusion and dismay by the thought that my life is no better than a slave's." (Jacob Needleman, The Heart of Philosophy, p. 35) 

 It is like hearing a mix of dull sermons and good sermons for a while and then one day hearing a sermon that strikes you like a thunderbolt.

 Socrates was a master of the thunderbolt effect. 

 And thus we see in Alcibiades a man who, because of the Socratic effect, is at one and the same time, inspired, disoriented and ashamed. He’s so inspired that he finds himself in a heart-quickening religious frenzy, with tears running down his face. He’s so disoriented that his soul is thrown into confusion and dismay. And he feels in response to Socrates so ashamed of his life that he compares his condition to being no better than a slave’s. 

 Again, I’m going to repeat for emphasis that, sometimes we may hear a great speaker and respond by exclaiming:” That was so great! I felt so uplifted!” Which is, of course, all well and good, for what it is, on one level.

 But with regard to the Socratic effect, we’re on another level entirely. Notice in particular that Socrates generates an effect that is not simply about feeling happier about your life, as if you’ve just listened to someone like Joel Osteen. 

 Here we have, as an essential part of the Socratic effect, a response of disorientation and shame.

 When these elements are in play, don't you think that there’s something more going on, something deeper?   

 Needleman in his book,The Heart of Philosophy, says that the effect of Socrates was to "awaken eros," which he defines as a "longing for being.” 

 This is a yearning for being that involves an enormous inner upheaval. It is something, at the very least, that might be called a 'soul wrenching experience', an experience that 'tears you apart.' 

 In fact, it appears that Alcibiades was reeling in shock from the encounter with this teacher whose presence and questioning was like no other. The young man had been stung and smitten at the deepest level of his being. He had become thereby, as Professor Needleman says, a being in question - a very good state to be in.

 Alcibiades was now not only questioning himself. He was himself a being in question. He was somehow now involved in some kind of deep self-interrogation. He was experiencing a particular sort of malady of the soul that was not going to be cured by taking two aspirins and getting a good night's sleep.

 In point of fact, there was and is, no cure for the condition he was in, for his condition wasn’t an affliction, but rather, a great gift. 

 Up until the encounter with Socrates, the young man had been living the unexamined lifeHis patterns of thinking and behaviour had needed to be interrupted and broken, and it was Socrates who did the trick.

 Socrates made him sick, in a certain sense. For he created in the young man a malady which was actually the cure for the unthinking and unreflective condition that he’d been in. The sickness that Socrates produced was the cure for his sickness.

 Says Needleman in describing such a state: "The impact of Socrates is to produce in a man a specific sort of suffering that involves seeing oneself against a very high criterion of what man should be.” 

 Again, what we’re describing here is 'the Socratic effect,’ which is to be stung and shocked by a form of conversation or dialogue that penetrates through the barriers you've put up to protect yourself from self-knowledge. 

 The effect of Socrates was to examine your life as you never had before. As he said: 'The unexamined life is not worth living.’  

 The artistry of Socrates was to expose what was false and superficial. He was "a master of showing people that they did not understand what they thought they understood. He was a master at taking away people's certainties." 

 Socrates wanted people to rely less on their surface certainites and to become aware of something else and something more

Therefore, the effect of Socratic inquiry was to deliver the human being 'from the known to the unknown.'          

 The crucial question is: What is that 'unknown part that opens up as my 'known' superficial certainties crumble?  

 Some call it the 'soul' or the 'true self.' According to Socrates, "the first aim anyone should have is "tending the soul.” All other considerations amount to nothing in comparison.

 Which involves the realization therefore that "I'm not merely my arms and legs, my nose, my opinions. I'm not my words, my thoughts, my sensations.  I'm not my organs.” 

 I am something more, a human being of rich, varied and multiple dimensions. I am a mystery. I am an unknown world!       

 Hitherto I may have made it my continual practice to vacate such a sense of interiority, and to live somewhere else as an absence, not a presence, and to settle for that. 

 But now, as a result of having been smitten with the bug of deep self  inquiry, I am becoming aware that 'I am not just my thoughts or my feelings.’  What I am is so much deeper than that.

 Another dimension is opening upWhat is this dimension of being that 'opens up?'  

 It's been described as that within you which is truly and deeply attentive. It has been described as an inner faculty or capacity of perception.

 Jacob Needleman calls it the "one thing that is my own. Everything else is given - by society, by heredity, by conditioning, by education, by others." 

 "The one thing I can say that's mine, that's myself, is my attention.

 It is my conviction that our lives will change to the degree that we live in that state of attentiveness!  

 Think of the contrast to living 'in' that state of attentiveness. Its contrast is to point out that ordinarily we live 'in' a state of 'restless inattentiveness.’  

 The difference between these two states of being is dramatic.   

 The struggle therefore, if it is our great good fortune to have been stunned, shocked and smitten into this greater dimension, or 'unknown world,' is to remain 'in’ it - to remain aware.

 It is so easy to be 'pulled out' of this state of awareness. 

 It is therefore a struggle to stay 'in' a state of attentiveness. This necessarily involves what Jean De Salzmann calls the "struggle against the passivity of ordinary thought."   

 "I know", she says, "that without this struggle, a greater consciousness (or awareness) will not be born."    

 This struggle for attentiveness, Jean says, involves "an awareness that there is a hierarchy, that is, there are two levels, or two worlds."  

 “As long as there is only one level, there can be no vision. Recognition of another level is the awakening of thought or of intelligence." 

 What our various false and superficial certainties can so easily cover over is this inner domain or territory, this unknown world.

 Its recognition is an incomparably grand event. 

 It’s an awakening of the highest order, a breakthrough into unlimited possibilities. 

Fire of Love

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