The following two blog posts were originally written as one evening presentation - talk. I think its easier to divide this talk into two seperate blog posts - hence the occassional reference such as: 'thanks for coming this evening.... etc'.
Part A - Socrates Encourages Alcibiades to “Know Thyself”.
I think it is a well accepted phrase among spiritual people that they are somehow “following the path” – or at least that they feel they should be. But what does this mean for people who find themselves a little bit lost – and maybe bewildered or overwhelmed by the necessities and expectations of our modern Western Society.
Where can we find “the path”?
Where should we look?
Does it matter which path we choose?
These are all questions that many people ask themselves and especially people in their mid-twenties and older.
It would be a lie if I said that I thought the answers to the above and similar questions were easy or fast ….. that we could find peace of mind and lasting satisfaction by the quick read of a prescribed book, or the application of an all encompassing – one size fits all – regime of spiritual practice as offered by some traditional mainstream religious organizations. The reality perhaps is more complicated…. and perhaps the truth is that we are all unique individuals – all finding ourselves in a unique place – and after personal contemplation - all having a different ideal destination or goal for our lives. If this is the case, my belief is that these things (like finding the path) will usually take time and some effort to discover. This is perhaps a little out of “fashion” for many people in our instant material gratification – “I want it now” western society. We seem to be getting out of the habit of waiting for things or gradually working towards things. For example, we no longer save for a new car or TV we get it today – often on credit. Similarly, I saw an advert for magic mushrooms called “Old Philosopher” offering “instant enlightenment”. Although mushrooms are not my thing – instant enlightenment for 3 dollars a hit does not sound bad………. or I am afraid……. believable.
Our task of finding the spiritual path is also made harder with things like the influence of the TV and much other media – and the education system also doing its part in the pre conditioning of young people to “do well” in the modern material and excessively consumerist world. These things seem to do their very best to obscure and hide the spiritual path from people – and indeed ridicule anyone who seeks “the truth” or wishes to explore different ways of living – perhaps with slightly different goals for their lives than what the consumer led society offers us – or increasingly “requires” of us. What I am in fact suggesting is that truly finding the spiritual path and then following it is not quite as easy as some people make out.
In order to appreciate some of the key tasks necessary in finding the path perhaps we should imagine a lost tourist standing on a busy street corner in an unfamiliar big city. The tourist turns the big map one way and another trying to work out what to do and which way to go. In as sense this is a very straightforward example of someone trying to find his or her path. Imagine also that this is an inexperienced or novice tourist – in a strange city – outside of their usual familiar comfort zone – where what to do and where to go have always been easy for them – or pre-conditioned for them since an early age. As the tourist keeps turning the map one way and another they seem just to get more and more confused.
You see there are two essential pieces of information the tourist needs in order to find the path using the map. Of course they need to know where they want to go on the map. Whether they want to go back to the hotel or to the museum obviously makes a difference to the path. However, the first thing the tourist really needs to know in order to work out the right path is: “Where Am I?” This is the first question they need to ask – since if they know where they are – and secondly where they want to go – the task of finding the way in between is much easier. That is why at London underground and other metro stations around the world there are often local street maps on the walls near the exits of the metro stations – and usually in big red letters it says: “YOU ARE HERE !”
Returning to our main theme – finding the correct spiritual path – it is my opinion that perhaps there are several possible fine philosophical or spiritual paths to follow. However, before people assume that fine philosophies must surely come from exotic lands in far away places, I would like to remind them that there is also a very fine and richly documented philosophic tradition closer to home in Europe. For simplicity I shall refer to this as the ancient Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato. I say this for simplicity because ancient Greece has several other very influential philosophers with their own philosophies separate to the Socratic-Platonic tradition. In addition, Socrates the teacher and mentor of Plato was well aware of many other Greek and foreign philosophers who preceded him – and these were obviously an influence on him one way or another. In the same way, following on after Plato many other philosophers commentated on and developed his ideas – Plotinus and Proclus being two very notable examples. Indeed many Platonic ideas can be traced into early Christian thought.
Now I mention the Socratic-Platonic Greek tradition for an important reason; which is that they put a great deal of emphasis on that first essential question in finding our spiritual paths: “Where Am I?” For convenience, I will say that the way they dealt with this was that they emphasised the phrase “Know Thyself” – which incidentally was one of the two statements written above the entrance of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece which was the spiritual heart of Greece. The Socratic-Platonic tradition emphasises that in order to begin any spiritual or philosophical path we must first know who we are – and furthermore “WHAT” we are. As I mentioned earlier – for many of us – getting to know ourselves and who we are deep inside and what makes us tick – often takes a little time, effort and emotional pain.
So what do Socrates and Plato have to tell us to help us find our path and know ourselves? Without getting too bogged down in historical dates and details it is perhaps interesting to know that Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 B.C. – then aged 70 – and received the death penalty in that year for “trumped” up charges. I guess his student and friend Plato was about 28 by then. Within 12 years or so of this event Plato aged about 40 set up his “Academy” in Athens in 387 B.C. for the general advancement of education and learning – and the study of the ideas of his teacher Socrates. Plato wrote more than 20 books – usually in the form of “Dialogues” between Socrates and his various students and friends – in order to make a written record of Socrates’ ideas and conversations. Traditionally, Plato’s writing are grouped into 3 groups being early, middle, and later period writings. His earlier works are generally thought to be truer recordings of Socrates’ teachings, while middle and later writings are thought more and more to include Plato’s own ideas although he often supposedly portrayed these ideas as being spoken by Socrates in his dialogues. (You may remember that Socrates is believed to have written nothing and we only know of Socrates ideas through a few sources – by far the most important being Plato’s writings.)
In England many people understandably take pride in educational institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge which have both been around for some 500 years. Imagine then the scene in Athens during the 5th century A.D. about 1500 years ago. Plato’s Academy by say 450 A.D. is some 837 years old – an unbroken seat of learning for all this time. It has by now become primarily a place for the study of philosophy and the texts of its founder Plato. The headmaster or principal of the Academy is a philosopher called Proclus – and the school has been moved to Proclus’ modest house to avoid the unwanted attention and possible danger from the Christian authorities then in power in Athens….. Incidentely, Proclus died around 485 c.e. and one of the first exhibits you see on the way into the New Acropolis Museum is about his little house where Plato’s Academy was then based. Anyway; at Plato’s Academy by then it had become an established tradition that the first book of Plato that the new students (young men and women) studied was a book called: ‘The First Alcibiades’. This was because it encouraged and emphasised to the new students the importance of “KNOW THYSELF” and the importance of asking ourselves: “Where We Are” so that we can start our philosophical or spiritual path from a realistic place and in the correct way. At Plato’s Academy some 800 years after its foundation – it was viewed as essential to KNOW THYSELF first and indeed to contemplate and discuss what we actually are and indeed what the “self” actually is.
What then is The First Alcibiades all about and why is it (or just its message) an important part of helping us today to find our often hard to find and obscured spiritual and practical paths for life (?) Well, as mentioned the dialogue is about us first getting to know ourselves. The dialogue is a conversation between a middle aged Socrates and Alcibiades as a young man – about 20’ish we suppose. Alcibiades has taken it into his head to try and “do well” in political life. Quite possibly this notion of “doing well” included a fair bit of doing well for him or her self as with many politicians from then to now. Socrates stops Alcibiades on the very day he is heading towards the city centre to put himself forward for political office. Although Socrates and Alcibiades have known and seen each other around regularly for many years – indeed since Alcibiades’ childhood – Socrates has not spoken to Alcibiades for a year or two at any length for divinely inspired reasons as Socrates explains. There are many interesting points and ideas raised in this short dialogue of Plato but I shall try and select just those especially relevant to knowing ourselves and finding the path we seek….
Firstly, Socrates asks Alcibiades what he thinks he has to offer the people of Athens if he becomes a political statesman for them. What special skills, abilities or experience does he have to do the job he is seeking? Through his usual questioning technique Socrates uncovers and encourages Alcibiades to admit that actually he does not know anything about political matters – negotiations or the affairs of state etc. [What’s new? ]
Socrates then gives examples along the lines of whether we would let someone
fix our car unless they were trained or experienced mechanics; or whether we should let someone perform a medical operation on us unless they are trained or experienced doctors? So why – Socrates asks Alcibiades – would we want someone to run the city or country for us who did not have any training or experience in these matters. (Perhaps we would do well to ask some of our modern day would be politicians or ministers similar questions. ?)
Socrates points out to Alcibiades that unless we are aware (or have it pointed out to us) that we do not know something…. we will not try to find out about that thing and try to correct our lack of knowledge in a particular subject. He says we will fall into the trap of being “DOUBLY IGNORANT” – That is; firstly not knowing something; and secondly thinking we do know about something or have the appropriate skills – so that we do not bother to inform ourselves and correct this lack of knowledge. Simply put; this is why for example we consult lawyers and solicitors on legal matters. We know we are not experts in this area and so we consult with people who are trained and experienced experts in this area. It’s no big problem if you do not know something – providing you are aware of it and indeed admit it to yourself and others when necessary. In modern day life we consult “experts” on a whole range of subjects. (It’s why I no longer even try to repair my car. These days I know I don’t know how.)
All simple enough so far… Socrates through his questioning technique has made Alcibiades admit that he lacks knowledge and experience on a whole range of issues. But then Socrates goes further by discussing that if we are going to teach ourselves or otherwise inform ourselves wisely about things – then we better have some understanding at least of what “the self” actually is…. and that this is truly what “Knowing Thyself” is about.
So what does Socrates say “the self” is ? Well he discusses with Alcibiades that there is a difference between taking care of our shoes and taking care of our feet. He says that the shoes are merely “appurtenant to the feet. Similarly he mentions that rings are merely appurtenant to the hands and are not the hands themselves.
Socrates then points out the difference between the tools a craftsman uses – such as a shoemaker using a knife to cut the leather – being different to the craftsman them self. In the same way the musical instrument is different to the musician themself. This may seem obvious to us and perhaps unnecessary for Socrates to explain; but Socrates is creating “universals” or universal principles and truths in his young students mind.
Socrates then makes the distinction between the eyes and hands that shoemakers and musicians use compared to the shoemaker and musician themselves. He says - and in the light of the universals established Alcibiades agrees – that they are not the same thing.
Finally Socrates says (P.56 text): ‘And, does not a man use his whole body?’
Alcibiades replies: ‘most certainly’
Socrates then says: ‘A man therefore is a thing different from his body?’
Alcibiades replies: ‘It seems so’.
Socrates then asks: ‘What sort of a being then is a man?’
…. To which Alcibiades replies: ‘I know not’.
Socrates has really explained to Alcibiades that what we really are is our “souls” and that “knowing ourselves” is really about knowing that we are souls – and that to take good care of oneself (and be happy and lead the good and virtuous life etc) it is of primary importance to worry less about material possessions and celebrity etc – but to ensure that we take good care of our souls and live in a way that is good for the soul. For example, luxuries are only appurtenant to our bodies – and our bodies are in the end only appurtenant to our souls.
Well this may be all very easy to quote from Plato’s writings on Socrates – but what does it all mean to our lives today. What can we learn (either in specific details or general principles) about how to find our best unique spiritual path today….
Well let’s first ask ourselves a few practical questions and maybe discuss a few of your questions so far before I move on (part B follows… )
1. Firstly, do you believe that we human beings have a soul – and that the soul lives on after our body has died? It doe s not matter why or how you think or feel that. Now depending on what answer a person gives to this question – it will usually have a big effect on the way people live their lives….
-Now for those who “do” believe I ask this second question:
2. Do you believe that the kind of life we live or lead here on earth will somehow effect the way our souls go on after we die? ….. “Judgement” may be too strong a word maybe… I am just talking about a vague sense that “good” people who try to live “good” lives (however we then go on to define those terms) somehow benefit in some way when “we move on”.
3. Now for those who “do not” believe in a soul which goes on after death I ask this: Do you think that it is better to try and live in a “good and virtuous way” (as said – however we then go on to define that) rather than living in a greedy, selfish, non-caring way?
So whether we believe strongly in the existence of the soul – or maybe just a little – or even not at all – perhaps many of us can still agree that some ways of living are preferable to others. (Socrates was fairly modest about all his ideas after all. In another of Plato’s dialogues he says that even if he is mistaken and the soul does not go on – he still prefers to live a good and decent life than the life of a bad guy – so he has nothing to loose or fear either way.
Part B is: "Your Own Spiritual and Philosophical Path - And Tips How to Un-Cover It.
This is a more personal piece of writing by James - and refers less directly to Socrates and Plato. Therefore this piece appears on the blogg: "James' Philosophical Agora" at:
Acknowledgements Re part A Above:
1)Thanks to Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust for many ideas gained from his talks on “Know Thyself” and all things Socratic and Platonic. (See links)