The Socratic Method

Updated: Jul 8, 2021


Socrates was a Greek philosopher who spent his life seeking a concept known as Universal Truth.  His process, something identified as the Socratic Method, can be described as cooperative collaboration such that concepts and ideas evolve through critical examination.  In this, Socrates can be credited for what is now known as the Scientific Method or a process of test or retest.  In this, Socrates died as a martyr.  He was sentenced by Greek autocracy to drink Hemlock poison for the crime of corrupting young minds.  What I find most interesting is what Socrates said, and did, in the final moments of his life.  In this, Socrates willingly brought the poison cup to his lips and said: "What do you say about pouring someone a libation from this cup?  Is it permitted?"

With that, Socrates drained the cup and was overcome by the toxin within.  Apart from leaving this world, Socrates raised sarcastic attention to a societal problem which seems to plague all aspects of human existence.  In this, Socrates was known as a piously religious man.  One who professed a belief in the Gods of his society.  Some have said his faith in a supreme being, or higher power, is what gave Socrates the courage to face execution.  Some have even diminished this act because of his faith in God. The question I ask stems from the ethical origin of Socrates philosophies, actions, and beliefs.  In this, Socrates faced his death with strength suggesting he knew his actions, although condemned by men, were sanctioned by his God.  In this act, Socrates faced his death believing his actions would result in beneficial outcomes when he stood face to face with his God. 


Modern day ethics seem to discredit the courage of Socrates because it was based on a selfish expectation of reward.  In this, ethics seems to preach a reputable dogma suggesting truth finds origin outside personal reward.  The importance of this theology is not found within the origin of ethics but the origin of human behavior. 


I will explain, the Socratic Method suggests a context where human existence is best explained within a search for universal truth; where universal truth is described as something that is as true for you as it is for me.  Many argue the absence of truth; there is however evidence that truth exists.  Imagine, for a moment, you and I are standing in the same room.  At the count of 3, we jump upward into the air.  Because a force called Gravity exists within this Universe, we both fall back to the floor.  Universal truth can be found within this “simple” example; because the force of Gravity is as true for me as it is for you. 



This identifies our first challenge; we must accept the definition of “simple” being different from “easy”.  In this regard, simple suggests an ability to understand while easy is associated with the amount of energy, or effort, required to succeed with any task.  Therefore, some of the most simple concepts are also the hardest to implement.  In this, Gravity becomes simple evidence of at least one concept which is the same for every human present on this planet.  A second concept can be found within natural law which governs three associated states; that of a positive charge (+), a negative charge (-), and a neutral or no charge (0).  In simple terms, a positive charge is opposite in nature from a negative charge; while a concept of neutral is neither positive or negative.  The relationship between these three states can be represented by a line with a positive charge (+) sitting on the right side; a negative charge sitting on the left side (-), and a neutral charge (0) sitting right in the middle. 


The importance of this representation comes with an understanding that opposites exist in nature.  For example, modern psychology speaks of two primary states of being; that of adaptive and maladaptive.  Within this context, adaptive is that which brings growth and maladaptive is that which brings the opposite of growth; or a position which has been called entropy or a concept which describes a loss of organization or a loss of growth.  These distinctions become vital based on a simple understanding that universal outcomes often fall within one of two opposing categories. 


Like protons carry a positive charge, and electrons carry a negative charge, the outcome of human behavior can be either adaptive (+) or maladaptive (-).  In this regard, that which is adaptive is described as having a positive state; or nature.  In contrast, that which is maladaptive is described as having a negative state; or nature.  In other words, adaptive cannot be maladaptive and maladaptive cannot be adaptive; just like a proton cannot be an electron and an electron cannot be a proton.  In the world of mathematics, a positive (+) number exists as an increase while a negative (-) number exists as a decrease; the one cannot be the other under any circumstances. 


For example, responsible fiscal behavior can be described as having positive cash flow, and negative debt.  In contrast, having negative cash flow, and increasing debt, speaks of financial risk.  With that said, and from a business perspective, some amount of debt is considered positive as it can increase the financial stability of an entity.  Based on this evidence, to state all debt carries a negative outcome is to deny the increased spending power of a reasonable repayment plan.  In contrast, to say all debt is positive also denies the crippling financial outcome of an upside down debt to income ratio.  The intention of this example is meant to outline the often confusing nature of positive and negative outcomes.  If we accept that positive is good and negative is bad then how do we explain situations in which poles seem to reverse. 


An example of this confusion can be found within Utilitarian concepts which speaks of two sovereign masters of pleasure and pain.  In this, suggestions are made which place the existence of human behavior within a construct of pleasurable or painful outcomes.  Simply put, humans tend to run from pain in an effort to embrace pleasure.  Where these outcomes tend to be true for some others, like Scorates, some seem to possess an ability to face the advent of pain with an expectation, or hope, for a positive outcome.  How then are we to decide what is right or what is good?


Socrates taught a method wherein the outcome associated with a thing describes the nature of that thing.  With this in mind, let’s turn again to our example of debt.  Is debt good or is it bad?  This question can be answered when we look at the outcome of financial decisions to either increase or decrease debt.  In this, viewing debt as primarily negative denies the ability of increased cash flow based on a reasonable payment plan.  In contrast, to view debt as primarily positive runs a tremendous risk of having more debt than an ability to pay.  In this, taking a positive or negative stance on the existence of debt becomes confusing.  If we shift gears, and look at debt within a state of neutrality things can become more clear.  In this regard, debt is neither good nor bad; what I do with debt, or the outcome of my choices with debt, decides the positive or negative outcome. 


Said differently, much of what exists within the sphere of life is neither intrinsically, or internally, good or bad; the context which describes the adaptive or maladaptive nature of any one thing is solely associated with outcome.  Thus, if I intelligently increase the debt of my company, in order to maintain positive spending power, this financial growth is proof of the adaptive nature of my choice.  Again, from an opposite position, a maladaptive outcome can describe the nature of a poor business choice to increase debt above my ability to repay.  This concept of using an outcome as a measurement can be associated with anything from life and death as well as behavior and emotion. 


Meaning, any human interaction, even human existence itself, falls within a state of neutrality.  The deciding factor, regarding utility or disadvantage, can be found solely within an associated outcome; because, like mathematics, judging a problem as good or bad, based solely on its existence, does little to solve the problem.  Like mathematics, when life presents a problem, I simply apply a viable solution to resolve the problem; i.e. add, subtract, multiply, or divide.  If I simply judge the problem as bad; this judgment can inhibit an exploration of viable solutions.  By judging a problem as neutral, I am free to explore the nature of solutions through an analysis of the outcome.  


An example of our discussions can be found within Nazi Germany.  Adolf Hitler rose to power in the aftermath of the first world war.  With time, Hitler used his political clout to establish peaceful control over Austria.  This unification of bordering countries was initially viewed as a melding of similar ideals; and a positive step forward.  With time, Adolf Hitler turned his sights toward the world.  It can be argued that Nazi Germany used Utilitarian philosophies to justify world dominance based on a perception of positive German outcomes.  To Hitler, it seems the problem belonged to those outside Germany.  With time, Hitler focused his energy on individual cultures he perceived were inferior.  In the end, Hitler’s view cost the lives of nearly 11.5 million people in concentration camps alone. 


Intrinsically, what was termed the Final Solution (or a process of systematic slaughter) seemed good for Hitler.  In reality, the Final Solution was a simple removal of those Hitler perceived as problematic.  In this sense, Adolf Hitler becomes a terrifying example of what can happen when focus is placed primarily on the existence of a problem.  In this regard, those caught in the wake of Hitler’s vision (those whom Nazi Germany identified as a problem) were systematically removed from existence in an effort to remove the problem.  Hitler often spoke of a thousand year Nazi rule where those perceived as superior were not burdened by inferior cultural groups.  With this example in mind, a demanding question asks how any outcome can be considered positive, ethical, or even good if only one part of the whole finds a beneficial outcome? 


Meaning, Hitler was once viewed as a political savior by those who voted him into power.  This perception of utility is what motivated voters to cast a favorable ballot toward the Nazi party.  In this regard, German citizens raised their voice based on a perception that Germany was being mistreated by the rest of the world.  It can be argued that Hitler used this focus to gain sufficient political power to engage his war machine.  In reality, Adolf Hitler focused on what he thought was the problem and used his influence (his power) to forward his agenda; to remove the problem.  Hitler nearly accomplished his design through the power of fear. 


In this context, the human population has a choice; we can choose to focus our efforts on blame or we can engage in a search for viable solutions.  Through an understanding of neutrality, we can accept that problems, more times than not, can be blamed on the nature of human existence.  Meaning, perfection (described as a state free from mistake) is a concept wholly missing in human nature.  Therefore, a metaphor of neutrality seeks a shared understanding of nature or what can be described as reality; or that which simply is despite belief.  Within this context, we must accept that problems exist, within human nature, and that human nature tends to focus our attention on the problem itself. 


With this understanding, we have a choice; we can waste energy being frustrated that problems exist or we can focus efforts on finding viable resolutions.  Therefore, the key to unlocking the human code comes with an acceptance of reality; a reality which states the faster I accept the neutrality of a problem (the problem is not the problem) the faster the problem can be resolved.  In this regard, we suggest a lack of understanding of how to effectively resolve any problem is the real problem.  This lack of agreement between reality, and what we want to believe, is where we find an understanding as to why Socrates was ordered to drink poison. 


In this, Socrates produced an opposing voice.  This concept was so disturbing to early Greek leaders they labeled Socrates as a heretic and impugned his honor as motivation to take his own life.  In this, our world seems to produce contradictory philosophies as easily as it produces life itself.  Amidst all this confusion, is it any wonder many struggle with core components of life?  The question, then, becomes one of discovery wherein an average person can find a path of truth.  In this, we suggest Socrates was right in regard to his Scientific Method or a concept of test/retest sufficient to produce a viable resolution to any number of problems.


- Darrell


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