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Tidying Up With Socrates

Freya Mobus compares Socrates’ method of enquiry with a fashionable way to achieve domestic harmony.

Let me present to you the ultimate life-coaching team: Marie Kondo and Socrates. Marie Kondo, the modern Japanese consultant devoted to uncluttering our households; Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher devoted to uncluttering our minds. If we open ourselves to their methods of tidying up, we will live a happier life, they promise.

Kondo’s ‘KonMari’ method, presented in her Netflix show based on her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014), and Socrates’ ‘Elenchus’ method, presented in Plato’s dialogues starring him, work in similar ways, although Kondo is much more popular with her clients. (Eventually, the Athenians got so sick of Socrates’ attempts at tidying up their minds that they executed him.)

Let’s take as our life-coaching client a character from Plato’s Republic – Thrasymachus, who claims that only weak simpletons believe that being moral is good. Let’s assume that in addition to his cluttered mind, Thrasymachus also has a cluttered home – for he who is untidy in one area of life is likely to be untidy in another. Our life-coaching team of Kondo/Socrates gets to work.

First, let’s tidy up Thrasymachus’ house according to the KonMari method. Focus on one category; for example, clothes: get all your clothes together and take stock. Seeing the big pile of togas, tunics, and sandals, Thrasymachus realizes that he has too many. But which items should he get rid of? Marie Kondo’s advice: pick something you feel strongly about – something you definitely do (or do not) want to keep, and move on from there. Go through each item one by one and ask yourself: does this item make me happy? If not, get rid of it. Only keep things that ‘spark joy’. When you’re done, store your clothes in such a way that you can remember where they are and access them more easily in the future (fold them nicely and store them in designated boxes).

Now let’s tidy up Thrasymachus’ mind according to Socrates’ Elenchus method. Focus on one question; for example, ‘What is morality?’ Next, get all your beliefs about morality out into the open. Once Thrasymachus has taken stock of his beliefs, he realizes that some of them are incompatible. For instance, he believes that when I act morally, I benefit someone else; and he also believes that when I act morally, I may not benefit someone else. So he has to get rid of some beliefs. But which ones? Socrates’ advice: pick a belief you feel very strongly about – one you can defend best – and hold on to that. Then go through each belief one by one and ask yourself: why do I hold this belief? Only hold on to beliefs you can defend. When you’re done, store your beliefs in such a way that you can access them more easily in the future. You can do this by, for example, connecting each belief with an explanation or reason for why you hold it, and so build a network of beliefs. As Socrates says, ‘Tie your beliefs down’.

Kondo’s KonMari method and the Socratic Elenchus both inspire self-reflection. During the process of uncluttering, you are encouraged to envision your future self. Which items/beliefs do you want to bring into your future life? Who do you want to be? Their methods help us to become a better version of ourselves and to build a home – physical or intellectual – that makes us and the people around us happy.

Clutter is often a source of tension. When you cannot find your belt in the morning and blame it on your spouse, your day starts with an argument. Similarly, a political debate about a controversial topic such as immigration is likely to turn hostile if the debaters have cluttered thinking about it and are unwilling to abandon any of their beliefs. It is not surprising that many of Marie Kondo’s clients have reported that their lives have become more harmonious after they KonMari’ed their homes. As for the harmonious effect of an uncluttered mind, just look at Socrates in his last hours before his execution: Plato describes him as unconcerned about his impending death. What kept Socrates at peace is precisely that he had let go of the belief that death is bad.

But, a skeptic might wonder, what about items or beliefs that I’ve inherited from someone dear to me? Shouldn’t I keep the scarf my grandma gave me for my birthday, even though it’s really not my style? Here, Marie Kondo’s advice is to give the present a chance. Wear the scarf at least once; but if it doesn’t spark joy, let go of it. Socrates is likely to agree. If your grandma used to tell you that eating bread and butter with every meal will give you extra energy and stamina, give it a shot. Treat this belief as a hypothesis; but if you can’t defend it, let it go. We can remember and cherish our loved ones without holding on to unwanted inherited items or beliefs.

Our life-coaching dream team Kondo/Socrates leave Thrasymachus with one more piece of advice for the future: tidy regularly! Get into a habit of examining both your beliefs and possessions. That way, you will live a happier, more harmonious life.

© Dr Freya Mobus 2019

Freya Mobus is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago. She received her PhD from Cornell University.

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