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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

You are always talking about dialectic as the path to wisdom. This method is logical and verbal, but it never gets you anywhere. Your rational dialogues with the eminent personages of Athens end up in a tangle. Yet, if Plato’s writings are to be believed, you were also somewhat of a mystic. For instance, you spoke of the blinding light outside the cave, and you rhapsodized about the vision of love, and you considered only the Forms to be real. The mystical or intuitional method is inherently neither verbal nor logical, yet it takes you right to the source – to the truth. So why bother with dialectic at all? Which is it, Socrates: Are you dedicated to reason, or to insight?

Yours truly,
Thomas A.

Dear Thomas,

In my deepest heart there is indeed a yearning, a thirst for wisdom that dialectic cannot slake. It is the kind of thing many religious people talk about. One book I have read since my return made a particular impression. The author would awaken in the middle of every night and meditate or pray for a couple of hours. Without fail there would come a moment when – in his religious terminology – he would meet God. During this moment all truth would be revealed, including the eternal nature of his soul. By comparison, my arguments for the same conclusion are but pale shadows; for they are always tentative, always subject to possible refutation by an interlocutor (including myself!). The dialectician values his humility about knowledge; it is almost as if he loves ignorance above knowledge.

Yet the intuitionist’s testimony is not immune from this dialectical doubting. From the rational standpoint, mysticism is impossibly compromised. Since its assertions aren’t backed up by argument, they seem baldly based on mere feelings or faith. So how does the mystic know that she is not being deluded? Dialectic about everyday feelings and experience is forever revealing that people have jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Madmen, too, are capable of having convictions that are demonstrably false. Why, then, should mystics’ certainties be considered privileged?

Thomas replies: I think your dilemma, Socrates, was nicely summed up by the Zen roshi Philip Kapleau, who dedicated one of his books “to those who wish not to seek but to find.” What you characterize as humility might be considered a kind of cowardice.

Socrates replies: Ah, yes, a most appealing way of putting it – but perhaps a bit of rhetoric, challenging one to put down one’s guard? Let me try to unravel this in a homely way. I went for a walk the other day near where I live. On this particular occasion I happened not to be pondering some weighty philosophical problem but instead had a trivial matter on my mind: Where could I find an eggplant grinder? Why I had this craving I have no idea.

Well, I turned the matter over and over in my head, but even though my walk was a long one, I simply could not think of any place in my neighborhood to find an eggplant grinder. So I was feeling somewhat downcast as I turned the final corner to return to my flat when ... right before my very eyes I saw the solution. Just two buildings down from my own was an Italian delicatessen I had never been in, even though it had been there for over a year. I walked right in and satisfied my desire most deliciously!

Why have I told you this story? First, it backs your point that there can be value in not thinking. I had belabored my mind for nothing. Clearing the mind of chatter and other clutter, as mystics are wont to do, allows for other possibilities, such as observation (noticing the deli in the first place), recollection (the deli coming to mind at an appropriate moment), patience (the craving for the grinder likely disappearing by the time the walk was over, had I not been dwelling on it), and creativity (new ideas rushing into the vacuum left by an emptied mind). I understand this instinctively, which is why half of the time that I go for walks, I lose myself in the scenery and let my mind lie fallow. I am a peripatetic, you see: Wandering and wondering go hand in hand, as do wondering and pondering (and pondering and pun-dering?). Walking gives me time to think and not to think – in a word (which, interestingly, captures this dual aspect of thinking), to meditate. By the time I’m home, I may have solved some theoretical problem, or a practical problem may have resolved itself.

But my second point is this: Suppose on my walk I had had instead the inspiration to break into the deli at night and empty the till. Then I would have relied on my reason to discourage me.

Thomas replies: More likely on your inner voice, Socrates, which keeps you from harm and wrong-doing. I have a story for you too; it was in the news the other day. A woman was trapped in her car because a power line had fallen on it. She knew that a person is not supposed to leave the car under such circumstances, as the metal of the car body grounds the current and would electrocute her upon exiting. But her inner voice told her to jump. Just after she did so, unscathed, the car burst into flames.

Socrates replies: Then here also is a kind of dialectic, I submit, or a meta-dialectic: between the discursive and nondiscursive activities of the mind and soul. As the soul is often silent or difficult to hear, I am fortunate to have had you to serve as its spokesperson. Our two preferred methods do sometimes seem diametrically opposed, but this does not disturb me in the least. On the contrary, when surveyors seek to triangulate the location of a distant object, they choose positions that are as far apart as possible.

Yours as ever,


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