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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century 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,

I know that your ‘dialogic mission’ was to learn the nature of wisdom by having discussions with prominent Athenian citizens. But I wonder … have you ever learned anything of value by speaking with just plain folk?

Yours truly,

Hoi Polloi

Dear Hoi,

Indeed I have. In fact much more so than from the ‘experts,’ who, you may recall, consistently disappointed me, at least whenever they attempted to expound upon matters outside their area of professional competency, which was almost always! But I am continually enlightened by encounters with ordinary people, whose wisdom far exceeds my own. Many of them are not desperately seeking wisdom, as I am, since they already possess it. Hence they are able to go about useful work, while I continue to make my infinite preparations, as it were. Yet they are often characterized by a deep humility, even before me. All of this makes me ponder, of course … so I ponder why I must ponder so much!

These encounters are not without humor. Why, listen to what happened when I visited my barber the other day. My hair, such as it is, now grows very slowly, but I do go about once a century. This fellow, Pat, has a friendly manner, so we naturally fell into conversation. He asked me what I do, and when I said ‘philosophy,’ he commented, “You must know a lot of facts to be able to do that.”

This made me laugh, although not too heartily with his shears hovering around my head. “No, far from it,” I replied. “I know very few, or am not sure what the facts are. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that in my line. My stock in trade is logic.”

Pat didn’t miss a beat. “But isn’t logic factual?” I suddenly realized that I had my work cut out to communicate what I meant by contrasting logic to facts. But isn’t that exactly what I do for a non-living? What I mean is: my barber’s question was forcing me to re-examine one of my most fundamental assumptions in order to find out if I really understood what I myself was talking about.

I will spare you the details of the subsequent discussion, which, like so many of the dialogues depicted by Plato, ended in irresolution. But I learned something nevertheless, which was that my communication – and I suppose any verbal communication – depends on what one means by one’s words. Before Pat and I could have the slightest chance of mutual comprehension, we had to make sure that we were using the words ‘fact’ and ‘logic’ in the same way. Otherwise we were just tripping over each other’s feet, which would certainly have made for an amusing video on YouTube had there been a bystander filming us.

Another instance of this general phenomenon occurred even more recently, when I had a friend and her college-age daughter over for dolmathes. I was very curious to know how Dana had brought up her child, who was now about to go off on her own to live by her own lights. Vivian struck me as worthy of this trust, which I cannot say is my common opinion about young people. Before long, then, the dinner discussion turned to the nature of right and wrong.

“Did your mother tell you that certain things were right to do and other things were wrong to do?” I asked Vivian. This was my way of introducing an examination of these ever-perplexing concepts. But I was to be stopped in my tracks.

“Not really,” she replied.

“Then how did you learn these things? Dana, what did you teach your daughter?”

“I taught her what to do and what not to do.” “But on what basis? Vivian, did your mother explain things to you?”

“Yes, I think so. She would not just tell me not to do something, but she would tell me why not.” Dana amplified, “When there was something I didn’t like, I told her not to do it.”

“Ah, so you are like the gods of Olympus,” I said, “at least according to my old acquaintance Euthyphro. He explained to me many years ago that piety is whatever the gods like. Do you believe that morality is whatever you like, Dana?”

“I don’t know what morality is. But I do know that if my daughter does certain things, she won’t have any friends. So I tell her not to do those things. We all need and want to have friends. I am my daughter’s friend. If she wanted me to continue to be her friend, she had to behave in certain ways and not others.”

So there it was: simple and sweet. There was no need to haggle over abstract concepts. Dana had figured out ‘how to live’ and how to raise a lovely daughter by responding to the realities of daily life. It also must have helped that her native intelligence and vision had remained relatively unclouded by doctrinal theories, whether of the religious or even philosophical sort.

None of this is alien to my accustomed way of seeking wisdom by conversing and questioning. It’s just that I have now learned who are the most profitable people to talk to.

As ever,


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