Persistent thread of questions can lead to deeper growth

Socrates, before his death, speaks with friends in this 18th century artwork by Bernhard Rode.

Socrates, before his death, speaks with friends in this 18th century artwork by Bernhard Rode. Wikimedia commons image

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In the middle of July’s stifling, scorching heat, it would be a welcome relief to find a cold drink tucked inside the philosopher’s backpack. Perhaps we might find a practical umbrella to provide much-needed shade.

But, no — as always, the backpack seems to offer the opposite of what we are absolutely certain we need.

Instead of a reasonable respite from July’s fiery temperature, we find a mammoth, yet strangely empty dictionary and a grubby, peculiar man with an insatiable willingness to pester us to certain madness.

Yes, July’s rucksack holds Socrates in its space, and with him, his unquenchable quest for definition. And it is getting hotter and that annoying man won’t stop repeating that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing.

As any Philosophy 101 student can tell you, Socrates is as fascinating as he is frustrating. His influence on the discipline is profound. In the book, “A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy,” Jeremy Weate notes that Socrates’ “importance to Western philosophy can be gauged by the fact that the early Greeks who preceded him are known as the Pre-Socratics.”

He explains that at the center of Socrates’ philosophical argumentation is his preoccupation with “universal definitions for ideas such as good, justice and wisdom rather than just descriptions.”

Although Socrates never wrote down any of his own ideas, his student, Plato, thankfully did. We see two examples of this preoccupation with definition in Plato’s “Apology” and Plato’s “Euthyphro.” In the “Apology,” Socrates famously argues, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He suggests that intentionally living in ignorance will never produce self-satisfaction.

In Plato’s “Euthyphro,” the perennial introduction to Socratic inquiry (and a guaranteed source of student awakening, bafflement and exasperation), Socrates masterfully, sarcastically, humorously and brilliantly interrogates the hapless character, Euthyphro. Euthyphro, who is intending to bring an indictment against his own father for murder and impiety, speaks in circular arguments and contradicts himself after Socrates challenges him to define piety — to define its characteristics, not simply to offer an example of a pious action. Euthyphro is unable to offer a suitable answer. But the gauntlet has been thrown and it hits its intended mark with accuracy and stinging awareness.

Socrates’ challenge doesn’t apply to Euthyphro’s situation only, of course. His pestering inquiry captivates and bothers the contemporary reader, too. We claim to understand concepts like piety and goodness, but can we define them? Or, like Euthyphro, can we simply provide examples of what these words mean to us? Here is the problem: if we cannot define goodness, piety, beauty or loyalty, do we really know what we are talking about regarding our values? Or are we simply regurgitating superficial societal and cultural beliefs?

Socrates’ argument illustrates the danger of adopting a morality that we cannot define, or of adhering to a belief system absent of a universal. In short, going through life without inquiry, of living a life unexamined. When we lack the ability to define abstract concepts with meaningful characteristics, we also lack the ability to differentiate what makes something worthwhile and what makes something deplorable.

If we can’t define what is “good,” how do we delineate the boundary between religious piety and zealous fanaticism? When does a dedicated commitment become an inflexible autocracy? When does a passionate involvement become an unhealthy obsession? When is something thrilling, and when does it become brash and careless? When does responsible become over-cautious or boring?

The comparisons are endless and frequently paralyzing. In fact, Socratic inquiry is very similar to the incessant questioning of a toddler: “Why do we eat dinner when we do?” “Why do I have to go to bed but you don’t?” “Why do cars drive on the road?” “Why do we call that animal a horse and not a dog?” Exasperated parents are left muttering the humbling, unsatisfying, but ever so universal, reply, “Because I said so.” Because we are hot, tired, exhausted and worn out in our state of mental July. We sympathize with Euthyphro.

The unremitting inquisition melts our ability to reason, leaving us intellectually dehydrated. Maybe the examined life is just too much. It is too big of a hassle and we pine for our comfortable days of ignorance. We long for the cool sensibility of unawareness, of unchallenged, concrete definition.

However, while the unexamined life seemed much easier, choosing ignorance after experiencing inquiry now feels deceptive, arbitrary, contrived and even inauthentic.

That is because a tangible metamorphosis has taken place. The heated, hammering, unrelenting questions forged our minds into a new shape. It made us uncomfortable, hot, cranky and, well, not at all serene, but it was a perfectly necessary process in order to re-create meaning, to re-purpose function.

The tested, strengthened, altered, examining self is able to admit that it is acceptable to respond with an “I don’t know.” The fortified self admits the questions themselves have value.

Recognizing that the unabridged edition of the self is a perpetual work in progress, it appreciates the fresh perspective in a way only one who has survived the suffocating heat can.

Yes, Socrates, we are beginning to understand. The inquiry itself has great worth. It doesn’t feel quite so stifling anymore.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu.

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