To quote: “Socrates believed that virtue was not to be unearthed primarily in past teaching, but rather was something that always could be more fully discovered; and that one of the best ways to go about doing this was to hold dialogues with one’s peers.” – pg. 253
Written in 2004 by Christopher Phillips, author of similarly themed ‘Socrates Cafe’, this collection of sit-down discussions takes place among a diverse sampling of the human race, all of whom share one key characteristic in common: a willingness to be honest and open in the pursuit of truth.
In a bid to reflect the theme and purpose of the text, today I won’t be displaying passages of interest and then analyzing them. Instead, I plan on answering the six questions of Socrates for myself.
What is Virtue?
Virtue is, in its simplest form, the best trait in the worst scenario. It is knowing exactly how much of a good characteristic is necessary, as well as, conversely, knowing exactly how little of a bad characteristic you can utilize while still surviving. And I think awful, no-good circumstances are the ones that really call virtue to the fore. It is easy to play at virtue in the land of good fortune. This is understandably vague. To clarify, in a cataclysmic event of biblical proportions, you would expect heroism and bravery and camaraderie from someone with virtue. You could also forgive that same virtuous person for a little darkness in such hellish conditions, but just a little.
The key to virtue is the ever shifting line between extremes. Being kind without being taken as a fool. Being brave without being reckless. Being honest without being cruel. In the same events though, the virtuous must be willing to be perceived as a fool, for even though your trust and effort may be in vain, you must always seek to be kind. They must be willing to be a little reckless, because some situations call for it, and the danger logically demands that you not act in the face of such odds, no matter how brave you are. They must be willing to be blunt, even though it may hurt the listener because some truths are too valuable to disguise in metaphor or sugarcoating.
What is Moderation?
Moderation is a close cousin to that beautiful slippery line mentioned above, except in this case it refers not just to character, but to action. It is knowing when enough is really enough and that’s never as clear from the inside as it is from the out.
To me, moderation is a second level skill built upon a solid foundation of self-knowledge. It is only when you have learned and accepted your own limits and needs that you can ever practice moderation.
I think a lot of people mistake moderation for merely applying to the things they consume; they judge how much they buy, eat, waste. But moderation is more than what we bring into our lives, it’s what we leave out of it as well. It’s knowing when to sever ties with toxic friends because the effort put forth in that arena is out of balance with what’s returned. It’s taking a break from work or study because obsession is never healthy. It’s always choosing three examples because despite having thousands to pick from, you know your reader doesn’t have all day to listen to you ramble.
What is Justice?
Justice is intense. Justice is the opposite of blind; it is the moral course of retribution after factoring in all the extenuating circumstances. It comes only when the virtue of another has failed, but the truly just must rise above however they feel about the perpetrator or the victim. It is seeing passed the now to calculate past harms and future repercussions. Justice is hard. Justice is too often vengeance under a false name or lured away by the charms of wealth and promise.
What is Good?
Good is better than perfection, for it is the triumph of integrity over temptation and fear. Good is an individual’s best; their best effort, their best qualities, their best self. Good is surrounded by bad and still manages to shine so brightly as to eclipse that bad. Good accepts the bad as natural and still does its damn job.
Good leads to happiness. Not just for the holder, but to all those around him or her. It’s genuine and caring and growing. If we can be nothing else in this world, we should strive to be Good.
What is Courage?
Courage is doing the right thing, the good thing, no matter what you’re faced with. It’s the hardest decision you’ll ever have to make. It’s giving up everything that’s corrupt and seeking more. It is acknowledging all that could or will go wrong for the individual and doing the moral thing despite it. Courage is having all of the fears and moving passed them.
What is Piety?
Piety is the one question here with which I struggle most. I was raised to believe it was bowing before the divine, submitting to a higher authority. Well, without a belief in that ‘higher’ authority, I’ve had to redefine piety in recent years. Now, I relate it more closely to humility. So for me, piety is understanding deeply, intimately, that there are things in this world far more precious than my life. Virtue is one of them, truth is another. I think everyone, in some abstract way, gets that there is more to their lives than just muddling through it trying to continue on this plane as long as possible.
Maybe we’re not ‘meant for more’ and this life is ‘all we get’. Honestly, we’re so lucky to be alive given all the ways that we could have not come to be, but even holding life as the most divine entity (all life not only human) on the planet, it still remains that in a one on one contest? Yeah, piety is admitting that one life is never going to outweigh the worth of virtues like integrity or loyalty.
I think regardless of deity or beliefs therein, Socrates would agree. After all, he sacrificed his life because he valued it appropriately less than his integrity.
Those are my answers, what do you think? Am I missing huge aspects of these goliath-sized concepts or do I understand them well enough to explain them simply? I don’t know. What I do know is that the answer to these questions is ever evolving and definitely different for everyone. I hope my attempt amused you or gave you a bit to think on.
And special bonus question: Is Excellence Still Possible?
Well, this one I think I’ll leave up to the reader. Do you think it’s still possible for both an individual as well as a nation to excel in this the time of instant gratification and long distance warfare?