Socrates is the first well-documented Greek philosopher, no thanks to his own writing activity; he is known to have lived from 470 to 399 BC and his student Plato was the one to carefully document his words and methods. Socrates’ method was a radical breach with the past. Until then philosophy’s interest was into explaining the cosmos through reason. Philosophers wanted to know our origine and made rational theories on the origin of matter, the celestial bodies and life. Sophism was the first school of thought to bring Greek philosophy to earth and teach people to form themselves a theory and propagate it to others with the use of convincing reason. Sophism lifted philosophy to a professional scholastic level and skipped the in their eyes unanswerable question concerning creation. Socrates was the first to make man center of philosophic interest. The main question for man to solve is how to live a proper and responsible life. Important knowledge therefore is knowledge on man and society. Man has to ask himself firstly: how can you know anything when you don’t know yourself?’ ‘Know yourself’ was his first rule, for other knowledge comes from self-knowledge and who knows after all. Wisdom is acquired self-knowledge and an important aspect of that is knowing your own boundaries: awareness of your own ignorance and the fields where knowledge is missing. Self-knowledge is the starting and reference point for any other gathering of knowledge and you must ask yourself questions and test the answers’ validity first. Further knowledge comes from communicating with others as a way to exchange your knowledge with other people’s knowledge. Your and other people’s knowledge must be mirrored and tested on its truthfulness and durability. His second rule was that ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’ and from many detailed facts it is possible to work towards knowledge, a search method we call induction. Exchanging and thus gaining knowledge is made possible by asking the right questions through encouragement to carry on or to stop and sideway pushing with the right remarks. Socrates called this communication technique the midwive’s technique, maieutike techne; his mother and wife Xantippe both were midwives. Knowledge, according to Socrates, had to be authentic and his questions were only meant to test the solidity of acquired knowledge. Finding truth is possible by asking the right questions and in the process digging deeper into the subject by a new question following the answer. His technique of questioning people to test their knowledge has become known as the dialectic or Socratic dialogue. Socrates not only teached his students, he could be found in the open air having his dialogue with an audience too. Socrates’ favorite topics were justice, self restraint, piety, bravery and wisdom. It is possible to find a general truth and ethical standards for human behavior, the ‘essentials’, by research on other people’s knowledge and behavior and gathering the answers.
Through insight and knowledge it is possible to find virtue and virtue being a matter of intellect, everyone can achieve it. This thinking is called ‘ethical intellectualism’. Virtue is not necessarily obedience to a good public rule, virtue mainly is knowledge. When a person knows and understands what true virtue is, he may act within general principles instead of self-interest. Socrates tried to make his students aware of their actions being self-interested, even though everybody agrees that the general interest has priority over self-interest. Goodness and virtue aren’t built on nice words by a clever spokesman but on goodness and virtue being shared by everyone. It is on the field of morality that people have the least self-knowledge and the word artists (the sophists!) have an easy job here in convincing others of their moral standard. Goodness and virtue come from a life of learning and teaching and good people never stop learning and studying. Another part goodness is made of, is beauty. Masculine beauty and its benefits lead to intellectual wisdom, feminine beauty similarly leads to a good body and thus to procreation, according to Socrates.
The ultimate goal of all action is, according to Socrates, finding happiness. If a student has gained enough knowledge of a desired goal, he or she bound to act virtuously. Incorrect action is a consequence of insufficient knowledge of virtue. Virtue is for both the state and the individual the only way to happiness. Socrates did not believe in deliberate evil. Evil action comes from ignorance and everyone at least has the will to find out what is truly good for him or her and truth is the same as goodness. The state must strive towards justice, not power and wealth and knowledge is the only guidance for just actions and power without knowledge can only lead to unhappiness. ‘Ideals belong in a world only the wise man can understand’. Socrates finds it therefore necessary to elect leaders for their knowledge, not for their wealth of descent, and the ordinary civilian lacks the knowledge to elect competent leaders. Socrates disapproved of any state system, all of them giving no answer to who might possess the most intellectual baggage for leadership. Philosophers should govern the state.
Athens those days experimented with democracy, however, a true democracy it was not. Women, slaves and foreigners (they might be Greeks from outside Athens) were excluded from the right to vote in the general assembly (the Ekklesia), an institution which existed since it was founded by statesman Clisthenes (ca 570 – 507 BC). Men and women leaded secluded lives and erotic relations between boys and young men were more or less approved of, as finding beauty and wisdom among men had educational intellectual worth, provided a man was not ‘enslaved’ by his physical ‘passions’. After marriage, men had to find physical beauty in women and procreation was seen as an important part of that. Homosexual relations among adult men met more disapproval, however, pederastic relations between adult men (eromenos) and boys (erastes) were commonplace and considered a patronage relation, but nowadays in modern standards we would recognize aspects of prostitution in them. Socrates and his students lived in this world and are known to have made approving comments on homosexuality. Sexuality, even masturbation, were displayed more openly in Ancient Greece than people did and do after the arrival of Christianity. Slavery was another part of a natural and ethical world order. A slave could be as noble as a free man, but human relations are naturally determined by dominance: some people are braver and stronger and therefore able to provide patronage to others. In Classical Greece slavery gained a formal absolute status. Socrates and Aristoteles both made acquiescenting comments on the phenomenon. Freedom of religion only went so far. The state religion allowed for non-dogmatic and equal worship of several deities, mostly ancient traditional deities, among whom important leaders and thinkers, to be allowed into the ‘pantheon’, the temple for all religions, but it was not allowed to reject either any deity or introduce a new one without official consent, or reject the pantheon itself and many a philosopher was put to trial and banned or executed. This fate also fell on Socrates. He was accused of rejecting the city’s gods, introducing new deities and rejecting Athens democratic institutions. Socrates was not the man to run from civil law he had paid allegiance to and as a straight thinker he saw it as his moral duty to undergo the verdict, which he could have avoided through many legal channels, and he finally was executed.
Socrates’ sayings were recorded by his students, mostly Plato, but also Xenophon, Aristotle and Aristophanes. It is uncertain how reliable their accounts are, it is said that some writings reflect the ideas and admiration or criticism of the authors rather than Socrates’ exact words.
Universities and European institutions still like to work from this principle and use the name Socrates in their programs; the Socratic dialogue is anything but obsolete. Institutions say it can bring awareness that learning should last a lifetime and never finishes, an attitude greatly appreciated also nowadays. A new note, however, is democratisation of knowledge. A quote on the site of a teacher of Amsterdam Polytechnic school says: ‘Socratic method is not the art of teaching philosophy but of teaching how to do philosophy, not the art of teaching about philosophers but to make pupils into philosophers’ (Leonard Nelson) This teacher, Kristof van Rossem, offers training courses in Socratic Dialogues on many institutions over Europe, as many others do. Van Rossem thinks that the Socratic dialogue is a good tool at school, even primary schools, as it stimulates citizenry in young people: a good citizen actively participates in a society based on knowledge and professionalism. A teacher as leader of a Socratic dialogue is rather a stimulating, democratic facilitator than an expert who brings dogmatic knowledge. Van Rossem mentions several differences between a discussion and a dialogue, the first being ‘aimed at shaking out, it is rhetoric, aimed at decisions and actions, judging, attacking and defending, going for your own right, convincing, taking a standpoint, defensive or offensive in attitude, answering, speed and individually oriented’. A dialogue would be ‘aimed at knowing through, be dialectic, aimed at insight in the value of judgements, suspending judgements, investigating and checking, wanting to know the truth, investigation, listening to yourself and others, attitude of taking the other’s point of view, questioning, slowness and community oriented’.
A next question could be: is any part of Islamic revelation suited for the Socratic approach? Investigating a text without immediate aim of giving simple straight answers but with the aim to approach an issue from a different angle and then finding alternative answers through logic and exchanging views could be a good approach to better understanding of Qur’an al Kerim. Perhaps it is not the first way to understand ahadith, as these transmit sayings, actions and decisions of the Prophet saws, plus that many scholars have classified and interpreted them and channeled them into jurisprudence. That doesn’t mean it is not worth trying in a time where technology has changed living conditions deeply and literally shrunk distance between people globally. What could a Socratic dialogue on Qur’an al Kerim sound like?
A: What is man’s main task in life?
B: To serve Allah swt.
A: Firstly, what is serving?
B: It is performing actions to please the one who is being served.
A: Why is it necessary to serve Allah swt?
B: A believer loves Allah swt and wants to reach His reward
A: If there would be no reward, would you still find it necessary to love Allah swt?
B: Yes, because loving Him for Him alone is part of serving Him and serving Him is done out of love.
A: What is love for a Muslim, try and describe it please.
B: Love is not just a positive caring emotion for someone or something, it’s also an action.
A: What action?
B: Caring and sharing. You do nice things for them that they like.
A: How do you care and share for, with Allah swt?
B: You do the things that He asks in His Book.
A: What things?
B: You pray, perform the other rituals, you do good works.
A: Tell us something of these good works. What good works do you do out of love for Allah swt?
B: You treat other people, animals and other creatures well, you worship Allah swt.
A: Why is it necessary to treat others well out of love for Allah swt, is it not enough to do it for them?
B: Allah swt wants us to be caretakers of His creation, it is part of our duty to Him.
A: Now I look into your Qur’an. What doest ALM mean?
B: No-one knows, they are just letters.
A: Why are they there?
B: It is said that they are meant as a sign that man doesn’t know everything and He does.
A: What do you say they mean?
B: I say that it is not allowed to speculate on things we don’t know.
C comes in now: We should leave it to the scholars, they have better knowledge, also of things with double and obscure meanings.
A: Who says that you and I are ignorant?
C: You didn’t study fiqh.
A: Can you prove or assess my credentials?
B: Every believer has the duty to find knowledge, even if it were in China.
A: So is it allowed to search and share knowledge?
B: Yes, but you must back up your statements with evidence.
A: Did any scholar know the exact meaning of ALM?
B: I don’t thinks so.
A: Is it allowed to form your own opinion on three letters?
B: As long as you make clear that it is your opinion, why not.
A: Must you ask consent to think and speak at all?
And so forth.