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'Thinking is hard'. Just ask Socrates!

‘Thinking is Difficult, that's why most people judge.’

Seeing this quotation from Karl Jung on LinkedIn a couple of days ago (the time of starting writing was 5:55am GMT, 24/2/2022), I reflected on the truth of this statement.

Thinking is difficult. I think there are several layers to the meaning of difficult here, and I should like to turn to Socrates as an example.

What does difficult mean?

1. Hard. Thinking deeply, thinking critically are hard. They require practice, effort, and

application. Some, daunted at the effort, hide their reluctance to engage (whether out of

pride or fear with judgmental assertion.

2. In addition, I think difficult also points to the fact that 'thinking' can prove uncomfortable.

Thinking that spawns questions, debate, critique, leading to a tripping down and unpacking

of accepted norms is for many highly discomfiting. The response: to judge the individual

who has caused the discomfort and cast adverse judgement against them. It is easier than

engaging with them and easier than admitting you don't know how to.

Socrates was a deep thinker, a great critical questioner, and promoter of learning, advocating evaluation over blind acceptance of knowledge. He caused annoyance for both the above reasons.

Euthyphro springs to mind for number 1. Unable fully to grasp Socrates’ quest for a definition of the ‘pious’, having given his best efforts, he excuses himself to continue with the legal business that led to the encounter with Socrates in the first place.

The second issue did not do Socrates’ popularity with his fellow Athenians any favours. His famed method of enquiry, by questioning and critically examining concepts, in order to challenge accepted thinking on key values and to probe them more deeply, often exposing the superficial knowledge that some so-called ‘teachers’ claimed to impart for large sums of money, did not endear him to his fellow Athenians. His ability to open up complexities was very uncomfortable. He was perceived to be a threat to these established teachers, the sophists. Equally, the more cynical could have argued (and probably did) that he was questioning the very order of society.

In Plato’s version of Socrates’ defense speech at his trial for his life, Socrates cites a comic play (unnamed, but very obviously Aristophanes’ Clouds) as the source of key charges against him. The charge of walking on air and gawping at the sky are made to look ridiculous and with these Socrates lists the more awkward charge against him: ‘rejection of the established gods.’ In the play, Socrates appears sitting in a hanging basket studying the skies, and yes, the comic Socrates certainly does reject the established gods, telling his boorish pupil Strepsiades that Vortex has banished Zeus. How far this is comic embroidery, the historic Socrates, or a generic send up of some sophist traits, all combined in this ‘send up’ is impossible to glean. However, one trait of the comic Socrates that as not true of the historic figure was that the former in the play charges money for his lessons. Socrates did not and in fact he pleads poverty in the second speech of his defence. As to rejecting the established gods, there is no evidence he did so. What he did believe was that a god (the daimonion) spoke to him personally as he proceeded on his quest for wisdom, questioning everything and everyone in sight. However, this does not mean he was rejecting the old and inventing the new, Socrates could simply have been claiming as personal connection with the gods as his guide speaking via his conscience.

Why did Socrates practice this relentless method of questioning? In the Apology (his defence), he spoke about the oracle of Delphi naming him the wisest of men for realizing he knew nothing. Puzzled, he stepped up his efforts, asserting his respect for the oracle, but feeling a sense of amazed disbelief. As he scratched the surface of the knowledge of so-called experts by this rigorous examination, he realized that they were as ignorant as he was – he simply had the humility to admit to it and do something about it. Socrates believed that his questioning was the way to care for oneself, that is for one’s soul, in achieving a better understanding of what made us better people. This was not achieved by getting whipped up in the ambitions of everyday politics and seeking wealth, fame, and luxury. This is what he means when he talks about ‘taking care of oneself before one takes care of one’s own affairs.’

Whatever the truth of the motivation behind his prosecution – rejection of gods, invention of new gods, allegedly subversive attitude towards the established order, or simply a scape goat in the charged aftermath of the Thirty Oligarchs and their terror – Socrates was sentenced to hemlock.

He had undeniably proved that thinking was difficult, both in the sense of being hard to accomplish and in the sense of being uncomfortable. He applied himself, questioned, learnt, discomfited others, and, yes, they judged him.

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