Socrates and the original think tank



And so we continue this thread on Socrates, and the profound ways that he is still with us today.

We’ve been looking at his ideas about conversations, good and bad, and his skepticism toward writing (as opposed to oral conversation). But what did this in fact lead to, in practical terms?

It led to a weird, perambulatory kind of school, as Socrates walked around with various people, mostly younger, engrossed in conversation. This would ultimately get him in trouble, of course. But before it got him killed, it merely raised eyebrows.

Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of ancient Greece and Socrates’ most cutting parodist, invented a word for this kind of purposeful and moderated conversation, in his play the Clouds: a thinkery (phrontisterion).

A think tank, in other words.

Indeed, think tanks are among Socrates’ legacies. His student Plato took over a grove dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and founded his Academy, which lasted for three hundred years, throughout the entire Hellenistic era.

One of the people perambulating and thinking and conversing at that Academy was Aristotle, who eventually took over another grove, dedicated to Apollo, the god of wisdom (and other things), and also started a think tank, called the Lyceum.

In time, Academy and Lyceum became the roots for “school” in many languages, depending on whether the insitution leant toward Platonism or Aristotelianism. But the more direct descendants today might be the likes of Heritage, Cato and Tellus.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to start looking at whether Socrates actually practiced what he preached in his peculiar style of conversation. Stay tuned.

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15 thoughts on “Socrates and the original think tank

  1. Andreas – agree with Chester – we should use thinkery – its a fabulous word!

    Re Socrates preference for oral education – some academies still incorporate his insights about its merits above primarily text oriented approaches. Oxford and Cambridge in UK both put great emphasis on small tutorials as a key aspect of their experience. Usually just one or two students discussing issues with a tutor. Sadly that is no longer practiced or possible in most other British schools now.

    I wonder what Socrates would have thought of the fate of the word academic – which now can be used to mean irrelevant to real life…

    PS – hope your move went well & that you aren’t surrounded by too much chaos.

  2. Hard to know whether the Platonic Socrates (animated) or the Xenophonic Socrates ( colorless) is the real Socrates.

    Hard to know whether a journalist’s research captures the essence of Socrates.
    ( you know those journalists, muckrakers they are…)

    Most of our heroes have been debunked. A loss of idealism or a dose of realism?

    Jag: I do not understand your last point. What, in your view, does the word academic mean? Thanks.

    • Cheri – this might be an example of our being dividing by a common language – in English English academic can mean not practically useful or not important in the real world – as in ‘X is of academic interest only”. Now that you query it – I’m not sure it has all the same connotations in American English?

  3. Jag, re the Oxbridge tradition: My college, Williams, has it too. James Garfield, a former president and student there, once said that “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins [a famous teacher] on one end of a log and a student on the other.”

    Re “academic”: I think that quite a few of Plato’s (and Socrates’) detractors would have agreed with our meaning already: Those two were notorious for getting bogged down in hopeless (academic) attempts to “define” something–poetry, beauty, whatever–while the poets and artists they were interrogating might have been left to get on with it….

    • Andreas – good to hear that you have been as well armed by your education as many of your Oxbridge colleagues. Though to tie this to one of your serious themes – too much Oxbridge style debate is eristic (thanks for that word – have been trying to use that and ur-bitch as much as possible since).

  4. Ok. I get it.

    Academics who today teach and research in our universities, but who have little real life (business) experience?

    Academics who lobby for institutional change (except for their own) in their university published books?

    Academics whose benefit package and security behind the ivy hedge allows them to tinker with big ideas in their thinkeries?

    Ok. I get it.

    I should have named my school a lyceum and not an academy.
    That would have pleased Emerson.

    • Hi Christopher!
      Apropos, perhaps.

      Here in the States, calling a school a gymnasium would likely indicate an after school basketball program or gymnastics or indoor hockey—all of which I engaged in yesterday in trying to motivate my comatose grammar students.

      Maybe I should have called it a sanatorium. Let me share with you what other companies in our area have named themselves: Achiever Institute, Berkeley Academy, Beyond Academics, A+ Learning Center, ThinkTank, Elite Prep, Classic Math, Learning Bee…the list goes on and on.

      Makes me want to heave. What would Socrates have said about those names, A?

    • You obviously live ‘uptown.’ Here are some institutions from my area that are probably similar. (Mind you, I have certificates from two of these).

      bed bath and beyond academics
      knowledge knook
      Just Grades
      Park’n Learn
      Tan’n Tutor
      Study Good
      Elite Prick
      SAT lol!

      For Adult Learners (aka Mature Students in the UK); Scarlet A+ Learning Center, (others omitted).

    • These are very funny. You are good.

      I wish I had the guts to write a newsletter and include them, but I was almost sued last year by another company ( think a famous Beatles’ song) for challenging their ethics in an e-mail to school board members. Am I a dumb s_ _ _, or what?

      After attorney fees and tongue lashing by Judge Blah for my recklessness, I swore never to post that company’s name anywhere. And guess what happened a month ago? That company, and several other franchises, had their business faces slapped by the Wall Street Journal for allegedly (note my caveat here) rigging diagnostic tests. Front page of the Personal Journal section.

      Big time slap it was.

      Yeahhhhh…there is a God. Wonder what She got on the SAT?

    • Yellow Submarine? Help? Which song?

      Now that the WSJ has slapped them around, surely you should feel liberated to provide the said satire.

      Christopher: I went to a “gymnasium” in the European sense. Cheri: When I moved to the US, I then found myself in gymnasiums in the American sense. The Greeks had a bit of both. They were places for dialectic, but also to get oiled and massaged and throw the discus….

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