The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity

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Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

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4 thoughts on “The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity

  1. This post is lovely in every way.

    Compare, if you will, Socrates’ negativity in his method of dialectic with today’s feel good American educational model.

    Does the older student move forward in his thought processes by one Good job! after another?

    For certain types of students, Socrates push back may have caused deeper thought.

    Just a thought.

  2. Socrates, while intellectually wise (intelligent), appears not to have been emotionally wise (intelligent). Had he been emotionally intelligent, he might have known that, by “stinging” his opponents, he would have repelled the very people he sort to win over to his way of thinking.

    Since the combination of intellectual intelligence and emotional unintelligence is more the province of the male, than the female, it should not be surprising that Socrates, a man, was this way. He may also have had within him, repressed anger from some childhood trauma or other, which he directed on his interlocutors.

    I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins, who has so eloquently enlightened the public about evolution, with the object of winning over its opponents (many of them religious conservatives). However, Dawkins, by also engaging in a public crusade for the religion of atheism, has driven away many of the very people (religious conservatives) he wishes to win over to evolution.

  3. You, unfortunately, can not prove there is any benefit to winning the people over to your side, rather it is detrimental. Socrates knew this, that’s why he didn’t. In this way he is much wiser than you portray him. Read the “Concept of Irony” if you have time for fun.

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