Socrates and the original think tank

Aristophanes

Aristophanes

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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