‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (IV): On mental discipline

As I began re-reading the early Socratic dialogues, I initially thought that the Socratic way of life would have to be supplemented by philosophical and religious traditions that have devoted considerable thought to the cultivation of mental discipline. I presumed that in these dialogues there would be no explicit talk of training one’s attention on some object or of keeping one’s attention vigilantly on that object. To some degree, I was mistaken.

As I have continued reading, what I have begun to see instead is that mental discipline is both required in order to have a philosophical conversation at all as well as cultivated, in particular ways, in and through that conversation. While I still think it is true that a fuller account of mental discipline is required and for this one would do well to look to other traditions, I now seem to be clearer about the fact that there is indeed a tacit form of mental discipline assumed most often, alluded to at times, and occasionally brought to our attention in the early dialogues themselves.

Let me explore where this tacit form of mental discipline is made explicit. I am thinking of two passages in particular: one from Euthyphro and the other from Charmides. In the first dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro have just considered a number of proposals having to do with the nature of piety (and it even seems that Socrates, noticing Euthyphro’s frustration with his lack of success in this endeavor, has started them off on a potentially fruitful inquiry), only for Euthphyro to advance again a proposal that had already been shown to be unworkable: piety is what is dear to the gods. What is brought into sharp focus is that Euthyphro is stubbornly and absentmindedly returning or coming back to a view that was already shown to be so defective as to be a non-starter. Indeed, God’s love for piety was shown to be a quality of piety, not the essence of piety. At this stage, Socrates says, ‘[W]ill you be surprised if your arguments seem to move about instead of staying put’? (15b).

Now consider his second interlocutor Critias in Charmides. While inquiring with Socrates about the nature of temperance, Charmides begins speechifying, saying that temperance is ‘minding one’s own business,’ is ‘doing the good thing,’ is ‘knowing oneself,’ as if each proposal amounted to the same thing. In this situation, it becomes impossible to fully examine any of these proposals, Socrates surmises that Critias is losing patience (and losing face before these young, attractive men), and thus Socrates tells Critias not to focus on whether he or Socrates or anyone else is being refuted. ‘Instead, give your attention to the argument itself to see what the result of its refutation will be.’ (166e), regardless of who is advancing and who defending it.

Chiefly, what occurs is that the discussions of piety and temperance move about and therefore cannot be properly investigated. To what is this owing? To lack of mental discipline. What, in these works, is brought to our attention therefore is

  • how anger, frustration, shame, the desire to impress, and other negative emotions can disable an inquiry;
  • how one’s attention can drift from the immediate question at hand to something said or thought earlier or that may come up later;
  • how, like Euthyphro, one can return to what one once knew to be the case, even and especially if that account has since been shown to yield contradictions or be implausible;
  • how, like Critias, one can move so briskly as to assume that different things are essentially the same or as to make it impossible for any one thing to be examined at sufficient length.

This marks only the beginning of what would be an interesting investigation into making the tacit forms of mental discipline displayed in the early Socratic dialogues explicit. One would therefore be more able to say with greater certainty what specific requirements there are in order for one to pursue, and to continue pursuing, wisdom.

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