The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 18

PART II: Socratic Talk:
Hospitality to the
Stranger in Dialogue

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
   - Patañjali 2nd BCE author/compiler of the Yoga Sutras[13]

The Birth of a Socratic Philosopher (Max)

My early education was not a wellspring of inspiration to my living. By the time I was a teenager living a stone's throw from the sixties, ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and skipping class were more interesting to me than anything going on in the classroom. By the time I was nineteen, I had been pretty thoroughly laid to waste. I had no vision of what I wanted out of life, no idea of what to do with myself, no motivation to explore the possibilities in useful ways. My soul was apathy and my philosophy was doing nothing. If I had remained in that state, I doubt I would have survived much less ever really lived. If I did survive to this day in that disconnected state, I would now be sitting on a couch smoking pot and wondering why I was having problems following the plot of the cartoon I was watching instead of typing these words. I would have done nothing with my life.

At the age of nineteen, I was already at the end of my rope. I saw my inability to continue with it all, but was too disconnected and numb to be concerned. It was then that one of those unexplainable, life altering serendipities landed in my lap...literally. While sitting in my father's den, a friend saw me sitting there doing nothing. He became irritated at my apathy and pulled a book off one of the shelves and threw it at me. The book hit me in the chest and as it landed on my lap he said, "If you're just going to sit there then read something." I was startled, but did have a book in my lap so I read. Nothing in my wildest imagination could have prepared me for the change that was about to occur in my life. I picked up the book and opened it to the first item in the table of contents. It was a book of philosophy readings and the first reading was a dialogue of Plato called Euthyphro. As I read, the questions Socrates was asking impacted me in a way that grabbed my attention like nothing before. I realized that I could not answer the questions concerning the definitions of holiness or piety any better than the Euthyphro character. This experience struck me like lightning.

There was also a copy of Plato's Republic on the shelf. I eagerly grabbed it and started reading book one. Within minutes, I realized that I had no clue how to define justice. That day it was revealed to me that words I had taken for granted, important words that I assumed could be easily defined by just grabbing a dictionary, were now a mystery to me no matter how many dictionaries I may have on my shelf. This realization imprinted upon me with a depth that I cannot explain. I can say in hindsight that the secondary talk about piety and justice I was exposed to prior to my first encounter with Socrates proved to be deeply inadequate. Within a month of my first encounter with Socrates' questioning, my new realization of ignorance combined with Socrates' attitude about the priority of improving oneself caused me to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming a philosopher. For me, this meant a lifetime of seeking knowledge and wisdom, cultivating whatever virtues of character I could manage to cultivate, and persistently trying to be the best human I could manage to be. I now had a vision of what I wanted to do with my life. I had goals and the motivation to pursue them. Even though the vision was very simple, even vague, it was a world of difference that dramatically changed the rest of my life. This is when I first began to question the whole of existence and the nature of my own existence. The decision to live that type of life remained steadfast. I have since lived more than thirty years giving my energies and attentiveness to trying to fulfill that original vision of being a philosopher in the Socratic style. I surrendered my life to my own dire need to be more than the answers I memorized from the secondary talk of others. I surrendered to the clear realization of my need to live an examined life.

This essay, with its emphasis on the importance of attentiveness and the need to welcome "the other", is an example of its own message. It was written out of thirty plus years of collaboration with Melete and is an example of the participatory philology of of ideas that is part of the heart of Socratic self examination. This essay comes out of a life in which the persistence of attentiveness to learning and self improvement has been a basic characteristic of my living since my Socratic transformation in 1981. Since that year, my mind opened itself up to welcome a whole host of "others", who's differences sang in beautiful harmonies and also caused glaring contradictions.

The most important thing I learned from Socrates is to be comfortable welcoming all the new differences and alien others as honored guests in the home that is my attending mind. From the beginning, I was not just comfortable. I was joyous. My previous apathy and isolation was replaced with a new companionship that was found in the entire human history of ideas. I became able to engage my living and other people with a new sense of purpose. My purpose driven living created a sense of deep meaningfulness in my life. This in turn reinforced my hunger to expand the horizons of my understanding and to make myself a better human being. I learned an extraordinarily important principle from Socrates. That wonderful principle is that we must learn to make room in our minds for different ideas and perspectives no matter how much they challenge our current beliefs.

I learned to love the encounters with the host of "others" who would engage me in my new journey of self-discovery. I learned to cherish the discovery that an idea or belief of mine was just a hollow phantom and that something better could be created or embraced. I learned to embrace the idea that the discovery of my own ignorance on a particular point is a blessing that lights up a pathway for my future growth. I learned to love to tear apart my own ideas and build new ones. This long term habit of continuously questioning, destroying and rebuilding my understanding has been a great blessing to my life. For over thirty years, I have focused on opening myself to the constant quest of examining life and welcoming all of the differences I encountered during the journey.

I have never stopped questioning, exploring or opening myself in wondrous awe to life. The impact on my willful living that was a result of encountering a few Socratic questions in 1981 could not have been greater. The gift I received from Socrates was the gift of a great purpose, an extraordinary project, which was the task of leading an examined life. This gift transformed me from a visionless, apathetic, and lost teenager, into a man with a vision for the future and the will to persist in that vision. The greatest blessing of my Socratic transformation cannot be measured in terms of what I can now do or be that was previously impossible. The greatest blessing of beginning the lifelong embrace of Socratic principles while still young has been the blessing of experiencing a greatly heightened attentiveness. This enriched attentiveness brought to my personal awareness a lovely deepening in my experience of the meaning and beauty of existence. The quality of my personal attending to life has been very much improved for over thirty years to this day.

In this journey, I have had the good fortune to have a good friend, who is my co-author Melete. I began my philosophy focused relationship with her in the fall of 1983. We maintained our habit of conversation until this day. In all the time we spent together, we never ceased to think about and discuss the nature of life, justice, virtue, and a host of other topics as we tried to improve our understanding of what is means to live as a human being. She has walked with me the whole way.

It may sound cliché to say that it is not the goal but the journey, is the journey. Socrates' goal of seeking the knowledge of things such as justice and holiness was never, by his own admission, ever realized. Yet, the impact of his journey on his character with regard to his ability to face life with significant depth and peace represents a personal beauty that is the envy of many. Who would not desire to have the ability to face death with the personal calm and satisfaction of purposeful living that is Socrates' character in Plato's Apology and Phaedo. To live an examined life is to embrace the potential for living a much more satisfying life, who's heights are more beautiful, and who's depths are more peaceful.

The transformation that happened to me as a matter of unpredictable luck is something that should be the primary and planned focus of human education. Millions of people slip through the education process without ever being given an idea of what it means to embrace the art of their own living. The performance oriented dog and pony show that often manifests in the U.S. education system lacks the capacity to inspire students to do anything more than comply with requirements. The lack of ability to effectively address the idea of enthusiastically leading a willfully examined life, much less inspire students to willfully embrace this challenge is a fundamental failure of focus in U.S. education in both in the public and private spheres. The art of living is more than the act of meeting requirements. It is more than doing the minimum we need to do in order to get by. Living is more than survival.

The Socratic art of living invites us to take seriously that we are all born miraculous masterworks of art. We are absolutely marvelous creatures who need to grow in extraordinary ways. We are not obligated to develop ourselves because we are not good enough and must become better. We are born good. According to the testimony of every awe inspired parent who beholds the new life in their arms, we are born very good. That innate goodness demands that we must give the attention required and do the work needed to develop ourselves so that the goodness we are may stand up and live. A popular saying attributed to Buckminster Fuller is, "We are all born geniuses, but the process of living de-geniuses us." I say that it is the process of learning to live inattentively that de-geniuses us. The cure is learning to live with a high quality and persistence of attentiveness to living as we walk the path of an examined life. This cure is a matter of human character development.

An important focus in the Socratic cultivation of humanity is illustrated by Einstein, who said,

"Don't think about why you question, simply don't stop questioning. Don't worry about what you can't answer, and don't try to explain what you can't know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren't you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity."[14]

It is the innate curiosity that never dies, our ability to question without end, that makes us able to persist when the answers are not forthcoming. It is a powerful posture of mind and character that is ready to engage life with rapt attentiveness. It is our nature. We are born with this holy curiosity. However, it takes real work to not allow our holy curiosity to die. The foundation of all education is not about developing something new. The foundation of all education is about first preserving the good that is already born. The good news is that if this holy curiosity does die, it can be resurrected to new life. I have personally experienced the death and resurrection of curiosity. I also know of the death and resurrection of the human will to face life with the fullness of human attentiveness. We are all worthy of receiving the gift of becoming the fullness of what we are able to be.

The great goodness that we are deserves to learn to stand and live. Every newborn deserves to develop the power to give rich and persistent attentiveness to their living with an internal peace of mind that empowers them to face any challenge with a beauty of human spirit that inspires no matter what challenges they face. The standards that the U.S. education system sets for us have more to do with minimum requirements than with optimal potentials. These standards are most often designed to set our focus on the specific subjects with which we desire to fill our student's minds and the measures for their ability to give the information back to us.

Socratic educational philosophy is able to focus on standards that resonate with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki's principle of "Character first, ability second." We need to ignite the flame of unending enthusiasm to better ourselves. Unending curiosity and the unquenchable passion to learn and develop is a matter of human character that is more important than any particular subject taught in our schools. It is the character of the student, who can enthusiastically thrive in her own self interest as she willfully and vigorously participates in her education, that is the most powerful educational resource we can harness. The Socratic method and philosophy of education directly attends to the matter of the development of our human character with regard to willfully leading an examined life.


[13] At the time of publication, I could not verify if this quote is Patañjali or a paraphrase of  Patañjali by Wane Dyer.

[14] William Hermann, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (1983), p. 138