September 13, 2006
Last week we began a discussion of Plato's Republic, which is about an extended dialogue Socrates was purported to have almost 2400 years ago in Athens that was recorded and edited by his student Plato. The relevance to psychology cannot be overstated. What Socrates was about uncovering was the deepest levels of what makes human beings tick, mainly motivation. What motivates us to do what we do?
Most of the people who come to me for help as a coach or with some relational problems are really there because they have problems with motivation, their own or that of someone close to them. They wonder why people who are supposed to be their friends, lovers, spouses, etc., are not behaving and acting toward them in a manner they find congenial, caring and loving. What they are wondering about is what in the world is motivating the others to behave a way that seems to be so negatively focused and brings with it whatever emotional discomfort that it may, at least as they see it.
Socrates was completely taken up with the same concern, with the same wondering process. His method of ferreting out what people thought was ingenious. What he found was that most people sustain beliefs without ever closely analyzing them, nonetheless acting according to those beliefs. The effects, as noted above, could be very unsatisfying, and without some method of getting a look at the beliefs, the person involved is going to very likely be uncooperative and defensive about being asked to explain themselves more in detail.
By using questions, Socrates was able to bypass the many defenses people use to ward off access to those unexamined beliefs. People would begin with what they thought to be certainties and then a few sentences later find themselves in a state of befuddlement because Socrates simply questioned those certainties in such a way as to uncover how what was apparently certain, was not so certain at all; a lot of contradictions and logical dead ends began to turn up as they were looked at more closely.
For example, he starts out by asking what one of the men meant by the word "justice." That person attempted to give a one sentence answer: "giving to each his due or what that person is owed." Sounds great, but Socrates proceeded to ask questions and to give some examples of where such a definition might not make sense.
Let's say, he said, that you owe a man the return of his sword. But meanwhile he has become dangerously insane. Would justice still demand that you give him what you owe, even when you know quite clearly that in doing so you would be very likely bringing harm to yourself or others? Clearly being just in that way would lead to another kind of injustice, so the definition that the gentleman started with was shown to be either defective or at least quite inadequate.
What happened eventually is that the man simply admitted that he could not come up with a definition, that his original certainty had dissolved in the course of the examination, that he reached the point of saying: "I don't know." That's the golden point of opportunity in Socrates' method. More next time. Let me know what you think.
Frank Mosca Ph.D. is a licensed counselor, life and marital coach with a practice
in Hampton Bays and Garden City.
Inquire about his dynamic "putting minds in motions seminars," by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.