I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times that took me down that rabbit hole called alternately history and philosophy. The article “If It Was Good Enough for Socrates, It’s Good Enough for Sophomores written by Molly Worthen addressed the use of the oral exam in higher education and referenced in doing so the Socratic method dating back to the times of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. I clicked a link entitled Socrates grilled Meno and rediscovered my ongoing examination of the word ‘good’ as in The Good Decision goes back two plus millennium and further to the era of Socrates and Plato. Not only that, but the historic context in which Plato stages Socrates grilling Meno (402 BCE) mirrors our own political times in 2022. The Athenian society was violently divided between the reigning oligarchic authoritarians and the resisting Athenian democracy. The integrity of the Socratic method eventually cost Socrates his life as his sense of good fit neither the orthodoxy of the recovering democracy or the narrow cruelty of oligarchic factions.
I am frequently asked if I am trying to teach or define what is good in this world with this project and the answer is always emphatically; “no I am not.” Good and virtue have always been, are now, and will always be generating wildly contradictory interpretations of their own meanings. Moreover, the idea that one knows what human good is and that this ‘knowledge of good’ can be absolutely captured in ideology or dogma has been the motivating source of most of the evil practiced on this beautiful planet of ours. Our nation is currently perilously divided not by good verses evil, but by good verses good. Plato’s Socrates in the Meno dialogue had to settle not for a definition of virtue and human goodness, but rather had to settle that virtue or good was “a kind of knowledge” while not being an explicit knowledge that could be transmitted through teaching. Good was accessed not so much by direct learning but from a form of ‘recollection’. This Socratic sense of things oddly enough seems to anticipate current studies and understandings of the brain and emergent human consciousness. Our immediate conscious experience has been described neurologically as a waking dream in that the brain process non-consciously composes our our conscious experience at a 300 millisecond delay from sensory input. What any of us consciously know about good comes to us as a nano-recollection.
So we Pause prior to acting out a decision to give our bodies time to recollect our Sense of Good and then proceed through the decision process recomposing this immediate Sense of Good to achieve integrity with the current circumstance. That a thing seems good only has meaning in the real time living context and not so much in cognitive beliefs or formulas. Plato warns repeatedly about “intellectual laziness” which in our time might be interpreted as not doing due diligence in the composition of the good that guides our decisions. The word sloth comes to mind when I peruse some contemporary public forums. I am grateful to Dr Molly Worthen for showing me the entrance to this rabbit hole leading to the wisdom of the ancients. The struggle to express good and virtue, it turns out, has a beautiful and powerful history that will extend without ceasing into the future.