Groupthink

Groupthink arises when the members of a group seek to minimise conflict by failing to critically test, analyse, and evaluate the ideas that are put to them as a group. As a result, the decisions reached by the group are hasty and irrational, and more unsound than if they had been taken by either member of the group alone. Even married couples can fall into groupthink, for example, when they decide to take their holidays in places that neither spouse wanted, but thought that the other wanted.

Groupthink principally arises from the fear of being criticised, the fear of upsetting the group, and the hubristic sense of invulnerability that comes from being in a group. The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that ‘it is a good thing that I did not let myself be influenced’. In a similar vein, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that ‘…solitude is the school of genius … and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist’.

In contrast to Wittgenstein or Gibbon, modern society constantly reinforces the notions that man is a social animal, that he needs the companionship and affection of other human beings from cradle to grave, and that the chief source of his happiness should come mostly if not exclusively from intimate relationships with other similarly gregarious human beings. In the realm of the nine to five or eight to eight, large corporations glorify and reinforce conformism, decisions are taken by committees dominated by groupthink, people are evaluated according to their ‘team playing skills’, and any measly time out is seen as an opportunity for ‘team building’, ‘group bonding’, ‘networking’, or, at best, ‘family time’.

Yet solitude also has an important role to play in any human life, and the capacity and ability for solitude are a pre-requisite for individuation and self-realisation. In his book of 1988, Solitude – A Return to the Self, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr convincingly argues that ‘the happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealised as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.’

[See also my post on the manic defence]

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Aristotle on Education

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. - Aristotle

The education of the citizens should match the character of the constitution, for the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy, and the better the character, the better the government. As the entire city has but one end, education should be the same for all, and should be public rather than private. Children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, but not all useful things, and in particular not those that are vulgar. By ‘vulgar’ is meant those that tend to deform the body or that lead to paid employment. All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind.

The four traditional branches of education are (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastics, (3) music, (4) drawing. The Ancients included music not for the sake of utility but for that of intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Unlike music, reading and writing and drawing do have utility, but they also have liberal applications. In particular, reading and writing can open up other forms of knowledge, and drawing can lead to an appreciation of the beauty of the human form. Leisure should not be confused with amusement and relaxation, which are the antidotes to effort and exertion. The busy man strives for an end that he has not yet attained, but happiness is the end. Thus, happiness is experienced not by busy men, but by those with leisure. That which is noble should come before that which is brutal. Courage is more a function of nobility than of ferocity, and to turn children into athletes risks injuring their forms and stunting their growth. For these reasons, children should practice nothing more strenuous than light gymnastics. Following the onset of puberty, three years should be spent in study, and only after this triennium may a youth engage in hard exercise. However, the youth should guard against labouring mind and body at the same time, for they are inimical to each other.

Returning to the subject of music, it is not easy to determine its nature, nor why anyone should have knowledge of it. Perhaps music, like sleep or drinking, offers nothing more than amusement and relaxation. Perhaps it promotes virtue. Or perhaps it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and to mental cultivation. Some say that no freeman should play or sing unless he is intoxicated or in jest, so why learn music and not simply enjoy the pleasure and instruction that comes from hearing it from others? Our considered opinion is that children should learn music so that they might become performers and critics, but their musical education should not extend too far beyond an appreciation of rhythm and harmony, and not to instruments such as the flute or lyre which require great skill but contribute nothing to the mind.

In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all … may [music] not have also some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence if characters are affected by it. And that they are so affected is proved in many ways, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise; for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

– Politics, Book 8

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Socrates: A life worth living

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.

Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,

…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.

According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.

Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.

In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.

In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.

In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’

After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)

After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’

His pupil Plato was standing in the audience.

Adapted from

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