Blind Alley

E. D. Martin

The Greeks clearly saw that if men were to find out what is good, by the use of their intelligence, they must learn to think clearly, courageously, dispassionately, alone. They must be able to recognize an idea when they had one, to know what it included, and what it excluded. They must be able to free their thinking from their wish fancies. They must find it possible to be above saying things were so merely because they wanted them to be so. They must emancipate their thought from the tyrannies and the vulgarities and the prejudices and the infantile wishes of the herd. Socrates is a good example of this procedure. Of all the thinkers of antiquity, Socrates has been regarded as the wisest — perhaps the greatest teacher who ever lived. Yet Socrates has no gospel, he commands nobody, he never tells one what to think or to believe. In fact, this greatest of all teachers never taught anybody anything; he merely gave men exercises in "conversation with intellectual good manners." Such conversation was called dialectic, and dialectic is philosophy. Socrates asked just one important question, "What do you mean by what you say?" If you know what you mean by what you say, you at least have knowledge of ideas, or, in other words you have 'found' the things you are talking about.

For instance, there is the dialogue between Socrates and Thrasymachus at the beginning of The Republic. Socrates has wandered down to the port of Athens. He is sitting on the sunny side of a garden wall in the evening as the setting sun casts long shadows on the lawn. Socrates and the elderly proprietor of the estate where he sits are discussing the question whether or not it is more just for a man to inherit his wealth or to amass a fortune himself. They are about to decide that inherited wealth is more just, inasmuch as a man who is busy making a fortune has very little time to be just.

While they are discussing this subject, in walks young Thrasymachus. You probably know Thrasymachus. He has just come from college. He is probably a junior now. He has just found out that there are poor people in the world and that there is a social problem. So this young reformer, with typical adolescent disillusionment, crashes into the old gentlemen's conversation with the words: "Justice is the bunk; justice is nothing but the will of the strong." Now Socrates did not agree with this idea. He had lived too long, and he had seen too much. But Socrates was a gentleman and a scholar. He didn't say to this young man, "Here, you young anarchist, get out of my college." He said, "Now, Thrasymachus, that is an interesting idea. Will you please tell us what you mean by the will means by the will of the strong. So Socrates says, "Now, Thrasymachus, you led us down a blind alley; we couldn't find justice on that path. Let us see if we can find justice on another road." All the rest of The Republic is merely an attempt to find out what men mean by what they say when they talk about justice.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)

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