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Did Socrates ever do anything stupid?

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

We easily assume that wisdom is possessed only by a few 'special' people and that those we believe to be wise are fully so. If their wisdom accounts for the whole of them, then we can confidently place our trust in them. But is this actually the case? What if we all have the capacity to be both wise and foolish?

Socrates is famous for acknowledging his ignorance, but this only made him appear wiser still. However, King Solomon is known for being both wise and foolish. He was famous for his wisdom towards his subjects, but foolishly allowed his many wives and concubines to lead to his downfall.

Solomon’s story has been picked up by wisdom scientist Igor Grossman.

Grossman and his colleagues were not surprised when their research revealed that levels of wisdom vary from person to person; that some people are generally wiser than others. But their studies also showed that wisdom varied a lot for the same person in different situations: a person who showed wise responses on some occasions also behaved foolishly in others. It seemed that wisdom was not an 'all or nothing' category.

One study shed more light on this, revealing a pattern, regarding the situations in which people are more likely to be wise or foolish.

It had been assumed that, individually, we would be most wise where our own lives were involved; we would know ourselves better and be more motivated to understand a situation. In fact, the opposite was found to be the case: we are likely to be less wise where we are more personally involved. Grossman has termed this 'Soloman's Paradox'.

Subsequent research has confirmed this tendency: that we respond with greater clarity where other people are concerned, but less so when we are personally involved. Unfortunately, this suggests that we often lack a clear perspective when we have the greatest need for it. Solomon was very adept at understanding his subjects’ problems, but could not bring this wisdom to his personal life.

Why should this be?

Perhaps it relates to emotional involvement. For ourselves, strong emotional reactions can obscure clear seeing. Where others are concerned, our emotional responses may be reduced, depending on how far removed they are from one's own personal life.

So, what might help us to respond with greater understanding when it matters most – amidst the challenges of our own lives? Our Mindfulness-based Wise Awareness Course looks at different ways to work with this. In particular, we consider ways that an overly tight, ego-centric sense of self can lead to unhelpful responses to events.

A wholesome sense of self is important to our psychological wellbeing, helping us to value our own well-being and set healthy boundaries with others. It is an essential part of our survival mechanism, as we react to threats with the impulse to fight, flee or freeze. Yet there are times when these responses can be too strong or inappropriate and the urge to defend ourselves itself creates problems.

It can help to explore this within our own experience and perhaps find ways to loosen the hold that a tight, defended sense of self can have on our lives, with its corresponding emotional grip. This can lead to a feeling of release, of greater freedom, and the chance to be more creative in our relationships.

One technique we introduce on the course involves writing a journal in ways that shift our usual perspective, allowing the greater clarity that is easier to access in relation to other people, but for ourselves. You might like to try out one or more of these methods for yourself. Each of the following journaling techniques can help you to see your personal situation through a different ‘lens’:

· Changing Personal Pronouns Write about your experience, but do not use the normal first-person pronouns ('I'/'me'/my/'mine'). Try using 3rd person pronouns (he/she/his/her/their etc) instead. Or use 2nd person pronouns ('you/your'). Some people find it helpful to use their name. Put yourself in the shoes of another person who is talking to you, for example “Hey, [insert your name], is this really such a big deal?”

· Writing from the future. We can also write from an imagined point of view one year on from now, or even ten years on.

· Writing in a different language, for people who can do so. This can bring a different point of view, with different cultural attitudes that may come with that language.

· Imagine a wise, compassionate figure who is writing the journal from the point of view of their understanding and care for you.

The approaches described above are not intended to help us escape from what is uncomfortable - as much as we might like to! We are encouraged not to turn away from difficult feelings but rather to notice them as fully as possible, including any related sensations in the body. There may, for example, be tension or gripping. At the same time, we can notice the soothing qualities of the breath. This can help to settle us into the present moment and to relax the hold of thought-stories and painful emotions. From here, it is possible for new thoughts to arise that may shine a more helpful, if still challenging, light on a situation. Thus, we learn to turn towards our situation with kindness and curiosity.

Building on the core skills of mindfulness, our new Mindfulness-based Wise Awareness (MBWA) course explores these themes and many more approaches to cultivating wisdom - or, to put it another way, to letting go of that which obscures our natural spontaneity and kindly response to the world.

We are delighted to be working with Chichester University who are currently conducting a research study to evaluate this course, which we hope will help bring a little more wisdom into this mixed-up world.

The idea that Wisdom is not an all-or-nothing category may be disappointing; it is natural to want truly wise people to exist. Yet perhaps the possibility that everyone may be fallible on occasion can free us from the idea that wisdom is only for a few exceptional people. It is also clear that, imperfect as we may be, we all have the capacity to be wise at least some of the time.

So, did Socrates ever do anything stupid? What do you think?

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1 Comment

Thanks for a great article. Shifting perspectives takes some work but your suggestions are very helpful and approachable.


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