Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 4 — Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom (Summary & Notes)

“Wisdom is keeping your truth machinery and your relevance machinery tightly coupled together so you don’t bullshit yourself.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 3:

Ep. 4— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis —Socrates and the Quest for Wisdom [57:55]

  • Ancient Greece was a world where people believed people could speak to the gods through oracles. One of the most important was at Delphi. A woman, Pythia, would sit in a cave (remember, shamanism is associated with caves) — possibly with intoxicating gases present, or she was eating Eucalyptus leaves — and people would come and pose questions to her, and she would speak on behalf of the gods.
  • “The thing about being an oracle is, if you want to stay in business you don’t want to give specific answers.”
  • A bunch of Socrates’ friends go the the oracle and ask questions about Socrates.: “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?” And the oracle answers: “No.” A crystal-clear answer!
  • When told of this Socrates isn’t self-congratulatory, which is telling. (given that we are living today in an age of “confirmation porn” — the accelerating and exacerbation of our collective tendency to seek confirmation of things we already believe or want to believe. The pernicious “confirmation bias.”)
  • For Socrates, the gods represent moral exemplars. Ways in which we can self-transcend and morally improve. It’s axiomatic that the gods cannot lie to him. And yet he is resistant to the oracle’s answer. He’s convinced he is not wise.
  • Socrates made “Know Thyself” his personal slogan for life (this phrase was inscribed at the site of the Delphic oracle) “Know Thyself” means understanding how you operate. Not your autobiography, but your owner’s manual. Socrates thought that kind of self-knowledge was essential.
  • So now he faces a dilemma: how can he be the wisest human being when he knows he is not wise? Socrates begins a quest to find out how these can both be true at the same time. He walked around asking questions of people to try to get to the bottom of things. “The Socratic Method” is a technique of asking questions in order to draw someone out.
  • The two groups of people credited with being wise were the natural philosophers and the sophists. (Pythagoras actually invented the word philosophy: it comes from ‘philia’ (friendship-love)and sophia (wisdom). He created a community around him to pursue wisdom. “A philosopher is someone who, in concert with others, is a lover of wisdom.”
  • Thales is the first natural philosopher we know of, and since what remains is so fragmentary it can basically be summarized in three sentences: ‘All is the moist.” “The lodestone has psyche.” “Everything is filled with gods.”
  • “All is the moist” — everything is made out of water. Putting aside the literalness of the statement being false, remember that Greece is surrounded by water, water falls from the sky, water is what people need to live, water takes the shape of any container… it’s a false statement, but highly rational. He’s not doing mythology, there are no divine agent involved. “He’s using his reason and his observation to come up with a plausible explanation of what the underlying substance is behind everything.” (Substance= ‘stands under’, another metaphor. Similar to another word we have: ‘understanding’) Thales is inventing how to think scientifically. We take this kind of thinking for granted, as if it’s natural.
  • “The lodestone has psyche” — a lodestone is a kind of natural magnet, so it can move itself and other things. ‘Psyche’ referred to anything that is living or self-moving — the capacity to make things move. The connection Thales is observing: both living things and magnets can make things move. What he’s ultimately describing and trying to get at is the underlying force behind things. (‘Psyche’ in the modern sense comes from the idea that the mind is the part of you that you can most move, where all of your capacity to move other things starts.)
  • ontology: the study of being & the structure of reality. Thales is introducing the ontological analysis that drives the scientific revolution. Even scientists today are trying to get at the underlying forces and understand the depths of reality. (ontological depth perception)
  • Getting to an understanding of these depths of reality provokes awe and wonder, which is part of what Thales is saying. That’s what it is to experience something as sacred.
  • Socrates rejects the natural philosophers because they don’t help him with his axial project. They give you truth without transformation. They don’t indicate how you become wise or overcome self-deception, or how to become a good person (which people say even today). “Truth without relevance.”
  • Ancient Greece was a direct democracy, which means your capacity to argumentation and persuasion was a route to power. A new psychotechnology is created: rhetoric. Using language to change people’s minds.
  • The sophists pick up on the fact that when we are communicating we pick up on what is salient or relevant, not necessarily what is true. (A modern example of where rhetoric is apparent is advertising.) Which leads us to an important concept to get into technically, and not to just be vulgar: bullshit. Harry Frankfurt’s classic essay ‘On Bullshit’ gets into this, and makes the distinction between someone who’s a bullshit artist and someone who’s a liar.
  • A liar depends on your commitment to the truth, but bullshit makes you disinterested with whether or not what is being said is true. When someone is bullshitting you they are trying to get you to not care how true the claim is, but to capture you in how catchy it is and how much it grabs your attention.
  • You can’t lie to yourself. But this doesn’t mean self-deception isn’t possible: you can bullshit yourself. (This is something Vervaeke argues) This is because lying has to do with believing, which isn’t something you directly do. You can hope that everyone loves you, or wish it, but you can’t voluntarily believe it. But you can direct your attention, which makes it more salient to you. Your attention can also be captured by what is more salient. This creates a positive feedback loop, until your attention is attached to something and you lose the capacity to notice other things, and that’s how you bullshit (or deceive) yourself. This is the opposite of rational self-knowledge, and Socrates saw this as the opposite of the axial revolution. The sophists represent “relevance without truth.”
  • Socrates wanted both. He wanted what those who found salient what they knew to be true, and for the truth that they found helped to train their attempts to find salience.
  • aporia: the state people would fall into after Socrates questioned them to the point of not even knowing what is going on.
  • Socrates was trying to get people to realize how much each one of us is bullshitting ourselves all the time. This provokes a reaction in people, either anger or insight. The insight being: I need to transform myself, to keep relevance and truth tracking each other and enabling each other.
  • He got his answer to why he was the wisest of all human beings: he knew what he did not know.
  • “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Wisdom is keeping your truth machinery and your relevance machinery tightly coupled together so you don’t bullshit yourself.
  • ta erotika: how to love well. Not romantic love, but to know what to care about, and to keep what he cares about directed at what is real. (He would do things like walk into the marketplace and say “Look at all the things I don’t need.” Or say, “How much time did you spend on fixing your hair this morning?” “Oh about 20 minutes” “How much on fixing yourself?” “…”)
  • He also compared himself to a midwife — he knew how to help people “give birth” to a better self, to draw it out.
  • He also knew how reason and love go together. Frankfurt (author of ‘On Bullshit’) also wrote a book called ‘Reasons for Love’, two things we have been taught are antithetical. This separation is one of our greatest follies. “We should rationally know what we most care about.”
  • The shamanic is still in Socrates. He could spend up to 48 hours meditating on his own thoughts. He could drink a lot without getting drunk. He could go into battle in winter without any shoes on his feet. And he had this divine voice that would speak to him when he was about to do something wrong. The shamanic has become part of the socratic.
  • One follower of his, Plato, takes Pythagoras + Socrates to advance even more significantly the axial revolution in ancient Greece.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 5(Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • Harry Frankfurt — On Bullshit
  • Harry Frankfurt — The Reasons of Love

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