Think Free



Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Socrates (470-399 BCE) was Plato and Xenophon’s Athenian teacher of philosophy who, while never writing a word, left an indelible stamp on the history of ideas.

The ancient Greek poet Aristophanes in The Clouds lampooned Socrates’ simple appearance and ascetic lifestyle. Despite this, Socrates for the most part was a well-liked character.

Socrates rejected the traditional Greek gods in favor of his daimon—apparently a kind of presence or inner voice that never told him what to do but always what not to do.

He made his impact, in part, by wandering the streets of ancient Athens, freely engaging in public discussions. An exemplar of the moral life, Socrates was particularly interested in ethical questions such as, What is virtueWhat are the correct means to pursue virtue?

His method involved logic and cross-examination, often aimed at those who regarded themselves as wise. Although he didn’t write anything, his “Socratic method” is illustrated in the dialogues of Plato. Several other ancient writers also wrote dialogues based on Socrates’ teachings, but the works of Plato best survived the ravages of time. Indeed, Socrates’ ideas and presence touched many ancient thinkers via dialogues they wrote with Socrates as protagonist.

These were numerous and popular enough for Aristotle to classify them in the Poetics… But apart from the works of Plato (1), only a few fragments survive of the dialogues of Antisthenes, Aeschines (2) of Sphettus, and Phaedon of Elis, and nothing of the dialogues of Aristippus (1), Cebes of Thebes, and many others. In addition to Plato, most of our own information about Socrates comes from Aristophanes (1) and Xenophon (1), both of whom also knew him personally, and from Aristotle, who did not.¹

The "obscene" medieval depiction of ...

The “obscene” medieval depiction of Socrates and Plato. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato’s Socratic method is often said to cut to the marrow of uncritically accepted beliefs held by bearers of mere opinion and belief. As to the adequacy of the Socratic method, this remains open to debate.

Socrates was sentenced to death for charges of atheism and corrupting the youth (for apparently teaching them subversive ideas). He was offered a way out by Crito but chose to obey the laws of the state, finding more meaning in his death than he would from an escape attempt.

Tim Peters summarizes Socrates’ explanation, as outlined in Plato’s Crito:

Although they may execute me, the really important thing in life is not to live, but to live well.²

Gregory Aldrete comments that Socrates probably could have escaped, as the death sentence for notables in ancient Athens wasn’t always intended to be carried through. Along with this and the provocative manner in which Socrates chose to defend himself, Aldrete feels that Socrates’ death is really a suicide.³

If Socrates were alive today, where corruption is more openly talked about, would he have made the same choice? One can only wonder. Perhaps he would have adhered to his own ideals instead of those of the imperfect reality around him; or perhaps his vision of justice would have incorporated the imperfect realities of the world.

Impossible for us to say. But to some, Socrates’ surrender to the authority of the ancient Athenians may seem somewhat naïve, possibly self-destructive; to others, it was noble.

Related » Clairaudience, Meno, Republic, Skepticism, Sophists

¹ See “Socrates” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press 1996, 2000.

² See entire summary: (dead link, searching for equivalent)

³ See

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Photo credit: Seth Anderson

Image: Seth Anderson via Flickr

Solipsism is the philosophical position that only the subject exists and all impressions of others and the outside world are illusory.

Many dismiss solipsism as an extreme or strange view, but others say it is logically impossible to prove or disprove.

If one believes, however, that God is good and, as such, would not deceive a person with a chimerical world peopled by phantom others, one would likely reject solipsism.

Again, some maintain that solipsism cannot be proved or disproved, but there is another way to look at the problem. And this way doesn’t need the idea of God to reject solipsism. Instead, we reject solipsism on the grounds of it being an impractical and bad way of living.

Basically, we can ask: What if solipsism is false? We cannot really know for sure one way or the other. In the face of this uncertainty, doesn’t it make sense to live as if others are real? Isn’t this the best ethical choice, just in case solipsism really is false?

In a way, this echoes Pascal’s Wager, where he believes it best to live as if God were real. Although, again, the above challenge to solipsism does not necessarly rest on the idea of God. It just rests on wanting to do the right thing.¹

Some have likened solipsism to the Asian concept of maya (Sanskrit = illusion, deception).

Maya is the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain belief that the changing, material world isn’t real or is relatively real. But the exact meaning of the concept of maya has been debated among different schools for centuries, making its comparison to solipsism somewhat problematic.²

¹ Some theologians would disagree on this point. They maintain that one can only do the right thing when one’s actions are in line with God’s will. So, God must exist for good actions to occur. See for instance

² For a standard history of the idea, see

Related Posts » René Descartes

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Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociology is usually defined in terms of the scientific or systematic study of society, two notions that postmodern – and just serious – thinkers today openly question. In fact, a recent check at Wikipedia reveals that the word “academic” has been highlighted.¹ So we could say that sociology is the “academic” study of social institutions, tendencies, and how they fit together. But I think this also falls short because it tends to give a potentially undeserved legitimacy to sociology and sociologists, when really, it’s not always right to do so.

Many sociologists stress empirical methods but, on closer examination, the validity of these methods are usually open to debate and sometimes downright bogus. Others dive deep into their books, stressing that they want to do “content” studies instead of empirical work or theory. This is fine, but it’s hardly anything different than what any serious book lover would do. Just because a person gets a paycheck and retirement income for being a sociologist,  it doesn’t necessarily follow that their thinking is rational, integrated or helpful to society.

Another branch of sociology looks at what is called “theory;” that is, some kind of “critical,” “postmodern” and more recently, “digi-performative” or “digi-modern” theory. To be critical in the theoretical sense doesn’t necessarily mean to cut everything down. Ideally, it means to try to look at things behind their face value. To question, examine, in some cases intuit,² and to think. However, some academic, communist-leaning ideologues try to push their special agendas—but only as far, of course, as they can without losing their (big fat Capitalist) paychecks.

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

The sociologist Peter Berger was a pioneer in the theoretical approach to knowledge. Along with Thomas Luckmann , Berger contributed to a groundbreaking book called “The Social Construction of Reality” (1966). This has been hailed as one of the most important books in the Sociology of Knowledge. Before that, Berger wrote “Invitation to Sociology” (1963) which was still being used in universities when I did my undergrad in the 1980s. Berger argues for a multiplicity of perspectives and suggests that being a sociologist necessitates standing “outside,” to some degree, from the taken for granted truth claims within one’s culture. It’s like being an historian of the present.

An example of this idea would be questioning the latest dogmas about climate change. Now that Pope Francis is on board with that agenda, even more people will probably unquestioningly accept it. But that’s not doing sociology. It’s just mindlessly following the crowd.³

Historically, the term sociology is usually said to have been coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). But many others were thinking sociologically – examining social trends and truth claims – well before his time. In the New Testament story, we hear Pontius Pilate say “what is truth” (John 18:38) And this idea is elaborated on in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973):

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Reverse: Greek letters TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Tiberius Emperor) and date LIS (year 16 = AD 29/30) surrounding simpulum (libation ladle). Obverse: Greek letters IOYLIA KAICAPOC (Julia, i.e. Livia, the Emperor’s (mother)), three bound heads of barley, the outer two heads drooping. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pontius Pilate: Then you are a king.
Jesus: It’s you that say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.
Pontius Pilate: And what is ‘truth’? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours? 4

Also, the ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle, along with the ancient Chinese thinker, Confucius, asked what could be seen as essentially sociological questions.

¹ Always changing with the weather, Wikipedia provides good coverage of the main players in what is now understood as sociology »

² A leading figure here is Michael Polanyi »

³ See, for instance,


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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a romantic poet, writer and man of letters best known for works such as Prometheus Unbound and Ozymandias.

Although Shelley bristled at the thought of organized religion, he nonetheless envisioned a transcendent reality implicit to nature. Oxford expelled him in 1811 for distributing his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.

His first wife drowned herself, after which time he married Mary Godwin, who went on to write the famous novel Frankenstein as Mary Shelley in 1818.

Friend to Lord Byron and John Keats, Percy was found dead, washed ashore after he and Edward Williams were caught in a storm while boating. Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt immolated the bodies at a solemn beach-side ceremony.

Most of us probably cannot recite Shelley as readily we might, say, Shakespeare – “To be or not to be.” But he leaves behind an important legacy. Not seeking fame for himself, his work nonetheless influenced many an important person. Recurring themes of social justice, concern for the poor, vegetarianism, and non-violence left their mark on figures like Mohandas Gandhi, C. S. Lewis, and Karl Marx.

He was admired by C. S. Lewis,[47] Karl Marx, Robert Browning, Henry Stephens Salt, Gregory Corso, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Isadora Duncan,[3] Upton Sinclair,[48] Gabriele d’Annunzio, Aleister Crowley and W. B. Yeats.[49] Samuel Barber, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Roger Quilter, Howard Skempton, John Vanderslice and Ralph Vaughan Williams composed music based on his poems.¹


See also » Atheism, Romanticism, Mary Shelley


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Shelley via Wikipedia

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (born Mary Godwin, 1797-1851), better known as Mary Shelley, was a London-born author and daughter of the pioneering feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and the political journalist William Godwin.

In the midst of a story-telling contest with her husband (Percy Bysshe Shelly) and Lord Byron, Mary retired to bed and dreamed about an unwritten novel. The next morning she began the now famous Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, completed in 1818.

Shelly also worked at editing and promoting her husband’s poetry, helping him to gain recognition through her tireless efforts to get his work published.

Related Posts » John Keats

Frankenstein Painting by Chop Shop Garage / Frank Stein

Frankenstein Painting by Chop Shop Garage / Frank Stein

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Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 D...

Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 December 1830 – 15 May 1886) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a positive sense, solitude is a peaceful, regenerating experience that comes from choosing to be alone for some uninterrupted period of time. Western culture champions individuality but, ironically, also tends to marginalize and even stigmatize individuals who prefer their own company.

It’s almost as if you’re “weird” if you don’t fit in with some kind of group—be it your peers at work, worshippers at Church, local ball team… whatever.¹

By way of contrast, saints and mystics from different world traditions contend that, as one progresses in a contemplative path toward God, direct interaction with others should be minimized. For many contemplatives, superficial talk is a distraction from the source of true happiness, which they maintain is God.

Contemplatives may engage in everyday talk. They may even be quite gregarious if they believe God wants them to behave that way. But socializing is rarely done for its own sake. And when contemplatives do socialize it apparently is in a state of spiritual detachment. Detachment in this sense is not pathological. It means being mindful that God is first and God’s creation is second. In Hinduism this is the ideal of karma-yoga.

Put differently, solitude enables some individuals to recharge their spiritual batteries. Providing that withdrawal isn’t entirely based on some unresolved psychological complex, solitude should be not only valued but treasured.

Psycho (Imelda May song)

Psycho (Imelda May song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, in the negative sense, some individuals seem to neurotically play the social role of the solitary saint or reclusive hero. They may deceive themselves (and others) into supposing they are more spiritually developed than they really are. They may also try to manipulate, exploit or cheat those gullible enough to be fooled.

We’ve probably all met these kinds of fakers somewhere along the line. Upon close inspection there is a disjoint between their words and actions. So it seems reasonable to differentiate between healthy solitude, on the one hand, and a neurotic or cultic type of seclusion that could possibly lead to insanity, sociopathy and even violence, on the other hand.

An example of positive solitude would be the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), who withdrew from society at age 23, preferring her own company to that of others. Her outstanding verse of over 1000 poems has had a profound influence on modern literature.

Another example would be the influential Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton gained permission from his monastic order to live the simple life of a hermit. His efforts to promote interfaith dialogue have become a model for many Catholics and non-Christians. Sadly, Merton met an untimely death at Bangkok in 1968 while visiting several Asian religious leaders.

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappi...

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappist monk, peace activist, and writer, Thomas Merton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More recently, the Catholic Church has been emphasizing the importance of community. I’ve noticed that priests in different parishes are highlighting the theme of community in their homilies, which makes me wonder if some kind of internal memo from the Vatican has instructed them to do so.

Community is fine and dandy, even necessary. But of all things, a religious community should also recognize that some individuals are more sensitive than others. And these people can be just as involved in the ongoing dynamic of salvation as the big talkers and glad-handers who often dominate the scene at local Catholic parishes.

¹ Of course, being alone is officially endorsed within religious retreats, which are not seen as weird partly because people retreat in the safety of a group. The event is organized by a Church and retreatants usually pay a fee for their solitude/retreat. So buying your solitude with others within a pre-established program is okay. But just wanting to be alone, not spending money, and creating your own program is often suspect.

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Bust of Solon / Бюст на Солон: Dimitar Denev

Bust of Solon / Dimitar Denev via Flickr

Solon (7th to 6th century BCE) was one of the so-called “seven wise men” of ancient Greece.

While serving as Archon, Solon more or less replaced Draco’s harsh legal code by introducing several humanitarian reforms.

Solon’s laws were inscribed on large wooden slabs or cylinders attached to a series of axles that stood upright in the Prytaneion.[53][54] These axones appear to have operated on the same principle as a Lazy Susan, allowing both convenient storage and ease of access. Originally the axones recorded laws enacted by Draco in the late 7th Century (traditionally 621 BC).¹

Spearheading the trend toward the Athenian democracy, he’s remembered for notable achievements such as abolishing slavery for unpaid debts and granting citizenship to foreign craftsmen working in Athens. He also ordered the release of all Athenians who had been enslaved.

Plato‘s great grandfather, Dropides, heard about the destruction of Atlantis through Solon, himself learning of the legend through Egyptian scribes.



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