Socrates and Virtue in Pursuit of Truth

The motto for Cowell College at UCSC, founded in 1965, is The Pursuit of Truth in the Company of Friends. I first heard the phrase while attending Adlai Stevenson College in 1976 and again later as a senior fellow with the Smith Society, an organization that assists and supports UCSC students lacking traditional family support, whether it be financial, academic, personal, or social assistance.
I really like the motto. It speaks to what it means to be an aware, open-minded, communal human being.

Socrates and Virtue in Pursuit of Truth

The motto is Socratic in nature and denotes an essential readiness to acknowledge one’s ignorance to achieve learning.

To seek the highest truth, there is a need for dialogue and a willingness to hear from all sides of an issue. 

Dialogue differs from debate in that there should be no ambition to win. (For the record, what we see regarding political “debates” on television are not debates, but essentially shouting matches and put-downs that seek to hit on sound bites that might sway an ill-informed audience.) In a debate, a participant argues his points and is unaccepting of any opposing viewpoint. In a dialogue, even though one may have a strong opinion, she or he is willing to listen and carefully consider an alternative way of thinking. Everyone wins in a dialogue, but it requires goodwill and openness on both sides. And the result is, more often than not, a conclusion closer to the truth than either individual perspective.

Moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice are four Socratic virtues that seem lacking in national discourse today. 

In the 1960s, PBS began broadcasting a program called Firing Line, which was hosted by conservative political pundit William F. Buckley Jr. My mother watched it religiously. On the occasions when I watched the show, two things stood out—the intellectualism that was evident and the civility that was shown between Mr. Buckley and his guests, which included a vast array of politicians, academics, economists, writers, and celebrities, many of whom had sharply contrasting liberal views. Conversations were polite, and each speaker was given time, with no interruptions, to state their stance on a particular issue. Although I didn’t always agree with Mr. Buckley, especially regarding the Vietnam War, he was persuasive in his speech and even added some comedic relief when disagreements got a bit too contentious. I miss shows like Firing Line, especially when comparing it to the never-ending media biases you see on cable and network news that leave me more angry than informed.
Moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice are four virtues that Socrates encouraged. Those traits seem to be lacking in our national discourse today. The Islamic and Jewish rhetoric that we are witnessing in our political bodies and on our elite campuses is particularly galling. The two sides talk past each other, focusing on violence directed at one another, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the human condition and the traditions of open inquiry. Difficult moral and political questions require a dialogue, not slogans like “From the River to the Sea,” “Smash the Zionists,” or “Death to Hamas.”

Knowledge is a virtue because once a man knows good from evil, nothing on earth can compel him to act against that knowledge.

~ Socrates

The world’s failure to cultivate Socratic virtues is an indictment of how education has become more of an indoctrinating system rather than a way to empower youth with the tools for identifying the truth. There is no moral certainty, and if a group or individual thinks they profess it, they become essentially amoral themselves. Educational institutions should encourage open forums that embrace widely divergent viewpoints, confident they have instructed their students with the knowledge and processes to form their own thoughtful conclusions.
Thinking for yourself is at the core of the motto, The Pursuit of Truth in the Company of Friends. Offering up an opinion and then allowing your colleagues a chance to discuss that opinion inevitably results in introspection and more thinking, empowering your thoughts even further. Think of it this way—how we educate is more important than what we educate. So many times, our educational institutions become echo chambers that spit out a certain dogma and then expect the students to regurgitate it. Even when I was in school, the pathway to passing a class and getting high marks was to restate the professor’s lectures in your blue book exams—it was safe and required little extra thinking.
I’ll close with three more quotes from Socrates:
“Knowledge is the ultimate virtue.”
“An honest man is always a child.”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Take these three tenets and apply them to your life, then hope the leaders of our planet do the same.

Header image and photographs: Cowell College, UCSC campus. Photos by Buzz Anderson. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

Painting: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Met object ID: 436105. Public domain. Made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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