What is Socratic Dialogue?

London, UK - 11th May 2009, 08:50 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

Thank you for all your support over the last several years to ATCA (estd 2001), The Philanthropia (estd 2005) and HQR (estd 2007), the philanthropic initiatives dedicated to understanding and addressing complex global challenges through Socratic Dialogue and Executive Action to build a Wisdom based Economy. Although several years have gone, our senior membership is firmly pegged to the five thousand mark for ATCA and the one thousand mark for The Philanthropia. Our mission is to influence the influencers across the globe who in turn help to build a more harmonious world, whilst we remain flexible and humble. Our distinguished members are from over 150 countries and it is our honour and privilege that they choose to be associated with our humble organisations with no esteem, position or value.

In particular, we wish to thank all our contributors and also the senior executives and entrepreneurs, high government officials, director-generals, professors and philanthropists who have made historical decisions for the better in regard to implementing policy, process and approach, through the collective wisdom accumulated at ATCA, The Philanthropia and HQR via intense Socratic Dialogue. We are truly humbled by the enormous impact that these three organisations have had through diverse discussion and joint action.

Please continue to support us by recommending luminaries to these Wisdom Fora dedicated to building a "Wisdom based Economy" based on Liberty, Equality and Friendship between diverse peoples from all parts of the world.

Origin of Socratic Dialogue in Ancient Greece

What we remember most about Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC) is his quote "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance!" from Diogenes Laertius's "Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers."

In the tradition of The Great Spiritual Masters and Philosophers, Socrates, is regarded as one of the finest. Some regard Socrates as the greatest ever philosopher in history. His death reveals how difficult it is to fight "vested interests" which no philosopher has ever been able to fight effectively on a single handed basis. We feel that we can achieve the Socratic mission by engaging a much wider influential global community which is within the so called "vested interest" side of the global economic equation. We are lucky to be living in an age of transparency with the information revolution and mass communication which can be a highly effective tool to reach out to the wisdom-seeking peoples across nations.

We remind ourselves what Socratic Dialogue really means through the thought provoking story of Socrates in His final days. The version below is compiled from various sources including Plato's narrative. The accusations, the trial, the three apology speeches and final condemnation to death in 399 BC are worth noting, especially in the 21st Century as we need to appreciate the method of Socratic Dialogue once again.

Let us hope and pray, we don't go the same way!

Socrates -- Accusations, Trial, Apology and Condemnation to Death (399 BC)

A friend, in consulting the Oracle at Delphi, asked was any man wiser than Socrates? The Oracle replied that there were not! Upon being told of this answer Socrates maintained that this implied that he, alone, had this claim to wisdom -- that he fully recognised his own ignorance!

From that time he sought out people who had a reputation for wisdom and, in every case, was able to reveal that their reputations were not justified. Socrates regarded this behaviour as a service to Divinity and decided that he should continue to make efforts to improve people by persuading and reminding them of their own ignorance.

What we now call the "Socratic method" of philosophical inquiry involved questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through further questions into seemingly inevitable contradictions, thus proving to them that their original assertion had fatal inconsistencies. Socrates refers to this "Socratic method" as elenchus. The Socratic method gave rise to dialectic, the idea that truth needs to be approached by modifying one's position through questionings and exposures to contrary ideas.

Contrary to popular understanding, Socrates did not seek to involve himself in the political life of Athens in ancient Greece as he felt that there would inevitably be compromises of principle that he was not prepared to make. As a prominent citizen he was called upon to fulfil minor political roles where his sense of principle had caused him to place himself in some personal danger by holding out alone against the unconstitutional condemnation of certain generals. He later refused to participate in the arrest of an innocent man that had been ordered by a corrupt body of "Thirty Tyrants" who ruled Athens in the wake of her defeat by Sparta. This refusal might have cost Socrates his life but for the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants and a restoration of democracy.

This restored democracy was however markedly traditionalist and reactionary in its religious views -- this led it to see Socrates, as a teacher of novel ideas of morality and justice, with some disfavour. Socrates had also alienated many powerful men by acting as a relentlessly questioning Gadfly causing them to face their personal ignorance or own to shortfalls in office.

In 399 BC Socrates was accused of "impiety" and of "neglect of the Gods whom the city worships and the practise of religious novelties" and of the "corruption of the young".

The trial, last days, and death of Socrates are successively narrated in several works by Plato. These works are The Apology (ie Defence Speech), Euthyphro, Crito and Phaedo.

The Apology consists of three speeches made by Socrates at his trial before a jury of five hundred or so Athenians who had gathered to hear him answer the charges. He had not prepared any defence but, being sure in his own mind that he was innocent, was hoping that his words of truth would secure an acquittal. He at this time was more than seventy years of age and he asked the jury to make allowances if he spoke in the sort of language he might use in discussions in the market-place as he was unfamiliar with law courts and the stylised language used in formal trials.

Apology -- The First Speech

Socrates told the jury that he thought that he had two sets of accusers, old and new, and that the old accusers he feared more so and wished to present a defence against them first of all.

Socrates saw these old accusers as being influenced by prejudiced opinions that he had indulged in natural philosophy physical speculations or took money as a teacher.

Those who indulged in physical speculations were routinely assumed to recognise no Divine Plan. In earlier days a play by Aristophanes had featured a character named Socrates who seemed to be such a person but Socrates called on those assembled at his trial to produce evidence that he, the real Socrates, had ever taught along those lines.

In response to the idea that he took money as a teacher Socrates insisted that the life he led had brought him utter poverty rather than monetary reward. He lived that life in response to what the Pythian prophetess at Delphi had told his friend Chaerephon:- that no one was wiser than Socrates.

Socrates suggested that he had made many abiding enemies by personally approaching people who had reputations for wisdom only to reveal through questionings that their wisdom was specious. Others had been alienated by young persons who had witnessed Socrates' methods of questioning similarly revealing yet other people's pretensions to wisdom to be baseless.

Socrates made the case that his questions had tended to vindicate the utterance of the Oracle at Delphi by showing that he, Socrates, did indeed have a particular claim to Wisdom in that he at least fully recognised his own ignorance.

Socrates then addressed his new accusers in the form of Meletus the prosecutor. These new accusers accused Socrates of Impiety, of neglecting the Gods approved by the state, and, of introducing new divinities.

Meletus, who was obliged to answer Socrates' questions delivered before the jury eventually committed himself to a straight assertion that Socrates was a complete atheist. Socrates then showed the fatal contradiction in Meletus accusation -- how does someone whom the prosecution holds to be a complete atheist come to be accused of introducing new divinities or religious novelties.

Having exposed the contradictions in the "new accusations" Socrates again mentioned that he feared his old accusers -- those who had their pretensions exposed in the past -- more so than the new.

As the trial continued Socrates insisted that he had lived his life the way he had in response to "Divine Intervention" calling him to fulfil a philosophic mission. Even were he faced with death as an alternative, (death might for all he could know or deduce be a great release into good), Socrates insisted that he would not give any undertaking to cease from moral teachings designed to encourage people to pay great attention to the "improvement of the soul". Socrates went so far as to suggest that if the Athenians sentenced him to death that it would be a sin against God. God had made him into a sort of Gadfly that was intended to stir the Athenian state into moral improvement. Socrates response to this call from God was to live a life of an unpaid teacher and he was in a state of utter poverty through neglect of private affairs.

Socrates maintained that he has long lived with an inner "oracle or sign" that occasionally forbade him from following certain actions and reminded the jury of the real danger that he put himself at the time of the unconstitutional trial of the generals and again when he refused to obey the Thirty Tyrants over the arrest of an innocent man. Socrates' great concern was not to avoid danger that might arise by alienating the powerful but rather to avoid committing any unrighteous or unholy act.

Socrates then spoke of his followers stating that they enjoyed hearing his cross-questioning of those with pretensions to wisdom and that Meletus was making no effort to call any of them as witnesses for the prosecution.

As to his family Socrates said that whilst it is far from unknown for accused persons to bring their tearful families to the attention of the court as an argument for leniency he, Socrates, could only regard such behaviours as being discreditable. Socrates hopes that his arguments alone will convince the court of his innocence and will not resort to such devices.

In the event the five hundred or so strong jury before which Socrates was standing trial found him guilty by a narrow majority of sixty. Meletus moved that the sentence should be death, in reply Socrates had the right to propose a sentence that the court might select as an alternative.

Apology -- The Second Speech; The last days of Socrates

Although now an officially guilty man Socrates, true to his own estimation of his past actions, suggested that he has actually done great good to the state and that he deserved reward rather than punishment!

The trial jury was asked to entertain the idea that he, Socrates, should be maintained at public expense, such as was awarded to famous Olympian charioteers, so that he would have leisure to impart beneficial instruction.

Socrates then backtracked a little from this suggestion, reminded the court that no one actually knew if death was a disaster or a release, and said that he was reluctant to suggest a real penalty in preference to death which might be a blessing. He had no money to pay any fine, he did not feel he deserved imprisonment, exile would bring great uncertainties for a man who even in a foreign city was bound to continue to instruct towards the "improvement of the soul".

Socrates openly suggested that he could himself pay a small fine of one Mina but that his friends were prepared to pay, on his behalf, a fine of thirty Minae.

In the event the trial jury thought that Socrates proposed alternative - the fine of thirty Minae - was significantly too lenient and voted for the sentence of death rather than the fine being imposed and voted that way by an increased majority.

Apology -- The Third Speech

Socrates asked those who had voted in favour of his being guilty to bear in mind that, even though he did not consider himself to be wise, the rivals of Athens would say that the Athenians had ordered the death of a wise man who lived among them. He also reminded those who had condemned him that although he was not to be around much longer as a Gadfly other, younger, and possibly less considerate, people might well fulfil the same role in the future.

To those who had voted in favour of his being declared innocent Socrates gave assurances that he was not afraid of death, his sure guide - the inner Oracle or sign, - had not made its presence felt in ways that would have led him to believe he was on a wrong path.

Whether death led to a state of utter unconsciousness or else to a transmigration of the soul Socrates foresaw something that would be not completely unwelcome.

To go into an eternity of a single, quiet, night or else to have the opportunity as a transmigrated soul to converse with, and to question, the heroes in Hades.

Amongst his closing remarks Socrates asked his friends there present to visit punishments and troubles on his three sons if they seemed to care more about riches than about virtue, or if they seemed to be pretentious.

Socrates' closing words in this third speech of Plato's Apology were, "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows."

In most circumstances Socrates would have been obliged to submit to execution by drinking the deadly poison Hemlock within twenty four hours of his sentence. It happened however that executions were traditionally suspended whilst a certain sacred ship made an annual voyage to the Island of Delos. This ship was presently on the seas and this allowed a certain stay of execution.

Plato continues his narrative of the last days of Socrates by presenting him in the days immediately following the trial in his "The Euthyphro".


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Best wishes

ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to resolve complex global challenges through collective Socratic dialogue and joint executive action to build a wisdom based global economy. Adhering to the doctrine of non-violence, ATCA addresses asymmetric threats and social opportunities arising from climate chaos and the environment; radical poverty and microfinance; geo-politics and energy; organised crime & extremism; advanced technologies -- bio, info, nano, robo & AI; demographic skews and resource shortages; pandemics; financial systems and systemic risk; as well as transhumanism and ethics. Present membership of ATCA is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished members from over 120 countries: including 1,000 Parliamentarians; 1,500 Chairmen and CEOs of corporations; 1,000 Heads of NGOs; 750 Directors at Academic Centres of Excellence; 500 Inventors and Original thinkers; as well as 250 Editors-in-Chief of major media.

The Philanthropia, founded in 2005, brings together over 1,000 leading individual and private philanthropists, family offices, foundations, private banks, non-governmental organisations and specialist advisors to address complex global challenges such as countering climate chaos, reducing radical poverty and developing global leadership for the younger generation through the appliance of science and technology, leveraging acumen and finance, as well as encouraging collaboration with a strong commitment to ethics. Philanthropia emphasises multi-faith spiritual values: introspection, healthy living and ecology. Philanthropia Targets: Countering climate chaos and carbon neutrality; Eliminating radical poverty -- through micro-credit schemes, empowerment of women and more responsible capitalism; Leadership for the Younger Generation; and Corporate and social responsibility.

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