The Socratic Method: Does It Lead A Mason From Darkness To Light?

The Socratic Method: Does It Lead A Mason From Darkness To Light?

“I can’t teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” 

So says Socrates, a great thinker of his time in Ancient Greece. He was known for educating his disciples by asking questions and thereby drawing out answers from them, called the Socratic method. The goal was to nudge people to examine their own beliefs, instead of unthinkingly inheriting opinions from others. The approach was a way for his students to find the truth of anything. Thinkers have venerated the method ever since. It really worked for the Greeks.

I have always had a fascination with Greek culture. I particularly enjoy studying Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I also admit to getting lost in Greek mythology at times, enjoying Greek food, and have always secretly wished that I could dance like a Greek goddess.

Given the above, it seems only reasonable I should find myself honing in on Socrates. Mind you, I am no authority on the great ones of the ancient past, other than being humbled by their wisdom and insight. Socrates is for me the most interesting of the three: a perspective I am sure many might agree and equally as many might disagree.

There are two statements that Socrates made that I found particularly thought-provoking. 

“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

“Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

The first quote that starts, “To know, is to know that you know nothing” is a paradox right off the bat. Yet, instinctively, somehow, I understand the entire point and it makes sense even while being a total paradox! And the second quote struck me as so linked and interrelated to the first one. One would be hard pressed to assert one carries more11873522964_9cb8eb5a44_b weight than the other or to even think about them separately. 

How can we know what we don’t know? Does the Socratic method offer us a technique to advance towards the light of true knowledge? 

Plato’s Dialogue: It’s About the Questioning

Socrates said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In other words, question everything. I recently read the statistic that children through the ages 2-5 ask roughly 40,000 questions. I have wondered why, as we go through into adulthood, the number of questions we ask drops significantly. 

We know through the writings of Plato, the student of Socrates, that he was often quizzed by his teacher about deeper realities. Red Rose in the GardenIn “Plato’s Dialogues,” we can read short works in which Plato recreates various conversations Socrates had with another student. And thus, we get a really good idea of the Socratic method. 

The style of a Platonic dialogue may go something like this:

Q: “What color is the rose in the garden?”
A: “The rose in the garden is red.”
Q:”Is this rose still red to a blind person?”
A: No.
Q: “So you are saying the rose is red only to those who can see.”
A: Yes.
Q: “What color would it be to a blind person? Would it be pink or white or some other color?”
A: (No answer – student is bewildered).
Q: “So the rose is red only to those who can see.”
A: Yes.
Q: “If the rose in the garden is where no one can see it, is it still red?”
A: (No answer – further bewilderment).

And so on. The questioner might end up forcing a realization in the student of how color only exists in a person’s mind as a result of their perception; it isn’t actually a property of the rose. In other words, the rose is not red.

Socrates believed there were two ways to come to knowledge: through discovery and by being taught. To be taught presupposes that someone else has discovered the truth for you. He thought for his disciples to really know a subject, they should form their own beliefs and experience their own blind alleys and realizations.tunnel-2033983_960_720

How does this idea of discovery relate to the path of a Freemason? 

From Darkness to Light

Every Freemason is on a quest to discover his “true self.”  He is taught the importance of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, of which logic is one of them. The study of critical thinking and reasoning allows the Freemason to look beyond mere perception and dogma in the search for truth. In this way, it is possible to forge a path to moral, scientific, and philosophical enlightenment. “To know nothing” is leaning into the next moment, wondering what you are going to find. It is a form of being blindfolded or hoodwinked, waiting for more light. 

It was in Freemasonry that I really learned to embrace the journey from darkness to light, to become a friend of the Socratic method, and learn to be humble in what I don’t know. When I first joined, a poor blind candidate, I was asked probing questions about the First Degree. Questions like, “What does it mean to know thyself?” and “Is truth absolute or relative?” I was asked to explore the relationships among concepts and ideas. For example, I had to compare two types of symbols and to explain how they are similar, how they are different, or evaluate the meanings of each. 

Over the many masonic degrees, my mentors have pointed me in the direction of truth only to glorify the beauty of the group vision and the image of enlightenment. 

The Freemason W.L. Wilmshurst said:

“Truth, whether as expressed in Masonry or otherwise, is at all times an open secret, but is as a pillar of light to those able to receive and profit by it, and to all others but one of darkness and unintelligibility.”

I think he is saying that truth is a mysterious something that is sensed, even though the truthrational mind may try to discredit it. The ability to sense this invitation to truth, even when the path is dark and hidden, is perhaps the most important lesson to consider here. “The future I do not see. One step enough for me.” 

My takeaway from the Socratic method is this: Remember how little you know, question everything, and keep your mind open to other possibilities. If all goes well, truth is our travel companion from darkness to light.  What do you ask for? 

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

The Masonic Pursuit of Freedom

What makes a Freemason free? I started brooding over this question one day when wondering which word is better to use, “Freemason” or “mason.” Is one term more correct? Historically, the distinction is said to be a carry-over from the medieval period of the stone masons. In a grammatical sense, both terms are used interchangeably today. Like any word, I guess you can speculate more about their deeper meanings, if you are so inspired.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, a smaller question led to bigger ones. 

What is freedom? How is it important to a Freemason?

The concept of freedom is difficult to understand because it can work in mysterious ways from within out; it is not imposed from the outside. Rosa Parks was not protesting so that she could be free, nor was Mahatma Gandhi in prison waiting for someone to anoint him with an elixir of freedom. In their hearts and minds. they were already free!

Freedom means many things to different people. Some philosophers call freedom a principle, a law, or a right. It can be defined from various perspectives like economic, social, political or religious. Freedom has also been said to be a state of mind or even a state of being when a person is liberated from the “tomb of matter.” There are a select few who don’t believe it exists at all.

Regardless of how we define it, most would agree that freedom is part of our approach to life. The very ideas such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of choice all have become the very water and air of our societies. These freedoms are highly prized.

The American Declaration of Independence tells us:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is, then, the instinctual striving toward freedom and the pursuit of happiness inherent in all human beings?

The Pursuit of Happiness by Aristotle
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The great philosophers in earlier centuries had a huge impact about how we think about these types of questions today. More than anyone else, Aristotle enshrined happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics years ago before becoming a Freemason and adopted it as much of my own personal philosophy. In the lectures he presents a theory of happiness that has carried through all my years as a mason which says a lot.

Aristotle sought to answer the most fundamental questions you can ask yourself. What is the highest good of human existence? What is the highest good achievable by action?

Aristotle suggests that human existence is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue. To understand the nature of happiness or “eudaimonia,” as he called it, we must investigate the nature of virtue.

As Aristotle puts it:

“If happiness is in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us.”

Now, I thought the conclusion that Aristotle comes to after his lecture on virtue is very interesting. He says that none of the moral virtues are inherent in human nature. For example, the moral virtues, such as fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, can only be attained through practice and habitual action. Essentially, his line of thinking is that happiness comes from virtue, and then virtue comes from  freedom of choice. He says that “to entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.”

statue-of-liberty-1746808_960_720Choices, as he defines them, are the things that can be brought about by one’s own efforts. Responsible choices are the ones that provide the greatest good for the greatest number. The freedom of choice is an essential component in the formula to happiness and consequently to becoming more “free.”

Which aspects, then, of freedom are most immediately identifiable to a freemason?

The “Free” Mason

In the writings of Manly P. Hall, we find many ideas that are in sync with Aristotle. When a mason passes through the door of the Temple and takes his seat, he has made a choice to let his entire nature be subjected to a drastic discipline of ethical training. By development of virtues, he advances in the Craft.

Manly Hall writes in The Candidate:

“There comes a time in the growth of every living individual thing when it realizes with dawning consciousness that it is a prisoner. It is at this point that man cries out with greater insistence to be liberated from the binding ties which, though invisible to mortal eyes, still chain him with bonds far more terrible than those of any physical prison.”

soul-2698886_960_720One can only speculate what Hall meant by the binding ties that chain him. 

What is the candidate being liberated from? Perhaps it could be said that the candidate is a slave to his dogmas and ideologies. He may be further tainted by the dynamics of power and profit. When a person is liberated from the prisons of ignorance and vice, then the attainment of greater freedom is automatic. There’s a greater purpose to life than the egotistic individual who is running the show.

Hall writes again:

“The eternal prisoner awaits the day when, standing upon the rocks that now form His shapeless tomb, He may raise His arms to heaven, bathed in the sunlight of spiritual freedom, free to join the sparkling atoms and dancing light-beings released from the bonds of prison wall and tomb.”

As Hall expresses, to be released from the bonds of prison wall is not a simple task. As Aristotle emphasized, it is easier to miss the mark than to hit it. For this reason, “right conduct is rare and praiseworthy and noble.” Freedom comes from examining everything in the light of whether it comes from an inner truth, or from a reaction to outer things.

In the end, why is it so hard to align with that inner truth? I say that maybe it’s much harder to hold out against it.

“Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”  ~ George Washington