Video: Welcome to the Course


Hello and welcome to the course. My name is Donald Robertson and I’m the designer. Later on in this video, I’m going to give you some really important practical tips on how to get the most out of the whole experience, so make sure you stay around until the end. First, though, let me tell you the story of how I came to build this course...

I first became interested in Socrates myself when I was fairly young. I was a teenager, back in Scotland in the 1980s. I started by reading Plato’s Republic, the most famous of all Socratic dialogues, but as a newcomer I found it a little bit hard going in places. I think many people have a similar experience so these days I tend to suggest that reading The Republic cover to cover isn’t necessarily the best introduction to Socrates. Luckily, back then, I got another chance... I stumbled across a battered old book in a second-hand shop that consisted of brief excerpts from Plato’s dialogues. It was a long hot summer and I remember spending many hours in my garden lazily flicking through the pages, just reading a little bit at a time. Then I’d put it down, close my eyes, and just allow myself to think for a while about what I'd read...

This digested format seemed like the perfect introduction. It was just what I needed. It whetted my appetite by giving me an overview of the many interesting things that Socrates had said. I also started to get a sense of his character. Socrates is probably not the person most people assume him to be, at least before they’ve been exposed to the Socratic dialogues. Everyone knows he was a famous Greek philosopher who was very wise, and most people know he died by drinking hemlock. However, readers are often surprised to discover that Socrates is such a unique and vivid character. It can be difficult to explain. You have to read the dialogues and encounter him for yourself. Socrates had a profoundly complex personality, there are many layers to him, and from his own lifetime right down to the present day, different people have perceived him and interpreted his philosophy in a number of different ways. His arguments are ambiguous and typically inconclusive but he also sought verbal precision and was very persistent in his quest for answers, he’s very earnest but yet humorous and ironic, incredibly austere and self-disciplined but also somewhat relaxed and even flirtatious – his students talk about their surprisingly intense love for him, almost like an addiction, but his enemies hated him and, of course, they had him put to death.  

The initial glimpses I got of him from reading those excerpts have always remained with me. I often wasn’t sure if I agreed with Socrates or even if I understood his reasoning. But his words stuck in my mind and over the years I frequently found myself recalling what he’d said about wisdom, justice, courage, or self-discipline, his remarks on knowledge, love and friendship, and I kept coming back to the puzzling questions that he’d raised. Should we harm our enemies or try to help them? Are friends more important than wealth? Could courage and the other virtues be types of knowledge? Does it make sense to be afraid of dying if we don’t know what, if anything, awaits us on the other side? How do we define the most important values that we take for granted in life? Is it even possible for one person to teach another what it means to be good?  

I was already hooked by the time I'd left high school so I chose to do my degree in philosophy, at the University of Aberdeen. Socrates fascinated me on many levels. Particularly because his vision of philosophy wasn’t bookish or academic but rather it was about the “love of wisdom” as a whole way of life. I mainly studied modern philosophy at university but kept going back to ancient thinkers like Socrates because they seemed to offer something more down-to-earth and practical. Later I trained as a counsellor and psychotherapist and I particularly focused on Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy or CBT, an approach inspired by Stoic philosophy. Stoicism was one of several schools during the Hellenistic period, which drew inspiration from Socrates, and looked back to him as their forefather. In my work with clients and trainees using CBT and other modern psychological techniques, I often drew on ideas from both Socrates and the Stoics. For example, one of the bread and butter techniques of cognitive therapy is known as “Socratic Questioning”, because it involves encouraging clients to question their own thoughts very deeply, in order to change their feelings and behaviour.  

Indeed, as I continued to study the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy I began to realize that there were other similarities. We can find many traces of strategies and techniques in the Socratic tradition that resemble aspects of modern psychotherapy and psychological methods used today for personal improvement. As I learned more, I began writing and giving talks about the psychological benefits of practices found in Greek philosophy. Then around 2009, I was asked by a publisher in the UK to write a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, in which I provided a detailed overview of the many concepts and techniques that ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy seemed to have in common. That’s a niche I’ve enjoyed working in ever since. My role increasingly came to involve helping people find practical ways to apply ancient philosophy to the problems of modern life.  

Now, I should make it clear that during Socrates’ lifetime people often found his style of argument, the Socratic Method, very frustrating. Throughout the centuries, many subsequent readers of the dialogues have shared that feeling. Arguments are started and not finished, sometimes he seems to go off at a tangent, or to contradict himself, conclusions are readily accepted that seem unconvincing even to some of his own listeners, or he makes points that are ambiguous, seem obscure, or perhaps aren’t even meant to be taken seriously. That was all part of his character. In that regard, Socrates stood in marked contrast to the ancient Sophists, or professional teachers of wisdom. They believed they knew the answers to life’s questions and could sum them up in a couple of sentences, which they’d offer to teach students for a hefty fee. By comparison, Socrates could seem messy and confusing. Some people couldn’t stand that. However, other people said that once they got used to his way of questioning things they became somewhat addicted to hearing him talk. His students often found his conversations intellectually liberating and morally inspiring, even if they didn’t arrive at a conclusive answer to the question with which they began.

So patience and perseverance can be required when reading about the arguments found in the Socratic dialogues. Don’t expect to agree with everything Socrates said – he’s simply not that kind of teacher. He never claimed to have all the answers but he does have some very profound questions for us, if we’re willing to listen. Give his words time to sink in. Let your mind consider his remarks from different angles, and chew things over slowly. My own experience taught me that the best way to approach the philosophy of Socrates is often by learning more about him as a person, his life and character, and also breaking the dialogues down into smaller parts. Sometimes the arguments that Socrates presents can actually be summarized quite easily in a more digestible format. Then if you go to read the original, which I’d strongly recommend doing when you feel ready, you’ll find it much easier to get into.  

I also hope that you’ll be able to benefit from the connections I draw between ancient Socratic philosophy and modern psychology, and the tips I’ve picked up over the years through using these techniques myself, and training others to use them. Some of you are bound to interpret Socrates differently from me. That’s to be expected but it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from these lessons, and the discussions we’re going to have during the course. There are many different ways of reading the Socratic literature so I’m not going to force a particular interpretation on you. I’ll give you my perspective, but I’m also going to encourage you to think for yourselves. There isn’t always a clear-cut “right answer” when it comes to interpreting Socrates' words. As we’ll see, even his own students took his philosophy in different directions.  

So before we proceed, here are the practical tips I promised to give you:

Number one. Look first for what’s of value. No philosophy, or course, is perfect. Knowing that, begin by asking yourself “What are the main things that I can learn from Socrates?” How can I gain more benefit from reading about this? Even if it’s just one thing. Don’t get lost in the weeds, in other words.

Number two. Prepare for setbacks. Do your troubleshooting well in advance and go into things with a positive problem-solving attitude. For example, ask yourself right now “What could possibly stop me from completing this course and benefiting from it?” Then patiently consider what you could do to prevent, or minimize, any foreseeable problems. And do something about it.

For instance, a common problem is “I might not have enough time”. So make sure you’re clear about exactly how much time and effort is going to be required – look at the course description. Brainstorm ways you can get things done. Maybe there are other activities you could safely set aside for a while, and use that time to complete the course. Have a definite plan of action and make it your goal to derive some kind of personal benefit, even if it's only a small change in your life. Remember: small changes often have big consequences. Use the discussions to engage constructively with other people taking the course – that can make a more profound difference than most people realize and it only takes a few minutes.

Finally, please feel free to get in touch if you’re having any problems whatsoever. I want to make sure you get the most out of this opportunity to learn about Socrates. Don’t ever feel stuck. Just send me a short message and I promise I’ll do my best to help you. So, once again, welcome to the course and, fate willing, I hope you share in that curious feeling that his students describe in the dialogues and which many thousands of people have noticed over the centuries: that your own life has improved in subtle but important ways by learning more about the life and philosophy of Socrates.

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