My philosophical life

Chris Fotinopoulos examines his relationship with self examination and Socrates.

Socrates’ gadfly stung me out of my adolescent apathy soon after reading his Apology in the pages of Plato’s The Last Day of Socrates.

Philosophical dialogue inspired by curiosity and the quest for knowledge, for me, the key to living the good life. It is certainly something that I would have appreciated as student attending a school that had, despite the efforts of a couple of teachers, scant regard for philosophical inquiry, and open dialogue.

This was my first philosophy book given to me by my high school teacher over 25 years ago.

He was not my first philosophy teacher. My mother was.

And although I didn’t know it at the time, her teachings where similar to those of Socrates which were, quite simply, directed to living the good life.

The bigger question was how?

I didn’t see my mother as my teacher, until an encyclopaedia salesman who was doing his usual rounds in our working class neighbourhood during the early 1970’s asked me if I could name my first teacher.

And as I blurted out my primary school teacher’s name, he pointed to my smiling mum and said “No. There is your first teacher.”

Given that she was the first person to engage me in conversation about anything that was on my mind, it made perfect sense.

He asked me what I wanted to do in life. To find out what lies behind darkness. Why I am me and not someone else. And how can I be certain of anything?

He suggested I should study science, but it was the study of philosophy that I yearned for.

Even as a child I was suspicious of people guaranteeing definitive answers to life’s big questions for a certain financial outlay.

My first `official’ philosophy lesson came at a significant financial sacrifice for my parents in the form of a private school education in a middle class bay-side suburb of Melbourne.

The school ethos seemed to be inspired by a nostalgic yearning for a time when intellectual snobbery, ritual and arrogance were the mark of a proper education.

Interestingly, independent schools began to use this as a sales pitch to working class migrants in an attempt to win their patronage in an increasingly competitive education market.

After all, what would newly arrived and uneducated peasants like my parents possibly know about a proper English education?

So it wasn’t too long before my parents enrolled me in a school that soon became the anvil upon which schoolmasters could forge this recalcitrant and culturally blemished matter into some semblance of respectability.

Luckily, my philosophy teacher happened to be a knock Anglican priest who was more concerned in using his trademark mongrel bark to sting wayward adolescent boys into thinking about life’s big questions than dwell on social status, traditions and customs.

He gave us the precise questions to the end of year exam, suggesting that there was more to learning than simply slotting facts in the appropriate blank spaces.

For him, real learning, as with life itself, required inspiration, imagination, creativity and the courage to think freely without fear of consequence.

Although he applied a fairly simplistic and rigid question-answers strategy (known as Platonic Dialogue), it none-the-less proved that philosophical inquiry was an effective way of challenging cold and rigid institutional practices.

Ironically, it was within the conservative school setting that I came to appreciate Socrates’ warning against slavish adherence to customs and traditions.

His demonstration of philosophical inquiry gave me the confidence and courage to question, examine, re-evaluate, and abandon many of the archaic values and customs espoused in a school that was little more than a colonial throwback.

Socrates’ commitment to challenging the arrogance of government provided me with the courage to pick at the threads of the elitist institution that my parents had banked on making me a good person.

Sadly, Socrates paid for this important lesson with his life, whereas I got off with nothing more than being labelled a rascal, and – much to the chagrin of staff traditionalist who wanted me out – an independent thinker.

My fascination for philosophy acquainted me with my mother’s world, transporting me to ancient Greece where I unearthed relics from a civilisation that lay beneath the very fields my mother played on as a peasant child before leaving for a better life half way across the world.

As I tilled the rich and fertile soil of Greek antiquity for answers to the questions I posed as a child, I came across a nugget of advice that changed my life forever. It was that man again, Socrates, warning me against the dangers of living an unexamined life.

By the time I attended University to study philosophy and literature, I began to appreciate through various philosophical works, as well as the writings of Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Nikos Kazantzakis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera that self examination leaves you vulnerable to your insecurities, flaws, passions and fears – a lesson that set me on a rich and wondrous journey fraught with uncertainty and doubt.

But rather than retreat, I was comforted by the thought of confronting, exploring and understanding life’s complexities and uncertainties through painstaking inquiry and dialogue.

My appetite for dialogue eventually took me to remote regions of the world, acquainting me with the rich and magical diversity that this world has to offer.

It wasn’t until I became a teacher when I came to realise that any social institution that seeks to snuff one’s hunger for dialogue and intellectual curiosity needs its philosophers and artists more than ever.

Philosophical dialogue inspired by curiosity and the quest for knowledge, for me, the key to living the good life.

It is certainly something that I would have appreciated as student attending a school that had, despite the efforts of a couple of teachers, scant regard for philosophical inquiry, and open dialogue.

It certainly would have liberated me much sooner from the pricey education straightjacket I was strapped into so many years ago.

By the time Socrates was executed he was old and had no definitive answers to life’s big questions.

He did however know that he was free to question, challenge, agitate and engage in dialogue with anyone who was serious about living the good life.

This is indeed an admirable characteristic – particularly to many of today’s youth who have become tired with inward looking, self-opinionated bungling do-gooders attempting to strap them into the straightjacket of custom and archaic belief systems.

The teacher’s job is not to inculcate the `right’ set of values in students.

Their job is to provide students with the intellectual tools, confidence and courage to question and challenge that which parents, friends, media personalities, priests, politician and indeed teachers insist on being right.

Clearly, the creative, curious and courageous will see through intellectual frauds and charlatans.

But it is those who lack the courage to examine, question and criticise who need to be stung by Socrates’ gadfly in action – as I was so many years ago.

Chris Fotinopoulos is a regular contributor to NKEE and ABC Unleashed as well as being an educator in philosophy.