Buddha, Socrates and the Importance of Thinking for Ourselves
In an age of manipulation and lies, only critical thinking allows us to live free, autonomous lives
In the Greek tradition, Socrates, the wandering philosopher, warned his disciples against seeking the advice of sophists. These were philosophers paid to instruct the nobility. In Socrates own view, knowledge could only come from the arduous experience of self-knowledge. The famous phrase gnoti seautón, “know thyself,” was inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi.
In the time of the Gautama Buddha, many holy teachers and priests also wandered from village to village offering their teachings and principles to anyone who would listen. How can we differentiate an authentic teacher from a charlatan? According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama offered the answer on one of his many journeys:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
– Gautama Buddha
This advice from the Buddha is of great relevance today, when we find ourselves inundated on all sides with pseudo-knowledge, commercials messages intended to incite us to consume something to remedy our existential anguish, and where true wisdom is offered to us in a thousand ways and through a thousand attractive packages.
This doesn’t mean that our own historical moment is any worse than that of Socrates in Athens or the Buddha in India, though more than 2,000 years have passed. It simply means that we can’t spare critical reflection and the art of thinking for ourselves.
One may live in ignorance, even surrounded by riches, if one doesn’t cultivate one’s own thinking, and it’s only through reason and reflection that the truly autonomous experience can be had. It is not a question of denying ourselves knowledge of new places and traditions different from those of our hometowns. Rather, whatever comes to us must pass through a sieve of reflective and critical thinking. Otherwise, we’re vulnerable to an onslaught of consumption, and to the politics of shock. People are seen as a docile flock that can be led from one position to another to meet others’ interests and then only to the benefit of the powerful. But true power – that is, true freedom – isn’t won through war or consumption, but through solid and autonomous thought capable of discerning differences and seeing past the selfish motives of others. In accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, this thought need to be generous and open to the benefit of all beings, as well as a guide that allows us to follow an impeccable code of conduct.
No one said that freedom was easy, but it doesn’t have to be a torment, either. It’s simply a question of seeing ourselves as beings “under construction.” We admit certain ideas and discard others according to the principles of the conservation of energy: what feeds the spirit and what devours it? What allows for growth and expansion and what makes you feel smaller or more inadequate? The answers to these questions are only a starting point for what Socrates called the examined life, for, as he remarked, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
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