The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s lecture on the Trial of Socrates. He discusses why Socrates decided against a defense, and how elevating your aim and creating an ideal leads to the process of continually recapitulating yourself.
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Socrates’ trial. He was tried by the Athenians for failing to worship the correct gods and corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them and asking them questions, which is a great way to corrupt people. He knew the trial was coming; Athens was not a very big place. It only had about 25,000 people. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody knew who the powerful guys were. Everybody, including Socrates, knew that the trial was a warning to get out of town: “We are going to put you on trial in six months and the potential penalty is death. Got that?” So Socrates had a chat with his compatriots and they were contemplating fair means and foul to set up a defense for him, or he could leave so that he could not be tried and put to death — and he decided that he was not going to do that. He also decided that he was not going to even think about his defense. And he asked, why? This is quite an interesting thing: He asked, why?
He told one of his friends that he had this voice in his head — a daemon or a spirit, something like that — that he always listened to. That was one of the reasons he was different from other people because he always listened to this thing. It did not tell him what to do, but it told him what not to do. It always told him what not to do. If it told him not to do something, then he did not do it. If he was speaking and the little voice came up and said, “No, no,” then he shut up and he tried to say something else. He was very emphatic about this, and he said that when he tried to plan to evade the trial or even to mount his own defense, the voice came up and said, “No, do not bother with it.” And he thought, “Well, what the hell do you mean by that? There is a trial coming, and I am going to be put to death.”
He eventually concluded that he was an old guy. He was in his 70s. Perhaps the next 10 years were not going to be that great for him. He got a chance. Maybe the gods were giving him a chance just to bow out, to put his affairs in order, to say goodbye to everyone, to avoid that last descent into catastrophe — which might have been particularly painful for a philosopher — and to walk out of the world on his own terms. The point I am making with that is that Socrates attended to this internal voice that at least told him what not to do, and then he did not do it. Of course, Socrates was a very remarkable man; we still hear about him today, and we know that he existed.
As you elevate your aim, you create a judge at the same time. Because the new ideal — which is an ideal even if it is just an ideal position that you might occupy or if it is still conceptualized in that concrete way — that becomes a judge because it is above you. Then you are terrified of it. Maybe that is why you might be afraid when you start a new job. Because this thing is above you and you are terrified of it and it judges you. That is useful because the judge you are creating by formulating the ideal tells you what is useless about yourself, and then you can dispense with it and you want to keep doing that. Then every time you make a judgment that is more elevated, there is more useless you that has to be dispensed with. Then if you create an ultimate judge, which is what the archetypal imagination of humankind has done, say, with the figure of Christ, because if Christ is nothing else, he is at least the archetypal perfect man and, therefore, the judge. You have a judge that says, “Get rid of everything about yourself that is not perfect.” Of course, that is also what God tells Abraham. He says to be perfect, to pick an ideal that is high enough.
You can do this. The thing that is interesting about this is, you can do it more or less on your own terms. You have to have some collaboration from other people, but you do not have to pick an external ideal. You can pick an ideal that fulfills the rule of ideal for you. You can say, “If things could be set up for me the way I need them to be, and if I could be who I needed to be, what would that look like?” You can figure that out for yourself. Then instantly you have a judge. I also think that is part of the reason people do not do it.
Why do people not look up and move ahead? The answer is, you start formulating an ideal, you formulate a judge, and it is pretty easy to feel intimidated in the face of your own ideal. That is what happens to Cain versus Abel, for example. It is really easy to destroy the ideal instead of trying to pursue it, because then you get rid of the judge. But it is way better. Lower the damn judge if it is too much. If your current ambition is crushing you, then maybe you are playing the tyrant to yourself and you should tamp down your ambitions, not get rid of them by any stretch of the imagination, but at least put them more reasonably within your grasp. You do not have to leap from point one to point 50 in one leap. You can do it incrementally.
But I really like this idea. I think it is a profound idea — the process of recapitulating yourself continually. It is a Phoenix-like process. You are shedding all those elements of you that are no longer worthy of the pursuits that you are valuing. Then I would say the idea here is that as you do that, you shape yourself ever more precisely into something that can withstand the tragedy of life and that can act as a beacon to the world. That is the right way of thinking about it — maybe first to your friends and then to your family.
It is a hell of a fine ambition, and there is no reason that it cannot happen. You know, every one of you knows people who are really bloody useful in a crisis and people that you admire. You can think of all those people you admire as partial incarnations of the archetypal Messiah. That is exactly right. The more that manifests itself in any given person, then the more generally useful and admirable that person is in a multitude of situations. We do not know the limit to that, but people can be unbelievably good for things. It is really something to behold.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.