How little things really change – just ask Socrates

Fairly recently I started following an interesting blog that provides quotes from famous or quasi-famous people nearly every day.  Extensive collections of quotes. Wow, there are so many observations and admonitions that have been made over the years by so many wise people; you’d think that all that good advice would have made a bigger difference by now! As we know, not nearly as much as one might have hoped.

I have lots of favourite quotes from these collections, after just a few months. But I’m choosing quotes from the great philosopher Socrates for my example. Why?  Because, face it, folks, Socrates lived a very, very long time ago; the fact that what he had to say nearly 2500 years ago is still unerringly applicable is worth thinking about.

Let’s start at the beginning, in 470 B.C., when Socrates was thought to have been born in Athens, a full 470 years before the birth of Christ. Socrates was the son of a well-off citizen and inherited enough wealth to allow him to get along just fine without working, once his soldiering was done. So what did he do? He spent his time in Athens’ central gathering spot, attempting to enrich the minds of the youth (young men, of course) of his city. He did so by asking them the tough questions about life, establishing a dialogue rather than a lecture, with the intention of training them to think deeply and to reflect on their course of actions. This method of teaching by questioning became referred to as the Socratic Method. In the course of having these running dialogues with his students, his own views became widely known and reported.  But …


One aspect of Socrates’ famous work might surprise those of you who haven’t studied him: he never actually wrote down any of his own words.  That’s right, never. The Western world’s first acknowledged philosopher left no trail of books, notebooks, or scrolls.  No cell phone backup files, no Word documents, no post-it notes, nada. So everything we read that is ascribed to Socrates was actually written during and after his death by his former students, like, for example, Plato, and Plato’s student, Aristotle! Therefore, everything attributed to Socrates must be taken with a bit of a grain of salt as far as 100% authenticity is concerned, but its intent is quite authentic.

Just to give Socrates’ story a tidy conclusion before moving to the quotes that led me down this path, his life came to an end in 399 B.C. Yes, even way back then, people who managed to live past childhood diseases and the horrors of wars lived into their 70s and beyond. Socrates only died at age 71 because he was executed (his choice was to swallow hemlock) after being found guilty of being a bad influence on the youth. Sound suspicious?  Clearly, he had enemies, who were by all accounts his fellow elite who didn’t like the idea that their young people were being taught to question their motives and abilities?!

Some of the many, many insights attributed to Socrates:

  • The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.Socrates-Pickles
  • The unexamined life is not worth living.
  • Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
  • To find yourself, think for yourself.
  • He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.
  • The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.
  • We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.
  • Envy is the ulcer of the soul.
  • Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

And this is the quote that made me stop and think about how little human interaction has really changed in 2500 years.

  • The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

How many of you have heard this sentiment being voiced recently? Or perhaps by your parents?  Turns out, it’s been said by almost every generation of parents … for a very, very long time. The more things change, the more things stay the same! 🙂


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35 Responses to How little things really change – just ask Socrates

  1. Jean says:

    I didn’t know some of those quotes attributed to him. Yes, I believe literate people in those days had better memory than us. After all, oral history is a great example.

  2. Brilliantly put as always, Jane. Is each generation bound to make the same mistakes as the previous one? I’m inclined to say no, but the pessimist who lives in my brain always whispers something else. Bernie’s comment above, for instance, is certainly a good measure. Mother nature is probably inclined to get the final word. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Marty. I have to admit to having been gobsmacked when I read his quote about kids 2500 years ago. It could have been my parents talking! Re Mother Nature, she WILL have the last say, and we’re not going to like it too much. We need to smarten up, but we never seem to, do we? 😥

  3. debscarey says:

    Interesting story about Socrates’s end which I didn’t know. If you study history, you’ll see we’re guilty of repeating ourselves & our mistakes. Not enough people know their history. Thanks, as ever, Jane.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Debs. We’re sure being reminded about how much history repeats itself when we look at Russia’s unprovoked invasion and its ramifications right now.

  4. I guess it’s true what is said about “the more things change, the more they stay the same”? 🙂

    I found one of my favorite Socrates quotes etched in The Library of Congress: “There is only one good, and that is knowledge. There is only one evil, and that is ignorance.”

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for these observations, Endless Weekend. That quote by Socrates was among the many included in the quoteliv blog, but when I thought about it enough I wasn’t convinced. I embraced it at first glance, but I couldn’t convince myself that vicious cruelty could be blamed entirely on ignorance. I think that quote fits very well with the Library of Congress, concentrating on the knowledge part.

      • I understand what you’re saying, it’s a pretty … black/white statement. It reminds me of what Bertrand Russell once said that “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” 🙂 When one says that it’s the ONLY good or the ONLY evil, it’s a little (?) harder to convince oneself. Maybe if we take a broader look at what Socrates might have meant by “knowledge” to include critical thinking and kindness, too? 🙂

  5. margiran says:

    Love the quotes Jane – thank you.
    It always bothers me when philosophers are quoted and the philosophical meanings interpreted for today without acknowledging their intended meaning and the origins and surroundings of the particular philosopher. Of course, you have put this to bed for me straight away.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are so right that the quotes from the past are often misinterpreted to the advantage of the current user. More than just philosophers come to mind! 😏

  6. I love the quotes, and thanks for the background on Socrates. Very enlightening!

  7. Bernie says:

    The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. THIS — keeping Amazon happy and the environment worse. Shopping for the sake of more while obtaining less head space to reflect. 2500 years of more not less. No wonder mother earth is protesting. Bernie

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Well, Amazon and its competitors – and our current level of rampant consumerism – is more of a post-WWII phenomenon, but your premise still holds. Humans obviously have been striving for “stuff” after they already had what they needed for a very long time. And there is no doubt that our current level of consumerism is not sustainable – and is not making people happier.

  8. Wynne Leon says:

    This post is brilliant, Jane! As usual, you have synthesized knowledge and ideas into an interesting and thought-provoking post. I find it so comforting in a way to know how little things have changed – it means that some of the things I fret about like the future influence of social media on my kids, while still real, might not be as impactful in the big picture.

    Thank you for a great read!

  9. Rose says:

    I’ve wondered the same thing, Jane. Why haven’t centuries of wise words made a huger difference? That kind of wisdom has been around since people began recording. Yet each person learns it only when they go searching for it. Wisdom does not seem to be common knowledge? I have Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” book, and find it perplexing how centuries of great advice has been ignored.
    And yes, I’m sheepishly guilty of similar ‘children now days’ sentiments, and it frequently occurs to me, that I sound just like the ‘old people’ of my youth.
    Thanks for sharing another interesting blog.

  10. heimdalco says:

    Excellent post that really makes the reader ‘think.’ And, yes, I have recently heard similar comments about today’s youth & thought, “but today it’s worse.” But it isn’t, really. It’s all relative to time & circumstance but remains the same. Very thought provoking as we repeat in OUR reality what has gone before.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Linda. And as we become grandparents and can envision the adolescent lives of our own grandparents, our parents, ourselves, our kids, and now a new generation of young people, we have the advantage of being able to realize that, yes, there are many differences, but mostly those are the trappings. There’s far more that’s the same than is different.

  11. LA says:

    Someone recently asked how she should explain the problems of the world to her son. I said the same way parents did it then years ago, and ten years before that how parents explained it, and ten years and so on….nothing has changed except the particulars. Nice post. Human nature….can’t change it…

  12. Iman Lily says:

    Love all the quotes and I am now following the blog too. I am always amazed at the ability of quotes to say so much, while using few words.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m glad you’re going to follow that blog as well, Lily. I agree completely about the power of some insightful quotes to convey so much with few words.

  13. barryh says:

    Nice selection, Jane. Thanks for pointing me at that quotes blog.

  14. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    The Socratic method.

  15. I had been taking philosophy courses at Acadia and hope to be able to again this Fall and try to follow Socrates, he was indeed quite wise. I am amazed and sometimes dismayed at the conduct of children and parents today.

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