The Four Steps of the Socratic Tradition

In Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, we explore the philosophies of the Socratic Tradition and how people follow them today – you can find out more about particular philosophies within the tradition by clicking on the buttons above. I suggest that all the philosophies in the Socratic Tradition follow Four Steps:


We can know ourselves
We can change ourselves
We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting
We can use philosophy to create more flourishing lives

Steps 1, 2 and 3 are the basis for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and are supported today by a convincing empirical evidence base. As I explore in the book, the inventors of cognitive therapy – Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – were both inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, and used their ideas and techniques as the basis for cognitive therapy. Let’s go through the first three steps.


CBT has built up a convincing body of evidence to suggest that most humans can learn to identify their unconscious beliefs, values and attitudes, through a process of Socratic self-examination. This self-examination can take place with others, through Socratic dialogue or group discussions; or it can take place on your own, through the use of the journal. We see the world through the prism of our unconscious beliefs, values and attitudes. But this prism doesn’t have to be a prison. We can bring our beliefs and values into consciousness, hold them up to the light of reason, and ask ourselves if they make sense.


No matter how little control we have over our situation, we almost always retain the power to choose what we believe. We can’t choose what situation we’re in, but we can choose how we interpret that situation. This is the basis of human freedom. And when we choose not to accept an old habitual attitude, when we choose to accept a new belief, a new way of seeing things, then, eventually, our emotions will follow our new belief.

This is the essence of the cognitive theory of emotions, which is shared by all the philosophies of the Socratic tradition. It’s also the basis of Buddhism, and of cognitive therapy. Our emotions follow our beliefs and attitudes. When we change our beliefs, we change our emotions. We can choose how we react to the things that happen to us.

STEP 3: We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting

According to some ancient philosophies and to contemporary cognitive psychology, humans have ‘dual processor’ minds. They have two systems in their mind, one is automatic, habit-based and emotional, the other is rational and conscious. The automatic mind is much faster and uses less energy than the rational-conscious mind. For that reason, we use it much more often. As Socrates put it, most of us sleepwalk on automatic pilot through the whole of our life.

For philosophy to work, it needs to work with both the rational-conscious system and the automatic system. We need to make the automatic conscious, and then make the conscious automatic.

In Steps 1 and 2, we make the automatic conscious. We bring our automatic habits of thinking and feeling into consciousness, considering them rationally, and then challenging them if they don’t make sense. In Step 3, we make the conscious automatic. It’s not enough to arrive at a clever idea or have an occasional epiphany. You need to repeat your ideas and insights until they become ingrained as automatic habits.

We make the conscious automatic using many of the philosophical techniques we explore in the book: memorisation, repetition, maxims, incantation, role models, behavioural fieldwork – and also by creating relationships and communities that reinforce our new values. Humans are intensely social creatures, so, in order to make the conscious automatic, we need to surround ourselves with people who share our new values. Otherwise we’ll say one thing and behave completely differently, according to the values of the people we’re surrounded by. You need to be a Stoic master to resist the influence of the people around of you. Most of us aren’t that strong.

STEP 4: We can use philosophy to create more flourishing lives

This is where things become a bit more complicated. This is where values, ethics and subjective judgements come in, when you try to decide what exactly makes a life flourishing.

Steps 1, 2 and 3 don’t teach ‘values’ so much as ‘thinking skills’. They teach you how to know yourself and how to change yourself, without telling you what you should change yourself into. You could follow Steps 1, 2 and 3 and still be completely immoral (or what I would consider immoral). You could be a highly rational bank-robber, for example. These steps only teach you means, not ends. So you could use those means for morally dubious ends. Step 4 is about the end or goal of philosophy: what is the good life, what is the good society. Steps 1, 2 and 3 tell you how to drive the self. Step 4 tells you where to drive it to.

All the philosophies in the Socratic Tradition follow Step 4. But they all take it in different directions. They have differing conceptions of the good life – some think the end of life is to have a good time, others think the end of life is to bring yourself into harmony with God. And they have differing conceptions of the philosopher’s relationship to society – some think the philosopher should leave the masses to their delusions without trying to change them, while others think the philosopher should try and mould society according to their particular vision of the good.

Empirical science has provided some useful evidence for Steps 1, 2 and 3, and for the techniques involved in those steps. Because of that, and because they don’t teach values but rather ‘thinking skills’, I think it is acceptable and appropriate for governments and corporations to teach these skills to citizens and employees. I also think that Step 4 can be taught, but only if you show that Step 4 can be taken in several different directions.

We should resist the idea that science can ‘prove’ one particular model of the good life, and therefore this version can be imposed upon an entire country without their consent. Empirical science cannot ‘prove’ that one particular version of Step 4 is objectively true, no matter what some over-exuberant well-being scientists may claim. For one thing, science can’t measure if there’s a God nor if a person is close to it – which is an important part of many people’s definition of well-being. It’s also impossible for scientists to measure how a person actually lives and how their life impacts on others’ lives (unless they employ private detectives to follow them around).

So we have to accept there is a limit to what scientific questionnaires can tell us about the good life – although it can still tell us much that is useful. There is, I believe, a crucial role for our own practical ethical reasoning in deciding what the good life is for ourselves. We need to balance empirical psychology with practical philosophy.

We also need to find the right balance between the Greeks’ idea of the good life, and the liberal insistence on freedom, practical reasoning, autonomy, and our right to choose our own path in life. What I have tried to put forward in the book is a synthesis, combining evidence-based well-being techniques with ethical discussion of values and ends, balancing empirical science with the arts and humanities. This is the educational approach to the good life I’d like to develop.