What Socrates Taught Us About Business

Sometimes I rant and rave on this channel about topics they do not teach you about in business school, but they should. I get so upset about it because these are so important for businesspeople to know. Today we are covering one of those topics. We are going to talk about Socrates and what he taught us about business. WATCH NOW

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Socrates was a Greek philosopher. Most people have heard the name Socrates, but most people do not know the story about why he is so famous. Socrates was put to death by his own community for speaking the truth. If you have not heard this story before, you will want to hear this because it is shocking.

Socrates lived in Athens, the world’s first democracy. Everything was done by vote. Socrates was a philosopher, and he was fascinated with getting at the truth. Socrates realized a problem where the popular vote was not always the truth. You may have heard about the Socratic method, which is basically questioning someone until you can reach the truth of their argument. Of course, this caused a lot of frustration for the politicians at the time. Socrates would question their actions, and often make them look like fools.

At the time, Athens was in a tense political state. The country was highly divided between the two political parties and facing threats from outside nations. Tensions were high. The politicians in charge wanted to keep people in line. They wanted to wipe out any dissent or criticism of the government. They obviously hated when Socrates would go around town and point out their failures. In fact, Socrates was becoming quite popular. Young people would follow Socrates around and listen to his teachings, because they loved seeing Socrates hold these politicians accountable. These powerful people were watching Socrates turn their own children against them.

Socrates was arrested and charged with two crimes: 1) corrupting Athens’ youth with crazy ideas and 2) not believing in Greek gods. These were obviously phony charges, that the politicians could have brought against anybody. This was not about the charges. The politicians wanted to force Socrates to comply. They were sending a message. They were in power, and Socrates needed to shut his mouth, or they would use the power of the court to shut it for him. The punishment for not believing in Greek gods was death. Socrates did not back down. Socrates cared about the truth, and he was not going to lie or stay silent to protect crooked people in power.

The trial started. This was a trial about truth versus power. Everyone in Athens knew the charges were false. This trial would determine whether the people in power were going to be able to silence a critic.

The politicians were backed into a corner. They did not want to look like fools. Everyone knew they were abusing their power. The politicians gave Socrates every opportunity to back down. They begged him to accept a plea deal. They told Socrates to just admit guilt, take a lesser punishment, stop speaking out, or go into exile. Do not make us kill you. Socrates refused and stood for the truth.

The politicians were not ready for this. Anyone else would have backed down. Anyone else would have gone along with the people in power to save their own life. But not Socrates. He would rather die, than live a lie.

The trial took place in 399 BC. Even though this event happened over 2,000 years ago, we have the dialog from the trial written down by Socrates students. We have a really good idea what happened. The trial only took a day. It was an obvious a sham of a trial because there was not much of a lengthy evaluation of the issues. The jury took a vote. Remember, Athens was a true democracy. So, the entire community was part of the jury. The outcome of the case would be decided by the popular vote. The community gathered and took a vote on whether Socrates was guilty. It was a razor thin margin, but the people in power won, and Socrates was declared guilty of all charges. Everyone knew it was a sham. Everyone knew it was a lie. But the politicians wanted to show that they were in charge, and no mattered what the truth was, Socrates had to do what they ordered, or they would kill him.

So, they gave Socrates one more chance. They begged him again, “Do not make us kill you.” They gave him the opportunity to choose his own fate, to go into exile, stay silent, or go away.

Socrates responded by saying this, “I go away, condemned by you to pay the penalty of death, while they have been convicted by the truth of wretchedness and injustice. And I abide by my penalty, and so do they…”

“If you suppose that by killing human beings you will prevent someone from reproaching you for not living correctly, you do not think nobly. For that kind of release is not at all possible or noble; rather, the kind that is both noblest and easiest is not to restrain others, but to equip oneself to be the best possible…”

“But now it is time to go away, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to a better thing is unclear to everyone except to the gods.” (Plato’s Apology of Socrates)

Socrates, of his own free will, chose to die for his principles. He chose to die for the truth. And he pointed out to everyone, that even though the rest of the community got to live, they were actually worse off, because they had to live surrounded by their own corruption. Socrates knew that by his death, it proved to the community the depravity of their society that they would kill one of their own people when they knew he was innocent.

Socrates was taken to prison to await his death. The half of the community that voted in Socrates favor came to the prison to keep him company during his last few hours. His friends opened the doors to the prison, urging Socrates to escape. They begged him, “Please do not make us kill you. Don’t make us evil.” But Socrates was not making them evil. They made themselves evil, by voting as a community to kill Socrates. Socrates refused to escape, accepted his fate, and was killed.

Socrates words were prophetic, because after his trial, the people lost all faith in their leadership and form of government. Sixty years later, within one generation, the entire Greek empire collapsed and was unable to defend themselves from the invading Macedonian army. It only took one generation for society to collapse.

Now you might be wondering at this point, “Zach, what does this have to do with business?” The story of Socrates has everything to do with business. In business school we learn to make decisions based on what makes the most money. Socrates taught us, that there is also something else you must consider. You should also make decisions based on what is right. Just looking at the benefits to you, is not enough.

So let us ask the question as businesspeople, “Did Socrates make the correct decision?” Was it the right thing to do, to die for his principles, or should he have bended to political pressure and lived a lie? He certainly did not make any money from it. In fact, it cost him his life. Why in the world would you do the right thing if it costs you so much?

From a historical perspective, looking back at the events of the trial from 2,000 years into the future, it seems clear that he made the right decision. No one even remembers who those politicians are, but we are all sitting here today talking about Socrates. Socrates is an example of one man, in one moment, changing the course of human history. Socrates taught the world through his actions of what it means to do the right thing. Socrates is the reason, why in the United States we have separation of powers and an independent judicial branch to keep political corruption from impacting jury decisions. The United States would not exist today without Socrates.

Let me explain why all of this is important. As a businessperson, you will come across ethical dilemmas at work. What do you do if you see your boss committing sexual harassment? Do you say anything? What if you see them stealing? Or causing environmental dumping? Or lying to investors? These are things that you see happening in the newspaper every single week. These things are common and will likely happen to you at work. You are going to have to decide what to do about it. If you stand up to your boss, it will hurt you financially and hurt your career. Will you say something? Only you can answer that question. Why would you stand up for what is right if it is going to hurt you? I would encourage you to remember Socrates, who stood up for what was right, knowing it cost him his life.

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Neither Zach De Gregorio or Wolves and Finance shall be liable for any damages related to information in this video. It is recommended you contact a CPA in your area for business advice.

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