Was Socrates the first coach?
The ancient Greek philosophers and coaching
Excellence (aristia) –Prudence (phronesis) – Morals (ethos)
This original article (a shorter one) written by Barbara Asimakopoulou was first published in International Coaching Federation’s blog
The ancient Greek philosophers, motivated by their love of knowledge (the actual word “philosopher” derives from the Greek words “filos” and “Sophia” which mean “friend” and “wisdom” respectively) have been preoccupied with the investigation of the reasons for human existence and the way men should live, so as to be consistent with their reason for being.
Their views widely appealed to the western world and formed the foundation for western philosophy and psychology, influencing the philosophers who followed, from the oldest to the most contemporary ones and inspiring passionate support but not without also being questioned.
Today, most of their views seem to have lost nothing of their lustre and stand out like shining beacons, especially now that the western world is desperately seeking answers in order to relight its fires!!!
In the text below, I refer to Aristotle and Socrates, the principles and practices they bequeathed us, so as to prove that these have a lot in common with the principles and practices of coaching. In addition, I will attempt to prove that Socrates is the first ever coach!!!
Aristotle, a student of Socrates and Plato, the most important philosopher according to some and teacher of Great Alexander, clearly stated why and how men should live.
According to Aristotle we should pursue happiness, well-being or in other words eudaimonia. And a happy life is a life full of virtue!
- A coach urges us to lead a happy life.
According to Aristotle, true happiness is permanent and timeless; it is achieved when people develop and leverage all their capabilities.
- The discovery, development and leveraging of our skills is primarily the aim of an authentic life through coaching.
Our lives’ target is, according to Aristotle, the pursuit of well-being through practicing and developing virtues; Virtues, are our values and models of behaviour which guide us as towards the way we should lead our lives. Excellence (aristia) is related to the virtuous man, who discovers and explores his/her capabilities (his/her self truth) and practices moderation; the principle of the golden median; the doctrine of the median, that is the avoidance of all excess, exaggeration and shortage. Such virtues were valour, bravery, mildness, consistency, generosity and fairness for Aristotle.
Excellence (aristia) is also common in the business world. Excellence for Aristotle does not necessarily imply perfection, as is the widely spread notion dominating our modern society. Excellence for Aristotle has to do with more action and not persistence in perfection.
- A coach focuses on obtaining the appropriate personality, which is compatible with the genuine aims leading to a happy life.
According to Aristotle, phronesis (prudence) is a virtue of the man seeking essential knowledge and its implementation, i.e. action.
- Your coach urges you to change your life, to live with integrity and for this to happen, you have to start practicing it.
Socrates is the first Greek philosopher who investigated human nature and soul.
- The science of coaching puts man and his behaviour at its centre.
Socrates places the quest for truth, which man has buried deep inside him, at the centre of his philosophy,
- Exactly the same way coaching does.
For Socrates, self-awareness is a fundamental principle-value
- Just like in coaching.
Socrates discovers truth through dialogue. This Socratic dialectic method is called “maieutics» (midwifing) because it helps people give birth to the truth –by discovering it forthemselves. Socrates’ mother was a midwife and Socrates used to compare his art of discussion with a midwife’s art. The midwife is not the one giving birth to the child, but the mother. A coach eternally seeks the truth, no matter how difficult it is to discover.
- Coaching is mainly the investigation of truth through dialogue. It is based on the assumption that everybody bears the truth inside them, they only know what is best for them and the coach helps them bring this truth to the surface – to give birth to it.
Socrates aimed at discovering people’s limits and questioning the assumptions on which they built their lives.
- Coaching helps the individual to discover their limits and reposition themselves on new a more truthful basis.
Socrates did not teach, He listened. He made his interlocutors discern on their own the flaws and weaknesses of reasoning.
- A coach does the same.
Socrates believed that philosophers had to see beyond the obvious.
- Coaches hold the same view.
According to Socrates nobody does harm while being aware that what he does is harmful.
- In coaching there are no good or bad coachees, good or bad behaviours.
Socrates gave as a valuable lesson through his agonizing death. Every individual should accept responsibilityfor their own actions.
- A coach is aware and defines, from the very beginning, that the coachee is solely responsible for his/her actions and their consequences.
Socrates believed that every human should live with integrity, that is according to their own true capabilities and desires.
- A coach believes that the best incentive for people to perform difficult acts is for them to discover what truly satisfies them and make them happy.
Socrates believed in a divine voice, conscience, which dictated what is right and what is fair.
- To a coach, a man’s conscience is his true self.
In brief, ancient, Greek philosophy regarding why and how we live is concentrated on the following.
Why: We live for the quest of “well-being”, of the flourishing life (eudaimonia).
How: in a way that we aim at “excellence” (aristia).
Excellence can be the individual who leads a prudent life (phronesis) (seeking the truth, the essential knowledge via actions), or a life of virtue (areti) (median – self-control) and goodwill (eunoia) with good – virtuous intentions and mood. In other words, the person who lives with “ethos”; who is of a moral character.
Harmony and balance is the aim of coaching; harmony is related to integrity and balance to the achievement of the satisfaction deriving from self-realisation. In other words, coaching is related to seeking the “excellence” in us, to discovering and leveraging our best selves.
Finally the ancient Greek philosophers in the past, and modern coaches now seek the “excellence”(aristia) in us not as a homogenous reality but as a unique areti (virtue) to every individual.
The uniqueness of every individual is the magnificence of human superiority and the summit of every older or modern philosophical reflection.