Socrates had two famous students: Plato, of course, but also Xenophon (pronounced as if started with a 'Z'). Plato was more theoretical and literary. Xenophon was more practical, and was actually a pretty amazing leader. In fact, the great management guru Peter Drucker once said that one of Xenophon's books, The Education of Cyrus, was the greatest book on leadership ever written. And having read it now three times, I think he was probably right. But I have a different concern today. And so, let me get to it.
Xenophon explained that what made Socrates such an impressive person was, first, his amazing degree of self-control. Xenophon actually thought of that quality as the basis for all the other many virtues, or strengths, that Socrates displayed. Then, he said, the second most important quality his teacher exhibited was consistency - that he was always thoroughly himself, genuinely and authentically.
Self-Control. Think about it for a second. It's the action or habit of resisting any pressures not to be or do what we know to be right. It's the quality we need to exercise in order to stay consistent with our beliefs, values, and sense of self. It's the ability to stand up to the pull of pleasure or the push of pain when either of these factors threatens to diminish our lives.
Pain and pleasure play big roles in our lives. Most people fight serious battles, accordingly, with fear and desire. Self-control is what it takes to win those battles. Some pains are properly to be feared and avoided. Some pleasures are rightly to be desired and sought. Self-control keeps us safely on our path, helping us to face what we should and reject what would be inconsistent to embrace. It prevents the damage that could happen if we were to act in improper and self-defeating ways, outside the borders of what's right for us, as the individuals we are.
I'm not sure that there is any such thing as perfect self-control in an imperfect world. But I've learned that the more of it we have, the better and stronger we are as we face the challenges and opportunities of life, and as we continue to create ourselves through our choices.
Plato's student Aristotle, who spent a lot of time analyzing human strengths, seemed to think that the chief virtue or strength we have is courage, without which none of the other virtues will ever be exercised in difficult circumstances. And how does courage function? It aids us in self-control, in doing what we know to be right, regardless of the difficulties and dangers that might face us. And that, in turn, yields consistency. But then, when you're a generally consistent person in your habits and history, that aids you greatly in exercising self-control. Again, perfection isn't the goal. But practice is the key.
So, according to Xenophon, the two chief qualities of Socrates, the basis building blocks of his greatness, were self-control and consistency. Properly understood, they can be such building blocks for us, as well.