Socrates For Survival – Forward Observer Shop

Socrates For Survival

I’ve spent a lot of time recently focusing our efforts on the philosophy of ideas. My goal is to help readers begin to recognize—and hopefully overcome—some of the cognitive biases and errors so prevalent within the culture of preparedness. That emphasis on metacognitive considerations will not change any time soon.

Sure, we’re going to get back to training and gear-specific articles, but this has never been a “training” blog anyway. As I—and others—have pointed out repeatedly, any 11B with one enlistment under his belt can teach basic tactics and even—to a basic level—weapons handling methods. My goal has been to move past that level, and provide you some of the thought processes necessary not just to learn and teach those methods, but to discover the underlying principle concepts BEHIND those fundamentals, allowing you to modify them for your specific needs, in a way that is “relevant to reality,” rather than the hyperbolic fantasies of dystopian fiction.

Since we now have the rough beginnings of an education in critical thinking, we will be able to approach the dogma of preparedness with a METHOD of thinking “outside of the box,” that may provide answers to the questions that we should have been asking, had we even known those questions existed. Today’s lesson is The Socratic Method. Don’t worry, Socrates is a nicer guy than Aristotle.

The Socratic Method, often also referred to as Socratic Debate, is a method of inquiry and discussion that serves as a method of hypothesis elimination, through the deliberate asking and answering of questions. It is a tool to stimulate critical thinking and to provide clearer illumination, in an effort to reach “better” or even, “best” hypotheses. This is achieved by identifying and eliminating those competing hypotheses that lead to contradictions.

In its simplest form, the Socratic Method is just a series of questions—often the simplest but most useful being “why?” serving as the predominant question—formulated as tests of logic and fact. It helps us determine where the division exists between actual facts about a subject, versus what are simply our beliefs about that subject.

In the 5th Century BC, there was a class of teachers in Athens, called “sophists.” These men (I know of no evidence for female sophists. Readers?) specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain, impress, and (hopefully) persuade those sons of gentility that could afford their lessons, to accept their arguments. Aristotle credited Socrates with developing an alternative method of using definition, induction, and deduction, to learn and teach. Plato famously formalized the Socratic Method in his earlier Dialogues, portraying Socrates engaging in the method to interrogate his fellow citizens about moral and epistomological issues before becoming more Dialetic in his methods, while Diogenes Laertus credited Protagorus with the development of the method.

The central technique of the Socratic Method is called “Elenchus,” and simply refers to cross-examination for the purpose of refutation. In Plato’s early Dialogues, this cross-examination is the method Socrates used—as one example—to determine the definition of justice. It was comprised of four basic steps:

1) The interlocutor asserts a hypothesis: “We need to have a minimum of one year of food storage,” which Socrates considers false (or incorrect, the two are NOT synonymous) and decides to refute.

2) Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises that are based on the original thesis, such as “We need food or we’ll starve, right?” and “We can’t hunt, because all the rednecks will be out there hunting the same deer, right?” and “the deer will be extinct in a month or two, right?” and “90% of the population of America will die in the first 30 days of a grid-down event, right?”

3) Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor is forced to agree, that these further premises imply that the contrary of the original thesis is more accurate. “We don’t need food storage for one year, because most people will be dead before all the food is gone, and then we can gather what we need, for free.”

4) Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocuter’s thesis is false, and that its negation is true.

The problem of course has been brought to light that, Step Four above is nonsense. Having demonstrated that a given thesis is flawed is not adequate to conclude that some alternative theory MUST be true. Rather, the discussion has reached a state called “aporia”, an improved state of still not knowing the “best,” but having a better understanding of what is not best.

Ultimately, the exact nature of this cross-examination—elenchus—is open to debate. Is it a positive method, that leads to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refuse false claims to knowledge? Socrates, unlike the sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to gaining knowledge was recognition of one’s ignorance—a concept that the vast, vast majority of modern Americans, including in the preparedness culture, could profit from spending some time considering. Socrates claimed that he himself didn’t know anything. The only way he was wiser than other men, he said, was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic Method is to convince the interlocutor that while he thought he KNEW something, he in fact didn’t know much.

This is the value that the Socratic Method offers survivalists.

Socrates generally applied his techniques to those concepts that lacked concrete definitions. These included things like moral concepts, such as courage, justice, etc. This challenged the cherished moral beliefs of the interlocutor, pointing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, ultimately resulting in aporia.

The modern use of the Socratic Method, and Socrates’ use of the method are not equivalent. Socrates didn’t—or at least rarely—used the method to develop consistent theories. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to break down the theories that were held, to go beyond the platitudes we take as “truths.”

Examples of this can be seen in almost every single “truth” we take for granted in modern preparedness culture.


Jim: Small, rural communities are safer retreat locations than large cities, because cities are festering with crime and poverty.

Socrates: Fair enough. Small towns too have crime and poverty, correct?

Jim: Yes, of course.

Socrates: Small town people tend to be closer knit, and people know each other’s business, as well, right? There’s no secrets in small towns?

Jim: Often enough, sure.

Socrates: Large cities often have safe neighborhoods within their boundaries, right?

Jim: I suppose so, sure.

Socrates: A densely packed urban neighborhood, assuming it’s one of the safe neighborhoods, has more people available to mount an adequate defense against aggressors, right?

Jim: Yes, I guess that’s true.

Socrates: In a world of modern, monoculture agriculture, there’s a better chance of finding a warehouse with a variety of food, and manufacturing capabilities to rebuild necessary technology, in a large urban area than in a small community, right?

Jim: Probably, sure….

Socrates: So, perhaps small, rural towns are neither safer, nor more dangerous, than a well-selected neighborhood in a large urban area?

Jim: Well….but……uhm…..

Of course, that’s neither going to end the argument, nor change Jim’s mind about living in the sticks. That’s okay. What Socrates wants for Jim is for him to develop a framework to question his conclusions, and perhaps discover that his preparations are not perfect, or even “better,” and thus have the capacity to overcome those cognitive biases, in order to improve.

Ian: I need a .308 Main Battle Rifle, because it’s “turns cover into concealment!” It’s more accurate at long range!

Socrates: The .308 has better penetration than the 5.56? This makes it a better caliber?

Ian: Yes!

Socrates: You’ve seen the body armor studies that clearly show 5.56 M855 punching through body armor that stopped all the .308 and 7.62×51 they tested, right?

Ian: Uhm…yeah, but….in general, .308 will penetrate stuff that 5.56 won’t!

Socrates: Do you accept that the difference between cover and concealment is that cover stops incoming projectiles, while concealment simply hides you from observation?

Ian: Of course! I’ve read the field manuals!

Socrates: As a “long-range shooter,” I’m sure you are aware that the shooters at Camp Perry have long since discarded .308 as the most common winning caliber in National Match competition, foregoing it for smaller calibers…like 5.56, right? It’s demonstrably true that .308 is NOT more accurate at long-range than 5.56, right?

Ian: Yeah, but that’s just punching paper!

Socrates: If “cover” stops incoming projectiles, but .308 will penetrate it, then your “cover” was always merely “concealment,” and since M855, which is 5.56, will penetrate body armor that stops your .308, and since National Match 1000 yard competition is regularly won with 5.56, then your conclusion is flawed.

Ian: Well, damn…….

Like the above, this one is NOT going to change the mind of the deluded. It’s purpose is as much to illustrate the ignorance of Ian to those who have not been convinced by his naivete, as it is to convert Ian to the Gospel of 5.56.


Stop. Seriously, just stop. Stop assuming that because you read a couple of books by “experts” that you know everything you need to know about preparedness and survival. Question every conclusion you drew from your reading and study. Question the credentials of the “experts.”

A friend and I had a discussion the other day about this. He pointed out that the “experts” have a lot of knowledge. Inarguable. The important question however, is two-fold.

1) Is it knowledge, or is is supposition and belief? Is it predicated on fact and provable history, or is it theory developed through uneducated imagination?

2) If it is, in fact, knowledge, is it relevant to reality?

There has been a tidal wave of change in the preparedness culture in recent years. The teachers available in all areas of preparedness, have grown exponentially. We’ve gone from people who read some books and trained at one or two schools, to combat veterans who have not only trained at those schools, but then actually put their training to the crucible of actual combat testing, day-in and day-out, for multiple tours in actual combat, over a decade-plus.

Instead of just reading the theories of people who lived on small homestead-type hobby farms, and extrapolated what was needed for survival in Dystopia, we have the lessons being taught by people who survived collapsed societies first hand, as well as the teachings and observations of people who have traveled and worked in collapsed societies.

Instead of learning all of our lessons from fantasy dystopian fiction novels, written by—admittedly excellent—students and theorists, we have real-life stories and fiction both, being written by people with real-world experience in “bad situations.”

There is NO reason to maintain the status quo in preparedness. The only “authority” we should owe allegiance to, when it comes to preparing to protect and provide for our families, is Truth, or the closest approximation to that ideal that experience and introspection can provide. Any other “authority” should be—must be—questioned, objectively, until we determine that their premises are flawed, and where those flaws are, in order to determine “better” or “best” alternatives, or until we determine that the premises are—regardless of origin—the “better” or “best” alternatives available.

The Socratic Method is one method of being the “10th Man.”

John Mosby is a former U.S. Army Special Operations soldier. He lives somewhere in the mountains.


  1. Mr Mosby never ceases to impress me, not strictly with his depth of knowledge but with the broadness of his vision. After reading his material I always walk away with more than what I started with. Even after reading the same material numerous times. Very much appreciate Forward Observer’s commitment to bring us top notch info from a top notch staff of writer/do-ers instead of just writers…

  2. wow! towards the end of this article I was in my minds eye thinking about the tenth man before reading the last lines. when a group of people all reach the same conclusion about an issue it should be accepted as factual, until being proven that all of them might be wrong too.

    the truth is vitally important for survival- but I also consider that if an adaptable person is capable of making a lie work for their survival it would be much like using a hammer when just a screwdriver is called for…thank you for the very objective view in thinking about survival. I think that can be used as a tool anyplace in life generally. Thank you.

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