Keep Calm and Carry On: Socrates


I was just recently scheduled for an interview for a three-year academic position. It has taken eighteen years and four months to reach this point. There have been years of study, casual teaching, more study, a PhD, more casual teaching, other work, life and more teaching. It took three months to work on the job application in response to the specific selection criteria. It took another month to collate a teaching portfolio, prepare a sample of writing, and devise a course proposal.

Preparing for the interview felt a bit like preparing for an ancient battle – mapping the terrain, sharpening weapons, preparing strategies and defences. Of course I had no idea who the enemy (I mean the other applicants) were other than that there were a lot of them. I spent weeks working on every stage of the process: researching every aspect of the position; reading academic interview tips and tricks; spending many sleepless nights tossing and turning over answers to every possible interview question; and composing interview answers (even recording my answers and playing them back! Ugh).

Interview day was like entering the battlefield. It truly was an exercise in remaining calm and collected. I had read and reread over all of my materials. I had pestered loved ones for advice and shared my fears and anxieties. I had my outfit sorted, my survival plan for the day (venue for last-minute prep, meals, coffee and chocolate consumption timed for maximum impact, favourite on campus toilet mapped out plus emergency toothbrush). I’m ready. It’s just those few minutes before the big interview when the nerves really kick in and the adrenalin is running high.

The question is how to stay collected and composed enough to think clearly and survive the whole ordeal? Think. Breathe. Perhaps it helps also to think of Socrates. Why not? Our dear friend Socrates. Wise enough to know that he knew nothing, and that no one else really knows anything either. Now I’m thinking of Socrates, the great philosopher, when he was in the midst of war.

It was the battle of Delium in 424B.C. Socrates was a hoplite at the time. The Boeotian forces attacked the Athenians unexpectedly and outmanoeuvred them. The Athenian forces turned to flee. In the middle of this turmoil was Socrates. Alcibiades witnessed the scene and describes it as follows (1):

“In the first place I noticed that he [Socrates] was far cooler than Laches, and next, if I may borrow an expression from you, Aristophanes, that he was using just the same gait as he does in Athens, “strutting along with his head in the air and casting side-long glances”, quietly observing the movements of friend and foe, and making it perfectly plain even at a distance that he was prepared to put up a strong resistance to any attack. That is how both he and his companion got off safe; those who show a bold front in war are hardly ever molested; the attention of the pursuers is concentrated on those who are in headlong rout.”(2)

How much composure would it have taken for Socrates to stay so calm in the face of imminent death, a lost battle, fear and chaos? How much self-control to walk along the broken battle line as if he was strutting through the Athenian marketplace on an ordinary day? More than I needed for my interview to be sure, and that thought alone gave me the courage I needed. So I went in.

  1. Plato, Symposium, 219-222.
  2. Plato, The Symposium (transl. W. Hamilton), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1951, pp. 109-110.
  3. Image courtesy of: Socrates. [Internet]. 2017. The Famous People website. Available from: // [Accessed 19 May 2017].


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