Autism, Socrates and Our Inner Self

Being loyal to ourself

Posted Aug 09, 2016

Socrates in class

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

A few semesters ago in my philosophy class I had a student who told me that he was autistic. At that time my lessons touched on Socrates—whom I felt it could have a negative impact on a person affected by autism. In fact, Socrates himself might have been on the spectrum, too, praising this personal disposition to the extent that he eventually risked his own life in order to be loyal to his autos (which means “self” in Greek).

One day I was in my office and this student came in to review the class material with me and hopefully come to understand a bit better what the concept of authenticity has to do with Socrates’ notion of daimon. The daimon, I explained to him, was for the Greeks, and Socrates in particular, a sort of guardian angel who supports us in fulfilling what we really are or want to be. The daimon is neither right nor wrong because it is the most original source of our sense of morality; the daimon is the source of what we normally are and accordingly of what we normally judge as right and wrong.

Harry Potter and our Daimon

While talking with him I realized that I was about to lose him. His focus was fading. So I stopped and asked him: “What does your daimon generally tell you to do?” “To read Harry Potter,” he answered. “Beautiful!” I said. Then I asked him: “Do you feel good when you read Harry Potter? Do you feel like yourself?” “Yes”, he said, smiling. “I feel calm”.

Content with his answer, I decided to take a small step forward. I explained to him that that dialogue with his daimon was important because it laid down the foundation for an authentic discovery of his true self.

What it Means to Be Authentic

Then I added: “Authenticity should be a word that must be very dear to you” “Why?” he asked. “Well, because this word comes from the same root as your personality trait. You told me to be autistic, right?…Authenticity means being loyal to your autos, your self, and this self is for Socrates the daimon, that guardian angel that tries to bridge your inner essence with the outside world”

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

The Bridge

Then I continued: “It is true that the word autos in Ancient Greek is problematic. In fact, it can simply mean self without any specific reference to a person; or it can relate to an actual person. We chose to name autism after this Greek root because the person who lives in that state of mind is very close to his self and might take issues in going out of it.” At that point, since I have always found metaphors to be powerful tools to explain philosophy, I used the image of a bridge as a metaphor to explain the connection between authenticity and autism. I told him “It is as if you were on one end of a bridge. On the other end of the bridge there’s another person, maybe your friend or your lover. Maybe you would love to meet the other, but this bridge becomes narrower and narrower as you move toward the other end; so it is easier for you to be on the side of your autos—your own end of the bridge. On your end there’s more space and security. That does not mean that you cannot reach the other end or you don’t want to; it’s just that that other end is narrower.”

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

The Intimate Connection

At that point my student interrupted me. He said “Miss Susi, my daimon is happy. He’s laughing now.” I asked him, with a smile, “Do you think we touched him a little bit today”. He said “Yes and now it’s laughing like this” He reproduced the sound. I was really happy that we crossed that bridge together and that his daimon spoke directly to me. It was a beautiful accomplishment. We continued to review the material a little bit more together, then he told me that we was feeling overwhelmed and needed a break.

Later on, when we met each other in class before the weekly lecture, he thanked me many times and in many ways. The funniest of all was when he said to me, “Professor, you’re the Prada of philosophy.” After all I’m Italian, so I care about fashion!

Before the beginning of the semester I was worried about this student. The class was big (almost 50 students) and they were all undergraduates. But this student revealed himself to be one of the best.