Thursday, December 19, 2013

Listening Like Socrates

I run a philosophy and debate club at my school.  We named the club after Socrates, the father of philosophy.  But that ancient Greek is not only a significant historical figure.  In the club, we try to model our style of debate after his Socratic Method.

One thing that I remind my students of constantly is that argument is not a weapon to cudgel and opponent.  It is a tool to discover truth.  You don't win or lose a debate.  Or rather the only thing that you can win in a debate is knowledge.  The only thing you can lose in a debate is ignorance (to paraphrase both Socrates and Dr. Peter Kreeft).

When Socrates would question the people of Athens to see if they were wise.  He always began in faith.  He assumed that the politicians, priests, and poets that he questions held a secret wisdom of which he knew not.  He asked in all sincerity to be taught by them.  And Socrates really listened.

This is how we know he really listened:  after he heard what they had to say, he would restate their thoughts in his own words.  If he got something wrong, he apologized and tried again.  But when his interlocutor was satisfied with his restatement of their position, it was only then that Socrates would question the truth of their claim.

Socrates was not interested in scoring political points.  He was not interested in setting up straw men to take down.  He was interested in truth.  And because of that, he really wanted to know what the other person meant.  He did not want to attack his own interpretation of what someone said.  That would be like taking a bad, blurry photo of someone and then attacking the person as ugly. 

Another reason that Socrates restated what was being said was because he was not interested in how well or how poorly someone spoke.  He was interested in whether or not they were right or wrong.  Rhetoric was the domain of his persecutors, the Sophists, who were only interested in sounding wise rather than being wise.  That is why Socrates is a "philosopher" which comes form the Greek words for "love" and "wisdom." 

Why take this trip down memory lane to ancient Athens?

Because we need to listen like Socrates more than ever.  Too often, the focus is not on what is said, but rather on how it is said.  Or worst of all, the focus is on who said it. 

Socrates did not care if he was talking with unsullied scholar or an uneducated slave.  If what they spoke was truth, he listened.  If what they spoke was untruth, he refuted them.

It has been noted that Pope Francis was chosen as Time Magazine's Man of the Year.  He has been much heralded as a breath of fresh air into an ancient Church.  But as I have written about several times, it seems to me that people are much less interested in the content of what he says.  Rather they are interested in how he says it. 

In their original article about Francis as Man of the Year, Time stated that he changed Church doctrine.  That had to be immediately retracted.  Once again, this shows great ignorance on those who listen to the Pontiff's words.  The pope cannot change Church doctrine.  He does not have that power.  And yet, the media ignorantly reports it as fact.

The Catholic Church has been open to the possibility of non-Christians going to heaven for a good long while.  Karl Rahner laid out in intricate detail the theory of Anonymous Christianity, which acknowledges that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ but makes clear that a fair God would not condemn someone for something beyond their control.

But there was no attempt to understand the meaning of his words. 

Francis famously said "Who am I to judge?" regarding homosexuals.  This statement alone caused him to become Man of the Year for another magazine: The Advocate.  For those unfamiliar, The Advocate is not a periodical about the Paraclete.  It is a magazine that promotes a homosexual lifestyle.  The article in question praised Francis for being more welcoming and accepting than previous popes.

I don't understand the point, though.

Francis' teaching on homosexuality is exactly the same as the previous popes.  Homosexual actions are sinful.  But having a homosexual orientation is not a sin.  There is nothing about what Francis has said that changes this.  The Advocate argues that he speaks with more compassion than his predecessor, Benedict the Wise. 

But remember how shocked the media was when Benedict said, "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants."

There was little attempt to clarify.  Many in the media were hoping for a sea change in the Church's teaching on contraceptives.  But this was no sea change.  Benedict was talking about love and how it exists inside every human person.  I would venture to say that these were words were about as revolutionary as Francis' "Who am I to judge?" statement, in that they are not revolutionary. 

Let's take a look at a pop culture example.

I do not watch the show Duck Dynasty.  I saw a single episode and didn't care for it.  Many of my friends, however, swear by it.  The people on the show are solid Christians and every episode ends with prayer.  My friends say that it is funny and wholesome at the same time.

The patriarch of the family, Phil Robertson, has been indefinitely suspended from the show for an interview in GQ magazine.  In it he said that he does not find the idea of sex with a man an attractive option (though he does it much more graphic detail).  He said "But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical."

There is nothing about that statement that St. Thomas Aquinas nor the 2013 Advocate Man of the Year would disagree with.  We are made with a certain nature and homosexual sex frustrates that rational design of man.  In other words, it's not logical.  Also notice that he was talking about sin in general.  Sacrificing your immortal soul for temporary pleasure is also not logical.  Sin is now, and has always been, irrational.

GLAAD, the advocacy group that gave Alec Baldwin a pass for his hateful rants, is hyping the fact that Phil compared homosexuality to bestiality.  Yes, that is true.  But he compared them only in as much as they are both sexual sins.  In that article, he lumps homosexual sins with hetero sexual sins as well.  It would be just as logical to accuse him of comparing adultery to bestiality. (hat tip to the great John Nolte for this insight)

If someone asked me if shoplifting was wrong, I would say yes.  If someone asked bestiality was wrong, I would say yes.  But that same logic I could then be accused of comparing shoplifting to bestiality. 

Besides his statement of personal sexual preference, I don't see anything that Phil said that Pope Francis would contradict.  If Socrates could get the both Phil Robertson and Pope Francis, I'm sure he could restate their positions in a way that they would be exactly the same.  And yet one is labeled a homophobe and the other a gay advocate. 


Because too often we judge by appearances, especially the way in which things are said.  I think that rhetoric is important as a way to enflame the hearts of men.  But I am too much of a Socratic to ignore the content of a person's statement for a good sound byte.

But perhaps I am being too unfair.  Perhaps I too am reading into these critics and I am not really listening to them.

If that is the case, I take the position of Socrates and await from you, gentle reader, your wise corrections to my ignorance.  If you can show me that I am wrong, then I will have gained knowledge and become one step closer to being like Socrates.

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