Saturday, January 25, 2014

Becoming Socrates

There are many types of people needed in the world: doctors, priest, mothers, fathers, farmers, etc.  And throughout history we've seen the rise and fall of many great and terrible people.

But today's modern world is in desperate need of a Socrates.

I am a news junkie.  And yet I find myself falling more and more into disgust with how we present and pursue the truth.  Stories are covered but the reporters push an agenda.  Even in debates between people on opposite sides, no one really listens to each other.  They should their talking points past each other, asking questions without listening to answers and listening to answers only to find a sound bite with which to attack their opponents

I saw a clip of prime time news host asking a theologian where in the Gospels Jesus ever condemned "gay marriage."  The theologian gave an incredibly cogent and detailed answer that explained exactly how Jesus' marriage morality excludes to people of the same sex being married.  But the host didn't ask for clarification.  He did not seek to deepen his understanding.  He simply attacked without comprehending what his opponent said.  This method I find very typical in today's media, be it on the news, in the Twitterverse, or just in the classroom.

I find this very depressing.

At my school I run a club dedicated to the model Socrates left behind for argument and debate.  Most schools have a formal forensics class that teaches how to speak, rebut, and deliver arguments with all power of rhetoric.  We don't do that in my club.

In his day, Socrates was surrounded by people who would be later called the Sophists.  These were ones who sounded wise but really were not.  These were the educated, cultured, and powerful.  Socrates was a blue-collar stone cutter who got the call late in life to pursue philosophy.  The oracle at Delphi told Socrates' friend Chaerephon that there was no one wiser than Socrates.  The stone cutter then made it his life-long mission to find someone wiser.


Because Socrates knew he was a moron.  I say this with all respect, but I think Socrates would agree.  He could not believe that no one was wiser than he, when he didn't have any real wisdom.

Socrates then set out to find a wise man.  It was during this time that he discovered what is now called the Socratic Method and he also discovered the laws of logic (later formalized by Aristotle).   He would find someone who claimed to have wisdom.  He would then ask them to explain their wisdom.  For example, politicians said that they were wise about justice.  Priests said that they were wise about piety.  Poets said that they were wise about poetry.  Socrates would listen to them until he completely understood what they were saying.  Socrates demonstrated this by restating this person's ideas in his own words to the satisfaction of his interlocutor.

Then Socrates would begin to ask clarifying questions where he found either undeveloped ideas or contradictions.  This usually resulted in the person who thought they were wise realizing that Socrates was exposing their ignorance.

Socrates was never able to find anyone with wisdom.  Everyone who claimed to have wisdom crumbled under his investigation.  It was only after many years that he realized the meaning of the Oracle's statement: there is no one wiser than Socrates.  The oracle did not say that Socrates was wise.  Socrates knew he wasn't wise.  But if no one is wiser than Socrates and Socrates is not wise, then no one is wise!  The only difference Socrates saw between himself and the people he questioned was that they thought they were wise but weren't.  Socrates knew he wasn't wise and that knowledge gave him more wisdom than anyone.

Because of Socrates' pursuit of truth, he laid down the foundation of formalized logic and rational investigation.  From this we have the essence of all of the hard sciences and even rational theology.  Socrates transformed the Western world in a way that is dwarfed only by Jesus Christ (and the early Church Fathers).

We need more people like Socrates today.  He was not dedicated to an ideology, a political party, or to the majority opinion.  In the end, the majority opinion of Athens was in favor of executing him.  But Socrates willingly took this road because he believed truth was worth it.

Socrates was honest not just in the passive sense, but the active sense.  He was someone who did not lie, which how we can be all passively honest.  But he was active in his pursuit of the truth wherever it took him.  For him, honesty was not simply excluding untruths but also seeking out what is true.

But Socrates is long dead.  If we want another Socrates in this world, it will have to be one of us.  One of us should take up this mantle and lead the way.

So how does one become Socrates in the modern world?

I have a few steps to doing so.

1.  Be curious.  Aristotle once said that only gods and beasts don't have questions.  Gods don't question because they know everything.  Beasts don't ask because they're too stupid.  Well I am not a god.  So my lack of questions might point to my own stupidity.  Sometimes it is difficult to motivate curiosity in the big questions like metaphysics or epistemology.  I would start with whatever fascinates you.  I remember I once spent a few hours figuring out the science of air conditioners.  I was always fascinated by the idea of making the air colder.  I did research and I was fascinated.  This led to more questions and it whet my appetite for more learning.

2.  Start with belief.  This is not a statement about religious faith.  Socrates always sought out people because they claimed wisdom.  And he sought them out because he started in a state of credulity.  If they said they had wisdom, Socrates would begin by taking them at their word.  If someone says that they have the solution to fixing schools or the drug war or the priest shortage, start with the assumption that they have something wise to say.  If you start by assuming they are wrong, you will never fully understand their idea.

 I had a student say to me recently, "Doesn't the big bang theory disprove God?"  (I assume he was talking about the scientific idea that the universe began at a single point and time in space, not the hit CBS situation comedy that should have originally been called "4 Nerds and a Hot Chick.")  I could have responded with a simple "no," and went into a long exposition about science and theology being compatible.  Instead, I said something akin to: "That is very interesting.  How?"  He thought about it for a moment and realized he had no basis for his claim.  This brings us to our next point

3.  Ask to clarify, not to attack.  In the above example, I actually wanted to hear why he believed such a theory would disprove his faith.  When you are speaking with someone, especially on a topic of disagreement, if it is possible, do not begin by asking questions that seek to refute their point.  That comes later.  Before you can properly refute any argument, Socrates taught us that you must understand it.  The only way you can understand it is if you have the same idea in your mind as the person with whom you are speaking.

Recently a Hollywood celebrity said that opposition to abortion should also include protecting the life of the male sperm.  Her point (it would seem) was to be controversial and outrageous with vulgar images to mock those who are pro life.  Perhaps I am wrong, though.  Socrates would ask this person a few questions like: What is human life?  When does it begin?  Are all parts of the human organism human life?  If so is it always/never okay to kill that life?  Is there any difference between human life and the human person?  If so, what is it?

After this point?

4.  Find a common definition.

In the example above, Socrates would ask questions until he could restate her position in a way that she would agree with, for example, "Since no one believes that killing microscopic human cells, like sperm, is murder, then the killing of microscopic human embryo cells."  But Socrates would not stop until he had a definition that she agreed with.

I have found in the classroom and in our debates, the main source of much disagreement is the fact that we fail to properly define our terms.  For example, when debating "gay marriage," it sometimes hinges on the word "love."  But the idea in mind in both parties can be different.  One is thinking romantic attachment.  The other is thinking Godly charity.  In arguing tax policy, people often use the term "fair."  But one could mean "equality of opportunity" and another "equality of results."

In order to avoid these conflicts and find truth, a common definition should be chosen.  If we both have the same thing in mind, then we can begin to move to the next step.

5.  Test the idea.  As we stated, Socrates began with belief.  Only after he understood the idea would he begin to probe its truth.  The first thing to do is check for logical inconsistencies.  I had a student who disbelieved the existence of hell.  I asked if they believed in the existence of Heaven.  They said yes because Jesus said there was a heaven.  But I asked, "If you believe in Heaven because Jesus said so, why do you disbelieve in hell if Jesus said that existed as well?"

After that, check to see if the idea has a consequence that is ridiculous.  For example, "If there is no hell, then everyone is forced to go to heaven?  Does that mean that our free will has no meaning?  If so, doesn't that mean that love has no meaning?"

6.  Open Your Mind.  One of the great things about Socrates was that he did not have an agenda.  He really wanted someone to teach him wisdom.  If he ever found it, he would have rejoiced.  Nowadays, we mostly use arguments as weapons to bludgeon our opponents, not as tools to discover truth in others.

If I am not open to having my mind changed, then what is the point of the dialogue?  I told my students that the reason that I am Catholic is that I believe that the fullness of truth is found in the Roman Catholic Church.  If I did not believe that, I would be Catholic.  I want to be honest the way Socrates was.  I want to actively pursue truth.  I have had students leave the Church.  I then ask them, and I do so sincerely (though I don't think they believe it so), to teach me the truth they learned that pulled them out of the Church.  They must have learned some deep truth, I tell them, because rejecting Christ and His Church simply out of distaste is illogical.

I admit that changing your mind can be an unpleasant experience.  But is immensely satisfying.  And this leads us to the last step to becoming Socrates.

7.  See Lesson One.  Even after the argument ends, we should remember that we still only human and there is much more truth and wisdom to learn.  Socrates never stopped.  Socrates used every moment, even his last few moments pursuing the great mysteries.  And he did so with joy and great humor.  In fact, his last words were a joke.  He jumped into the great beyond seeking the truth on the other side.

But while we remain on this side of the undiscovered country we should imitate the great master Socrates.

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