Socrates and Civility

by Frank Muller

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Thousands of years ago an ancient Athenian philosopher named Socrates developed what has come to be known as the “Socratic Method”. This was designed as a teaching technique for his students and remains now as then the most effective method of drawing open minds to the Truth.

Let us first discuss this premise of an “open” mind. No progress in the intellectual, moral, spiritual, athletic life (or any other human endeavor) will advance to mastery without openness to change. This openness is much more than just a willingness to listen, it is a desire to learn Truth by becoming conformed to it regardless of the pain or sacrifice required to obtain it.

That by definition means that one must always be ready to accept change. When one refuses to consider change “I just don’t like change”, then we are trapped within our own self-imposed prison. It is not Truth we are actually after; we are looking for the comfort our own deception provides.

This latent desire to become God (that is one who does not and cannot change) is the slavery that separates us from Truth. Truth is God and when we set aside the Truth for our own comfortable half-truth and/or unwillingness to change to it we then separate ourselves from God and Truth.

Socrates correctly identifies that the path to learning is to understand our own contradictory opinions and flawed premises. Truth as a matter of concept is that which possesses nothing contradictory, and its’ premises are not flawed in any way. Truth may be mysterious at times, but it is always still objectively true.

Therefore, the first step in teaching is to ask the uncomfortable questions. This process of helping another to see their own contradictions and flawed reasoning is at the heart of real learning. Almost every view we hold is premised upon other assumed views and those views are premised upon others and so on. If our foundation is flawed, then the entire house of beliefs crumbles under Truth.

This is the deductive reasoning of first cause. We help the student peel back each layer of intentionally assumed or ignorantly assumed premises. This is designed to help the student (if their minds are truly open to truth) to learn through this process the flaws in their thinking (or the strengths of their thinking) in order to progress to ever greater first causes or premises of a thing.

This is teaching people “how” to think, not “what” to think. Whenever we are being told “what” to think, we should immediately begin by seeking to help the person flesh out their assumptions and premises and test them against reason and the known facts.

It is precisely this skill that our schools have largely abandoned as it is easier to simply teach “what” they need to know then rather teach people “how” to know what is true. Very often, it is the teacher themselves who may be wrong and without a student challenging the premises then all the students including the teacher become victimized by a half truth or lie.

Thus, the student and the teacher become joint voyagers in discovering truth and changing according to its’ discovery. From flawed or inconsistent reasoning comes the process of discovering principals that are true, and it is to those principals we must become obedient. Principals are foundational premises that are fully true and thus lead us to the next step in the discovery of Truth.

It is our inconsistencies and our flaws and our sins that actually bring us to Truth and Goodness. This beautiful and hopeful irony defeats evil and ignorance to the direct proportion that we are willing to submit our wills and views to the obedience to Truth. When we hide or obfuscate our flaws and sins in order to hide them behind the bush that we separate ourselves from reason and beauty. This process of confession is the salve of liberation that frees us to love.

In our culture today, we prioritize our opinions and guesses and speculations over facts, reason and knowledge. Oh, for sure we all claim facts, reason, and knowledge but in order to protect the lie or half-truth we avoid any conversation that carefully dissects our premises and contradictions. This is why we yell, point fingers, watch or listen only to our comfortable half-truths and politely tell people “We just agree to disagree”.

Socrates influenced and guided the work of Aristotle and Plato and the roots of most all classical philosophy is tied to this Athenian school of interlocutors who learned by teachers simply asking questions so that both teacher and student pursued the Truth together no matter how long, how hard, or how difficult the change may be if the truth differs from our prior views.

Linked above is a terrific book by a Ward Farnsworth who is Dean of the University of Texas at Austin Law School. This book outlines from a practical perspective how to begin to practice the Socratic Method not just with others, but much more importantly with ourselves.

This is the real calling of Socrates which is a fully self-examined soul. When we ponder carefully and deliberately the things, we claim to believe we must always ask ourselves “is that really true?”. We must look for the assumptions we have made and check whether those assumptions have inherent contradictions.

Do we follow the chain of facts regardless of where they lead and once there, do we change to fit the Truth? We become wise in the direct proportion that we become humble enough to argue with ourselves and seek strenuously to see if any of our assumed beliefs are actually assumptions, and not foundational and non-contradictory principals.

For many of us, the first step is to develop this inner Socratic method before we try it with others. The best teacher has already thoroughly and intimately examined every aspect and weakness of their own arguments and go looking for better answers before they ever start teaching others.

The best teachers ask their best students the very same questions they asked themselves and hold themselves to a higher standard of compliance with the Truth. When we do this in our daily lives, we find very quickly whose mind is open, and whose mind is closed. The question for us all is whether our minds are actually open?

An open mind is freedom. A closed mind is prison.

May Peace be with us all.

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