Socratic method still applies

The ancient Socratic method holds lessons for engaging in understanding dialogue even today.

Andrew Oxenham, Writer

One of the quickest ways to alienate a relationship is to shout facts at someone who disagrees with you. Although opinionated types who do the fact-shouting typically justify their relationship-destroying behavior by pointing out the validity of their statements, a quick perusal of Paul’s words in First Corinthians: “If I speak in tongues of angels but I have not love, I have nothing,” indicates that the logical validity of a statement matters little, if at all, when it comes to a relationship. When viewed for their relational benefit, debates become nothing more than a pointless display of ego-building fact-citing.

What, then, is an appropriate way to go about discoursing with someone you do not agree with? In the Greek antiquity, the philosopher Plato transcribed various dialogues between his mentor and fellow philosopher Socrates and other notable Greeks of the time. In these dialogues, both Socrates and his dialoguer go about answering questions and debating whether the answer is true or not using a method which is known today as the “Socratic method.” The method, in its simplest form, is that of using questioning in order to move closer and closer to truth. For example, from “Plato’s Republic” here is Socrates dialoguing with a Greek statesman Polemarchus:

Socrates: And who is best able to do good to his friends and evil to his enemies in time of sickness?
Polemarchus: The physician.
S: Or when they are on a voyage, amid the perils of the sea?
P: The pilot.
S: And in what sort of actions or with a view to what result is the just man most able to do harm to his enemy and good to his friend?
P: In going to war against the one and in making alliances with the other.
S: But when a man is well, my dear Polemarchus there is no need of a physician?
P: No.
S: And he who is not on a voyage has no need of a pilot?
P: No.
S: Then in time of peace justice will be of no use?
P: I am very far from thinking so.

The dialogue continues in this manner, with a central question being examined and various other questions being used to try to get closer and closer to the truth.

Now, you must be asking yourself why on earth am I transcribing a monologue about dead Greek men and their way of talking. The central reason why is so that we, both as literate individuals and Christians, might learn what the Socratic method is and how to implement it to our betterment.

The world is comprised not only of logical facts but also of what one might call the emotional realm: a part of the world comprised by feelings and emotions. Often times, in one’s eagerness to win a debate, one blatantly ignores this realm, treading over an individual’s feelings in an effort to win the debate, or prove a point.
The Socratic method can assist tremendously with this problematic tendency. If an individual can walk down the path of knowledge using the Socratic method, there is very little chance that he will do any relational damage to his opponent. The mindset shifts, and one stops considering the other person as an “opponent” and instead as a fellow traveler searching for truth.

Lastly, it may be wondered what attributes comprise this Socratic method. The answer is simple to define, but difficult to put into practice. Essentially, what is required for the Socratic method to be successful is an open mind; open, not only to differing possibilities but also to the possibility that one may be wrong. Without this mindset, the Socratic method is nothing more than a revised argument, where one tries to best his opponent using better questions. However, if the two discussants both have an open mind, willing to be wrong, they both can pursue truth together, going wherever the discussion takes them.

Strict adherence to this method will thus not only increase one’s virtue but will also keep good relationships intact while allowing for good conversation and lively discussion to take place.

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