Across the rolling planes on the outskirts of Athens, a lone figure traversed in search of truth, man’s purpose, and the meaning of life. Constantly questioning the state of things—from what it means to be courageous, to the value of sacrifice, to why the sun is as quick to bless our faces with its warmth as it is to hide behind looming storm clouds. People traveled far and wide to witness the exploits of Socrates and experience the man who dared ask: why?
“I neither know nor think I know”
Socrates understood the value of a flexible mind. Those set in their ways close the doors to discovery. Truth is found in every aspect of the world, yet it is hard to come by when one voluntarily blinds oneself to a narrow path of thought. For Socrates, acceptance is the first—and hardest—step towards progress.
To begin the journey towards objectivity, one must accept the fact that they know nothing. To know something means to understand it perfectly and completely. As we all have our own life experiences, biases, and skewed perceptions of reality, it is impossible to truly know something for what it is. The human element muddles this a bit.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t get close.
It is in the melting pot of ideas, beliefs, opinions, and hearsay where we find the truth. Picking up on the assumptions which make each of these beliefs real to some, and spurious to others, allows the questioner to reveal their foundations, and test how sturdy the rock actually is.
This is what is known as ‘elenchus’; it traditionally took form in a dialogue using short, direct question-and-answer bouts in order to chip away at the stones of an argument. At some point, the questioning would get so precise and the answers so minute that each participant was left scratching their head, wondering if they were even following. As Richard Robinson once remarked, the use of elenchus “is to wake men out of their dogmatic slumbers into genuine intellectual curiosity.”
An example of elenchus at work went like this:
- An interlocutor proclaims: “Courage is endurance of the soul.”
- Socrates decides whether this thesis could be false, and targets it with a refutation.
- The interlocutor is asked if he agrees with certain premises in addition to the original. For example, can it also be said that courage is a virtuous thing, and that displaying endurance for its own sake is not virtuous? Let’s say the interlocutor agrees with these statements.
- Agreement with the additional premises actually creates a contradiction with the original thesis; in this case—if it is indeed virtuous—courage cannot be the endurance of the soul.
- By way of logic, the original thesis has to be false while its negation is true. This leads the interlocutor to refine the thesis: courage is a wise/necessary endurance of the soul, and thus the questioning is repeated to exhaustion…
This strategy may come off as nitpicking, but it is the essence of understanding a person’s viewpoints. Why do they think the way they do? What could be influencing their conclusions? What can I learn from their method of reasoning that is lacking in my own? Asking ‘why’ is paramount to not only ‘picking apart’ an argument to its bare bones, but to also understand a point of view alien to your own—a chance not seen too often in today’s discourse.
Never Stop Questioning
Similar methods of questioning were often implemented in high school curricula. ‘Socratic circles’ would be used to discuss books’ themes, motifs, author intentions, and even historical events. These were attempts to challenge students, to get them to interact and actually listen to one another. It was neither a debate nor an argument, but rather a chance to question others, to get to the root of what they think and why. In the end, it brought us closer to one another. Instead of just absorbing the information presented—for the sake of a good grade or otherwise—we were challenged to think for ourselves, and with one another.
It seems that these days students are more likely to be told what to think than how. Education has become a tool for authority to shape youth rather than to inspire Socratic thought. This isn’t a new idea: restriction of speech has always been utilized to shape outcomes.
A Growing Pattern
One of the more renowned cases involved Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt who wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. The principal suspended the duo, which led to the students protesting the action. The issue was taken all the way to the Supreme Court and became what is known now as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The majority stated that an individual’s right to free speech and expression is not terminated once they arrive at school. This unfortunately hasn’t prevented all limits on speech and thought, however.
Current infringements on students’ ability to speak freely and question the status quo can be seen with a string of public schools and colleges hiring companies to monitor students’ social media accounts to look out for anything they may label as unappealing or ‘concerning.’ These violations seem to only become more prevalent year after year; schools are silencing or threatening to withhold graduation to those they deem purveyors of misinformation or intrusive questioning—they don’t want people to think for themselves, for fear that conclusions may be drawn which run contrary to their own.
Elenchus was never meant to be a comfortable experience; if it is, you’re definitely doing it wrong. But this is vital if we are to have a conscientious society. A society of people who not only think for themselves, but also are able to consistently question and explore what is being told to them by figures of authority: academics, corporate media, the government. A free society depends upon strong independent thinkers; maybe it’s time to bring back a little Socrates in our lives, and ask ‘why?’