The Death of Socrates

“Modern man does not have an answer to the question of why. Our society is the first one that simply does not give us any answer to the problem of suffering except a thousand means of avoiding it.” -Peter Kreeft

During my college career, the importance of the Socratic method was imposed upon me in several of my classes. For a history teacher, it would seem that one of the bread and butter lessons plans involved using it as a class activity. I will be honest. I never really understood why (ironic I know) I should do it. Yes, I understood that questioning is a good thing and that the Socratic format lent itself to getting students to talk about history beyond dates and names, but I never got the underlying reason for it’s existence. More often then not, I just simply saw it as a way to fill a lesson and check off the requirements imposed on me by state learning targets. It was a means to end, not an end itself. Obviously, no one really taught me why the Socratic method is important. I’m not talking about why it’s important for teaching, but why it is important to the human soul.

KNOCKING

As a teenager, C.S. Lewis was sent by his father to William Kirpatrick for tutoring. Kirpatrick was known as the Old Knock and Lewis at first thought he was in for a “perpetual lukewarm shower bath of sentimentality”. Much to Lewis’ surprise he received quite the opposite when he stepped off the train to meet Kirpatrick:

Apparently, however, the old man was holding his fire. We shook hands, and though his grip was like iron pincers it was not lingering. A few minutes later we were walking away from the station. “You are now,” said Kirk, “proceeding along the principal artery between Great and Little Bookham.” I stole a glance at him. Was this geographical exordium a heavy joke? Or was he trying to conceal his emotions? His face, however, showed only an inflexible gravity. I began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected. “Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?” -From Surprised by Joy

With in the first fifteen minutes the Old Knock cut right through the fluff and got the point. The things we say aren’t meaningless. There is meaning and belief that is tied much deeper in our thinking that leads to the words that come out of our mouths. The problem is that so often we don’t bother to think about “why we say what we say”. We just say it. The Old Knock questioned Lewis relentlessly throughout his time with him. Lewis loved every minute of it. It’s not hard to see that without the Old Knock Lewis may never have reached the philosophical heights of Mere Christianity and the Abolition of Man. Through the relentless questioning, Lewis’ beliefs were sharpened and he became able to cut away those beliefs that failed the test.

And this is the heart of the Socratic method. It is a tool used to discard faulty beliefs and sharpen true ones. And this only comes by questioning.

SACRIFICING TRUTH FOR AUTHENTICITY

Why is it then, that I was taught how to use the Socratic method instead of being taught why we use the Socratic method? I attended college in the mid-2000s and American culture was already beginning to walk in the “Age of Authenticity” as Charles Taylor puts it. It is the:

“…social imaginary of expressive individualism” —the “understanding . . . that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside”

My generation, and even more so the generation after me, grew up not with a knowledge of seeking what is true, but rather we grew up with the idea we should seek what is authentic. We are the “self-esteem” and “you can be anything you want to be” kids. We were told that our limits were only the limits of our dreams. That is, I should be spending my life by defining my own significance and not conforming to past patterns, regardless of their truthfulness. It’s not just “being” myself, it’s becoming what I want to be. In order for this to be possible, all other constraints must bow, specifically that anyone would challenge my personal idea of significance.

Now we can begin to see why the Socratic method has been turned into some spineless abomination we use simply to pass the time in a high school history class… We are afraid of it. Because in the Age of Authenticity my ideas and beliefs become my identity. They are part of me personally. This is different than holding a deep conviction. For if someone really believes and values the pursuit of truth then even deep convictions may find themselves under the chopping block. But in the Age of Authenticity, to challenge an idea means that we are also challenging someone personally. The result of this shift is that we are perpetually outraged and offended when we are questioned. We take it personally instead of letting our ideas stand separate from who we are as an individual.

The consequences of this are dire. We have traded the pursuit of truth for the idol of “being whatever we want to be” in the fullest sense. Not only has truth been utterly marginalized through relativizing it, but we have destroyed any real way of having a respectful disagreement. For as James K. A. Smith summarizes the Age of Authenticity:

“Do your own thing, who am I to judge? The only sin is intolerance.”

STOP THINKING

What’s the outcome of this shift? We stop meaningfully engaging. There are two options before us: 1) shout at each other our personally authentic beliefs that we are unwilling to test via the pursuit of truth, or 2) never question anyone in any meaningful way for fear of offending. The byproduct of this is the devaluing of thinking and questioning the deepest and most important things of the human experience. We just don’t want to go there. And it seems when we do, we end up just offending and being angry.

So the natural reaction is to disengage. We stop thinking about it. We just believe: “Do your own thing, who am I to judge?” In so doing, we shut the door to the beautiful and character enriching skill of truth seeking. Instead we look to escape this reality. It seems we almost find being “authentic” unbearable. We pour hours into “reality” T.V., role playing video games, or any other distraction to take our minds off of having to engage our souls. For it seems that our souls won’t stop whispering. It takes considerable effort to silence them.

WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?

It’s here that we turn to Jesus. Why is it that he just doesn’t seem to go away? Why is it this figure that stands so opposed to the idol of our authenticity, still found on the covers of the magazines while we are in line at the grocery store? One reason, (I realize there are many) is that he doesn’t afford us the opportunity to say of him, “Do your own thing, who am I to judge?”.

One of Jesus’ central claims is that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. As in, the fullest and truest senses of those words are found in him and through him alone. But following Jesus isn’t an instant answer. He is not only the destination of truth, but he is also the way. We must search for the treasure and the pearl. We must “ask, seek, and knock.”

One of the best ways Jesus displayed this is in Mark chapter 8:

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus asked his disciples two very Socratic questions ultimately that the truth might be revealed. Peter responds, after spending constant time with Jesus for years “You are the Christ.” During his time with Jesus, Peter’s beliefs had been challenged. The ideas about how the world worked had been questioned. Jesus challenged Peter to cut away the untruthful beliefs and keep the ones that were truthful.

You see, we start in on Jesus by questioning him in the hopes that we can put some dampeners on his claims. The more we question him though, we find that he begins questioning us. And this is why in our Age of Authenticity we discard Jesus. As Chesterton so powerfully says:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

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