Conversing Like Socrates
Until recently, when I listened to an audio-course on Socrates by Professor Michael Sugrue of Princeton University, I had the idea that Socrates took delight in questioning his partners in dialogue until he demonstrated that they had drawn faulty conclusions. My conclusion was incorrect. Actually, Socrates delighted in seeking the truth through dialogue and teaching others to do the same. He is a consummate exemplar of “clear thinking out loud.”
If you want to converse like Socrates, here are four guidelines from Ronald Gross's outstanding 2002 book, “Socrates Way”:
1. Ask great questions. Socrates says in Plato's “Protagoras,” “My way toward the truth is to ask the right questions.” Such questions stimulate thinking rather than provoke arguments. For example:
What is your analysis of the problem? What was the total of exports for Canada in 2002? What needs to be done to implement the conservation program? Why do you believe that? What evidence supports that conclusion? (For married couples, the key question might be: “What is it like to be married to me?”)
Socrates not only asked great questions, he also encouraged questions from others. Great questions get closer to the truth, and they also change attitudes.
2. Think for yourself. Socrates cultivated an open mind and challenged the conventional wisdom of his time. He challenged conclusions based purely on authority. When in dialogue with a friend or student, he did not simply accept “The expert says” as a basis for truth. Each dialogue partner was asked to share his own thinking, his own observations, and not rely on what others had said. (At the same time, he respected those who had expertise and sought to learn from them and with them.)
3. Challenge convention. Socrates is sometimes referred to as a gad-fly who pestered the citizens of Athens with his challenges. He understood how quickly fuzzy thinking gelled into accepted truth with people who had not thought for themselves. Sociologists have referred to such truth as the “climate of opinion,” and psychologist Charles Tart as “consensus trance.” His allegory of “The Cave” was intended to show that most people live in the dark, seeing only shadowy representations of reality, and are fearful of going out into the sunlight. His method was simply to ask, “Is that really so?”
4. Grow with friends. In Plato's “Critias,” Socrates says “When a group of friends have enjoyed fine conversation together, you will find that suddenly something extraordinary happens. As they are speaking, it's as if a spark ignites, passing from one speaker to another, and as it travels, it gathers strength, building into a warm and illuminating flame of mutual understanding which none of them could have achieved alone.” For Socrates, friendship was of the highest value. (This is the point I had missed years ago while studying classical rhetoric.) To converse like Socrates, a speaker simultaneously maintains a strong bond of friendship and seeks a deeper truth through dialogue. Such dialogue is not about winning and losing, and certainly not about one-upmanship. It is not a debate. Such conversation is collaborative and generous.
“Good friends,” said Socrates, “give me greater satisfaction than other men get from good horses or dogs or gamecocks. If I have anything good, I teach it to my friends, and I place them with others from whom I think they will make some gain. There is no possession more valuable than a good and faithful friend.”
Finally, to converse like Socrates takes real courage. It often seems easier to get along by “going along” with the opinions of others. Even with good friends, asking a straightforward question such as “Why do you think that?” can ruffle feathers. For Socrates and many who followed him (Thoreau comes to mind), “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To live courageously “out loud” was to be truly free and fully alive.