The killer questions

When the Socratic method gets out of hand, students can learn to think -- and to draw blood

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Socrates' fatal flaw, or "hamartia," showed up again in my class last week. Traditionally considered the "father of philosophy," he pioneered the notion that the process of questioning is more important than any answers humans might achieve. He relentlessly interrogated anyone who pretended to know anything, and died at the hands of his fellow Athenians for his trouble. Socrates defended his enterprise on the grounds that he was "searching for truth," and I usually present him as a great hero to my classes because of his search, his method and his martyrdom. But idolizing a dead Socrates is different than encountering one in person, and when I've witnessed individuals actively employing his method, the results are often far from the enlightening, benign image that the sagacious Socrates usually invokes.

It happened again last week. Jane, a woman approaching 40 and one of my most provocative students, was discussing Socrates' concept of happiness. Extremely smart in an oblique manner, she always approaches things from the edges, occasionally bewildering younger students with pithy insights. She asserted that Socrates connected happiness with virtue. That a person couldn't be truly happy if he continually did things he knew deep down were wrong. This, she explained, was part of Socrates' notion of being true to oneself.

"Happiness is a function of consciousness," Jane declared. "If we have a refined enough consciousness, nothing can ever disrupt our contentment. The stuff of everyday life -- disruptive, troublesome -- means nothing, if we are truly aware of ourselves. For example, my being here in this classroom could make me unhappy, but I know that what I am saying is exactly how I feel, so I am happy. Socrates is right."

Most of Jane's classmates had tolerated, even grudgingly respected her utterances until now, but something about her slightly pompous, exaggerated manner aroused people in the last row. Linda, a young blond who slouched against the back wall with the insouciance and occasional thoughtlessness of the naturally pretty and privileged, jumped in.

"Don't you think there are real things in life that could make you unhappy, no matter how you are processing them?" Linda's head was still planted against the wall so her face looked tilted up, disdainful.

"What kinds of things?" Jane shot back. "How could anything disturb my happiness if I don't let it?" But she didn't look very happy. The atmosphere suddenly grew thick, dangerous.

Linda pursued her: "What if you had epilepsy or somebody died, would you be happy then? Are you that immune to stuff happening? Sometimes it feels like you don't really think about what you are saying, and now, when I ask you a question, you get defensive. You start out playing Socrates' game, and now, when somebody starts playing it back, you get offended. What do you really believe? Let's hear it."

Jane, suddenly having lost her confidence, began sweating. "What do you want me to do?"

The rest of the back row now moved into the fray. Blood was in the water. Nikki and Dan, the fervent young self-identified scientists who persistently mocked anybody who sounded nonempirical, both leaned forward.

Nikki said, "Linda's right. You could respond to somebody's question with another question, simply sustain the questioning rather than surrendering so quickly and looking like the whole thing is about you. It isn't about you."

Jane, sounding very anxious now: "I just did come back with another question. I asked you what you want me to do?"

"Yes, but look at your question. It isn't about the material. It's about you again."

The class was stunned into silence now. The dialogue had left the realm of abstraction and dived into the personal. Poison gas was in the air and people didn't want to breathe it.

I stepped in for a rather lame summary of the issues and tacked on a bit of a sermon about the need for personal self-scrutiny, but it felt like my arrow had wobbled and fallen far short of the target. In fact, I had lost sight of the target altogether. The class drifted on with an undercurrent of bitterness.

Jane stayed after class. I was worried that she was sinking and needed a life preserver. Linda, her nemesis, Nikki and Dan also stayed, as if they had sensed their own capacity for destruction. I mistakenly contributed to Jane's evaporation by suggesting that perhaps she could speak from her heart from now on, be as authentic as possible.

Linda could have been penalized 15 yards for piling on, for at that point she said, "Yeah, it seems like you don't tell us where you're coming from, like it's off the wall or something." I had mistaken her motive for staying. She wanted more blood.

Trying to keep her face from falling beneath her sunglasses, Jane just stood at the doorway, apparently deciding whether to cut her losses or try again for a moment of grace. If she had been a bull in the ring, the matador could have calmly administered the final thrust. She was incapable of another charge. Seldom have I seen such strength diminished so quickly.

Finally, she said, "I'm not having fun anymore. It isn't fun anymore." Nikki and Dan both stirred but didn't say anything. If anybody were going to repair the damage it was going to have to be me. But there wasn't much in my doctor's bag.

I grazed Jane's shoulder with a delicate punch, hoping she would sense that the blows were lightening, and said, "You are too valuable a member of our class for us to allow you to be hurt," and immediately wondered if it was going to make her cry. I searched her face for clues. She just stood there, mute. Linda, not wanting any more of it, left. Nikki and Dan were still observing. I said something like, "Well, our job next time is to make sure you have fun." God, how pathetic. There are times when pitted highways are not going to be paved over by the highway crew.

On the way home I stopped at the family garden to pick vegetables for pasta. Our soil preparation had done its job. Tomatoes, eggplant, chili peppers, squash and basil were bursting forth everywhere, completely overwhelming our capacity to eat them. The lush setting only made me think of Jane, withering as she had in the psychic drought of my classroom. I hadn't shielded her from the blistering sun.

How did people walk away from Socrates' logical destruction of their certainties? Had he been put to death because the Athenians were close-minded anti-intellectuals or because he wounded them in some more tender place? What is the relationship between the search for truth and other human values? James Thurber once used the expression "murderous truth." Maybe the definition of civility means sometimes withholding such truths.

That night I called Jane to see if she was OK. "They didn't know," she said, having returned to her resilient, understanding temperament. "My father is dying. They didn't know that. I've got epilepsy. Amazing, isn't it? They didn't know that either. How could they know that what they were saying would have such an impact on me? I just wasn't ready for it."

She surprised me. I was prepared for her to denounce the other students, reject me, drop the class. I was in my therapeutic mood, ready to soothe the ripples in the pool of tranquility, but she cancelled my whole plan.

"Jesus, Jane," I said. "Do you have to be so damned reasonable? You've already forgiven them and they don't even know what they did."

"Ah shucks," she said. "I'm not Jesus, but maybe I'm a saint." We both laughed, and then said goodbye.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It is the middle of the night. The clock says 3:10. I can't sleep. I'm thinking mostly about Linda and the cold, hard knife of intellect poised to carve notches in the vulnerable edges of spirit. It's true that Socrates wasn't very kind. Neither was Plato. In fact, where is the kindness in the whole history of Western philosophy? With the exception of Spinoza, Camus and a few others, the great logic engine that was unleashed by the Greeks pretty much left out the heart.

Socrates gave us a great big push toward the modern age, but he also armed us with daggers. The intellect, alone, cannot answer the question of when to draw them and when to leave them sheathed.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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