Can Socrates Make You a Better Person?

Can I become a better person by being subjected to the Socratic Elenchus?

Becoming a better person has been an important subject for millennia in religion, philosophy, and the modern self-help industry. Techniques range from being beaten for doing bad things, to debates, to listening to hypnotic tapes while you sleep. Elenchus, commonly referred to as Socratic dialogue, is widely known as helping in the learning process. Does this technique also lead to improvements as a person?

The context that Socratic dialogue is applied in is important. For instance, you can involuntarily be subjected to questions by police in an interrogation room, or by lawyers in a courtroom. It’s unlikely that such an involuntary dialogue will lead to personal insights or revelations that will help you to improve as a person. However, there are other contexts where the opposite may be true. In an environment where the other person truly has goodwill toward you and where there are no goals other than that of truth and knowledge, then it is possible to learn both about the world and about yourself through the techniques used by Socrates almost 2,400 years ago.

Most people agree that certain virtues are necessary for a person to be good, and that the development of these virtues should be pursued, such as courage, wisdom, and justice. Socrates asks others to define what these are. Since they say that they are valued and worthy of pursuit, they should know what they are. However, the definitions are usually just substitutions of other words. Therefore situations that lead to contradictions are easy to find. Through his questioning Socrates points these contradictions out. By using a large amount of questions with assumptions built in, and some statements, he is able to guide the discussion.

In place of these various virtues Socrates proposes that the ability to determine the difference between right and wrong would allow a person to act rightly in each circumstance, and so it’s this general abstract knowledge applied to certain circumstances that truly is virtue or excellence in human morality and ethics. Here we see reasoning that is somewhat similar to John Locke’s conception of abstraction. There are a variety of examples of various virtues. From these various examples we start to see what the core is of the given individual virtue. The key piece of each of these virtues is then abstracted to this more encompassing concept about being able to demarcate between what is good and bad in general.

How this determination between right and wrong is to be determined is difficult to grasp, if it exists. It is an attractive concept. If achieved it would allow for an objective calculation of just and proper action. This is similar to the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill with Utilitarianism. Such a position encounters significant problems both theoretically and practically.

Rather than proposing his own perfection, Socrates takes the position that he is wise because he knows that his knowledge is limited and lacking. This quality could be called humility, and therefore we could think that the key to wisdom is the virtue of humility. The initial reaction to Socratic dialogue is usually either anger by people that can’t answer the questions adequately and don’t want to change their opinion, or confusion. After a deeper exploration and utilization of the technique over a longer period of life, the natural direction of revelation about the phenomenological experience of being human is our limited capacity for knowledge and therefore our unlimited capacity for error. Humility thus is a foundation for further learning, because we must first be open to changes in our perspective, values, views, questions, and answers. Thus, Socrates’ conclusion that wisdom is knowing that one doesn’t know is reasonable in this way.

Socrates does focus on refuting the propositions from others and therefore his method seems to coincide with the ideas of Karl Popper about refutation versus verification, in that our knowledge is always technically a conjecture. Our propositions are supported when they are unable to be refuted, but that does not verify them as an eternal truth. And thus we must hold them always with some doubt.

Socrates is often presented as debating the Sophists. His techniques of trapping people by having them present definitions and then supporting propositions that he is then able to show contradict each other, seen from the point of view as a rhetorical device for winning an argument, could classify him as a sophist himself. The difference is in the intent of the action. The sophists have as their sole goal the winning of the argument, and whichever technique helps in that endeavour is the best, whereas Socrates is seeking knowledge and truth and the technique is an aid to that end.

This type of questioning leading to contradictions is uncomfortable, which is why defensiveness and frustration are the most normal and common reactions, and that naturally leads to disengagement and avoidance. The contradictions show a lack of knowledge about the world, an inability to communicate, an inability to think, and a lack of self-understanding. Since these are the very things that we use to define ourselves this type of questioning can quickly lead to an identity crisis.

This leads us to a difficult problem. Is awareness of a lack of knowledge, knowledge itself? It could be proposed that the humility to recognize the impossibility of certainty of knowledge leads to an awareness that the process of questioning and learning must be constant and never-ending, therefore leading to better and better answers over time, and that this process is what true wisdom is. So, maybe.

Can you become a better person by being subjected to the Socratic Elenchus? To answer this you must first define your terms. What do you mean by “subjected to”? What is a “better person”? By the pursuit of understanding the question you are already performing Socratic dialogue, whether with another or by yourself. If you believe that asking these questions will help you to better understand the question, and therefore the world and yourself, and this makes you a better person, then you have already answered the initial question in the affirmative by your action. Further, if you believe that your active participation in such a process leads to an ever expanding knowledge of the world, and a healthy form of humility that is essential to true wisdom, then you doubly confirm that you yourself support the importance of becoming a better person through Socratic dialogue.



Popular posts from this blog

Why is Slytherin House Bad?

Fighting Local Government Corruption - Part 1 of ?

Pro-Global Warming

Donate to Jeff's Work