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The Socratic Method

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
Ancient African doctrines, assumptions, and Proverbs (e.g.  “The unexamined life is not worth living”) drove the foreground of questioning Socrates used in his method. These include: (1) virtue is knowledge; (2) no one does wrong willingly; (3) no one can harm a good man (because only ones soul can be harmed and only by oneself); (4) it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it; (5) virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness; and (6) all virtues are somehow a unity (because such virtues as courage, self-control, piety, justice are really manifestations of a single knowledge of “Good” (whatever will bring true happiness). He believed contrary or different views would be shown to be untenable by the elenchus (i.e. his process of cross-examination).  By means of tireless examination of basic principles (by questioning rather than by investigation and reflection) one can make corrective value-judgments and thereby act rightly.

Like African Tradition, he insisted that social problems be addressed within the context of moral education, (which I assume he meant by having the agreement of Sages in all cultures determining the Standards and guide-lines, as opposed to fellow Greeks). The idea behind the Socratic Method was to a carefully thought out a system to penetrate into the interior and recesses of a thought or idea by precision questioning—questions designed to prompt reflection. In turn, reflection would produce knowledge–or at least awareness—of ones own ignorance. By focusing on virtues, one would nourish and strengthen ones soul—an individual’s chief business in life in African Tradition.

Socrates used questions and answers, as opposed to lectures, to bring light—point by point—to truths concerning virtue, justice, piety. He readily admitted awareness of his own ignorance and was intent on getting similar admissions from people who failed to recognize their ignorance. His typical method in dialogues was to challenge the use of a word which led to a consideration of cases. Questions and Answers would finally allow for the detachment of appropriate universal definitions from these cases.

Definitions were discredited if they could be reduced to absurdity or shown to be either vague or inconsistent. The process was:

(1)--a statement of the question; (2)--the answer to the question; (3)--exploration of objections to the answer; (4)—revised answers which evade these objections; and (6)--exploring objections to the revised answers. Successful dialogues reached an end when the answer stood up against all known objections. This was in contrast to the Sophists who utilized ambiguities of ordinary language and believed it was better to do evil than to suffer it.

Socrates disagreed with, and thought to be vain, Pythagoras’ (5th century BC) statement: “Man is the measure of all things”—and not God—a concept which shaped the entire Western world. What Pythagoras, the founder of the Sophists, meant was that things

exist by virtue of how man perceives them. Therefore, the objective world is measured against man—and there is nothing outside man that determines being or truth. Without saying he disagreed, Socrates steered his young interlocutor (student) into understanding why it is false. By the end, neither of them had determined the truth but at least they agreed that Pythagoras was wrong. The Western world took Pythagoras’ statement to imply that “ones needs and desires determine what counts in this world”; that the truth is the private concern of each individual; no one really knows what is outside him/herself; there is no truth apart from ones private feelings about things; and everyone is always right and no one can ever be wrong. These latter two went on to cause Western men to believe that they were little gods. This is clear today in how judgmental Europeans are when in fact they are “out of their league.”

website: www.jablifeskills.com

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