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Socratic Irony

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
In the marketplace, streets, and public resorts of Athens Socrates spent the greater part of mature life looking particularly for two types of people. One type was those sincerely desiring to learn (e.g. students on the rise for which he would use Socratic Induction).

A second type was young men who “knew it all” (and wanted to silence “the old man”) or any pompous person with fixed opinions about everything. The reason was that people who think they have all the answers are not likely to make much of a search for the truth about anything. Their big egos generate delusions that they already know the truth. To persuade these men to seek an awareness of their own ignorance, he used the Socratic Irony Method.  The “irony” was that he simulated ignorance in knowing what he was doing to destroy their faulty thought structure. The word “Irony” comes from the Greek eiron, meaning someone who hides under a false appearance or conceals facts or feelings by using some kind of pretense. In a Greek comedy, a character named Eiron, who, through cleverness and deception, triumphed over the bull Alazon (who did not understand the trickery in Eiron’s assertions).  In other words, Irony is a process of causing the opposite of what something appears to mean or appears to be.

Socratic Irony has destruction of delusions as its first task—to convince men of their lack of knowledge by leading on the opponent to hopefully put them on the path in search for truth.  Because he was only seeking the truth, Socrates had no settled philosophical views of his own.  By so saying, he could counter the arguments of the most distinquished enemy scholars. Pleading his own ignorance in order not to intimidate the arrogant, Socrates would ask the benefit of his hearer’s wisdom who, in turn, was usually only too ready to display his superior knowledge and intelligence.  Socrates deflected criticism while moving his intricate arguments forward in small increments.

He showed the way while being a trickster, speaking out of both sides of his mouth. As the searching questions continued it became obvious that the victim was utterly unable to give any coherent account of the practical details or the moral notions they professed to know all about. Nor did they know the basic principles or purposes of their respective professions or why they practiced them or what they expected to achieve by them. Gently, Socrates would pile question after question upon the victim’s responses until the foundations of the victim’s thinking collapsed or until every premise of their thought had been thoroughly examined. He liked to think of himself as a ray fish that stings its victims into deeper reflection.

He never takes center stage to make a display of his wit and presents at all times a model of decorum and refinement. Sometimes this procedure for pointing out mistakes in thinking while pretending ignorance—i.e. the Socratic Irony—succeeded in achieving its aim to clear away rubbish of flaws, errors, mistakes, prejudices, and biases and thereby bring the serious inquirer into truth. For those mature enough to experience humility he would quietly convert them from critics (from having their ideas reduced to absurdity) to students. Since no one felt the need to best him, for he seemingly offered no challenge and thus no threat, there was no scarring them off. To show they

were mentally receptive, before starting to work on one, a shoemaker would learn what a shoe is (the foundation) and what it is for (its foundational base). More often, however, by Socrates shrewd questioning as his victim undertook to explain their point and answer question, it became obvious even to them that their explanations were full of error. In such instances, the revelation of their ignorance simply drove victims to distraction and ended with Socrates making new enemies.

website: www.jablifeskills.com

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