The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 21

The Teachings of the Anti-Socratic

1.) Anyone with a different point of view is an enemy that must be defeated.

Recall the question from part one: "What do biologists call a pond with only one life form?" The answer given to that question was: "Dead". As asserted earlier, differences are the wellspring of human cognition. As it is true that a mind with only one idea or way of seeing is dead, so it is true for a nation. Solving problems that resist initial attempts at correction require there be more than one point of view. This is always true. When it comes to solving problems and creating new knowledge, people with different perspectives and ideas are your best friend. The only person in all the world we should never want to talk to is the person who always thinks exactly like us.

From a Socratic perspective, always talking to people who merely agree with us is useless. In this Socratic way of thinking, it is a privilege to be able to discuss issues with people who think differently. This is not just preferable. It is absolutely necessary. At all levels of education, it is necessary for the good of society to teach people to see value in discussing important and controversial topics in a non-polemic fashion with those who have different ideas. They must be educated to see the value of seeking truth, especially if that truth overturns what we currently believe. A dialectic of teamwork amongst people who differ in good conscience must replace the oppositional structure of enemies that dominants our current manner of discussing our differences. Productive teamwork among persons of different ideas is always needed if the goal is to actually create solutions to problems or to elevate the quality of our understanding.

In the Socratic method of conversation, the goal is never to argue personally with another human being because they are not your enemy. This is even more important if the other in dialogue with us has a different perspective. The Socratic goal is always to seek to work together to improve ourselves. Different people with different views are welcomed as an asset to fulfilling this goal. Gaining a better understanding is a victory unto itself that must stand supreme over clinging to the past for its own sake. It is always better to embrace a new way of thinking, which has shown that our old way has room to grow. Other people and other ideas must be allowed to interact with our current understanding in the absence of polemic conflict.

In order to have the possibility of doing this, we must first open ourselves up to accepting the other with courtesy and hospitality as a real presence that can improve the meaning and value of our living. Nobody can build a better perspective, increase the quality of their understanding, or grow at all if they merely expend all their energies holding onto their own views with a white knuckled fist. Such trembling fists are as much a manifestation of personal insecurity as they are a sign of willingness to rhetorically punch an opponent in the face. The Socratic goal of working together to improve ourselves is always more creative, productive and useful in building a better understanding than the personal disputations that arise from the need to defeat a perceived enemy.

The Socratic method of conversation teaches us how to give hospitable welcome to others with a different view because it teaches us to not be threatened by the possible destruction of our own perspective. On the contrary, the Socratic method of conversation presupposes the willingness to allow the destruction of our own beliefs and ideas. We can do this because we are either confident that we will work to build a better perspective or, in true Socratic fashion, are comfortable admitting our own ignorance. This kind of confidence requires a developed human character, a Socratic temperament if you will, that helps keep us paying attention to what is most important. The Socratic method of conversation demands that we earnestly seek the overturning of any of our own beliefs or ideas that may be inhibiting our journey of self-discovery. It is other people with other ideas, who are most able to help us gain new knowledge. They are the ones who should be most welcomed into the home of our attending minds that we may benefit from their assistance in improving ourselves. The Socratic ideal of opening ourselves up to giving welcoming hospitality to others with different ideas and embracing them in courteous conversation is useful to every citizen.

The cult of seeing enemies everywhere and the habit of demonizing those who think differently from us is the anti-Socratic manner of discourse. The Socratic method of conversation teaches us to recognize that we are citizens together, who have a responsibility to recognize the value of our differences for creating solutions to improving ourselves and the societies in which we live. We desperately need to stop fighting with each other over our differences, for such feeble and misguided interactions will not stop weakening us until we are all destroyed. The highest value of the Socratic method of conversation is not to induce the realization of specific facts. The highest value of the Socratic method of conversation is that it teaches us how to make peace with ourselves and one another so we may create the fertile shared space that is necessary to work together in the creation of new understandings. The Socratic method of conversation demands that we cease to be enemies and allow ourselves to become attentively engaged real presences to one another in order to create a world that can be inhabited.

The importance of the courteous and hospitable reception of "the other" is not restricted to the value of appreciating the arts. It is a necessary function of all creative human interaction. It is the needed human space, the common ground, through which all important exchanges and creations must take place. The importance of hospitality to the stranger is aptly described by Nouwen,

“Hospitality...means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.”[15]

Hospitality does not create a cluttered space that is filled with our own preoccupations about winning or controlling. It is not a space filled with the dominance of our own ideas and theories. The essence of sharing a space with the other is to make room for them to enter and be themselves. To use a Buddhist image, hospitality, in relation to the concerns of creative dialogue, functions as an act of empting our cup of tea that is already full. We cannot know something new, we cannot fully acknowledge the other, if our minds are filled with preoccupations about the preservation of our own ideas and with trying to win over the other who shares our space. We must pour out our needs to be right, let go of our concerns to preserve our cherished perspectives, and release our desires to win over and contain the other. We empty the cup of our conversational minds in an act of hospitality that creates an empty shared space that makes room for the other. It is the emptiness of the shared space, which hospitality provides, that gives the other the freedom to join us upon common ground and to express their authentic selves[16].

In Part I (p.7), I spoke of the "dance of becoming" in relation to Melete's experiences of art. Melete said, "When I experience art, I become the art and the art becomes me." The empty space we share with the other is an important part of the dance of becoming between humans. It is our ability to set aside our own ideas and frameworks of interpretation when we are in conversation that allows us to see the other person, to taste of their ideas and intentions, to see the world through their eyes and to walk in their shoes. The habit of interpreting the other solely in terms of our own ideas and our own need to win is a very similar phenomenon to interpreting art only through our own abstract theories. The emptiness of the hospitably created common ground we create with the other in conversation is the shared space we need to transform talk into creation. It is the common ground we must walk upon together in order to embrace our potentials for depth in our experiences of meaning and beauty in life. In this space, the other can "come to call upon us" to "fulfill needs we knew not of" (see p.7 of this essay for context of quotes).

We must recognize that we cannot do this perfectly. In spite of the fact that we will fall short of our understanding of the other, it is actually the falling short, the lack of complete congruence with the other that makes the dance of becoming an event worthy of our participation. It is the differences among us that makes fertility in conversation possible. Part II will sketch out the basic parameters of how a Socratic philosophy of conversation turns our dialogues with one another into a dance of becoming.

The freedom to create new and better understandings is not served by dominating or demonizing those who are most able to help us. It is the stranger with a different idea who is the most useful person to help us increase our knowledge and understanding. Hospitality is not just a convention of comfort or a style of social demeanor. It is the willful offer of the shared space needed to create. It is a gift of freedom. We offer this freedom to one another when we maintain the hospitable space needed to forge our differences into new knowledge.


[15] Henri J.M. Nouwen (1986), Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Doubleday, p. 71

[16] When Melete and I applied Socratic questions to our attempt to define authentic self from inauthentic self, we were unable to create a definition that stood up to examination. Yet, the language has use and communicates.