With all of the discord and turmoil occurring in this country including drive-by shootings, mass murders, global warming, failing schools,  political polarization and discord, fentanyl and opioids,  suicides among the young and racial divide to name a few, it may be time to look to early philosophers for advice.  

We certainly need guidance to help solve our problems.  Philosophy  actually began in the Greek world in the 6th century BCE by seeking a total vision of life. The one individual  that comes to mind is Socrates, born centuries ago and to employ his method of thinking. The value of the method extends to law, politics and all other matters that call for reasoned judgment.

Socrates is perhaps the most illustrious figure in the history of Western thought. He lived between 469-399 B.C. in the ancient Greek city of Athens. He along with Plato and Aristotle is viewed one of the founding figures of Western philosophy.

Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. Socrates pointed out that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness.

Socrates is one of the few individuals whom one could say has so-shaped the cultural and intellectual development of the world.

According to Ward Farnsworth, in his book, “the Socratic method is a style of thought. It is a help toward intelligence and an antidote to stupidity.”

The Socratic method  can also be used in the classroom in that it’s a style of thought better than the one we tend to apply naturally to important things. Socrates didn’t question people in order to teach us how to question people. He did it to teach us how to think.

The Socratic method means, among other things, asking and receiving questions fearlessly; it means saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; it means loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it. In other words, it’s about all the good things that have been vanishing from our culture of discourse.

The Socratic method is often described as one of the foremost productions of the classical mind. Gregory Vlastos, the 20th century’s most distinguished scholar of our subject, described the method as “among the greatest achievements of humanity” because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to every man. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech.  

While it may be unfortunately  too late to educate Socratic principles to our politicians and bureaucrats, they could be included in our schools as part of a robust liberal arts education. It is time to revise our methods of teaching and parenting.  The term “liberal arts” denotes the seven branches of knowledge that provide an introduction to a lifetime of learning.

The concept is classical, but the term liberal arts and the division of the arts into the Trivium and Quadrivium* date to the Middle Ages. The term Trivium includes the aspects pertaining to the mind. It is commonly called the “Arts of the World” and focuses on various ways an individual can attend to words. The Trivium is the instrument of all education at all levels because logic, grammar and rhetoric are the arts of communication themselves in that they govern the means of communication —namely, reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Thinking is inherent in these four activities and would include the Socratic method together with readings about Plato and Aristotle. Reading and listening, for example, although relatively passive, involve active thinking, for which we agree or disagree with what we read or hear. Sacred texts often refer to logic, grammar and rhetoric as knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstances.  Grammar is used in logic, which is used in rhetoric. Grammar asks: when is a sentence correct? Logic asks: when is a sentence true and rhetoric asks: which is the right sentence?  

Final Thoughts

This is what Ward Farnsworth has to say in his book “Even though logic helps explain the inherent value of the Socratic method it is never likely to be popular because it doesn’t offer what most people think they want. The teachings of Socrates don’t propose to make anyone richer or more famous. They don’t offer rewards after death. They don’t answer the questions that torment us, and they don’t confirm that we’re right about what we already think.”

What the teachings do offer is wisdom, a process sadly lacking in a growing segment of today’s society.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.