Regardless of whether or not Plato took artistic liberties with the character of Socrates there can be little doubt that the father of modern philosophy was one of history’s world’s greatest teachers. Great for the content of his teaching, but especially renowned for his manner of teaching. Many people cannot tell you one thing he taught, but they can tell you how he taught—the so-called Socratic Method that involves leading a person to the truth through a series of leading questions. The genius of his method was the homage he paid to the irrationality resulting from original sin (even if he probably would deny the existence of original sin itself, believing all vice was solely brought about as a result of ignorance) that causes us to be jealous of our own ideas. His method of cooperative argument destroys the protective walls we erect around our ideas by giving the appearance that the new ideas are also our own. I have written in the past on how this method can be very powerful as a tool for evangelization, but today I would like to focus on the effect this seemingly innate jealousy has on us individually and societally.
“My Ideas, Right or Wrong”
Our ideas are true or false based upon whether or not they conform to reality. Truth is, in essence, a relationship between thought and what really is. This relational understanding of the truth as both subjective (my idea) and objective (reality) is the key to safeguarding against the jealousy of which we are speaking. For this jealousy of our own ideas causes each of us to zealously defend our ideas even to the point of blinding ourselves to reality. When left unchecked it leads to a deeply rooted stubbornness (what St. Thomas calls pertanacia) that refuses to give up its ideas because it would be an admission that the other person is more intelligent than ourselves. St. Thomas says that this eventually leads to a crass obstinacy that is the mother of all discord in which we are constantly arguing to find at least one other person who can agree with us.
Jealousy for our ideas is manifest in the tendency we have not only to demand agreement in conclusions, but in the manner of arriving at those conclusions. How often do we find ourselves experiencing jealousy when someone else explains something differently than we would? We may agree with the conclusions, but we pick apart their explanation and think about how much better we would explain it. This jealousy blind us by turning our subjective understanding of the truth into the truth itself. It objectifies the properly subjective. Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the humility to allow others to teach us what we already know. If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.
We apprehend many things, but comprehend nothing. Because we never know anything fully, we can always grow in knowledge of a thing by coming at it from a fresh angle. Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the intellectual humility to allow others to teach us what we think we already know. If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.
We not only objectify the subjective, but we also “subjectify” the objective. What I am thinking about here specifically is when reality becomes entirely subjective, what we call relativism. The self-refuting quality of relativism as “the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth”, notwithstanding, many people accept this into the treasury of their ideas. In fact, a whole generation has practically grown up with this as a fundamental tenet of their reality. In response to one of his teachers telling him “you cannot force your beliefs on other people,” my 12-year old son told his teacher that during the next test he was going to cheat because “you cannot force your belief that cheating is wrong on me.” The only response he got was “touché.” He had challenged the deeply seeded relativism and lost by way of his opponent conceding. Welcome to the new world order.
The point is that because of relativism, any attack upon one’s ideas is an attack upon the person. There is no longer a distinction between an idea and reality because they are in essence the same thing. The truth is entirely subjective. In calling into question their ideas, you have threatened their world. Now not only are they jealously guarding their ideas, they must zealously defend their world. Wed the jealousy of our own ideas with relativism and their offspring is the “safe-space.” We laugh at the iGens and Millenials who need “safe-spaces,” calling them soft, but we forget that we have created their environment in which an argument is scary because it is always personal attack. How can they see it any other way given how they have been formed?
It is this combination of jealousy and relativism that also is the source of the “division in our country” that everyone is so fond of talking about. Argument, the very thing that held the founders together, is impossible in that climate. Everyone takes everything as a personal attack and therefore responds in kind. This cocktail is literally poisoning our society and could, without any danger of hyperbole, lead to its ultimate demise. Interiorly we all need to lighten up and avoid succumbing to jealousy. Exteriorly we have to fight relativism and its two daughters, tolerance and indifference, wherever we find them especially as they are being taught to the young. Perhaps we can learn from Socrates in this regard as well.
Socrates: ” So you believe that each man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.”
Protagoras: “That’s correct.”
Socrates: “How do you make a living?”
Protagoras: “I am a teacher”
Socrates: “I find this very puzzling. You admit you earn money teaching, but I cannot imagine what you could possibly teach anyone. After all, you admit that each person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This means that what your students believe is as good as anything you could possibly teach them. Once they learn that each person is the measure of all things, what possible reason would they have to pay you for any further lessons? How can you possibly teach them anything once they learn that their opinions are as true as yours?”