The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In an acrimonious time, some welcome fresh attention to Socrates and the art of civilized arguing

A worker cleans the 1935 statue of Socrates by Robert Aitken at the National Archives in 2017. (Bill O'Leary)
Placeholder while article actions load

In 1985, two days shy of his 12th birthday, Roosevelt Montás came from the Dominican Republic to New York. He had, he writes, “a head full of lice, and a belly full of tropical parasites.” And a mind that was kindling, needing a spark to set it aflame.

He found the spark in books discarded by neighbors. The books were from a relic of an era that was, in one particular, more enlightened than ours. The relic was the once-famous Harvard Classics “five-foot shelf” of 50 volumes compiled by Charles W. Eliot, Harvard University’s president for 40 years (1869-1909). He once told a group of working men that anyone could read like "a Harvard man” by reading 15 minutes a day from these sets, 350,000 of which were sold in 20 years. Would that Harvard men and women were required to read them today.

Montás devoured Socrates’s dialogues, which helped rescue him from drowning in the linguistic ocean of his high school, where 51 languages were spoken by the students. Now he has a doctoral degree from Columbia University and is a senior lecturer at Columbia’s Center for American Studies and director of its Freedom and Citizenship Program. He is the former director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, the oldest “general education program in higher education,” which he celebrates in “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.”

This is his “meditation” on liberal education, meaning “education not for making a living but for living meaningfully.” He joins the century-old criticism of the scientific and vocational focus of research universities that are preoccupied with “the production and accumulation of new knowledge” rather than “the cultivation of whole persons.”

Follow George F. Will's opinionsFollow

He thinks the primary reason to require undergraduates to read canonical works is for them to acquire self-knowledge. Actually, they should not be encouraged to have more of what they spontaneously have — a high ratio of interest in themselves to their interest in more substantive things. Montás does, however, admirably defend the concept of a canon, critics of which “always come wagging the finger of social justice,” hot to purge elements of any canon for reasons that are “ethical rather than intellectual.”

He says, “Today’s academic criticism bends toward moral reprimand ... it doesn’t just judge, it condemns; it doesn’t just reject, it cancels.” Too Western, too White, too male, etc. This encourages the soft bigotry of low expectations: “We do minority students an unconscionable disservice when we steer them away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum.” Western texts “underpin much of the emerging global culture,” and ideas such as “human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity, the free market, equality before the law” are inseparable from the Western tradition that was incubated in the “large and porous cultural configuration around the Mediterranean Sea.”

There, Socrates taught the West the art of civilized arguing. Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law, wrote “The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook” to explain something that is unintelligible to people desensitized by social media and that is unappealing to people intoxicated from inhaling clouds of righteousness on campuses. A democratic culture must be a culture of persuasion, and Farnsworth says that persuasion, properly pursued, is, as Socrates demonstrated, a collaborative process.

The Socratic method, although argumentative, is more oblique than adversarial. It amiably poses probing, leading questions to clarify the definitions of terms and to test the links in chains of reasoning. It is what public discourse in today’s America does not resemble.

Social media, Farnsworth writes, amount to “a campus on which atrocious habits of discourse are taught” with “sad and sometimes calamitous” consequences. Social media, he says, exacerbate some dangerous susceptibilities — to demagoguery and moral vanity — that are neither new nor entirely expungable. The Socratic method decelerates reasoning, making space for deliberation when disagreements arise. So, the Socratic method is, Farnsworth says, an antidote to some social pandemics of our day — “fury, ostracism, etc.” These vices “are embedded in human nature” but social media are powerful accelerants of them.

“Socratic habits,” Farnsworth writes, “require patience to develop and use.” They are not developed using “technologies that encourage quick reactions in short bursts” and that foment a cultural shift away from the patience of persuasion.

Thanks to Montás and Farnsworth, Socrates had a good 2021. As another year of acrimony slinks away, remember what he demonstrated, and what a U.S. senator (Daniel Webster) supposedly said: “Anger is not an argument.”

Loading...