By Michael P. McKeating, J.D.
Chesterton Academy of Buffalo
Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived from approximately 470 BC to 399 BC. He was the mentor of Plato, who in turn counted Aristotle as his most famous pupil. His teaching method is still effective today at stimulating productive thought and discussion among students.
Socrates taught by asking questions in a form very similar to that used in legal cross-examination. He discussed key points of his philosophy with his friends shortly before his death. His method was to ask friends what they thought about a particular issue, and then probe, clarify, negate and hone their position by asking further questions to bring out any inconsistencies in their statements and get them to think.
The chief opponents of Socrates were a group of pseudo-philosophers called the Sophists. The Sophists were akin to today’s moral relativists or postmodernists. They did not believe in right or wrong, good or evil. They would argue any side of any question for a fee, and the next day switch and argue the other side for another fee.
Socrates described himself as a gadfly, someone who annoys his opponents by criticizing them to the point of action. In his time, Athens was governed by a group of autocrats who had seized power. He would hang out in the public square and embarrass the oligarchs by asking them questions like, “What is justice?” and then painstakingly bring out the inconsistencies in their answers with further questions, showing they had no idea what justice was.
Needless to say, Socrates was a nuisance to those in power. He was eventually arrested, tried on a charge of corrupting the young, and sentenced to death by being forced to drink hemlock.
The Socratic Method, teaching by asking questions, is the method used by the Great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Albert the Great. It is also used in virtually all law schools today.
We use the Socratic Method at Chesterton Academy because it teaches students to think logically, to articulate clearly, and to defend their position under cross-examination. In this way they become clear thinkers and confident advocates for their beliefs. They also become effective defenders of the faith.