The Socratic Method is Utterly Pagan and It’s a Good Thing Too

Grant Horner advances the theological argument for the use of a pagan pedagogy.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Central to authentically classical teaching is Socratic dialogue. It is a major attraction for parents and students considering classical education and a core reason highly motivated and serious intellectuals love working in such institutions. The drudgery, boredom, and ineffectiveness of so many other teaching styles and systems stultifies both teachers and students; classical pedagogy invigorates and inflames them with a passion for learning.

When I ask for definitions of Socratic dialogue, even seasoned teachers who use it are often at a loss. I hear variations of “well, we talk about the reading, and I ask lots of questions instead of lecturing.” We describe the event instead of thinking through why it works. Certainly very few of us run discourses exactly as Socrates did, where someone is led down a garden path by a slightly ironic master spirit only to discover their own ignorance unfolding before them. Such a method can be a hard sell when also discussing tuition payment plans.

But the real hard sell is elsewhere. How many times have we heard, “But wasn’t Socrates a pagan? Why use a ‘Socratic method’ of asking questions, instead of just telling the kids what to think?” Toss in some problematic pagan content (Ovid, anyone?) and you have a serious recruiting and retention problem. As Tertullian asked, what has Athens to say to Jerusalem? Shall the former dare charge tuition to the latter? And would that conversation be a Socratic one?

We would indeed be wise to ask, how Christian or biblical is Socratic discussion, exactly? Did Jesus use it? Did he simply imitate a Greek philosopher who preceded him? Did he claim like Socrates to know only that he knew nothing? Both showed with revelatory efficiency that none of us know what we think we know. And while there are certain parallels between Christ and Socrates, there are far more differences than similarities, including the ultimate difference – namely that, after drinking the hemlock, Socrates remained dead.

So the question must be asked: is education which is Classical, Christian? Why use content and methodology derived, even in part, from darkened minds? This question is beyond the scope of a short article, but one piece of the puzzle is the nature and workings of Socratic dialogue, and it is this which I would like to consider here.

A common defense for Classical Christian education goes rather like this: God is sovereign over all; all truth is God’s truth; even pagan culture functions under God’s rule, including worldviews, belief systems, and cultural tropes; these cultural expressions are all partial, shadowy imitations or reflections of God’s ultimate truth. Thus pagan content and even methodology are worthy of study and of some use to Christians.

It does not take particularly keen observation to recognize this formulation as absolutely Platonic and perhaps a weak apologetic for Classical Christian education. A skeptic would say the premises contain the desired conclusion – that paganism has already infected Classical Christian education at the level of foundational justification. Yet a similar critique could be mounted against this objection, which is built upon an unproven assumption that there is no value in studying the pagan conception of the world. Stalemate.

Which brings me to my thesis: that there is in fact a theological reason why Socratic dialogue is so effective, and why Christians should utilize it in the educational setting.

II.
But first, what exactly is the classical pagan theory behind Socratic dialogue? It did not just suddenly appear fully- formed on the tongue of an annoyingly inquisitive Greek philosopher. Surprisingly, few who use it are familiar with its origins. A brief glance towards a few ancient texts can provide the basic framework. In Cicero’s marvelous little book on aging, De senectute (44BC), we find lodged among manifold Ciceronian gems this nugget: “And a strong argument that men’s knowledge of numerous things antedates their birth is the fact that mere children, in studying difficult subjects, so quickly lay hold upon innumerable things that they seem not to be then learning them for the first time, but to be recalling and remembering them. This, in substance, is Platos’ teaching” (xxi.78). Cicero refers to Plato’s Meno and Phaedo and to a lesser extent the Phaedrus.

This educative “remembering” as opposed to learning something entirely new is called anamnesis. Etymologically it suggests “not-not remembering”, what we could call “not-forgetting” or, better, “remembering”. The Greek and Latin prefixes, a double-negation before the root “remember” (an+a+mnesis) is significant. The word’s form is a roadmap of its function. In the Platonic and Socratic conception, learning is an unforgetting. You knew something; you forgot it; it was brought back into your consciousness. Who brought it back?

A teacher, asking questions.

We see this in narrative form in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6. Here Aeneas, legendary founder of Rome, imitates the heroes of antiquity by descending into the underworld to gain advice from his dead father Anchises. He sees many dead Trojans and Greeks (who scatter before their dread enemy) and has a most decidedly awkward encounter with Dido, his ex-lover who committed suicide after he abandoned her. Aeneas wonders at a massive throng of the dead drinking from Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness; souls doomed by Fate to suffer again through bodily human life. But why leave pleasurable Elysium for another round of human tribulations? Anchises explains that souls are continually reincarnated until they reach perfection. After death, souls that were relatively bad go to Tartarus to be purged of evil habits and deeds; relatively good souls enjoy Elysium temporarily but must eventually return to the world to live better and better lives with each incarnation. Anchises then shows Aeneas a long line of souls awaiting rebirth – his Trojan ancestors, waiting to be reborn as his Roman descendants. Aeneas is the link between them; the last Trojan and the first Roman, watching his past becoming his future. Aeneas will be reborn as Marcellus, nephew to Caesar Augustus, who in actual history died shortly before Virgil read the Aeneid at Caesar’s court. (According to Seutonius, Marcellus’s mother Octavia – Caesar’s sister – fainted as Virgil read his heartwrenching passage describing her freshly dead son as the reincarnated Aeneas.)

So why, when a soul is reborn, are we ignorant children – blank slates? The combination of the birth trauma and drinking the waters of Lethe causes us to forget what we have learned. The idea seems to be that excellent character is more habit than rational choice –- a person’s nature is made wholly good, in a Platonic sense. Goodness is the result of bringing to mind the wisdom learned in past lives and the underworld; this is Virgil’s reworking of Plato’s doctrine of recollection. You don’t learn so much as you remember: anamnesis – the not-not forgetting. Socratic teaching is a kind of midwifery delivering up by questions the goodness buried in the soul. This is all very interesting – and very pagan. The book of Hebrews couldn’t be clearer: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.”

III.
It is now vividly apparent why Christians may rightly look askance at a teaching method of such pagan provenance. But let us put this in theological perspective.

In Romans 1 Paul delineates the primary marker of the human condition – the rejection and suppression of truth:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23 ESV)

As I argue extensively in Meaning at the Movies (Crossway, 2010) this passage is a crucial locus for understanding the origins and nature of human cultural production – not just what we make, but why we make anything at all beyond the bare necessities for survival. Where does culture come from? What is the ultimate source of our ideas, conceptions, values, practices, desires? Paul also addresses this issue indirectly in Acts 17. He quotes — apparently from his well- educated memory — several pagan philosopher-poets in the well-known words of verse 28, asserting that even their own poets know core truths about the invisible and immaterial God. Then he rebukes the Athenians for producing material idols: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Paul knows and quotes the Phaenomena of the Cilician poet Aratus and the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes of Assos. Pagans ironically rebuke pagans: the Athenians should know that we are the offspring of God and that he is unknowable through the “art and imagination of man.” This final phrase is worth close examination, and will bring us back to the suppression of truth in Romans 1.

Paul’s phrase in Acts as recorded by Luke is τέχνης καὶ ἐνθυμήσεως – two feminine genitive singular nouns linked by the conjunction ‘kai’ (‘and’). “Technes” is consistently translated as “art” but this is problematic; it is the root of “technique” and “technical” and is more than painting and sculpture. Its sense includes making objects for practical and/or aesthetic use. But it is not merely material. It was used equally in the plastic arts as well as medicine and farming, and even the techniques of ruling a city, as in Plato’s Republic. We could call it “production”, whether material or non-material. The other word, “enthumeseos”, is equally interesting. It is often translated “device”, “thought”, “invention”, or “design”. It is used of “thought” or “thoughts” in Matthew 9:4 and 12:25, and Hebrews 4:12; it is quite rare in classical literature but shows up in Hippocrates, Euripides, Thucydides, and Lucian. There it means thought, imagination, and in some cases, intense desire or drive. I think we need to consider these phrases in Acts in terms of both Romans 1 and another, seemingly unrelated passage: Genesis 4.

In Genesis 4, the origins of two sets of practices are contrasted: the descendants of Cain settle in the “land of Nod, east of Eden” and develop early cultural expression in music and metallurgy. “His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.” This seems to powerfully suggest idolatrous worship. This worship originates, I believe, from what Paul calls enthumeseos in Acts 17 – a pattern of thoughts, an imagining, even an intense desire for meaning, grounding, a workable view of everything — all lost in the Fall. Man now desperately desires to fill that vacuum with cultural production, techne, culture which is made – and which replaces God. The replacement is always a partial imitation of truth, simultaneously accurate (because it knows the truth and acknowledges a need for God) and blasphemous (because it ultimately rejects God as he truly is and suppresses the truth).

The final lines of Genesis 4 complete the picture. Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, produces Enosh, and then we read “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” Here is the apparent beginning of some kind of formalized worship of the one true God, clearly set over against the idolatrous “culture” in music and metallurgy of those who can now properly be called “pagans” as they sing and dance around metallic statues -– those who know the truth but have suppressed it.

IV.
Romans states that what can be known of God is built into man by God himself. He hardwires this core knowledge about His existence, nature, and workings into all of us; this knowledge is not a salvific understanding or faith, and in any case it is rejected. The primary effect of this knowledge is to remove the possibility of excuse from the unrepentant soul: no one can claim “but I didn’t know about God!” Because humans are by nature lost in sin, the response to this built-in knowledge of God is the act of suppression. Humans are actively, continually “forgetting” the knowledge of God. This brings about an interesting conundrum. How do you deliberately forget something? The act of suppression necessarily brings to mind the very subject being suppressed. In other words – suppression – deliberate forgetting – is doomed to failure, because you have to remember to forget. Since the knowledge of God is unbearable for those who reject Him, the acts of suppression continue, though futile. And this is not all that is suppressed. The act of suppression itself must be forgotten, denied, suppressed. You can’t suppress something successfully if you remember that you did so. The remembrance reverses the forgetting. Suppression requires suppression. We are most decidedly not like Aeneas — who has forgotten what Lethe does to the memory … because he drank from it himself. Aeneas is a mere human fantasy embodying our desperate desire to forget.

And so humans end up in a terrifying loop from which they cannot escape: they are aware of God and His commands; they suppress this knowledge; the suppression is ineffective because they can neither forget their suppression nor entirely escape truth; this set of circumstances is unbearable; the answer is more suppression. Unregenerate humans are trapped in a suppression whirlpool unless released by conversion, in which case the truth is unearthed, accepted, and becomes the transforming agent that sets you free. Until then truth remains rejected, suppressed, and “forgotten.”

If this is in fact an accurate picture of the human condition, then we have a better way to understand the superstructure of ideas supporting the ancient pagan theory and practice of Socratic dialogue. And we are in a better position to strategically utilize this technique and defend its usage from a theological rather than merely practical basis. Christians do not believe in multiple reincarnations leading to perfection via recollected knowledge; we believe that the suppressed Truth about Christ, when brought back to life in a dead heart, will set you free. Since studying human culture in light of Scripture inevitably shows us what we are, such study can, when well-guided, lead to deep self- knowledge. And it starts with questions.

All human culture – even the Socratic/Platonic doctrine of recollection — is a kind of tension between the wistful looking back towards a desired but lost Eden and a violent attempt to suppress the truth about that loss. Wise Christian Socratic teaching actually unpacks suppressed knowledge of God and his world, and of our condition. It reveals the truth about ourselves to ourselves. The fallen heart is cor incurvatus ad se “curved in on itself”; a Christian Socratic teacher gently unbends the heart by reminding it of the truth, which Christ and Scripture may then unfold from within the recesses of even the most resistant heart. Christian Socratics brings forth an unforgetting of the forgotten and suppressed truth. And that is why it works so well. The Greek word for Truth is of course aletheia – “not forgetting.” No Lethe.

“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Proverbs 20:25 (ESV)