The Socratic Interaction

XantippeI attended an AAUW (American Association of University Women) meeting recently at which we held a Socratic discussion.  This wonderful form of interaction a was made even more delightful to me when the topic chosen was civility.

I have found that AAUW meetings are usually quite civilized to begin with; a bunch of mature, smart women around the table exchanging ideas instead of soundbites.  The Socratic discussion format further encourages civility by allowing participants to clarify their thinking, examine their assumptions and provide evidence for their opinions.  In addition, the implications of an argument are examined and a space is made for counter arguments.

A lovely time was had by all.  I had feared that the facilitation would be pedantic and dull, but delving into each others’ ideas rather than bashing one another with opinions, resulted in a lively and friendly debate with room for everyone’s ideas.  Not once did an intelligent introvert get talked over or shut down!  The extroverts got their turn to speak as well. It was, in short, the most enlightened verbal interaction I can recall in a group that size.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Socrates, but I began to remember a bit about him. You might think Socrates developed his methods from debating with his philosopher cronies, and coaching recalcitrant students.  But I also seem to recall that Socrates was married to Xanthippe, whose name has been given to shrews throughout history.  Xanthippe had a reputation for being quite harsh and abusive, even stomping on a cake that a student had given her husband.  Not a nice gal!

In Xenophon, Symposium 17-19, Socrates is quoted:  “And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”

So we can see why Socrates would facilitate discussions in a thoughtful and civil way – and why his students brought him cakes!  I expect he learned to appreciate and value civilized interactions in the way so many of us do – by experiencing a lack of them!

Thank you Xanthippe for the Socratic discussion…and stay away from my cake.


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