America is currently divided. On opposite sides of what seems an unbridgeable chasm, there are starkly different beliefs and an unwillingness to radically listen and learn from those on the other side. The wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates—who famously said "I know that I know nothing"—can act like a balm to sooth the oftentimes fraught divisions that arise between clashing ideologies.
No one wants to be seen as a know-it-all; this attitude can come off as smug and arrogant, two of the reigning characteristics of polarizing conflicts. Socrates imaged himself not as an all-knowing sage, but rather acknowledged the gaps in his knowledge and wisdom. Part of his brilliance was the call to remain motivated to fill these lacunae with knowledge, understanding and truth.
This was his attitude too when facing questions about moral behavior or human nature: the idea that we can never truly understand moral life or the ways in which humans interact. In fact, rather than supplying answers, Socrates actually raised even more questions in response to a query—a remarkable practice that humbly encouraged deeper examination of topics.
In America in 2021, where conversations often break quickly into disputes of name calling and drum beating for an ideology, it would serve us—no matter our political persuasions—to pause and remember the way that Socrates challenged those with whom he discussed.
In addition to a position of standing open to learning, Socrates called on people to engage in dialogue, to ask questions and search tirelessly for the answers, together. There was a true spirit of collaboration in his approach to education. Socrates demanded that we co-create a knowledge community through debate and self-examination. By taking this path, he helped define what we now call the Socratic method, a way of being that acknowledges that having a wide range of perspectives is valuable in problem solving and understanding any given concept.
A desirable outcome of the Socratic method is serendipity, that sense of uncovering something accidentally—or better yet, collaboratively—that leads to unexpected insights or revelations. However, such serendipity cannot occur without empathy and transparency. We must therefore open ourselves to each other, beyond partisan viewpoints and deeply rooted stereotypes, and recognize that knowledge and indeed wisdom can come from anyone.
It is possible to learn more if we stay conscious of our own personal values and convictions, and respect those of others. As individuals,we must recognize and acknowledge our mutual vulnerability, understanding that we don't always have the answers to our own questions about life, politics, or just about anything for that matter. This is a critical first step in moderating polarizing arguments.
Only then can we move forward with a temperament of inclusivity and openness, to listen and be humble enough to accept that the answers to our questions are never fixed or finite. Showing agape, or unconditional love,is key to making progress. A necessary premise for social justice and policy change,we should strive for a civility and humility in the pursuit of understanding and progress.
Socrates taught us much, everything from philosophy to logic to rhetoric—all of which can benefit any debate. But his great gift may be the humility he inspired: the knowledge that in any debate, we should always approach any problem with an open mind and heart.