The Socratic Method

Written by Daniel Ross Goodman

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Image: go by Sarah Simon

     I’ve had seven sleepless nights in the past ten days, and it’s all Socrates’ fault. I’ve been scared to death that any day now I’m about to become Socrates’ next victim. In case you haven’t heard, here in my town of Spartanburg, South Carolina, six people have been killed in the past ten days, all by poisoning. And next to each victim, the police found a note like this one: “For the sin of not thinking. Signed, Socrates.” Next to another victim, they found a note that read: “For the crime of not examining your life. Sincerely, Socrates.” And next to another, they found a note that read: “For the transgression of not sufficiently reflecting on the nature of your existence. Best regards, Socrates.”

     For the past ten days the police here have been on a manhunt for this serial killer who goes by the name “Socrates,” but so far they’ve barely been able to gather a shred of evidence. Word is that they’ve asked the FBI for help, and by tomorrow the feds will be all over the town. The only thing they’ve been able to surmise so far is that this Socrates fellow is a pretty intelligent guy—he knows how to mix chemicals, he knows how to commit crimes without leaving any trace of evidence behind, and he knows how to use words like “transgression.” Otherwise, nothing is known about him.

     Socrates has been the talk of the town these past ten days, and naturally it’s all my dad and I have been talking about as well. “I don’t understand,” I said to my dad the other night at dinner. “Maybe you can explain this to me: next to his latest victim he left a note that read, ‘for the misdeed of accepting everything on faith and not using your own intellect to question received assumptions.’ But if he really just wants everyone to use their brains and think for themselves, is murdering people really the best strategy for imparting his lessons?”

     “Well,” said my father, a professor in the Philosophy department here in Wofford College, “sometimes in world history, when really important people are trying to teach really important things or accomplish really important goals, people have to suffer—and occasionally even die. In order for Moses to teach the world that the Lord is God, thousands of Egyptians had to die in the ten plagues. In order for us to live here in freedom and not be oppressed by a tyrannical government, our forefathers had to kill tens of thousands of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. And in order for our Lord Himself to give the world a way to come unto Him and earn a place in heaven, He had to die on the cross. Freedom, monotheism, eternal salvation—the greatest gifts in human history have only ever come through death.”

     “So,” I asked, narrowing my eyes and scratching my head, “are you saying you agree with Socrates?”

     “No, son,” said my father, looking at me reassuringly as he served me a second helping of Frogmore stew. “I’m only saying that this is what Socrates thinks. I’m only trying to see things from his perspective. This is what philosophy’s all about, Grant—the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. At least that’s part of what philosophy is all about…it’s just too bad that this Socrates happens to be doing his work here in Spartanburg and not just a little further south in Athens, Georgia.”

     “Why?”

     “Oh, you know…only because it would’ve been more fitting that way—it would’ve made for a better story. But hey—the world’s not a perfect place. Not everything always works out as it ideally should, and we just have to make the best of it…here, Grant, have some more sausage and shrimp—I know those are your favorite parts of the stew, so I left the rest for you.”

     I didn’t like my father’s defense of Socrates any more than I liked what Socrates himself was doing, but I did have to admit that maybe it would be better if we tried to see things from other people’s perspectives more often, and maybe it would be a better world if we used our brains more often. I just didn’t appreciate being frightened into doing so. Over the past ten days, I’ve been so scared of becoming Socrates’ next victim that I’ve stopped watching TV, stopped playing video games, and have even stopped watching football; the only thing I do now during my free time is sit under a tree and think about the meaning of my life. During these past ten days I’ve tried everything possible to become a more reflective, thinking person, but I still fear it’s not enough; I am terrified that any day now, next to my unconscious body, the police will find a note that reads: “for the sin of thinking too much about your death and not actually thinking about your life. Yours truly, Socrates.”

     The next morning, when I went downstairs for breakfast after yet another sleepless night, my father was already in the kitchen and had made me some bacon and eggs. “Do you want some, dad?” I asked, noticing that all he was having for breakfast was a bowl of Kalamata olives and a glass of water.

     “That’s alright, son. I’m not too hungry this morning. Besides, in five minutes, I’ll be dead.”

     “What?!”

     “My water’s been poisoned.”

     “No!! Socrates got to you too, dad?! No!” I screamed, my forehead throbbing with foreboding. “Not you, dad! Not you! It can’t be!”

     “But it is, son,” he said, wrapping his right arm around my shoulder. “It is.”

     “But…but how do you know?”

     “Grant…am Socrates.”

     “Wha…what?!”

     My legs started shaking uncontrollably, and my stomach turned in on itself; I could barely speak.

     “You, dad?! You’re Socrates?! No! It can’t be!”

     “But it is, son,” he said, giving me a warm hug and patting me on the back. “It is…and now that you know the truth, I don’t even have to leave behind a note. Just tell the police—and tell the world—that the Socrates of Spartanburg, a.k.a. Calvin M. Russell, died for what he lived for: the life of the mind, and the love of thinking. From henceforth, for the rest of human history, no one will ever forget that Calvin Russell died so that every human being could become a thinking being.” And with that, my father collapsed head-first into his bowl of Kalamata olives.

 

     POSTSCRIPT

     Calvin Russell’s name was in the newspaper the next day, and they talked about him on the evening news the following night. After that week, no one ever talked about him ever again.

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