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  • Writer's pictureWenee Yap

Living in Fear of the Socratic Method

Socrates painting

Oh, Socrates. So clever, so Greek, so dead... and yet still so much the bane of a law student’s daily grind. Any law student that’s experienced even a single class of raging debate over a case hypothetical or a ludicrous law (“Can we legislate to kill all blue-eyed babies, anyone? What? We can? Damn you, parliamentary sovereignty!”) will be familiar with the Socratic Method.

For those less acquainted, the Socratic Method seeks to elicit truth via the negative elimination of untruths, via constant Q&A challenge of a broad assumption, which allows an otherwise commonly held belief to be whittled down to an unlikely, perhaps visionary new understanding of an idea.

For example, you might begin with the assumption that Australians all have and enjoy free speech. Is this true? Where in law is such a right enshrined? (Bill of rights? Pfft. Stop watching Law and Order.) Through such a process of dialectic questioning, research and elimination, you will reach the conclusion that, in Australia at least, while there are some protections regarding political communication, Australians generally do not have a right to free speech. (Of course, this simply begs more questions... but that’s for another soapbox.)

Dear Socrates. While I thank you for imparting such rigorous intellectual method to contest all ideas and assume nothing of our world, I challenge you, Mr dead Greek brainiac, on another front: your damn method has left generations of law students in fear. Of being wrong. How, you ask? Well, like Juliet of Romeo, let me name the ways...

All’s fair in love and law

Valentine’s Day recently passed, and with it we saw an inspired (and less inspired) slew of romantic declarations. (My favourite: the Valentine’s couple who dispensed with any candlelit dinner and roses dozen cliché for hard-core role-playing bondage in the back of their Subaru Legacy, resulting in a charge of public indecency. Which I’m sure only added to the evening’s passion.)

Sadly, the Socratic Method has ruined my ability to blindly enjoy reckless romance. Best evidenced by the time I, in first year law school, told a male friend that relationships were very troublesome and really, if one were serious about keeping their passions alive, ought to be governed by clear contract setting forth the rights, responsibilities and liabilities of each party. Surprisingly (I thought), he said that wasn’t very romantic. Naturally, I was outraged. He was a law student, after all. (Brightside: in lieu of reckless romance, law does offer a range of unforgivably nerdy pick-up lines. “I’d debrief you any day”, “let’s share some attorney-client privilege”, etc.)

Social media, electronic communication and texting

While all law students may be aware of the gift shorthand web slang and texting has given to society (I use the word ‘gift’ rather broadly), most will shun it, choosing instead to compulsively edit IM conversations, Tweets and Facebook status updates of erroneous commas and apostrophes rather than see grammatical errors and misspellings writ large and broadcast online. Sure, you can call me anally retentive, obsessive, and just plain nerdy...but words, after all, are the weapons of any good lawyer.

Plus, if ‘LOL’ and ‘LMFAO’ is too much like cavemen pseudo-communicating for Hank Moody, it’s too ugly for us too. Can’t argue with a good writer on a tirade about the demise of language.

Any kind of regular conversation

In short, the Socratic Method has rendered us (or at least me) unfit for regular social conversation. Obsessive attention to speaking only when one has a contribution to stun the room, or a visionary idea that might change the way the world spins... well, it leaves you rather silent most of the time. Not only silent, but mildly contemptuous for all the less than stellar conversation that seems to be going strong in spite of Socrates’ dead, stern, judgemental gaze.

But that’s law students for you. We combine high-functioning and neuroses like no other professino. Sorry, profession.

Dammit, it’s what makes us unique. Like snowflakes or oil slick bubbles.

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