17 MARCH 2007, Page 19

Ancient & modern

Primary school pupils in Clackmannanshire, taught to philosophise ‘like Socrates’, have evidently demonstrated dramatic improvements in IQ and other tests. But since the philosophy they are taught is all about working together to seek answers to problems — a worthy aim, of course — it is not at all clear how Socratic they are actually being.

The whole point about Socrates is that he began from one simple premise: that he knew nothing. That was why he was so baffled when a friend of his, Chaerephon, asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which it replied ‘No’. Reluctantly — ‘for the god cannot lie: that would not be right’ — Socrates decided that he had to test the proposition by finding someone wiser than himself. So, he tells us in Plato’s version of his trial defence speech (apologia), he approached politicians, people with a reputation for wisdom, poets and craftsmen and found that they all suffered from exactly the same fault: they thought they knew what they were talking about, but after questioning it emerged that the reverse was the case. So Socrates was forced to conclude that he was wiser than all of these people in this respect alone, that he at least did not think that he knew something when he transparently did not.

The result was, Socrates goes on, a great deal of hostility against himself for two reasons: first, self-important people did not like being made to look idiots, and second, people assumed Socrates must know everything about the subject himself, when in fact he knew nothing. Even worse, young people greatly enjoyed seeing Socrates shred the great and good, so tried the same trick themselves, and with some success too, creating even more resentment against him.

Faced with increasing streams of drivel masquerading as truth, pupils have never had a greater need for such a skill. One shudders to think, for example, what Socrates would make of the Education Secretary’s oafish plans for a new history curriculum all slavery, racism, Hitler and empire, for pity’s sake, as if history’s purpose were to rehearse today’s media headlines.

Come on, philosophers! Give our children the real Socrates! But go easy on the hemlock. In most cases.

Peter Jones