The Art of Questioning

I’ve been in the St. John’s Graduate Program in the Liberal Arts for about 2 months now. I have read a lot in those two months and it would be hard to summarize Plato’s Meno and the Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Descartes Meditations, and the Bible in a succinct way to catch every one up to speed. Flipping through my journal, I have found a good entry to describe one of the most salient impressions from my readings so far and I have adapted it a bit to give an introduction to my studies. Here it is.

It’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning and I am hunkered down in a living room chair, a single lamp lit,  trying to read some Plato before my children and husband wake up. Ever since I started my Masters program, I fit my reading into the nooks and crannies of the day. I am studying what are referred to as “the great books”—many of the most influential texts in western civilization (pre-twentieth century for the most part) in Philosophy, Theology, Mathematics, Science, Politics, Literature, and History. These books are an open window into some of the greatest questions of our common lived experience and intellectual heritage, and in opening that window, I am allowing myself to question and be questioned.

To ask a good question is truly an art. To be open to being asked is a sign of great humility. I need to improve a bit in both. Right now I am reading Plato’s dialogue, the “Meno.” In it he presents a conversation between the famous Greek philosopher Socrates and a young, handsome, and ambitious man named Meno. Meno asks whether virtue is something that can be taught, and through a series of questions, Socrates sets out to show him that, first, one must really ask “what is virtue?”. Meno resists Socrates’ questions because he thinks he already knows what virtue is. 

One of the most important moments in the dialogue is when Meno admits that it is better to know that he is wrong and thus be in a place to seek the right answer, then to continue on thinking that he is right when he’s not. That is to say, Meno should be happy that Socrates has shown him (and not simply told him) by asking good questions that he was mistaken about what virtue really is. Now they are in a place where they can seek the answer together. Socrates is enthusiastic about this search; Meno is still more interested in his own agenda and by the end of the dialogue they still haven’t come up with an answer. 

I don’t know about you, but if I was Socrates, I would be impatient with Meno and I would want to give him whatever answer I thought was best. On the other hand, if I was Meno, I too would probably be defensive: I am being forced to question a belief that I hadn’t sought to challenge,  I was comfortable in my assumptions.

Although there is a danger in constantly doubting and questioning everything, it rarely does harm if you  question something with the confidence that you will do your best to discern the best possible answer, then allow that answer to adjust your assumptions and move on accordingly. In fact, that kind of questioning most often does a person a lot of good. (And if it’s the kind of question that takes a long time to answer, like the existence of God, I suppose you have to be cheerful in your ongoing search and keep living as best as you can with the information you have) 

Opening up to asking and receiving more questions would make me a better friend, wife and mother. My children have not yet reached the age of the incessant “why?” but when they do, I want to answer their questions happily, even if I have to say, “I don’t know, let’s try to figure it out together.” I am very excited for the intense amount of seeking I will have to do as a mother, going deeper into answers I thought I already knew in order to help illuminate the world for my children. 

In regards to friendship, often times I do not ask questions of my friends because I do not want to make them uncomfortable, or to raise a disagreement. However, this assumes that both of us are better off not knowing whether we are really wrong about something or that we couldn’t make our good answers better—more intelligible, more crisp—by looking at them from another’s point of view. Or that we wouldn’t both benefit from simply knowing each other better through the process.

I don’t really believe any of those things, yet in the moment, I act as if I do. So how can I address these differences of opinion or lifestyle in a helpful way? 

Looking to Socrates (as depicted by Plato),  here are some tips I have picked up about how to ask and receive challenging questions:

  • Ask with genuine curiosity and humility, rather than a hidden agenda of proving yourself right. 
  • Be willing to say when you don’t know and have a sense of humor. 
  • Start by defining terms: make sure you both understand the way you are using words or concepts by saying things like “Can you explain more what you mean by “such and such?” 
  • Don’t be a cynic and only ever tear down others’ ideas. Offer your own beliefs for examination too. 

And, I would add, remember to smile. 

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