Lawyers Appreciate the Wisdom of Socrates
December 31, 2006
David Giacalone, through his pro se advocacy weblog shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress has tagged me to join the year-end "lawyers appreciate" thread that started here. A compilation of responses since the December 22 start of the project may be found here. David tagged me in either or both of my online personae, and I choose to finesse the choice -- just ahead of deadline -- by posting this to both of my weblogs..
Some respondents have attempted a general assessment of what lawyers, as a class, appreciate. Others have focused more closely on what they, as individual lawyers, appreciate. I thought briefly of making a joke of it --
Financial Advisers Say "Lawyers Appreciate," So Buy and Save As Many of Them as You Can
-- but I just as quickly thought better of it (although it must be admitted that many of we lawyers could do with some saving. But, I digress.).
In the end, because so much of what attorneys do takes place between their ears and because the practice of law is so often concerned with getting at, or in some cases attempting to concoct a favorable version of, reality, I found myself returning to that old sly fox of ancient Athens, Socrates.
In law school, most upcoming lawyers are exposed to the so-called "Socratic Method," in which the professor -- generally in modern dress and typically not speaking Greek -- seeks to compel the student to find or discover or discern or make a lucky guess at the point of doctrine under consideration, much as the character we know as "Socrates" in the Dialogues of Plato does with his students or debating partners. Plato's Socrates is concerned not with fine points of the law but with the Larger Questions on which the law, and all of engaged human life, depend: what is Good, how can we live in a way that is in keeping with the Good and, above all, how can we go about knowing that anything is True.
Which leads me to the particular "Wisdom of Socrates" that I have in mind.
It is most famously contained in the Apology, Plato's account of Socrates' own encounter with the legal system, the trial in which the older philosopher was convicted and sentenced to death. Because all we know of Socrates reaches us secondhand, and because it comes to most of us in translation from a long-gone version of an ancient and foreign language -- discuss, if you wish, the multiple layers of hearsay involved here -- it can be stated in any number of ways, none of which carries any guarantee of accuracy. My own favorite, by virtue of its relative simplicity, is this:
All I know is that I know nothing.
Here, for lawyers and non-lawyers both, is the beginning of all other wisdom. Socrates may well have been pulling the court's leg a bit when he said it -- he so often gets the better of his philosophical sparring partners that we cannot but suspect that he actually thinks he knows more than a few things, and many more than his accusers to be sure -- but it stands as the indispensable starting point for most any other idea. When he says he knows nothing, Socrates makes no claim that nothing can be known. While some things may be truly unknowable, many other and important things, large and small, can be found out, and can be known, by the application of clear and careful thought combined with the genuine desire to find them out. Knowing that you don't know them, or knowing that what you think you know about them is wrong, and acknowledging those limitations if only to your self, is the first step to knowledge.
[Aside: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld inspired plentiful mockery when he spoke of "known unknowns," but his essential point was not that far removed from Socrates.]
Like "Go" in a game of Monopoly, Socrates' statement pays off each time you return to it. As a lawyer, I appreciate its value every time I try to figure out what are the facts of a case and which ones make a real difference, or what rule of law applies to the problem, or whether some new or different rule ought to apply and whether it is possible to reach it, and so on. Each time those questions are answered, it is likely that they lead to a new question. By stringing together those answers, one eventually reaches a final answer, or at least a point past which one cannot or need not pass. Often, because the questions aren't really new, the process is a speedy one, though it pays to return to what you think you know to be certain that you still know it.
As my more personal weblog reflects, my own mind goes inquiring into many things other than the law -- which is to say it is easily distracted, but what of that when the game's afoot? -- and in those inquiries Socrates' proposition is equally helpful. I learn something new every day, and marvel to be reminded that I did not know it when I woke up that morning. Life is, or should be, an endless sequence of discoveries, finding out what we did not know when we started and using that new knowledge to find out what more there is to know. Socrates only stopped that process because he was compelled by the polis to do so. We too, whether in or out of the law, should not stop from testing our own ignorance and adding to our store of what is not ignorance, until whatever day prevents us from going further with the task.
T.S. Eliot, toward the end of "Little Gidding" in Four Quartets, writes
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And, we might add, know that we did not know it before. Wherefore this lawyer appreciates the wisdom of Socrates.
Appreciate and be excellent to one another. Onward! Into another New Year!