The Irony of Law Schools' Identification with Socrates

I don't know why, but every couple of years I find it refreshing to read Plato's Dialogues, particularly his Apology--the rendition of Socrates' defense to the charges of impiety (not worshipping the gods sanctioned by the State), as well as Crito (Plato's rendition of a dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito on justice) and Phaedo (Plato's record of the last dialogue by Socrates before being put to death).

Why do I find these refreshing?  They are full of truth, great drama, and moving discussions on the deep moral issues of life.  For instance, take the following:  "A man who is good for anything ought  not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad."  (Apology, Jowett Trans.). Or, in responding to Crito's effort to convince Socrates to escape--something Socrates recognizes as an "evil" (offense against the State that had nourished and supported him) and retaliation for his unjust trial--Socrates made the remarkable statement:  "For this opinion has never been held by any considerable number of persons . . . that neither injury or retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right."  (Crito)   And after Socrates persuades his friends of the soundness of his decision to stand trial and submit to the death penalty, the Phaedo leaves little doubt that we are dealing with one of the great men of history:  "Such was the end . . . of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best."

Modern law schools refer to their use of the "Socratic" method.   In reality, law schools use a method of dialogue that seeks to question students in a way that the person questioned will sharpen her answer, analyze a point more accurately, etc.   Rarely do law schools use the kind of dialogues we see in Plato's Dialogues.   Recently,  law schools from around the country met on the topic of how to devote as much time to ethical and moral formation of law students as to teaching logical analysis and lawyering skills.   See

The conference raised important questions.   Many of the schools are, like Regent Law School, devoting time in courses other than in Professional Responsibility to cultivating in students a sensitivity to ethical and moral issues they will face.  But the consensus of those who attended the conference is we have a great deal of uncharted territory--i.e., we need to develop methods for helping our students to engage moral issues and to resolve them.

In re-reading the Dialogues, I wonder whether we might use the Socratic method as it was used best by Socrates himself--to explore moral issues, to engage the larger questions of life and law practice.   Law students often have not thought deeply about these issues. But maybe they have not because their teachers have not asked them to do so.  Through questioning, and reasoning, Socrates reached conclusions that frankly astound me.   The notion of not returning evil for evil, for instance, is a profound teaching--one that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount addressed.  How did Socrates know this truth (one with which his friend Crito agreed) purely through reason?   Many of us would say that natural law--universal principles known to all, from the earliest times to the present--can lead one to truths such as this one. 

The opportunities are rich to use not only the example of Socrates' life and eloquent defense of standing for principle rather than expediency, but also the method he employed, in a way that will explore moral truths, rather than simply reducing his "method" to one of refining law student's reasoning skills.   There is a place for using the method to develop legal reasoning and to cultivate ethical formation in law education.  The problem is that, right now, the exploration of moral values in law schools receives far less attention.

Thanks to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, and its consortium of law schools in the Initiative "Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers"  (the sponsor of the conference mentioned above), for spurring the profession to begin taking on the challenge of helping students identify their moral values and to develop an ethical identity.  Only by so doing can students, in Socrates' words, "consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad."

1 comment:

  1. Can virtue be taught? We cannot know whether virtue can be taught until we know what virtue is. According to Socrates—as found in Plato’s Meno—virtue is knowledge and, as such, can be taught. Virtue is not certain knowledge nor mere ignorance—but right belief. It is neither simply teachable, like geometry, nor not teachable at all, but teachable in a way. In short, only God can teach it, but we can help discover (“remember”) it by being “Socratic.”

    Can we have moral education? Should our schools make their students not only smarter but better people? I believe so. Utilizing the “Socratic” method in a true Socratic sense will help students to “know thyself”—the first step to moral virtue.