Jules van Schaijik

Is all confusion evil? A Socratic thought.

Oct. 28 at 2:10pm

In response to a question after a recent lecture, Archbishop Chaput said about the Synod on the Family that “the public image that came across was one of confusion” and that “confusion is of the devil”. I think I understand what he means by this, and to some extent I agree.  However, there's another, more positive way of looking at it. Not all confusion is of the devil. Some confusion is even salutary—a necessary stage on the way to wisdom.

The point is made classically in Plato’s Meno. The dialogue begins with Meno confidently telling Socrates that he knows perfectly well what virtue is.

There is no difficulty about it… I have spoken about virtue hundreds of times, held forth often on the subject in front of large audiences, and very well too…

It only takes a few Socratic questions, however, before Meno is utterly confused. Now, when Socrates asks him about virtue, he is perplexed and has nothing to say. He complains that Socrates has numbed him, like a sting ray numbs his prey.

Is Meno’s befuddlement an evil? Has Socrates injured him? Of course not. Rather, he has done him a service. To make the lesson clearer and more concrete, Socrates proceeds with his famous interrogation of a slave boy. At first, the boy thinks it is obvious that you can double the area of a square by doubling the length of its sides. Socrates points out that he is wrong, and the boy takes another erroneous stab at an answer. Finally he gives up: “It’s no use, Socrates, I just don’t know.”  

At this point Socrates turns back to Meno, who has watched the whole proceeding:

Socrates: Observe, Meno, the stage he has reached…  At the beginning he did not know the side of the square of eight feet. Nor indeed does he know it now, but then he thought he knew it and answered boldly, as was appropriate—he felt no perplexity. Now however he does feel perplexed.  Not only does he not know the answer; he doesn't even think he knows.

Meno: Quite true.

Socrates: Isn't he in a better position now in relation to what he didn't know?

Meno: I admit that too.

Socrates: So in perplexing him and numbing him like the sting ray, have we done him any harm?

Meno: I think not.

Socrates: In fact we have helped him to some extent toward finding out the right answer, for now not only is he ignorant of it but he will be quite glad to look for it. Up to now, he thought he could speak well and fluently, on many occasions and before large audiences, on the subject of the square double the size of a given square, maintaining that it must have a side of double the length.

Meno: No doubt.

Socrates: Do you suppose then that he would have attempted to look for, or learn, what he thought he knew, though he did not, before he was thrown into complexity, became aware of his ignorance, and felt a desire to know?

Meno: No.

Socrates: Then the numbing process was good for him?

Meno: I agree.

Confusion in this case served to 1) liberate a person from error; 2) overcome presumption, and 3) teach humility and restrain the urge to lecture others on topics we don't fully understand.  Moreover, it can 4) awaken a desire to learn and search for the truth, thereby 5) increasing the probability of reaching it eventually.

To see how all this applies to the recent Synod on the Family it's worth recalling that the truth about marriage was never on the table. The Pope's purpose was to find new ways of teaching, applying and living that truth in a drastically new pastoral context. This is not easy, and there is no ready made answer. Finding a solution will require a lot of patient and sympathetic listening to people with widely different experiences and views. The Church must know and feel how genuinely perplexing the situation is, before she can hope to find an adequate way forward. The Pope knows this, which is no doubt why he urged the bishops to speak freely, in a sincere fraternal exchange of thoughts.

Some Catholic commentators seem to see no need for a special Synod. To them, the solution is perfectly obvious: just restate, loudly and clearly, the traditional teaching of the Church. To me, they sound a lot like Meno and his slave boy before Socrates got to them.

Could the documents produced by the Synod have been clearer? Probably. At the same time, we should keep in mind that one cannot give what one does not have. The Church is not debating the timeless truths about marriage and the family that she already knows. She is looking for something unknown: a good pastoral approach to a completely new cultural and historical problem. Some amount of confusion, therefore, is to be expected, and perhaps even welcomed. Clarity has to be achieved before it can be offered.


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