Living questions for learning spaces

“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” (Part ii)

The Franklin Planner was inspired by the “little book” Benjamin Franklin used in a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection”.

This is a reprint of an essay I first published in 2018, with minor revisions for clarity. I was yet quite ignorant; but tempting as it is to hide from that, I’ve decided to let it stand and respond to its deficiencies as I go on blogging. Leaving a trail of ignorance seems inevitable when it comes to writing about knowledge and learning. See part i, here.

In his autobiography, Franklin said he used the book to list 12 virtues that he wanted to guide his actions, including entries for Silence, Resolution, and Justice. He mapped each virtue to a “precept”, to clarify its practical scope.

After laying out these virtues, he took up one virtue every week and made a focused effort in practicing it. He used his “little book” to order his schedule and track his progress.

When he shared this scheme with an unnamed Quaker friend, the Quaker pointed out a weak point in Franklin’s method: His own pride.

…but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances,—I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

To guide his practice in Humility, Franklin wrote simply, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”.

Jesus and Socrates have more than humility in common. They are also teachers who each embody a unique ethic and a unique way of knowing. That is, they each model a different epistemology. If we look to Jesus and Socrates for their epistemologies, the theories of knowing implicit in their lives, how might that change the way we shape knowledge and trust in our own?

My reason for exploring this is, we are in the throes of a perilous struggle rooted in our relationship to knowledge and our ways of knowing. We notice conflict in our families, fault lines in our communities, and seismic upheaval in our society based on our clashing ways of knowing. The pivotal challenges we face are shrouded in confusion, misinformation, and mendacity.

Over the past decade, I began to see this epistemic crisis as the defining issue of our time. Since then, crisis has become calamity. Calamity upon calamity. Calamity shaped by confusion, mistrust, and desperate, insecure certainties.

Looking back at the values, goals, and relationships you listed, I wonder if any of them are untouched by the calamities we have faced? If you’re like me, the upheaval of our time has sometimes pressed you to triage them like patients in an emergency room.

Everywhere we look, we are faced with uncomfortable conversations. Are you tempted to dismiss these conversations with contempt? It is comforting to think our own way of knowing is so Right that we don’t even have to listen to contrasting views. It is comforting to disregard divergent ideas—and the people who hold them—as groundless, misguided, or even dangerous.

But Jesus and Socrates invite us into uncomfortable conversations. They challenge us to examine our own judgments. And their ways of knowing reveal patterns for inquiry, conversation, and reflection that allow us to encounter Truth as fellow learners.

The epistemology of Socrates is reflected in reason. For this work, I’m focused most of all on Socratic skepticism, Socratic questioning, and Socratic method. Socrates helps us think clearly about the underpinnings of our knowledge, question our certainties, and recognize the gaps in our knowing.

With Jesus, I’m focused most of all on an epistemology that took root in contemplative Christianity—from the early Desert Christians to contemporary Quaker practice. Silence, sustained attention to present reality and the Truth in our midst, observation, reflection, and intentionality. This contemplative epistemology helps us see ourselves and our knowing in a delicate web of relationship and meaninging.

My thesis is, reason and love go together. Together, they can improve our conversations and provide ways to discover common ground for mutual learning and trust.

I’m not sanguine about reversing the widespread culture of epistemic confusion. But maybe we don’t have to reverse it to create some islands where clear thinking and compassionate conversation can survive.

Two books that got me started in this work were To Know As We Are Known by Parker Palmer, and The Habit of Thought by Michael Strong. But it took a lot more than those two to really set out, and my apprenticeship continues. Beyond reading, my thinking about this was nurtured by a spiritual formation group at my Quaker meeting, along with thousands of conversations with friends who love reason. And they have been tested continuously by two decades of teaching and learning and nurturing learning communities.

Reason and love. I want to write more about these ways of knowing, but it’s going to take some work. Would you be willing to explore this theme with me?

First published Aug 2018; revised Sep 2021 and May 2023

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