The Mind at Work

You know that one book…It starts with Norms and ends with Nobility?  Its author’s last name rhymes with sticks?

(Anyone who happens to read this blog and is not into classical education is rolling their eyes right now, cause they’re like “No, I do not know that book.”  Sorry.  I do think you should read it though.)

Yeah, that book.  It’s a very fine book.  Here’s a quote about the concept of dialectic that I am in love with, because it is doing me so much good.

(Sidenote: you could compare “dialectic” to the words “dialogue” or “debate”.  Other large-and-in-charge words ahead; slow and steady wins the race when it comes to reading and comprehending N&N.)

Socrates identified dialectic as the form of the activity of thinking–the mind’s habit of challenging the thoughts and observations originating in itself or in other minds and of engaging in a desultory [unfocused] dialogue with itself until the issues are resolved. […] By making his students conscious of their dialectical thinking processes, Socrates hoped to assign them parts in a dramatic dialogue that otherwise occurs unconsciously and haphazardly in the thinking mind.  Once the conversation between Socrates and his students took on the dialectical form of mental activity, learning became possible.  Man could now visualize and oversee his own mind at work.  The very form of these conversations provided Socrates’ students with a model for how their minds ought to work.  Whereas dialectical thinking may occur at an unconscious level in all men, education makes man conscious of how his mind works when engaged in an activity of thinking.

–David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 67


So to narrate this a bit, we learn two main things from this section:

1. My mind is probably always engaging in some amount of dialectic/dialogue with itself, even if I don’t notice it.

In fact, without education to establish in us the habit of noticing our mind at work, it will be an unconscious and haphazard process.  This was a light bulb moment for me.  The last year of my life has been extremely dialectical, as I have wrestled with belief, theology, orthodoxy and practice in my own life and in the life of my church.  Most of that experience felt haphazard at best, utterly anxiety-ridden at worst.  My heart, mind and spirit were up to something (under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, of course), but I didn’t have enough perspective to know what it was.  It felt as if my most deeply held beliefs were under attack, and I wanted to protect myself.  I could not “visualize and oversee [my] own mind at work.”

2. My mind ought to work in a certain way when faced with a conflicting belief or viewpoint.

This is comforting.  Cunning old Socrates gifted us with his method of dialogue (which I still don’t really get) as a way to educate the student in overseeing her own mind at work.  This can only instill confidence and peace, because a process that works is at work.

I ought to learn more about Socratic dialogue.  Everyone in a church with a lot of milennials could probably use to learn and then teach how to oversee the mind at work.  I think I’m technically Generation Y, but I do not feel at all confident in my ability to think for myself.

Here are some resources I’m planning on perusing in order to help myself out, if you’re interested:

Forms of Instruction Park III: Socratic Instruction {Expanding Wisdom}

Andrew Kern on Socratic Teaching {Circe Podcast Network}

Parents’ Review Articles on Socrates {Ambleside Online}

All of chapter 6, called “On the Necessity of Dogma,” communicates truths that challenge and comfort me.  It illuminates the need for that persistent discomfort that comes with real learning.  We would never feel the need to learn anything, if we never felt that dissonance which alerts us to contradiction; we would never explore that contradiction, nor come to a deeper understanding of truth.

All this to say, if I sense my mind gnawing on something, trying to figure out a way to digest it, I don’t need to be anxious.  This is good and right!

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which passes understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

-Philippians 4:6-7

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8 thoughts on “The Mind at Work

  1. I haven’t read N & N yet but I really want to. Some provoking thoughts here & thanks for the links. I woke up this morning ‘gnawing’ over some stuff and that verse from Philippians came to my mind! I like how you used it in the context of discomfort and contradiciton & that this is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mystie! I am planning on it, but also wondering if it’s going to get too big for my taste. I have a little trouble following forum threads that are packed with people.


  2. Thank you for this! I am looking forward to reading N&N starting in January with the Ambleside Online forum. It seems like it’s getting increasingly difficult to have socratic/dialectic conversations with many people. Have you noticed this? When you challenge someone’s opinion or beliefs, they shut down or become hostile. The discomfort and dissonance is too uncomfortable…they would rather just talk to people who agree with everything they say. Not saying I have it all figured out by any means, but I do enjoy meaty conversation that inevitably leads to some degree of “dissonance.” That’s where the growth happens!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think it’s very difficult. I had an experience at the University of MIchigan where a professor gave a brilliant logical proof for the existence of God, and several students were actually angry and kind of shut the discussion down. Which is exactly what C.S. Lewis warns about in The Abolition of Man, when he says university students will learn to automatically self-police and shut dialectic down, and the professors won’t need to do the indoctrinating anymore. (Actually, now that I’m looking for that quote, I can’t find it, so I’m not exactly sure it was Lewis.). Anyway, that was fascinating to watch (and you can bet I took more classes with THAT professor).

      I will say that I myself really struggle to have dialectical conversations with people. I don’t know how to do it without allowing too much emotion in–whether it’s feeling threatened, insecure, angry, confused, whatever. This is why I feel we need to normalize this kind of discussion. I’ve actually been sharing N&N quotes with the women’s group I lead at my church, because a lot of them feel the same way. We live in a city where there is constant argument going on about every little thing, and it can be very overwhelming.


  3. I started reading N&N this past January but went too fast and burnt out (slow and steady is right). I did find my notes from my reading of it about 6 years ago while I was cleaning recently. The things I noticed then and now are totally different. I didn’t know that Ambleside was doing a group – I might have to join that.

    I think the current popular term that captures some of this is meta-cognition – thinking about what and how you are thinking. I think there is more to it than just the “brain” when Hicks discusses it though. Kern talks about how Socrates first goal was to get the other person to realize that they didn’t know what they thought they knew – get them to realize that they can’t define it or explain something by asking them questions. Once you realize that you don’t know something – then you are teachable. That’s why it is hard to have a Socratic dialogue because no one is going to admit that they don’t know something in our culture – it is a sign of ignorance and shame – instead of being a sign of being ready to learn. This is also why Kern says that being in school is tough because we are constantly realizing there are things that we don’t know and that can wear on a person. I guess that’s why humility is such an important part of being willing to learn too – that was in some of my reading recently too.

    That is encouraging that out there might be a model for helping me think about organizing my thinking. Are you going to continue to post from N&N? I hope so!


    1. Yes, I am hoping to keep posting. I’m actually done with the first section of the book and have been mulling it over lately, not quite ready to move on. I agree with you, Missy. It is about humility and repentance.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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