Nice is Overrated: The Lesson of House, M.D.

House200 Mélanie Frappier in The Philosopher's Magazine:

Is House simply a “raving lunatic”, or is his obnoxious behaviour a symptom of a more serious condition? We could paraphrase House (in “The Socratic Method”) and answer: “Pick your specialist, you pick your symptoms. I’m a jerk. It’s my only symptom. I go see three doctors. The neurologist tells me it’s my pituitary gland, the endocrinologist says it’s an adrenal gland tumor, the intensivist…can’t be bothered, sends me to a witty philosopher, who tells me I push others because I think I’m Socrates.”

Socrates? If there was someone ancient Greeks thought was a pest, it was he. He was probably a stonemason by trade, but Socrates clearly preferred to spend his time discussing philosophy, nagging others with questions about truth, beauty, and justice. He didn’t write anything himself, yet the oracle at Delphi declared, “No one is wiser.” Bright young Athenians, like Plato and Xenophon, were Socrates’ “ducklings” and immortalized him as the main character of their dialogues.

Because Socrates neglected his work in favour of philosophy, he was poor. Unable to properly provide for his children, Socrates was pursued throughout the city by his sharp-tongued wife, Xanthippe. While Xanthippe is remembered as the only person to have ever won an argument against Socrates – much as Cuddy is the only one who can sometimes bend House’s will – her admonitions had only a moderate influence on her strong-headed husband.

Like House, Socrates showed little empathy when engaging people in philosophical debates. While, unlike House, Socrates valued friendship, people were quick to point out that discussions with him were as “pleasant” as a stingray’s electric discharge. Arguably such unpleasantness was justified, because Socrates believed himself to be on a godly mission to show people that they didn’t know anything. Part of this mission was to undo the work of the Sophists, who, according to Plato, taught the art of winning arguments for the sake of winning arguments rather than achieving the truth.

Why stun and confuse people with ironical questions, if afterwards you only insult them and reject their solution? The answer lies in the so-called Socratic method.