WordPress: Plato’s Academy Today

Some of you may have noticed that my thread on Socrates was going strong all through the summer and then, seemingly, stopped. Something similar, you might have thought, occurred with my thread on America.

Well, no, the two threads did not stop. They went into overdrive, albeit in a different form. Indeed, they became a story–what we call a “Christmas Special”–in the new holiday issue of The Economist.

It is called “Socrates in America: Arguing to death“. Please think and smirk as you read it (which also, of course, goes for almost anything you read on The Hannibal Blog).

(A similar, though less pronounced, process led to my other piece in that issue, a sort of polemic against direct democracy. That idea occurred to me after amusing myself, here on The Hannibal Blog, in my thread on freedom, with posts such as this one on James Madison.)

Thank you!

But what am I saying! Nonsense. It was not I, amusing myself. It was we, amusing ourselves.

And that is the point of this post. It is, first, to say Thank You to you, who come here to comment, to teach me, challenge me, tease me.

Those of you who have been readers for a while will see yourselves in my story in The Economist. Cheri will recognize, in the ninth paragraph, the gem that she herself sent to me. Jag will spot, further down, his pun on the Greek word idiotes. Mr Crotchety, who offends the gods by not having his own blog, will see his own worldview–irreverent, humorous, incisive–throughout the piece, since he trained me well in it. Phillip S Phogg, with his deep erudition, subtly worn; Solid Gold Creativity, with her sensitivity and philosophy; Thomas StazykThecriticalline and the Village Gossip, with their almost poetic thought processes;  Peter G, with his outrageous wit; Steve Block with his precision mind; Douglas with his forging inquiry; …. the list goes on and on and on.

Those of you who come sporadically, such as Vincent and Kempton; those of you have come recently, such as Man of Roma, Susan and Dafna; those of you who disappear for a while and resurface months later; and the many, many more who don’t comment at all but just read: all of you have enriched this blog and my mind and my writing.

You are all now co-authors of stories in The Economist and of a book in the making.

Academy 2.0

Which leads me to another insight: Socrates was wrong about one thing, as he himself would gladly concede if he were given a WordPress account: the written word is not inimical to good conversation; text is not necessarily dumb and dead.

What we do here is dialectic, defined as good conversations. What we have here is the Academy that Socrates’ student Plato founded in Athens. Where they ambled in circles and joked and teased and inquired and contested and thought, we do the same thing here on our blogs, minus the ambling.

And there is something new and special about these conversations. I have debated in many settings–the famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist in 25 St. James’s Square, London, being a notable one.

When you practice dialectic in those settings, in the flesh, you are always aware who is speaking as well as what is being said. Often this adds an impurity into the mental flow. Are we paying more attention to somebody of higher status or rank, less to somebody who is new? Are we distracted by a twitch, a snort, a sniffle? A curve, accentuated by a fabric, reminiscent of a …

Here there is none of that. With one single exception, I have met none of you in person. (And is that not amazing?) Here, the only thing that matters is what, not who.

Put differently, here in this modern and more pure academy, we all feel safe:

  • safe to contradict ourselves,
  • safe to take intellectual risks,
  • safe to fail and advance,
  • safe from embarrassment.

We exist on our blogs, between which we skip and link and flit like thoughts across neurons, through our words and associations, our minds and thoughts alone.

Here, we are each equal with Socrates.

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The spoken and the written word


So Socrates loved good conversations, which he called dialectic, and disdained bad conversations, which he called eristic, as I described in the previous post of this series on Socrates. But that actually opens up lots and lots of fascinating and difficult issues.

For instance: the relative value of the spoken and the written word.

Since I happen to write words for a living, I spend quite a bit of time pondering this, as you might imagine.

Socrates never wrote a single word. He did not believe in it. Why waste your time killing words (since to write them down was, to him, to kill them) when you could send them back and forth in intimate conversation such as the scene (with him on the left) above?

His student Plato was more schizophrenic on the point. He agreed with Socrates but also, obviously, felt that he should write things down to make them immortal, to reach more people, to make Socrates’ wisdom ‘scalable’ in our lingo. So he compromised, you see: He “wrote” by transcribing … conversations!

One generation on, and we get to Aristotle, who clearly did not agree at all, and wrote what we would consider genuine philosophical treatises. No qualms about the written word at all!

Why did Socrates disdain the written word?

He sort of tells us in one of his (ie, Plato’s) dialogues, the Phaedrus. He takes several shots:

  • He tells a legend from Egypt, in which a god gives a king the gift of writing as an aid to memory. The king, however, observes that writing things down is likely to be a remedy for reminding, at the expense of remembering, and thus will lead to less wisdom, not more.
  • He then compares writing to paintings, which “remain most solemnly silent” whenever you question them, and just say the same thing over and over, stupidly and dumbly. People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.

So text has several problems, in Socrates’ opinion:

  1. It is not a conversation, not dialectic, because it cannot go back and forth and climb toward something higher, such as a truth.
  2. An author has no control over what idiots or assholes might read his text, whereas somebody in oral conversation does control with whom he speaks.
  3. Words outside of their original context (ie the intention of the person using them, and the way a listener might hear them) can mean anything, and thus nothing at all.

Ultimately, Socrates disdained writing for a subtler reason that unifies all these points: It’s just not what life is about!

Instead, life is about communing with others and discovering yourself and truths in conversation. Not about recording this or that, or propagating this or that. Socrates believed that you can’t find yourself when you write, only when you converse.

Where does that leave us writers?

In a tight spot, it would seem.

Then again, we have moved on 2,400 years, and few things are becoming clearer. Here is how I would converse with Socrates on the matter if he were to visit us today:

The need for conversation…

First, I would tell him that he is mostly right, even and especially for writers. Only a tiny part of “writing” consists of typing words–5%, if I had to guess. The other 95% consists of living, experiencing, interviewing, discussing, talking, reading what others have written, and so on. The ideas and stories that end up on pages don’t come out of nowhere. They still come out of conversations.

… but also for order

But writing, which should never replace conversation, has something to contribute: order. Real conversations–and Socrates’ own dialogue with Phaedrus is a great example–run all over the place, like foals on a meadow. That’s the fun. But it can also be frustrating when you want structure and discipline about one particular issue. Writing can simply be a way of forcing yourself to structure the thoughts that came up in conversations.

Why not written conversation?

This is one bit that Socrates overlooked. You can converse in written form.

Some of the greatest conversations in history have been exchanges of letters. Just think of Voltaire and Frederick the Great.

Today there is a fascinating technological twist. In 400 BCE, it was impossible to imagine ‘place-shifting’ (via tele-phony, far-hearing) or time-shifting conversations. But time-shifting is exactly what we do when we …. blog!. I write words, and those then turn into conversations in the comments below, or on other blogs that link to them. So the words are not dead at all. They can talk back. Writing can be conversation.

Indeed, by time-shifting the back-and-forth of a real conversation, the dialectic can become better. All of the people who talked to Socrates must have felt, a few hours later: “Doh! If only I had said…..” Well, now it’s possible to take a moment to think–without the distractions of, say, a famously ugly face such as Socrates’, or body odor, or wind, or sun–and then to come back with a clearer thought.

The inevitability of context

But Socrates was right on at least one point: The written word without context, as provided by conversation, is treacherous. Just take this notorious example, which we call the 2nd Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Does that mean that a people has the right to keep an armed militia, or that every shmuck in the people individually has a right to bear everything from a pocket knife to nukes, whether there is a militia anywhere to be seen or not?

Socrates would find the author and … converse!

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Good & bad conversations: Recognize Eris


I ended the previous post, the first in this series on Socrates, by suggesting that we “count all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today.” So let’s start with perhaps the most important (if not the most famous) insight that Socrates gave us: the incredible importance of knowing good from bad conversations. And for that, I need to introduce you to that strange lady above, whose named is Eris.

We spend much of our lives, and indeed many of our happiest moments, conversing with others. I love that word, which means turning toward each other. Good conversations make us human and whole, make us feel connected to others and bring us closer to the truth of something (or at least further from a fallacy).

Unfortunately, we also spend at least as much time in bad conversations. You know them:

  • bickering between husbands and wives
  • political “debates” on Fox, or indeed almost anywhere else.
  • Cross-examinations in courtrooms,
  • and on and on and on

Those “conversations”, which are really a turning away from one another, do the opposite of what good conversations do: They leave us depleted, down, disconnected, alienated, sleazy, yucky.

What is the difference between the good and the bad conversations? Socrates told us, by giving us two new words:

  • dialectic (=good), and
  • eristic (=bad)

Meet Eris, the Ur-Bitch

So now it’s time for a story. It’s the most famous of the many stories about Eris, whose Roman name was Discordia.

Eris was the goddess of strife. Nobody liked her, so when the future parents of Achilles had their wedding, everybody was invited except Eris. Eris fumed.

She knew what she was good at, and did it: She left a golden apple lying around the wedding party. It said “To the most beautiful”. How cunning, how feminine.

Three extremely beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, immediately started bickering about who had rights to the apple. It was decided to appoint a judge, somebody sufficiently hapless, naive and male to be easily manipulated. They settled on Paris, a prince of Troy.

“Paris,” whispered Athena, “don’t you think I’m the most beautiful? I’m the goddess of wisdom, as you know, and I could be persuaded to make you the wisest man alive.”

“Choose me,” said Hera, “I’m the wife of Zeus and can make you the most powerful man in the whole world.”

“Oh, Paris,” cooed Aphrodite with a tiny bat of her languorous eyelids. “You know who I am, don’t you? We all know that the apple is mine. Say so, and I will give you the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Paris, with the priorities of the average teenager, chose Aphrodite. Athena and Hera were fuming. Hatred descended on the wedding party. And everybody knew that Paris was now to get Helen, the most beautiful of the mortal women.

The only problem: Helen was already married, to a Spartan who was the brother of the great king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his Greeks would have to come after Paris and his Trojans to get Helen back. Ten years of bloody war followed. Eris had outdone herself.

Eristic conversation

So Socrates chooses to call bad conversations eristic. They are full of strife, because–and this is the key–they are conversations in which each side wants above all to win. Where there is a winner, there is usually a loser, so these conversations separate us.

The opposite was dialectic, whence our word dialogue, the Greek form of the Latin conversation (ie, turning toward). When you turn toward another, you are not trying to win, you are trying to find the truth. That is your motivation, and it is one you share with your conversation partner (as opposed to opponent). Everybody wins, as long as you climb higher through your conversing, toward more understanding or more communion.

We today

I mentioned in the previous post a series of serendipitous events recently. The first was an email from Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher and reader of The Hannibal Blog, that pointed me to this essay, “Notes on Dialogue”, by a great intellect named Stringfellow Barr.

Written in 1968, it might as well have been penned today, as Barr describes eristic and dialectic conversation in our own world:

There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, “I think that . . .,” as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each “discussant” from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue…

Expressing the Socratic ideal, Barr says that

We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search,

and that

the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic….

What makes good (Socratic) conversations good? They have a completely different dynamic than bad conversations. They tend to be

  • poor in long-winded declarations and rich in short, pithy back-and-forth,
  • egalitarian in that it does not matter who says what but what is said (even though this does not mean “equal time” for any nonsense)
  • spontaneous, in that they follow wherever the argument leads, even and especially to surprising destinations,
  • playful, and indeed humorous, for that is what makes “serious” investigation possible and sublime.

In short, this sort of conversation is what The Hannibal Blog is about, with the amazing input by all of you in the comments that make each topic come alive. If The Hannibal Blog is against anything, it is Eris and her spawn.

And so I leave you with just one famous instance when two fakers were called to account and told  just what sort of “conversation” they dealt in:

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