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Socrates on the Blessing of Being Refuted

Andrew Beer Writing recently in the Atlantic, Victoria Parker describes a defect of argumentative generosity in our political discourse.[1] Partisans of either side of the culture war attribute to their political opponents as a group the most extreme views held by only a small minority of either side. Plaguing our politics is “a false polarization in which one side excoriates the other for views that it largely does not hold.” This false polarization by turns feeds upon and fuels an intense dislike of one’s political opponents. But even worse, “partisans who disliked their opponents most were least willing to engage with them, which likely forecloses the chance to have their misconceptions corrected through real-life personal contact. Instead, an oversimplified, exaggerated version of the other side’s views is allowed to live on inside of everyone’s head.”

Parker paints a dismal picture of fellow citizens divided by unbridgeable, or at least too often unbridged, differences – such that conversation across the divide seems all but impossible.

Frisbee Sheffield’s essay in this journal admirably indicates how the examined life as led by Socrates, which consists fundamentally in the art of conversation, can make us better human beings by fostering in us the very virtues which constitute its subject: for example, courage to debate hostile interlocutors; justice in giving dialogical partners their share of the conversation; moderation in limiting one’s own speech; and a spirit of collaboration that fosters community and friendship. Following her insights, I would like to highlight a further attitude of Plato’s Socrates that is fundamental to his ethics of conversation – but one that may seem to us, in view of our zero-sum culture-war battles, strange or even incomprehensible. I mean Socrates’ insistence upon the blessing of being refuted. A good example of this can be found in the Gorgias, just before Socrates refutes the famous professor of rhetoric who gives the dialogue its name. Gorgias, says Socrates, has surely noticed a distressing feature of many conversations: that the rival interlocutors often have trouble defining their terms so that they can teach and learn from each other. Instead, whenever they disagree on some point, and one accuses the other of speaking incorrectly or unclearly, they become bitterly angry, believing that the other argues from rivalry or envy, caring only for winning the argument and not discovering the truth. The taunts and slurs going back and forth then become so ugly that those who observe the argument are overwhelmed with disgust – why, they wonder, did they think it worthy to be an audience for such persons? (457d–e).[2]

Socrates’ description of an argument’s descending into verbal combat is remarkably apt for what we ourselves can witness daily on social media. But why does Socrates, in the context of the Gorgias, mention this distressing fact? Socrates explains that he is reluctant to refute Gorgias for fear that Gorgias will think Socrates cares only about victory in debate. Socrates must therefore make certain that Gorgias shares his own belief about the value of refutation for the one refuted.

Indeed, Socrates says of himself: “[I am one of those people] who would be delighted to be refuted, if I say anything untrue, and who would be delighted to do the refuting, if someone else were to say something untrue.” “But their delight would be no less,” Socrates continues, “in being refuted than in refuting: for I consider [being refuted] a greater good [than refuting], precisely inasmuch as it is a greater good to be released oneself from the greatest evil than to release another.” The greatest evil, Socrates next explains, is false opinion (δόξα ψευδής) concerning the subjects of the present conversation: “I believe there is no evil so great for a human being as false opinion about the things we are discussing right now.” (458a–b) What things are Socrates and Gorgias discussing? Well, the conversation began as an inquiry into the nature of Gorgias’ professional occupation, the art of rhetoric, or the art of public speaking. Through several turns of the dialectic, however, a broader subject gradually opens up: What is just and what is unjust? Does the skilled speaker, such as Gorgias claims to be, need to possess actual knowledge of justice or merely the ability to persuade his audience that he does? Does it matter whether the rhetorician himself is a just or unjust person?

Those questions can help us see why being refuted or the willingness to be refuted is of such foundational importance for Socrates. For the opposite of a style of conversation that upholds the value of being refuted is one that strives to avoid being refuted at all costs. And therefore one that transforms honest and open inquiry for the sake of mutually beneficial moral truth into a contest for power and domination – a contest between rival interlocutors whom the very terms of debate have already rendered irreconcilable enemies. It is thus a mode of disputation that has no need for questions such as, what is just and what is unjust? Or at least if it considers such questions, it does so not with a view to the discovery of the truth, but as a means of overcoming one’s opponent.

And so, Socrates must assure Gorgias that mere victory, or victory over Gorgias, is not at all what he is after. Most essential to the whole enterprise of Socratic conversation – the fundamental necessary condition for its operation and success – is a willingness to be refuted. Willingness may be too weak. For Socrates describes rather a positive delight or eagerness to be refuted – an eagerness grounded in the conviction that being refuted, in matters of moral truth, is a liberation from a great evil, even the greatest evil for a human being.

The passage in the Gorgias clearly echoes – or is echoed by – the famous passage of the Apology, where Socrates memorably insists that “the unexamined life is no kind of life for a human being.”[3] That passage emphasizes the importance of active examining. The Gorgias passage about the value of refutation emphasizes the necessary counterpart of active examination: the willingness to be examined and, if one’s opinions or one’s life itself is found wanting, to be refuted. Throughout the Gorgias, Socrates employs an analogy between those arts which care for the body and those which care for the soul. As the art of gymnastic cares for healthy bodies and makes them even stronger, so the art of legislation cares analogously for the soul. Similarly, as medicine gives care to sick bodies and so restores physical health, so the art of justice cares for sick souls and restores moral health by its judicial and punitive actions. (See 464b–466e, 500e–501c, 517b–519b, and passim)

But Socrates’ whole purpose for employing this analogy is to explain why he regards the art of rhetoric – at least as commonly practiced in his day – as a counterfeit or impostor of the genuine art of justice. Whereas justice really cares about the health of the soul, rhetoric merely pretends to care – and uses this pretense to exploit others for its own advantage.

The genuine arts of gymnastic, medicine, legislation, and justice are different branches of what Socrates calls therapeia (“caregiving”). But near the end of the Gorgias, Socrates speaks of his own practice of conversation in similar terms – as a kind of loving care for oneself and one’s friends. Socrates says that only he and “a few other Athenians… attempt the true political art” (521d). But in another passage, in his conversation with a speaker named Polus (a protégé of Gorgias), we see that it is not Socrates himself who acts in the position of moral physician, but rather the conversation, the logos, itself (475d). Socrates is merely one actor within the inescapably collaborative action of the conversation. Either interlocutor (or any, if there are more than two) can at any moment perform the role of agent or patient, that of the healing or the sickly soul. A famous remark of John Stuart Mill – one that expresses a foundational value of liberal social order – is apropos:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations… He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form. (On Liberty, 1859, p.67)

Mill’s remark is sometimes truncated so that the quotation ends at the phrase “for preferring either opinion.” This is regrettable because it leaves out Mill’s insistence on the importance of hearing the reasons on the opposite side from the opposite side itself, “in their most plausible and persuasive form.” But this requires knowing our opponents not merely through social media or online comment boxes but through real-life personal contact and conversation – to know them as neighbors and fellow citizens, first, and only then as opponents in political debate and action – but also as potential allies or even benefactors. For it may be from them that we will receive the greatest blessing – as long as we are ready, like Socrates, to be refuted. Andrew Beer is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical and Early Christian Studies at Christendom College. He lives in Front Royal, Virginia, with his wife and children.

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