Commentators from across the political spectrum decry the corrosion of conversation, the disintegration of dialogue, the barometric pressure of hostility that seems to rise ever more precipitously with each news cycle. We have lost, they declaim, the capacity for civil discourse.
They are not wrong to do so. We have become a society hobbled by antipathy. We huddle like troops in trenches, eyeing one another circumspectly across a heavily-mined no-man’s land, knowing that to venture forth is to put oneself in peril. It is better to keep one’s head down.
Civility is indeed radically important. We need to be civil so that, in an immensely variegated society, we can live beside one another. But living beside one another is not the end of society. The end, the telos, of society is to flourish (eudaimonia). A truce might allow us to live in proximity to one another. It will not allow us to thrive, however.
In order to flourish, we must engage in truly civil discourse. We must learn to argue.
Civil is from the Latin civilis, or citizen, which ultimately derives from civitas, the social body of citizens bound together by law and custom. It comes from the same root as civic, and was understood in the ancient world to be coterminous with the “city” or society that one belonged to.
To discourse is to engage in conversation, to speak with one another. So to engage in “civil discourse” is to be part of a “speaking city.” In fact, in a democratically organized community, the city is both constituted and sustained by its speech.
Civil discourse, however, is not polite conversation. It is the life-blood of civil society. And like blood, if it is to sustain us, it must continue to flow, to circulate, and to remain warm.
The model for the speaking city is Athens, the origin point of democratic governance. My family is Greek and I grew up in a vibrant Greek community. I can assure you that polite and restrained, even in this day, are not how I would characterize the conversation of Greeks.
The conversation of the ancient Athenians was energetic, earnest, and never-ending. The agora, the marketplace, was abuzz with the exchange of ideas. In the courts, hundreds of citizens gathered to listen to the arguments made by opposing sides, with the responsibility of casting their own vote in legal cases. In symposia, drinking parties, Athenians spent long evenings debating fundamental human questions – justice, beauty, love. Even the theater was given over to probing inquiry, as characters and choruses debated the perpetual conundra of human existence – in Antigone, whether one should adhere to the law over one’s responsibilities to one’s family, in the Oresteia, how to resolve tension between vengeance and justice, in Oedipus the King, whether we have agency, and thus responsibility for our actions, or whether we are the playthings of fate. Overshadowing all this speech, all this debate, was a sense of urgency. There was so much at stake.
Why? Why was the exchange of ideas, contending for this position or that, so important to the Athenians? Why was dialogue, often tense and challenging, so central to the flourishing of the city?
Dialog and Democracy
The Greeks believed that to be human was to be imbued with logos. We are each possessed of reason. Their gods, capricious, willful, and selfish, did not give the Greeks the resources to sort things out. Rather humans were vested with rationality.
Logos is a complex term. It is used to mean both reason and language; the two elide, they are inseparable. In fact, logos is the Greek word for “word”. We thus think in and through language. Each of us experiences the world through the long soliloquy unspooling in our minds. At this very moment, your present thoughts are shaped into words, which are in turn reflecting upon the words I am sharing with you. When you have the opportunity to respond, to share with me what is in your mind, we will be engaging in dialogue, or in Greek, dia-logos, dia, meaning both two and through. Dialogue is the interchange of at least two people sharing their thoughts through speech.
But in the exercise of dialogue, one plus one is much more than two. Our exchange of ideas through speech builds value exponentially.
Each of us has a limited experience of the world; each of us is gifted with only a tiny sliver of all that is true. Moreover, we are prone to error, to mistaking what we think or hope to be true for truth itself. To share our thoughts is to check our opinions. And we learn not simply from our interlocutors, but from everyone that they have conversed with.
Conversation, if it is open and attended by candor, creates a web of rationality, that extends from person to person, generation to generation, linking organically the hard-earned wisdom of the those who have come before us, to those who currently alight upon this chaotic world. It is what frees us, as Hamlet put it, from being bound in the nutshell of our own ego. It is what shapes singular individuals into something called society. Moreover, the wisdom of the city, in aggregate, is a manifestation of human potential.
We ought not to get our hopes up too much, however. There is still plenty of room for error, plenty of need for continual correction. We might be possessed of rationality, but we are also subject to other forces.
In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, the philosopher Socrates, uses a provocative image to explain the human condition. Imagine a chariot pulled by two winged horses, he says, one white, one black, flying recklessly across the sky. The charioteer struggles desperately to control his steeds, one of which tries to pull the chariot up towards the sun, while the other attempts to drag it down toward the ground.
In Socrates’ account, this is an image of the human soul. The charioteer represents our powers of reason, attempting to guide us in the right direction. The light horse represents, our desire for glory, for victory, the drive we have to elevate ourselves at the expense of others. The dark horse represents our baser instincts, our physical appetites, which are tethered to the material world. Allowing either horse to gain control would be disastrous. But it is indeed a struggle to rein in our passions.
Society is that chariot writ large. If democracy is rule by the people, then society — the aggregate of its citizens — is subject to the same features: the impulse to act rationally, the drive for glory, and the desire to fulfill our baser instincts. If we are to move ahead safely, reason must predominate.
This was the mission of Socrates. To introduce into Athenian society dialogue and self-reflection. We think of Socrates as a philosopher. But he didn’t write any books. He didn’t teach at a university. Rather he wandered about Athens, in the agora, in the courts, in symposia, engaging its citizens in discourse. Socrates was a convener of conversations.
Socrates believed that through dialogue, we could test our opinions, and hold one another, and ourselves, accountable. In this way, we could maintain truth as our true north.
Socrates recognized, however, that although language was the medium of rationality, it could also be employed for baser uses. There were in his day a group called sophists, who would hire themselves out to teach people how to use rhetoric to manipulate language not in the service of truth, but to achieve what they desired. Socrates confronted one of these sophists, Gorgias, and accused him of instructing his students how to make the worse argument appear the better. He chided the sophists for putting individual gain over the greater good.
Today, although we aspire to be democratic, we no longer maintain common spaces for discussion. We no longer meet each other in the marketplace, in our civic institutions, even in our theaters, to discuss the most important human questions. We retreat into ever-narrowing silos, into echo chambers of the ego. Moreover, there are many Gorgiases today who use the overwhelming rhetorical power of technology, marketing and media to make the worse argument appear the better. These sophists discard the pursuit of truth and empower both the light and dark horses of human nature, our desire for victory and our wish to fulfill our appetites, advancing individual gratification over common interest and the truth.
The Telos of the University
We no longer have a Socrates to correct and instruct us. But we do have his model. What we call the Socratic method, discussing fundamental human questions in a reasoned and civilized manner, is still available to all. This method requires relentless inquiry, humility, and an unwavering commitment to logos.
Perhaps more than ever, we have a need for education of a particular kind. An education that trains one in the habits of exchanging ideas. Not a forum for the debate of settled opinions, where victory is the end, but an education that is the forge and working house of thought itself.
The ultimate goal of such an education, although it is conducted in a community, is self-reflection – the ability to look within and see when we believe something because it is true vs. when we believe it because we want it to be true.
St John’s College offers an exemplary Socratic education. We read books. Very challenging books. We discuss ideas face-to-face, sitting around a table, and do so fearlessly. We interest ourselves in all areas of human knowledge – philosophy, the arts, mathematics, the sciences. Our purpose is to unsettle our opinion; conversation derives from the Latin, conversari, which means to take a turn, to turn about. Our objective is to uncover and adhere to what is true. We are governed by a document we call the Polity. We are a speaking city, and thus committed to civil discourse. In this speaking city, we have two rules – first, that all opinions are heard, and second, that all opinions must backed up by evidence.
There are three elements that enable our conversation and that characterize civil discourse at St. John’s: intellectual humility, the recognition of the equal dignity of all around the table, and the passion for truth.
Intellectual humility is the starting point of reasoned discourse. We are each on this planet for a brief time, making our way as best we can. Yet we are buffeted by fear, desire, will, circumstance, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The knowledge that we pick up along the way comes to us in teaspoonfuls, in fragments. It is necessary to hold opinions to make our way through life, but we ought to hold them gingerly.
As we try to come to seek the truth about things in the company of others, it is imperative that we recognize that we are all fellow travelers. We are each equally dignified by our capacity for reason. Our dialogue must be attended by respect, patience and fair-mindedness. From these will emerge trust, which will elevate our discourse.
The passion for truth is in the end what must animate our project. Intellectual humility may nudge us away from ignorance, but truth must be our lodestar, that towards which we are drawn. In the pursuit of truth, we must be scrupulous, fearless and persistent. In fact the gap between ignorance and knowledge, suspended between intellectual modesty and the hunger for truth, is where we join our exemplar, Socrates.
If we, as a society, are going to flourish and prosper, we must ensure that logos remains ascendant. We must recommit to dialogue and conversation, not to be peaceable, but to be better, both as individuals and as a community. There is too much at stake to proceed in any other way.
Panayiotis (Pano) Kanelos is the 24th President of St. John’s College, Annapolis. After earning degrees from Northwestern University (BA), Boston University (MA), and the University of Chicago (PhD), he taught at Stanford University, the University of San Diego, and Loyola University Chicago. He served most recently as dean of Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University.
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