On Meaningless Dialogue: Praying to Avoid Alcibiades in Me

An academic is willing to discuss anything.

A human, perhaps, should not be willing to discuss anything with anyone.

For those Christians who make Socrates a hero, a pre-Christian role model for Christians, critics of Christian Socratic discourse pose a puzzle: “Will you change your mind on anything? Will you discuss anything?” I would discuss anything that Socrates would have discussed, but Socrates did not just discuss ideas, he talked to people and there was s certain kind of person that makes for a fruitless discussion. While one can have compassion on an Alcibiades, a student of Socrates gone very wrong, he does not want to learn but tyrannize. He does not want to defend the good, the true, and the beautiful, but find rhetoric to justify his departure from the good.

Socrates would not have discussed morality with Stalin.

If presented with a vile man, Socrates retreated. When presented with the idea that the injustice is “better” than justice, Socrates examined the issue fairly, but only with the hope of finding that justice was superior. For a person who seriously defends injustice, then Socrates in Republic (Book I) will try any trick to silence him. With noble young adults who long to defend justice, but are tempted by injustice Socrates will engage in seemingly endless dialogue.

I would, I trust, change my mind on any issue and I would, I hope, discuss anything, but each subject matter requires particular approaches to discussion. You cannot discuss morality with an immoral person with any hope of progress. Moral laws, like scientific laws, can be examined, can be discovered, can be defended, but they are not subject to individualistic judgments. Every age had blind spots and once a “discussion” is joined with a culture engaged in decadent behavior, then only the decadent are empowered.

For those who do not long to see the good, there is no hope for the dialectic: they are not just morally blind, but are committed to remaining blind. What is needed for such a human is a blinding Damascus Road experience and repentance. This does not mean that any of us are perfect or have clarity about what the “good” is, but we do need to be people committed to the good when we find it. I always hope that the prodding of discussion will bring to light my own hypocrisy, places where I have fallen short of the moral, and will prod me to change.

The great danger is that we will mistake our own opinions, the received wisdom of our day or the past, as “morality” without reflection This is particularly true of those who try to wrench (as is impossible to do) morality from science or morality from a Godless universe. And yet even here there is hope for discussion. For the secularist who wants to defend the good, even if it is hard for him to do, there is a good conversation to be had.

Just to cut off misunderstanding: we should discuss with care and openness the great social issues of our day such as abortion, misogyny, prejudice, or sexual ethics.  No partisan of any issue should waste time in discussion with those who do not think morality matters. Such discussions can only take place in a Socratic sense with those committed to doing good, if the good can be found. Nobody, religious or irreligious, that does not wish to change, to become better, who is self-satisfied can engage in meaningful discussion.

Religious people are committed to change, we call it sanctification, but sometimes this is a mere slogan and not a lifestyle. The pharisee is the religious person who wants to seem good and not be good. This is also a rejection of the dialectic, since the dialectic wants deep change not mere external conformity.

Going bad is seen in Plato in the character of Alcibiades. He has three characteristics that I must guard against growing up in my own heart and cutting me off from the good discussion can bring me. First, he is centered on his experience and not on the truth. Alcibiades has an ideological answer to everything, a universal philosophical solvent that enables his vice. Second, he is full of his own passions and will not listen. Finally, he gets bored easily when it is not “all about me” or his issues and leaves.

God have mercy. I don’t want to become a person useless in discussion or who wastes class time in endless, fruitless speechifying with anyone who does not want the truth.

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