Winning is not a winning move if we are wrong.
That’s obvious, because most of us do not mean to be wrong. We are wrong accidentally. After all, we love the truth, believe in reason . . . And stuff. Maybe. Or perhaps we are being too easy on our motives. If we are fitting in with our team, supporting opinions of the people we admire, then perhaps we are deceiving ourselves. This, I am told, is easy to do.
We think we are standing for the Truth, but in reality we are able to laugh at just the right time at a late night gathering of our friends. Our stand for truth is moderating, mediated by a natural desire to fit into our social set.
This is not bad.
Breathed a man with a soul so solipsistic, that he did not care for good company?
We are right to worry that if we stake out a position alone we are merely cranks, eccentric fools, who think we are right when we are merely deluded. A good general indicator that we are not in a kooky corner is having some mates.
This is good, but not good enough, because the popular cause is often the wrong cause. The voice of our friends is often the voice of the world, the flesh, and the devil in collegial tones. The great danger for intellectual types, those of us who love words, is that we confuse winning an argument for Team Smart with being right. Imagine having the right tone, the correct opinions, but being wrong. If someone forced us to think too hard about our error, that might be painful as we would be forced to choose between two goods: getting along and being right.
That’s an easy choice in theory-land, but harder in reality. Plato exposed this fault in his Republic when Socrates was attacked by the friend of tyrants, Thrasymachus. Plato shows Socrates not at his best, struggling to understand justice. Thrasymachus sees his weakness and pounces. Socrates wants justice, Thrasymachus wishes to win a debate.
Now go ahead and quibble and set out your snares. I am not afraid of you for the simple reason that you are no match for me.
The urge to win and the knowledge that Socrates cannot beat him in a debate makes Thrasymachus (falsely) confident
He has forgotten something important: being wrong, being very wrong, is not good! He might win a round with Socrates, but if he does, if he is still wrong, then the harm of his error will eat away at his soul. There is no long term gain in winning, if the cost of winning is going the wrong way.
Being lost is not made happier if you wander about with a debate trophy.
A great mistake we might make is teaching our younglings to win debates at the cost of ignoring intellectual integrity or graciousness. Socrates is kind, even while arguing. Socrates prefers truth to winning, even if that means losing. What does it profit a person to win a debate, but lose the truth?
The man dedicated to winning, sees discussion as a potential trap. The person who loves wisdom sees discussion as a chance to learn. What will we do?
We can decide to take our truth, as we see truth, to the marketplace and see what happens or we could bash our foes with rhetoric and win. There is nothing wrong with winning, with persuasive speech, but only if it is used in the service of truth. I was once in a debate that was going very well, but my opponent began to manifest signs of illness. He was physically sick. That was the time to back off.
I have not always done so well, the joy of winning is natural. There is nothing wrong with winning . . . It is winning at the cost of truth that is the problem. Persuasive speech is good, but not if it obscures the truth.
God help us.
*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34.