Debate as a Life Strategy: No
Formal debates may be good, I have done a few of them myself, but nobody should want the “debater” personality.
Hang out with gifted people long enough and one meets the “grew up in debate and never stopped” guy. There are, I am sure, women with this hang up, but I have been blessed to not meet one yet. Formal debate did great good for my son-in-law, so I have also seen the good learning to debate can do, but like anything that is good in its place, debate becomes a brutal god if taken as a life strategy.
This kind of formalized rhetoric is not even good at finding the truth, since that is not the design: winning is. If you are defending the truth, you wish that people could be persuaded you are right. Still, if you are having a discussion, intellectual honesty demands listening with the possibility you might be wrong. I think Jesus is alive, but if my friend does not, then I should hear what he has to say if I want him to hear what I have to say. This is (on the whole) a joyful way to live and makes conversation wonderful.
Most of the debates I have done have been more like dialogues, full of learning (at least on my part). Winning is when we get closer to the truth. Naturally something this obviously good starts to sound empty or weak, but it is not if lived out.
A Serious Discussion Puts Real Change on the Line
Travel with Jesus and He will challenge you with a hard teaching and then not explain it so you can think for yourself. Travel with Jesus and begin to change as you see and experience the world as it is and not as you wish it to be. Travel with Jesus and you will forget “winning” and listen for the voice of Wisdom.
Gaining wisdom (God help me!) is winning, but that is just a side benefit. Conversation with Jesus matters, he is the Logos of God!
Another great example of conversation that matters is Republic. Plato’s Socrates has ideas, is willing to defend them, but knows enough to live by faith and not certainty. He might be wrong. When he meets a man who educates tyrants, Thrasymachus, Socrates is willing to discuss his ideas. Sometimes Socrates is unfair to Thrasymachus, wanting to win so that the younglings listening will not think tyranny is better than justice. A great quality of Socrates is that when that causes him to “lose,” he is less concerned about the loss than getting back on track in finding the good, true, and the beautiful.
Finally, one of the younger people, Glaucon (he sees better than Socrates!), interrupts and helps refocus. Who cares who wins a round when justice is on the line? This is a discussion where people wish to change, not mic drop and move on.
A Good Discussion Searches for Agreement, Disagreement
Instead of speeches, Socrates and Glaucon agree on a procedure for the discussion:
On the other hand, we could continue the pattern of our discussion so far, simply seeking to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, then we could be our own advocates and judges. How do you wish to proceed, Glaucon?
Let us stay with the pattern you have been following.
There is so much to learn here, but here are three obvious features of a life affirming discussion First, we search for agreement and disagreement. We want to agree where we can, but are not looking for cheap agreement. Our “foe” is another person and so we honor them with our best thought. Second,we advocate for our position. Some confuse openness to change with weak defenses of present views. No. If we are to be persuaded, really change, then we must defend what we think is true with all our intellectual might. We advocate for our views best we can, though without trickery or mere rhetorical scoring. Finally, we are our own judges. This is not so we can win, but because we are willing to lose! We are not just advocates, but judges of our ideas.This is the pattern, the paradigm, for argument. I must be a shining advocate and a just judge of all my ideas. I must respect my friend, my fellow pilgrim, and love wisdom enough to agree and disagree.
This is a good life.
*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. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39. Part 40. Part 41. Part 42.