And yet you and I could have wriggled just like him, if we’d wanted to hide the fact that we were contradicting ourselves. His behaviour might have been comprehensible if this discussion of ours had been taking place in a lawcourt, but as things are, given the company we’re in, I can’t understand why anyone would cloak himself in fine but empty words.*
Plato pictures men eager to win a debate, not eager to be right. They have proposed a bad educational program, but instead of giving up and adopting a better plan, they wriggle like fish on the hook. That is a sensible thing for a fish on a hook to do, but not wise for a man shown his ideas are bad for his goal. Since the proper education of their own children is on the line, they appear to value verbal victory over the souls of their sons. They will defend a bad view of education, preserving their appearance of wisdom, resulting in an inferior, even harmful, program.
Why? Why wiggle and wobble and weave to win when the win weakens the very victory a man really wishes?
In court, there is a reason for a man to wiggle out of what he has said: he might gain victory. Leaving aside the ethics of doing this, why would a person do that about philosophy or theology?
Why “win” an argument in the classroom? Shouldn’t all be uniting in the search for truth? This is like winning an argument with the beloved . . . Something I learned the hard way is it’s never a good idea even on practical terms. I once won a Scrabble game against the Fairest Flower in all Christendom by a judicious bluff, but she was not amused when the trick was revealed. There were not kisses that night and a game won that ends kissing is a game lost for the man in love.Yet the deeper reason this bluff was a bad idea was that we were playing a friendly game and I was playing as if “wining” were the goal and not enjoyable fellowship. What a fool!
How much greater is the folly if I persist in a bad idea simply because I have always held it, it is convenient for me, or will give me a “win” over an ideological foe. What is the purpose of such a win when the only thing worth winning is the truth? We must not defend even Christianity with noble lies, because nothing is gained and everything is lost. No cause is ennobled by such victories, but the soul that makes them is corrupted.
The easiest way for an educated man to “win” is to cloak himself in fine and empty words. He can gather a community that always agrees and avoid real experts on the topics on which he opines. Better still, such a man will leave out his opponent’s best points and subtlety shade his words, wriggling to make the weaker case stronger.
Here is what Plato suggests:
Better to die than for the soul to lie: pursue the truth regardless of the cost.
That is high sounding and it is divine, but for those of us less noble, here is another lesson:
Better to lose an argument, then to lose the real object of the debate.
If we love wisdom (true philosophy), then winning by wiggling away from the truth that hooks us is losing. We level up but without the item that will allow us final victory. We have lost.
May I love wisdom and not winning.
Plato, Laches 196b. Waterfield translation.