The Talkie Man? Beware the Eristic! (Euthydemus)

The Talkie Man? Beware the Eristic! (Euthydemus) October 25, 2020

Against all temptations, keep asking hard questions of the powerful and providing comfort to the despised. The traveling salesmen of the Establishment throttle online media, movie production, and the music that gets promoted. The educrat keeps ignoring goodness, truth, and beauty for more administration, more quibbling, all in the cause of more funding.

Against this situation we must not create a parallel culture of sophistry and argumentative foolery.

Perilous times tempt to easy answers, finding ways to agree with the establishment. The folk who control the microphone and the social media stream make sure only some voices are heard. Asking Socratic questions can be dangerous as only some views (on the left and right!) are allowed. Hard questions require time to answer, precision in language, and charity. Why charity? Difficult answers are easy to get wrong and so sensible people, knowing they also may be wrong, have as much charity as they can for those who disagree with them!

We want the truth, not just winning. If we are wrong, and we know we could be wrong, then we want to know the truth so we can change. If we are right, and if we did not think we were right, we would change our minds (!), then persuading others of the truth is good. Who wishes to see their friends or relatives crash into reality? As a result, dialogue is vital for all of us.

Some pose as educators when they are merely peddling a product with debt financing: using students for usury. These sophists must be opposed. We can recognize them, because they have a product to sell. Tell the traveling salesmen of fake education to move on!

There is a more subtle temptation to all of us who use words for a living: eristic. The man pushing the eristic education looks like a “classical” educator, but he is really willing to argue anything for money or power. Plato takes on the salesman of the eristic in Euthydemus. Read this short dialogue where a real lover of wisdom, Socrates, takes on these new peddlers of educational product. This is more subtle as it pretends to be based on genuine dialogue. Yet the eristic teacher does not want the truth, he wishes to win arguments.

This is useful in courts and life and so the eristic teacher always can find a market. Eristic teachers do not define terms with care, but equivocate so the student is confused. They take terms and use two different senses to force their students into confusion. The true dialectic may bewilder us, because we are unclear and discover we do not know what we claim.  The eristic does not push for clarity, but exploits our confusions to make things worse.

The two things look alike superficially.  Hard questions require clarification, so they take a long discussion. The Socratic teacher can seem like the “talkie man” and make us uncomfortable when we wish to just repeat what we saw on a video. The best teachers I knew, say Phillip Johnson (UC Berkeley), would push for a definition of terms, but then be eager to go share a drink after a debate and continue the discussion. The eristic teacher laughs at the student or opponent if he can manage some mic-drop moment. Winning is everything.

Beware the eristic man, but having been wary, do not cease to learn from him. With charity toward anyone who will talk with us, with an open mind, we will engage in dialogue, listen to the eristic, and avoid sophistry. God help us all.


From a devotional for The College program at The Saint Constantine School on Plato’s Euthydemus.

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