Refutation takes time
November 22, 2019
Raise your hand if Paul Franco’s dog has ever eaten your breakfast.
I knew it! I knew I was not alone!
One of the great pleasures of a walk across the Bowdoin quad is a chance meeting with that lovable scamp. For many years now, on the way to my early-morning Greek class, I have looked forward to the possibility that my linguistic preparation will be delayed in the service of my intellectual expansion. The fact that I sometimes have to make a donation in the form of an apple stolen out of my hand or a banana filched from my coat pocket only adds to my joy. Watching Professor Franco double over in laughter while making vague gestures toward canine discipline simply completes the tableau.
I do not begrudge the dog his thievery, for I treasure my conversations with the human he is taking for a walk. Franco is one of the finest, most generous and sharpest interlocutors in our community. His beaming smile is outshone only by his judicious intellect. And whether it be Hal or the much-missed Reggie snaffling my vittles while Franco distracts me with some philosophical point, the fact that I chortle and feel not a bit of resentment toward that mugging is strong evidence of trust. I know Paul. I trust him. We’ve built that relationship over time. It has been fashioned from well over a decade of purloined fruit and strongly-argued points. So, when Franco hints that there may be something worth considering, it is incumbent upon me to give him a careful listen.
I give Franco due consideration, especially when he advances an idea or argument that I initially consider weak and unsupported, because I owe it to Franco, not because I owe it to the mere idea of argument. Were Franco to propose that we burn the College down and replace it with a for-profit corporation whose curriculum is driven by the whims of the moment, I’d sit down with him under the nearest tree and give him as much time and attention as he needs to make that case. Even if that means allowing his dog to eat my shoes. He has earned from me, and from many of you, whatever time and attention he may request. But if a relative stranger, or a man who has earned my distrust, were to make that same request and argument, it would be incumbent upon that man to first prove that I need to give him the time of day, much less the respect of my attention.
Productive argument over difficult matters cannot thrive in the absence of affection. One does not learn from others by taking up the spikiest of questions first. We must scrape down the thorns together before holding opposite sides of the stick. This is what it means to be in a community of learners. We learn through the habits and practices of community. We learn even, and often especially, in spaces and times that are not formally marked out for pedagogy. We learn through simple conversation, through observation and through iteration.
In response to my last op-ed, Professor Franco commented that, “however much Socrates disagreed with the Sophists, he did not find it pointless to engage with them and try to refute them with reason.” The clear implication is that Socratic disagreement with sophistry must be exercised by reasonable refutation. This assertion is true but insufficient. Socrates described his engagement with Sophists, and with everybody else for that matter, using the language of hard work.
One Greek word in the descriptive vocabulary of Socratic practice stands out: diatribein. From this word we get the English term “diatribe.” But its original and common usage, skillfully adopted by Socrates, was deployed by the ancient carpenter conveying what it takes to sand down a rough-hewn and knotty plank. It is the way in which the Greek shoemaker describes the act of scraping and softening tough leather. Over time, this term comes to denote the expenditure of time, such that it can later be used of diners hanging out at a taverna all hours of the night.
But at root it is all about effort, and about how real effort must always involve time. Socrates didn’t just invest a few hours to arguing with Sophists, he devoted his entire life to the refutation of sophistry. So how would he have responded if only given the opportunity to write down a question in advance and sit quietly while Gorgias prowled the stage, engaging in bamboozling epideictic? Does such an environment offer anybody the chance to submit Gorgias to the Socratic elenchus?
Not at all. That carefully produced format is well-designed to prevent the process of refutation from even taking root, let alone flowering. As a result, Socrates would probably realize his time was much better spent talking to people in his community. Perhaps, if there had been a newspaper in ancient Athens, and if Socrates had developed the habit of writing, he might have devoted some of his time to a careful examination of how and why Gorgias came to Athens, what Gorgias hoped to achieve there, and how Athenians might weigh the present assertions of Gorgias against his past speeches and writings. For the true measure of the man’s claims must indeed be taken.
But more than anything, he would have relished the opportunity to scrape away the hours feasting in the Prytaneion while arguing with members of his own community. For true intellectual nutrition is found in the practice of iterative reason-giving. It marinates over time. It must be consumed among those with whom one has nurtured the bonds of trust and affection. It cannot be snatched from the hand of an itinerant speechifier and eaten quickly. Everybody knows that drive-thru tacos are nothing but sodium and empty calories. Quickly gulped down in their shiny packaging, they will soon find themselves steaming on the frozen ground, waiting for some dog to come along and make a breakfast of them.
Robert Sobak is an Associate Professor of Classics.
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Really enjoyed the first half of this opinion piece!