Perhaps the first obstacle to writing even these random notes on dialogue is that the very word, dialogue, has been temporarily turned into a cliché. Everybody is loudly demanding dialogue, and there is not much evidence that most of us are prepared to carry one on. Indeed, to borrow a traditional phrase from professional diplomats, conversations have deteriorated. But both radio and television, whether public or commercial, remind us daily that a lonely crowd hungers for dialogue, not only for the dialogue of theatre but also for the dialogue of the discussion program.
So begins Stringfellow Barr’s dialectical manifesto, Notes on Dialogue (and in fact the first reading of the first mock-seminar that all new Johnnies have). Barr ought to know a thing or two about dialogue, too—he brought the Great Books Program to St. John’s and was the first president to serve the college for nine years after its institution. His Notes offer a glimpse into the motivations and the perspectives that crystallized the Program into existence. Barr’s overarching thesis is that all humans instinctively and persistently crave dialogue. And real dialogue at that, too; he’s quick to disparage pseudo-conversation and pseudo-conversators. If you’re trying to score points by using long, fancy words and mere rhetorical flourish, then you’re not really communicating, are you?
And yet as long as there have been humans hungry for genuine discussion, there have been those who have gotten in the way of it. Sophists, they were called, in Ancient Athens. Socrates (who’s like, the biggest dude in Western philosophy, ever) confronted these sophists, meeting the volubility and the ambiguity that Sophists were famous for with nothing other than a courteous commitment to finding out the truth.
Just as we are taught to hate not the sinner but the sin, especially if it is our own, so Socrates never attacks Thrasymachus. Indeed, he never attacks his ignorance and presumptuousness. He merely dissolves the opinions Thrasymachus spouts so loudly, so rapidly, and so volubly. That Thrasymachus recognizes the mortal danger in Socrates’ questions and, indeed, that painful scalpel, irony, that Socrates uses on on his opinions (and consequently, given Thrasymachus’ pride of authorship where his expressed opinions are concerned, on himself, his honor, and his fame as a sophist) comes out in Thrasymachus’ sarcastic allusion to “your famous irony.” That Socrates knew that his irony “put to the question,” a euphemism the Spanish Inquisition would later in history use for the act of torturing the accused, is shown by his likening himself to a gadfly that stung the noble steed, the Athenian democracy. That the steed knew too is shown in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates was sentenced to death for putting Athens to the question.
If Stringfellow’s words seem flat-out adulatory of the Socratic method of conversation, well, that’s because Socrates really had a point. It’s hard to go wrong by following his lead; beginning in ignorance, pursuing a conversation to wherever it leads. But this is the beauty of a dialectical conversation: No one attitude is the right one to take. Barr had his interpretation on what a good conversation looked like, you will have yours. Just because this opinion is held by one who say, founded the college as it stands today, doesn’t mean that the only possible good way of thinking about these things. Dialectic is an experiment, conducted in real-time. Collectively, we’re all figuring out to have a conversation as we’re doing it. And if that’s not what Socrates was truly getting at, then it’s at least a good place to start.