Words of Wisdom: Plato Beyond the Platitudes by Marshall Thompson

In a curious passage of The Republic, Plato issues the following warning:

“And isn’t it one lasting precaution not to let them taste arguments while they’re young? I don’t suppose that it has escaped your notice that, when young people get their first taste of arguments, they misuse it by treating it as a kind of game of contradiction. They imitate those who’ve refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, they enjoy dragging and tearing those around them with their arguments. . . . 

But an older person won’t want to take part in such madness. He’ll imitate someone who is willing to engage in discussion in order to look for the truth, rather than someone who plays at contradiction for sport. He’ll be more sensible himself and will bring honor rather than discredit to the philosophical way of life.” (539a-d)

I have been thinking about this passage a lot recently. In these few lines, Plato has captured with piercing clarity an important feature of human nature. I think this insight is worth dwelling on in the context of debate. The worry, as applied to debate, would go something like this:

Debate is an extremely valuable activity. It has the potential to train students to research, reason, and advocate in life-transforming ways. Debate bestows abilities of remarkable value. Abilities, such as the ability to advocate for oneself and others, sift through complexity to find truth, and to explain that truth to others, are remarkably valuable, especially in the world we currently live in. We develop these skills through competitive argumentation, yet it is also a lot of fun to win. The result is that it is easy to be tempted away from regarding winning arguments as a means to the end of effective and ethical advocacy and begin to see winning arguments as an end in itself.

Now this, on its own, would not be all that big a deal. There is nothing wrong with enjoying winning at debate, and indeed it is when you really put your effort into winning that debate is best able to teach you those valuable abilities. However, when I reflect on my own life, I recognize a far more pernicious danger lurking in my values and desires. I don’t just enjoy winning debate tournaments; the love of winning, for me, has sunk deeper. I often get pleasure not just from winning debates, but also from winning an argument with a friend or my parents. If I listen to a philosophy lecture I need to watch myself, because it’s far too easy to me for to ask a question that I know will ‘stump’ the lecturer rather than a question that will meaningfully advance the dialogue and help us collaboratively come to truth. When I’m arguing with someone in my philosophy class, I may find myself making arguments that are less true than I could make them, because if I were fully honest it might reveal a flaw in my own position.

I don’t know how general this experience is, but I doubt I am the only debater who has been tempted to this love of winning. And this is a real moral danger. Argument in real life is a means to an end, the end of finding the truth, therefore, it is pernicious when I feel tempted to pursue the argument at the cost of the truth.

Indeed, when I’m being honest with myself, I must recognize this vice is deeper still. It is not just that I love the argument over the truth, but I descend further down into the far more intoxicating and heady love of my own success, intelligence and reputation. There is a danger in debate. A danger that, in getting perhaps the best training possible to teach us to pursue the truth, we also get drawn away from love of the truth. That we get drawn down into the love of our own ideas, not because we love the way they participate in the truth, but because they reveal our cleverness, our originality and our liberal credentials.

This is not a reason we should not engage in debate. I believe firmly in the life-transforming power of debate; I may in a later post on Curriculum Corner explain how debate transformed my life. But it is a danger that we need to take seriously. And to understand how we should take it seriously I think it will be useful to generalize the problem and note how this is a danger in most human activities. There is, I take it, a general problem of which Plato was emphasizing a particular manifestation.

There are many goods that it is worthwhile for us to pursue. There is beauty pursued in art, there is truth pursued in dialogue, there is friendship pursued in community, there is education pursued in teaching, there is love pursued in relationships, there is understanding pursued in thinking, there is self-knowledge pursued in reflection, there is wisdom pursued in philosophy. To each of these good ends there are means proper and appropriate to them. However, it is one of the great graces of our world (I believe it is one of the great graces of God but need not insist on that here) that the proper pursuit of good ends is itself pleasurable. When one tries to capture beauty in painting there is joy that one can find in the act of painting itself. When one pursues the truth through dialogue there is great enjoyment in that discussion. Certainly, at times it can be difficult and painful (all debaters know times when they would rather sleep than keep working), but nevertheless there is a pleasure to good things properly pursued.

However, one danger of this grace is that we can easily get pulled away from the good of the end and instead become fixated on the pleasure of the means. I have artistic friends who assure me that there are dangers of this sort in music and painting. I have scientific friends who tell me there are similar dangers in the study of physics. All I can speak on authoritatively, though, is the way this danger has manifested in the major areas of my life. I have experienced directly the temptation to look like the good liberal rather than sacrifice for the marginalized (pursuit of justice). I have experienced directly the temptation to win the discussion rather than advance us towards truth (debate). I have experienced directly the temptation to assert ideas I think are clever rather than dwell in patience to come to yet wiser understanding (philosophy).  I have experienced directly the temptation to show off my understanding of God rather than love and be loved by Him (religion).

Ancient and medieval thinkers had a name for this danger, though it’s a word that has fallen out of fashionable use.  What I have been describing in such a roundabout way is nothing more, nor less, than the vice ‘vainglory.’ The vice that Rebecca DeYoung, in her book Glittering Vices, describes as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” In reading DeYoung’s account of vainglory, I think that it is likely a vice particularly prevalent amongst debaters. Debaters tend to be extremely talented and highly successful people. In many ways I think that debate encourages important moral improvement and transformation. But the thing about vainglory is that often, the ‘better’ a person you are, the more that you are susceptible to the vice. DeYoung explains it this way: “the more progress we make, and the more virtue we attain, the more we have for others to notice and admire. And if we lack an audience, we are often happy to supply the part ourselves.”

Now that we know more generally the nature of the danger I think it is easier to know what sort of strategies there are to counteract it. Here I will mention just two:

First, I have found that, in my own life, a conscious awareness of the temptation to vainglory has helped me to combat it. By being on the lookout for vainglory cropping up, it helps me catch myself before I ask the ‘stumping question’ or say something that obscures the truth in the hope to bring applause. Just giving the tendency a name, and recognizing it as the name of a vice is helpful. Now, this on its own is not enough. One reason for this is the fact that one can be vainglorious about one’s own recognition of vainglory (indeed, I worry that my own writing of this post is at least partially motivated in that way). John Cassian, the great religious mystic, describes the problem of vainglory “as like that of an onion, and of those bulbs which when stripped of one covering you find to be sheathed in another; and as often as you strip them, you find them still protected. . . . this [vice] when it is beaten rises again keener than ever for the struggle; and when we think that it is destroyed, it revives again, the stronger for its death.” (Institutes XI.v-vii).

So we need to couple this with a second strategy. There is an old piece of moral advice on how to combat vainglory. DeYoung describes it as ‘silence and solitude.’ To help develop the virtue of magnanimity (the opposite of vainglory), you pursue the good in contexts which no one can see, and then be silent about what you have done. I find this extremely difficult, but it’s the very difficulty of the activity that helps unmask vainglory within oneself. The most famous articulation of this advice comes in Matthew 6:

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret. . . . And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love . . . that they may be seen by others. . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. . . And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

It is important to pursue virtue in contexts where it cannot be mixed up with any vainglorious desires. Such a strategy is perhaps the most promising advice I can give in this post on how combat vainglory in oneself.

I opened this post with a meditation on Plato, and so I think it would be fitting to end similarly. In the Gorgias, Plato gives a picture of what it would look like if one were to properly understand the way that argument features as a means to the pursuit of truth. The virtuous agent (in this context Socrates) would be one who could honestly say “I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute” (458a). It is an ideal that I am far from meeting, but it is also an ideal which provides a wonderful picture of the truly philosophical soul. It shows what it would really means to love wisdom.