Words of Wisdom 2: From Sophistry to Skepticism

This post continues from my last Words of Wisdom post where I discussed a passage in which Plato warns against teaching youth how to argue. (It seems to me that if someone as insightful as Plato warns us that our entire activity is dangerous we should attend closely to the concern.)

In the previous post, I talked about the danger of developing the vice of vainglory. In this post, I will approach Plato’s warning from a different direction. Last time I skipped over a paragraph in my Plato excerpt (marked by the ellipsis), and I now want to return to what I skipped over. In the excised passage Plato says, of youth who have been taught to argue, that

“. . . when they’ve refuted many and been refuted by them in turn, they forcefully and quickly fall into disbelieving what they believed before. And, as a result, they themselves and the whole of philosophy are discredited in the eyes of others.” (539b-c)

Plato cautions that by teaching students how to argue we incline them towards a pernicious skepticism. This skepticism, in turn, draws them away from the love and pursuit of wisdom and truth.

Why think this is true?

To answer that question we are going to have to look at another, and my favorite, of Plato’s dialogues: The Gorgias.

Plato starts the dialogue with a discussion about the nature of ‘rhetoric.’ What we might define, preliminarily, as the ‘art of verbal persuasion.’ Rhetoricians, like Gorgias, use words and arguments to persuade an audience. It is plausible that rhetoric, in this sense, is the primary skill taught and developed by competitive debate. To use debate jargon, rhetoric is very close to the idea of ‘advocacy skills.’ It allows one to change the minds of others, and so in that process, it allows one to change the world. Indeed, Gorgias makes this very point; Gorgias argues that rhetoric is the greatest of all arts because it empowers one to make a difference in the world.

“What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting? . . . Let me offer you a striking example of this. On several occasions I have been with my brother Herodicus or some other physician to see one of his patients, who would not allow the physician to give him medicine, or apply the knife or hot iron to him; and I have persuaded him to do for me what he would not do for the physician just by the use of rhetoric. And I say that if a rhetorician and a physician were to go to any city, and had there to argue in the Ecclesia or any other assembly as to which of them should be elected state-physician, the physician would have no chance; but he who could speak would be chosen if he wished; and in a contest with a man of any other profession the rhetorician more than any one would have the power of getting himself chosen, for he can speak more persuasively to the multitude than any of them, and on any subject. Such is the nature and power of the art of rhetoric!” (452e, 456a-c)

It would seem hard to deny the truth of this claim. There is a power that comes with learning to debate well. It is a power over the hearts and minds of others, and this is turn means it is a power over the actions that others take. However, the very power of rhetoric raises a worry for Plato.

To understand the worry, it will be useful to look at an analogy of Plato’s between rhetoric and food. Some food is good for us and some food is bad for us. There is an excellency in food that relates to a primary human good, namely health, and that excellency is nutrition. A doctor will be able to tell you what food is good for you, and so provide advice that, if followed, will draw you towards goodness. Thus, Plato says that the art proper to food is nutrition because that is the art that pursues food’s primary good. We can contrast the art of nutrition with the technique of cookery. When one learns to cook well they learn how to make food attractive. It tastes good. Now this is a very different kind of good. Certainly, you will be more inclined to eat food that tastes good, but just because it tastes good does not mean that it will be nutritious. Plato says the following (this translation uses medicine rather than nutrition):

“Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, . . . as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death.” (464d-e)

Socrates argues that this parallels rhetoric. The fact that you can persuade someone with clever or strategic arguments does not mean that what you persuade them of will be right. Rhetoric allows you to convince people something is true (truth being the chief good proper to inquiry), but it has the power to do so whether what you convince them of is true or not. So just as cookery can be used to obscure the goods taught by nutrition science, so too rhetoric and advocacy skills can be used to obscure truth and justice.

It is dangerous to one’s health to learn how to make food tasty before one learns how to make food healthy, A fortiori it is extremely dangerous to train people in how to make whatever position they are already inclined to appear true before they learn how to first find the truth.

There is a deep danger of self-deception. For example, I can easily ‘out argue’ many of my friends and acquaintances at church, after all, I have been involved in debate for about a decade. However, the fact that I will win an argument with them does not mean that the positions I am arguing are the true ones. I will win the argument, frankly, whether my position is right or wrong.

And so here we have the danger. I am not particularly wise. There are still a lot of important truths I need to learn about how to live the good life. Many of those truths will be unpleasant to face. I don’t want to recognize my own failings. I don’t want to go from vegetarian to vegan. I don’t want to give up any more of my income to those in desperate need. I don’t want to be wrong. How many of these things am I convinced are not true, not because they are not true, but just because I am better at arguing than those who try to speak truth to me?

Thus, one danger of learning to argue is that I insulate myself from the insight of those who are wiser than I. My own moral development can stagnate, I can secure my ignorance against any onslaught because I can make even my false beliefs seem true to myself and others.

Nor is the danger merely that I will be morally static. There is also a danger of moral regression. I may have grown up believing that lying is wrong. But there are times when I would really rather it not be wrong. I am scared sometimes at how effectively I can rationalize the choice to give up on things that once seemed both true and obvious.

The danger in learning advocacy skills stems from our brokenness. And given this brokenness it is far easier to abuse advocacy skills than it is to use them.

None of this is to say that rhetoric is bad. Rhetoric is powerful and transformative. Rhetoric can be used to direct people towards radical and world-transforming truths. Where would the civil rights movement have been without rhetoric?  What would Wilberforce have accomplished if he did not know how to speak? Who would still be reading Plato if he did not know how to convey powerfully and clearly insight and truth?

Rhetoric can help get truth inside of us, just as cookery can help make even kale taste good (well maybe not kale, but at least things like brussels sprouts). But there is a danger, a great danger in learning rhetoric while we are young. The danger is that when we learn to argue before we learn to love and know the truth, then argument may enable us to construct and impenetrable edifice of attractively argued lies.

What then are we to do?

I don’t think the solution is to stop teaching high schoolers debate. Debate is too transformative, debate is too valuable. But we need to keep in mind this danger. We need to make sure that tech does not trump truth. We need to make sure that strategy does not swamp sagacity.

And most of all we need to learn to be epistemically humble. We need to learn how to use rhetoric against ourselves. You need to remember that just because you won an argument which shows you did nothing wrong, that does not mean you are in the right. Use rhetoric to bolster the wisdom of others rather than reinforce the ignorance of yourself.

Plato puts this point beautifully, and so like last post, I will bookend this piece with passages of Plato:

“Then rhetoric is of no use to us . . . in helping a man to excuse his own injustice, . . . but may be of use to any one who holds that instead of excusing he ought to accuse—himself above all, and in the next degree his family or any of his friends who may be doing wrong; he should bring to light the iniquity and not conceal it, that so the wrong-doer may suffer and be made whole; and he should even force himself and others not to shrink, but with closed eyes like brave men to let the physician operate with knife or searing iron, not regarding the pain, in the hope of attaining the good and the honourable; . . . himself being the first to accuse himself and his own relations, and using rhetoric to this end, that his and their unjust actions may be made manifest, and that they themselves may be delivered from injustice, which is the greatest evil. Then . . . rhetoric would indeed be useful.” (480e-481b)