(My head today is like an industrial coffee percolator: full of mineral deposits and in desperate need of a good scrubbing. No, wait – bubbling over with ideas! That it! That’s the image! Well, maybe a little of the other, too…)
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is accused of possessing the evil superpower of ‘making the weaker argument appear the stronger’. Be that as it may, the curious part of this accusation these days lies in noting that the Athenians were evidently under the quaint impression that some arguments are better than others.
An unavoidable impression one gets from reading Plato is that, in the Athens inherited by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, argument was both a full-contact extreme urban sport, as well as a spectator event. The Sophists, who really did teach how to make a weak argument appear strong, seemed to be everywhere, and an enterprising Athenian could probably have sold a lot of peanuts and Crackerjacks to the crowds that formed whenever Socrates took one on.
Callicles, and probably his teacher Gorgias as well, believed and taught that the stronger argument is the one that wins. Callicles cared nothing for the truth except insofar as it might help or hinder his attainment of Excellence, defined by him (and multitudes before and since) as the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.
It’s not like our modern obsession with truth being relative and a good argument being one that gets me what I want are new things under the sun. They may qualify as baseline human behavior. Those who argue that free will is a sham, that it’s deterministic turtles all the way down, are not really arguing anything different – they are just trying to place the blame somewhere else, like in a mirthless, mechanistic universe rather than in the hubris-ridden soul of Callicles. (1)
Sometimes one might read of someone who fully embraces lying to get whatever they want with bracing honesty. Alinsky springs to mind. But mostly, our children and ourselves back at least 3 generations have been taught that truth is relative, that arguments are acts of aggression, that reason has no privileged place in conversation or even in argument. What was done through omission furtively is now done in the daylight.
Frankly, what is surprising is to see anything else. Socrates leaps off the page with his willingness to follow wherever the argument leads; Aristotle is perhaps braver still: he lays his arguments out right in the open, for anyone who wants to to approach and attack.
But the hero of argument, the towering peak of all that is good about disputing among friends to get closer to the truth, is St. Thomas. Two things that are often missed: first, he knew and taught that what the Scholastics were doing was trying to get closer to truth, not settle everything once and for all. The conclusions reached by a team of people, the small group of friends gathered at the feet of the Master to play the Questions game, did not and were never meant to settle the issue in the sense of cutting off further discussion. We do the best we can, trusting that all Truth is One, and all Truth is God, Who lovingly wants us to understand.
Second, and this is utterly missing from the modern world, there’s a deep devotion to fairness. It would be unsatisfactory and a waste of time to argue against anything but the best, strongest, most convincing argument your opponent can put out. Whenever possible, you restate the argument and get sign-off from your opponent – yes, this is exactly what I mean. (2) Like a true sportsman, they don’t want to win if they have to cheat to do it.
Reading Aquinas, even for a guy like me who lacks much of the background to really understand him, is like breathing the fresh air on a high mountain, after having climbed from the dirt and gloom of the valleys below. The eagerness to hear the arguments out – the opposing view is always given first – and the care and honor given to even pretty weak arguments is unlike anything you’re likely to run into today.
Thus, reading St. Thomas, one realizes that all arguments are good, in the sense that, in the hands of a master stating them as clearly as possible, all arguments sound reasonable enough that you would not hold anyone in contempt for believing them. Nowadays, we settle for that superficial argument without ever pursuing the question: are there other arguments even stronger?
Half truths told by liars are the coin of the realm these days. Of course there is oppression. Of course life isn’t fair. But is that the whole story? Like Thomas, it would help greatly to lay these arguments out as strongly as possible, and then see what can be rallied against them. Or watch them crumble from their own flaws.
- One day, when I have a month or so of free time, I’ll need to do a Luther/Erasmus/St. Thomas three-way comparison of Free Will. But it is not this day. Suffice it to say: Thomas says that to be rational, we must have free will. This is one of those so obvious it’s easy to miss things.
- Since a cultivated mind is one which can consider an idea without agreeing to it, Thomas and his buddies were uniquely qualified to work through and express their opponents’ arguments. He may have had the most cultivated mind in history.