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What Socrates Can Teach Us about Political Discourse

“Rather than treating the other in a Socratic manner—which is to say, as a partner in the communal quest for truth—the polemicist roundly delegitimizes the other and reduces him to an ‘adversary, an enemy, who is wrong and whose very existence constitutes a threat.'”   

What can be learned from Socrates? Can the ancient Athenian philosopher’s practice of dialectic examination inspire new thoughts on issues that relate to our social and political lives? I happen to agree with Fred Dallmayr, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, and his observation that our public discourse has devolved into the confrontational and unproductive practice of polemics. Rather than treating the other in a Socratic manner—which is to say, as a partner in the communal quest for truth—the polemicist roundly delegitimizes the other and reduces him to an “adversary, an enemy, who is wrong and whose very existence constitutes a threat.”   

Intertwined with an understanding of polemics are the concomitant issues of both factionalism and tribalism in politics. They tend to be expressive of a dogmatic view of (and relationship to) truth. Socrates’s practice of the dialectic—chiefly in the ever-renewed search for knowledge of virtue— is never concerned with defeating or humiliating a fellow truth seeker. Instead, Socrates embraces the goal of changing the interlocutor’s position through communal questioning and critical argumentation. Socrates expresses this notion famously in the Apology, when stressing that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”

Perhaps the most obvious instance of factionalism in the United States currently is the irreparable division between dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Yet, looking deeper, there are internecine divisions within both political parties. The deep division between traditional fiscal conservatism and the “MAGA wing” of the Republican party is a clear example—and even within the MAGA wing there is a split between those devoted to President Donald Trump and those—usually maligned as RINOS (Republican in name only)—who are criticized for their lack of devotion to President Trump. Likewise, glaring divisions also exist on the Left between progressives, or what is often labeled the radical left, and those who are merely wearing the progressive hat while still deeply aligned with corporate America. They are criticized for soliciting funds from wealthy donors to whom they are considered beholden, doing the donors’ political bidding for the right price. For this reason, the issue of ethics is rightfully called into question.   

Polemical rhetoric is on full display in our contemporary politics, and one need only to tune in to MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News to witness instances of impoverished discourse coming from those aligned with both political parties. This can be seen, for example, when Republican officeholders square off against their Democratic counterparts or when Republican strategists battle with Democratic pundits. It is also possible to witness the shocking degeneration of productive discourse during many committee hearings in the House of Representatives or Senate. Despite standing rules of decorum, it is common for hearings to morph into vindictive polemical assaults. In such instances, politics is reduced to a disgraceful exercise in polemics and ad hominem attacks, leaving the public with discourse that is riddled with logical fallacies and spiteful rhetoric. Following from these brief examples provided, there exists a dogmatic and radically un-Socratic view of dialogue and truth that drives much of contemporary political discourse.  

The fractured relationship to truth we now experience in many aspects of our lives, which includes politics, is often mistakenly traced to the now-infamous statement uttered by Kellyanne Conway in 2017 regarding “alternative facts,” which interestingly enough, was delivered through a polemical diatribe aimed at Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. However, the dangers associated with the rise of the “alternative facts” era were first recognized by Ralph Keyes in his 2004 book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life.

To accept the notion of “post-truth” is to situate ourselves in a space of public dialogue that disregards forms of meaning that can be quantified and validated. Curiously, post-truth and all of its implications approximate a certain strain of nihilistic skepticism—a position also grounded in the dogmatic and pathological denial of truth in the face of all evidence. Since the scourge of “alternative facts,” truth and, consequently, language lack any foundational ground. Evidently, this runs starkly against Socrates’s conception of legitimate political discourse, which absolutely compels a recognition of (and intimate relationship to) truth. It is little wonder, then, that our impoverished form of public dialogue and political debate sorely lacks real meaning. 

In both the Republic and the Statesman, Socrates is critical of tribalism and factionalism in politics, which he argues produce close-knit camps of warring, irreconcilable, and dogmatic ideological views that inevitably result in the degeneration of productive public discourse. Doing this forecloses any potential for reconciling our radically divergent positions and disagreements. Socrates also warns of the danger inherent to democracy when demagogic tendencies emerge, for demagoguery is the enemy of critical thought and productive dialogue. Demagoguery erroneously embraces an illegitimate form of dogmatic thought. These tendencies arise from factionalism and are codified when, as Socrates observes, democracy’s “fiercest members do all the talking and acting while the rest settle near the speaker’s platform and buzz and refuse to tolerate that opposition of another speaker,” and so division and hostility destroy the unity of the city.  

Taking Socrates’s lead, we should seriously consider what is just and unjust when it comes to engaging in dialogue that is inclusive and productive, which is to say, dialogue focused on revealing truth and challenging untested opinions in a way that is at once critical, just, and equitable. Socrates viewed this as beneficial to the prosperous ethical development of politicians, citizens, and the city.

Socrates never claimed to possess absolute knowledge of any of the virtues he arduously pursued, and this distinguishes Socrates from the sophists and the false politicians presented in the dialogues, including the aforementioned polemicists who believe their views are immune to any and all critical challenges. As opposed to a demagogue or teacher of systematic philosophical doctrines, Socrates was first and foremost a learner, seeker, and student of truth. Throughout the dialogues, Socrates inspires us by providing a vision of the political world that can be criticized, re-conceptualized, and changed for the better. From the pages of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates exhorts us to action, expands our imagination, and draws us into the inquiry while at once orienting us within our own context of inquiry. When reading Plato’s dramatization of Socrates, we are inspired to assume the role of actively participating in the search for our own truth, pursuing our own philosophical activity, and—in the process—the potential exists to learn valuable lessons about engaging critically and respectfully with the ideas of others, even those of political opponents with whom we vehemently disagree.  

Thus, as opposed to the polemicist, one who seeks to engage in authentic political discourse must, as Socrates stresses in the dialogue Alcibiades I, practice the art of self-questioning. This is referred to as the “cultivation of the soul” and represents a relationship to truth that transcends the tribal and dogmatic tendency common to illegitimate political actors. This is precisely what Socrates recommends to the young Alcibiades who is prepared to make his entrance onto the political stage of Athens. This form of philosophical cultivation includes for Socrates the duty both to tell the truth to oneself and others and to challenge those who seek to deface truth or wield it in such a way as to subjugate or oppress others. For it is not merely about offering wise and prudent council to the Athenians that will suffice if Alcibiades is to rise to the status of a respected statesman. What is truly required is a courageous dedication to amending unjust and inequitable practices.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer emphasizes that “friendship” in relation to citizenry and statesmanship should be classified as among the most important political virtues and is bound up with all socio-political activity. For the ancient Greeks, having close friends served as a “prerequisite for being effective politically, but of course, it is a friendship of a specific type” and, indeed, a uniquely Socratic type. When it comes to this Socratic notion of friendship in authentic dialogue, recall the state of contemporary political debate earlier described as polemical, where we encounter opponents or enemies in debate. Contrary to how it is typically practiced today, friends in dialogue are meant to be inspired by the longing for the perfection of the soul through the pursuit of knowledge in the intimate company of others. This is accompanied by a non-dogmatic understanding of the value in longing for knowledge and a philosophical understanding of justice and temperance. Socrates links these two virtues to authentic political life, though they will never be completely fulfilled or acquired and possessed in a categorical manner.

However, the continued and renewed pursuit of such knowledge and the longing for potential enlightenment serves as the bond between friends in dialogue. We must commit, as does Socrates in the Alcibiades I, to remain a “constant companion” to the other through the arduous and unpredictable process of developing or cultivating the soul, despite the difficulty, danger, and unavoidable frustration. Such themes are, of course, not limited to the Alcibiades I. Similarly, in the Gorgias, Socrates explicitly states that dialectic, much like the soul and his proposed idea of politics, is nothing other than a “partnership and friendship” expressing “orderliness, self-control, and justice.”  

The dialectic, or the pursuit of truth as described herein, is a dedicated practice that holds the potential to solidify and nurture an authentic relationship to the other in social and political settings. For Socrates, it is a virtuous process that would benefit all of us in these troubling and tumultuous political times, through which a “person might become as good as possible and arrange his own house or city in the best possible way.”.

James M. Magrini holds an Ed.D. in the philosophy of education from the National College of Education in Chicago and has taught philosophy and ethics at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois for over 15 years. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on Heidegger’s thought and has authored seven philosophy monographs.

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