• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The Dialectic Or Didactic

July 2020

Aroused by the divine message of which, though late in life, he was the unexpected recipient, stirred by the grand endeavor to which, if only to disprove the claim of the Delphic priestess, he was thereafter committed, Socrates sought provocation not as an end, but as a means. To put it yet another way, in terms by which the more elegant eye might be appeased, that most profound of all European thinkers, that consummate gadfly of Greece, sought not tumult for its own sake, but as an avenue toward his loftier, philosophical end. He knew it to be the only method by which the sleeping intellect of his beloved city, now a decadent and morally languid place, might be stimulated once again to think. He sought provocation not because he was an aimless philosophical brat, one bored by the abstract readings of his dusty metaphysical texts, but as a man hoping to know and, by knowing, to improve the lot of his fellow, thinking man.

The Athenian intellect had, in many ways, become earth-bound and stale; the query to which it hadn’t yet an answer, yet from which it couldn’t very well deviate, was the elemental nature of things. Those by whom our novel Socrates was preceded, that hoary class to whom—in humbling deference to the toad-faced sage—the name of “Pre-Socratic” still applies, busied itself with the fundamental essence of the world, be it water, fire, soil, or air—or something entirely infinite and unseen. Despite all the academic bickering, in which everyone from Thales to Anaximenes to Heraclitus was so breathlessly engaged, this had become a dead and unfruitful question, an avenue to which, at least until the age of quantum physics, there was no foreseeable end.

Socrates’ task, whether or not it was initially recognized as such, was to see beyond these petty questions of the cosmos and the substance out of which it had grown. He wanted to return to a place of priority the investigation of man and his conception of virtue, justice, truth. In so doing, the mind was to be revivified and the soul reborn. Socrates, practitioner not of medicinal arts, but of those of philosophical pursuits, was to give to the suffering body of Athens new life. He wanted, if only to regain the pulse of its once-tympanic heart, an effort toward introspection, questioning, and discourse—those very things by which old dogmatists and their dead beliefs are always freshly imperiled. In refusal of them, and in conquest of the higher ideals to which he aspired, Socrates wanted goodness, beauty, and truth—that trinity to which virtue and wisdom are forever attracted, by which the conscience of a people is enlivened from one century to the next, over and repeatedly again.

He wanted to discover an essence that would abide, not an appearance that would be prone to shift. He wanted nothing of the exigencies of the moment, from which the glib and malleable sophists, now infecting the young minds and credulous strivers in the agora, seemed outlandishly to profit. Nor did he want to feel on his back the changing currents of the wind, up into which so many of his weightless friends and colleagues were so effortlessly swept. He wanted, instead, that which was veracious, sustainable, and ideal. He wanted a wisdom untroubled by the importunities of those forces which are appealing, within reach, but ultimately false. To attain this end, to purge his city of its unenlightened thought, to redeem an Athens overcome with preaching, haughtiness, sophistry, pomp, and, above all, ineradicable conceit, Socrates, the great philosopher, had to be free to inquire, to challenge, to provoke.

And so, he introduced to the world the Socratic Method—a method of which, despite all the novelties of our teachers’ forays into the rough-hewn plots of their chosen pedagogical fields—the better class of our university professors still make such profitable use. The method, as conceived at its earliest stage, was meant to be provocative, so far as provocation can be understood to be meaningfully constructive and good. Sadly, too many failed to see it as such, and its use, especially when employed by its founder, was seen to be an unmitigated bother. Doubtless, it’s for this reason that its chief practitioner, our gallant and percipient Socrates, was hastened to so premature a death. He was brought to a capital punishment to which, despite the eloquence of his apology, a democratic jury of his peers agreed to sentence him in the seventieth year of his age.

Alas, with the quiet encouragement of a sip of hemlock, that most poisonous and persuasive of herbs, Socrates died a few days later. As it turns out, few mortals, still fewer philosophers, reveal themselves to be immune to that toxic combination of acrid alkaloid and grave-digging tannin for which that most convenient and potent plant is renowned. And so, Socrates died, but the method of which he was the originator, and to which, for all time hence, we still affix his name, survived well beyond the quiet exhalation of his last breath. Naturally, it was carried forth through the ages, passed from one provocative generation to the next by the name of the Socratic, or the Dialectical method.

The latter term refers simply to the fact that the method was conversational. Literally, that’s what Dialectic means in the original Greek from which we receive it. However, as is always the case with that language and the culture around which it was built, the term carries with it further meaning. Dialectic wasn’t conversation merely, as if applied to the quotidian and boring type of prattle in which, day in and out, we all partake. Much deeper and more ornamental than that, it referred to the art of conversation, the chiseling of discourse into lapidary form. Each movement of the tongue was akin to that of the brush; every wetting of the lips, a dab of the paint on the board. Gesticulations in the air were as though strikes on the marble, and one’s eloquence was used to build his edifice of thought.

Dialectic, as invented by Socrates (and as preserved by that devout amanuensis upon whom the sage had so lasting an influence—namely, Plato) was, at its root, an artful form of conversation. It was cleanly honest and openly logical, without need for obfuscation and concealment of intent. It was pithily scrutinizing and penetratingly sharp. It maintained its form from beginning to end—an end at whose summit a higher truth was to be found. It was, as all good conversation ought to be, an effort in reciprocal exchange, a display of “give-and-take”. It was an act of parry and thrust, of charge and retreat—always carried forth with the valiant and amicable motivations shown by both sides. It was, when best and most effectively used, an inter-penetration of thought, a seeding, reaping, and re-planting of ideas by which a richer, heartier understanding was cultivated to grow.

Dialectic is the process of teaching by questioning, yet seldom is the role of “questioner” or, as it’s known, “teacher” so clearly defined. Unwittingly, by giving and receiving questions, one to the next, both parties will, in varying degrees, spend time as both teacher and student. They’ll do so with neither reproach nor derision, accepting, in turn, the humble or elevated station in which, in ephemeral fashion, they’re to be honestly placed. They’ll neither be reticent or peremptory in their offer of a response, knowing both are to benefit from its utterance and reception. And so, they’ll enjoy the exercise of the brain and all its inexhaustible faculties in a vigorous and exciting way.

Dialectic employs what you might call a “bottom-up” approach; it begins with a humble definition of a term—or a grasping attempt at a definition—a word to which you’ll often return, of which you’ll make frequent use. This is the term without which, despite the precision of your blueprints and the zeal of your joined exertions, no linguistic structure can stand. Without this foundation, one can’t hope to mount the high altitudes of truth, a perch from which the grandest of vistas are to be seen. Dialectic is an accrual of knowledge, upon which further knowledge is ingenuously built. It is, in this way, collaborative and concerted, organic and harmonious, inclusive and strong.

That which is opposite to dialectic and, in my opinion, far inferior, is didactic. In a word, it’s all that dialectic is not. Didacticism, while smart, is intolerably stiff. It hasn’t the lithe and necessary movement in its bones, the graceful sinuosity in its wits. It towers like a burly statue, cold to the touch. It lacks the easy, happy “play” in its joints, the lubricant-smoothed surfaces upon which, with agility and poise, the dialectic pivots and turns. It is inflexible to the changes of its environment, unappreciative of those influences by which it might be bent.

It is authoritative and exclusive, stuffy and proud. It is reliant on one, and only one supreme professor of knowledge, a master from whom all wisdom is to be received. It is, quite literally, de haut en bas—an approach to teaching from high to low. It doesn’t build, one rock after another, to strengthen the beautiful mountain of knowledge, a heap along which, to and fro, the sweat-filled dialectic denizen lumbers. It rather beckons with cool complacency from the height of its unchallenged stoop, an unattainable place atop which, with scornful certitude, it stands and preaches to all. It’s an acme to which, despite all fervid climbing, all commitment, and all learning, few are ever granted entry. Only the elect are allowed in, and the elect are narrow.

One, the dialectic, is hospitable, brilliant, and warm. It is welcoming, above all, to that diversity of opinion, that multitude of perspective out of which real democracies, such as ours, are born. It exudes, in the eloquent words of Oscar Wilde, the “Oxford Temper”—the ability, as he described it, “to play gracefully with ideas”. That is its chief characteristic, the attribute by which we’re all charmed. And so, marrying grace with playfulness, sophistication with fun, the dialectic is the best of conversational affairs. It is the noblest relationship between man and woman, woman and man, thinker and thought.

The other, the didactic, is, in comparison, a loveless mariage de convenance. It lacks the heady stimulation, the weighty amours of the former’s pursuit. While it might be productive of truth, it will appear as though a spurious and distant child. It is rather moralizing and chaste, than romantic and free. It is somewhat barren of love, that sentiment by which learning is forever inspired. The didactic, intolerant of temptation, has that sobering effect. It is far less dexterous, far colder to the touch and to the spirit. While the dialectic is warmth, youth, and exuberance, the didactic is frigidity, tyranny, and an uncompromising bore.

The American mode of conversation, the manner of speaking upon which this ever-so voluble nation is based, is the dialectic. It is our national language and our tongue, the octave to which our collective ear is tuned. We know of no other style, and would speak in no other form. Every other tongue is distant, and we like them not. They are barbaric as were barbarians to the Greeks—a horde uncultured in the subtle arts of conversation. We hear not their didactic calls, preferring instead to speak equally and magically amongst ourselves.

And, like that mythic Socrates, we too are a provocative people, and that’s how a thinking people, a democratic and a republican people, a free and a prosperous people, ought always to be. There is no other way, nor, if there was, would we pursue it. This is our native endowment, an abiding gift for which we have that nonpareil class of founders, its lofty ideals and their imperishable language, to thank. This is the peculiarity of our western spirit, the hue by which our blood is colored. We cannot drain it from ourselves, and we won’t soon be opening our wrists.

Thus, I conclude, combat the didacticism of our age. Do so irrespective of its source. We are, and always shall be, a proud and dialectic people. Let no one tell you otherwise. The didactic, ever pernicious, may come from many places. It may come from the intelligentsia, the journalists, the moralists, or wherever. Reject the vain assurance of its crude temptation. Rely on the elegance of dialogue instead. Embrace, with me, with all, conversation and provocation--though never solely for provocation's sake. Cleave to the dialectic, Socratic method. Color your discourse with the genius of his Grecian spirit, to which you’ll add the highlights of your American soul.

Dialectic your journey, provocation your means. The end is the enlightenment of your mind, the liberty of your speech.

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