A reflection on Plato’s Charmides
From early times humans have involved themselves in diverse intellectual traditions that spread across the spectrum of philosophy, politics, religion and art. Examples of the most significant periods of intellectual growth include the Vedic age in India, the Hundred Schools of Thought in China, Periclean Athens the Golden and Silver ages of Latin Prose, the Islamic Golden Age and the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Several similarities can be drawn across these ‘golden ages,’ including state patronage, sufficient political fragmentation to allow for intellectual independence and intermittent periods of war, trade and peace, bringing with it a mixture of culture and ideas. However, I would argue that the times which have involved the greatest flourishing of intellectual development have evolved in situations of heterodoxy, where multiple opinions and beliefs have been able to co-exist. In such an environment each tributary of thought is able to feed off one other, becoming more rounded and enriched through the eclectic combination of creeds, systems and sciences. The forum for this intellectual melting pot is the debate.
Debate is the free-flowing exchange of ideas between two or more people, where individuals abide by the implicit contract that, regardless of how wrong their intellectual opponents view them, they will be given a fair opportunity to voice their opinions. To note, a single-sided flow of information, politely known as a lecture and more impolitely as a tirade, is not a debate. If you are imposing your opinions on other people without the right of reply, you are at best engaging in intellectual tyranny. It is important to also note that debate is not an argument, where opposing parties attempt to prove their peers wrong and advance their own point through rhetorical prowess. It is rather an inquisitorial event, in which all parties present their ideas and try to discover more diverse and possibly better methods of understanding an issue or problem. It is common, however, for debate to retrograde into the less intellectually beneficial form of argument.
The point at which a debate becomes an argument is a less a difference in type, and more of a shifting scale, dependent on the state of mind which all participants bring to the table. A meaningful debate can occur even when some of the individuals within the circle are engaging in argument – although as the preponderance of members drift from analysis into offensive and defensive posturing – attempts to revive the spirit of inquiry become fruitless. Although the rock bottom of argument is when it becomes a fusillade of ad hominin attacks – targeting physical, social, intellectual or other traits – the best way that an individual can determine if they are engaging in debate is to examine their own mindset.
If a person enters a debate on a topic holding their own opinion as a ‘sacred object’ which is inviolable and not subject to change or modification, then that person is incapable of conducting debate. A ‘sacred object’ has become ingrained into the subject’s very identity, likely an aspiring conviction (see on Martyrs), and as such is incapable of change under the circumstances of debate. As such, any opinion lodged contrary to such an opinion – or even perceived as nibbling at the edges – will be subject to the full suite of argumentative tools: accusations, threats, slander or, the worst of all, a complete shutdown of communication. If not provoked into a state of ire, the possessor of a ‘sacred’ opinion will instead attempt to proselytise their beliefs, completely dominating the forum of conversation.
With that in mind there is now a question: is any opinion beyond the veil of debate? I would argue that broadly speaking that any opinion, as long as it is not an ad hominin attack or threat directed at the opposing interlocutor, should be permitted within the realms of debate, no matter how disgusting one as an individual finds the contrasting point of view. This is mainly because, as a matter of opinion, your beliefs are just as likely to be morally repulsive to the other individual – there is no beneficial value in being offended by another’s opinion when it comes to debate. Despite this, it should not mean that a wrong opinion should be left untouched in the centre of conversation – rather that the person who posits a point of view must be pressed to explain their belief. If an opinion boils down to nothing more than an irrational bundle of emotion or faith then it cannot be debated, it is a sacred object that the opposing individual must either relinquish to continue the conversation or a point that must be bypassed to save whatever semblance of debate remains.
The question must now be reasonably asked: if we cannot change minds through debate and if the interlocutor involved will not surrender opinions held without merit, then what is the point? This is where I would suggest that debate is not about attempting to prove a point, convert a non-believer or silence a critic, instead when one engages in genuine debate you are trying to challenge, understand, explain and enrich your own opinions. As long as you hold onto a belief as sacred, you will find attempts at debate as frustrating exercises in strike and riposte – an argument. Although debate comes with the unspoken agreement that all receive a fair hearing, it also relies on the implied understanding that all members are present for self-enrichment.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, The School of Athens, 1509-1511