A reflection on Plato’s Euthydemus
In previous reflections, I have covered the difficulty of continuing debate when faced by a reluctant discussion partner. However, this only really covers half the challenge with an individual not genuinely interested in the critique and comparison of opinions in the arena of fair and equitable analysis. It is becoming a much more common thing in an era of simple, instant and anonymous communication for the individual seeking pleasure in rupture and discord to rear their head. Terms such as ‘troll’ and ‘flaming’ are ubiquitous throughout the internet of things, but the question lays as to how we deal with this issue. I will examine how our previous analysis of the failure of inquiry differs from eristic – argument for arguments sake – and then the manner in which we can prevent proponents of eristic from derailing our own discussions.
In the traditional concept of an argument (see on Failed Inquiry) the breakdown of debate occurs when the interlocutor has a position challenged which they are unwilling to submit to discussion. At this point the partner in inquiry will utilise appeals to pathos or authority, declaring the sacrosanct nature of their belief and expecting this to count as defence enough against any further scrutiny. It is a declaration of a specific area of debate as ‘off limits’ – and for the more liberal inquirer, the admission by their partner of a personal idol. This form of argument is designed to shut down debate, to prevent further utterances which challenge their point of view. If the line of questioning is followed, it will either result in the interlocutor’s withdrawal or degradation into a mudslinging match. However, the other form of argument, eristic, is even less desirable when pursuing genuine debate.
As opposed to shutting down discussion the proponent of eristic will attempt to fan the flames of dissension and anger – the fiercer the sparks, the more they enjoy the act. In indulging their own pleasure, they drag their opponents through a rollercoaster of emotion – potentially wasting the time and energy of their partner without giving the opportunity to benefit from the curative effects of genuine debate engaged in the spirit of mutual benefit.
The definition of Irony vs. Sarcasm is something that is important to remember when facing a proponent of eristic (see on Irony). The proponent of eristic will deliberately choose positions which they know will get the utmost rise out of their opponent, the more extreme, the more likely they will gain the object of their desire. Do not assume that a person adopting a superlative position is a proponent of their stated view, and know that leaping to the post of condemnation or the moral high ground may only leave your opponent cackling.
The adoption of extremes is only the first of many tools available, the user of eristic will leap at the use of allegories – stringing together labels and straw-men to create an argument bound to bring one’s blood to a boil. The worse the logic, the more likely the opponent is merely luring you into a position of white-hot fury – their intention all along. To snap and lose your cool is only to make a gift to the provocateur, and to waste your own personal effort on something other than the improvement of yourself or others.
So when faced by someone seeking to use eristic to elicit a response, how should one react? In the first place I would suggest following the common-sense advice – do not engage with those who seek attention or validation for their bad behaviour. Without an audience, the user of eristic will often disappear – finding an easier mark. However, this is poor advice for an event where a person has no option other than to engage with the individual on a regular basis or when a single person seeks to inflict harm on many for their own personal pleasure.
If you do decide to engage with a person utilising eristic, always remember to maintain control of your emotions. Refrain from attempting to ‘educate’ or force your opponent to change their mind – a futile exercise if they are merely adopting a position to which they hold no real allegiance. Instead invite your opponent to explain their opinion, perhaps using a dose of your own verbal irony by playing the fool. If they are merely feigning an extreme belief, the ongoing argument will collapse under their lack of real understanding. The proponent of eristic is a pleasure seeker – and as soon as the path to self-gratification is shut they will cease their toxic assaults.
Jan Matejko, Stańczyk – The Prussian Homage (detail), 1882,