Socrates and Civility

From Austin Storm
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Civility encourages us to approach conversation as a kind of potluck. If you bring your arguments to the table, and I bring mine, each of us stands to find something of value on offer. Even if no one’s mind is changed, the encounter passes enjoyably enough: no one tries to shove anything down anyone’s throat; everyone is correspondingly polite about what she turns down: “No aspic for me, thanks!” The great thing about ideas is that I don’t lose what you take from me, so the more sharing the better.

If you anticipated such a positive sum exchange, Socrates’s efforts to bend you to his argumentative will come off as downright violent. For instance, consider what happens when Protagoras tries to avoid saying whether he thinks justice is pious: “What’s the difference? If you want, we’ll let justice be pious and piety just.” Socrates has none of it: “Don’t do that to me! It’s not this ‘if you want’ or ‘if you agree’ business I want to test. It’s you and me I want to put on the line, and I think the argument will be tested best if we take the ‘if’ out.”


Now Socrates himself would object to being labeled an opponent of civility. Socrates always prefers to turn the linguistic tables: he’d insist that his oddball gadfly approach amounts to true civility. He might point out that etymologically the word “civility” comes from the Latin civis—citizen—and that the demand to think by agreement couldn’t be more citizenly: it proposes to settle all questions by the method appropriate to political ones. So who is right? Which is the true civility, his kind or ours?

Because “Socratic civility” takes refutation as its modus operandi, it makes people angry. People felt hurt and disrespected by what Socrates did to them, and eventually they killed him for it. One might argue, against Socrates, that it is more truly civil to live and let live.

The problem comes when you can’t: Abortion. Universal health care. Immigration. Taxation. Facebook privacy. Sexism. Racism. Transphobia. Prisons. Poverty. Education. Unions. When one of our perspectival differences becomes a load-bearing political question, the idea of agreeing to disagree doesn’t work anymore. If each of us accepts that at the end of the day we cannot change one another’s minds, and each of us also thinks that in this case things must go my way, we are in quite a bind.

- Agnes Callard, Persuade or be Persuaded