Don’t Diss the Dissoi Logoi - by Leon Conrad

Dialectic is a term often used interchangeably with logic when people list the subjects of the Trivium. Is it Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric; or is it Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric? When were the middle subjects practised and what’s the difference?

Logic and Dialectic are very different.

Logic is a private process of patterned reasoning. Dialectic is a public process of question and answer that’s acted out according to strict rules. Aristotle outlines them in Book 8 of his Topics. There’s also a good article about them by Castelnérac and Marion – Arguing for Inconsistency: Dialectical Games in the Academy.

Through a mutual exploration of a topic or an opinion held, participant A tries to defend their belief and participant B (the questioner) puts them to the test to see if they hold a contrary point of view, in order to establish whether there is a higher-level truth that is better to espouse as a value. Logical thinking can be used – and fallacies are forbidden, but it goes way beyond mere logic. It’s about using patterns of thought to explore central values such as truth, justice, or goodness.

As Plato states in the Republic (534b-c, as quoted in Castelnérac and Marion, page 5), “Unless someone can distinguish in an account the form of the good from everything else, can survive all [tests] (elenchon), as if in a battle, striving to [examine] (elenchein) things not in accordance with opinion but in accordance with being, and one can come through all this with his account still intact, you’ll say that he doesn’t know the good itself or any other good.”

And according to the same author, Socrates saw it as ‘soul cleansing’.

“Doctors who work on the body think it can’t benefit from any food that’s offered to it until what’s interfering with it from inside is removed. The people who cleanse the soul, my young friend, likewise think the soul too, won’t get any advantage from any learning that’s offered to it until someone shames it by refuting it, removes the opinions that interferes with learning, and exhibits it cleansed, believing that it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more. […] For all these reasons, Theaetetus we have to say that [elenchus] is the principal and most important kind of cleansing.” (Sophist 230d-e, quoted in Castelnérac and Marion, page 4).

Soul cleansing? Sounds good to me – particularly if it’s soul cleansing without the overlay of religion. Did it work? If so how?

There’s a strange text written by an anonymous author, thought to have lived around the 5th-4thcenturies BC. It’s written in Greek (Ionian/Attic) and is supposed to be a manual for people to use and study before engaging in the practice of dialectic. It’s called the Dissoi Logoi.

The Dissoi Logoi (available in several English translations) is a collection of arguments for and against topics. Juxtaposed, they are paradoxical, illogical and provocative. And this is the approach that writers have concentrated on.

Few commentators have looked at the overarching structure in any detail, and this is the aspect of the work I find fascinating.

The work (believed incomplete) is divided into five titled sections and three untitled:

1.       On good and bad

2.       On seemly and shameful

3.       On just and unjust

4.       On truth and falsehood

5.       On whether wisdom and moral excellence are teachable


6.       On meritocracy and democracy

7.       The orator’s toolkit

8.       Memory

On good and bad

This section deals with how something can be seen as good or bad simultaneously by different people. ‘Your death is bad for you and good for the undertaker’ goes the text. And if something can be both good and bad at the same time, then if you do good to someone, you’ve automatically done something bad to them.

The arguments are not what interest me. What interests me in this section is that the arguments mainly concern an object of thought. The value judgement is relative. The observers vary. The focus, however, is on the object of thought, the effect of an action.

On seemly and shameful

This section deals with how something can be seen as seemly and shameful – ‘marital sex is seemly in private, but shameful in public’. If the same thing can be both seemly and shameful, then white can also be black; it can be both seemly and shameful for girls in Sparta to exercise naked.

Here the seemly does not primarily exist in the object, nor does it exist primarily in the beholder, for that is an illogical position and the author’s goal is to reach the truth. The main focus in this section is in the ‘space between’, the person’s attitude to a perceived event. To clarify, it’s an attitude that depends on an external event to occur for it to appear. It is not an attitude that exists independently from an external action. It’s based on values such as the good, but its primary focus is not that internal value, but how that internal value is moderated with regard to an object of thought.

On just and unjust

If the first two sections dealt with the object of thought and the relationship between subject and object, logically this section should deal with the subject, and this is exactly what the author explores in this section, for justice is an internally experienced quality. It’s awakened by external events, but it’s not completely dependent on them. ‘It is just to tell lies and to deceive’. You know those white lies you think are OK? Yup – that’s what he’s talking about. And if those lies are good to tell, then justice and injustice are the same, and if so, then in an twist similar to that used above, stealing is just because it’s demonstrating injustice.

The perception of justice or injustice are based on the standpoint of the person doing the stealing – they are consciously making a value judgement. They know they’re stealing and not taking.

On whether wisdom and moral excellence are teachable

So where is the author going now? We’ve done object, ‘space between’, and subject. He or she (it could be either) starts with a clear statement of position – something he/she hasn’t done before. ‘There’s a certain view put forward which is neither true nor new, to the effect that wisdom and moral excellence can be neither taught nor learnt.’ In other words, ‘Saying wisdom and moral excellence aren’t teachable is true’. He/she finishes the section differently. ‘I am not saying that wisdom and moral excellence are teachable, but that the above-mentioned proofs do not satisfy me.’ This is both a contradiction – a paradoxical statement (the exact opposite of the opening statement) – and an invitation to think more deeply. What could satisfy?

Here we’re invited to dig deep into the heart of ourselves – what is the internal truth we stand for? Is it within? Is it without? Is it located in the ‘space between’? Or, if we accept the need for the presence of a teacher (as facilitator) and student (as rememberer – as in the example where Socrates demonstrates that a slave boy has within him the knowledge to double a square, he just needs a teacher to act as a midwife to release that knowledge), that the learning happens as a result of what happens in the ‘space between’, but is not limited by it. It becomes a unifying force. Here, the three become one.

There is another dichotomy that crosses the next two passages.

If we select people by lot, then ‘a flute-player will perhaps be playing the harp, or a harpist the flute,’ the author remarks in his discussion of meritocracy and democracy. Further on, in the section about the orator, the author says, ‘I consider it a characteristic of the same man and of the same art … to know the truth of things’ and continues, ‘he will… have knowledge of everything… even if he does not know how to play the flute, he will always prove able to play the flute should the situation ever call for his doing this.’

This is a characteristic of the ‘same man’ and the ‘same art’, for what the author is aiming for ultimately (literally) is unity – union with the universe, a universe where everything is a manifestation of the ‘One’.

And hidden in the heart of the section of memory is a clue to this…

‘This is true [as you will see] if you concentrate your attention [upon the matter]. For by following this course your mind will come to perceive more ‘as a whole’ that which you have learned.’

I think it is more than possible that far from being ‘mere sophistry’, this text is an initiatory text, the aim of which is to free the mind, the soul, the being, and release the questor into a state of permanent becoming and oneness with the universe.

It comes as no surprise to me that in the penultimate passage, the author returns to the three main values he or she started with – goodness, truth and justice, and points out that it is the orator’s characteristic to ‘teach people about the nature of everything—both how everything is and how it came into being.’


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