The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 23

The Teachings of the Anti-Socratic

3.) Winning is more important than truth.
Winning over all other perspectives is the only vision of the anti-Socratic. Gaining power for a particular side is the dominant goal of most public discourse when it comes to sharing views in the media. We never see examples of people who are excited about the prospect of having their own view refuted in public because it will help them get closer to the truth. Such refutations are considered to be a disaster in public discourse. In the Socratic view, refutation is the primary positive value of dialogue.

In one of Plato's dialogues (Gorgias 470 c) Socrates is speaking with Polus, who makes fun of Socrates' point of view:

POLUS: How hard it is to refute you Socrates! Why, even a child could refute you and show you that what you are saying is not true.

SOCRATES: In that case, I would be grateful to the child, and just as grateful to you if you refute me and rid me of this nonsense. Please don't falter now in doing a friend a good turn. Refute me.

It is difficult to imagine anyone who participates in the cult of polemics that is our modern debate oriented format of public discourse expressing gratitude for being shown that they are completely wrong.

Earlier in this same Platonic dialogue (Gor. 461a), the task of refutation is taken to be the main value of the talk:

SOCRATES: ...if you, like me, consider refutation to be a profitable thing, it would be worthwhile to continue the discussion, but if you don't, to let it drop (end the conversation).

Winning at all costs is the anti-Socratic value. Eagerness to be refuted is the Socratic value compatible with living an examined life. The value of refutation is not just an aesthetic moral ideal. It is a truth about how human beings learn and create new things. Refutation is a valuable part of the process of creation. Failure is not failure for those who continue to look up. This is why Thomas Edison could say about the invention of the light bulb, “I didn’t fail a thousand times, the light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.” A great story on the value of finding out you are wrong is that of Paul MaCcready, who won the first Kremer prize for building a human powered aircraft. He succeeded in building the prize winning plane by realizing he had to make himself able to fail more often. Think of it. That the key to success can be found in our ability to fail as often as possible runs counter intuitively to the common human thinking on success. Yet, it is true. In Socratic discourse, as in all useful conversation, analysis, and creation, finding out that we are wrong (refutation) is a powerful benefit. Those who are refuted are benefited by clearing the path to seeking new knowledge and new possibilities.

The anti-Socratic philosophy of winning at all costs gives us the bizarre phenomenon of people clinging to their original argument or position at all costs. Seeking truth and seeking to increase our understanding demands that we are ready to be converted to another view. Clinging to our original positions at all costs always eventually reduces to the useless argument form of "Yes, it is.", "No, it is not.", "Yes, it is.", "No, it is not."...{ad nauseam}. This must happen sometimes when people have intractable differences they cannot work out. However, if stalemates in the discourse of human differences were the real norm, we all would still be living in caves because innovation would be impossible. Socratic education makes people comfortable with learning something new. Being comfortable with being wrong, taking joy in discovering error, and using failure to productive means involves human character traits that we desperately need to cultivate in order to walk a winning path to building a better future for the next generation.