The story goes that one of Plato’s students invited him to come teach Dionysios, king of Syracuse. Dionysios was a decadent king, and the student hoped Plato could help the king learn to love wisdom, develop self-discipline and rightly lead his people.
Instead, the king exiled Plato’s student, then kept Plato under an informal house arrest. He couldn’t, after all, risk his reputation as a serious student by sending Plato packing.
After a period of keeping up appearances, Dionysios allowed Plato to leave. Plato did so … only to be invited back by the king.
Had the king had a change of heart? Not a chance: Dionysios felt he understood Plato’s teachings after one lesson. In fact, he wrote his own book of philosophy.
My coaching practice’s motto is, “Wrestle and grow.” Dionysios would have made a lousy client. Because he felt he was already grown, he wasn’t willing to wrestle.
Which is a pity. As a rural car dealer once put it to me, “Mark, ripe fruit is dead!”
Being comfortable where you are, and avoiding the discomfort of going further, is the antithesis of the classical art of the dialectic.
Dialectic is one of the seven “liberal arts,” bundles of skills called “liberal” in that the ancients trained only free men in their use. The liberal arts kept students liberated. They could no longer be slaves—to ignorance, to another’s persuasive words, to one’s own passions.
Plato’s beloved teacher, Socrates, taught in this manner. In fact, most of Plato’s works are dialogues between Socrates and students. They read like play scripts, with lots of back-and-forth, arguments and humor.
Why did both philosophers teach this way? Because they were philosophers: The word means lovers of wisdom. And like a good lover, they wanted to know Wisdom better.
In the Seventh Letter, purported to be Plato’s narration of what happened with Dionysios, Plato makes a bold statement: It is “not possible” for any writer, at any time, to have “real skill” in what Plato teaches about life because there is no treatise on the subject:
“For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.”
I can read a book. But if I really want to understand that book, I join a book club. In those discussions—sometimes talking, sometimes arguing but always listening—“after much converse” a flame leaps from another soul to mine.
Conversations allow ideas to “catch fire” in us.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a group: Journals help us have conversations within ourselves—if your journal involves prayer, you can add God to that conversation. And in my faith we see Christ, the very Word of God, as someone in dialogue with us when we read his word. (And Christ as one of the three persons of the Trinity is in dialogue and communion at all times with the Father and the Spirit—also translated Breath, something you’ll need in conversation!)
Some approach books that way. I still laugh when I remember that El Greco, the great painter, wrote in the margins of a book about Michelangelo that the master could draw but didn’t know anything about color.
So you could journal or make notes in books. But no man is an island. We are in community. We learn best in conversation with each other—and then in putting our learning to practice in our community.
But … it is a wrestle.
According to scholar Werner Jaeger, the gymnasium, the place where Greeks trained their bodies, was a natural place for Socrates to start asking his questions, engaging in training the mind. He did so with “dialectic.” It was soon an elaborate practice, as admired as much as training the body.
What exactly is “dialectic?” You will note it is close to “dialogue.” It will help to point out a Greek root word of both, legein. The noun form is logos. Even if you’ve never heard of logos, it has shaped much of the world around you. St. John’s College professor Eva Braun calls it the “key word … of the Western philosophical tradition, which acts as a tradition because its moments are both bound together and driven apart by dialogue.”
She notes that logos originally meant “to pick up,” as in “to count things.” That evolved to mean “speaking.” Think how even today we use counting and speaking words interchangeably: I give an account of my vacation. I withdraw money from an account. I probably did that through a teller.
In any of those senses, logos is about communicating meaning. As Braun says it, logos is about “‘addressing,’ of entering into relations.” Or “speaking with/against one another.”
Yes, against one another. The dialectic is about wrestling with each other to the truth. It is the opposite of what we now call cancel culture. We enter into relationship with others to discuss the relationship between meaningful thing. We are trying to get to the heart of the matter, to arrive at truth, but we can only do so when we are willing to wrestle about the topic. When we do that, flames leap between souls.
What are you doing when you practice dialectic? You are in tension.
Tension and tone have the same Greek root, meaning “to stretch.” Once a guitar string is stretched tight, you can pluck a note. Different tensions of the string reveal different tones.
So in dialectic you are getting intentional (same root!) about stretching you and the other members of the dialogue. In fact, you are stretching yourselves between two or more ideas that are in opposition. In short, you are wrestling to the truth.
There are several things to pay attention (same root!) to as you go through the dialogue.
Opposing ideas. It may seem self-evident, but you are better served if it is clear what the conflict is between the ideas. Say it is your business choosing vendor A or vendor B. Much like a sales professional must uncover the customer’s objections to proceed with the sale, those good at dialectic shine a light on what is at conflict. It is the only way to work through that to consensus on the other side of the conflict.
Deeper truths. It may seem like just a conversation about vendor A’s merits vs. vendor B’s merits. But what is this saying about your organization’s needs and assumptions? When there is a chance to go deeper than what you are doing to what you are or want to become—go there. (Warning: It will probably get intense—yes, same root word. …)
Participation. Peter Senge’s classic “The Fifth Discipline” says, “The discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together.’” You may have to draw out thinking from all participants. Otherwise, you will not all arrive at a new understanding. And those doing the “thinking alone” may be in error due to their untested assumptions.
Humility. Your goal is to learn, which involves curiosity and exploring. It is hard to do those things when you think you’ve already figured it out. Ripe fruit really is dead. Senge again: Learn “how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. The patterns of defensiveness are often deeply ingrained in how a team operates. If unrecognized, they undermine learning. If recognized and surfaced creatively, they can accelerate learning.”
Patience. Perhaps because of the tension, this is a messy process. It is not cut and dried. Expect it to take more than one session. Better yet, expect it to be an ongoing way of conducting meetings, engaging with employees and reaching decisions. There will always be more to uncover, which means more ways to grow.
How do you do all this? In the next #LostToolsOfBusiness post, we’ll discuss the “common topics.” (Or contact Hip Socket if you’re excited.)
Just be prepared to wrestle.