Dialogue Is Never Enough Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. October 25, 2005
The term "dialogue" is, of course, of classical origin. Literally, it means a conversation, particularly an organized written conversation between two or more people. The dialogue is about a given subject usually of some gravity or consequence, though playful dialogues are certainly part of the literature. The word comes from Greek and means "to gather," "to speak," "to reason." Logos, of course, is the philosophic word that refers to Christ in the Prologue of the Gospel of John. It signifies that a meaning is to be found in things. Each being has its measure or rule according to what it is, by which we know it to be this thing and not that thing. Logos always refers to intellect or reason, not to will. Dialogue will be the disciplined, engaged exchange of ideas. Its purpose is to become more articulately reasonable. The end of dialogue is truth now spelled out in the light of all feasible objections to it, themselves manifested in the exchange. The knowledge of what is true includes the knowledge of what is not true.Dialogue, moreover–though it can, and perhaps should, be delightful and charming–is not a mere device by which we hear ourselves talk. It is not simply a babbling on. Its eloquence and style serve dialectic and syllogism. The phrase "locked in conversation" is closer to its meaning. Dialogue is for the purpose of arriving at a conclusion, a truth through honorable conversation or exchange of ideas. Dialogue should take place in an atmosphere beyond the threat or coercion, as Plato’s Gorgias reminds us. The rules of logic are themselves guidelines to arriving at the truth that is the purpose of conversation and controversy. But moral virtue, the honesty and courage to seek the truth, must be an intrinsic part of dialogue if it is to achieve its end. Aquinas’ amusing remark in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics makes this point clear: "Those who love to listen to and tell stories, and who waste the whole day talking about all kinds of contingent remarks and deeds (unnecessary and useless affairs) are said to be garrulous" (#602). None of us wants to be accused of being "garrulous," a word that means "chatter" or pointlessly talkative. Though it does not deny a place for lightsome and casual humor in everyday life, dialogue is not a mere telling of passing yarns or tales as if they had nothing to teach us. It is not, to repeat, "garrulous." At its best, it is concerned with ultimate things, though this concern is by no means dull but close to the most exciting enterprise we can ever know. The "Dialogues" of Plato, no doubt, are the most famous examples of this literary form, one imitated by innumerable writers, including Cicero and Augustine, who were also masters of this mode of discourse. The "monologue" or "soliloquy" means an inner "dialogue" of oneself with oneself, an effort to make things clearer by spelling out to oneself what the issues involved in the subject really are. The "dia-logue" always implies another, a listener, who responds to a speaker. The first speaker in turn himself becomes a hearer who responds back on the basis of the response to his initial position. We are both listeners and speakers. In this sense, philosophy exists in conversation or dialogue where its terms and arguments become alive. The same issues, both ultimate ones and those of less import, keep coming up again and again among our kind. This recurrence is one of the reasons why we continue to read Plato and participate in his conversational dialogues, which, in their totality, cover much of what is at stake at the heart of mankind. Plato is the first and most delightful of intellectual adventures. But he is relentless in his pursuit of truth, even when Socrates tells us that the highest wisdom is to "know nothing." To know Plato’s "nothing" is, in fact, to know many things. It is not a skepticism about knowing anything but a realization of the inexhaustible nature of everything that is... And Chesterton remarks that the purpose of argument or dialogue is not ultimately to disagree but to agree. The purpose of disagreement is in the end to agree. That is to say, dialogue is intended to achieve something beyond itself. It is well that we do not agree before we understand why we should agree. On the other hand, it is also true that we refuse to argue or agree to philosophic positions because we are afraid of where the argument leads, if it leads to a coherence in the universe between reason and revelation. The world is not divided merely by intellect and its understandings of things. It is more fundamentally divided by will, by the thesis that, as Benedict XVI said, "we want unlimited possession of the world and of ourselves." To accomplish this latter ambition, we have to lie to ourselves about ourselves and about the coherence of the world. To protect our self-generated view of ourselves, we have to develop a theory that justifies what we do according to our own wills. This is why, however useful, dialogue runs up against our wills that enable us to choose another view of the world but the one that is. Dialogue, however useful, is never enough. It always brings us face to face with that will that chooses not to serve, no matter what the evidence.