- “But Could You Persuade Us, If We Won’t Listen?”
The opening passage of Plato’s Republic finds Socrates walking with a young friend and student, Glaucon, in Piraeus, the port of Athens, where they had come to observe a religious festival. They are spotted by another young man, Polemarchus, who sends his slave ahead to ask Socrates to wait for him. What follows is a comic parody of an “arrest,” with Polemarchus pointing out that he has a number of friends with him (including Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother), and he would like Socrates to stay in Piraeus and accompany him and his group to his home. Socrates appears to be preparing to return to Athens, and Polemarchus says to him, “Well, you must either prove stronger than we are, or you will have to stay here.” Socrates responds, “Isn’t there another alternative, namely that we persuade you to let us go?” Polemarchus’ reply to this is certainly a conversation stopper: “But could you persuade us, if we won’t listen?” Socrates has to admit that this is impossible, and he submits to the “arrest” and joins the group in visiting Polemarchus’ home, where the conversation constituting the rest of the dialogue takes place.
“But could you persuade us, if we won’t listen?” A powerful point. Conversation is only possible among those who listen and consider the positions of those [End Page 252] who speak. Without that kind of sympathetic listening, debate is just a surrogate for force—it isn’t the words that matter; what is decisive, rather, is the relative strength, measured in terms of votes, guns, wealth, or some other standard unrelated to the reasonableness of the spoken words, of the person or people uttering them. Philosophy, really any form of reasonable discussion, is certainly not possible when we measure one another only by the physical force we wield. This force represents the world of necessity, rather than the world of ideas and free choice.
In this brief opening passage of Plato’s great book, we are presented with intimations of paramount importance for two prominent and interrelated contemporary concerns: the dramatic contrast between democratic and undemocratic institutions and practices, and the valuable role a broadly experienced liberal education plays in supporting and maintaining a healthy democratic politics and society.
It is no secret that force largely rules the world. We are certainly subject to the forces of nature, which are mute and incapable of engaging in negotiation or discussion with us; we either learn to control, channel, or deflect them, or they will (and usually do) control us. In our relations with human beings, we know that our personal affairs far too often display the marks of force rather than consent or agreement, and our relationship with the impersonal groups, institutions, and individuals of the market and political world far too often measure influence and authority by sheer brute power. Our aspiration, however, is to tame these powers and bring them to the discipline of communication, reason, and agreement. If only, we hope, men would no longer use force to impose their will on women; if only, we hope, whites would no longer use their power to impose their will on Black and Brown neighbors; if only, we hope, our politics would grow out of genuine debate and conversation, where opponents listen to one another, consider their perspective and their arguments, and accept the outcome of democratic contestation as legitimate and binding on all participants. The world of conversation is one that allows for freedom and agreement; in the world governed only by force, even the powerful appear to be simply responding to their own advantageous material conditions. Choice doesn’t appear to have anything to do with it. As President Trump made clear in a well-known interview with George Stephanopoulos, taking information about a political opponent from a foreign country during [End Page 253] a political campaign seemed no different to him than any other opposition research one is forced by the circumstances to pursue. The implication is clear: he would be foolish to refuse to pay attention, regardless of the source of the information or the intention...