The Right People
by Lesley Reece
I recently spent half a Sunday reading Plato's Symposium (translated and with notes by Alexander Nehamas & Paul Woodruff, Hackett, 1989.) for my "Greek and Roman Classics" class. It wasn't bad, it was even amusing in places, like when Alcibiades arrived at the party stinking drunk and said "Good evening, gentlemen. I'm plastered." But Socrates seemed like such a bad guest. I mean, he showed up at Agathon's house for an evening dedicated to praise of Eros, and listened to everyone else's speeches. Then when it was his turn, instead of praising Eros, he not only took apart Agathon's speech, but forced Agathon to admit his praises of Eros were wrong.
Victor came over right after I'd finished, and asked how I'd liked the book. "Socrates was an asswipe," I said.
"What are you talking about? He's the father of modern argument!" Victor spluttered.
Victor was right, naturally; Socrates was the father of modern argument, and I had a certain amount of respect for that. But being proficient in reasoning and being an asswipe aren't mutually exclusive. I did understand the logic Socrates used on Agathon, who had said Eros was beautiful. In fact, I took a few minutes to work out a "proof" using Truth-Functional Logic notation. The argument went something like this: Love is only of beauty; Eros loves, therefore he loves beauty. Love is also need; Eros loves, therefore he needs. So if Eros loves beauty, he must need beauty, and if he needs beauty, he must be ugly.
Technically, Socrates was correct (his arguments weren't necessarily based on valid assumptions, but they were properly executed). Still, I wasn't satisfied. For one thing, Socrates was so damned smarmy. "Now remember what you said in your speech . . . if you like I'll remind you . . . Didn't you say something like that?" Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. Agathon screwed up, I get it, okay?
Except that he didn't screw up, not really. Agathon's speech was beautiful, lyrical, and appropriate to the topic for the evening. So why did Socrates have to grind it to dust in front of all the other guests?
Just to be right?
I'd been thinking about being right a lot, because of a mini-flamewar I'd gotten sucked into two weeks before. The English Advising Department has a listserv they use for informing students about scholarship applications, lectures, that sort of thing. What started the fracas was a post calling for submissions to the school literary magazine. It was written by the magazine's editor, who, like me, is a senior in the Creative Writing program. The content of her post wasn't controversial. It was just that in one sentence, she used "it's" when she should have written "its."
I did see her mistake when I read the post, but since that error is so common, I barely marked it. The next morning, however, there was a post from another student, whose name I recognized -- she's a middle-aged woman I'll call Ethel. Ethel said she was "appalled" at the mistake (the only one in the post, I hasten to add), and went on to say the editor was "just like all the dolts who graduated from high school in the last eight years," and that her own estimation of the teaching at the university had been "lowered."
I'm not exactly a recent high school grad, but I was still offended, so I posted back, explaining the main reason people make the error: "its" is a possessive pronoun, and since other nouns take an apostrophe-s in the possessive (Joe's Restaurant, the cat's dish, the people's republic) a certain amount of inaccuracy is understandable. I concluded by cautioning Ethel against making such hyperbolic assumptions -- some people just can't get that "its/it's" thing straight; that's why there are copyeditors, I told her.
The next day, my email was crammed with other replies to Ethel. Mine had been one of the nicer ones. The rest ranged from corrections of her grammar (for all her indignation, she had used two sentence fragments in a three-line post), to suggestions that there are more important things to be hysterical about, to speculation about the size of the stick that had apparently been installed in her fundament. Not one single person defended Ethel, even though she was technically correct. I wondered if any rush of joy she had felt in delivering her tirade had been worth the subsequent ego destruction. When the moderator finally pulled the plug on the thread several days later, I was left convinced that pointing out how right you are, especially if you're nasty about it, is a very swift way to slam people's ears shut.
Remembering The Apostrophe War made me wonder why the other guys at the Symposium would keep listening to Socrates after the way he acted, so I decided to reread the whole thing. Socrates, I somewhat grudgingly realized as I finished, had been a good guest. His logical footwork had been perfectly appropriate, because he was at an event where philosophical ideas were essentially the entertainment. He wasn't just trying to come out ahead; he was trying to stimulate further discussion. He succeeded.
I've always dreaded conflict, especially for its own sake. But now I'm willing to admit that being a little too right is forgivable if you're a) one of history's greatest thinkers, or b) making your remarks in the spirit of philosophy and debate. So from now on, when someone starts telling me how right they are, my ears aren't going to slam shut. Not quite so fast, anyway. There's argument and there's argument. And I wouldn't want anyone to call me an asswipe.
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