The inchoate concept of “Dialogue” is a hot-button topic in our society today. I’ll refrain from providing a litany of theoretically problematic news stories or puff-pieces by “leaders” about how dialogue will solve so many of our political problems. I invite the reader to simply call to mind examples from his or her own experience. When readings such pieces, the more thoughtful among us may rightly be wondering: what does dialogue actually mean? What can dialogue, rightly conceived, actually accomplish? Can “training” or “education” really promote such dialogue?
As with so many “contemporary” problems, useful ways of understanding such problems have already been known for thousands of years. The faster we run headlong into schemes to increase “change” or “progress” the faster we realize how far behind we actually are. The sapiential frameworks for understanding our problems are already there; what we need are thinkers who can step outside the hysteria of the moment and better understand the tools available to us and how to apply them.
One possible framework for understanding dialogue comes in the work of Plato. As many have argued, Platonic dialogue is seen as one possible method for approaching concepts that could never be formulated as apodictic verities. According to James Rhodes (see link above), Plato’s assertion that he cannot write on the things about which he is most serious should make us wonder. At the very least, this indicates that there is a lot more to dialogue than just talking. In fact, just forcing people to talk to each other may do more harm than good. Is dialogue the second-best alternative to silent wonder at the ineffable mysteries of being? Is it our best hope for a true (though necessarily incomplete) understanding or being shared with others?
For an answer, we must turn to Eric Voegelin. In the 3rd Volume of Order and History, Voegelin asserts that true dialogue as understood by Socrates and Plato, consists of two elements: thanatos and eros.
According to Voegelin, the deep structure of Platonic dialogue is the heir to Greek tragedy. The idea of peitho, or “the persuasive imposition of right order on the unruly passion,” as exemplified in tragedies like Aeschylus’s Prometheus become a model for a well-ordered soul. The two opposing forces of order and passion are engaged in a dialogue in the soul. This well-ordered tension becomes the model for the soul: it is a balance of elements, hammered out in dialogue. The two elements can take many forms; Voegelin thinks that for Plato, they are best symbolized in thanatos (Socratic death) and eros (passion).
Thanatos is the element found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates explains the role of philosophy as a sort of purification toward the culmination that comes in death. In Voegelin’s words, “In the Phaedo, thanatos becomes the cathartic power that cures the soul of the sickness of the earth…[it] is the force that orders the soul of the living, for it makes them desirous of stripping themselves of everything that is not noble and just.” Philosophy, properly practiced, becomes a sort of living death, a shedding of the concerns of this world. Voegelin terms it, in a strangely Heideggerian moment, “life toward death.” This is dramatically illustrated in Socrates’ final words, in which he strangely remembers in his last moments on Earth that he “…owes a cock to Asclepios.” It is his final shedding of the concerns of the world as he makes his journey to the Beyond.
Eros is the other required ingredient for dialogue. Through thanatos man dies to all that is not noble, true and beautiful. Eros is the next step: it is “…the positive desire of the Good,” according to Voegelin. Plato explains the erotic connection in the Phaedrus, in the form of a myth: two souls search for the good and “…find their own divine nature in their fascinated gaze at the nature of the god in the beloved.” There is a tripartite structure here: the lover, the beloved, and the god reflected in the loving gaze between the two. This structure takes on a “sacramental character”, as the structure enters spatio-temporal reality through its enactment: “…for the nature of the god becomes incarnate in the community of the erotic souls as in its mystical body.”
When these two elements are present, true dialogue is possible: one must be dead to the insignificant concerns of everyday life and open to experiencing the Good through the other. This is how a simple trading of words can become a true dialogue, or “existential communication.” It is an openness to the other through communion, through a shared reality. One is reminded here of John von Heyking’s important and influential exploration of Aristotle’s concept of sunaisthesis. Only through a shared communal experience is friendship possible. Only when two souls have died to petty political concerns and opened themselves up to the good possible in community with the other is dialogue possible.
In Voegelin’s words:
The Idea of the Good evoked in the communion of the dialogue, fills the souls of those who participate in the evocative act. And thus it becomes the sacramental bond between them and creates the nucleus of the new society.
This sounds like a rather lofty and idealistic enterprise when we consider what might be possible through training at work or new educational schemes for our children. True dialogue is only possible when individual people open themselves up to experiencing the good through others. Heavy-handed government, corporate, or educational schemes can only fall short of what it really means to enter into dialogue. As mentioned above, they may do more harm than good. Again, Voegelin has the crucial insight: “[Dialogue] restores the common order of the spirit that has been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric.” Can putting people in a room and forcing them to talk about these things do anything more than just accelerate the “privatization of rhetoric?”
The real solution comes only in the authentic interactions between people, in shared experiences of reality that help them to mutually grow to see the good in the other. Rather than promote healing, any top-down scheme promoting “dialogue” will likely create yet more alienation.