Jul 2, 2015
When I was a kid, I bickered a lot with my brother Dave. Dave is three years older than me, which meant he was farther along in school and knew more things. This bothered me, so if he said something, I said the opposite. If he said that hippos were more dangerous than lions, then I had to prove that lions were more dangerous than hippos. If he said that indoor games were better than outside, I have to prove that outside were better than inside. Sometimes, like boxers circling eachother, we would switch positions and suddenly I was arging for hippos and indoor games and Dave was arguing for lions and outdoor games. It must have driven my mother crazy, especially on a long Sunday afternoon, but it turns out that what Dave and I were do has a long tradition in rhetorical education. We just didn’t have a word for it yet—dissoi logoi.
Dissoi logoi means “contrasting arguments” in Greek. You can sort of tease that out from the root word for “dissent” and “logos.” It goes really really far back, and we don’t know who came up with the first time, but the idea is that you argue your opponent’s position to better understand your own. There are two ways to practice dissoi logoi. One is the way I did as a 7 year old, by having an interlocutor and then switching positions. This method works great for school kids all learning together and you can see this practice in speech and debate classes even today. You research and write and then argue your heart out and then after you finish, the teacher holds up their hands and says, “Okay, switch.” When I argued what Dave would said, I’d know how to respond to his arguments, because I have heard his arguments.
The other way to practice dissoi logoi is to do it all yourself. You run through all the arguments on one side and then you run through all the arguments on the other side. You’re arguing with yourself in a sense. There’s a philosophical and cynical view to the practice of dissoi logoi. If you’re cynical you might say that this is an example of the relativism of the sophists at the worst. This is what people hate about lawyers and sophists—they don’t really care about the argument, but they only care about the language and winning, so they could arguing one thing just as impassioned as the other. It looks like you are two-faced or insincere if you can switch from caring deeply about one side and then, on the turn of a dime, care just as deeply about the other side. But the philosophical perspective sees dissoi logoi as an exercise for coming at a truthier truth. In fact, another term for dissoilogoi is dialexis, and the term is related to dialectic—the opposing forces method of getting at truth espoused by Socrates, Plato and other heavy hitters of classical Athens.
The practice of Dissoi Logoi is articulated in a text called the Dissoi Logoi, which was found at then end of a much later manuscript, and wasn’t published until the renaissance. It was proably written around 425 BC, based on its references to historical figures and style of writing. The Dissoi logoi looks like student notes, which is what a lot of rhetorical tezts are, but there’s no way of saying it was one thing or another for certain, and we don’t know whose class the author was sitting in. It kicks off by saying that good and bad “are the same thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or at one time good and at another time bad for the same person.” All of this is to say that some actions have different moral weight, depending on who you are and under what circumstances you engage in them. Then follows a series of examples—in sports, a certain outcome will be good for one team, but bad for the other; shoddy workmanship is bad for customers and good for the manufacturers, etc. The same event could be good or bad depending on who experiences it. Then there’s a list of the circumstances which are shameful in one setting and praiseworthy in another, like ow for Spartans, girls would walk around bare armed or naked while Ionians would never. You can kind of imagine a list of examples from an instructor. And some of the examples seem awfully sensational—not just regular suicide, murder, exhibitionis, and adultery, but drinking from your enemies’ skulls and eating your parents and cross dressing and incest. It’s all these off-color examples that make me think the Dissoi Logoi was an educational text—nothing gets kids’ attention like sex and violence.
And as a bit of a tangent, the question of education comes up explicitly at the end of the tract, where the question is asked whether wisdom and moral excellence can be taught. The author takes care not to claim that wisdom can be taught, but dismantles the arguments against such an education and argues for the ideal of the person who can “converse in brief questions and answers, to know the truth of things to please one’s cause correctly, to be able to speak in public, to have an understanding of argument-skills and to teach people about the nature of everything” (8.1). Oh, if that’s all an education takes… But it sounds a lot like the education which Cicero describes in the dialogs on the Orator.
It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to say that two thinkers could have independently come up with the idea that the best education would be to know everything, but there’s also a possibility that the ideas of the dissoi logoi made it over to Roman thought. But heading back the other way, there may have just been a common ideal floating around in the Greco-Roman world. So did the Dissoi Logoi influence Cicero?
Yes, I think, and no. Whatever one Dave doesn’t think.