June 15, 2005

Civilization of the Dialogue

The following is a transcription of a cassette recording I borrowed from the Greenfield Library at St. John's College, Annapolis during my period of study at their Graduate Institute in Liberal Education in the late 90s.

John Wilkinson, fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, CA, reads his his essay Civilization of the Dialogue before his colleagues at the Center in 1972.
He is introduced by Center founder Robert M. Hutchins.

The essay was published in a rather different format in 1968 in the collection The Dissenting Academy, edited by Theodore Roszak (which makes me suspect the date of 1972 on the cassette was wrong).

The audio transcription is mine.

There is nothing inevitable about the decay of civilizations that have decayed in the past, and if our civilization decays it will be our own fault. We have a responsibility.

If you start with the idea that a political community is a community learning together how to govern itself, and if you say that the ideal community is a democratic community, what you mean is that a democracy is one in which all the citizens are effectively and actively engaged in the discussion by which political questions are determined. The formal political procedures employed in the society are not the determining factor as to whether the society is democratic or not. What is determining is this: every citizen must feel that he is taking part in important political decisions that affect his life.

An educational system that does not educate, a system of mass communications that does not communicate, means that the society is one in which effective discussion cannot take place. As a result of the educational system the people are not up to understanding the issues; as a result of the media of mass communication they have no way of getting the information that is necessary to pass on any current problem.

The task of those who are committed to political democracy is to discover how democracy can work in a technical-bureaucratic society in which all problems appear to be beyond the reach, to say nothing of the grasp, of the citizen. The task calls for more than haphazard thought and random discussion and the dusting off of ancient but irrelevant slogans. It requires prodigious effort of the best minds everywhere to restore the dialogue that is the basis of the political community.


The phrase "civilization of the dialogue," or some variant of it, has become a la mode. But since, more often than not, modish words and phrases, like the Phoenix, prove to be names without bodies, it seems reasonable to inquire whether this particular phrase is or is not in the same case as the Phoenix, especially as it is so often said that we are, or should be, living under the condition the phrase denotes.

The formula "civilization of the dialogue" seems to have been used first by the theologian Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century to describe the emergence of parliamentary democracy and by Camus in the twentieth century in a rather different sense. But the idea is an ancient one. It is to be found in Homer, whose heroes debated with each other and with the Gods, and would accurately describe the democracy of the Athenian and some other Greek city-states, not as they really became on many occasions between episodes of tyrants or oligarchs, but as they were ideally described by Plato, Aristotle, and some other rather less well known philosophers.

Dogmatic Christianity (when I speak of dogmatic Christianity I would like to make the sharpest possible distinction between dogmatic, ecclesiastical, diplomatic Christianity on the one hand, and the religion of Jesus: nearly everything the latter affirms the former denies. With the takeover of Caesaral papism in the Roman Empire, the practice of the religion of Jesus as it is found in great specificity in the New Testament became the heresy known as Montanism or, more quaintly, cataphrygianism) -- but dogmatic Christianity forced even the ideal of the dialogue out of existence except as it was sporadically incarnated in dubiously orthodox places like the medieval University of Paris, or the Platonic Academy at Florence which inaugurated the Renaissance with the aid of Greek refugees from the fallen Constantinople.

It is tautologically true that civilization exists as long as there are men and they live in cities. Most persons including even some anthropologists use the word 'civilization' in a panegyric way that is notably unclear. Of these accounts we need take no notice.

The burden of inquiry falls rather on the analysis of the noun 'dialogue.' It is this word or some variant of it -- like, say, 'achievement of consensus,' 'the great debate,' and so on -- which has become fashionable in philosophy, theology, and politics, and which I shall argue is absent from any observable reality.

The corresponding Greek adjective 'dialectic' is more often used pejoratively than panegyrically. Indeed, the word has even become unfashionable and disreputable partly in remembrance of useless scholastic disputes and partly because of the way dogmatic Marxists appropriated a perfectly respectable philosophical term from Hegel in order to designate a theory which, among its many sins against reason, dictated imperiously and a priori to science and history what they ought to discover but what, unfortunately for the theory, they never did discover.

It seems impossible not to allow a very great measure of a posteriori schematic value to Marxist dialectics - a value, I may say, which it hardly enjoys any more after Lysenko and people like that among serious scientists even in the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the pseudo-dialectics of the Church and the Communists has conspired to make difficult the use of an indispensable term and, what is even worse, have greatly impaired the operation of the dialogue itself.

There are, of course, other reasons why the word that describes the very process of thought has become fashionable among propagandists and other frauds. Men of course have not stopped thinking, but I believe that I am not exaggerating in holding that critical thought about thinking has been done a disservice by the desuetude into which the whole philosophic vocabulary has progressively been forced. If you want another example you might compare the misuse that has been made of the notion 'intuition' -- a highly necessary term that has been so exploited by brummagem theology that its use nearly always raises the hackles of intelligent men, and that to such a degree that it has become suspect even to think of what the term denotes.

There are hard and soft versions of the dialogue. The hardest would presumably be that which would, in the words of Plato, convince the gods themselves.

Adam Schaff, professor of philosophy and president of the Polish Academy of Scientists, is a very good example of a protagonist of what I have called the "soft dialogue." Professor Schaff holds that it is unnecessary to agree ideologically. Dialogue according to him may be instituted for limited objectives, for example the coexistence required by the emergence of nuclear weapons. Now of course many people have announced similar principles but in the sequel prove unwilling or unable to agree to the conditions sine qua non by making any concession at all to rigid structures of thought and habit. Excluding those who are merely confused, it is clear that they are merely palavering to gain time or to make propaganda. Schaff is noteworthy because his brilliant exposition up and down the length of Europe and at the Center's convocation Pacem in Terris of the principles of limited dialogue and, furthermore, of the willingness to make the necessary concessions.

But even the softest versions must imply, at the minimum, interaction of meaningful words including the so-called invented words of mathematics, science, and logic; and this with a view to rational approximation to the truth, however truth may be conceived. Special pleading, dogmatic statements, the lies of politicians and publicists are not dialogue, whatever other edifying or useful qualities they may occasionally possess. At the most their propositions enter negatively into dialogue only insofar as dialogue mercilessly exposes them by testing their pretensions against the evidence available to any man who takes care to examine it.

It is true that different cultures elaborate widely different criteria of truth, rationality, and persuasive evidence. And it may well be that an inability to reach any tentative agreement on any kind of fundamental sometimes makes dialogue impossible even to begin or being begun to continue. My own experience has been that these differences most often prove to be much less pronounced than usually imagined, and even when I have debated issues with members of non-Western cultures we have usually reached some agreement.

Consensus, as Martin Buber has emphasized, never means the suppression of individual and cultural differences. It means rather that the dialogue that generated it had been able to elaborate a spectrum of alternative available beliefs or strategies, regardless of where the center of gravity within this spectrum may lie for a given person. It would be unthinkable to find any Moslem, for example, who could plausibly deny that the sun rose this morning and will almost certainly set tonight. But we would have very much more difficulty in agreeing that Guatama Buddha found enlightenment beneath a certain tree, and nearly no one at all could be brought to agree that the learned and pious Sheikh Abdullah could really fly, except perhaps in the biographies of him composed by his disciples.

Even those Moslems who preferred in conversation with me to affirm that the Sheik could fly always readily granted that this belief was not founded in reason and therefore afforded no easily visible basis for activity with respect to the future. On the other hand, they readily asserted this belief as a component of their own loyalty system, of whose truth they could not expect me or any other nonmember of the community to be rationally persuaded. Of course, had I become a member of the community, I too would have been expected to affirm it.

This state of affairs is of course not completely unexpected, except perhaps to more or less orthodox Jews and Christians. No Moslem dreams of setting up a separate system of mosques for the worship of the different sects of the community no matter how violently divergent may be their theological conceptions. The Moslem sects of the Sufis and the Sunnis, comparable perhaps to Protestants and Roman Catholics, worship Allah side by side. And it is well to recall in this connection that the two-truth theory, according to which truth of inquiry may even totally contradict the truth of religion, is philosophically well-established in Islam. More important, it seems that it is well-established almost everywhere else except among the Jews and Christians. It was the early Christians who manufactured from the Greek word *haeresis* -- which among the Greeks simply designated a school of philosophy -- our word 'heresy,' a state of mind worthy only of damnation in the next world and extirpation from this. And they did this from their various beginnings.

Now the point I have been attempting to make, perhaps too laboriously, is simply that the dialogue becomes impossible when it is overlaid with some concept of orthodoxy, secular or religious. Every man has the natural right and even the duty to contrive himself a home in the different hostile times, places, and circumstances of this world. But he makes life difficult for himself and nearly impossible for everyone else when he refuses to engage in colloquy with those who may think differently from himself in important matters. The uncommitted nations always seem particularly incensed by the dogmatism of the claims of Christendom and its progeny Communism. Nehru is once reported to have murmured--using Cromwell's formula--to a meeting of certain uncommitted nations and intransigent Marxists, "Bethink you, by the bowels of Marx, you may be wrong!"

The motto of the dialogue might well be St. Augustine's words Si non rogas intellego (that is to say, "If you don't ask me, I know"). Otherwise formulated, this perhaps most important result of Augustine's philosophy means that dialogue must take seriously any allegation of fact or value put forth by anyone who is not obviously a madman or a liar. And I might add to take them seriously even so, if we reflect how often the epithets madman and genius have been interchanged in the vicissitudes of history. Facts and values lose their privileged status the moment they are challenged, no matter how true or sacred they may previously have been held to be. They may of course be reestablished--they often are-- and it is the function of the dialogue to perform this task if it can. But more often than not a reasonable challenge leads to a radical reformulation which incorporates the previous eternal verities as special cases. The shift may of course be very slight, or, on the other hand, it may be very great.

According to one philosopher, "time makes ancient good uncouth," and according to another, it "makes more converts than reason." But even so, a dialect of history is no dialogue at all except insofar as any force majeure or compelling historical event is rendered symbolic. Compulsive non-symbolic forces of many kinds act to change men's actions and minds. But they do so not in the ordered and rational way based on values explicitly formulated - which is the way of the dialogue.

There are in the Western world a small number of institutions in which something approaching a dialogue is being carried on. Surprisingly enough, the British House of Lords, but not the House of Commons, is often such. In France, Bertrand de Jouvenel, in his regular meetings called Futuribles, and Pierre Masse, along with a number of his associates in the Plan, notably Bernard Caze, seem, from a distance, to engage in a genuine dialogue. In Holland, the group centering about Arendt Th. van Leeuwen, and in Germany the Sozialforschungsstelle under the sociologist Schelsky, as well as a group of evangelical theologians associated with Heinz Kloppenburg, seem to do the same.

I have to admit that one's judgments of foreign institutions are reached largely at second hand, even if one has traveled extensively in the countries concerned. But as far as the United States is concerned, I am sure that the dialogue is proceeding only in three places: the Supreme Court, on the couches of some psychoanalysts, and a the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The outward forms of the dialogue are cultivated elsewhere, but the tendentious character of the institutions concerned, which receive their support from mission-oriented bodies, to use Gerard Piel's rather too urbane words, make their operations into arms of war hot or cold, or a business enterprise for profit. How useful such ends may be, they are not the end of dialogue which is truth and justice. And even when this tendentious character is not clearly marked, most other American attempts at dialogue are too sporadic to be useful.

It might be worthwhile to examine some of the loci where dialogue is thought to be instituted in the United States, in order to examine by indirection the Center's claim to uniqueness. Take American universities. These universities, with their overspecialized faculties and untaught bodies of students, are no longer centers of any sort of dialogue, even if we improbably suppose that they ever were. The bottom half of them, as usually ranked, are unworthy of notice; and most of the upper moiety can scarcely be considered as anything other than proving grounds for the military establishment and industry, especially the former. Nearly all the top-twenty multiversities - a phrase which was suggested by one of their most distinguished presidents and was later emended to "multi-disciplinary university" as a rhetorical flourish to combat student unrest expressed in rather violent riots - are arms factories which would have staggered the imagination of Herr Krupp or Sir Basil Zaharoff. No scheme for the destruction of the human race is wanting in their so-called programs of research. It is, of course, not completely excluded that certain social benefits may emerge; but these are mostly by-products, fallout, spin-off, which the government or other funding agency did not conceive of and certainly did not mean to pay for.

The setup of the American universities does not absolutely exclude that some sort of a discussion may sometimes go on. I've never observed it, or seldom observed it, but if it does it is usually in a very desultory fashion in the local airport which has become the true faculty club. Since Ph.D.'s have been systematically trained in American graduate schools to talk exclusively with their fellow specialists, and to the national and even international fraternity to which they owe their only fealty, it seems unlikely that they have the vocabulary, even if they had the desire, to do more than exchange commonplaces with their colleagues in other disciplines as they wing their way to Washington and other places to give expert advice on how to end the human race. Some of the monies, enlarged by government handout, naturally trickles down to the professors of the humanities, very few of whom are yet of much use in planning holocausts. But it must not be imagined that for lack of better these humanists willingly consent to be thrown back on instructing students. The publish or perish regime -- in addition to what I suspect to be a fact: that there is something naturally repulsive in the process of teaching students whose lips move when they read -- makes these second-class academics as loathe to suffer contact with students as their more highly advantaged confreres in the so-called hard sciences. They prefer, and indeed are forced, to attempt to emulate the scientists. Often this takes the form of applying the methods of the more prestigious natural sciences to realms of discourse in which these methods obviously cannot apply. What can these poor humanists do when they are continually challenged to justify their slots according to the test, "What have you to contribute to General Motors?" I have not invented this quotation. It is taken verbatim from an allocution of the head of a large American university to his department of English. This latter-day square [one wonders whether he meant to say"squire"] should have been forthwith driven out of his [unintelligible]-hall with rods. Instead, being answered with servility, he was encouraged to repeat his question to the Greek department.

Most of these institutions have set up inexpensive and I believe little-patronized programs in the liberal arts. It is possible some of these programs are meant seriously. But the obvious intent behind most of them is quite clearly to silence dissatisfied students, dissatisfied parents, and rampaging legislatures whenever it becomes clear to them that nothing remotely describable as education is going forward.

As for the students themselves, my thesis is simple indeed. They cannot enter into any conceivable dialogue because their vocabularies are so exiguous that the necessary conditions for dialogue, as distinguished from a mere bull session, are lacking. English of any literary merit can be read by these students only with the aid of a kind of translation into a sort of basic English. For example, in that university where the welfare of General Motors is the criterion of excellence, translations of Shakespeare into just such a basic English are actually on sale in the University bookstore.

I am sorry to say, and I would be glad to be convinced otherwise, that I am unable to believe that more than one-, at the most two percent of, say, the students in the Berkeley uproars had any serious purpose. The rest came along to avoid the boredom and apathy of college life. Most interestingly, the number of students admitted to student clinics at Berkeley fell to nothing during the riots -- much as the way the number of suicides declines in wartime.

Now, I am very far from supposing that American students are born less capable than the Athenians of carrying on a dialogue. Paraphrasing St. Matthew, one might say that they were not born stupid from their mothers' wombs, but that they had become so for General Motors' sake. I have no objective measurements, but I have a very strong subjective impression that ten years after graduation the vocabularies of these students [are] even smaller.

This intuition is in part confirmed by analyses of the vocabularies used in the mass media - television, newspapers, and so on. It would be fatuous indeed, therefore, to suppose that the great majority of Americans are in a position to deliberate about issues for which they have no words.

Another locus is political discussion; here it is supposed that dialogue is often carried on. American political scientists, who prove seldom to have read more of Aristotle than the Politics and perhaps the Ethics, often quote with evident self-satisfaction Aristotle's remarks to the effect that man is a political animal, or that politics is the architectonic science. They've even taught practicing politicians, at least those few who are capable of pentasyllabic words, to quack forth these slogans too.

But Aristotle is not speaking of that modern political opportunism which is more aptly described as the art of the possible, understanding this last phrase in the most pejorative sense conceivable to include every shabby trick to get into office and stay there, with nothing more sublime in mind than to have a preferred place at the trough.

Aristotle meant by politics the difficult philosophic science and art of living, and living well, in the polis, a collection of villages -- some of which may even have coalesced into an Athens -- organically and harmoniously related to its rural hinterland.

Aristotle's politician, which we might better perhaps render in English by the word "statesman," had to be a philosopher who knew rationally how to persuade those who were capable of reason of the best course to be followed, and debated law, ethics (which was for Aristotle a part of politics), religion, and even medicine. A sophist might cajole the people into following a certain course - likely suicidal - by rhetorical tricks, but such a fellow was a mere demagogue like Alcibiades.

Aristotle seemed to have made a more favorable assessment than Plato did of democracy, and he preferred the word "deliberation" to the word "dialogue." But notwithstanding great differences in terminology, both of these philosophers, and the Greeks in general, held the life of the polis to reside in rational deliberation and persuasion as opposed to polemic. Just how far our modern kakistocracy has strayed from the Greek ideal of politics as rational persuasion of those capable of it to the hegemony of the base and the ignorant by the base and the ignorant is demonstrated by the triune component parts of Greek justice, which was the end of the polis and which it seems to me was very like the conception of our Founding Fathers: One must know what one is doing, one must rationally choose to do it for its own sake, and what is done should be the result of a settled moral state. In Augustine's words, Remota iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? which is to say, if there is no justice, what are states except great bands of robbers?

Political dialogue is, if not dead, moribund. The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosi nearly two centuries ago who may have rivaled Athens itself.

Now, it is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum. What is perhaps most at fault is the degrading tendency of Americans to assess the worth of everything by purely quantitative yardsticks like money. We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting, but not necessary, to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly (as Aristotle said some Greeks did), swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people; but the effect is the same as if they had.

If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue, - if, as Scott Buchanan has held, persuasion is the life of politics, - if, as Robert M. Hutchins has written, within an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion by which political issues are determined - then it is easy to see why a self-styled political elite must be a kakistocracy, the rule of the worst, if there not be a single one among them and very few among their advisors who could bring forth a clear and distinct idea or even a felicitous phrase if he lived as long and wrote as much as Varro himself.

The Vietnamese war represents the final result of substituting the manipulation of images for the political dialogue. Where images have no referents, and where any set of words and ideas is as good as any other--that is to say where thought has ceased--we can blame no one who votes for a presidential candidate who promises, probably sincerely, not to escalate the war in Vietnam while in fact he is being forced to do so; for a man who, the instant following a point in time when he was ignorant of foreign policy, was forced to become omniscient of it (and for lack of a better was delivered over to the dialectic of the military, who really have something going resembling a lopsided and truncated dialogue), and doing this because he had none of his own.

Now, this infernal military dialectic might be described briefly as follows: If we do not use power, we do not know if we have it; if we don't continue to use it, we don't know if we continue to have it. The military, therefore, found it necessary to escalate some war somewhere as a proving ground for their armamentarium. But the question remains: Do we have power or do we not? The quantitative military mentality can probably solve this problem to their satisfaction only by escalating right up to the use of the ultimate weapon.

And the sole duty of the nominal commander in chief is to provide so-called political support for this operation as well as he can. The President announces every possible position on every possible subject connected with the Vietnamese war. Contraries and even flat contradictions are successively put to the people, sometimes in the same speech, but these are mere trial balloons launched to see which ones the Gallup poll, or something like it, will shoot down.

Some Americans think the whole crew of political and military instigators of the war would look more at home in the dock at Nuremberg than in the seats of power in Washington or in the executive suites of the great foundations, but this unjust. In the quantitative society, those who are supposed to control our destinies have no more real power of decision or knowledge of the situation than you or I. Only the mathematically skilled can hope to have any power, and the way things are accelerating even they cannot be expected to have it very much longer.
Civilly and militarily, the only answer to anything is More of the Same, which is the reductio ad absurdum of the dialogue.

It is my fancy that the majority of opponents of American involvement have come to have a strange facial resemblance to the apes Schopenhauer saw and described in the zoo, who, according to him, were vainly longing (he saw it in their eyes) to be rational, but had not the understanding to bring it off. I imagine Mr. Johnson must be suffering from the same malaise; imagine being involved in a war where victory or anything else is indefinable.

Charles Dickens wrote in a letter to John Forster from America, "I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth." Dickens in 1842 was referring to the imminent War Between the States which opposed two absolutely intransigent parties. Much the same phrasing applies to the war in Vietnam.

If the dialogue fails now--and I feel that it must--the hopes of democracy must be tenuous indeed.