Socrates and Phaedrus: Art of Thinking and Practice of Persuasion (Part 3 of 3)

This is the final part of the 3-part series on the art of thinking and pratice of persuasion as gathered from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (a version of its translation available here). So far I have concluded that Socrates had the following goal in this dialogue: to demonstrate that no practice deserves to be called art if its practitioner does not know the truth about the nature of the subject and does not consider it important to study this true nature but only offers some practical and quick fixes of the ‘how-to’ style. Such a short-cut type of approach that skirts the laborious task of searching for and defining the nature of the topic at hand Socrates calls “an empirical and artless practice”, “a ridiculous thing – not an art at all!”

Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

Our value systems may have changed since Plato’s and Socrates’ days, but not so radically as to prevent us from understanding the point of the argument. More fundamentally, our natural cognitive biases remain the same. We love simple mental short-cuts (they save energy!), the authority of someone in our eyes influences our trust in what they tell us, and we prefer to believe the information that confirms something we already hold to be true. 

Research in the field of communication study supports this, as quoted here from William F. Eadie’s and Robin Goret’s contribution to the Handbooks of Communication Science Volume 1 – Theories and Models of Communication (2013), my emphasis added:

“Research on propaganda and public opinion had already been underway in the 1920s and 1930s, and Paul Lazarsfeld and his associates’ (1944) study of the 1940 election … had debunked the idea that mass media messages had direct effects on voting behavior. Rather, these effects were often modulated by preexisting attitudes, such as political party allegiances, and by interactions with influential people (who were labelled “opinion leaders”).” 

William F. Eadie and Robin Goret

These are only some examples of our cognitive biases. Simply being aware of them is already helpful in guarding against deception or simply being more alert to potentially faulty judgements. There is another way in which these automatic thinking patterns express themselves. I have observed it in my experience when working on some projects in groups. When presented with a problem people tend to almost immediately jump to thinking about potential solutions. It takes deliberate and repeated effort to convince people to begin with a clear understanding and definition of the problem, the question that needs to be answered. 

That is the short-cut approach which Plato and Socrates criticised in the rhetoricians of their time. That is what Socrates meant when he talked about the systematic art of thinking, the structured method where one begins at the beginning and not immediately at the end trying to avoid the challenging but necessary steps in between. I have often experienced how a clearly defined problem or a clearly stated question, once the nature of the problem is well understood, is in itself already half of the solution. 

To use an analogy we can ask ourselves: if we wished to build a house, would we begin immediately, just assuming that we know everything we need to know about houses, or would we first take care to draw up a detailed and thought-through design of our future house, even if it meant that we can start building at a later stage than we had hoped? I feel rather bold in my confidence as to what Socrates would recommend. 

keep exploring!

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