Josef Pieper and the Return to Dialogue

In too much altercation, truth is lost.—Publilius Syrus

In a Guide to Thomas Aquinas, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper says that the Thomistic approach to teaching in the Middle Ages was based firmly on “the old Socratic-Platonic conception… that truth develops only in dialogue, in conversation.” Contrast this patient collaborative outlook with the false idealism of wallowing in opinions and slogans that do not challenge one’s intellect but merely confirm one’s biases. It is true that youthful zeal can be an extenuating circumstance. As Pieper says in The Philosophical Act, “only the unflinching eagerness of youth in its search for wisdom could hope to prevail” against worldly cynicism. Nevertheless, if left uninstructed, zeal will eventually lead one into the trap of the endless monologue. This one-way form of communication is the very opposite of the classical discourse. Pieper notes that respectful dialogue was at the heart of such works as Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles. “Truth must be brought to bear in and for itself, with its own inherent strength, and not by means of an adventitious force.”

Wisdom is the prudential use of experience necessary to perfecting one’s understanding. Part of this comes by communicating with and learning from others. Unfortunately, the idea of dialogue is now held suspect by many because it has been exploited in the form of self-indulgent group-therapy, talk show entertainment or politically-motivated performances. In such cases discussion is cut off from its proper end. Pieper reminds us, however, that philosophy “is not the loving search for any kind of wisdom; it is concerned with wisdom as it is possessed by God.”

In an age when society is again becoming highly polarized, it is important to remember that the lack of dialogue causes a breakdown in civility and an increase in ignorance. Leftists are primarily to blame because they have established the precedent for modern anti-intellectualism. Yet an unthinking reactionary attitude is no better. Not only does a “right-wing” monologue fail to convert the opposition, it impairs communication amongst fellow conservatives. People lose the ability to discern the truth because they have forgotten that “philosophy cannot be put at the disposal of some end other than its own,” such as political ideology or personal vanity.

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