Speaking and Writing (and Millie Bobby Brown and 1 Alcibiades)

Perhaps it is naïve to categorize all acts of writing as essentially instances of the same kind of activity, and all acts of speaking as instances of the same human power.

I just fully woke from sleep. Just beforehand, while still dreaming, I randomly ran across Millie Bobby Brown while out with my daughter. (There was clearly something about her in my news feed before I drifted off to sleep.) My daughter asked her a bunch of perfect and perfectly sincere tween questions, and then I realized I didn’t know how to make the most of the moment on my end, beyond making room for my daughter’s exchanges. Brown turned to me and asked me a question about myself. I knew I should probably return some question in turn as an act of care and attention, but I didn’t know, at first, where to start. Ask her about Stranger Things? About whether there would be an Enola Holmes sequel? Maybe a silly question that I ask as ice-breakers with my middle school students. Would you rather swim in a river of Nutella, or a river of maple syrup? It turns out that, in my sleep, I entreated her “Have you ever read Plato? Please read Plato’s First Alcibiades. Actually, Plato probably didn’t write it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the perfect introduction to Plato.”

Her eyes squinted and her head tilted to the side with a look of surprise and regrouping to evaluate this advice. “Of course I’ve heard of him,” she replied, “but I can’t say I’ve ever read Plato, or ever had anyone recommend something by him. I’m curious: what is this book about?”

“It’s about what shuts down conversation, or enables it. You see, the whole work is a dialogue between Plato’s Socrates and a young man named Alcibiades. Alcibiades wants fame and power and glory and recognition, and his desire for these things makes it hard for him really to talk. Not all speaking is speaking. When Plato talks to Alcibiades, he is not trying to control him — he is not using the act of speaking as an act of power over him, to extract something from him, or to use him as a means to some end. When Alcibiades speaks, he is using the power of speech to accomplish certain goals, to achieve certain ends, basically to satisfy his character flaws. We tend to think of all speech as basically the same kind of thing, but I think this dialogue shows that different kinds of souls are doing basically different things when they talk.”

Brown had already stopped and squared her shoulders to mine, hands on her waist, clearly expecting to give this conversation her full attention while it was here, but also clearly intending to move on soon. She responded like a true Lady of the Dialectic (if you will — I mean, this was a dream). “So what is Socrates interested in? This other fellow wants to control the conversation because he’s self-absorbed and wants to be a rock god, but what does Socrates want? Why is he talking at all?”

“He wants Alcibiades to join a kind of conversational dance that goes by the name dialectic. It’s a kind of question-and-answer duet. It’s purpose is to free us, make us wise, and show us the truth of being and the supreme loveliness of goodness. It starts with questions. The questions need to be sincere, or the dialectic isn’t dialectic. We need to be all-in if it will work. We put ourselves at stake if we ask a sincere question, we reveal the state of our soul. We also put our soul in motion, because we’re asking a question, looking for the truth, desiring the truth; we put our soul into a kind of natural movement towards the truth, which we desire, and revealing the goodness and beauty of the truth. If the other person responds sincerely to our question, abandoning control, but loving truth together, and sincerely searching for it, then the conversation has a kind of purifying effect. The response questions from the other person will be a kind of mirror by which we can see ourselves better, and the light of the good.”

Brown stopped squinting. “So Socrates isn’t trying to control Alcibiades, then? —but he wants him to love truth. Isn’t that a kind of control?” Brown smirks playfully: “Isn’t Socrates just trying to control Alcibiades, then, hmmmm?”

I smile. “It’s more like a kind of seduction, to be honest. Socrates just wants Alcibiades to be in love with wisdom, and not with his own fame or glory. You can’t really manipulate anyone into a free love — only into a kind of twisted love. If you want someone to fall in love with something that is truly lovely, and in a healthy way, you really only need to show them the lovely thing. Some lovely things are hard to see, and so hard to show — like the good, like wisdom. You can only see it with your mind, not your physical eyes. It’s hard to see. If we ever see it, it’s because we clean up our soul in the dialectic, drop our assumptions and our attempts at control, and learn to search with sincere questions.”

“If someone drops their assumptions, how will they not turn out to be a kind of skeptic?”

“Well, that can lead to a kind of skepticism, I suppose. For some readers of Plato, it seems like it went that way. In Plato’s works, however, and in the circles of people who gathered to read Plato’s works, there seem to be some unwritten teachings that they believed consistently showed up as true through this method of dialectic. So people drop their assumptions when they enter the dialectic. They only bring their desire for wisdom and truth. —but in the desire for wisdom, and in the quest for truth, it seems like Plato and his circles have found that we will stumble across certain truths that will consistently validate themselves. They don’t need to hold to positions dogmatically. The truth bears witness to itself, if only we love it.”

Brown seems interested, but clearly needs to get going, and then I wake up.

I am reminded of something I wrote for Yuri before, a project I never finished, about The Brothers Karamazov. I wrote him some monstrously long paper showing how, in TBK, writing is not essentially unified as an activity across all instances. Instead, there are different modes of writing that all spring from different dispositions of one’s heart. It is the state and energy of the heart that matters for understanding what a form of writing is in that work, not the mere fact of writing.

Now, let’s see whether I can’t get back to sleep and have another profitable conversation with someone else.

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