Ancient Greek Philosophy and “Difficult Dialogues” in the 21st Century Classroom

By Lewis Meek Trelawny-Cassity, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Antioch College
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Over the past four years Adriel Trott (Wabash), Kevin Miles (Earlham), and myself have worked together on the Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative sponsored by the Great Lakes Colleges Association and funded by the Mellon Foundation. Through participating in this initiative, I think that I have developed a better understanding of “dialogue,” an activity central to ancient Greek philosophy, and I have certainly enjoyed my dialogues with Trott, Miles, and our students.

When I disclose my profession as a teacher of ancient Greek philosophy to someone new, my well-meaning interlocutor often asks, “does ancient Greek philosophy have anything relevant to say about today’s issues?” The question is a reasonable one, but it is not free from difficulty, especially if one doesn’t want to answer it superficially. In the following post, I will try to engage this question by pointing out how Socratic-Platonic insights about “dialogue” intersect with contemporary discourse on “difficult dialogues” in the 21st century college classroom.

Conversation, discussion, debate, argument, and dialogue have played a central role in political life, education, and philosophy since at least the advent of democracy in the classical age of Athens. Indeed, Aristotle famously articulated the human animal in its specific difference from other political and social animals by reference to the human animal’s possession of “logos,” an important term that is often translated as “speech” or “reason” (Politics 1.2.1253a9-10). While “logos” is of the utmost importance for ancient Greek philosophy, the etymologically and conceptually related word “dialogos,” of which our English “dialogue” is a simple transliteration, is also of crucial significance. The Greek verb from which dialogos is constructed has both an active and a passive voice. In its active voice, dialegein means “to pick out or select,” and in its passive voice, dialegesthai, it means “to converse with.” The standard Greek-English dictionary defines dialogos from its passive voice, giving us the definition “a conversation, a dialogue.” Such a definition, obviously, does not go very far in telling us what dialogue is or how we should go about engaging in it.

In “Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment,” Steven Volk gives many good rules of thumb for faculty dealing with the hard task of leading “difficult discussions” in the 21st century college classroom. That such advice is necessary is partly due to the increasing scrutiny paid to discussions in the college classroom by students and political activists across the political spectrum. This scrutiny has led to increased administrative concern as well as a blossoming of advice on how to facilitate dialogues that are at the same time “difficult” and “safe.” While these goals are laudable, they are also somewhat puzzling, for, as Volk notes, “most of our classroom discussions should be ‘difficult.’”

As a philosopher in the Socratic-Platonic tradition, I would prefer to give priority to the definitional questions: “what is dialogue?” and “what do we mean by ‘difficult’ and ‘safe’?” over the practical question of “how do we have better dialogues?” It seems reasonable after all that we should know what something is before we decide if we want to engage in it. Still, I have to admit that we can arrive at definitions only through dialogue. How then do we proceed? Apparently by engaging in dialogue.

Dialogue and related terms like discussion, debate, and conversation all fall under the broader category of communication, which comes from the Latin communis (common or public). As Leon Kass notes, in communication, “we disclose, and hence make public or common, what was previously hidden or private.” Communication is, in one sense, a disclosure of the private into the common (i.e. something shared). At the same time, it is a disclosure that always already depends on the common. Without a common tongue, or at least a common world, utterances and hand gestures would be unintelligible and therefore fail to communicate anything. As a start, then, we can say that communication is a relational activity that requires the pre-existence or establishment of some “common,” that is, something shared.

One perpetual stumbling block in our communication, both inside the classroom and out, is the lack of a shared and mutually understood purpose. Part of the problem is that communication is the means by which we establish a shared and mutually understood purpose. Communication can be used to exchange social recognition, deliberate on political action, exchange information in a transactional way, solve a problem, heal an emotional wound, or inquire into an unresolved question, among many other things. While these types of communication invariably intersect, a lack of shared reflection on which type of communication is being engaged in by a group is sure to lead to unwanted difficulties.

My view of dialogue as a particular type of communication has been influenced by Platonic dialogues as well as by my exchanges with Trott, Miles, and other interlocutors. I have come to see dialogue, following some suggestion by Miles, as a mode of communication that privileges “talking with” over “taking to,” “talking at,” or “talking over” someone. That is, an important constitutive part of dialogue is the attempt to reach shared agreement with the other participant of the dialogue. While talking-with makes the enterprise a shared and mutual one, I do not think that this alone constitutes dialogue. The participants in the dialogue not only share a mode of interaction and approach, but they also share a concern with the same subject matter—that which they are talking about. Dialogue flits about from topic to topic much less than a conversation does.

While dialogue, as I have described it, has a particular modality, talking-with, and a particular focus on the subject under discussion, dialogue, in my view, also has its own particular “about” that distinguishes it from other forms of communication. What is the about of dialogue? The “about” of dialogue is “the problematic” as such, which I describe in the next paragraph. While an undergraduate class in organic chemistry may be very “difficult” in that it challenges students to step out of their comfort zone to engage in serious academic work, the content of this class is not “problematic” as such. That is, the instructor of the class should be able to solve the problems that she assigns to her students without too much difficulty, and if her students work hard, one day they too will be able to solve these undergraduate level chemistry problems without serious struggle.

The specific subject matter of dialogue seems to be something different than merely hard-to-master knowledge. In my view, dialogue focuses on content that does not admit of solution by an expert, or at least has not shown itself susceptible to such solution in a way that other experts unconditionally accept. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt describes a type of question that cannot “be decided by scientific means,” and refers to this as a “political question.” Arendt’s observation agrees with the gist of some of Socrates’ observations in the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro come to agreement that the gods do not fight over the question of “how many,” because there is the science of counting, nor do they fight over the question of “how much,” because there is the science of measurement. It is only over questions of the just and the unjust, the shameful and the beautiful, and the good and the bad that they fight with one another. It seems like there is, as of yet, no universal science that satisfactorily deals with issues of justice, so these issues are “problematic” to their core, due to the fact that they present a legitimate problem that is yet to be resolved.

In my view, then, dialogue takes for its subject matter issues that are “problematic as-such.” If one engages in a focused discussion of these issues with another person, I think that one can say one is engaging in dialogue. The with, as I understand it, in dialogue cannot be based primarily on a pre-established ethics, because ethics are themselves “problematic” and therefore a possible subject of dialogue. The with of dialogue comes rather from the problematic subject matter itself. That is, the currently unresolved and perhaps unresolvable nature of the subject matter requires a conversational partner who is willing to challenge your views and offer their own views in a joint pursuit of the question at issue.

While I think that dialogue as it has been so far described is an intrinsically valuable activity, I wonder about its widespread applicability to the undergraduate classroom. That is, can a discussion of “problematic issues” be made “safe” in a way that would satisfy the various demands expressed by students, faculty, administrators, board members, and commentators across the political spectrum? This seems especially unlikely if the “problematic as such” primarily deals with political questions for which there is no widely and universally recognized expert or authority.

Dialogue as I have been outlining it is a fundamentally anarchic activity—that is, it is the shared search for a governing principle (archē) rather than an activity that is ruled by an already pre-established principle. Furthermore, in its Socratic iteration, dialogue was voluntary, involved no exchange of money, was usually one-on-one or in a very small group, and served no credentialing function for future employment. For better or worse, the contemporary college classroom presents professors with a very different learning environment than what Socrates faced in classical Athens.

At the beginning of this post, I noted that people sometimes ask me if ancient Greek philosophy is “relevant,” and that I found this to be a hard to question to answer. I think that Socratic-Platonic philosophy is especially helpful in leading us to understand the questionability of many of our core beliefs and in encouraging us to engage in dialogue with others in search of the truth. While I think that this is valuable, it can also be incredibly disruptive in unexpected and unpredictable ways. While I think that good college teachers can seek to minimize unwanted disruption using some of the techniques described in Volk’s blog post, I also think that it is important to have an on-going dialogue about the inherent unmanageability of dialogue in its Socratic sense.


Thanks to Adriel Trott for comments on an earlier draft of this post, to Brooke Bryan for sharing her manuscript on “Conversation Beyond Correspondence,” and to the Yellow Springs Philosophers’ Roundtable for discussion of an earlier draft of this post.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Aristotle. Politics.

Kass, Leon. The Hungry Soul. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1879.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1889.

Plato. Euthyphro.

Volk, Steven. “Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment.”

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