Jonathan Swift, Socrates, Bees and Dialogue

I’ve never been overly impressed with the Socratic method as dialogue, although it was described as such in the 399 BCE book Dialogues, in which Plato recorded conversations between Socrates and his disciples.

These are sharp exchanges with pointed and critical probing designed to entrap participants in contradictions. The underlying objective is to win the argument rather than understand the various positions.

The resulting exchanges can be rhetorically brilliant, but they defined the culture of dialogue as oppositional rather than collaborative, with little to differentiate dialogue from debate.

But then my good friend Richard Menkis, a professor at the University of British Columbia, called my attention to a 1704 book by Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books. It’s a satire in which library books come alive and joust verbally about whether the modern age of science was superior to the wisdom of the ancients.

At the core is an argument about whether discourse from a spider or from a bee is superior. The spider is represented as self-aggrandizing, “spins, spits wholly from himself and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without.” The bee, in contrast, works collaboratively to “fill hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.”

The implication is that the work of the ancients is filled with delights of conversation and conclusions arrived at collectively, with each discussant contributing a part of what becomes a greater story by combining the individual perspectives. In contrast, the work of the moderns is self-promoting and self-centered, yielding outcomes technically correct but without the richness and respectful undertones of the ancients.

Swift notes that bees search widely for honey, choosing the best nectars and combining flavors from many flowers that are then mixed and processed together to make honey. And Swift’s view of the Socratic method is very much like that: each participant adding a small bit of wisdom to the conversation, so that in the end the outcome is considerably more profound than any individual contribution.

What a beautiful image of dialogue: participants, like bees, drawing out the nectar of ideas from each other, until the room fills with a well-balanced cornucopia of wisdom, where sweetness and light reside.

Perhaps Socrates was more of a dialoguer than I thought.