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by William H. Benson

October 24, 2013

     In recent days I came across a book published in 2010 with a thought-provoking title, Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us. The author, an Englishman named Ferdinand Mount, argues in it that “so much about the society that is now emerging bears an astonishing resemblance to the most prominent features of what we call the classical world.”

     In Mount’s book, he dares to equate our modern society to the Greeks of 400 B.C. and to the Romans of the days of Julius Caesar, and that we of the living have reverted to similar ideas and habits of those who died ages ago in Mediterranean Europe.

     Mount’s chapter titles include: “bath, gym, bedroom, kitchen, science, and religion.” Then, midway through the book he includes a chapter on “dialogue.” In it, Mount describes our human love for dialogue, for conversation, for argument, for talk, as did the ancient Greeks and the Romans.

     Mount lays out a series of sentences that would resound in any reader’s ears: “The dialogue is the key that opens up fortified intellectual positions and minds that are firmly closed.” “It has become unchallenged wisdom that all wisdom has to be challenged.” “The most abundant of all the fruits of affluence is conversation.” “The fashion for contestation is not just an accidental quirk of modern life. It is built into the nature of modernity.” “Everyone has the right to engage in the conversation.”

     Yes, those sentences would cause a reader to pause and think and even reflect upon them, but I question Mount’s argument that what occurred in Greece and Rome eons ago has returned to us. History does not always repeat itself, but on occasion it will rhyme. I say that in every generation certain human beings wanted to talk and question others, but many did not dare out of fear of their life. 

     Our modern society has decided that conversation is a good thing, that “the only way forward is through dialogue,” and that “getting around a table” and “getting down to serious talks” is crucial. A week ago Congress and the President agreed to reopen the government, but only after endless discussions, proposals, counter-proposals, and threats, until one side capitulated to the other.

     Thursday, October 24 is the day we remember the United Nations, an organization that asks countries’s leaders to engage in dialogue, rather than threaten war. The UN’s success is debatable.

     Education and talk are one in the same thing. The teacher or professor talks, and the students listen and respond back on exams or reports. In that dialogue between master and student, education happens, or so it is believed, will happen. Mount says that, “In the real world, most education turns out to be a mixture of injecting facts, and training in critical evaluation, a blend of information and skepticism.”

     Where marital counseling is a three-way dialogue, psychoanalysis is two-way. “Dialogue, “writes Mount, “is the dominant cure for all forms of addiction, and that talking really is good for our mental health,” an idea that extends back to Sigmund Freud. To that idea, another Viennese writer, Karl Kraus, responded, “Psychoanalysis is the disease that takes itself for a cure.”

     But the one arena where talk has multiplied exponentially is on the television and radio airwaves. Where once a nameless reporter shoved a microphone in front of a celebrity or politician and allowed him or her to express his or her arguments, now the interviewer speaks as much as the interviewee, often supplying words and ideas into the dialogue. I wonder, “who is interviewing who?”

     In ancient Greece one person dared to dialogue and to question all assumptions. His name was Socrates, and he frustrated so many by his questions and talk that the authorities executed him. His disciple, a philosopher named Plato, wrote down Socrates’s words in works he called “Dialogues.”

     According to Plato, wherever Socrates went, he caused havoc by asking difficult questions: “How do our acts of piety benefit the gods?” “How on earth can there be any justification for attributing divine sanction for our acts?” “How can we achieve anything resembling justice except by relentlessly examining our motives and our prejudices?”

     In ancient Greek, dialogue meant the flow of ideas “through speech,” and not “two-speech,” which would have been “duologue.” In other words, dialogue is the revelation of crucial and important ideas through the medium of language and conversation.


     Should we talk everywhere? Mount says “no,” not in areas where health and safety are paramount, such as in a surgical ward or in a jet’s cockpit. Should we talk to everyone? I say not to tyrants, madmen, or dictators. There is no conversation with them because they only understand power, not language. We should enjoy our conversations, our dialogues with others, because in their midst we feel human warmth, are connected and comforted.