"Do not argue with every one, nor practise upon the man in the street: for there are some people with whom any argument is bound to degenerate. For against any one who is ready to try all means in order to seem not to be beaten, it is indeed fair to try all means of bringing about one's conclusion: but it is not good form. Wherefore the best rule is, not lightly to engage with casual acquaintances, or bad argument is sure to result. For you see how in practising together people cannot refrain from contentious argument."
In a related vein, I was reading the Gorgias last night and laughed out loud. The Gorgias begins with an inquiry by Socrates into the nature of the art practiced by Gorgias, a well known and then aged rhetorician. "[N]obody asked what was the quality, but what was the nature, of the art," Socrates explains, "and … I would still beg you [Polus] briefly and clearly … to say what this art is, and what we ought to call Gorgias: Or rather, Gorgias, let me turn to you, and ask the same question what are we to call you, and what is the art which you profess?" Whereupon Gorgias replies (my emphasis):
Gor. Rhetoric, Socrates, is my art.
Soc. Then I am to call you a rhetorician?
Gor. Yes, Socrates, and a good one too, if you would call me that which, in Homeric language, "I boast myself to be."
Soc. I should wish to do so.
Gor. Then pray do.
Soc. And are we to say that you are able to make other men rhetoricians?
Gor. Yes, that is exactly what I profess to make them, not only at Athens, but in all places.
Soc. And will you continue to ask and answer questions, Gorgias, as we are at present doing and reserve for another occasion the longer mode of speech which Polus was attempting? Will you keep your promise, and answer shortly the questions which are asked of you?
Gor. Some answers, Socrates, are of necessity longer; but I will do my best to make them as short as possible; for a part of my profession is that I can be as short as any one.
Soc. That is what is wanted, Gorgias; exhibit the shorter method now, and the longer one at some other time.
Gor. Well, I will; and you will certainly say, that you never heard a man use fewer words.
Soc. Very good then; as you profess to be a rhetorician, and a maker of rhetoricians, let me ask you, with what is rhetoric concerned: I might ask with what is weaving concerned, and you would reply (would you not?), with the making of garments?
Soc. And music is concerned with the composition of melodies?
Gor. It is.
Soc. By Hera, Gorgias, I admire the surpassing brevity of your answers.
Gor. Yes, Socrates, I do think myself good at that.
Whereupon I had a philosopher's guffaw.
I also just noticed how (in more than one way) the paragraph preceding the one I cited in Topics relates to the Gorgias. "You should display your training in inductive reasoning against a young man," Aristotle argues, "in deductive against an expert." Continuing, he says (my emphasis):
You should try, moreover, to secure from those skilled in deduction their premisses, from inductive reasoners their parallel cases; for this is the thing in which they are respectively trained. In general, too, from your exercises in argumentation you should try to carry away either a syllogism on some subject or a refutation or a proposition or an objection, or whether some one put his question properly or improperly (whether it was yourself or some one else) and the point which made it the one or the other. … For it is the skilled propounder and objector who is, speaking generally, a dialectician. To formulate a proposition is to form a number of things into one––for the conclusion to which the argument leads must be taken generally, as a single thing––whereas to formulate an objection is to make one thing into many; for the objector either distinguishes or demolishes, partly granting, partly denying the statements proposed.
We also saw how Socrates insisted on phrasing the question correctly. A friend of mine, one of my philosophical mentors in fact, once said something, in passing, during a discussion with someone on Facebook, which perfectly captured this point. "I see now that we were arguing about different questions, and, for a philosopher, arguing about the wrong question is worse than arguing for the wrong conclusion." That virtually cinched my desire to be a philosopher. It is a habit of mine, in academic and personal discussions, to disentangle what and how many issues are actually being discussed. I see that is a spiritual but also a vocational gift.
Even more tangential, though of interest to my unsleeping hordes of fans, is how much I have been enjoying Michael Sandel's "Justice" lectures, available here. Always interesting to see liberally conditioned younguns crash against their own moral intuitions and the logic of indifferentism. Worth the time to view the series.