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Voices: Medieval approach to political debates

Florian Hild, a school principal, philosopher and teacher in Fort Collins, reflects on how we as a nation could improve the quality of political discourse by consulting early truth-seekers.

It is difficult to argue that the political climate in our country is conducive to a sincere pursuit of truth. It is even more difficult to imagine future political campaigns in which the search for truth trumps the need to win. However, workable alternatives to the present state of our political discourse exist: Finding and applying them merely requires an open mind to the lessons of the past.

When universities were first founded across Europe, the so-called scholastics debated as vigorously as Democrats and Republicans today, but they imposed rules on their debates that honored rather than derided the opponent’s contributions.

At 13th-century Paris university, these disputatio legitima found their most enduring manifestation in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Known to many simply as “the teacher,” Thomas perfected a disputational practice which – if implemented today – would re-form our political discourse. Each scholastic debate, written or spoken, would begin with an articulus: a clear statement of the disputed question. Then the different views were presented as charitably as possible before they were argued for or against in the corpus of one’s writing or speech. For Thomas the gold-standard of disputation was presenting an opponent’s view better than the opponent could. Then he took it apart.

But here’s the rub.

Thomas and the scholastics were searching for truth, not for a bump in the polls. Aiming for truth rather than victory is more than a small difference between medieval scholastics and today’s debaters; it is the crucial difference and it radically changes the political discourse.

A devotion to the pursuit of truth makes losing a dispute impossible. If our opponent helps us find truth by altering our position, we haven’t lost but won. We have more truth now. “One has to love both,” says Aquinas about these truth-seekers, “those whose opinion we share and also those whose opinion we reject. Both have labored in the search for truth and both have therefore assisted us in this search for truth.”

Imagine an American public interested in 800-year-old lessons, a public that cared more for the pursuit of truth than victory for its party. Imagine a political discourse that “loved those whose opinion we share and those whose opinion we reject.” Presidential debates would become educational family events and we could rest assured that if our opponent won, he would know our positions better than we do.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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