Dissoi Logoi (Two Arguments)

Dissoi Logoi” is a document associated with the famous sophist Protagoras, though the writer is unknown. The sophists were often criticized for arguing both sides of the question and for making the worse appear the better and the better appear the worse. This document is part of the reason why. It argues that what is bad for one person is good for another, that what is socially acceptable in one part of the world is shameful in another, and that what is just and unjust depends on the situation and the perspective. This looks like moral relativism and it fits with Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” However, Aristotle himself argues that rhetoric is morally neutral and should look at arguments from all sides.

The document itself is incomplete. It appears to be speaking notes or perhaps a practice exercise. It is somewhat incoherent, and at times reads like it was written by someone who is crazy, or having fun at our expense. However, the writer is right that any position we take on an issue will have good and bad consequences and will affect different people differently. Our arguments will be stronger and more persuasive if we consider multiple perspectives. “Dissoi Logoi” is good intellectual practice.

Students given an issue or problem to consider and write about will often start with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

With the practice of Dissoi Logoi in mind, we start in a different place:

  • What are the possible positions?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  • Who is helped and who is hurt by possible policies or solutions?

These questions can be used in group brainstorming sessions so that individual students don’t have to come up with all of the possible positions and consequences themselves. This usually leads to lively discussions. I have a worksheet that I update every time I use it so that the issues it raises are somewhat current. Here are the first two groups:

Group 1
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Drones (Remote-controlled pilotless aircraft)
  • Internet Tracking Cookies
  • Food Stamps

Group 2
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Free Community College
  • Statewide Educational Testing
  • Organic Food

I give each group three issues to choose from in case they have no knowledge or interest about one of them. However, you could take a single issue that the class is exploring and have the groups brainstorm all the possibilities. After they have done this, they are ready to consider the questions I started with:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

However, because they have explored beyond their own position and understand why people take opposing positions, their arguments are likely to be much more developed and persuasive.

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