The Gentle Touch

Thanks to my interlocutor, Tom, I have a post for you today, which was also made possible by the Socratic dialogue series at Siris for it turned out that those dialogues contained part of what became an answer. This will be a no-frills post and I will even explain the tiny seed of it. A character in a story I am writing wonders whether the woman that raised them was a Taoist though has doubts because she was so strict. I leave this unresolved, but realised I have my own questions about this very problem. I remembered that in some languages, this soft/hard approach is called the 'soft hand/fist' and asked Tom about options for that phrase in English. It is only because of my interlocutor's interest that this post has come to be: what would we do without others? There is a line in a book I am also quoting in my story about how we can only learn our mind and heart by looking, thinking, and talking to people. So this is also a post of gratitude.
The problem of the 'soft fist' is as follows. It is supposed to be an alternative to the 'iron fist' but not its opposite, which would probably be something like 'no grasp'. As the Tao is very often the middle way, I suppose the phrase I am looking for here is loose rein (though I initially resisted it, because I have seen it used in practice to mean letting things go their way without assigning import to the idea that the loose rein ultimately corresponds to the goal of things being done right). So, this loose rein is not a tight rein nor is it taking the back seat.
And I suddenly thought of Socrates, particularly in Hippias Minor, for it is my understanding (without having read apparatus or commentary apart from Brandon's) that Socrates is adopting Hippias' argument in order to show him and the audience the problems with Hippias' premise. This can be seen in his blaming-when the argument begins to sound ridiculous-"our previous argument" (371). Also note Socrates' dissatisfaction with imprecise definition at the beginning (which we know from Phaedrus he considers a very important part of rhetoric) when he says, "wisdom or shrewdness or whatever you choose to call it" (368e). Socrates does go along with these wish-washy definitions, but throughout asks Hippias (and the audience) to think this through: to think of this wisdom/shrewedness in terms of the good professional (367e-368); "concerning all sciences" (368); through a very repetitive consideration of Hippias' argument in connection with various professions (around 372-3) where one example includes that of a doctor whose "harm to patients' bodies" was considered "voluntary" - surely something is amiss with the premise!




Socrates' disagreement with Hippias' messy thinking is not expressed explicitly but in offhand remarks - like going along with the argument then blaming it; like dropping an aside about origins. We know he thinks that just speech defines where it is coming from, openly, at the outset. In Hippias Minor he sets an example by explaining his practice of being grateful to those who have taught him and not claiming their knowledge as his own. Hippias, on the other hand, was shown by Socrates to have boasted at Olympia once that all he wore was his own handiwork (368b) - so does not even respect the origin of what he knows, i.e. that someone taught him to make those things he boasts of: how can he respect the origin of ideas? Also, Socrates drops a hint to Hippias that he has wandered off track and "will not find it, my friend, for it does not exist" (368e) [the origin/premise that doesn't make sense] "for perhaps you are not using your art of memory" (369a) though he had just mentioned that Hippias himself had praised his own memory ("and yet I forgot your art of memory, as it seems, in which you think you are most brilliant; [368e] and I fancy I have forgotten a great many other things.") As he corrects, he is self-deprecatory and submissive, just like how throughout he says I desire to learn what he means.
This is the 'soft fist'. Or gentle touch - which is somewhere between the loose reigns and the iron fist. It may also be noted that this way of teaching is non-confrontational while also offering the truth to the person who is truly seeking it, if obscured by not being explicit. But where it is elusive, it is ostensibly towing the line: which is a wise tactic in the face of ὕβρις.
"Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.  The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice." (Tao Te Ching 78; trans. S. Mitchell) I propose here that Socrates put it into practice.
And, "The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao." (8) Those are S. Mitchell's translations. Surely one such "low place" is entering into the chasms of another's thought? I only write this because it seems that some people are loathe to do this.
D. C. Lau continues verse VIII, a little further down, "In an ally it is benevolence that matters [or, as per Legge's translation, in associations, seeking the virtuous]; In speech it is good faith that matters [Legge: government, securing good order]; In affairs it is ability that matters; In action it is timelessness that matters. It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault [Legge paraphrase: when one with highest excellence does not wrangle about his low position]." The key may be in the not contending. And I hear Socrates saying, "I desire to learn what he means"; "Perhaps ... I shall get to know this more clearly."



Book in background: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern; Brush: Ewansim's Grunge at DeviantART.

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