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The Deeper Meaning of Authentic Dialogue

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos
August 6, 2018

In my last column, I suggested that the government sector in the United States is suffering more from a “crisis of spirit” than a crisis of competence. I also proposed that the process of authentic dialogue offers an antidote to this crisis by advancing what the ancient Greeks called a common education in order “to heal disunion and division of spirit” and, as a result, build a spiritual community (not to be confused with church and religion) that would allow government to realize its full potential.

Why, however, is the process of engaging in authentic dialogue easier said than done? Let’s begin to answer this question by first seeking to understand what is meant by the word “dialogue” at its root level.

The word actually comes from two Greek words — dia (δια), meaning “through,” and logos (λόγος), most frequently but only roughly translated in English as “the meaning.” Upon closer examination, the various translations of the word logos, a common Greek word, reveal it has deep spiritual roots. In fact, the concept of logos can be found in most of the great works describing the history of Christianity, as well as throughout the literature on religion and Western philosophy.

In this regard, one of the first references to logos as “spirit” came from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, around 500 BC. The logos of Heraclitus has been interpreted in various ways, as the “logical,” as “meaning” and as “reason,” but, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, “What can logic… do if we never begin to pay heed to the logos and follow its initial unfolding?” To Heraclitus, this “initial unfolding” viewed the logos as responsible for the harmonic order of the universe, as a cosmic law, which declared that “One is All and Everything is One.” Put differently, he suggested we can find deeper understanding, and thus meaning, if we believe that all things are connected.

The doctrine of the logos was the linchpin of the religious thinking by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria who, while not always consistent in his use of the term, clearly established it as belonging only to the spiritual realm. Indeed, Philo sometimes suggested that the logos is the “highest idea of God that human beings can attain … higher than a way of thinking, more precious than anything that is merely thought.” For Philo, the logos was Divine, it was the source of energy from which the human soul became manifest. Consistent with the logocentric character of Philo’s thought, “it is through the Logos and the Logos alone that man is capable of participating in the Divine.”

Moreover, Philo’s confidence in the human mind rests on the self-assurance that the human intellect is ultimately related to the divine Logos, “ … being an imprint, or fragment or effulgence of that blessed nature, or … being a portion of the divine ether.” To Philo, the origins of logos as spirit were clearly well documented in the writings of the early Greek philosophers and the theologians of his era. This kind of interpretation of logos also received attention more recently in Karen Armstrong’s bestseller, A History of God, in which she notes St. John had made it clear that Jesus was the Logos and, moreover, that the Logos was God.

Herein, however, lies the difficulty associated with engaging people in “authentic” dialogue — it cannot and will not happen if we are prisoners of our thoughts. In this connection, it makes sense that you can never connect meaningfully with others if you believe that you have a monopoly on truth. True dialogue will only occur if the participating stakeholders are willing to enter the spiritual realm of the logos and converse, if you will, on this deeper level.

Cognitive, so-called knowledge-based interactions, which can be described as discussions or ordinary conversations, are not enough for authentic dialogue to occur. One must be open and willing to entertain a diversity of thought and discover a common ground, as I mentioned in my previous column, by going to a higher ground.

Interpreting logos in this way (that is, viewing it as a manifestation of spirit or soul) carries with it significant implications, both conceptual and practical. Authentic dialogue, as a concept, takes on a new and deeper meaning when it is perceived as a group’s accessing a larger pool of common spirit through a distinctly spiritual connection between the members. This suggests more than just collective thinking, although dialogue certainly is a determinant of such a holistic process. Spirit flowing through and resonating among the participants in true dialogue leads to collective thinking which, in turn, facilitates a common understanding thereby resulting ideally in what we now refer to as collective learning.

Authentic dialogue enables individuals to acknowledge that they each are part of a greater whole, that they naturally resonate with others within this whole and that the whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of its various parts. As participants in such a holistic process, together they can produce greater results than they would just as individuals without this meaningful connection.

This is what the ancient Greeks meant by employing a common education to create a spiritual community, which would allow the “soul” and true nature of government to become manifest. Once again, government, in the words of Aristotle, “…is more than a legal structure, more than an arrangement of offices; it is a manner of life, a moral spirit.”


Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. His passions include advancing meaning in government service and the “human side of innovation.” He may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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