Society of Fellows Big Thinkers — Championship

Though it was under the radar before this year’s event, the Big Thinkers tournament actually goes way back. Some early records, admittedly of somewhat dubious provenance, refer to a medieval English contest, in which Robert Grosseteste emerged victorious in a pool of eight scholastic philosophers and theologians. Over the centuries, the tournament has gradually expanded in scope to include the entire history of western thought. But I think it’s safe to say that no tournament has seen a finer finish than this year’s. After two thrilling semifinal contests, it was hard to see how the championship debate could match them. But it clearly did.

Plato and Newton arrive at last night’s showdown with heavy expectations. It was the first scientist versus the last of the magicians. Plato had initiated the grand project of a mathematical understanding of the cosmos; Newton was the great champion of this project. Newton carried the mantle of modern scientific progress, the mastery of nature itself. Plato stood forth as the ideal of ancient thought, the paradigm of intellectual virtue and harmony. For many, their long-awaited encounter represented a decisive settlement of an intellectual feud that stretches across the millennia.

Big Thinkers -- Tale of the TapeNewton was nominally the underdog, although he had clearly revealed himself in this tournament as a fearsome opponent, worthy of a top seed. In this match, he came out fighting, launching a fusillade of arguments that stopped Plato in his tracks. The debating was frenetic — sloppy at times, but displaying remarkable intellectual proficiency. Both thinkers were attempting, and often completing, almost impossible proofs.

At times, the contest became personal. The grappling Greek had studied his opponent well, and knew exactly how to get Newton off his game. An off-handed remark that Kepler had surely anticipated two-thirds of his laws of motion sent the wigged wonder into a rage, sputtering incoherently about Paracelsus and the Pyramid of Cheops. Plato took advantage of this opening to score several easy points. Later, Newton charged that Plato’s own student, Aristotle, had surpassed his master, a perennial sore point for the anxious Athenian. And so the debate went back and forth into the late hours of the evening. In the end, however, Plato was just a little better than Newton, and the crafty philosopher finally won the contest, 82-76. With the victory, Plato stays once again on the upward path. We crown him as our philosopher-king, the 2013 Big Thinkers Champion.

But even as the celebrations continue, I’d like to call your attention to a moment from earlier in the contest. Near the end of the first half, Newton had built up a large lead of 14 points. For those of us watching the debate together, it seemed for the first time that Newton just might be the greater thinker — at least on this day. Plato seemed beatable, perhaps even beaten. But at that moment the true Plato stepped forward into the light, revealing a philosopher we had never fully witnessed before. Setting aside the elenchus and other logical tactics of the dialogues, he turned to the unwritten doctrine that had, until now, been revealed only to the acolytes of his Academy, sworn to silence. Here was his secret art of Dialectic, unveiled in its full majesty. Newton simply had no defense against it, and his large lead vanished in mere minutes. But for us, as spectators, the sheer beauty of the argumentation made us forget about the contest itself. It was as though we were carried up by Plato to the highest celestial sphere. There, rotating with the fixed stars at the edge of the cosmos, we looked out beyond, gazing for a moment at the very forms themselves.


I won’t say that the contest was decided then and there. Newton continued to argue effectively, and the final victory was not secured until late in the second half. But in this moment it became clear that Plato deserved to win, that Truth itself demanded it. And Truth won out. As the poets once spoke:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in darkest night,
Then God said “Let Newton be,” and all was shining light,
But Plato saw a deeper truth, past all mortal sight.

So ends the 2013 Big Thinkers Tournament. Our own champion is Jared “Go Blue” Newton, who wins with 122 points. (One can only assume that ‘go blue’ refers to Newton’s love of optical prism experiments.) In second we have a tie at 106 points between Neil and our tournament organizer, Ian. Coming in fourth was James, with 101 points, closely followed by Jim at 98. Rounding out the top 6 is Jackie, with 83 points. Congratulations to all, but especially to our winner Jared. And thanks to everyone who participated or just followed along. It’s been a blast!

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