102 Debate: On the Art of Conversation

Very often Montaigne’s titles tell us nothing about what we should expect in the essay, but in this case, the title is important.  The essay isn’t about discourse in general, it’s about conversation or more precisely, agonistic conversation.

The kind of conversation Montaigne has in mind isn’t filled with facile pleasantries and idle gossip. I can only imagine the revulsion he might feel if he were stuck in one of those endless Proust salon chats rating everyone’s standing in the social strata. The genius of Proust is the way he simultaneously displayed both insight and banality.  We’re always aware of Marcel’s wisdom amidst the mindless blather.   In this sense, Proust is the natural heir to Montaigne, except that his gift was in showing, not telling.

Still, if Proust cultural dissection lacked anything it was the kind of vigorous conversation that Montaigne extols in this essay.  If “In Search of Lost Time” has a flaw (and the same could be said for Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,”) it’s the fact that too many insights are shared directly by the narrator, bypassing the kind of character-level debate and examination that would have made them more interesting. While I don’t find Doestoyevsky’s ideas as powerful as either Proust or Tolstoy, I do admire the way his latter novels let the characters debate everything without overt intervention from a narrator.  And in fairness to Tolstoy, by the time he wrote “Anna Karenina,” he’d learned to let his ideas — and even some pointed counterpoints to his ideas — be spoken through his characters.

In my estimation, one of the great failings of modernism has been the slow drift away from vigorous debate and towards atomic polemics.  That might seem like an odd statement — aren’t we surrounded by competing ideas and opinions?  Yes, but we’ve left it to the individual to create and judge the intellectual clash. Even seemingly interactive technologies like blog comment sections have devolved into opportunities for individuals to either agree wholeheartedly or to tell the writer, in effect, to shut up.

Perhaps the clearest example of this can be found in our various definitions of debates. We still hold genuine debates in this country, but only between high school students, many of whom only understand a fraction of the arguments that they are reading off rapidly.  (High school debates would be far more interesting and valuable if college philosophy students were forbidden to write briefs for them.)  The speed of contemporary debate is designed so that opponents will fail to respond to all arguments in the allotted time — and it’s simply easier to win an argument based on no response than to clash on every point and risk the outcome being decided by a judge, who may not understand anything being argued.

But for all the failing of academic debate, at least it is real debate, unlike the embarrassing joint-press-conference-type event featured in our political campaigns. These so called debates are designed to turn elections into quiz shows and to limit the amount of actual candidate interaction and clash as much as possible. We let American adolescents debate each other without a moderator or any form of adult intervention, but we can’t allow the candidates to rule us to interact with each other absent a news media authority figure, strict time constraints and blinking red lights.  It’s lunacy.

Why do we need debate? Montaigne in this essay give us a rich catalog of reasons, starting with the simple truth that we never stop learning in life and one of the best ways to test both our ideas and style of discourse is to keep testing it:

Every day I am warned and counseled by the stupid deportment of someone. What hits you affects you and wakes you up more than what pleases you. We can only improve ourselves in times such as these by walking backwards, by discord not by harmony, by being different not by being like. Having myself learned little from good examples I use the bad ones, the text of which is routine.  I strove to be as agreeable as others were seen to be boring; as firm as others were flabby; as gentle as others were sharp. But I was setting myself unattainable standards.

Can’t we continue to grow intellectually by reading?  Yes, but it’s not sufficient — only in lively conversation do we get to test the ideas we’ve read and to integrate them our other thoughts.  Intellectual competition for Montaigne is akin to sports:

Studying books has a languid feeble motion, whereas conversation provides teaching and exercise all at once. If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring. Rivalry, competitiveness and glory will drive me and raise me above my own level. In conversation the most painful quality is perfect harmony.

Montaigne is clear that he doesn’t enjoy debating just anyone — and debating the stupid can be an exhausting experience.  There’s a level of respect we accord to anyone who we agree to debate, which is why heavily favored candidates rarely allow their opponents the honor.  Once this kind of agreement is reached, Montaigne would reject the contemporary custom of highly structured rules and would prefer a lively event:

Among gentlemen I like people to express themselves heartily, their words following wherever their thoughts lead. We ought to toughen and fortify our ears against being seduced by the sound of polite words. I like a strong, intimate, manly fellowship, the kind of friendship which rejoices in sharp vigorous exchanges just as love rejoices in bites and scratches which draw blood.

In a previous essay I called Plato the father of debate and Montaigne helps spell out why here — a proper debate is akin to one of Socrates’ dialectics and contestants should see them as both competitions and learning opportunities.  If anyone ever creates the Las Vegas of debate that Montaigne suggests here, I will promptly relocate there:

When I am contradicted it arouses my attention not my wrath. I move towards the man who contradicts me: he is instructing me. The cause of truth ought to be common to us both. – What will his answer be? The passion of anger has already wounded his judgement. Turbulence has seized it before reason can. – It would be a useful idea if we had to wager on the deciding of our quarrels, useful if there were a material sign of our defeats so that we could keep tally on them and my manservant say: ‘Last year your ignorance and stubbornness cost you one hundred crowns on twenty occasions.’

Returning to the subject of yesterday’s essay, Montaigne reiterates his dislike for intellectual deference.  This raises the point that internal debate is just as important as public contests:

It is a bland and harmful pleasure to have to deal with people who admire us and defer to us. Antisthenes commanded his sons never to give thanks or show gratitude to anyone who praised them. I feel far prouder of the victory I win over myself when I make myself give way beneath my adversary’s powers of reason in the heat of battle than I ever feel gratified by the victory I win over him through his weakness.

Next, Montaigne discusses an important feature of all debate: rules of order.  The difference between genuine debate rules of order and the strict constraints of contemporary debates (and frequently interrupting TV hosts) is that the former facilitates genuine clash while the latter squelches it:

I admit and acknowledge any attacks, no matter how feeble, if they are made directly, but I am all too impatient of attacks which are not made in due form. I care little about what we are discussing; all opinions are the same to me and it is all but indifferent to me which proposition emerges victorious. I can go on peacefully arguing all day if the debate is conducted with due order.

Next, Montaigne takes on logicians. With the risk of sounding like one myself, Montaigne’s argument here isn’t entirely clear. He seems to be arguing against Socrates’ style of dialectics, but given everything else he’s written, that’s unlikely. Perhaps his arguments are intended to critique the French legal profession of his day.  Regardless of the target, it reads today like an accurate critique of analytic philosophy:

There is the man who cannot see reason but holds you under siege within a hedge of dialectical conclusions and logical formulae. Who can avoid beginning to distrust our professional skills and doubt whether we can extract from them any solid profit of practical use in life when he reflects on the use we put them to? Such erudition as has no power to heal. Has anyone ever acquired intelligence through logic? Where are her beautiful promises? She teaches neither how to live a better life nor how to argue properly.  Is there more of a hotchpotch in the cackle of fishwives than in the public disputations of men who profess logic? I would prefer a son of mine to learn to talk in the tavern rather than in our university yap-shops.

The “no power to heal” line is powerful — it’s this disconnect between intellectuals and the polity that’s creating greater distance between experts and democratic citizens at a time when greater understanding is necessary.  Montaigne held such intellectuals with a special brand of contempt:

I like and honor erudition as much as those who have it. When used properly it is the most noble and powerful acquisition of Man. But in the kind of men (and their number is infinite) who make it the base and foundation of their worth and achievement, who quit their understanding for their memory, hiding behind other men’s shadows, and can do nothing except by book, I loathe (dare I say it?) little more than I loathe stupidity.

We end up debating — if ever — with tight communities of like minded people. Montaigne senses an element of tyranny in this:

There is always an element of tyrannical bad temper in being unable to tolerate characters different from your own. Secondly, there is in truth no greater silliness, none more enduring, than to be provoked and enraged by the silliness of this world – and there is none more bizarre. For it makes you principally irritated with yourself: that philosopher of old would never have lacked occasion for his tears if he had concentrated on himself.

Returning to intellectual clashes themselves, Montaigne next analyzes the question of authority — how can we judge facts without first validating the truth of the claims?  And how can we consider a fact to be true unless we trust and esteem the source of the fact?  The important point here — one lost in contemporary journalism — is that all facts and opinions are not equal. People must make judgment calls and need enough information to do so with accuracy:

It is not enough to relate our experiences: we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport. There never were so many writing history! It is always good and profitable to listen to them, for they furnish us with ample instruction, fine and praiseworthy, from the storehouse of their memory: that is certainly of great value in helping us to live. But we are not looking for that at the moment: we are trying to find out whether the chroniclers and compilers are themselves worthy of praise …. Anyone who could discover the means by which men could be justly judged and reasonably chosen would, at a stroke, establish a perfect form of commonwealth.

One reason why we cannot always make those kinds of rational calls is because luck intervenes — destroying best laid plans and bailing out the foolish:

In this world’s activities we often notice that Fortune rivals Virtue: she shows us what power she has over everything and delights in striking down our presumption by making the incompetent lucky since she cannot make them wise. She loves to interfere, favoring those performances whose course has been entirely her own. That is why we can see, every day, the simplest among us bringing the greatest public and private tasks to successful conclusions …. Our very wisdom and mature reflections are for the most part led by chance. My will and my reasoning are stirred this way and that. And many of their movements govern themselves without me. My reason is daily subject to incitements and agitations which are due to chance.

As mentioned previously, I’m far less concerned than Montaigne about the dangers of rhetorical style. With so many other forms of entertainment competing today, I find it a small miracle that anyone would choose to listen to a speech anymore. But I do agree with Montaigne that we make far too much of what are now called “sound bites:”

In debates and discussions we should not immediately be impressed by what we take to be a man’s own bons mots. Most men are rich with other men’s abilities. It may well be that such-and-such a man makes a fine remark, a good reply or a pithy saying, advancing it without realizing its power.  That we do not grasp everything we borrow can doubtless be proved from my own case.  We should not always give way, no matter what beauty or truth it may have. We should either seriously attack it or else, under pretense of not understanding it, retreat a little so as to probe it thoroughly and to discover how it is lodged in its author.

In conclusion, Montaigne raises an important point of humility: debate is always about understanding and the primary subject is always yourself — what you know, feel and believe:

A man of straight and elevated mind who judges surely and soundly employs in all circumstances examples taken from himself as well as from others, and frankly cites himself as witness as well as third parties. We should jump over those plebeian rules of etiquette in favor of truth and freedom.  I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself. I am wandering off the point when I write of anything else, cheating my subject of me.

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