This is the third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume III: Bacon, Milton, Browne
Imagine that you are in a debate, say, about politics or about who is the best third baseman of all-time. Then, a new interlocutor chimes in, and he is on your side! The problem, though, is that he is not very knowledgeable or articulate. As a result, he is doing you no favors by speaking up. In fact, he is setting your opponent up for easy points. If this guy would just shut up, you know that you could win this debate, but you are being forced to defend poorly thought-out and poorly expressed arguments rather than having the benefit of crafting your own.
This is not an unusual set of circumstances, especially in a world where such “discussions” take place in the form of nesting comments to an article or facebook post. But, of course, these circumstances are not new. Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne offered some advice on the subject that is still eminently applicable.
In the first place, chose whom you debate wisely: “Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own.”
Secondly, just because you are right doesn’t mean that you are equipped to defend your position: “Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.”
And finally, you may be firm in your opinions, but if you are intellectually honest, you should be willing to abandon those opinions entirely if presented with a better argument. And, as a consequence, you should not be upset with those who disagree with you (or those who agree with you, but for the wrong reasons): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self.”
Beer of the week: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter – Breckenridge Brewery is a personal favorite, and this offering does not disappoint. A lovely porter with lots of, but not too much, vanilla. It pours with a nice tan head, and the beer has a decent amount of body. A very good beer.
Reading of the week: Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne – Like so many good books, this tract on religion was banned by the Catholic Church. In this selection, Browne endeavors to distinguish heresies from “bare Errors, and single Lapses of understanding.”
Question for the week: Browne advocates debating our intellectual superiors to learn, and debating our intellectual inferiors to solidify and gain confidence in our positions. Is it easy to distinguish when we are trying to learn and when we are trying to build confidence? Aren’t their elements of both in most debates?