On the Art of Discussion: How to Avoid Being an Ass

On the Art of Discussion: How to Avoid Being an Ass January 4, 2020

In final preparation for the spring semester that will begin in ten days, I am reading the final few essays in Michel de Montaigne’s monumental Essais, the fascinating book that will be the central text in an honors colloquium on Montaigne and his 16th century world that I will be teaching for the first time. I am regularly amazed by just how relevant Montaigne’s reflections from more than four centuries ago are to our contemporary world. Case in point: Montaigne’s essay “On the art of discussion” toward the end of his 800+ page book is so relevant to our contemporary inability to civilly and productively debate and disagree that I will be assigning it for my colloquium’s very first meeting.

Montaigne knew how to discuss and dialogue effectively. Before he retired, for all intents and purposes, from public life to write in his late thirties, and occasionally afterwards, he served as a liaison and diplomat highly respected by all religious and political factions, effectively working his way through the complicated and often violent political and religious landscape of 16th century France. While on a several month European tour, Montaigne was appointed as the mayor of Bordeaux, then the third largest city in France, a position that his father had held a generation earlier and that Montaigne reluctantly accepted; with equal reluctance he agreed to a second term as mayor two years later.

Written toward the end of his life, “Of the art of discussion” contains several of Montaigne’s insights about what makes or breaks a discussion in which the various parties disagree with each other. For a man who spent much of his later adult life alone writing, surrounded by more than a thousand books in the tower of his family castle that served as his library and man cave, it is a bit surprising when Montaigne writes on the first page of the essay that

The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind, in my opinion, is discussion. I find it sweeter than any other action of our life; and that is the reason why, if I were right now forced to choose, I believe I would rather consent to lose my sight than my hearing or speech.

A few paragraphs later, Montaigne specifies what the purpose of discussion, indeed of human enquiry in general, truly is.

We are born to quest after truth; to possess it belongs to a greater power . . . the world is but a school of inquiry. The question is not who will hit the ring, but who will make the best runs at it.

The point, in other words, of discussion and conversation is the process and the cooperative pursuit of getting closer and closer to the truth, not the attainment of it. People in discussion and conversation are partners in a foundational human activity, not competitors in a game with winners and losers. When we forget what conversations and discussions are for, Montaigne says, things go badly very quickly.

Have you ever been involved in a conversation, either in person or on social media, in which everyone turns defensive in short order and immediately starts posturing instead of discussing? Of course you have. Over four hundred years ago, Montaigne describes and reflects on this very dynamic—apparently people don’t need the anonymity and distance of social media to turn conversations in ugly directions. Human beings have been angry, defensive, prideful, and fearful for a very long time.

We flee from correction; we should face it and go to meet it, especially when it comes in the form of discussion, not ex cathedra. At every opposition we do not consider whether it is just, but, right or wrong, how we can get rid of it. Instead of stretching out our arms to it, we stretch out our claws.

Montaigne frequently writes about how open he is to new ideas, even those that oppose his own beliefs, and how willing he is to embrace the possibility that he might be wrong. He writes about it frequently, I suspect, because he worked hard his whole life to cultivate the habit of intellectual openness and generosity to others. Catholic and Protestant Christians were killing each other in the name of religious certainty in Montaigne’s 16th century France, with their doctrinal claws of certainty on full display.

In the passage above, Montaigne correctly notes that our reaction to contrary ideas and opinions is often not to consider them, but rather to dismiss and get rid of them. Accordingly, he writes, “We learn to argue only in order to contradict; and with each man contradicting and being contradicted, it turns out that the fruit of the argument is to ruin and annihilate the truth.” It is in the spirit of Montaigne that I regularly advise my students to introduce qualifiers into their conversations, even when considering their most deeply held beliefs. “This is what I believe, but I might be wrong.” “This is what I believe to be true, but I have a lot to learn.” Such qualifiers serve as reminders that no one is omniscient and that no one knows the mind of God—despite our pretensions to the contrary.

One of the many things that I most appreciate about Montaigne is that he describes things as they are with little or no sugar coating. In his more annoyed moods, he calls our defensiveness and judgment of the other in conversation what it is: stupidity.

Nothing vexes me so much in stupidity as the fact that it is better pleased with itself than any reason can reasonably be . . . Obstinacy and heat of opinion is the surest proof of stupidity. Is there anything so certain, resolute, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious as an ass?

I have been asked many times over the years, by friends and colleagues who know that I teach an ethics class just about every semester, to reduce to one sentence the most basic moral lesson I want my students to take away at the end of the semester. My best one-sentence summary is “don’t be a dick.” But a Montaignian “Don’t be an ass” would work just as well. The next time I am inclined to respond with snarkiness and self-righteous conviction to an evangelical Christian, an atheist, or anyone else spouting ideas different than mine in the comment section of this blog, on Facebook, or in person, I’ll try to remember Montaigne. Don’t be an ass.

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