Skip to comments.The Art of Always Being Right - [review of Schopenhauer's classic (barf alert at the end)]
Posted on 01/02/2005 2:04:22 AM PST by snarks_when_bored
The Art of Always Being Right
Arthur Schopenhauer; with an introduction by A C Grayling
Gibson Square Books, 190pp, £9.99
Reviewed by George Walden Schopenhauer's sardonic little book, laying out 38 rhetorical tricks guaranteed to win you the argument even when you are defeated in logical discussion, is a true text for the times. An exercise in irony and realism, humour and melancholy, this is no antiquarian oddity, but an instruction manual in intellectual duplicity that no aspiring parliamentarian, trainee lawyer, wannabe TV interviewer or newspaper columnist can afford to be without.
The melancholy aspect comes in the main premise of the book: that the point of public argument is not to be right, but to win. Truth cannot be the first casualty in our daily war of words, Schopenhauer suggests, because it was never the bone of contention in the first place. "We must regard objective truth as an accidental circumstance, and look only to the defence of our own position and the refutation of the opponent's . . . Dialectic, then, has as little to do with truth as the fencing master considers who is in the right when a quarrel leads to a duel." Such phrases make us wonder whether his book was no more than a bitter satire, an extension of Machiavellian principles of power play from princes to individuals by a disappointed academic whom it took 30 years to get an audience for his major work, The World as Will and Idea. Perhaps, but only partly. With his low view of human nature, Schopenhauer is also saying that we are all in the sophistry business together.
The interest of his squib goes beyond his tricks of rhetoric: "persuade the audience, not the opponent", "put his theory into some odious category", "become personal, insulting, rude". Instinctively, we itch to apply it to our times, whether in politics, the infotainment business or our postmodern tendency to place inverted commas, smirkingly, around the very notion of truth. Examples of jaw-dropping sophistry by public figures (my own favourite is Tony Blair defending his quasi-selective choice of school for his son on the grounds that he did not wish to impose political correctness on his children: see Schopenhauer's rule number 26: "turn the tables") are easy enough to find. It is more entertaining to see his theory in the light of our national peculiarities.
The flip side of our "healthy scepticism" can be a disinclination to trouble ourselves with rational discussion at all, and a tediously moderate people can be bored by its own sobriety. So it is that, in debate, we prefer to be stirred by passions, or simply amused. Hence the rampant nostalgia for the old political order, dominated by orators such as Michael Foot or Enoch Powell. Each did real damage to the country, Foot with his patrician self-abasement in the face of trade union power, Powell on race, and both with their culpable fantasies about Russia.
"Well you say that," comes the predictable response - a handy rhetorical trick in itself - "but let's not get into their policies; we could go round that buoy for ever" (see trick number 12: "choose metaphors favourable to your proposition"). "The point is that they were such wonderfully passionate, col-ourful and entertaining debaters, compared to the managerial drabness of the House of Commons today." (Trick 29 recommends diversion from the point at issue.) The pay-off line follows quickly (draw your conclusions smartly, says trick 20). "If only we had Boris as Tory leader, it would perk the place up no end!" (This is not wholly invention. Tory and Labour columnists have both written in this vein.)
Perhaps because Schopenhauer was so very un-British, his 38 points overlooked our favourite rhetorical trick: coming up with "quirky" or "original" responses to serious questions. (The nearest he gets is trick number 36: "bewilder your opponent".) In Britain, a willed eccentricity, the cheapest form of distinction, works because it is part of our top-down ethos. The game is to dodge the issue in such a way as to show yourself above it - for example, by throwing off dandyish opinions. Take any premise ("Boris Johnson is not a serious contender for prime minister"), invert it, toss it to the herd with a supercilious smile - and the herd will warm to you, because we do so love a maverick, don't we? For similar reasons, "controversialists" (that is, vulgar cynics who argue positions they do not necessarily believe, the better to astound the impressionable masses) are a very British phenomenon.
The anti-intellectualism all this implies is not, however, a uniquely British trait, and is covered in Schopenhauer's list. "If you know that you have no reply to the arguments your opponent advances . . . declare yourself to be an incompetent judge: 'What you say passes my poor powers of comprehension.'" Your opponent stands instantly convicted of pretension, a crime without appeal in democracies, of which Schopenhauer was no admirer. Truth and logic, he comes close to saying, get you nowhere in a mass society. "The only safe rule, therefore, is [to dispute] only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities."
In a frequently light-hearted book, this is the least amusing message. The suggestion is that the audiences for serious discussion are doomed to shrink - and remember that Schopenhauer never experienced the sophistry of TV images, whose deliberate or, more frequently, casual mendacity a mere 38 points would not suffice to explain. Yet has his lugubrious prediction proved true? Or do we rather get a feeling, not of an absolute decline in standards of public debate, but of missed potential - something even the BBC has apparently begun to recognise? How many times have we listened to a radio or TV debate on art or politics or literature and asked ourselves, even as we are lulled by the undemanding discussion: are these the best people they can come up with? The answer is yes and no. Yes because in media terms they are the best: practised "communicators" with every crowd-pleasing response at the ready. And no because we have all read or heard or known people far more interesting and far more informed about the disciplines in question. Sadly, they tend to be folk who are not up to speed on their 38 points and who think the truth matters, and so, communication-wise, they are deemed useless. Still, they exist.
If your preference is nevertheless for Schopenhauer's tragic vision of a world in thrall to debate that is indifferent to the truth, examples are not lacking, not just in art or politics, but in the allegedly objective and internationalist scientific world. A brief period as minister for science taught me that when it comes to rubbishing a rival's research or inveigling funds for your own, objectivity is out, and foreigners become a joke. Now I hear neo-Darwinian atheists lambasting as primitive and irrational every religion except the most populous and, in its extreme form, the most dangerous. Why are scientists so intellectually dishonest? For the same reason that the Archbishop of Canterbury hides behind procedural sophistry (needless commissions of inquiry and the like, when the need for liberalism is clear) in dealing with homosexuality in the Church: politics, dear boy. Which does rather diminish the right of scientists and churchmen to look down on politics as a scurvy trade.
The palm for rhetorical shamelessness must nevertheless go to US presidents. "There you go again," said Ronald Reagan, annihilating with a grin the very concept of rational debate, and the right loved him for it. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," Bill Clinton assured us, with his emetic sincerity, and the left - especially women - adore him still. And not even the melancholic German predicted that the world's most powerful democracy would one day be run by a president who cannot be accused of sophistry chiefly because he cannot talk at all. And they say Schopenhauer was a pessimist.
George Walden is the author of The New Elites: making a career in the masses (Penguin)
Bump and bookmark...
Jerry Spence (a renowned lawyer) wrote a book called "How to Argue and Win Everytime." I wonder how much the liberal legal slut lifted from Schopenhauer.
Diffusing Leftist argumment requires reading Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kierkegaard, Rand, and Moses...
Just to name a few...
One thing, though: seeing Plato and Rand on the same list was a shock. I wouldn't do that; are you sure you're comfortable doing it?
Click on my name, see my FR homepage and see why...
It is not so much Plato as it is Socrates and Aristotle...
She was an idealogue, and a good one, although I do agree with her more than disagree in a political sphere.
Rand did lift a lot of her philosophical perspectives from John Locke, who in turn built upon a foundation set by Thomas Hobbes (Levaithan is a tough read, but well worth it).