A probable fiction


It’s hard to know how to behave nowadays isn’t it? How to know what to do, and under what circumstances; to agree, or disagree -or wandering inside the cloud of political correctness, to waffle. It’s not so much the lack of an opinion, as the fact that with time, or even with different context, the opinion can vary. Evolve. So, to commit oneself irrevocably to some view or other may prove embarrassing and call into question the current, albeit different consensus.

And yet, I suspect that most of us are like that as we move through our falling years. Things change; we change. So then, how strenuously should we argue an opinion? Is there anything to be gained if we win or lose an argument, apart from pride or perhaps respect?

I have long been intrigued by the famous essays of Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), a Catholic nobleman who served as mayor of Bordeaux. No doubt their readability is heavily dependent upon their translation, and over the years I have yet to find a suitable version that is both easily assimilable, and convincingly seductive. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the range of subjects he covered in essay form. Actually, he is thought by some to be the inventor -or at least perfecter– of the form itself. And the fact that he sometimes changed his mind about the conclusions he’d reached in previously written essays, is a testament to his willingness to rethink his opinions in the light of changing circumstances.

I was attracted to an article in Psyche that examined just that. Provocatively titled ‘For Montaigne, verbal jousting is the only way to reach truth’, it was an examination of his philosophy by Rachel Ashcroft, a writer with a PhD in French and Italian Renaissance literature, working at the time as a digital engagement officer at the University of Edinburgh: https://psyche.co/ideas/for-montaigne-verbal-jousting-is-the-only-way-to-reach-truth

‘Montaigne writes on every topic imaginable, from childrearing to his bladder stones, and rarely offers a firm conclusion to the issues he raises. The Essais themselves are a living document; Montaigne revised them several times between 1570 and 1592, adding further annotations with each new edition. These additions often obscured his original point and reflected his changing opinions over the years.’

‘Although Montaigne despised the religious extremism of his age, he relished conversing with friends and foes alike. After all, he believed that ‘total agreement is the most painful characteristic of any conversation’. Faced with armed soldiers on horseback, Montaigne responds with a willingness to talk, rather than matching the hostility of his aggressor.’ And this means a willingness to tolerate disagreement. ‘Verbal jousting is beneficial to both parties, since it encourages two minds to push each other into new planes of understanding. One should engage in conversation without allowing prejudice to form the basis of the dialogue… He encourages people to embrace the intellectual challenge posed by an opposing view and listen to an argument first before judging an individual. Responding to the words being spoken takes precedence over the person speaking them. After all, there is no guarantee that we will hold a particular opinion forever.’

Of course, in the time he was writing, argumentation was usually a face-to face encounter, and so ‘Montaigne underlines the importance of the face in polarised communication; even the tensest of situations can be defused by seeing the passivity in someone’s expression. Compare this with the anonymity of online trolling. Attacking someone online removes the power that facial expressions have in disarming abuse and moderating conversation… Montaigne believed that talking should be difficult if conversation was to reach its most productive goal… We must allow others to think differently, since we ourselves will inevitably evolve over time, and let ‘truth … be the common cause which unites us’.’

It seems to me that no matter the vigour of the exchange, there has to be a willingness to listen to the arguments of the other side. After all, if you don’t understand their viewpoint, you’re unlikely to understand why it is so different from your own, unlikely to be able to arrive at any common ground or any compromise, whether or not you are disputing the matter face to face.

Of course, maybe I am being naïve about this. Maybe I am only hoping that aggressive arguments need not result in shouting insults at the other, but rather in debate. Then, especially, it is important to ensure that both of you have understood each other’s positions by restating them so they know they have been heard, and clarifying why your own may be different. Although each interlocutor has to believe the other understands the thrust of their arguments, in the heat of battle, that may be difficult.

For some reason, I remember an episode from years ago in a department store in a rather run down area of town. I must confess that I am sometimes attracted to those tables that have sale items heaped on them like laundry waiting for its turn to be washed. This table was stacked with brightly coloured sweaters that seemed promising, and two men were sorting through them.

One of them made a grab for a cream-coloured one, gaudily adorned with orangey horizontal stripes along its body.

“Excuse me,” said a frail looking white-haired elderly man nearby who was similarly hunting through the pile. “I was just reaching for that sweater.”

The other man who was younger and more aggressive, stared at him for a moment before reacting. “I kind of like it…” he said, with a wicked smile as held it against his chest to see if it was the right size.

“I just put it down, you know,” the older man said, his eyes narrowing.

“Ahh, but you did put it down, didn’t you…?”  he answered with a provocative smile, and gripped the sweater more tightly.

“I was trying to decide whether or not to buy it!” The elderly man moved closer to the contested sweater.

The younger man ran his eyes over the old man, no doubt judging the competition. “Maybe there’s another one just like this in there,” he replied, pointing at the pile of sweaters.

The older man shook his head. “I’ve already looked. You’ve got the only one…”

“Then you’re out of luck, old man.” He actually sneered at him as he said it.

That was unnecessarily rude, I thought as I struggled to keep my opinion to myself.

“But…”

The man with the sweater just laughed. “We’ve both been rummaging around in the stuff on the table to find a sweater that would look good on us, right?” The other man just stared at him quietly. “And if we find something, the idea is to hold on to it while we make up our minds, right?”

The older man sighed, but remained silent, as if he was waiting for something.

The younger man smiled triumphantly, confident of his reasoning. “So, can you tell me why you should have this rather than me…?”

There was the first hint of a smile on the old face -the first hint of crinkles around his eyes. “Your hair…” he said, softly.

“What?”

“Look in the mirror over there,” he continued, his eyes twinkling in the fluorescent light over the table. “Take the sweater with you.”

The man with the sweater wasn’t sure what to do with the suggestion. “Why would I do that?” He stared at the old man standing so confidently beside him.

The smile enlarged to fill the elder’s face. “To see if you think the orange stripes would look good with your red hair…”

The other man thought about it for a moment and then put the sweater back on the table. “I suppose you’re right,” he said and started to walk away. “I think it would look better on you anyway,” he added as he grinned and nodded to the white-haired man.

I had to smile as well -maybe there really is Wisdom in Age…

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