( Originally Published 1912 )
A FAULT Common to many men is that of not thinking for themselves. They accept without question the judgments of others, and repeat them as their own. Originality with them there is none. The last man's opinion is their opinion. They make not the slightest attempt to explore mental fields on their own account, but prefer the less irksome path made by others. When prest for reasons to sup-port their statements, they can give none, but readily relinquish their old opinions for new ones. Thus they shift from place to place, without ever finding a solid and permanent foundation.
An equally serious fault is that of permitting passion and prejudice to usurp the place of reason. Some men are so completely dominated, by their feelings, that they are not amenable to the most cogent arguments. They are wholly indifferent to the opinions of others. In them violence and even vindictiveness take the place of sound and mature judgment. They would rather be wrong than be opposed in their opinions.
Loudness of voice is not necessary to convincing speech, for "Gentleness best enforces the imperial mandate." A quiet but firm tone of voice often carries the greatest weight. A man who has the facts, and knows what he is talking about, does not proclaim himself from the house-top. He is content rather to let the truth vindicate itself, and if he is required to speak, he presents his reasons with a moderation and self-possession born of certitude.
"It is a great mistake," says a writer, "and a source of half the errors which exist in the world, to yield to the temptation to allow our feelings to govern our estimate of facts. Rational religious feeling is that feeling, whatever it may be, which is excited in the mind by a true estimate of the facts known to us which bear upon religion. If we do not know enough to feel warmly, let us by all means feel calmly; but it is dishonest to try to convert excited feeling into evidence of facts which would justify it."
It is particularly desirable that the student of argumentation seek to remove all prejudice from his mind. Such an examination, if impartial, will sometimes reveal the most startling conditions. Political affiliations, early environment and education, reverence for established custom, fashion, public opinion, or self-interest, may be blinding him to the truth. He will do well not to concern himself so much about the prejudices of other men as about his own.
It is of decided advantage to see all the merits of an opponent. Many of our opinions are only provisional, and may be reversed in a moment's time. The light of tomorrow may entirely change our judgments of today. A new angle, a fresh piece of evidence, a different mood, suddenly may alter a life-long conception. Obscurity may be due to lack of perception, and before we suspect a speaker of vagueness we might ask him to restate his views.'
There is no way in which prejudice may be so soon detected as in its dislike of opposition. A man who denies a patient hearing to another, who fears contra-diction, and avowedly does not wish to hear all sides of a question, tacitly acknowledges the weakness of his own position. It was Seneca who said that, altho a man might reach a just decision without hearing the other side, yet in such a case he would not himself be just.
Addison could not endure a sharp discussion, and when he found an opponent intractable he pretended to approve. A man should not busy himself all the while with finding something to contradiet, but should listen attentively that he may both appreciate and affirm. He will hear many an idea so clearly and felicitously exprest that his wonder will be that he did not say it himself.
Still another fault is that of examining a question only in part, satisfied with a one-sided view of it. To investigate all the scattered material relating to one subject may not always be possible, but the fault with many men is that they possess neither the patience nor the application to examine what is close at hand. This natural indolence is forcefully emphasized by Dr. Jules Payot, in his "Education of the Will," when he says :
"The only real antagonist that can effect the persevering will must be found in a continued force. The passions are by nature transitory; the more violent they are, the shorter their duration, except in those rather rare cases where they attain a fixity and a force bordering on insanity; therefore their intermittent character does not permit us to consider them as true obstacles to continuity of effort. There is time enough between the intervals of their attacks for a great amount of work. The real obstacle lies in a fundamental ever-present state of the mind which may be called effeminacy, apathy, idleness, or laziness. To arouse one's self constantly to fresh efforts and to renew daily the struggle against this natural state of mind, is the only way in which we may dare hope for victory."
A man should be particularly cautious about entering into argument upon subjects of religion and politics. There is always danger here, not only of loss of friendship, but of actual physical violence. Here is a somewhat humorous, but nevertheless suggestive, newspaper description of a recent dispute of this kind :
"Two men of Chatham got into a religious discussion the other day, and, in fact, it is beyond doubt, that many other men the country over were wrangling on religious differences the same day. These Chatham men could not agree as to the right interpretation to be put upon certain passages in the Bible, and nobody can find fault with them for that. If the Bible had been so explicitly worded as to have left no room for dispute regarding any of its meanings, the interest of the human mind in that wonderful book would have been much less than it has been for long centuries. It is a book that each man finds explicit enough—each in his own way. It has the gift of tongues, and each reverent reader gets his own direct personal message. But for the life of him one man can not see how another reads a meaning different from his own into certain passages.
"These two Chathamites, however, carried their religious and Christian differences to extreme lengths, for in the end one of them tried to choke the other, and was fined $5 for assault. This old—pre-Victorian—mode of enforcing a religious argument with the thumb and fingers on the windpipe of one who is found to be deficient in understanding is no longer approved by the civil, nor advised by the theological authorities. After a long and thorough trial it was agreed that while force may silence, it does not convince, an opponent in debate.
"And yet, the way some men dodge, and twist, and squirm, in argument, and close their ears and their minds to your cold, clear reasoning, makes one feel that an assault on them at $5 and costs seems like a bargain."
There is an ocean of truth all about us, and he who would learn to argue and win must be many-sided. He will derive reasons alike from men, nature, and books. He will constantly be on the alert for new information and knowledge. He will re-member the Bible injunction to "Try all things, hold fast that which is good." He will make it his business to know all he reasonably can upon subjects he essays to discuss. He will have ample reasons to support his claims. By throwing the portals of his mind wide open to the admission of light from all directions, he will steadily and surely acquire breadth of vision and catholicity of spirit. He will be too big to hide behind a prejudice, and too eager for truth to be indifferent to the smallest addition to his stock of knowledge.
The differences in the understandings of men is not so much in natural capacity as in acquired habits. As exercise is necessary to the training of a strong physique, so is exercise essential to the development of a strong mind. All the rules of logic, rhetoric, and oratory will avail little without actual practise.
Lack of definite thinking is a serious hindrance to mental growth. This is responsible for much of the looseness and inaccuracy heard in everyday speech. A man can not hope to argue and win while there is uncertainty in either his thought or expression. To convince others he must first convince himself. Unless there be unmistakable definiteness in his thought, word, and expression, he will not to any great degree influence others to his way of thinking.
The student of argumentation, like the student of mathematics, must do his own sums and prove them, if there is to be real mental development. A man who takes his principles and reasons on trust, without exercising his mind, is not training himself for long reaches of thought. It has been recommended that a man should show indifference to contrary opinions in order that he may examine them without prejudice, but there should be no indifference as to choosing between truth and error. The student's object is not so much to array himself on this or that side of a subject, but so to train his mind to habits of clear and logical thinking that he will be able to make a free and comprehensive survey of a subject as a whole. His unbiased attitude of mind will lead him carefully to examine every available opinion and argument, before taking a definite stand.
To argue well a man must have his proposition distinctly fixt in his own mind. He should know what he is talking about and what he is talking for. Cardinal Newman's advice to the preacher is equally applicable to any man who would engage in successful argumentation. He says:
"I would go the length of recommending a preacher to place a distinct categorical proposition before him, such as he can write down in a form of words, and to guide and limit his preparation by it, and to aim in all he says to bring it out, and nothing else."
Discursiveness, frequent use of parentheses, and over-amplification are distressing to a hearer and often fatal to an argument. No one cares to hear a man "beat about the bush," but involuntarily bids him, perhaps by a mere expression of the face, to "get to the point." The admonition to "stick to your text" applies alike to preacher and speaker.
There are many men who have good ideas on various subjects, but can not concentrate on. one of them long enough to drive home a. conclusion. Their chief fault is that they too easily lose sight of the main question. If a man knows "what he is driving at," let him keep that one thing constantly in view until he has accomplished his purpose. This is well illustrated in the story of the lawyer who advertised for an office-clerk. Seating the applicants in a row, he began :
"A farmer had a red squirrel that got in through a hole in his barn and stole his seed-corn. He resolved to kill the squirrel. Seeing him enter the hole one day, he took a shot-gun and fired at it, but he set the barn on fire."
"Did the barn burn down?" asked one of the boys.
"Seeing the barn ablaze, the farmer seized a pail of water, and tried to put it out."'
"Did he do it?" asked another boy.
"He went inside the barn, the door was shut, and soon the barn was in full flames."
"Did he burn up?''
"The hired girl rushed out with a pail of water and—"
"Was she burned up?"
"Then the old lady came out, and all was noise and confusion, and every one was trying to put out this great fire."
"Did they all burn up?"
"Now," said the lawyer, "you have shown great interest in this story, but one of you boys has not said a single word-yes, I mean you with the red head -what have you to say for yourself?"
"I want to know," said the boy, "what became of the squirrel ; that's what I want to know!"
That boy was engaged.