12/30/2004

Wisdom From a Book Review

I don't read books frequently, primarily because I have a hard time retaining what I read when I attempt consume long tracts of text. However, I did stumble across a book review today that not only made me want to read the volume in question but provided a few nuggets of wisdom as well.

"The Art of Always Being Right: Thirty Eight Ways to Win When You Are Defeated" is, according to its review in the New Statesman, a "sardonic little book, laying out 38 rhetorical tricks guaranteed to win you the argument even when you are defeated in logical discussion." The author not only lays out the tactics and strategies necessary to achieve victory on the verbal fields of Pelennor, but also provides a context for why the tactics are necessary and proper.

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."
The use of the fencing metaphor is really a rather disturbing one, since it attempts to draw a parallel between a life-and-death struggle and a verbal argument. Contemplating this suggestion, I found myself caught between conflicting desires; I wanted to dismiss Schopenhauer's book as a cynically satirical farce in the mold of Voltaire's Candide while simultaneously hailing him as some sort of pragmatic genius.

(Side note: I am revolted nearly to the point of vomiting at my own pretentiousness for referencing Candide in a blog as silly and inconsequential as this. Still, this is the best of all possible worlds and therefore, I could not have written this article any other way. Back to tending the garden...)

Some of the approaches put forth by the author are standard operating procedure in today's media, and my initial reaction was to dismiss Schopenhauer as a hack who simply plopped down on the sofa in front of The O'Reilly Factor or Crossfire and took notes. This became more difficult when I learned that Schopenhauer died in 1860. I'm not sure if this means that he was somewhat prescient, or that the state of discourse has not improved in the century and a half since his death. That's a depressing thought, and one that the reviewer hammers home quite effectively:
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.
By this point, the reviewer had pretty much sold me on the book. Sadly, he could not control himself and had to finish with a cheap shot at President Bush.
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.
Coming from a magazine founded with the aim of permeating the educated and influential classes with socialist ideas, this is hardly surprising. Still, it was something of a downer at the end of an otherwise entertaining article. For what it's worth, Schopenhauer's book will go on my "Things I Should Read" list.