“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
[Address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 November 2004]”
Most of us dislike conflict and will do anything to avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness of raised voices and difficult conversations. There are those among us, however, who would welcome the opportunity to engage in an animated discussion. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” The Ancients would be in complete agreement.
Xeonophanes was a contemporary and outspoken critic of Pythagoras. Heraclitus was quick to scorn Homer; even Pythagoras and Xenophanes did not escape his ridicule. Leontion’s audacious criticism of the celebrated and unassailable philosopher, Theophrastus, was still talked about centuries after her passing. Plato recorded the iconic debate on love in the famed Symposium. The fundamental standard within all of these historical scuffles was the subject matter. The debate was about ideas, not about personal vendettas or trivial disagreements.
Great thinkers engage in debate, not conflict. As Joseph Joubert, French moralist and essayist, once said, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Our world is in need of thinkers who look for solutions when they put forward their ideas in a way that welcomes an open dialogue. Argue the merits of the position, rather than stooping to pettiness and vain posturing. Recall Aristotle’s words, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I love to quote Heraclitus, because he seems so gentle and serene. Think again!
Heraclitus, who once said that “character is destiny,” believed that war and strife between opposites is the eternal condition of the universe. Considered the quintessential antagonist, he once declared that his fellow citizens of Ephesus were so witless they should hang themselves and leave the city to the rule of children. You can imagine the fracas that came out of that pronouncement. Even so, for those brave enough to invite him, he would be a riveting and entertaining dinner guest.
Heraclitus was quick to scorn Homer, suggesting that he should be turned out and whipped. Even Pythagoras and Xenophanes did not escape his ridicule. Instead, he argued that the three principal elements of nature were fire, earth and water, the primary being fire which he believed controlled and modified the others. The cosmic fire finds its complement in the human soul, which in weak men is contaminated by the ‘watery’ elements of sleep, stupidity and vice. The virtuous soul is able to escape death and unite with the cosmic fire. Much like the concepts of yin and yang within Chinese philosophy, Heraclitus suggested that strife and opposition are both necessary and good. Although the universe itself is eternal, permanence does not exist within it. Change is continual; everything is in a state of flux.
I have a feeling Heraclitus would thrive in our fast paced, ever-changing, mercurial world.
“Allow yourself to think only those thoughts that match your principles and can bear the bright light of day. Day by day, your choices, your thoughts, your actions fashion the person you become. Your integrity determines your destiny.”