Conflict or Debate


“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
[Address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 November 2004]”
Desmond Tutu


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.” 
William Penn


If Horses Could Draw


“But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do their work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”

Xenophanes of Colophon


Xeonophanes, a free thinker and poet, was a contemporary and outspoken critic of Pythagoras. He mocked the idea of transmigration of souls and scoffed at the possibility that a human soul could inhabit another animal.  Like Thales before him, Xenophanes argued for the principles of natural phenomena.  Thales believed the first principle to be water, whereas Xenophanes argued for the possibility of mud.  We may smile at this thought; however his proof was in the fossil remains of sea-creatures embedded in the earth.  It seemed that the earth was at one time in a muddy state before drying up.

What was even more forward thinking, in my opinion, was his anticipation of Socrates’ caution regarding claims of certain knowledge.  He stated that “no human being will ever know the Truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even known they had done so.”

Xenophanes’ influence was keenly felt by those who followed him, especially given his criticism of the Homeric gods still revered throughout the Hellenistic world. He eschewed their shameful traits that imitated the flaws of humanity.  He considered that they were simply a reflection of the prevailing society, undeserving of respect or worship.  He declared, “If horses could draw, they would draw their gods like horses.” 

One thing is certain; Xenophanes had a way with words and was not afraid to use them.

“It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man.”

Xenophanes of Colophon