Lesson Two: Ben Franklin’s Autobiography

Autobiography

by Benjamin Franklin

Lesson: A conversation yields more than an argument.

 

There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.

A conversation that is oriented towards seeking the truth of something is like working a vegetable garden; an argument is like a war. There is much more utility in tomatoes than in destruction, but if war must be fought (as sometimes it must), understand that the point isn’t to discover, uncover, or create. The point is to annihilate or become annihilated.

It’s easier to argue than discuss, because it’s easy to stake out an identity and perceive any contradictory evidence or opinion as a slight against that identity. It’s also kind of fun to fight, in the same way winning a football game is fun. But winning football games is not how you get better at football. Lifting weights, eating appropriately, running, studying the game, and practicing with the team makes you better at football.

Both metaphors work, but the stakes are different. Arguing over which flavor ice cream tastes better falls along the lines of winning or losing a backyard football game. The real important stuff is subsistence farming at its purest, and world war at its most corrupt.

It’s very important for me to create an environment where conversation is valued. That isn’t the same as agreeing with everything you hear, or not speaking up when you hear something you perceive as wrong. It means having the courage, humility, discipline, and self-control to act rather than react, to be able to stand where the earth is firm, and to take the pain of death and rebirth that creating a new self entails.

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