“He that complies against his will, is of his own opinion still”1
Argument is an intrinsic part of our interaction with other creatures. The first recorded argument is found in the book of Genesis, Chapter 3:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
Eve, convinced by Satan’s argument (even though it was fallacious) ate the apple, and then gave it to her husband who ate it without question, apparently having learned early in the marriage not to enter into arguments with his wife.
Why do we make arguments? It seems to me that it is rooted in our pride, in our desire to have some impact upon the world around us. “Not only will I break these eggs in order to eat them and sustain myself, I will cook them. Not only will I cook them, I will scramble them and add chives as my father did before me, because this is the way it should be!” So we talk as if we think we knew.
Argument begins with a statement or statements presumed by the writer to be true.
- “Men should never show their legs in public.”
Next a series of statements or alleged evidence is advanced to support the initial statement.
- “Some men’s legs are ugly, disproportionate, spindly little sticks holding up massive waistlines giving rise to hysterical fears that they may at any moment collapse upon themselves.”
- “Some men’s legs are muscular and shapely provoking baser thoughts in women of weaker character, and outrage among those women who are of stalwart and noble character.”
- “Some men’s legs are trunk-like, hairy, animalistic appendages and likely to scare small children.”
- “Only boys wear short pants.”
Finally a conclusion must be generated in order to close the argument, so that the maker of the argument may be heralded as a mighty maker of arguments, a contributor to the common good, a fine fellow, well met, and so we may all move on to the next argument and argument maker.
- “Oh temporal man, frail of body and mind, short is your time upon this earth and heavy is the burden you must shoulder. Why add to it by wearing short pants and possibly subjecting yourself to ridicule, seduction, false charges of child endangerment, or immaturity? Resolve today to not show your legs in public. Wear long pants. You’re going to like the way you look. So will others. I guarantee it.
We must all learn to make effective arguments or we will not be invited to dinner parties or out to lunch, at least not very often. We will not make the sale, we will not get the girl. We will not overthrow the tyrannical government, and like that. I will share a few ideas I have with you about making successful arguments.
First, try to know what you are talking about. Read a book on a subject before you attempt to hold forth on it. Do not rely upon what you have heard in passing, or saw on the television, and certainly do us all a favor and do not rely on what you personally think before doing some research. Listen, and don’t talk until you really have something to say.
Secondly, remember that for most part anything that anyone is talking about at any particular point in time is probably unimportant and possibly meaningless. Recipes are interesting, because at the end of one you have learned how to cook or bake something. Directions are something you might want to pay attention to, if you want to arrive at your destination, and you might want to take note of the weather report so you will know what to wear. But to really know what is happening in Afghanistan, or in the Congress, or about the economy is a Herculean task and frankly not worth talking about, in my opinion, unless you happen to be sleeping with Condoleezza Rice. Even then, I would do some fact checking. Also there is a very real possibility that no matter how inspired or well crafted your argument is, it will nevertheless fall upon deaf ears. Attempting to address the City Council or the School Board are excellent examples of such futility. Attempting to intelligently engage the voters is another. The point is not to get too emotionally involved in your argumentation if you can avoid it.
Finally I would encourage you to always attempt to be intellectually honest that is to faithfully consider objections and counter arguments to your position, and above be polite. Remember the advice of that greatest of statesmen, Benjamin Franklin who said that:
“[I was in] the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting;” 2
So to recap, know your facts, avoid frivolous arguments and discount the importance of those you do engage in, keep an open mind, and be humble and courteous as you make your points. Remember, don’t forget to wear long pants.