Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Disputation, a la Dr. Franklin

The youngest and I are reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.   Fascinating man, Ben.  The writing program we use is based on Franklin's method of teaching himself how to write well.  But that's a story for another post . . .

Yesterday, we read about how Ben taught himself the art of "disputation" -- that is, arguing or debating.  (Most of Ben's knowledge and skills beyond the very basics were self-taught, interestingly enough.  He apparently hated school, but once he was out, he started to see the value of knowledge and skills and acquired them on his own .  LOVE THAT.)  He says he learned the basics of how to form an argument from reading some of his father's religious books.  This fondness for disputation, he found, "is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company . . . 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."

His technique, however, changed dramatically when he was introduced to Socrates and the method of questioning your opponent into arguing against himself.  "I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it."  Yeah, I've known young people like that.

This served to develop in him the beneficial habit of avoiding words such as certainly, undoubtedly, "or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion," choosing instead to say things like, it appears to me, or if I am not mistaken.  "To speak, tho' sure, with seeming diffidence," he quotes Pope, sending the youngest and I to a dictionary to look up the fabulous word "diffidence".  (We also had to look up "perspecuity" -- a Bill O'Reilly word-of-the-day if I've ever heard one.  I'll leave those for you to look up as well.  We all need to brush up on our dictionary skills once in a while.)

The chief ends of conversations, Ben tells us, are to inform or to be informed, to please, or to persuade.  And a "positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments" only gets in the way of these goals, he contends.

Such wisdom.  I think I need to read good autobiographies more often -- I always seem to get a lot out of them.

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