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Rant #507
(published October 7, 2010)
The Art of Controversy
by Ambrose Bierce
One who has not lived a life of controversy, yet has some knowledge of its laws and methods, would, I think, find a difficulty in conceiving the infantile ignorance of the race in general as to what constitutes argument, evidence and proof. Even lawyers and judges, whose profession it is to consider evidence, to sift it and pass upon it, are but little wiser in that way than others when the matter in hand is philosophy, or religion, or something outside the written law. Concerning these high themes, I have heard from the lips of hoary benchers so idiotic argument based on so meaningless evidence as made me shudder at the thought of being tried before them on an indictment charging me with having swallowed a neighbor's step-ladder. Yet doubtless in a matter of mere law these venerable babes would deliver judgment that would be roughly reasonable and approximately right. The theologian, on the contrary, is never so irrational as in his own trade; for, whatever religion may be, theology is a thing of unreason altogether, an edifice of assumptions and dreams, a superstructure without a substructure, an invention of the devil. It is to religion what law is to justice, what etiquette is to courtesy, astrology to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry and medicine to hygiene. The theologian can not reason, for persons who can reason do not go in for theology. Its name refutes it: theology means discourse of God, concerning whom some of its expounders say that he has no existence and all the others that he can not be known.

I set out to show the folly of men who think they think to give a few typical examples of what they are pleased to call "evidence" supporting their views. I shall take them from the work of a man of far more than the average intelligence dealing with the doctrine of immortality. He is a believer and thinks it possible that immortal human souls are on an endless journey from star to star, inhabiting them in turn. And he "proves" it thus:

No one thinks of space without knowing that it can be traversed; consequently the conception of space implies the ability to traverse it.

But how far? He could as cogently say:

No one thinks of the ocean without knowing that it can be swum in; consequently the conception of ocean implies the ability to swim from New York to Liverpool.

Here is another precious bit of testimony:

The fact that man can conceive the idea of space without beginning or end implies that man is on a journey without beginning or end. In fact, it is strong evidence of the immortality of man.

Now observe the possibilities in that kind of "reasoning": The fact that a pig can conceive the idea of a turnip implies that the pig is climbing a tree bearing turnips which is strong evidence that the pig is a fish. In each of the gentleman's dicta the first part no more "implies" what follows than it implies a weeping baboon on a crimson iceberg.

Of the same unearthly sort are two more of this innocent's deliveries:

The fact that we do not remember our former lives is no proof of our never having existed. We would remember them if we had accomplished something worth remembering.

Note the unconscious petitio principii involved in the first "our" and the pure assumption in the second sentence.

We all know that character, traits and habits are as distinct in young children as in adults. This shows that if we had no preexistence all men would have the same character and traits and appearance, and would be turned out on the same model.

As apples are, for example, or pebbles, or cats. Unfortunately we do not "all" know, nor does any of us know, nor is it true, that young children have as much individuality as adults. And if we did all know it, or if any of us knew it, or if it were true, neither the fact itself nor the knowledge of it would "show" any such thing as that the differences could be produced by pre-existence only. They might be due to the will of God, or to some agency that no man has ever thought about, or has thought about but has not known to have that effect. In point of fact, we know that such peculiarities of character and disposition as a young child has are not brought from a former life across a gulf whose brinks are death and birth, but are endowments from the lives of others here. They are not individual, but hereditary; not vestigial, but ancestral.

The kind of "argument" here illustrated by horrible example is not peculiar to religious nor doctrinal themes, but characterizes men's reasoning in general. It is the rule everywhere in oral discussion, in books, in newspapers. Assertions that mean nothing, testimony that is not evidence, facts having no relation to the matter in hand, and (everywhere and always) the sickening non sequitur: the conclusion that has nothing to do with the premises. I know not if there is another life, but if there is I do hope that to obtain it all will have to pass a rigid examination in logic and the art of not being a fool.

In an unfriendly controversy it is important to remember that the public, in most cases, neither cares for the outcome of the fray, nor will remember its incidents. The controversialist should therefore confine his efforts and powers to accomplishment of two main purposes: (i) entertainment of the reader; (ii) personal gratification. For the first of these objects no rules can be given; the good writer will entertain and the bad one will not, no matter what is the subject. The second is accomplishable (a) by guarding your self-respect; (b) by destroying your adversary's self-respect; (c) by making him respect you, against his will, as much as you respect yourself; (d) by provoking him into the blunder of permitting you to despise him. It follows that any falsification, prevarication, dodging, misrepresentation or other cheating on the part of one antagonist is a distinct advantage to the other, and by him devoutly to be wished. The public cares nothing for it, and if deceived will forget the deception; but he never forgets. I would no more willingly let my opponent find a flaw in my truth, honesty and frankness than in fencing I would let him beat down my guard. Of that part of victory which consists in respecting yourself and making your adversary respect you, you can be always sure if you are worthy of respect; of that part which consists in despising him and making him despise himself you are not sure; that depends on his skill. He may be a very despicable person yet so cunning of fence—that is to say, so frank and honest in writing—that you will not find out his unworth. Remember that what you want is not so much to disclose his meanness to the reader (who cares nothing about it) as to make him disclose it to your private discernment. That is the whole gospel of controversial strategy.

You are one of two gladiators in the arena: your first duty is to amuse the multitude. But as the multitude is not going to remember very long after leaving the show who was victorious, it is not worth while to take any hurts for a merely visible advantage. So fight as to prove to yourself and to your adversary that you are the abler swordsman that is, the more honorable man. Victory in that is important, for it is lasting, and is enjoyed ever afterward when you see or think of the vanquished. If in the battle I get a foul stroke, that is a distinct gain, for I never by any possibility forget that the man who delivered it is a foul man. That is what I wanted to think him, and the very thing which he should most strenuously have striven to prevent my knowing. I may meet him in the street, at the club, any place where I can not help it; under whatever circumstances he becomes present to my consciousness I find a fresh delight in recalling my moral superiority and in despising him anew. Is it not strange, then, that ninety-nine disputants in a hundred deliberately and in cold blood concede to their antagonists this supreme and decisive advantage in pursuit of one which is merely illusory? Their faults are, first, of course, lack of character; second, lack of sense. They are like an enraged mob engaged in hostilities without having taken the trouble to know something of the art of war. Happily for them, if they are defeated they do not know it: they have not even the sense to ascribe their sufferings to their wounds.

Ambrose Bierce is dead but far from forgotten; he is best known today for his collection of misanthropic definitions, The Devil's Dictionary.

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