Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Oldest Debate in the World

One funny thing I've noticed about life is how much of it is glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye. I don't know how else to put this notion. I will try to explain.

Everything that happens, everything that we see, can be interpreted in an endless amount of different ways, and seen from a myriad different angles. The same act takes on a hundred different meanings and associations.

Take universities, for instance. I am by no means an expert on the growth of universities, but I have read that European universities had their origin in cathedral schools, grew into loose associations of scholars and teachers (which sometimes had a rather disreputable air, since the townfolk often had running feuds with the scholars), were rooted in religious teaching and the humanities of the period, became more regimented and specialised and secularised as time went on, and eventually became the more or less vocational institutes of today. My picture might be wrong; that's incidental to the point I'm trying to make.

The point is the many ways you can look at college and university life. It can be seen as training. It can be seen as an intellectual adventure. It can be seen as an opportunity for high jinks and licensed bohemianism. It can be seen as a romantic vision of dreaming spires and common rooms and cobbled quads. It can be seen as a school for radicalism. Conversely it can be seen as a haven for intellectual snobbery and aesthetic posturing. It can be seen as the guardian of heritage or the laboratory of a future world. We superimpose all those ideas on the concept of "university". And we do the same with every other concept.

Human beings are, as CS Lewis put it, inveterate poets. We cannot be long satisfied with a functional view of anything; we soon begin to endow it with associations, idylls, stigmas, statements, undertones. Think of anoraks, cappucinnos, postage stamps, red hair, trouser suspenders, spectacles.

Well, the same process has been going on in my own mind, regarding the concept of debate. My interest in debates has become more and more focused on the phenomenon itself, rather than on the subject debated.

I think this began when I was moving from agnosticism to religious belief several years ago. I found myself watching many debates on Youtube between atheists and Christians. At that time I was utterly absorbed by the subject matter. I wanted to know the arguments for and against religious belief, and that was all I was looking for.

But, in spite of myself-- seeing out of the corner of my eye, as it were-- I began to take pleasure in the debates themselves. I took pleasure in the formality of the occasion. I took pleasure in the gladiatorial contest between opponents. At the same time, I took pleasure in the urbane and polite manner in which (in most cases) the contest was conducted.

I took pleasure, too, in the masculine atmosphere of the encounters. Chesterton has written a lot about the male nature of debate and argument. Of course, this is a generalisation. I am sure many women enjoy debating and are very good at it, but on the whole, I think it can be said that men evince a much stronger appetite for argument and debate than do women. More than this; affection and companionship between men often takes the form of friendly debate and argument.

This masculine love of debate is seen at its best in a vigorous but good-humoured clash of ideas. Unfortunately, the ego-fuelled fellow who wants to mercilessly crush all dissent is also a very male type (and one I have met).

In this as in almost everything, I agree with Chesterton's attitude: "It may, perhaps, be wondered whether one could possibly say a worse thing of anybody than that he had said 'the last word' on a subject. A man who says the last word on a subject ought to be killed. He is a murderer; he has slain a topic. The best kind of critic draws attention not to the finality of a thing, but to its infinity. Instead of closing a question, he opens a hundred."

(It should be noted that the same Chesterton who held this view was also a staunch champion of the principle of dogma. There is no contradiction. Even when you have accepted a dogma there is any amount of things to be said about it and around it; a thousand new implications and lines of argument lead from the dogma; and, besides, not everybody accepts the dogma and it requires constant defending.)

The more I studied the controversy between atheism and theism, the more the landscape of the debate came into view. I realised that there were definite battlefields, strategies, counter-strategies, defences, and manouvres. I realized the battlefield was littered with the bones of centuries. I began to take an interest in the debate itself, considered apart from which side was right and which was wrong.

And I realised that one of the reasons my heart pulled towards the side of the theists was that, insofar as they successfuly rebuffed the unbelievers' atacks, the debate remained open. The New Atheists, and every bullish atheist who simply wanted to see the last of religion, wanted to end the debate. They wanted to live in a world where miracles and Divine Providence, and indeed all things supernatural, had been ruled out of court. It seemed to me that such a world, whether you were an atheist or not, was a smaller world. The oddball carrying the placard announcing that The End Was Nigh, the fresh-faced Mormon knocking at your door, the irascible but loveable Catholic priest, the ouija board, the mysterious stranger who saves a man's life on a stormy night and then turns out to have Died Twenty Years Ago Last Night....all those stock characters of folklore and fiction seemed as indispensable to me as the sun and the moon.

The theists, on the other hand, did not want to abolish atheism, seeming instead to see unbelief as a permanent part of the human condition. Faith itself implies the possibility of a lack of faith. It seemed to me that a religious view of the world contained a space for unbelief, while atheism couldn't allow even the smallest chink onto the supernatural to remain open.

I also saw that some of the debates were, as it were, part of the dialectic of faith itself. The prime example is the problem of evil.

We all know the problem of evil. How could an all-good Creator allow evil in the world? How could we watch a baby die of natural causes and believe in the Christian Deity?

For my own part, the problem of evil never caused me a moment's trouble intellectually. It seems almost like a non-issue to me, taken philosophically. If there is a life after this one, and if the Almighty is good, then we can be perfectly confident that the pains of this life are nothing at all compared to our ultimate bliss; that they are even part of that bliss.

But the interesting thing was to learn, as I accepted Catholicism and began to explore its doctrine, that I simply couldn't dismiss the problem of evil so cavalierly. It was bad Catholicism to do so. The Catechism, I learned, took the question very seriously indeed:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice...There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

And yet, the point I am trying to make in this post is not principally a theological one. I am simply trying to celebrate the life-giving, world-making, personality-forming, faction-creating, existential value of debate itself.

Whenever I hear anybody use a term like "the oldest debate in the world", "the eternal debate", "the hoary old debate", or "the much-vexed question", a thrill passes through me. (My heart also leaps whenever I read about "seas of ink" being spilled on this or that disputed matter.)

I love the thought that, as well as ancient philosophical and religious and historical debates, there are well-rehearsed discussions in every country, town, interest group, political party, family and workplace. Everywhere we are look there are controversies raging-- whether it's two old men arguing about the Irish Civil War or two teenage heavy metal fans arguing when exactly Metallica lost the plot.

I love to think and hear and read about the various debates that have come to be seen as permanent features of the human landscape, like huge rocks around which the waves crash and whirl.

There are the great philosophical debates: Does free will exist? What is the self? Can we have reliable knowledge of the outside world? Are there universals or is everything particular? Are morals absolute?

There are the great historical debates: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War? Why did the First World War happen? Why did the Roman Empire fall? Were the Dark Ages really so Dark? Was the Renaissance really a Renaissance?

(Of course, we have our own burning debates in Irish history. Was the 1916 Rising morally justifiable? Was Michael Collins right to sign the Treaty? Why didn't De Valera go to negotiate it? Was Ireland right to remain neutral in World War Two? Should Ireland have joined the EEC?)

There are the pop cultural debates: Who was the best James Bond? Which is the best Beatles album? What is science fiction and what is mere space opera? What is heavy metal? When did The Simpsons go downhill?

Eager for more examples, I just now entered the words "eternal debate about" into a search engine and these were the first subjects that were returned:

The eternal debate about an afterlife.
The eternal debate about Valentine's Day.
The eternal debate about who counts as a "radical faerie" (which seems to be some kind of gay subculture)
The eternal debate about Capricorn or Sagittarius Ascendant (astrology)
The eternal debate about developing tweener prospects for NHL duty (something to do with hockey)
The eternal debate about the branding of children's books as for boys or for girls.

Isn't it marvellous? I love thinking about our world bubbling with all these famous debates; some of them years old, some of them millennia old; some of them universal, some of them confined to one geeky group of fans or to enthusiasts of some ultra-niche hobby.

Perhaps my delight comes from the fact that these "great debates" manage to assuage two deep-seated fears at the same time. (Or is it more positive to say they satisfy two deep-seated yearnings?) We fear a world that is nothing but flux and in which there is nothing familiar, stable or reliable. But we also fear a world in which there are no shadows, no mysteries, no "wriggle-room"; the reaction that C.S. Lewis articulates in The Discarded Image, his exposition of the cosmic theory of the Middle Ages:

The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces, it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we really never get out of doors?

The concept of an Eternal Debate gives us something permanent, reliable and public-- but also something that leaves us room to be individuals, to explore, to form alliances and theories and attitudes, to be either loyal or irreverent, orthodox or daring, to contribute or own "value added"-- and (to draw on Lewis's words) to be in the dark and to be out of doors.

I would be very grateful for any other suggestions of "great debates", no matter how old or recent, how well-known or obscure. What is the first thing that comes to mind? I'm insatiable.


  1. Hardly in the league of your debates there but we spent a lunch hour last Fridays on the dog vs cat debate. I'm a dog woman but a colleague has softened me up to the kitties.

    Best lunch hour debate ever; should men get their chests and backs waxed as a matter of routine? The few men who were there paid great interest to their books and sandwiches that day. Ha!

  2. Once a female colleague of mine was MOST offended when I assumed she would be more a cat person than a dog person, since she was (and still is) a lady-woman. Although I myself am a cat person. My family had cats in childhood but ever since then it's been dogs, dogs, dogs. I do grow to love the dogs but if I ever had to choose a quadruped myself it would be a cat. We once had a cat called Dickens because she turned up as a stray and we asked if we could keep it and my mother said, "The Dickens we will".

    I can just imagine the men suddenly becoming absorbed in their reading material, while not taking in one single line and listening keenly to the result of the debate. WHAT WAS IT??? (It seems horrendously metrosexual to me for a man to do either, but there you go.)


  3. Ah you made a blooper there sunshine. It depends on her situation but there is the "spinster cat lady" horror of a future that frightens a lot of women. Would that have been it?

    I bet you are interested in the result! Effectively, there was a cultural divide. The foreign women wanted men to be left as men. The Irish women had a divide between those over 35 who liked men to be men, those under to be clean and smooth. Even though I am 29 I was with the over 35s, but I have never applied false tan or nails in my life so the idea of a man doing the equivalent seems effeminate. I think it's a hyper-grooming ideal of youth. I did sit on a bus one fine day and overheard the genuine shock of teenage boys when one of them told them that his girlfriend had hairs on her legs! Imagine that!

    Don't worry Maolsheachlann, just ask your fiancée would she rather smooch Bruce Springsteen or Johnny Depp. If she says the latter...mwahahaha!

    Dogs versus cats;

    Excerpts from a Dog's Diary.....

    8:00 am - Dog food! My favourite thing!

    9:30 am - A car ride! My favourite thing!

    9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favourite thing!

    10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favourite thing!

    12:00 PM - Lunch! My favourite thing!

    1:00 PM - Played in the yard! My favourite thing!

    3:00 PM - Wagged my tail! My favourite thing!

    5:00 PM - Milk Bones! My favourite thing!

    7:00 PM - Got to play ball! My favourite thing!

    8:00 PM - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favourite thing!

    11:00 PM - Sleeping on the bed! My favourite thing!

    Excerpts from a Cat's Daily Diary...

    Day 983 of my captivity....

    My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets.

    Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength. The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet.

    Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates what I am capable of. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a 'good little hunter' I am. B*st*rds.

    There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of 'allergies.' I must learn what this means and how to use it to my advantage.

    Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again tomorrow -- but at the top of the stairs.

    I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released - and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded.

    The bird has got to be an informant. I observe him communicating with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe, for now....

  4. Well, this lady was married so I don't think so.

    I do remember I had a female friend whose daughter was going through some angst that she would be an old maid forever etc. etc. (She is now married, happily I trust.) Apparently she would wail: "I'm going to become an old lady living wih cats!". When her mother said, "But you don't even LIKE cats", she'd say: "That's not the point, Mum!".

    I've always thought that the down you see on some women's forearms is cute.

    My lady is a big fan of gentlemanly dapperness (though not excessively so) so I think that is all the answer I need!

  5. I'm actually just going to randomly answer some of your example questions in a definitive way:

    When did Metallica lose the plot?
    They fell off a very steep cliff after their self titled black album which was itself a disappointment, but the rot had already begun to set in by "And Justice for All".

    Are there universals or is everything particular?
    Oh, well, what basis would there be for stating that everything is particular if there are no universals. (I've had that internet debate before!)

    Why did the First World War happen?
    Boredom combined with and an excess of precious bodily fluids.

    Why did the Roman Empire fall?
    Lead poisoning from their aqueducts.

    The Simpsons go downhill?
    I quit watching around 1997, but most people think that it was when Matt Groening lost interest after the 4th season.

    In America the questions are what if the English had won the Revolutionary War? What if the rest of the allied powers had not ignored Woodrow Wilson's peace plan at the end of WW1? But the big American historical question that is continually debated is what would have happened if the south had won the Civil War. There have been a lot of historical science fiction "what if" books that explore the theme, typically with prose like:

    "President Lincoln, General Grant reports that the confederacy's new anthritic shells and mortars have decimated 90% of his army. If we are unable to destroy their strategic stockpile of ballistic anthracite, General Lee and the rest of his rebel scum will be drinking mint juleps on this side of the Potomac before the end of the campaigning season."

    Lincoln sighed heavily before replying "Sir, bring me special agent Silius Rumperton. The fate of the union now rests upon his shoulders." etc.

  6. And I will respond in like manner!

    When did Metallica lose the plot?

    It's horribly middle-of-the-road of me, but I have to admit the Black Album is by far and away my favourite Metallica album. I remember when I was about sixteen or seventeen listening to it over and over. I especially liked Wherever I May Roam and Don't Tread on Me. I wasn't a Christian back then, but I remember I creatively interpreted The god that Failed to be a Christian rather than an anti-Christian song.

    Are there universals or is everything particular? Well, I included these as an eternal debate, though I don't know if anyone except arrogan first year philosophy students would try to argue in the negative!

    Why did the First World War happen? This is one I can never work out. Or the more relevant question might be, why didn't it end when the carnage became apparent?

    Why did the Roman Empire fall? Because it relied on mercenaries rather than its own citizens.

    When did the Simpsons go downhill? Well, I never watched it when it was insanely popular, because I have a possibly snobbish fear of being swept up in crazes. Subsequently I watched some of the earlier series on DVD, but not enough of them to answer this one.

    I have heard that there is a theory of the "lost cause" in the Civil War-- something that emerged almost immediately afterwards, that the South fought valiantly but never had any chance of winning.

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