Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Repeat, While We're Off Air

(Since I am putting this blog on ice while I'm busy about wedding stuff, I decided I might as well have a post I really like at the top, for those floating through cyberspace to come upon while I'm away. This is one I wrote in October. It's not that I think my own musings are so wonderful they deserve a second outing. It's more that this subject is one especially close to my heart.

And it's one I have been thinking about today. Today I attended the sixth meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, which was founded by me and my friend Angelo. There were only a handful of people present, but we had a very pleasant discussion indeed, and it got me thinking-- again!-- about the nature of conversation, discussion and debate. The English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott had a theory that all discourse has to be understood as conversation: "As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages...Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails."

Perhaps there is no line of Scripture I love so much as "Mary pondered all these things in her heart", which has so often been taken as an image of the Church deepening its understanding of the Faith, through centuries of debate, meditation, prayer, sacrament and experience. To be a Catholic is to join in a very ancient conversation, one that goes back to the two disciples talking on the road to Emmaus, and beyond. And isn't it interesting how much of the "action" in the Gospels takes the form of debate between Christ and his interluctors? And how positively Socratic Christ himself often seems, seeking not to coerce the intellects of his listeners but to draw them onto the truth through parable, example and challenge?

So taken was I with this subject today that, over dinner, I tried to convey my enthusiasm to my father, who is the most willing controversialist and polemicist that I have ever met. He didn't know what I was babbling on about. I think that, to him, debate in itself has no special value, and all that matters is the substance of the debate. And probably a lot of people would agree with him. But for those who might share my fascination, here is my post from October, for what it is worth.)

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. email details of when/where you meet ... the odds I'll make it up from Kilkenny are slim, but it's a long road that has no turns ...

  2. I will definitely notify you next time!