Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Art of Always Being Right, by Arthur Schopenhauer

This is a nifty little essay by nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He withheld it from publication in its day, I daresay uncomfortable with its Machiavellian subject. The essay carries on with Schopenhauer’s essential pessimism – aggression in the end wins out over intelligence. Or as Schopenhauer puts it, the will is more effective than insight.

Point 35 of Schopenhauer’s essays says:

‘Instead of working on your opponent’s intellect by argument, work on his will by motive. He, and also the audience if they have similar interests, will at once by won over to your opinion – even though you got it out of a lunatic asylum. As a general rule, half an ounce of will is more effective than a hundred-weight of insight and intelligence.’

How true! How much I completely agree with you Schopenhauer. I’ve often felt that those who know how to hustle, and hustle agressively, will make the most of this world. A person with limited ability but much ambition will go further than the person of exceptional ability but little ambition.

The central thesis of this essay is that you don’t have to be right to win an argument, and goes on to list all the dirty tricks that you can employ to bamboozle and outfox your opponent. To be in the ‘right’ is meaningless; to maintain any kind of intellectual integrity is besides the point. What counts is to prove to your audience that you are the winner. This can involve any number of rotten tricks, most of them completely dishonest.

It reminded me of a book by political scientist George Lakoff called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which I have written about on this blog. In it he goes through some methods on how progressives can win their political arguments by ‘framing’ issues – in short by appealing to the emotions, not the intellect. When I read the book at the time, it seemed a little dishonest. Why not take off the civilised, progressive mask, and just say that its better to lie and cheat if you want to win your argument?

This is exactly what Schopenhauer’s essay does. It advocates being manipulative and tricky in order to win an argument, but doesn’t pretend to be doing it in the name of good, as George Lakoff’s book does.

Watching political debate so much of the time on telly, you see Schopenhauer’s rules being used again and again. I marvel at how many lies have been exposed about the war in Iraq, and when the Foreign Minister says, Well, what would you prefer, that we put back that terrible dictator Saddam Hussein, the Foreign Minister has, I hate to admit it, won the point. It’s hard to argue back from that. It’s totally dishonest on the Minister’s part, but it effectively bamboozles and disarms the opponent. The viewer watching this forgets the original point and thinks, yes, who would want Saddam Hussein in power?

Schopenhauer’s book is divided into 38 points, or tips, on how to win an argument. You could read the book in an hour or two. I recommend it to anyone in political opposition.

The only way to effectively fight John Howard is to use the very techniques he himself uses. The main reason he has been so successful is his mastery of language and rhetoric. How many scandals has he come through untouched, whereas his government should be a byword for deceit and infamy.

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