Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Budgell: The Spectator 197 (1711)

In a comment on the conversational culture of his day, Eustace Budgell uses this issue of The Spectator to complain about lawyers who seem to make "Matter for Disputation out of every thing that occurs." He takes this to be a misplaced professional habit:
They are shewing in common Talk how zealously they could defend a Cause in Court, and therefore frequently forget to keep that Temper which is absolutely requisite to render Conversation pleasant and instructive.
Budgell in 1720 (from Wikipedia)
He complains that this esprit de contradiction is spreading like a disease among the young men hanging around the coffee houses (like himself):
Upon my calling in lately at one of the most noted Temple Coffee-houses, I found the whole Room, which was full of young Students, divided into several Parties, each of which was deeply engaged in some Controversie. […] In short, I observed that the Desire of Victory, whetted with the little Prejudices of Party and Interest, generally carried the Argument to such an Height, as made the Disputants insensibly conceive an Aversion towards each other, and part with the highest Dissatisfaction on both Sides.
That's not the style of a proper Gentleman. So he hastens to add some sound advice on how to be an agreeable and polite conversationalist:
Avoid Disputes as much as possible. […] But if you are at any time obliged to enter on an Argument, give your Reasons with the utmost Coolness and Modesty, two Things which scarce ever fail of making an Impression on the Hearers. Besides, if you are neither Dogmatical, nor shew either by your Actions or Words, that you are full of your self, all will the more heartily rejoice at your Victory. Nay, should you be pinched in your Argument, you may make your Retreat with a very good Grace: You were never positive, and are now glad to be better informed.
Notice the ambiguity here: While Budgell is seemingly trying to curb the antagonistic attitude shown in disputes, he is, at the same time, proposing advice for how to win. His comments on the error of losing your temper in an argument contains the same ambivalence:
… if you contend for the Honour of Victory alone, you may lay down this as an Infallible Maxim. That you cannot make a more false Step, or give your Antagonists a greater Advantage over you, than by falling into a Passion.
When an Argument is over, how many weighty Reasons does a Man recollect, which his Heat and Violence made him utterly forget?
Or again, in his advice on taking the role as arbitrator:
That nothing procures a Man more Esteem and less Envy from the whole Company, than if he chooses the Part of Moderator, without engaging directly on either Side in a Dispute. This gives him the Character of Impartial, furnishes him with an Opportunity of sifting Things to the Bottom, shewing his Judgment, and of sometimes making handsome Compliments to each of the contending Parties.
The subtext seems to be that arguments about weighty issues are something that "learned men" do, and that this class-based meta-function is more important than any actual content that could go on within the dialogue.

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