S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The universities of Europe, for many years, carried on their debates by syllogism, insomuch that we see the knowledge of several centuries laid out into objections and answers, and all the good sense of the age cut and minced into almost an infinitude of distinctions.
When our universities found there was no end of wrangling this way, they invented a kind of argument, which is not reducible to any mood or figure in Aristotle. It was called the Argumentum Basilinum (others write it Bacilinum or Baculinum), which is pretty well expressed in our English word club-law. When they were not able to refute their antagonist, they knocked him down. It was their method, in these polemical debates, first to discharge their syllogisms, and afterwards betake themselves to their clubs, until such time as they had one way or other confounded their gainsayers.
I cannot fall out, or contemn a man for an error, or conceive why a difference in opinion should divide an affection: for controversies, disputes, and argumentations, both in philosophy and in divinity, if they meet with discreet and peaceable natures, do not infringe the laws of charity. In all disputes, so much as there is of passion so much there is of nothing to the purpose; for then reason, like a bad hound, spends upon a false scent, and forsakes the question first started. And this is one reason why controversies are never determined: for though they be amply proposed they are scarce at all handled, they do so swell with unnecessary digressions: and the parenthesis on the party is often as large as the main discourse upon the subject.
In order to keep that temper which is so difficult, and yet so necessary to preserve, you may please to consider, that nothing can be more unjust or ridiculous, than to be angry with another because he is not of your opinion. The interests, education, and means by which men attain their knowledge, are so very different, that it is impossible they should all think alike; and he has at least as much reason to be angry with you, as you with him. Sometimes, to keep yourself cool, it may be of service to ask yourself fairly, what might have been your opinion, had you all the biasses of education and interest your adversary may possibly have?
Avoid as much as you can, in mixed companies, argumentative, polemical conversations; which, though they should not, yet certainly do, indispose for a time the contending parties towards each other: and if the controversy grows warm and noisy, endeavour to put an end to it by some genteel levity or joke. I quieted such a conversation hubbub once by representing to them that, though I was persuaded none there present would repeat out of company what passed in it, yet I could not answer for the discretion of the passengers in the street, who must necessarily hear all that was said.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Oct. 19, 1748.
Men of many words sometimes argue for the sake of talking; men of ready tongues frequently dispute for the sake of victory; men in public life often debate for the sake of opposing the ruling party, or from any other motive than the love of truth.
The precipitancy of disputation, and the stir and noise of passions that usually attend it, must needs be prejudicial to verity: its calm insinuations can no more be heard in such a bustle than a whistle among a crowd of sailors in a storm.
However some may affect to dislike controversy, it can never be of ultimate disadvantage to the interests of truth or the happiness of mankind. Where it is indulged to its full extent, a multitude of ridiculous opinions will no doubt be obtruded upon the public; but any ill influence they may produce cannot continue long, as they are sure to be opposed with at least equal ability and that superior advantage which is ever attendant on truth. The colours with which wit or eloquence may have adorned a false system will gradually die away, sophistry be detected, and everything estimated at length according to its value.
It is impossible to fall into any company where there is not some regular and established subordination, without finding rage and vehemence produced only by difference of sentiments about things in which neither of the disputants have any other interest, than what proceeds from their mutual unwillingness to give way to any opinion that may bring upon them the disgrace of being wrong.
It is almost always the unhappiness of a victorious disputant, to destroy his own authority by claiming too many consequences, or diffusing his proposition to an indefensible extent. When we have heated our zeal in a cause, and elated our confidence with success, we are naturally inclined to pursue the same train of reasoning, to establish some collateral truth, to remove some adjacent difficulty, and to take in the whole comprehension of our system.
Hunting after arguments to make good one side of a question, and wholly to neglect those which favour the other, is wilfully to misguide the understanding; and is so far from giving truth its due value, that it wholly debases it.
If we consider the mistakes in mens disputes and notions, how great a part is owing to words, and their uncertain or mistaken significations: this we are the more carefully to be warned of, because the arts of improving it have been made the business of mens study.
There is no such way to give defence to absurd doctrines, as to guard them round about with legions of obscure and undefined words; which yet make these retreats more like the dens of robbers, or holes of foxes, than the fortresses of fair warriors.
It happens in controversial discourses as it does in the assaulting of towns, where, if the ground be but firm whereon the batteries are erected, there is no farther enquiry whom it belongs to, so it affords but a fit rise for the present purpose.
A way that men ordinarily use to force others to submit to their judgments, and receive their opinion in debate, is to require the adversary to admit what they allege as a proof, or to assign a better.
There is no learned man but will confess he hath much profited by reading controversies,his senses awakened, his judgment sharpened, and the truth which he holds more firmly established. If then it be profitable for him to read, why should it not at least be tolerable and free for his adversary to write? In logic, they teach that contraries laid together more evidently appear: it follows, then, that all controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true; which must needs conduce much to the general confirmation of an implicit truth.
Having newly left those grammatic shallows, where they stuck unreasonably to learn a few words, on the sudden are transported to be tost and turmoiled with their unballasted wits in fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy.
What Tully says of war may be applied to disputing,it should be always so managed as to remember that the only true end of it is peace: but generally true disputants are like true sportsmen,their whole delight is in the pursuit; and a disputant no more cares for the truth than the sportsman for the hare.
It will happen continually that rightly to distinguish between two words will throw great light upon some controversy in which words play a principal part; nay, will virtually put an end to that controversy altogether.
Controversy, though always an evil in itself, is sometimes a necessary evil. To give up everything worth contending about, in order to prevent hurtful contentions, is, for the sake of extirpating noxious weeds, to condemn the field to perpetual sterility. Yet, if the principle that it is an evil only to be incurred when necessary for the sake of some important good, were acted upon, the two classes of controversies mentioned by Bacon would certainly be excluded. The first, controversy on subjects too deep and mysterious, is indeed calculated to gender strife. For, in a case where correct knowledge is impossible to any and where all are, in fact, in the wrong, there is but little likelihood of agreement: like men who should rashly venture to explore a strange land in utter darkness, they will be scattered into a thousand devious paths. The second class of subjects that would be excluded by this principle, are those which relate to matters too minute and trifling.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Unity in Religion.