"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On disputing with the great-souled

Tom Kreitzberg over at Disputations posted an acidly witty commentary on dealing with people who seem to have no problem with contradicting themselves. He quotes a famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I'm sure at least a few of you know:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — "Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood." — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

When I first read that in college, I smelled something bad but couldn't quite name the reek. But Tom has, perfectly:

Th[e] "memorize this" impression is only exacerbated by the fact that Emerson is writing categorically about greatness of soul. It's hard to do that without implying that one is oneself a Great Soul, or at least greater than the majority of one's readers are likely to be, and that one's greatness is proved by the fact that one lives according to one's aphorisms. If he stuck to the alleged foibles of little statesmen, well, who but little statesmen would begrudge him his bit of grandstanding on that theme?

Of course, it isn't just that one is a Great Soul, as tiresome as that is, but that one's very greatness inevitably causes suffering. Poor dear! The one source of consolation in this, apart from one's own greatness, is that Jesus knows just how one feels

That last paragraph had me rolling on the floor, its mordantly devastating sarcasm recognizable at once as the only apposite response to the relevantly "great-souled." Then I kicked myself for failing to realize that all these years.

You see, disputation is almost my lifeblood. I grew up with it, my father being a lawyer; I was steered into and excelled at debate in high school; I majored in philosophy at Columbia, where my archeologically Catholic views elicited derisive "logical" attack from those disappointed at such neanderthality in a young man who should be "going places"; and since then, wherever I've found myself, I've had to function as an apologist. One of my greatest frustrations in any such setting has been showing somebody that her stated views logically imply something that she surely doesn't hold, only to be told, in effect, one of two things: (a) I'm putting words in her mouth; or (b) What's so bad about contradicting oneself? Isn't it mature to adjust oneself to the paradoxes of reality? Now I've learned to deal with (a) both diplomatically and effectively (well, at least I've learned not to spoil dates by how I deal with it); but (b) has always left me stumped. It leaves me feeling, um, immature, like a dog barking mere logic to a poet.

Until now, thanks to Tom: henceforth I shall know when I'm in the presence of a Great Soul, and act accordingly!
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