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The Earl of Shaftesbury on the value of good conversations for questioning everything (1709)

The Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) defended the vigorous questioning of received ideas by means of wit and humour as well as by reasoning in congenial conversations:

According to the Notion I have of Reason, neither the written Treatises of the Learned, nor the set Discourses of the Eloquent, are able of themselves to teach the use of it. ’Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning, which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it. A Freedom of Raillery, a Liberty in decent Language to question every thing, and an Allowance of unravelling or refuting any Argument, without offence to the Arguer, are the only Terms which can render such speculative Conversations any way agreeable.

An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour (1709), Part I, Section IV

BUT now that I have said thus much concerning Authors and Writings, you shall hear my Thoughts, as you have desir’d, upon the Subject of Conversation, and particularly a late One of a free kind, which you remember I was present at, with some Friends of yours, whom you fansy’d I shou’d in great Gravity have condemn’d.

’Twas, I must own, a very diverting one, and perhaps not the less so, for ending as abruptly as it did, and in such a sort of Confusion, as almost brought to nothing whatever had been advanc’d in the Discourse before. Some Particulars of this Conversation may not perhaps be so proper to commit to Paper. ’Tis enough that I put you in mind of the Conversation in general. A great many fine Schemes, ’tis true, were destroy’d; many grave Reasonings overturn’d: but this being done without offence to the Partys concern’d, and with improvement to the good Humour of the Company, it set the Appetite the keener to such Conversations. And I am persuaded, that had Reason herself been to judg of her own Interest, she wou’d have thought she receiv’d more advantage in the main from that easy and familiar way, than from the usual stiff Adherence to a particular Opinion.

But perhaps you may still be in the same humour of not believing me in earnest. You may continue to tell me, I affect to be paradoxical, in commending a Conversation as advantageous to Reason, which ended in such a total Uncertainty of what Reason had seemingly so well establish’d.

To this I answer, That according to the Notion I have of Reason, neither the written Treatises of the Learned, nor the set Discourses of the Eloquent, are able of themselves to teach the use of it. ’Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning, which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it. A Freedom of Raillery, a Liberty in decent Language to question every thing, and an Allowance of unravelling or refuting any Argument, without offence to the Arguer, are the only Terms which can render such speculative Conversations any way agreeable. For to say truth, they have been render’d burdensom to Mankind by the of the Laws prescrib’d to ’em, and by the prevailing Pedantry and Bigotry of those who reign in ’em, and assume to themselves to be Dictators in these Provinces.

Must I always be listener only? is as natural a Case of Complaint in Divinity, in Morals, and in Philosophy, as it was of old, the Satirist’s, in Poetry. Vicissitude is a mighty Law of Discourse, and mightily long’d for by Mankind. In matter of Reason, more is done in a minute or two, by way of Question and Reply, than by a continu’d Discourse of whole Hours. Orations are fit only to move the Passions: And the Power of Declamation is to terrify, exalt, ravish, [46] or delight, rather than satisfy or instruct. A free Conference is a close Fight. The other way, in comparison to it, is merely a Brandishing, or Beating the Air. To be obstructed therefore and manacled in Conferences, and to be confin’d to hear Orations on certain Subjects, must needs give us a Distaste, and render the Subjects so manag’d, as disagreeable as the Managers. Men had rather reason upon Trifles, so they may reason freely, and without the Imposition of Authority, than on the usefullest and best Subjects in the world, where they are held under a Restraint and Fear.

About this Quotation:

Shaftesbury’s “Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (1709) is a powerful defence of the freedom to say anything and question anything. This was a provocative thing to do in early 18th century Britain when it was still dangerous to question or mock the King or the established Church, especially fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. In addition to defending the freedom to print political or religious material Shaftesbury wanted to defend the freedom to make fun of these things in “conversations”. He believed critical and speculative thinking can be bored to death if one is always forced to be a “listener only”, enduring endless hours of “discourse” and “oration”. A better way to encourage people to think and reason for themselves is to give them the freedom to engage in “agreeable” conversations which would be enlivened by humour, wit, “raillery” (teasing and kidding), and the cut and thrust of vigorous and amusing discussion beyond the reach of the “Imposition of Authority”.

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