On Argument

by Iftekhar Sayeed


In the Gulistan, Sheikh Sa’di says: “Galenus saw a fool hanging on with his hands to the collar of a learned man and insulting him, whereon he said: 'If he were learned he would not have come to this pass with an ignorant man.'”

Sa’di concludes:

“Two wise men do not contend and quarrel,
Nor does a scholar fight with a contemptible fellow.”

This is a profound passage. The fool and the learned man had been arguing for so long and with such passion that the fool finally grabbed the learned man by the collar. Ergo, the learned man was not really learned. The entire blame attaches, paradoxically, to the learned man, not to the fool. We realise finally that a truly learned man would not have argued in the first place.

The wisdom of Sa’di knows few limits. Again and again I have seen the phenomenon described by him: two people shouting themselves hoarse and silly over a trivial matter. We think our points of view so important that when we come across a rival point of view we have to prove it wrong.

Let’s analyse the issue. According to the law of the excluded middle, we are either wrong or we are right. There can be no other possibility. Now, suppose I have a point of view to which I am passionately attached. Either I am right or I am wrong. Suppose I am right. I meet my opponent. I prove her wrong. What have I gained by the experience? I was already right: I can’t be more right because I have proved the other person wrong!

Now suppose I am wrong and I meet my opponent, who is right. I, nevertheless, succeed in proving her wrong. What have I gained? A sense of self-satisfaction, a miserable feeling of power and superiority. While my ego has been satisfied, I have learned nothing, and am in the same state of benightedness. And have I made the other person change her mind? She is probably still fuming and calling me names:


A man convinced against his will

Is of the same opinion still.

The observation applies equally to women, no doubt.

And while I am on the subject of name-calling, let me tell my reader of two episodes where what I had written gave so much offence to two eminent intellectuals of the country that they actually abused me! And I am even happier to state that I had the good sense not to say a word. For how can one deal with abuse? Abuse is not argument. In a true argument, one speaker offers a premiss or a set of premises; the other speaker, like a good boxer, examines either (a) the soundness of the premises or (b) whether the premises relate to the conclusion soundly. Then she offers statements which call either or both into question. Then the first speaker responds...and so on. Of course, arguments can hardly be arranged so happily, which is why it is best to avoid them. As for the abuse I received, well, I didn’t mind being abused. In fact, I was quite chuffed. There is a saying in English: “Nobody ever kicks a dead dog.” I feel quite honoured that two intellectuals should go out of their way to abuse me. Surely my work must have impressed them very much! And since then I have met other intellectuals and I have found that only a minority take the trouble of using arguments – most intellectuals prefer abuse, as do most non-intellectuals.

Therefore, whether we are wrong or right, argument is not the route to knowledge. Of course, people argue for non-logical reasons. The whole thing has to do with a sense of powerlessness caused by dependence on other people. We like people who share our convictions, especially when those convictions have no basis in reason. The person who enjoys living in a herd like this is a most pathetic creature. The moment he or she encounters someone of the opposite persuasion, she must prove that person totally wrong, even if it takes abuse (and especially if it takes abuse). If she were a psychologically independent person, with a healthy ego, she would never have stooped so low. Good manners and sound reasoning go together.

There are only three kinds of issues we can argue about. We can argue about facts, or we can argue about opinions, or we can argue about the soundness of an argument. The first and third kinds of argument have solutions. A fact can be checked against a suitable authority, say, an encyclopaedia. An argument can be studied for soundness using the tools of logic. But the second type of argument – which causes all the trouble – can never be resolved. Opinions have no objective basis – one can never prove or disprove an opinion.

Several years ago, the fundamentalists of Bangladesh succeeded in making a hero of a writer of anti-Islamic persuasion. They forced that person to leave the country, and the resulting brouhaha resulted in several prizes being conferred on said person in Europe and India. How much better it would have been if the individual had been allowed to write in obscurity and enter oblivion as she deserved. Persecution has produced many a martyr who might otherwise have disappeared without a trace.

There is a relevant story by Sheikh Sa’dai, with which I close this essay, having also begun with one of his stories.

“A scholar of note had a controversy with an unbeliever but, being unable to cope with him in argument, shook his head and retired. Someone asked him how it came to pass that, with all his eloquence and learning, he had been unable to vanquish an irreligious man. He replied: 'My learning is in the Quran, in tradition and in the sayings of sheikhs, which he neither believes in nor listens to. Then of what use is it to me to hear him blaspheming?


“To him of whom thou canst not rid thyself by the Quran and tradition

The best reply is if thou dost not reply anything.”


Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics and is a freelance journalist. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, The Journal and other publications.