The Art of Always Being Right: Thirty Eight Ways to Win When you Are Defeated by Arthur Schopenhauer
Blindly assertive or a dark horse and numbingly silent? This beguiling book prescribes that winning any argument – despite reason – is the ultimate goal.
Just what the doctor ordered, I thought, then crawled under a table. Must be beyond me…
The Spectator Book Review by John Shand
Gamesmanship of the mind
Gibson Square Books, 204pp, £9.99, ISBN 1903933617
Not a manual for omniscience; rather the aim is always to appear right, whether you are or not. Schopenhauer wants to keep the crooked in ‘straight and crooked thinking’, when most books on arguments assume that we should try to eliminate it. This assumption hides a value judgment as to what arguments are for. Is it a matter of winning – getting others to admit that they’re wrong and we’re right – or is it about finding the truth – getting to the right answer? It’s not obvious that the truth is always more important than winning. A good logical argument might convince no one; a bad illogical argument might convince everyone. One could just hope that this isn’t so.
Here’s the nub of Schopenhauer’s contention: such hope is necessarily utterly futile. This is because of something deep in human nature that reflects something still deeper about the world: it’s not reason and thought that rule the roost and give the true picture of reality, but rather blind assertive will. You can’t rely on people to be rational, so if you want to win arguments, or not lose them, you’ll be wasting your time and breath, as often as not, by presenting people with good arguments, arguments where the conclusions you want them to believe really do follow from the reasons you give. Better to use psychological tricks that find their footing in human baseness, and use such baseness against itself.
This might seem a dishonest and cynical exercise. Schopenhauer thinks the need for such argumentative strategies is a grim and inevitable fact of life unless we live in a cloud-cuckoo-land in which people can be won round by sweet reasonableness. Sometimes he suggests that you might be best just not bothering to argue with most people at all. Silence is winning too.
Schopenhauer takes a gloomy view of human nature and life, rather similar to that of Hobbes’ ‘nasty, brutish and short’ one. Whereas Hobbes doesn’t delve too deeply into why people are like this, Schopenhauer connects this unsavoury nature to the underlying nature of reality. It might seem as though we live in a world ordered by the principles of physics and policed by the laws of morality, but this is just an appearance brought about by the way we have to see the world given the way our minds impose a particular order on things. This intelligible order is just a carapace rationalising what’s really there: pure Will, whose essence is simply a striving for existence. And we’re strapped to this mass of pointless striving, restlessly driven, as individual pimple-wills on the face of the world-Will, life the futile attempt to satisfy our desires. When we’re not striving we soon (after a momentary glimmer of a sense of achievement) become bored, and off we go again. Thus whether our desires are satisfied or not, we suffer. One might sum up our dismal existence as: striving, boredom, striving, boredom … death.
People in arguments won’t be led by reason, but by vanity and the stubborn urge to win, despite reason. So you’d better be prepared to counter this, not with reason, but with dirty tricks.
Out of this doesn’t come the gloomy book you might expect, but rather a caustically witty one. Some of the headings speak for themselves: ‘Make your opponent angry’; ‘Make him exaggerate’; ‘Bewilder your opponent’; and my favourite, ‘This is beyond me’ (I’m sure you’re a clever fellow, but I’m afraid you’ve simply lost me now). Making up your mind as to what people are really like will decide whether you need this book or not.