Speaking Freely

Emerson was really onto something when he spoke about the high freedom of great conversation. I’ve been thinking about two more aspects of such freedom.

First, great conversation requires great spontaneity. Although when conversing we might have a deep goal of sharing and discovery, our conversation doesn’t have an agenda or a script and we can’t confine it to a narrow channel or actively direct it toward that goal (this is very Taoist: we have to approach the goal from the side, not head-on). Instead, we co-create it in an improvisatory way, with the freedom of a jazz duet.

Second, we must have the mutual trust and mutual benevolence to speak freely. The ancient Greeks had a special word for this: parrhesia (παρρησία). The Epicureans especially stressed the importance of speaking freely: of being open to correction by a friend or teacher, and also of correcting one’s friends for their own benefit. Indeed, the ancient Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemos wrote an entire book on parrhesia, which unfortunately survives only in fragments. In line with the aphorism of Epicurus that “a philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind”, Philodemos taught that a friend of mine must be honest (though not brutally so) and must help me to improve and to live a happier life. On this model, conversation is a kind of watering and pruning in the garden of life (thanks to Hiram Crespo for the image).

Montaigne, that curious combination of Skeptic, Stoic, and Epicurean, captured this concept beautifully in his essay On the Art of Conversation:

When any one contradicts me, he raises my attention, not my anger: I advance towards him who controverts, who instructs me; the cause of truth ought to be the common cause both of the one and the other. What will the angry man answer? Passion has already confounded his judgment; agitation has usurped the place of reason. It were not amiss that the decision of our disputes should pass by wager: that there might be a material mark of our losses, to the end we might the better remember them; and that my man might tell me: ‘Your ignorance and obstinacy cost you last year, at several times, a hundred crowns.’ I hail and caress truth in what quarter soever I find it, and cheerfully surrender myself, and open my conquered arms as far off as I can discover it; and, provided it be not too imperiously, take a pleasure in being reproved, and accommodate myself to my accusers, very often more by reason of civility than amendment, loving to gratify and nourish the liberty of admonition by my facility of submitting to it, and this even at my own expense.

Sadly, the high freedom of great conversation does not come easily to us because too often we are artifically constrained by the desire to please and the fear of offending (we can add this to the unhealthy “dyads” I identified in my book Letters on Happiness). Only by having the courage to break free of such constraints can we reach the heights of human interaction.

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