For the Sake of Argument

 Missa Luba Kyrie

Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin

La Catedral: ii Allegro Solemne

Agustín Barrios Mangoré

Sharon Isbin

Amazigh Lullaby


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Mireu el Nostre Mar


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Los Paxaricos (Isaac Levy I.59) – Maciço de Rosas (I.Levy III.41)


Jordi Savall

A Swallow Song

Richard Farina

Joan Baez

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Francisco Tarrega

Sharon Isbin

Offertorium – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina

Oleh Krysa, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra & James DePreist

We Can Work It Out

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

The Beatles

For the Sake of Argument


Man sitting in a boat undeer a tree looking out at the world around him

Zhou Maushu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu


The painting above suggests a few things about argument. One, in order to be able to argue a position we need to know it, we need to have thought it through, usually in quiet contemplation. The painting also suggests, perhaps, that our arguments are first with ourselves as we try to articulate, think through in our own minds, what it is we believe and why. These arguments can get quite vociferous, though to others looking on we may appear as serene and composed as the gentlemen in the boat. Once the arguments move from the realm of inner contemplation to that of public discourse, the appearance of serenity often disappears. As Madam de Sévigné has said, “True friendship is never serene.” I remember Paul Simon once introduced Art Garfunkel as his “partner in arguments.” And perhaps a sign of true friendship is that friends can argue strenuously, loudly, intensely without jeopardizing the friendship.

The music evokes “conversations,” some of them heated, that occur throughout the world. The first is “Kyrie” from the Catholic Mass, but it is sung to African folk melodies suggesting a “conversation” between the European and African continents. The guitar music and the music from Jordi Savill’s Hespèrion come from three parts of the world, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Andalusian Spain. What these areas of the world have in common is the presence of a significant Jewish, Christian, and Islamic population with the cultural heritage that each population brings with it. In this music you can hear the influence of each culture in the music of the others. The song “Amazigh Lullaby” is a Berber song (Islamic), “Mireau el Nostre” is Catalan (Christian), and “Les Paxaricos” is from Istanbul (Jewish). The arguments that these cultures have with one another are ancient, but culturally they have given much to each other and each culture has embraced these cultural contributions without conflict.


Men in  a boat looking at the Hagia Sophia

View of the Port of Constantinople

Ivan Alvazovsky

Musee des Beaux Arts Brest (France)


The song, “Les Paxaricos” has a melody that found its way into an American folk song, “A Swallow Song,” that I first heard about the time I started college, which suggests a continuing influence of this musical tradition (I do not know if there is a connection between the parakeet and the swallow, however). The Sofia Gubaidulina composition comes out of Soviet Russia and has its origins in the “conversation” between the atheistic Soviet Government and the religious beliefs of the composer, who did not have an easy time getting her music played in Russia. Then there is The Beatle’s song that suggests we can work things out, if for the sake of argument, you just agree with me; the persona of the song is never going to accept another’s point of view. It suggests to me a tee shirt I saw once, “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” Such is the nature of argument.


A man and a woman (man standing, woman seated) having a conversation

The Conversation (the grill work spells out “noix” and “a la noix” means “Hopeless”, by itself it means “nut” or “walnut”)

Henri Matisse


I have never liked to argue. Like most people I do not like losing arguments, but also, I do not like winning them either. On those occasions when I have been fortunate enough to win the argument I always felt badly for the other, I remember how I felt when I lost and imagine my interlocutor to feel the same. Also, when winning arguments, I recognize the weaknesses in my own arguments, the points I could not adequately defend and my victory was premised, in large part, on my opponent not happening to recognize these weaknesses. But the fact remains that but for the sake of argument we would as a culture stagnate. It is argument that keeps our ideas sharp that helps us identify the weaknesses in our positions and strengthen them or, if necessary, abandon them. But for the sake of argument we might become arrogant and inflexible and close minded. Argument reminds us of our limitations, if we are thoughtful and honest. This doesn’t mean we are constantly changing our positions, believing this, that, and the other thing as we recognize the weaknesses in each, but that we recognize that whatever position we hold has its limitations. Argument reminds us that we live by principles and not absolutes. For most there are absolutes, lines we will not cross, but these are few and much in life falls between them. We hunger for a world of black and white, but live in a world that is gray and dappled. Argument helps us, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “praise God for dappled things.” Though argument can be unpleasant and difficult it is important and we have a responsibility to argue as effectively as we can for what we truly believe, and it might be suggested that we do not truly believe anything we are unwilling to defend.


Painting of a landscape with Jerusalem off in the distance

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

David Roberts


Leon Wieseltier wrote about the importance of argument (“Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” “Among the Disrupted,” and “The Argumentative Jew”). In each of these articles he writes not just about the importance of argument, but how argument is a quest for truth and understanding. We see in our opponent’s argument what our opponent cannot see, just as our opponent sees what we cannot see. Argument is revelatory. And if the things we argue about were not important, we would not invest the time and energy argument, especially passionate argument, demands. At one point in the article “The Argumentative Jew” Wieseltier discusses a quarrel between two groups within Judaism:

This same epic quarrel between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai is described in a mishnah as “a quarrel for the sake of heaven [which therefore] will endure.” The endurance of a quarrel: What sort of aspiration is this? It is the aspiration of a mentality that is genuinely rigorous and genuinely pluralistic. The tradition of commentary on that mishnah is a kind of history of Jewish views on intellectual inquiry—from the Levant in the 15th century, for example, there is Ovadiah Bertinoro’s remark that “only by means of debate will truth be established,” an uncanny anticipation of Milton and Mill, and from Hungary in the 19th century there is the gloss by Rabbi Moses Schick, who himself had a role in a community-wide schism, that “sometimes it is our duty to make a quarrel . . . For the sake of truth we are not only permitted to make a quarrel, we are obligated to make a quarrel.”

He goes on to say, “Learning to live with disagreement, moreover, is a way of learning to live with each other.” This is as true within Judaism as it is within any pluralistic culture. For the culture to survive its citizens must find a way to talk to each other and disagree. I cannot imagine a society that is both free and free of argument. Not only is true friendship never serene, neither is true citizenship. A free nation can survive its quarrels if it agrees to respectfully disagree. Once respect is lost, the fabric of the society begins to unravel. “Political correctness” undermines democracy, but so does a dearth of kindness and an absence of consideration. But kindness and consideration cannot be achieved by mandate, only by mutual consent. And even where this consent is present, in the course of argument, “things will be said” that both sides to the argument will need to at some point forgive and overlook.


Painting of buildings in Granada, Spain

Old Buildings on the Darro, Granada

David Roberts,_Granada,_by_David_Roberts_1834.JPG


Tim Parks wrote an article on reading (“Weapons for Readers”) that views readers’ weapons as pens or pencils with which they writes “Rubbish” or “Brilliant” in the margins as a way of maintaining an argument and a conversation with the book and its author. That even when we read solely for pleasure (which I would hope is most of the time) we should be reading aggressively; we should debate the authors and their ideas and in so doing make the reading more our own, the writers thoughts will not always be our thoughts, but our thoughts about the writers thoughts ought always to be ours, and in reading this way we grow our intellect and develop our imaginations. I think there are three ways of reading (there are probably more) we read for pleasure alone, just to get the gist of the plot and follow the story line; we read for information, to find facts we need to know; and we read for depth and understanding, we debate the books we read, dig for subtext, and try to understand how arguments and ideas are shaped and developed. The last is probably the most difficult way to read but also the most rewarding and the only kind of reading that changes us as human beings while it nurtures our spirit and adds depth to our character. It is also the source of much of the wisdom we will accumulate in our lifetime.


Drawing of two men arguing


E. W. Kimble


It has been suggested that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the commitment to resolving conflict. In seeking peace we often try to find a way to avoid conflict, to make it go away, when in fact it is in making conflict go away that we sow the seeds that undermine peace. Making conflict go away often involves putting a blanket over it and pretending it isn’t there, but eventually it explodes. The explosion will force us to work at resolution, if all goes well, so that peace can be restored, but just as often it damages the common ground that may have provided the foundation for our peacemaking. Of course the more important the issues at the heart of our arguments the more difficult they are to resolve. Living in peace requires we resolve the conflicts that can be resolved and learn to live with and respect the differences that cannot be. In any relationship the relationship itself is a living thing and when we argue we must decide at some point which is more important, the life of the relationship or our individual views and desires. Relationships die when we place a greater value on ourselves than we do on the relationship.


A painting of Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham


Myth, fairy tale, and folklore very often help us to confront and live with those things we cannot change; provide an avenue, especially for children, to move forward when their arguments and confrontations with authority cannot be resolved. Rowan Williams in a review of a book by Marina Warner Once Upon a Time: a Short History of the Fairy Tale (“Why we need fairy tales now more than ever”) wrote about the role fairy tales and myth play in helping us survive in a hostile world, where our views are ignored and our lives are at risk:

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. There is indeed, as Warner (in the wake of scholars such as Jack Zipes) makes clear, a strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, if not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

What does this mean when it comes to argument? It is often true that our views and arguments are overlooked, ignored, or trivialized by those with the power to ignore us. Our views may have value to us, but they often have little value to others, especially others we hope or expect will take us seriously, like parents, teachers, and those in authority of one kind or another. Though it may appear we are being ignored, there are ears that hear us and may answer us somewhere down the road. But, on the other hand, they may not. But wonder is as much a part of life as any of the other less happy aspects of our existence and we ought to remain open to wonder.


The Quarrel

Eli Cohen

Apple and Honey Productions


The film clip is from the movie The Quarrel based on a short story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” by Chaim Grade. The story revolves around two men that had been best friends when they were younger and both Yeshiva students. One lost his faith and became a writer. The other became a Rabbi. They both survived The Holocaust, one by hiding from the Nazis (the writer) and the other (the Rabbi) by surviving Auschwitz. Their friendship broke down before World War II and the events that followed. They had an argument about God and religion that became heated and they went their separate ways. Then the war came and they lost touch with each other; each believed the other had been killed in the war. Both lost their families to The Holocaust. They meet by chance in Montreal and resume their argument. At the end of the story their conflict is not resolved, but their friendship is restored.

The film and the story suggests that arguments are important and that no real friendship can exist if there is no potential for disagreement, especially on the most important and primary of our beliefs. There is speech that might appear hostile, cruel, even bigoted outside of the relationship. But inside the relationship, where a bond of trust has been established, much can be said that cannot be said outside of a relationship, at least not said easily or in a way that will be taken seriously. Friends can talk about the most divisive of issues, be on opposite sides of the most divisive of issues, and the relationship will enable conversation and debate. It also protects each side from being misunderstood. The friendship intercedes and colors what is said. What might provoke anger and resentment from a stranger does not from a friend. It provides a means of being understood and for explaining a point of view without the necessity of “winning” the argument or appearing to judge or condemn.


Painting of men fighting over a game of backgammon

Argument Over a Card Game

Jan Steen


Of course there are those arguments that end like the one in the painting, though that seems to me to be an argument based more on ethics (cheating at cards, perhaps) than principle. In many of the arguments that permeate our society there is this aspect of confrontation, sometimes violent confrontation, that characterizes them. Friendship rarely plays a part in these arguments, often they are between people who do not know each other well or at all. Erasmus wrote a book called In Praise of Folly. The Latin title is Morias Encomium. The title was a bit of an in-joke between Erasmus and his friend Thomas More. “Morias” is also the Latin form of Thomas More’s last name, so the title of the book could be read as “in praise of folly” or “in praise of More.” As every sophomore knows, “more” is the source for English words like “moron” (sophomore translate to “wise fool”). It is the friendship between the two men that makes this a joke and not an insult. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams argued strenuously over issues and were enemies for most of their lives. The painting may capture the emotions that characterized their relationship even if it did not result in the actual outcome depicted in the painting. Later in life they became good friends who could disagree without anger or animosity. Perhaps they are a metaphor of sorts of the national divide, as Jefferson was from the South and Adams was from the North, but the argument between these two regions of the country did not end so amicably.


Three men walking and laguhing together

Three Men Laugh by the Tiger Stream

Song Dynasty


The painting depicts three men who have just walked through a bit of land infested by tigers. The bridge they have just crossed has taken them safely out of this tiger infested territory. While passing through this territory they were engaged in a fierce debate. One of the men is a Confucian, one is a Taoist, and one is Buddhist. They each hold firmly to their faith and worldview, and being scholars in their respective faiths, each argues earnestly and well and with conviction. Each tries to convince the others of the superiority the faith he holds, none are convinced by the arguments the others make. When they cross the bridge they realize where they have been and the danger they had escaped and they begin to laugh. In their case the argument was not just an exchange of views, it offered a kind of protection from danger; a distraction that enabled them to “pleasantly” survive what could have been a terrifying ordeal. Our arguments are often what preserve our relationships and the fabric of our community. If we cannot argue we cannot truly love and if we cannot love we are not likely to dwell together in peace.


Painting of a woman looking out of the window while a man sits in a chair next to her reading a newsaper


Gustave Caillebotte