“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”
The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.
I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.
GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.
Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.
As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.
GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.
Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.
Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.
Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.