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The Lost Art of Disputation

The Lost Art of Disputation

The art of disputation was an important and cherished art in the medieval world, particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Two of the most significant developments of the Medieval era were the rise of towns and the rise of universities. Disputation played an important role in the functioning of both towns and universities.

The medieval town was seen as a place where people could freely pursue their interests and livelihoods – a place where they could find freedom. A famous expression from the time, in fact, said, “Town air makes free.” As people went in search of environments where they could be free from feudal and monarchic restrictions, many fascinating little towns were formed. Great creativity and individualism arose within these settings. It was a veritable “marketplace of ideas”.

Implicit in the rules of social conduct was the assumption that public disputation was necessary to a well-functioning society. In public forums and debate, people could work through their differences; this was one of the freedoms that town life could afford. Disputation worked to help the society function more smoothly. In the towns, there was a heightened intellectual atmosphere in which verbal contests were a daily occurrence. At the same time in history as this was happening, the medieval university was also born. To some extent, in fact, it can be said that the university was simply a heightening of what was already happening every day in the town’s intellectual marketplace.

Disputations became common in Western Europe in the 12th century. Prior to that, disputations between theologians of different persuasions were common in the courts of Arab princes and later in the Mongol court. University settings fostered a lively exchange of ideas. At this time in Europe, the University of Paris was a hotbed of intellectual and theological ferment. Disputation was the currency of the day.

Of course, nobody did disputation better than the dashing, popular and brilliant teacher and scholar, Peter Abelard. People flocked from all around to hear him speak. Famously, Peter Abelard challenged his intellectual nemesis Bernard de Clairvaux to a public disputation, with an impartial judge deciding on the winner. Abelard argued on the side of reason and Bernard, as ever, on faith. Everyone was looking forward to this important debate. Bernard, however, in one of his more ignoble moments, at the last minute didn’t show up. Behind the scenes, he had arranged for Abelard instead to be condemned by the church. Instead he had delivered to Abelard a condemnation and declaration of heresy and Abelard was imprisoned. Though Bernard had in fact not been a really bad guy, clearly in this case, Bernard was not following the rules of polite social disputation. He definitely gets a demerit for this behavior.

The art of disputation was also greatly valued in the Arab world. In the courts and towns of Spain in the 12th century, the cultured Hispano-Arab princes routinely staged public disputations between scholars and theologians of the three great religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. They welcomed the public disputation, each debate always following a certain prescribed form of discourse and argument. This same type of atmosphere of theological disputation was also found in medieval universities, Paris in particular, because its area of specialization was the field of theology.

Thomas Aquinas, that fount of scholasticism and reason, was seen by some as a worshipper of reason and dispassionate rational philosophy. He attempted to bring Aristotelian and Arab rationalist philosophies together and use the processes of reason to shore up the tenets of the Catholic faith. Aquinas sought an unambiguous and unemotive justification for Christianity and as such, cultivated the art of disputation. The “disputatio legitiim” followed a certain prescribed form, dominating the teaching of the universities in the 13th century. The stages of the argument proceeded as follows: question, answer, thesis, agreement, refutation, argument, suggested proof and final resolution. This was the basic framework of all his work.

In a disputation de quolibet, the audience was left to decide in the end who was right and who was wrong. There was no shame in being wrong as error played a big part in making truth plain. The greatest benefit a man could bestow on a neighbor was to lead him toward truth. Said Aquinas “We must love equally those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have made the effort to discover truth, and both, in so doing, have assisted us.”

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