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Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Unperceived Ideol. Transship. and Dial.

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D. Is There Anything Wrong with Argument Pure and Simple or Polemics as Such?


Is this note of emotional, volitive, or intellectual pugnacity an evil in itself? Do argument pure and simple and polemics have a pejorative character? It is a must to answer these questions properly, for the stratagem of the talismanic word "dialogue" is developed on the basis of false answers that are given to them.

We are not considering the licitness of the almost imperceptible note of pugnacity in argumentdialogue.

First, we take a look at argument pure and simple.


a) The subject's relation to original sin


Emotional, ideological, or volitive clashes are, in themselves, fruits of original sin. It would be ideal if there never were dissentions, disputes, or struggles among men.


But since original sin does exist, is argument pure and simple profitable and legitimate? In principle, yes.


b) Logic, the way to conquer the truth and the good


It is necessary to realize the value of this mode of argument if one admits the objective existence of truth and error, good and evil, and the fittingness of logic to lead man to the understanding of truth and free him from the snares of error, and lead him to love the good and save him from the clutches of evil.

It is thus that one can do the greatest kindness to another: free him from error and evil and give him the possession of the truth and the good.


c) The influence of emotional factors


Someone could say that argument pure and simple should be cold and without passion.

Not in our opinion. Everyone is naturally attached to his convictions, and thus generally gives them up reluctantly. This attachment is much accentuated by the fact that certain convictions logically give rise to a set of habits, a way of being, and a whole lifestyle. To change them causes a man to undergo painful transformations in certain sensitive points. Moved by the noble, orderly, and strong love that he has for the truth, or by the miserable, tormented, and violent love that he has for error and evil, man does not act like a cold reasoning machine when arguing. Thus man, when arguing, engages himself totally, not just with his whole intelligence, but also with the full strength of his will and the heat of his good or bad passions.

So, argument pure and simple does not consist merely in argumentation, even though it may always maintain the primacy of reasoning, which is its main reason for being and the better part of its dignity. It is easy to see how argument pure and simple often has a salient note of emotional combativity due to the indisputable right of virtue or to the frequent interference of sin.

If it is true that sometimes argument pure and simple becomes more dignified by clothing itself in noble and superior serenity, at other times it is ennobled in the light of a fiery zeal for the truth and the good.


d) Factors of Persuasion Collateral to Argumentation


Sometimes the human spirit quite naturally begins to realize the truth of a thesis, finding it pleasing or beautiful. As there is a profound reversibility between the good, the true and the beautiful, love often helps to perceive the truth. The persuasiveness of a person who argues is not only in reasoning. It is also his whole way of being and speaking that often allows the beauty or the goodness of the cause he upholds to come through. Now, in praising the good and the beautiful, an emotional factor naturally appears that easily causes argument pure and simple to grow more ardent, at times becoming a polemic.


e) Legitimacy of Anger in Argument Pure and Simple


Someone might say that the above arguments could open the doors to anger, which should never happen in a conversation.

We just saw that man's passions have a legitimate place in the clash of ideas. This is easily explained from the moral standpoint, since no passions are evil in themselves; they are all neutral and can legitimately influence argument pure and simple unless they become intemperate. Anger is but one of these passions and, within the limits of temperance, can put its particular mark to the clash of ideas. Incidentally, it must be said that holy anger against error and evil can often increase perspicacity rather than darken it, and so aid the lucidity of argument pure and simple.17


f) Pugnacity and Contrast Are both Necessary to Demonstrate the Truth


To show how much a thesis is good, true, and beautiful is often a difficult task. Just above, we spoke of the effects of original sin, the habits and passions in the human spirit, and the crises that certain changes of opinion can cause for man. Man frequently hesitates when he reaches the vertex of these crises.

The contradiction between the ideas whose truth he glimpses and the life he leads seems unbearable to him. The famous alternative formulated by Paul Bourget suddenly appears in his path: Will he conform his ideas to his actions or his actions to his ideas?18

In such dark and painful situations, one must clearly avail oneself of all the really convincing resources of argumentation. Doubtless one of these is contrast.

Saint Thomas teaches that one of the reasons that God permits error and evil is to allow the splendor of the true and the good to shine forth through contrast.19 It is in no way licit to disdain the use of contrast when arguing. This recourse of the Divine Teacher is so precious that in the plans of Providence it in some way compensates for the countless hindrances caused by the existence of error and evil in this world. Now, how is contrast used except by the open and categorical denouncement of everything false in error and censurable in evil? It is not enough merely to praise the true and the good. In argument pure and simple it is legitimate to develop a tone of pugnacity as fully as possible. From this standpoint, it is legitimate to attack both false ideas and persons.


... In Regard to Ideas


First, when attacking false ideas, to show how they are erroneous, contradictory, and immoral produces a salutary impact in the mind of whoever professes them, and thereby destroys a whole series of prejudices and disorderly attachments. The light of truth and the good odor of virtue can thus penetrate even a poor soul that shortly before was totally imprisoned by evil.


... In Regard to Persons


Second, in the case of persons, when the attack is made so as to point out only his error and sin, without unnecessarily touching on other things, his eyes can be opened to his real state, efficaciously inviting him to return to the truth and the good. If the attack happens in the presence of thirdparties, not only is the scandal it could cause them neutralized, but their love of the truth and the good can be increased through contrast. Obviously, such attacks are justified only when they are really necessary, and they must be made according to the rules of justice and charity so that, however clear and profound they may be, they will not destroy the person's dignity as a man and ultimately as a Christian.

Throughout history, when attacks of this nature have been made at the right moment in dignified terms they have done much good even when directed to potentates accustomed to especially respectful treatment. At times they have done great good to those attacked, and have always been very edifying for the people. Well known are the attacks of the Prophet Nathan against David, Saint Ambrose against Emperor Theodosius, Saint Gregory VII against Henry IV, and Pius VII against Napoleon. Many fruitful graces have derived from this, both to keep souls from error and evil and to attract them to the true and the good. Times change, but the profound order of things never changes. Although certainly less manageable than potentates of former times, even our contemporary totalitarian despots are not such that it can be said that this kind of attack will never do them any good.


g) Artificiality of the Abolition of Argument Pure and Simple


As we said, argument pure and simple is not a mere clash of arguments; in some aspects it is a clash of personalities.

In it there is a contact between souls such that they have a real influence upon each other through insistence, repetition (which Napoleon considered the best rhetorical figure), and the attraction or repulsion of one contender for the other. In addition the interplay of these factors makes this mode of interlocution similar to a tournament or a battle.

This enables one to see that argument pure and simple corresponds to the profound and natural necessities of human convivium, and that to cast it aside to reduce the forms of this convivium to merely dialogue in the strict sense (or to argumentdialogue) would be grave and dangerously artificial.


h) Artificiality, the Cause of Confusion and Struggle


We call it dangerous because all artificiality is dangerous. Indeed, once the forces of nature have been violated and cast out, they return with redoubled strength: "Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret," said Horace tersely (Epist., 1, 10,24). By not fearing to fall into artificiality because of a misconceived notion of harmony, one loses an indispensable means for the elucidation of truth in human convivium. One thus inevitably slips toward confusion, which is one of the deepest and most sinister causes of disturbances, quarrels, and prolonged, inextricable and hateful fights. It is known that nothing is more harmful to true peace ‑ the tranquility of order (cf. St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XIX, c. 13) ‑ than extinguishing among men the true and the good, the sole foundations of this very order. Whoever denies the licitness of argument pure and simple, thinking perhaps to work for harmony, is in fact implanting the kingdom of discord.


i) Doesn't Argument Pure and Simple Destroy Charity?


Upon reading these considerations, more than one reader influenced by the irenicism common in our times will feel an apprehension rising from the depths of his soul: Are we not imprudent in praising argument pure and simple? Even though we may be right in the abstract order of principle, since this mode of interlocution can be abused so easily isn't it better to eliminate it completely? "Abusus non tollit usum," answers an old juridical proverb. If argument pure and simple is licit and has a specific function in the natural order of things, it necessarily has a place in the plans of Divine Providence. Tempus tacendi et tempus loquendi ‑ "There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak" (Eccle. 3:7). Applying this principle from Scripture, we can say that there are occasions when it is better not to argue, but there are others when one has the right and even the unrefusable obligation to argue. This was the example our Divine Master gave us (cf. John 8 and ff.). Thus, to never argue at all is a worse abuse than arguing badly a few times.

To present argument pure and simple as always being illicit, dangerous, and harmful to souls as a measure of prudence is a real doctrinal sleight of hand.

Moreover, if he who should argue is a Catholic, this sleight of hand shows a symptom of accentuated naturalism, For if to argue is a Catholic's right and even a duty, how can one admit that it is impossible, with all the graces the Church gives, for him to do so according to the principles of justice and charity? Doesn't Omnia possum in eo qui me comfortat (Philip. 4:13) ‑ "I can do all things in him who strengthenest me" ‑ mean anything to him?


j) Consequence: Argument Pure and Simple Does Not Have a Necessarily Pejorative Character


No. It is inadmissible to condemn argument pure and simple in thesis and to attribute a necessarily pejorative character to it.


k) Neither Do "Polemics" Necessarily Have a Pejorative Character


All that we said about argument pure and simple applies also to polemics. Polemics possess the pugnacity inherent to argument pure and simple in the highest degree and can therefore have ‑ when they are bad ‑ all the exacerbations that are censurable in argument pure and simple. Analogously, when polemics are good they have all the qualities inherent to a well‑conducted argument pure and simple in the highest degree.20 This is the position we had the opportunity of sustaining more extensively in the book, In Defense of Catholic Action (Editora Ave Maria, São Paulo, 1943), which in 1949 was praised in a letter written in the name of Pope Pius XII by the Under‑secretary of State, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, later Paul VI.

For those who think that what we say about good polemics is strange, we will simply recall that, out of the evident wish of Divine Providence for the good of souls, the Holy Ghost raised up eminent polemists in the Church who enjoy the honor of being raised to the altar and whose works constitute a legitimate glory of the Catholic Church and Christian culture. Among these are Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Bernard, and Saint Francis de Sales.


1) Argument Pure and Simple, Polemics, and Public Opinion


We could not end these considerations without making an observation on the true dimension of the problems raised when dealing with argument pure and simple and polemics. Generally, these problems are treated by taking into account only the speakers who argue or debate. When because of the theme, argument pure and simple or polemics interest many people and are done with adequate publicity, they actually have a social importance, since they provoke a myriad of related controversies among those who come into contact with them.

The scope of this phenomenon can cause the formation of two or more currents of opinion in the heart of society. From the noisy confusion of individual disputes emerge louder voices on both sides that are richer in thought, have greater force of expression and, in turn, fire up controversies of great importance among themselves. In these controversies everything being affirmed in the various camps is synthesized, defined, becomes more profound, and is carried to its ultimate consequences.

Currents of opinion thus confront each other as it were on different stages and, prodded on by greater minds, the arguments and polemics then have an impact on lesser minds, inspiring them and providing orientation.

In their most prominent and historically important forms, argument pure and simple and polemics begin, develop, and end before the eyes of the multitudes over whom they exercise a rectrix (directive) action and in which they reach their full dimension.

It can be seen from the above that apostolic strategy cannot be conceived and carried out merely with a view to the person or the particular current of opinion with which the Catholic disputes, but in relation to the sometimes immense public that watches the polemics or argument pure and simple as an interested spectator. Now, while a highly amenable argument (argumentdialogue) can frequently be helpful in attracting and persuading, the legitimate needs of the public mind frequently require that error and evil be refuted and chastised with vehemence. Thus, in certain circumstances there is a risk that an inopportune serenity of the defenders of the good might produce in the public a real atony of its Catholic sense or moral sensibility. Here is another proof that argument pure and simple and polemics are at times indispensable.

The two thousand year old struggle of the Catholic Church against religious and philosophical systems opposed to Her is a good illustration of this point. In this struggle, dialogue has included, more or less intensely, argument pure and simple and polemics not only on the level of individual contacts but also on that of groups, nations and the whole human race.


m) Argument Pure and Simple, Polemics, and the Militant Character of the Church


The systematic proscription of all argument pure and simple and polemics, and the reduction of all contacts to mere argumentdialogue (the most serene and cordial type of argument), would have for the Church consequences whose importance could never be sufficiently emphasized.

Such dialogues would never be sufficient for all the tactical needs of the Church Militant. Indeed, something authentically militant, in the fullest sense of the word, is inherent to "inimicitias ponam" ("I will put enmities" ‑‑ Genesis, 3:15) and to the earthly condition of the Church. She will never cease to be faced with enemies who are inspired by hostility that ranges, depending on the case, from simple antipathy to extreme hatred. These enemies will never be mere abstract ideas or adverse economics or social conditions; they will also be men of flesh and blood, who will constitute the race of the serpent21 until the end of the world. And the Spouse of Christ can never cease fighting them.

This does not mean that in every non-Catholic person or institution the Church should see only an enemy. But it is utopian to imagine that in any historical period She will find outside Her bosom only men full of sympathy, who ask Her smilingly about one point or another for which they find no explanation and go from smile to smile, without greater complications, always ending up converted.

Furthermore, in this age of concentration camps and Iron and Bamboo Curtains, a person would have to take utopianism very far to imagine that the Church faces only friendly people of good will.

Finally, this simple division of nonCatholics into two categories: adversaries; and what we could call the ignorant benevolent is unfounded. In reality, there are few among the nonCatholics whose hatred of the Catholic Church goes to the extreme, just as there are few who are exempt from any antipathy towards Her. The greater part of society simultaneously belongs, in infinitely varying proportions, to both of these categories such that benevolence, antipathy, and ignorance of the Church are mixed up in each one in a unique and particular way. This necessarily leads each Catholic to use the language proper to each type of interlocution in proportions also infinitely diverse. Industrious zeal is not to exclude any of them, but to use all of them separately or together as required by each particular case.


17 In this sense, see what Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, Summa Theologica, 22, Q. 158, a. 1.

18 "ll faut vivre comme on pense, sinon, Ot ou tard, on finit par penser comme on a vécu" ‑ Paul Bourget, Le Démon du Midi, Librairie Plon, Paris, 1914, Vol. 11, p. 375.

19 "All other things, above all the inferior, are ordered to the good of man as their proper end. If nothing evil existed in things, the good of man would be greatly diminished both as regards his understanding, as well as his desire for or love of good. Good is better understood through comparison with evil, and when we suffer some evils we desire the good more ardently: as the sick understand better than anyone the goodness of health, and desire it more ardently than the healthy. For this reason, Divine Providence does not totally exclude evil from things." ‑ St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gent., 111, 71.

20 It may be said in passing that the condemnation of argument pure and simple and of polemics leads to the rejection of apologetics. Bad apologetics is a kind of counterpart to bad argument and bad polemic. Bad apologetics is apriorism, unilaterality, and passionate immoderation in praising or defending something, or in vituperating or attacking something. But good apologetics is the companion of good argument and good polemics. Thus, apologetics must be defended, mutatis mutandis, exactly in the same terms as argument pure and simple and polemics.

In turn, bad hagiography is the transposition of bad apologetics to the field of religious historiography. Thus one frequently sees the word used in a pejorative sense, as if all hagiography were nothing more than an edifying legend without historical value, a kind of Christian fairy tale. One can easily see that the defense of good hagiography should be made with arguments similar to those of the defense of good apologetics, good debate, and good polemics, of which it is a noble companion.

21 "God has never made and formed but one enmity; but it is an irreconcilable one, which shall endure and grow even to the end. It is between Mary, his worthy Mother, and the Devil ‑ between the children and the servants of the Blessed Virgin, and the children and tools of Lucifer... God has not only set an enmity, but enmities, not simply between Mary and the devil, but between the race of the Holy Virgin and the race of the devil; that is to say, God has set enmities, antipathies, and secret hatreds, between the true children and slaves of Mary and the children and slaves of the devil. They have no love for each other. They have no sympathy for each other. The children of Belial, the slaves of Satan, the friends of the world (for it is the same thing), have always up to this time persecuted those who belong to our Blessed Lady, and will in the future persecute them more than ever; just as Cain, of old, persecuted his brother Abel, and Esau his brother Jacob, who are the figures of the reprobate and the predestinate" ‑ St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, Montfort Publications, Bay Shore, New York, 1955, nos. 52 & 54, pp. 3334).

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