Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Stephen Miller

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 0300110308

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Essayist Stephen Miller pursues a lifelong interest in conversation by taking an historical and philosophical view of the subject. He chronicles the art of conversation in Western civilization from its beginnings in ancient Greece to its apex in eighteenth-century Britain to its current endangered state in America. As Harry G. Frankfurt brought wide attention to the art of bullshit in his recent bestselling On Bullshit, so Miller now brings the art of conversation into the light, revealing why good conversation matters and why it is in decline.
Miller explores the conversation about conversation among such great writers as Cicero, Montaigne, Swift, Defoe, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Virginia Woolf. He focuses on the world of British coffeehouses and clubs in “The Age of Conversation” and examines how this era ended. Turning his attention to the United States, the author traces a prolonged decline in the theory and practice of conversation from Benjamin Franklin through Hemingway to Dick Cheney. He cites our technology (iPods, cell phones, and video games) and our insistence on unguarded forthrightness as well as our fear of being judgmental as powerful forces that are likely to diminish the art of conversation.

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may indeed have been added by a later editor.” Although there are many difficulties with the text of the book of Job, it is easy to say what it is about. It is an extended conversation between Job and his friends about the meaning of Job’s suffering. But it is a failed conversation—not because it lacks raillery, which of course would be inappropriate for a conversation about suffering. It is a failed conversation because the friends do not listen to what Job has to say. They are certain that Job’s

Ancient Conversation 39 Conversation in Plato’s Symposium Scholars think the book of Job was written between  and  BC. If it was written around  BC it was roughly contemporaneous with Plato’s Symposium, which was written between  and  BC. The Symposium, as every educated person knows, is one of many dialogues that Plato wrote. The dialogue form was popular in classical Athens. Robin Waterfield points out that, at the time, writing Socratic dialogues constituted a minor industry

Samuel Johnson wrote: “To regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation, was first attempted by Casa in his book of Manners, and Castiglione in his Courtier; two books yet celebrated in Italy for purity and elegance, and which, if they are now less read, are neglected only because they have effected that reformation which their

Montaigne thinks of conversation as an intellectual sporting event that will improve his mind. “If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring. Rivalry, competitiveness and glory will drive me and raise me above my own level. . . . Our mind is strengthened by contact with vigorous and well-ordered minds.” Montaigne wants people to attack his ideas. Agreement is boring and intellectually deadening.

was disliked by his former friends, but he was regarded by many as a great sage and he was often surrounded by adoring women—and often pestered by uninvited visitors, even when he lived on an island in the middle of Lake Geneva. He preferred to avoid his worshipers. As he said: “My whole life has been little else than a long reverie divided into chapters by my daily walks.” Rousseau had a profound effect on European culture. Many nineteenth-century writers and readers came to the conclusion that

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