“Man is the measure of all things,” ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is quoted as saying. While he was one of the most significant pre-Socratic philosophers, by profession he was also a sophist. A wandering teacher who made money by teaching people to argue.
In Plato’s view, this was a despicable job. According to him, all they taught was tricks and deception. Yet despite his objections, people still sought after sophists.
After all, it doesn’t matter if you know what the truth is, if you can’t convince others of it.
It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, as long as you win
Arguments are not won by logic. At least when it comes to the audience. Rather, persuasiveness has to do with something else. Emotion.
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noticed this in his never-finished treatise The Art of Being Right (originally titled The Art of Controversy). It often doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. What matters is winning.
“Controversial dialectic is the art of disputing, and of disputing in such a way as to hold one’s own, whether one is in the right or the wrong.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
It is often not what you say in your argument, but how you say it that matters. In ancient times, orators such as Demosthenes or Cicero would spend countless hours practicing their discourses, working on their mannerisms, and applying techniques known to sway the crowds.
Even if you are correct, and your argument is sane and logical, that doesn’t matter. An adversary may appear to be better, even if what they say is bullshit.
“A man may be objectively in the right, and nevertheless in the eyes of bystanders, and sometimes in his own, he may come off worst. For example, I may advance a proof of some assertion, and my adversary may refute the proof, and thus appear to have refuted the assertion, for which there may, nevertheless, be other proofs. In this case, of course, my adversary and I change places: he comes off best, although, as a matter of fact, he is in the wrong.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Why does this happen? Schopenhauer has a simple answer. Humans are stupid. Or rather, humans are base.
“If the reader asks how this is, I reply that it is simply the natural baseness of human nature. If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honorable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
The problem is no one cares about the truth. Everyone just cares about winning. According to Schopenhauer, it is vanity that is the strongest factor here. And vanity is often accompanied by outright internal dishonesty.
That’s what you are dealing with when arguing. On your side, but also on the side of the opponent.
How to win an argument in an environment full of bullshit?
We know bullshit is strong. Bullshit overpowers. So how do you win an argument in such an environment?
Schopenhauer says there are two basic ways of refuting an opponent’s original thesis.
“We may show either that the proposition is not in accordance with the nature of things, i.e., with absolute, objective truth; or that it is inconsistent with other statements or admissions of our opponent, i.e., with truth as it appears to him. The latter mode of arguing a question produces only a relative conviction, and makes no difference whatever to the objective truth of the matter.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
That is, either try to prove their assertion is inconsistent with objective truth. Or, demonstrate it is inconsistent with other assertions they had made previously.
It’s especially the second that’s powerful. Trying to prove an absolute truth based on facts or logic won’t work very often, since even if you provide facts, most people will reject them if these don’t fit with their preconceived notions. The backfire effect is a powerful cognitive bias.
Rather, Schopenhauer proposes a sneaky strategy to get the best of your opponent:
“We accept our opponent’s proposition as true, and then show what follows from it when we bring it into connection with some other proposition acknowledged to be true. We use the two propositions as the premises of a syllogism giving a conclusion which is manifestly false, as contradicting either the nature of things, or other statements of our opponent himself; that is to say, the conclusion is false.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Trick your opponent into saying something which contradicts what they said before. Quite simple, and ingenious.
What winning an audience is all about
You have to play to the audience. Know what they are thinking, how they are feeling, and delivering on that. If you can hit their preconceived biases, then you have won.
You can often see this playing out on YouTube, which is full of “burn” and “destroy” videos. X destroys Y. R burns G. However, when you actually listen to these supposed destruction videos, no such thing happens.
The logic isn’t better. It’s just the poster of the video playing to their own biases. It’s a dynamic that plays out again and again, in the real world, and the virtual. You can find it not only on YouTube, but also here on Medium among partisans of whatever stripe or color.
This treatise by Schopenhauer not only gives you the tools to strengthen your own argumentation, it also exposes the tricks others use. The aim here is not to come to the right answer, but rather to win.
Some other tricks of the trade
If you look at the most successful populists and demagogues, you might notice they have mastered a few techniques. These appear again and again in their discourses.
Schopenhauer outlined a few of them in his little treatise. While he does not tell it explicitly, you can see that some of these tricks have to do with the fact humans are storytelling animals. They are suckers for a good story.
That’s why you always have to choose the right metaphor.
“If the conversation turns upon some general conception which has no particular name, but requires some figurative or metaphorical designation, you must begin by choosing a metaphor that is favorable to your proposition.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Which words you use matters. As Schopenhauer goes on to say:
“The name Protestants is chosen by themselves, and also the name Evangelicals; but the Catholics call them heretics. Similarly, in regard to the names of things which admit of a more exact and definite meaning: for example, if your opponent proposes an alteration, you can call it an innovation, as this is an invidious word. If you yourself make the proposal, it will be the converse. In the first case, you can call the antagonistic principle “the existing order,” in the second, “antiquated prejudice”.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Another trick, one which former U.S. President Donald J. Trump is a master of, is using seemingly absurd propositions. It’s saying something so ridiculous that in normal circumstances everyone’s eyes would roll, but doing it in a rude and matter-of-fact manner.
“For this an extreme degree of impudence is required; but experience shows cases of it, and there are people who practice it by instinct.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
There is a simple way to derail your opponents argumentation. Make everything personal.
“For example, should he defend suicide, you may at once exclaim, “Why don’t you hang yourself?” Should he maintain that Berlin is an unpleasant place to live in, you may say, “Why don’t you leave by the first train?” Some such claptrap is always possible.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
You can even step it up a notch, and insult.
“A last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude, as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand, and that you are going to come off worst. It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself, and in some way attacking his person.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
It’s a great way to make them angry. You always want to make your opponent angry.
“Should your opponent surprise you by becoming particularly angry at an argument, you must urge it with all the more zeal; not only because it is a good thing to make him angry, but because it may be presumed that you have here put your finger on the weak side of his case, and that just here he is more open to attack than even for the moment you perceive.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
And of course always, interrupt, dispute, and divert. That’s the way to go.
“If you observe that your opponent has taken up a line of argument which will end in your defeat, you must not allow him to carry it to its conclusion, but interrupt the course of the dispute in time, or break it off altogether, or lead him away from the subject, and bring him to others.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
At the end, always declare victory, no matter what happened
Everyone likes a winner right? And who else to declare a winner than you? Just like Napoleon crowned himself emperor with his own hands, you should never leave someone else to do that for you.
And even if you lose, so what? Claim victory despite defeat.
“When your opponent has answered several of your questions without the answers turning out favorable to the conclusion at which you are aiming, advance the desired conclusion, — although it does not in the least follow, — as though it had been proved, and proclaim it in a tone of triumph. If your opponent is shy or stupid, and you yourself possess a great deal of impudence and a good voice, the trick may easily succeed.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Being a winner is a mindset after all.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.