In Commentary, recalls a chapter from Oxford’s history when diverse viewpoints were encouraged and even literally sacred topics were open to debate:
Lewis was president of the Oxford Socratic Club, an open forum that met every Monday evening and whose purpose was to discuss the intellectual difficulties connected with religion, and with Christianity in particular.
“In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into ‘coteries’ where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumor that the outsiders say thus and thus,” Lewis wrote in the first issue of Socratic Digest, the group’s publication.
The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say. In the Socratic all this was changed. Here a man could get the case for Christianity without all the paraphernalia of pietism and the case against it without the irrelevant sansculottisme of our common anti-God weeklies. At the very least we helped to civilize one another.
On February 2, 1948, Anscombe and Lewis debated a portion of Lewis’s book Miracles, with Anscombe reading a paper pointing out “a fatal flaw in Lewis’s argument,” according to Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. (It was a complicated critique having to do with the conflation of irrational with nonrational factors in belief-formation.) The result of the debate, which Lewis himself felt he lost, was revisions to his book. Anscombe, while not convinced by the changes made by Lewis, did say “the fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has these qualities, shows his honesty and seriousness.”
The purpose of debating, then, isn’t so much to win an argument as it is to deepen our understanding of how things really and truly are. It isn’t to out-shout an opponent but, at least now and then, to listen to them, to weight their arguments with care, and even to learn from them. It’s worth noting that Lewis warned about simply surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who reinforce our own biases and how debates conducted properly “helped to civilize one another.”
What a quaint notion.