Why do so many of the ancient masters come down to us in the form of recorded or fictionalized conversations? I am thinking of Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mencius, Yajnavalkya, and Jesus. It is not only because in some cultures writing wasn’t a “thing ” yet; even in cultures with established literary traditions, it is possible to reject writing, as Socrates does in the Phaedrus. However, writing is only one mode of the larger activity that is refused: this is teaching or instructing. The surviving records of these masters are already formalized documents that enshrine official teachings, carrying the stamp of approval from institutions that have grown up and sometimes ossified in the footsteps of the master’s disciples. But even in these documents — even through stiff translations — it is remarkable how distinct the voices of Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus can sound across the millennia. In reading these texts, it is striking how many of them are conversations, not lectures or treatises; and in a conversation, the interlocutors also have voices and characters that have to be taken into account, because the masters say different things to different people.
Mencius explicitly broaches the choice of conversation over instruction on several occasions — for example,
Mencius said, ‘There are many ways to teach. I refuse to teach or instruct, but that’s just another kind of teaching.’ (Mencius, 6.2.16)
Poring through the Book of Mencius, we find that he almost never teaches; most of the passages are memorable snippets of conversation. The same is true of Confucius: the Analects (Lun Yu, literally “edited conversations”) feels like a collection of obiter dicta, things that Confucius said that at least one person did not forget. Although subsequent tradition likes to picture these sages as sitting on a raised platform lecturing, in fact they didn’t believe in teaching as a valuable mode of transmission. Instead, the proof is in the day-to-day living, how the master speaks and conducts himself, his sensibility and humane refinement as they are expressed in his actions and words from moment to moment. The “teaching” is only one surface of a rounded, fluid way of being, which is entered into by hanging out with the master, listening, watching, questioning, playing, and emulating:
Mencius said, ‘There are five ways in which the superior person teaches. There are some on whom his influence descends like seasonable rain. There are some whose virtue he perfects, and some whose talents he helps to develop. There are some whose questions he answers. There are some who, inspired by him, privately cultivate and correct themselves. The superior man teaches in these five ways.’ (7.1.40)
The books of Confucius and Mencius do not present theories or arguments; rather, they are fragments of conversations through which we can glimpse and imagine what a better human life might be like. They give no formulas for thought or action, and no transcendent vantage point from which we can criticize life. Instead of “theory,” which stands outside and “beholds” (theaw), we are inside the flow of life circumstances in which people think, speak, and interact continuously, figuring out new situations as they appear and struggling to understand what just happened. Recollected conversation is the only fitting literary medium to render the character of someone who knows how to live well.
I have come realize that nearly all the great doorways and turning-points in life occur in conversations: the job interview, the new friendship, the destruction of friendship, the romance, the conversion, the profound reconciliations, the discovery of “calling.” Conversation is where learning really happens. I am a deadly-serious, slow, intense reader, and books have affected me a lot — but no book has taught me as much as some conversations I have had. I learned more about literature from weekly conversations over three years with Arthur Sale, my tutor in Cambridge: he never lectured, but drew me naturally into his living relationship with books, and our conversation blossomed over tea and on walks — indeed, thirty years after his death, in my head he is still the main person I talk with when I read poetry. From my brief career as a researcher into Shakespeare’s texts, I am certain that no graduate program would have given me as much as my three-year apprenticeship with Marvin Spevack, great philologist and Shakespeare scholar, in which I spent hours each day studying the specific textual decisions of three hundred years of Shakespeare editors, and discussing these details with a professor for whom these dead editors were living colleagues. I learned osmotically from his silences, grunts, chuckles — how his fingers found words on the page, the speed and accuracy with which he worked, the way his mind made connections. Through conversation, we study three-dimensionally, and it is what the human intelligence is meant to do. The ancients knew this. Confucius and Mencius, like Christ and the Buddha, didn’t attempt the more two-dimensional mode of argument or theory, because what they were after was so much greater.