The Magazine

The Talking Cure

What it means about what we say.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


A History of a Declining Art

by Stephen Miller

Yale, 368 pp., $27.50

Conversation just isn't that important anymore. The activity of speaking face to face with friends and family for extended periods has been, it sometimes seems, outlawed. Families dine in front of televisions; teenagers "text" friends in the same room; and our restaurants and pubs, places formerly thought to foster conversation, now throb with "music" so loud as to force people to shout.

Nobody, certainly nobody in our cities, can engage in conversation for more than 10 or 15 minutes without a cellular phone blurting out some idiotic melody, with the inevitable result that one of the conversation's participants is pulled away for some, no doubt significant, reason. There are PDAs, laptops, and BlackBerrys to keep us disengaged from those around us; and there are the ever-mutating codes of political correctness to discourage us from uttering more than banalities lest we scandalize the enlightened.

Conversation has been written about many times over the last three centuries, but just now, awash as we are in what Stephen Miller calls "conversational avoidance devices," the subject seems refreshingly relevant. Miller's essay, as he calls it, begins with the ancients' views on conversation. Initially I wondered why Miller had felt it necessary to begin with the ancient world (Job, Plato's Symposium, Cicero's On Duties), but Cicero, it seems, was the first to deal with the vital question about conversation, namely the connection between the habits of cultivated conversation and the stability of the state. It was that relationship--the relationship, in other words, between talking together and living peaceably together--that animated a remarkable number of the 18th century's boldest intellects.

Readers whose interests lie outside 18th-century writing may be surprised to discover just how large the subject of conversation loomed in the minds of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and especially David Hume; but for them, as also for the saner thinkers of the French Enlightenment, polite conversation represented one of the few societal conventions keeping civilization from degenerating into disunion and civil war--as, quite literally, England had in the 1640s and '50s.

There had, of course, been conversation before and during the English civil wars; but polite conversation, which is to say conversation shaped and defined by a complex code of manners, was largely an invention of the 18th century. The Earl of Shaftesbury outraged the ecclesiastical establishment by proposing, in an originally anonymous collection of writings called Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), that modern society should be governed, not by the recondite principles of religion, but by the ideals of politeness. The chief of those ideals was that of cultivated conversation: Free-flowing, good natured, cultured, aimless but reasonable conversation.

Throughout the latter 17th and early 18th centuries, roughly speaking the age of the later Stuarts, coffeehouses sprouted throughout the cities of England, Scotland, and Wales. These were places where the art of polite conversation was practiced and judged with great sophistication by the burgeoning middle classes. Almost every major 18th-century writer, from Alexander Pope to James Boswell, wrote extensively about their own skills in conversation, and especially the skills, or shortcomings, of others. Principal among the spirits of the "conversible world," as it was known, was a writer Miller rightly takes more seriously than is customary in modern scholarship, Joseph Addison, whose hebdomadal essays in The Spectator (1711-12) did more than any other publication to promote the virtues of conversation.

Addison wrote at a time when general elections in Britain made elections of our own day seem cheerful by comparison; indeed, many thought civil war was inevitable. Miller reckons that, by modeling in beautifully direct prose the good humor and civility of polite conversations, and by making the goings-on of the conversible world seem so attractive, The Spectator helped to lower the temperature of the British polity. While a variety of extremist and obscurantist ideologies goaded the nation towards violence, the presence of a civilized and intellectually vibrant conversible world seemed to offer something better--a national and cultural life defined by reciprocity instead of aggression and bombast, good humor instead of excessive gravity, moderation instead of fanaticism.