When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are. When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation. — Proverbs 26:4-5
On June 14, 1643, the English Parliament passed a law limiting the publication of books and requiring that all printing presses be licensed. The honorable members of parliament were concerned about the number of “scandalous, seditious, and libelous” books that were being published, including a pamphlet on divorce by the great poet John Milton. He responded to this governmental action by publishing—without license to do so—an article called “Areopagitica,” in which he challenged the ruling on the grounds that learning should be encouraged, that the free exchange of ideas is necessary, and that attempts to stop books from being published without a license would be no more successful than attempts to lock up crows by shutting the park gates!
Milton said, “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” The freedom to argue!
But not all arguing is profitable. Proverbs states, “When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” If we agree with Milton that we should be free to argue, we must also bear in mind that certain standards of argument must be followed. Otherwise, arguing will be an exercise in futility. Furthermore, thinking and expression might be dragged down to the level of foolish people. Better to pass by your freedom to argue than to argue and be degraded in the process!
But the next statement in Proverbs apparently contradicts the first statement: “When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” So the question now is, “Should you argue with a fool or not argue with a fool?” And the answer is “Both!”
Perhaps the best way of synchronizing the two statements is to say this: in matters of relative unimportance, don’t bother getting into a debate that may deteriorate into a shouting match. But in matters of profound significance, you must not allow foolish statements to go unchallenged. A foolish statement uncorrected may bolster the fool in his folly and release dangerous nonsense into the thinking of unsuspecting—and unthinking—people. Not to argue in such cases is to be guilty of encouraging ignorance.
The key to successful argument is to know what is worth arguing about, to be sure of what you’re talking about, to know when to speak and when to be silent, to express yourself graciously, and to be willing to be proved wrong. That is a good argument for good arguing.
For further study: Proverbs 26:1-12
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.