Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola was the quintessential Renaissance humanist. By the age of 24, he had mastered Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, reading all the great works of these literary traditions. In the year 1486, Pico summoned the noteworthy scholars of his time to Rome for a public debate of 986 theses on philosophy, theology, and literature.
Pico believed firmly in the need for argument and disputation. He asserts that, “for the knowledge of truth– nothing is better than to attend as often as possible the exercise of debate.” At the end of his opening address to the debate participants, he urges, “Let us now– join battle as to the sound of a trumpet of war.”
Pico wanted the scholars to fight, to clash, to throw one idea against another until the truth emerged triumphant.
Unfortunately, Pico never had his grand debate. When the Papacy heard of his plans, it shut down the forum and condemned Pico. He never had the opportunity to engage in his battle of ideas.
Today, we have that opportunity. Here, at Yale University, the greatest minds in the country have been assembled. Here, forums are available for the discussion of ideas. Here, we may say what we wish without fear of persecution or censure.
I ask you: Have we seized this incredible opportunity for free debate, the opportunity Pico sacrificed his freedom for? No, we most definitely have not.
My Renaissance Italy section is a testament to our failure. Today I tried to pick a fight. I came up with a counterargument to every statement made by my classmates. It didn’t matter if I actually agreed or disagreed — I let no thought stand without a detracting comment. I sneered and jeered, daring them to defend their opinions. Eventually my section leader stopped calling on me.
Did anyone fight my persistent attacks on their thoughts and opinions? No. They yielded like docile cows trudging slowly to the slaughterhouse. Ironically, our discussion of Pico — the poster boy for debate — yielded nothing more than my ranting interspersed with inane comments and silent pen chewing.
Though I couldn’t get a rise out of any of my classmates, I was soon excited by the thrill of the attack. I found myself frantically flipping through my book, searching for particularly damning quotes. I found myself listening keenly to my classmates, attempting to find the cracks in their lines of reasoning. I found myself learning more than I had in any other section this semester. Most importantly, I found myself having fun. Pico was right: aggressive debate does stimulate learning.
My section didn’t seem to appreciate my feisty attitude. They were happy to twiddle their thumbs, doodle in their notebooks, or smoothly change the subject. They listened to my outrageous — and often ridiculous — comments and did nothing.
I’m upset. I came to Yale expecting incredible discussions — dynamic clashes of ideas and minds. With two-thirds of my freshman year behind me, I have yet to find a section with this kind of debate. I’m sure that sections exist where ideas are aggressively defended, where students fight for what they believe. Unfortunately, I have not yet encountered them.
Why do we consistently fail to debate in section? Perhaps we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Perhaps we don’t want to appear stubborn and close-minded. Perhaps we’re just too lazy to do the reading. The reason does not matter — there is no excuse for allowing a foolish thought to stand unchallenged.
We are brilliant students attending one of the best universities in the country. Every day we are given the opportunity to debate, to participate in an intellectual tradition that dates back to Socrates and Plato. For yourself, for your T.A., for your classmates, for Pico — I beg you, pick a fight.
Steven Starr is a freshman in Saybrook College.