Listen to this article
I recently came across a wonderful list of topics that were considered unworthy of conversation by the Buddha. He cautioned against discussing: tales of kings, robbers and ministers of state; war, terrors and battles; food and drink; clothes, beds, garlands and perfumes; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities and countries; women and heroes; gossip; tales of the dead; idle chat; legends about the creation of the land and the sea; and speculation about existence and non-existence.
In case you’re worrying that your own conversation may turn out to be less than edifying, bear in mind that the Buddha was talking to and about monks, not giving general advice for lay people.
One of the items on the Buddha’s list was gossip. But hasn’t gossip been rescued from its bad reputation and rehabilitated? According to this view, gossip has evolved as a mechanism for social lubrication and bonding, somewhat like primate grooming. Recent research has also showed that it comes in handy as a way of warning people about dishonest others. Still, no one would deny that malicious gossip is real, harmful and to be avoided.
The Buddha’s list is clearly not a viable prescription of allowed topics for conversation, otherwise we would all have to fall silent. But it could be food for thought. There’s little escape from words nowadays, and even less with the advent of social media. All this talking can make you giddy. And it’s hard not to feel a pressure to add your own words to the mix, to keep chatting, almost as if by not joining in you’d risk dropping out of existence.
Perhaps that’s what we could question – that it’s always “good to talk”, as the old BT slogan would have it. Sometimes it’s better to create a bit of quiet instead. To help you do this, you could pay attention to what you talk about and how you talk about it. And do remember that there’s no need to feel awkward if you have nothing to contribute to a conversation not worth having.
It’s easy – and let’s admit it, quite fun – to sneer at the trivia discussed by hoi polloi. However, there is at least one advantage that talking about celebrity sex scandals has over topics such as whether free will is an illusion or artistic taste purely subjective: at least there is reasonable chance of agreeing on the right answer.
Intellectuals have always been mocked for their endless discourse on matters that more practical minds find pointless. Aristophanes sent Socrates to the clouds nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago, and that’s where many have kept him and his ilk ever since.
It’s not just the improbability, if not impossibility, of reaching a conclusion that makes many dismissive of theoretical questions. There’s also a sense of vanity about the whole enterprise. Isn’t the very definition of hubris unduly solemn adults pretending that they can even begin to fathom the deepest mysteries of existence? From this perspective, much theology looks like blasphemy – “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” as the Bible puts it.
Faced with this scepticism, some defend more academic pursuits by claiming they are more useful than they appear: philosophy, history, literary theory and the like enable us to live better lives by contributing to our understanding of self and others. True – but only up to a point. You would be hard-pressed to make this claim stand up for most work in modal logic, for example.
A better strategy might be a kind of intellectual judo, in which the force of the objection to academic inquiry is turned against the attacker. We need to embrace its lack of utility, as Wittgenstein did when he rejected Bertrand Russell’s claim that philosophy expands the mind and provides a kind of liberation: “People who like philosophy will pursue it, and others won’t and there is an end of it.”
The value of apparently useless intellectual problems sometimes lies precisely in the fact that we do not discuss them for any other sake than their own. Like all the most precious things in life, we love them for what they are, not what they can do for us.
The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published