A conversation starter about how we converse

Miller chronicles the history of dialogue - from its ancient beginnings to its recent decline.

Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, is part of a tradition stretching back to the late Roman Republic.

As the book's author, Stephen Miller, says, "Cicero was the first writer to make a case that liberty might lead to violent civil discord if the educated classes lacked the art of conversation."

For Cicero, the conversation of Socrates was exemplary - gentle but witty. And yet Socrates was executed by his fellow Athenians. As for Cicero, a few years after he published his work on conversation, he was murdered by government troops.

For Miller, conversation is "talk without a purpose." Given the fate of Socrates and Cicero - both great talkers - it would appear that such talk can be misinterpreted by those in power.

Yet Miller defines conversation in terms of etiquette. The art of conversation is the art of pleasing others. Anger ruins many a conversation, and Miller suggests that Americans are increasingly living in "anger communities," which are preoccupied with their own political opponents.

Furthermore, Miller is not surprised that in our time - which emphasizes self-expression and is filled with the distraction of "ringing, buzzing, and chirping devices" - conversation is in decline.

For Miller and other historians of conversation, the Age of Conversation was the 18th century. What he calls the "conversable world" found its center in numerous salons and coffee houses in Paris and London.

For Samuel Johnson, one of the heroes of the Age of Conversation who frequented several coffee houses in London, conversation served "to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation."

Miller contrasts this concept of the art as "politeness" to today's focus on the soul and spiritual authenticity. On the contrary, he says, "Johnson advocated polite Christianity. A polite Christian, he said, should avoid enthusiasm, which he defines as 'a vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication.' "

In one of several personal anecdotes, Miller illustrates this point with a story about his friendship with a "deeply religious" Southern couple. As "irreligious Northerners," Miller and his wife enjoyed their company because none of them was too sensitive to take a joke.

While the book is written for the general reader, Miller packs it with historical information and readings of a wide range of authors, from Plato to Miss Manners.

The result is a refreshing tour of the conversable world. In keeping with the aesthetic values of conversation, his own writing is both clear and witty.

He devotes several pages to the biblical Book of Job, noting that the entire work is a conversation. However, he notes, "It is a failed conversation because the friends do not listen to what Job has to say." First among the virtues of conversation is listening.

The Age of Conversation ended as the Romantic ideals of solitude and the sublime replaced those of the polite arts of conversation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a key figure. He wrote: "Savage man lies within himself; social man knows only how to live beyond himself in the opinion of others."

Preferences aside, savages and social men suggest familiar types from modern novels. Some of Miller's most fascinating pages are about Virginia Woolf. While her novels depicted humanity as bound within the self, she herself "enjoyed talk for talk's sake," and wrote many essays about conversation. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Woolf's last name.]

Woolf wrote: "It may be that the art of pleasing has some connection to the art of writing. To be polite, considerate, controlled, to sink one's egotism, to conceal rather than to obtrude one's personality may profit the writer even as they profit the man of fashion."

Miller's own writing style exemplifies the virtues of conversation. But it carries a political message. He notes that most American men would agree with "the legendary Paul Bunyan, who said: 'Since becoming a Real American, I can look any man straight in the eye and tell him to go to hell!' "

Like all good essays, this one ends with a surprise, a theme that rises out of the many strands of argument as the reader becomes aware of the big picture. The art of conversation is a branch of an even bigger topic: friendship. Above all, friends listen to one another. Yet today our lives are full of "conversation avoidance devices" like iPods. And so, in an America "where people are admired for being natural, sincere, authentic, and nonjudgmental" rather than polite, friends may be in short supply.

The general pessimism of Miller's message is belied by the energy, lucidity, and good humor of his writing. After you finish "Conversation," put it on your shelf. Perhaps your books will start conversing among themselves - politely.

Tom D'Evelyn is a freelance writer in Providence, R.I.

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