A+ A A-

The Lost Art of Conversation


Renowned for his immense learning, remarkable wisdom, lively conversation, and honest talk, Dr. Johnson illuminates the meaning of the art of conversation.

As ordinary people spend more hours before television screens and computer monitors, as video games and surfing on the Internet occupy more and more of a person's leisure time, and as academic life develops more and more online courses and degree programs, the social art of conversation, human interaction, and friendly exchange diminishes.  As humans participate more in these unsociable, isolated diversions and less in the hospitable, gregarious experiences of convivial celebration, robust laughter, and animated dialogue, the flow of mirth, wit, and wisdom ebbs. 

True conversation is not gossip, babble, the mere exchange of information, or argument.  Like other purely liberal activities enjoyed for their own sake, conversation encourages the lighthearted, spontaneous play of minds that enjoy the company of others in the round of talk that gracefully jumps from topic to topic in no regular order and moves easily from the comic to the serious, from the ideal to the practical, and from the factual to the anecdotal.  Conversation requires no agenda and no Robert's Rules of Order, only the element of mirth and the virtue of civility.  When genuine conversation flourishes, wit, banter, and repartee fill the air; ideas are exchanged and clarified; and wisdom and prudence appear.  Conversation expands the heart, nourishes the mind, and refreshes the spirit, for man by nature is a social (political) animal who desires to know.  While computer highways and information systems disseminate information and news, they do not communicate the common sense, perennial wisdom, and self-knowledge that the art of conversation cultivates.

In his famous biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell acknowledges the hallmark of his book: his assiduity "to preserve his [Johnson's] conversation in an authentick [sic] and lively manner" and his scrupulosity "by which so many conversations were recorded."  Renowned for his immense learning, remarkable wisdom, lively conversation, and honest talk, Dr.  Johnson illuminates the meaning of the art of conversation.  His many remarks on the topic indicate a hierarchy of various degrees of conversation ranging from pleasant talk to intellectual invigoration. 

First, simple conversation promotes charity, good will, and friendship and does not demand scintillating wit or learned sophistication: "That is the happiest conversation where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments," Johnson remarks.  When Boswell once complained about the absence of stimulating conversation at a dinner which provided a sumptuous banquet, he asked "Why then meet at table?" Johnson explained that good conversation did not demand intellectual substance: "Why, to eat and drink together, and to promote kindness."  Boswell also records another comment of Johnson that highlights the social, civilizing dimension of conversation — not its educational content: "The happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered but a general effect of pleasing impression."

Second, good conversation invites playfulness and cultivates mirth and laughter.  In the spirit of pure fun Johnson easily assumed the role of "the greatest sophist" and the most subtle devil's advocate, and his quick wit was unparalleled, for Boswell recalls the famous actor David Garrick's remark: "Rabelais and all other wits are nothing compared with him.  You may be diverted by them; but Johnson gives you a forcible hug, and shakes laughter out of you, whether you will or no."  Boswell's lifelong friendship with Johnson provided copious examples of the great sage's fun-loving good nature: "He frequently indulged himself in colloquial pleasantry; and the heartiest merriment was often enjoyed in his company." 

Second, good conversation invites playfulness and cultivates mirth and laughter.

Third, civil conversation enlarges the mind and develops the power of thinking in the spirit of friendly competition.  Notorious for his passion for victory in argument ("sometimes too desirous of triumph in colloquial contest"), Johnson enjoyed the sharpening of his mental acumen that honest discussion and lively debate provoked.  Boswell elaborates: "He had, however, all his life habituated himself to consider conversation as a trial of intellectual vigor and skill."  Especially in his exchanges with Edmund Burke, the eminent statesman, Johnson exercised the power of his mind to the utmost.  As Boswell recalls, "Mr. Burke having been mentioned, he said, 'That fellow calls forth all my powers.  Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me.'  So much was he accustomed to consider conversation as a contest, and such was his notion of Burke as an opponent."  Thus the art of conversation cultivates charitable fellowship, elicits playful wit and innocent laughter, and broadens the mind.

Johnson, the epitome of the kindness, mirth, and learning that conversation evokes, also distinguishes between genuine and counterfeit conversation, and he recognizes the bad manners that spoil the enjoyment of true conversation.  He warned that idle curiosity and officious meddlesomeness ("questioning") do not nourish the spirit of friendly conversation: "Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen.  It is assuming a superiority, and it is particularly wrong to question a man concerning himself."  Johnson also objected to exhibitionism in conversation, a type of self-glorification that boasted of notorious deeds: "A man should be careful never to tell tales of himself to his own disadvantage.  People may be amused and laugh at the time, but they will be remembered and brought out against him upon some subsequent occasion."

Likewise, it is poor manners to confine the subject of conversation to one topic and exclude the general interests of the many.  Boswell writes, "Being irritated by hearing a gentleman ask Mr. Levett a variety of questions concerning him [Johnson], when he was sitting by, he broke out, 'Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me.  I am sick of both."  Johnson, a "clubbable" man always eager to engage in conversation, commended this quality in others and considered taciturnity a form of incivility.  The pleasure which Dr. Brocklesby's company afforded him consisted in his "never-failing source of conversation" based on his "reading, and knowledge of life, and good spirits," and Johnson delighted in Mr. Edwards, an old acquaintance from college, even though his friend lacked the breadth of learning and knowledge of life as a whole: "Why, yes, Sir.  Here is a man who has passed through life without experience: yet I would rather have him with me than a more sensible man who will not talk readily.  This man is willing to say what he has to say." 

Boswell notes that Johnson, even in a state of illness, "had none of that unsocial shyness which we commonly see in people afflicted with sickness.  He did not hide his head from the world, in solitary abstraction; he did not deny himself the visits of his friends and acquaintances; but at all times . . . was ready for conversation as in his best days."  Johnson also judged it bad manners to host an occasion for conversation and friendship and neglect the serving of refreshments, objecting "it will never do, Sir. There is nothing served there, neither tea, nor coffee, nor lemonade, nor any thing whatever; and depend upon it, Sir, a man does not love to go to a place from whence he comes out exactly as he came in."  In short, the civility required for occasions of conversation demands tact, moderation, humility, conviviality, and magnanimity — the ability to avoid unpleasant topics, boastful exaggeration, narrow interests, and apathetic indifference.  According to Boswell, Johnson himself exemplified this ideal: "On the contrary, the truth is, that by much the greatest part of the time he was civil, obliging, polite in the true sense of the word; so much so, that many gentlemen, who were long acquainted with him, never received, or even heard a strong expression from him."

This practice of civil conversation has also gone the way of the lost arts of letter writing, hospitality, and the enjoyment of people as perennial sources of great joy.  As television and film viewing and video games and Internet occupy more time and leisure, solitary, silent activities replace sociable, hospitable occasions.  The particular virtues that the art of conversation instills — the ability to listen, the willingness to please, the practice of self-forgetfulness, the habit of tact, the exploration of another's mind, and the desire to enlarge one's world — all suffer a lack of development. 

In his conversation Johnson on many occasions exposed what he called "cant," affectations and pretensions which contradicted common sense.

Emotional and mental impoverishment follows, and the habit of graciousness and delicacy receives less cultivation.  If the arts of conversation are not learned and practiced, human beings and their personal stories evoke no interest, pleasing one's self assumes greater importance than tending to others, people are not appreciated for their intrinsic goodness and unique gifts, proper respect and thoughtful consideration are neglected, opportunities for learning and broadening one's experience are frustrated, and the chance to acquire the wisdom and prudence of others is foiled.  Thus the virtual reality of chat rooms, on-line instruction, and talk show programs gives the illusion of the exchange and interaction of dialogue, but these imitations do not represent the reality of actual conversation that Boswell's biography captures.

For Johnson conversation is not only enjoyable sociability and an expression of thoughtful kindness but also an intellectual skill that sharpens the mind — the peak of the hierarchy of the many levels of conversation.  As he explained to Boswell,

There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials; in the second place, there must be a command of words; in the third place, there must be imagination, to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen in; and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and the resolution that is not to be overcome with failures.

In short, nothing can come from nothing.  A well-stocked mind "replete with images," as Johnson said of Imlac's intelligence in his short novel History Of Rasselas Prince Of Abyssinia, possesses "materials," the richest storehouse for the pleasures of conversation.  Imlac, the sage in Johnson's novel — conversant with the world of commerce, navigation, and literature — has traveled widely and acquired the knowledge of men and manners that informs his capacious mind.  Because he possesses a mind "replete with images" — knowledge from experience, books, and travel — he escapes the "perpetual vacancy" that robs the spirit of the liveliness of conversation.  Imlac also employs "imagination" in his conversation, the ability to grasp old truths in original ways instead of as tired platitudes. 

When the young prince Rasselas asks Imlac about the reason for the Egyptian pyramids, enormous monuments which serve no great practical purpose in proportion to their cost and labor, Imlac offers this unexpected but revealing answer: "He that has built for use, till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish . . . . I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments."  This fresh insight illustrates Johnson's meaning of imagination in conversation as the ability "to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen in." 

Lastly, Imlac exemplifies "the presence of mind" or equanimity that good conversation requires when he explains the human condition to Rasselas as a constant struggle between reason and fancy: "There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes prevail over his reason . . . . No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability."  The astronomer, the scientist whose solitary life in the observatory has deprived him of the pleasures and sobriety of conversation, suffers from a "dangerous prevalence of the imagination" that leads to fantasizing and daydreaming, and he has lost all presence of mind which the art of conversation develops.  He believes that he controls the weather.

Thus the virtue of conversation not only develops the mind and increases knowledge, making a person "replete with images," an essential ingredient of human happiness, but also cures nonsense and flights of fancy that assume the form of utopian ideas and unrealistic theories.  In his conversation Johnson on many occasions exposed what he called "cant," affectations and pretensions which contradicted common sense.  In one instance Boswell claimed that David Hume and Samuel Foote boasted that they did not fear death.  Johnson replied, "It is not true, Sir.  Hold a pistol to Foote's breast, or to Hume's breast, and threaten to kill them, and you'll see how they behave."  Johnson then asked Boswell if he would believe that anyone putting his finger in a flame felt no pain.

On another occasion Boswell asked Johnson if he would eat his dinner if a friend were apprehended for a crime and hanged, implying that close associates claimed they would fast.  Again Johnson's rejoinder ridicules this sentimentality: "Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me.  Why there's Baretti, who is to be tried for his life tomorrow, friends have risen up for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them would eat a slice of plum-pudding the less."  In another example when Boswell asserted that a life in public affairs would "vex" him extremely if Parliament acted contrary to his wishes, Johnson replied, "That's cant, Sir.  It would not vex you more in the house, than in the gallery.  Public affairs vex no man," and he concluded, "My dear friend, clear your mind of cant."  Likewise, Johnson advised Boswell not to "cant" on behalf of the cult of the noble savage, the idea of primitivism popularized by Rousseau that equated the ideal of happiness with the desire to "return to nature" and learn from the noble Indian: "Do not allow yourself, Sir, to be imposed upon by such gross absurdity.  If a bull could speak, he might as well explain, — 'Here am I with this cow and this grass; what being can enjoy greater felicity?'"  Thus good conversation at its best restores common sense and cures folly, dispelling exaggerations, clichés, and silly ideas by its sobriety.  Like the medicine of laughter that cures star-gazing abstract philosophers by bringing them down to earth as they fall in a ditch, good conversation clears the mind of cant and stops a person from thinking foolishly.

The pure enjoyment of a person's personality is never discovered, and the amiability, charm, or mirth in the quality of a person's voice is lost.  One of life's exquisite pleasures has been omitted.

When virtual classrooms and on-line "Blackboard" programs replace actual oral human communication, the qualities and benefits of good conversation that Johnson relishes are absent from learning.  An essential tool of education — dialogue — has disappeared.  The pure enjoyment of a person's personality is never discovered, and the amiability, charm, or mirth in the quality of a person's voice is lost.  One of life's exquisite pleasures has been omitted.  When family members watch television during their meals and fail to interact in the normal exchanges of conversation about the day's happenings, sociability and friendship decline. 

The joy of discovering and knowing a person's family history and the ethnic, religious heritage of a person's traditions and roots remains unknown.  As individuals consume time on the Internet and spend their hours playing computer games and watching films as their primary sources of recreation, the virtues of civility and graciousness are not habitually practiced.  Fun is no longer spending time with the people who are loved and befriended but an isolated, individualistic activity that never contributes to the happiness of others.  The verbal arts of wit, repartee, storytelling, and joking become obsolete without the normal, natural experience of human conversation on a myriad of subjects.  As gravity replaces lightheartedness and dullness supplants the comic muse, humans lose their sense of mirth and their ability to be a child.  Without the enjoyment of conversation as a normative means of learning, the pursuit of learning grows ever more impersonal and mechanical. 

All the gifts of language that Johnson excelled in — wit, playfulness, repartee irony, satire — reflect a highly developed sense of humor that follows from a life rich in conversation.  The most genuine sources of laughter flow from lively conversation as Boswell's Life of Johnson illustrates in his praise of "the wonderful dexterity and readiness of Johnson's wit".  In one of the spontaneous outbursts of this wit, Johnson remarked, "Sir, it is no matter what you teach them [children] first, any more than what leg you shall put into your breeches first.  Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the meantime your breech is bare." 

As Leon Kass, M.D., writes in The Hungry Soul (1994), the appreciation of friendship and love in the midst of sharing a meal and enjoying the conversation of others naturally leads to "the meeting and cherishing of souls," a movement "through playful conversation and wit in the direction of the pursuit of wisdom."  In this atmosphere of the enjoyable companionship of friends and family, "one person's speech turns another's mind around" as conversation "enables us to taste, indeed to savor, the souls of our fellow diners" and to discover "that wonderful side of the soul at play, when it is unself-consciously and immediately being its open, companionable, and responsive self."  That is, in the true art of conversation one discovers that others are indeed more "real" than one imagined as Chesterton would say.  This is the unique virtue of Boswell's famous biography, a portrait of a "literary Colossus," a heroic man, an eminent moralist, a "clubbable" man renowned for his capacity for great friendships, and the most enjoyable conversationalist of his time who inspired his friends to say, "Let us go to the next best: — there is nobody; no man can put you in mind of Johnson."  Without the habit of conversation in homes, schools, and social occasions, the memorable reality of people, the sheer enjoyment of the play of speech, the liveliness of the truth, and the medicine of common sense leave the realm of ordinary experience and become the vestiges of an ancient past, and the whole quality of life becomes reduced to the banal and the bathetic. 



kalpakgian Mitchell A. Kalpakgian. "The Lost Art of Conversation." New Oxford Review (January 2008).

This article is reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review.

The Author

kalpagianMitchell A. Kalpakgian was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature. He is the author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels and The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature. His favorite activities include writing, long distance running, and coaching soccer.

Copyright © 2008 New Oxford Review
back to top