Society of Fellows Big Thinkers — Day Five

After a few days of rest, we’re back for another round in the Society of Fellows’ Big Thinkers Tourney. Our sixteen surviving sages are facing off in the hope of moving on to the Enlightened Eight. Last night saw four debates in the West and East Regions.

Our first match of the night was between the two and three seeds in the East. Brushing off rumors of “monstrous deeds” earlier in the tournament, Spinoza, the Heretic of Hague, took on French disciplinarian, Michel Foucault. Foucault dug deep, exposing the metaphysical panopticon at the core of Spinoza’s system, and accusing him of a kind of cosmic, transcendental narcissism. But Baruch refused to take the bait, sticking to his cold, Euclidean logic. And then he showed this man of knowledge what knowing really was, arguing his way to an easy 71-61 win.

Next up, the two lions of Rationalism met in a western showdown. In an impressive display of pure metaphysics, Descartes and Leibniz put forth competing visions of the cosmos seen sub specie aeternitatis. Early on, however, Descartes faltered, opening the contest with an awkward pineal gland joke that fell flat in the crowded debate hall. Indeed, Rene struggled for much of the match, bumbling his explanation of the causal interactions of finite substances. But Leibniz and his mighty monads somehow fell out of harmony in the second half, giving the canny Cartesian a chance to catch up. Then, with mere seconds left, a three-point syllogism broke the tie for good, and Leibniz finally recognized that his own complete concept included defeat at the hands of Descartes. Final score: 73-70.

For the first of the late night games, we returned to the Eastern region for an encounter between two masters of suspicion, Marx and Nietzsche. Top seed Karl had looked strong in previous wins over Russell and Weil. A berth in the final four seemed all but inevitable for the cantankerous communist. On this night, however, Marx gazed too long into the abyss, and the abyss stared back — in the form of a scrawny, bespectacled, vagabond scholar. But the mustachioed muse was in top form. Well rested from his winter in Turin, Nietzsche emerged on the debate stage like Dionysus rising. With a laugh, he swept away the intricate, Apollinian structures of Marxist dialectic, like the gossamer silk of so many webs. He had seen this spider before. In the end, Marx lay vanquished on the ground, a fallen Titan, as Nietzsche strode onward to a 61-50 victory. Perhaps fourth-seeded Nietzsche truly is a destiny!

Let me close my reportage with the night’s grand finale, a battle royale involving the crème de la crème of the French intelligentsia. On the left bank, the enfant terrible of the Ancien Régime, #13 Voltaire (née François-Marie Arouet, but now known by his nom de plume). On the right, the sombre savant of the Belle Époque, #9 Émile Durkheim (who has no use for such sobriquets). This debate would be no mere amuse-bouche. Au contraire! This long awaited rendezvous promised to be a true force majeure!

These two thinkers could not be less alike in terms of their beliefs and methods, but vive la différence! Voltaire is known as a connoisseur of the literary arts, moving effortlessly between different genres, and displaying great panache and élan as he does so. In many ways an existentialist avant la lettre, Voltaire always debates with great optimism, an attitude grounded in his genuine joie de vivre. But he is no mere dilettante. His true forte is his encyclopedic command of debate tactics, which had proved key to the victory in his tournament debut.

Durkheim thought such humanistic tactics déclassé, preferring the naturalistic empiricism that was de rigueur in his late 19th Century milieu. Positivism was his idée fixe, indeed his very raison d’être.

The debate began slowly, a few bon mots thrown back and forth, some faux critique delivered en passant. A malaise swept through the Staples Center crowd. Filled with déjà vu, some fans recalled the competitors’ jejune jousting in a match from several years back. The easy rapport between the two seemed to promise only more ennui.

But there would be no reprise of the previous affair. The détente was finally broken, when the provocateur Durkheim muttered a crude canard, an exposé of Voltaire’s scandalous relationship with his niece. “J’Accuse!” cried Voltaire, as he glared menacingly at the saboteur. The façade of concordat had been stripped away. But this cri de cœur had no effect on Émile. “En garde,” came his steely riposte, as he prepared for what was to come.

And now the tête-à-tête became a full mêlée of the mind. Voltaire launched his assault, a tour de force of philosophical provocation. Durkheim was shaken by the force of the argument. “Touché!” he acknowledged. But he was able to recover, and Voltaire failed to deliver the coup de grâce.

For some time, neither competitor could find any advantage over the other. Even drawing fully from their extensive œuvres, none of the debate tactics in their répertoires were proving effective. Frustrated at the impasse, the volatile Voltaire finally lost his sang-froid. “Crush the infamy!” he cried out, putting forth an ill-considered reductio proof. The gaffe proved costly. The fin de siècle Frenchman seized the opening with a barrage of counter-arguments. The pièce de résistance was a well-timed challenge to Voltaire’s hedonistic ethics. The lucid libertine was floored by the onslaught. Quelle horreur!

With that, the debate was a fait accompli. Voltaire never drew near again, and Durkheim pulled steadily ahead, finishing with an easy 72-58 win over the French flâneur.

In the dénouement to this report, let us bid adieu to sweet Voltaire. For this season, at least, there will be no encore.

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