It’s no secret that we are surrounded by passionate, partisan, and divisive political and ideological debate. Our daily news and social media are saturated with all manner of vitriol and vituperation. Many of us, perhaps most of us, yearn for more civil discourse, where we can agree to disagree agreeably. The ancient Greek playwright Euripides got it right: “In case of dissension, never dare to judge till you've heard the other side.” And we hear wise echoes of this sentiment from Edward Renehan. 

Edward Renehan is the author of a number of books, his latest being a biography of General Motors mogul and philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott. A native of New York, Renehan lives in Wickford, Rhode Island. 

Something we forget in these tempestuous times is that there ought to be a measure of fellowship in disagreement: in intellectual antagonists reasoning with one another over matters of opinion.

This fellowship should be one of truth-seeking and empathy: a desire to at least understand the opposing point-of-view, even if only to shore-up our own. Debates over politics, religion, and philosophy ought to be exercises in mutual aid toward deriving new thought, even if this carries us no closer to agreement.

A relative of mine, Dudley Field Malone, served as Clarence Darrow’s co-counsel at the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. In a speech during that trial, Malone uttered a sentence which has been widely quoted ever since: “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”

A statesman for whom Malone had the greatest respect, William Jennings Bryan, served as lead counsel for the opposing side. Malone had served with Bryan during the Wilson administration when Bryan was Secretary of State and Malone an Under-Secretary. There existed absolutely no personal animosity between them. They simply disagreed on the narrow question of whether or not, in public schools, evolution ought to be offered as a theory alongside Fundamentalist interpretations of man’s beginnings.

The entire trial boiled down to a discussion of this one key point rather than the question of the “guilt” or innocence of teacher Scopes.

No personal insults or vilifications were ever hurled. No man’s character wound up impugned — not even that of the defendant. The discussion concerned ideas, ideals, and intellectual freedom.

Allan Bloom*, in his magisterial The Closing of the American Mind, comments that Plato and Aristotle “at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good … were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.”

Of course, the world has a distinct shortage of Platos and Aristotles, so I am shooting for a rather high ideal here: the type of target that is never easy to hit. Still, it can be achieved.

The process is called collaboration. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

I believe in respectful disagreement. But it must be thoughtful. It must be open. And it must be positive. If only we could have that everywhere.

*Correction: In the original version of this essay, the essayist misidentified the author of "The Closing Of The American Mind" as Harold Bloom. Allan Bloom is the author of the book.