‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’ (Unknown)

We shouldn’t waste any time trying to determine who said this. It’s been said by many over the centuries. Dale Carnegie included it in his immortal book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie believed that arguments are always losing propositions for both parties, and they should be avoided. That in arguments there are only losers and never winners. Even when we win an argument we lose in the relationship.

But I would not go as far as Carnegie in that regard. I think that arguments should be avoided if they CAN BE. But sometimes they’re unavoidable. Though when unavoidable, they should be handled appropriately. In a 17th-century poem by Samuel Butler, the expression finds some additional helpful lines. Here’s the section:

He that complies against his will,
I
s of his own opinion still.
W
hich he may adhere to, yet disown,
F
or reasons to himself best known.

But what of today’s quotation? That, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’? What can we take from this sentiment? I think it helps if we focus on the 3 key words of the quotation:

  • Convinced
  • Will
  • Still

I believe that in these three words we find the essence of the principle. So let’s look at them one at a time.

  1. Convinced
    I
     think it’s significant that the word CONVINCED is used. In other words, the argument being lodged against the other person’s position is effective. It’s a solid argument. Both parties are convinced that a valid if not strong point is being made. The person being argued against is CONVINCED.
  2. Will
    Here the emphasis is on the WILL of the person hearing the convincing argument. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the argument. It’s not that he’s confused by the point being made. It’s strictly a matter of his NOT LIKING the point. He doesn’t WANT TO ACCEPT the new position. He PREFERS the position he currently holds. So even though the argument itself is convincing, it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to continue to maintain his own position because changing positions would go against his will. His preference is to stay the course of his own settled opinion.
  3. Still
    The key here is that NEITHER PARTY has changed their position. Not the one who posed the argument. Nor the one who heard the argument. Despite the fact that the argument was a good one. Or that the argument seriously calls for a change in thought and position. Again—it doesn’t matter. The respective positions are STILL HELD. No ground was gained in the exchange. Though there might be increased rancor or hard feelings. There may even be bitterness, anger, or resentment. But nobody’s opinion has been altered.

So…does this mean we should abandon arguments altogether? That we should assume that we’re never going to change someone else’s opinion on a matter? And that no one is ever going to change our opinion on a matter? That arguing is a silly waste of time and only hurts relationships rather than helps them? That arguing don’t even accomplish its most important purpose? That is, to change the position held by someone else?

In a word—NO. Arguments are legitimate means of influencing others. They’ve been used effectively for centuries and they should not be abandoned now or in the future. A civilized society could not function in a healthy way without argumentation for why we should or should not think, speak, or act in certain ways. We need good sound logical thoughtful arguments. They helps us find our way.

That said, what we should take from this quotation is the EXPECTATION that our argument may not be successful. That even our best presented and reasoned appeal to good sense may fall short. That even under the best of circumstances—our arguments are likely to be rejected. Or even dismissed. This may seem unfair to us. It indeed may BE UNFAIR. But it’s just the nature of the beast. Human opinions are often so strong that nothing can dislodge them. This should not cause us to despair OR cause us to give up on the art of convincing and influencing. But we should have realistic expectations on our success rate. And we should prepare to be gracious toward those who end up disagreeing with us anyway. In spite of our best efforts to convince and persuade and our most sincere desire to change their way of thinking.

There are any number of reasons we may feel obliged to engage in serious conversation. Many reasons we may feel compelled to make others aware of our own beliefs and convictions and the positions we hold. That’s perfectly fine. The desire to make our opinions known is a noble goal. But we should remember that others hold their opinions just as tenaciously as we hold ours. We should grant them the same right to hold them as we expect them to grant us. The best we can do is make our appeal with respect, honor, thoughtfulness, and kindness. While recognizing that it may be totally and unequivocally rejected. And never forgetting that our position may actually be wrong. That’s okay. The time may come when we change or mind. Or someone else may change THEIR MIND. No one should be compelled to adhere to your position. Nor should you be compelled to adhere to the position of someone else. It’s good to remember that it’s not only important what OTHERS THINK—it’s important what YOU THINK. Something else Dale Carnegie said that’s worth remembering is:

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

Others may reject your seemingly flawless arguments. Others may dismiss your well-thought-out positions. Others may fail to detect the utter brilliance of our thoughts and opinions. So be it. Just do your best to HOLD the right positions. Convincing others they’re the positions they should hold may be a bit more challenging. But don’t despair. Just treat others with respect and dignity as you attempt to influence them. That way, even if you continue to disagree, you can continue to think well of each other. You can continue your friendship. You can agree to disagree. Or you can agree to part ways with dignity, consideration, and respect.

_______________________________________________________

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Copyright © 2017 by Samuel Rodenhizer
A
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12 thoughts on “‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’ (Unknown)

  1. I was a little disappointed to see the quote traced back to Samuel Butler. I was hoping it was one of William Blake’s little moral couplets, of which my favourite is:

    A truth that’s told with bad intent
    Beats all the lies you can invent.

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  2. I’d like ask if you truly read “how to win friends and influence people”? As it seems the interpretation may have been aided by the context in which the quote was written. The point being made in that chapter was that ‘arguments’ do nothing but let you express your feelings and knowledge in an aggressive way (which has its place in making you feel good). However, ultimately when someone is forced to agree with something you have not truly changed their mind (only forced them to say they have) and they will revert to their original belief as soon as they are able.
    PS it’s also prudent to mention that the chapter was in a section titled “how to win someone to your way of thinking”, implying that it is more valuable to guide someone into fully agreeing with your view rather than being steamroller by it.

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    1. Thanks, Josh. Good comments. And yes, I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” when I was quite young. Great book. And yes again, Carnegie’s point about the futility of arguing has remained with me. Though I’ve temporarily forgotten it many times. I think there are 3 categories of people when it comes to persuasion. 1–Those who are easily persuaded by the last person that spoke to them. 2–Those who are never persuaded to accept any new ideas except their own. 3–Those who are persuaded by sound arguments that reveal important truth that SHOULD be accepted. But almost NO ONE is persuaded by arguments that attempt to bully them into agreeing with us. That just creates ill-will. And it never convinces and never persuades. Thanks for reading my blog. I hope you continue.

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