One of the fables of Aesop concerns Hercules and Athena. One day, Hercules was proceeding along a pathway in the mountains when he spotted an apple lying on the ground. Irritated at its presence, he decided to smash it with his club; and when he tried to do so, the apple doubled in size. Shocked, he swung his club at it again, this time determined to crush it completely.
But he had misjudged the situation, for the apple now swelled to such size that it blocked the mountain pass through which he intended to travel. He did not quite know how to deal with this situation; he was in the habit of solving problems by bludgeoning them. Suddenly, the goddess Athena appeared before him, amused at his predicament. “It is no use to go on like this, comrade,” she counseled him. “What you are experiencing is what it is like to become embroiled in conflict with others. If you leave matters alone, you can proceed with your life as before; but if you decide to engage them, they explode in front of you, hampering your progress.” This is what the goddess said to Hercules.
Now we know this is sound advice in many situations. It normally serves no purpose to spend one’s time engaged in petty squabbles with others. The conflict takes on a life of its own, and soon becomes unmanageable, dragging us down while wasting time and effort. Most of us have experienced this sort of thing in our lives. But with all due respect to Athena, can it really be said that one should never engage in conflict? And if so, when should we enter the fray, and when should we avoid it? These are the types of questions we really need answered. No one can go through life while avoiding conflict completely; there will be many times when we must respond to unjust or unfair attacks. What we really need to know is: when should we desist, and when should we engage?
The answer, of course, is not an easy one, and will always depend on the situation. Some miscalculate, and abstain when they should defend themselves, while some do the opposite, pointlessly expending energy in futile bickering. I think it should go without saying that one must fight back if one’s vital interests are being threatened: if one is being unjustly accused, maligned, or attacked. We would even expand the scope of this zone of critical interest to include our close personal family members. So then the question becomes being able to identify one’s vital interests. Some things should be ignored, and some must be addressed with vigor and ferocity.
The Renaissance humanist Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503), in his treatise On Speech (De Sermone) identified a number of different classes of speech personalities: the flatterers, the affable, the urbane, the adulators, the gasping, the insipid, the prolix, the contentious, the verbose, the triflers, and the taciturn. The experience of being able to identify these various personality types will assist us in deciding whether someone is worth responding to. An insignificant fool with no influence or relevance is probably not worth a response, even if he attacks a vital interest. Here, as in so many other things in life, an observance of the mean is needed: one must aim for a balance between defending one’s legitimate interests, while letting insignificant irritations slide. Some people love to get involved in pointless disputes. We must learn to identify such types, and understand their motivations. Pontano calls them the “contentious” (contentiosi), and describes them in this way:
The complete opposite of adulators in their endeavors appear certain contentious men, whose nature and also endeavor are not only not to speak to please or gratify others, but on the contrary to oppose them and, nowhere or in any situation, to fear to offend anyone by speaking. Indeed, they both sow disputes willingly and eagerly take up ones sown by others, and rejoice in fostering and keeping them going. [De Sermone I.18; Trans. By G. Pigman]
But it is not just a matter of knowing personality types; we must have an understanding of how words and actions can threaten vital interests. I would suggest that the following zones of interest should be considered vital: reputation, honor, employment, close family members, and spouse or other loved ones. An attack on any of these zones of interest is significant and deserving of a response, as long as the other party is significant.
Even when one does respond to an attack on a vital interest, one should only engage in this type of conflict for the minimum time needed to make one’s point, and not a second longer. For no one has ever benefited from protracted conflict. This is one of the pitfalls that traps many; they make their point effectively, but then they refuse to let the matter rest. They feel a need to continue making the point over and over again, with the result that any goodwill they might have earned from others is quickly dissipated. Fight your corner, say your peace, and stand your ground; but once this has been done, comb your hair, straighten your collar, dust off your shirt, and keep walking.
Read more in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: