The Greatest Conversationalists of All Time

From the salons of Paris to the villages of Hawaii, ten who can teach us a lot about talking

| July/August 2002 Issue

Great conversationalists are often, but not always, great talkers. The men and women honored here stand out for the way they fostered great conversation—as brilliant speakers, as powerful listeners, or as figures who masterfully facilitated the exchange of ideas. Drawing upon the wisdom, skill, and joie de vivre they brought to the simple act of talking, we can all learn a thing or two about the art of conversation.

SOCRATES (469–399 B.C.E.)
This Athenian gadfly transformed casual conversations into full-blown quests for philosophical truth—without leaving anyone behind. Gregarious and tactful, he urged his compatriots on to new insights about big topics—the nature of love, the meaning of courage, the perfect society. In some of Socrates’ dialogues recorded by his pupil Plato, he manipulates the conversation to prove his own point of view; the famous Republic is a case in point. But in others, notably the Lysis and Laches, he genially helps his friends strip their own ideas of the inessential, the obvious, and the dull until only the incandescent glow of clear thought remains.

China’s Han Dynasty collapsed in 220, ushering in a period of political chaos. A number of artists and intellectuals "dropped out" to pursue Taoist philosophy, eccentric behavior, and "pure talk" (ch’ing-t’an)—conversation that prized wit, unconventional opinions, and skill in debate. The most famous of these gatherings took place in a bamboo grove north of the city of Loyang—a confab of seven youthful "sages" that included the brilliant musician and debater Hsi K’ang and the often-inebriated Liu Ling, who liked to invite friends to his house, remove his clothes, and declare, "I take the rooms of my house for my pants and coat! What are you gentlemen doing in my pants?"

MARTIN LUTHER (1483–1546)
The reformer was a daring theologian, a tireless pamphleteer—and a terrific talker, too, if the 6,596 entries in the posthumously compiled collection of his pronouncements, Table Talk, are anything to go by. At his dinner table in Wittenberg, surrounded by students and friends, Luther chatted in earthy style about everything from the human soul to the frogs in the Elbe River. He also showed a deep, almost therapeutic empathy with people. Introduced once to a "melancholic" (neurotic) who compulsively crowed like a cock, Luther crowed along with him, for seven days. On the eighth, he announced, "I no longer have to crow—and neither do you." The man was cured.

This dynamic noblewoman invented a forum for conversation that was to have worldwide influence: the salon. Tired of the banalities of court life, Rambouillet invited France’s best thinkers and talkers to her home. Aided by a sly sense of humor, she created gatherings that were notable for both intellectual energy and careful decorum. When a poet named Voiture dared to bring dancing bears to the salon, Rambouillet had a selection of his verses printed under another man’s name and playfully accused Voiture of plagiarism. Such high jinks notwithstanding, the alliance Rambouillet forged between good taste and good conversation has made salons a force in Europe for 400 years.

An opium addict, chronic procrastinator, and notorious sponger, the celebrated Romantic poet nevertheless mesmerized friends and enemies alike with impromptu discourses on literature, philosophy, and theology, drawing on an almost unbelievable wealth of knowledge. "Coleridge, like some great river," wrote memoirist (and fellow opium eater) Thomas De Quincey, "swept at once . . . into a continuous strain of eloquent dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive."

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