The Greatest Conversationalists of All Time

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.”

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946)
Ultra-unorthodox poet and unofficial godmother of American artists and writers in Paris during the early decades of the 20th century, Stein was also an imaginative salonkeeper. She invited, as she put it, “all sizes and shapes, all degrees of wealth and poverty, some very charming, some simply rough.” She reigned over these high-energy proceedings largely by keeping her considerable ego in check. On salon evenings, a friend wrote, she was “generally silent, but with a deep warmth that expressed itself in her handclasp, her look, and her rich laughter.”

CARL ROGERS (1902-87)
Unlike many psychotherapists, Carl Rogers was convinced that therapy clients were not emotional cripples but resourceful, whole beings with a natural bent to make the best of their lives. He asserted that a simple procedure of empathic listening and mirroring (repeating the clients’ words and showing clear comprehension of their emotional states) in an atmosphere of what Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” could markedly improve their mental and emotional health. Rogers’ innovative methods gave birth to humanistic psychology and established the practice of deep listening.

This Russian-born hostess brought the salon tradition into the swinging Sixties. As writer John Berendt noted in a memoir, Timothy Leary, Charles Mingus, New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, Harper’s editor Willie Morris, and a host of other notables mingled with “assorted artists, writers, hippies, movie directors, blue bloods, and deadbeats” at her stylish Manhattan home. Harrington, who had led the jet-set life in Rome and taught Russian at Yale, was the equal of them all in self-assuredness. When Leary kissed her hand and proclaimed her the “leading saloniste in New York,” Harrington replied with a smile, “Doctor Leary, you are full of shit, as usual.”

In an age when conversation on television seems evenly divided between brain-dead chitchat and all-out combat, this consummate interviewer insists upon honoring the tradition, at least as old as Socrates, that a conversation can be a dignified, energetic search for the truth. By taking up topics that genuinely matter to him (religion, democracy, addiction, poetry) and exploring them in dialogue with the best minds in America–from mythologist Joseph Campbell to scientist Evelyn Fox Keller to playwright August Wilson–in a format that allows time for assertions, questions, reflection, and response, Moyers gives the lie to the idea that TV is a superficial medium.

In many indigenous cultures, conversation is made sacred and dignified by rituals–including the passing of a talking stick, whose holder can’t be interrupted. Benjamin Franklin compared the decorum of Iroquois councils with Parliament, “where scarcely a day passes without some Confusion, that makes the Speaker Hoarse in calling it to Order.” The native Hawaiian ho’oponopono is a powerful form of conversational conflict resolution in which a leader elicits from the adversarial parties not only the facts in the case, but also their emotions. When everything has been explored, the former foes ask forgiveness of one another, and a closing ritual puts the dispute permanently in the past. The ho’oponopono is widely used by businesses and other organizations in Hawaii, and interest is spreading to the mainland and in Europe.

Jon Spayde, senior editor of Utne Reader, is co-author (with Jaida N’ha Sandra) of Salons: The Joy of Conversation (Utne Reader Books/New Society Publishers), available at your local bookstore or from 800/880-UTNE.

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