Getting Into the Holiday Spirit: Cultivate Rivalries With Other Intellectuals

Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison. Sigmund Freud battling it out with Carl Jung. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz at each other's throats. The New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, doing their best to shut down every religious scholar on the planet. Your favorite uncle anxious to debate politics over a holiday dinner. A bitter rivalry is good for the mind, as it drives opponents to sharpen their arguments to a fine rhetorical point, while serving as great entertainment for outside observers. The world would truly be a gray and cheerless place without the willingness, on the part of its leading thinkers, to destroy their enemies' theories in the public eye -- and sometimes annihilate their enemies' lives for good measure, although for history's sake everyone pretends to regret that later. Someone pass the turkey.

In that spirit, any budding intellectual would do well to collect at least one nemesis. However, this is more easily said than done.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

Finding a physical opponent is easy: walk into the nearest bar, down one beer to dull the ensuing pain, and then pour a second on the shoes of the biggest, toughest-looking ape in the room. Or if you don't want to walk down to the local watering hole on a cold night, just tell your brother that he doesn't look so tough. An intellectual adversary, on the other hand, often requires a burning theoretical issue over which to battle. Tesla and Edison differed on which type of electric current, AC or DC, was best for the world. (Insert AC/DC and "Highway to Hell" jokes here.) Freud and Jung split over theories of the unconscious mind. Newton and Leibniz (and their respective acolytes) locked horns over calculus, a burst of excitement that branch of mathematics has yet to reclaim.

If you're a scholar imprisoned in academia's Ivory Tower, your enemies usually arrive gift-wrapped. Depending on your area of study, you choose to follow this theory over that one, or learn at the feet of certain professors over others. That inevitably places you in conflict with those scholars who subscribe to other arguments. A furious publishing of monographs will ensue, followed by some bitter e-mails and perhaps an actual debate in person.

Outside of the Ivory Tower, the gentle art of making intellectual enemies is a bit more arduous. Thankfully you have the Internet, the greatest forum ever invented for verbal assault, particularly if you want it delivered by hundreds of random strangers. Step one involves starting a blog or website devoted to a controversial topic. Choose your intellectual opponents -- pundits and other bloggers make good targets -- and aim to hole their claims beneath the waterline (be sure to include links to their blogs or websites). Remember to keep your language clean: too much profanity, and your arguments can be easily dismissed as philistine ranting. An elegantly phrased and well-reasoned claim, though, demands one in kind. Game on.

Unless your newfound enemy kicked your dog or stole your significant other, keep your battle focused on intellectual topics instead of personal ones (don't bring up something that happened between the two of you on that never-again-mentioned camping trip in '02). Remember that both sides benefit from this back-and-forth, in the form of stronger arguments and discarded ideas. (On the other hand, if they really did kick your dog, it's Darth Vader time.)

And the Inevitable Footnote...

The hotter and more vicious the conflict, the sooner it tends to die down. That principle applies to everything from debates over God's existence to hip-hop feuds (notable exceptions include World War II). There are few things more exhausting than constant warfare, especially when the opponents mean to draw blood. Whether you simply drop the issue without a word of explanation, or offer an excuse that you're "on hiatus from the public eye" while you "finish writing that book on intellectualism," sometimes the best response involves stepping away for some time. Or at least ducking into the kitchen for another bottle of wine.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.