On the Crowd

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A reflection on Aristotle’s Rhetoric

I have previously criticized the life of the ascetic as an act of rejection of one’s fellow humanity (see on Asceticism). I reiterate this critique in the context of my new reflections on the social philosophy of Confucius and his demand that we participate in society (see on the Duty to Learn). Withdrawal from the world of people and debate is not merely the act of a selfish mind, depriving the world of one’s talents and skills. It should rather be conceived as an act of mutual mutilation – for not only do you deprive others of yourself, but you also cut yourself off from the great body of humanity.  Thus, impelled to engage in the world of politics, debate and rancor – we now face a dilemma: how do we engage in debate and point our fellow travelers down the path of learning without compromising our own quest for virtue?

If the path to learning is the closest approximation to ‘the Good’ (see on Learning), then this must be seen as the ‘greatest’ of physical goods. All other forms of acts, deeds and events spin away from this center line, decreasing from absolute universality towards increasing relativity. As acts move further from learning they increasingly pull the individual towards parochial self-pleasure, and the shaky labels that we use to classify physical reality shifts from lesser good, to neutral, to evil. On the path is the person who learns in order to become learned and understands their duty to elevate all of humanity. On the curbside is the individual who learns out of an egotistical sense of self-worth. In the back-streets one finds a character learning for wealth and fame. Finally, off the beaten track is a person who has rejected learning as another charade that gets in the way of personal pleasure.

As all humans are fallible, I would posit that open and frank discourse serves as the mutual tool of correction, and it is the duty of those who fall closer to the path to both make available the means to self-learning and to exhort their kin to turn back towards ‘the Good.’ In this sense, debate and active engagement in public life comes as an unfortunate necessity for those who would rather coop themselves up in a study, ‘polishing the mirror’ of their own mind.

Unfortunately – when it comes to debate and discussion – there is a tendency, like when climbing a rock face, to scrabble and grip at any fingerhold that becomes available. This inclination sees speakers latch onto the levers of emotion: hate, anger and fear come crashing through the levee walls of reason, a waterfall of sentiment wreaking havoc and warping the mental judgement of the listeners. Although such emotive methodology can win short term acclaim and support, the harsh feelings stirred up by parochial appeals to ‘us and them’ muddy the water – like sediment stirred up clouding an otherwise crystal-clear stream. In the long term, such insularity of thought and speech leads to one outcome – schism and destruction.

If we must be engaged in public life, as the path of learning suggests, then we cannot rely upon the appeal to pathos as our mechanism for correction. Although every person fails to live up to the impossible standards of ‘the Good,’ if we use the universality found in truth, we can soothe the hot embers of hatred which relativistic mindsets birth into the world.

Original text

Aristotle’s Rhetoric


Henry de Groux, Zola aux outrages, 1898

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