'Debate on contested issues has given way to blame, shame, and hectoring. Speakers are shouted down and chased from the podium.' (Credit: The Simpsons Movie/20th Century Fox)


April 17, 2024   5 mins

For the past few years, scientists have warned that a human-driven mass extinction of animal species has begun. The focus falls mostly upon land-dwelling vertebrates, but fails to mention one critically endangered species: homo politicus, threatened on all sides by the collapse of its native habitat, the public square.

Aristotle writes in the Politics that man is by nature not just a social animal — one that finds mates, forms families and households, and comes together in larger communities for the sake of living well — but a political one. Other animals have voice [phonē], which vocalises pleasure and pain: think of a cat’s contented purring or a dog’s yelp when it’s stepped on. But only human beings have logos, a word whose primary meanings include “reason” and “speech”. Speech, Aristotle explains:

“serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort], and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a political community.”

Politics unfolds in debate and deliberation. It concerns the shared determination of what is advantageous and harmful, good and bad, and the acquisition, avoidance and just distribution of these things. And because deliberation and persuasion — unlike force and compulsion — actualise our highest human potentialities of reason and truth-seeking, they are integral to the good life.

A quick glance at what is today called politics shows just how far we have fallen from this Aristotelian standard. The middle ground of public life has mostly become a space not to reflect and discuss, but to emote; not to listen to others, but to heckle them. Debate on contested issues has given way to blame, shame and hectoring. Speakers are shouted down and chased from the podium. Tribal conflict has erased the lines dividing speech from violence, and arguments are often settled by intimidation rather than persuasion. People have learned to protect themselves by concealing or lying about their opinions.

There is historical precedent for these developments in the fascist and communist movements of the 20th century, and it is not encouraging. In her memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam who was killed by the Soviet state, writes with powerful clarity about the collapse of thought, reason and speech in the USSR:

“Nothing can be predicted with certainty: people could even forget how to read altogether and books moulder away to dust. We might even stop talking to each other and communicate only by emitting call signs or blood curdling war cries. Sometimes I think this is what we are coming to. We did, after all, learn to speak in a lying code language designed to conceal our real thoughts. Our descendants pay for such things by losing the power of articulate speech altogether, caterwauling instead like fans at a football game.”

Mandelstam’s description of the degeneration of speech into animal voice — mobs howling their pain or pleasure like packs of wolves — draws directly from her own experience. She and Osip saw a woman torn to pieces by just such a mob during the civil war that started with the Bolshevik Revolution in the autumn of 1917.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of political logos. Social media, which has created sealed ideological echo chambers, is clearly to blame, as is the expansion of state surveillance and increasing control of economic and political activities. But so is human nature, sorely pressed by contemporary realities. “All human beings desire by nature to know,” Aristotle writes in the opening line of his Metaphysics. This seems right, with the qualification that some seek truth more than others — and that most people want other things, like avoiding ostracism and maintaining family comity, at least as much as they desire knowledge.

Technology, at any rate, merely amplifies a disease to which all democratic republics are prone. From the time of Socrates to the present day, democracies have been plagued by the tyranny of public opinion — a tyranny that “leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul”, as Alexis de Tocqueville observes in Democracy in America:

“The master no longer says: ‘Think like me or you die.’ He does say: ‘You are free not to think as I do; you can keep your life and property and all, but from this day you are a stranger among us
 When you approach your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you too, lets they in turn be shunned. Go in peace. I have given you your life, but it is a life worse than death.’”

Conformity of taste and opinion might not seem to be a big problem when the public is divided into hostile camps, as it is today. But the price of membership in these camps is the abandonment of individual judgment. The public space is no longer hospitable to spirited yet peaceful politics. It has become a field of conflict where herds of peevish cattle rush to lock horns.

The withering of individual capacities of thought has another consequence as well. It makes speech stupid and contributes to the essential unseriousness of public life. SĂžren Kierkegaard included the following apocalyptic parable in his 1843 book Either/Or:

“In a theatre, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed —amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.”

Plato, too, compared the public space to a theatre. He described Athenian democracy as a “wretched theatrocracy” in which sovereignty is in the hands of spectators hoping to be entertained. But Kierkegaard gives the analogy a new twist. The management of public affairs is today in the hands of clowns who put on a show for scribblers and pundits. These “wits and wags”, who clap and laugh but don’t listen, have no interest in what transpires away from the spotlight — or, as Americans say, “outside the beltway” that rings Washington, D.C. Yet it is there, in the homes, towns, and cities of the hinterland, that the pillars of civilisation stand or fall.

“The management of public affairs is today in the hands of clowns who put on a show for scribblers and pundits.”

All of the factors mentioned so far — social media, the censorious tyranny of public opinion, the frivolity of politicians and the chattering classes — debase politics by inhibiting the growth and ripening of individual minds. And they all contribute to the emasculation of public life.

Of Shakespeare, Goethe remarked, “it is said that he portrayed the Romans very well; I do not think so, they are all inveterate Englishmen, but, of course, they are men, men from top to bottom, and assuredly the Roman toga fits them”. Who could wear this stately attire today, outside of a comedy? It fits Blutarsky in Animal House, the insane, almost mute John Belushi character who leads a chant of “Toga! Toga! Toga!” and later becomes a United States senator. But nowadays there aren’t even any Blutarskys to be found on campus. Even our frat boys have been fitted with skirts.

Blame it on the puritans who govern us. We are ruled by scolding homeroom teachers, pedantic moralists with little political prudence who are determined to make us good boys and girls. And to our shame, we cower before them like frightened children.

Tocqueville saw this coming. He struggled to find a name for “the oppression that threatens democracy”. What he describes is a despotism that neuters spiritedness. This despotism “would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood”. Instead, the state “gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it”. It provides, facilitates, manages, and directs virtually all elements of public life. Why, Tocqueville wonders, “should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living”?

Tocqueville understood that all that would be left to erstwhile citizens under this despotism is entertainment. When the inner growth of our higher faculties is stunted and our political muscles have atrophied from disuse, what else are we fit for besides the lonely solipsism of personal amusement? Contemplating the extinction of the political animal, I fear Kierkegaard was right. The world will end not with a bang or a whimper, but a clueless guffaw.


Jacob Howland is Provost and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin. His latest book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).