In the Shallows

Why do public intellectuals condescend to their readers?

Becca Rothfeld

a few months ago, I was working on an essay about mindfulness and other schools of uplift, and I found myself in the unenviable position of thumbing through a number of books by the motiva­tional writer and “thought leader” Ryan Holiday. It turns out that there are many of these, including several tracts on public relations that Holiday wrote before his turn to guruism. My project was about Stoicism, not corporate publicity, so I was spared Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising. But I could not dodge The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

The book annoyed me in all the ways I thought it would: its engagement with intellectual history was facile (“many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out”), and its reduction of Stoic doctrine to a series of slogans was grating (“you don’t control the situation, but you con­trol what you think about it”). But what was most irksome was the sheer smirking quality of its tone. Holiday writes in a cooing, coax­ing mode usually reserved for standoffs with obstinate children. “Could these ancient and obscure pages really contain anything rel­evant to modern life?” he asks. “The answer, it turns out, is yes.” Later, he explains that he and his co-author “sought to organize and present the vast collective wisdom of the Stoics into as digest­ible, accessible, and coherent a form as possible…for the busy and active reader, we have attempted to produce a daily devotional that is as functional and to the point as the philosophers behind it.”

The problem is not that the book’s stated aspirations—making Stoicism “something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry”—are unworthy. The humanities are too often treated as the preserve of tweedy specialists, and they ought to speak more clearly (and more enjoyably) to life on the ground. But Holiday’s execution conflicts with his intentions: To write as if your audience is made up of your intellectual inferiors, as he does, is not to make philosophy “accessible,” but rather to render it, however inadvertently, snobbish and alienating. I cannot help resenting the assumption that I am incapable of appreciating ancient philosophy on my own, or the suggestion that I could only ever savor the complex flavors of the primary sources if they were converted into snackable nuggets. The guiding premise of The Daily Stoic is that its readers are not peers but pupils.

Holiday’s patronizing style may be particularly craven, but it is not unusual. As Mark Greif observed in an unforgettable essay in The Chronicle Review in 2015, condescension is widespread among public intellectuals. The problems Greif encountered when he invited junior academics to write for n+1, the literary magazine he helped found in 2004, “were absolutely not those of academic stereotype—not esotericism, specialization, jargon, the ‘inability’ to address a nonacademic audience.” Instead,

the embarrassing truth was rather the opposite. When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the “public,” it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial lan­guage with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than them­selves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly.

If the academic humanities too often address only siloed experts, then pop philosophy too often addresses an audience of imagined idiots. And condescension is an especially risky vice for public intellectuals, because it conflicts with the very practice of public thinking.

hannah arendt, who wrote wonderfully for both the academy and the public, made many claims about thinking, but for my pur­poses, two are central. First, in a lecture series published in Social Research in 1971, she claims that thinking is “resultless by nature”: instead of arriving at a conclusion, thought flutters restlessly from one inquiry to the next, like a bird loath to settle on a perch. Second, she holds that thinking is a dialogue between internal interlocutors. Even private contemplation is therefore social in form, a fact that Platonic dialogues dramatize. Arendt admires Socrates because he publicized “the thinking process,” which she describes as “that dia­logue that soundlessly goes on within me, between me and myself” whenever one is engaged in thinking.

If thinking is a dialogue between internal discussants, how should we envision them? Are they equals, homunculi at a cranial seminar table? Or does some internal authority preside over a sea of subordinates? For Freud, the superego at least nominally keeps the ego and the id in check, though not always very effectively; for the late philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his seminal paper “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” the mind is hierarchical, and higher desires trump lesser whims. For her part, Arendt also invokes an internal pecking order when she speaks of the faculty of “conscience,” often conceived as a judge that stands over and above the lower impulses.

I, though, prefer the vision offered up by Franz Kafka, for whom true thought consists of an exchange between evenly matched opponents. In an obscure parable that I read as a fable about the workings of mental life, Kafka imagines himself in a battle with two antagonists: one “pushes him from behind,” while the other “blocks the road ahead.” On the one hand, his “dream” is that he will one day triumph over both opponents and assume the role of umpire; on the other hand, he recognizes that he could only do so during “a night darker than any night has ever been yet,” during a kind of disaster. The moral is that, however much we may yearn for mental quietude, there can be no umpires, for true thinking demands internal dialogue between equals: if one antag­onist is stronger than another or one interlocutor has the power to decree a resolution to debate, the conversation that constitutes thinking peters out. Thinking therefore requires something like internal democracy, not the aristocracies of the mind envisioned by Frankfurt.

If public thinking externalizes the dialogue that takes place in the mind, distributing thought over a larger sphere, then it requires a kind of egalitarianism, too. A public intellectual should think in tandem with her audience, and she cannot do so if she sets out to teach them how to be stoical from on high. Should no ade­quately equal public emerge, her only choice is to invent one, writ­ing as if her relations to her readers were democratic. Thinkers like Namwali Serpell, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Anahid Nersessian embody this approach: they are academics, but their public writ­ing does not simply regurgitate the arguments first developed in their research in a chattier, cheaper form. No matter the venue, they make hefty demands on their readers, because they have high expectations of their audience.

As Greif concludes in his essay, what the self-help-inflected public intellectualism that is so prevalent today often lacks is an

aspirational estimation of “the public.” Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and com­mercial, as we use “aspirational” now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are—and that nat­urally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing—and that every worthy person does.

What is crucial, as Greif suggests, is that writers and readers aspire together. The public humanities are not a matter of experts lec­turing amateurs, authorities leading disciples, or therapists consol­ing patients. They are a matter of collaborators who work things out together and, occasionally, improve each other. If philosophy is going to “change anyone’s life,” as its popularizers are fond of claiming it can do, then the people writing it must be willing to be changed by the people reading it. Otherwise, they are pandering, not thinking at all.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post, an editor at The Point, and a lapsed academic philosopher.
Originally published:
September 18, 2023


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