UnHerd | think again

Challenging the herd with new and bold thinking in philosophy, politics and culture.
— Read on unherd.com/

A graduate school friend shared a post from http:www.unherd.com. The post left me conflicted. On the one hand, for twenty years Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has anchored every course I have taught. More specifically, Aristotle’s distinction between the “bovine” approach to life, which counts anything that is pleasurable good, and mistakes the good for the pleasurable; and the life of “virtue” or aristes, where “the good” is counted as that which depends on no other, but upon which all else depends. It is from this principle that Aristotle then derived the social or political character of the human being, the good for the many being superior to the good for the one, the principle covering the many superior to the principle covering the one. On the other hand, the supreme classicist Friedrich Nietzsche took Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics at face value to derive its natural successor: the good for the many could not possibly be the good at all. The “good for the many” was, by definition, the very “herd” mentality that Aristotle had initially castigated. It followed, for Nietzsche, that Aristotle was mistaken.

I am not a critic of Nietzsche. At least not a uncritical one. But I also feel that, in this instance, he was a less than careful reader of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the good for all was not, under any circumstances, a democratically derived principle. The good could only be thought by those who acted good — who were themselves good. And being good was not itself a matter of thought, but a consequence of care. For Aristotle, any individual who had been cared for — fed, clothed, secured against harm, sung to, read to, walked with, talked with — in Greek society only a privileged individual was equipped to act virtuously and therefore privileged to know the good, the true, and the beautiful. In theory, therefore, every individual who was thus privileged could be equipped to judge, to identify the right path.

What Nietzsche — and Aristotle — objected to was granting to individuals who had not been so equipped the power to judge. This, for Aristotle, would be the equivalent to granting preference to “the herd.”

There is a curious anthropological footnote to this dissonant discourse. Anthropologists have shown that so long as communities maintained a size not exceeding one hundred and twenty-five, lying is ineffective. For communities larger than 125, the only way to organize effectively is to collectively embrace shared lies. To this extent, the herd mentality is a function of size. From this vantage-point, Aristotle was eager to press the limits of this functional limit. He hypothesized that freedom could expand the circle of individuals equipped to conduct their lives transparently: freedom from fear, freedom of knowledge, freedom from hunger, freedom from loneliness, freedom from want.

The classical republican theory is that a society composed entirely of highly educated, healthy, secure, safe, cared for individuals could conduct themselves individually and collectively as an independent society, irrespective of their size, far beyond the anthropological limit of 125 individuals.

Ideally, I would like to believe that radical republicans are right. A highly educated, cared for, well fed, healthy community could push the anthropological limit. But, of course, this was not at all Nietzsche’s ideal. Instead, he viewed the vast majority of human beings, exceeding ninety per cent, as irredeemable members of the herd. Only a minuscule few could unherd. And, in a very real way, he was right. Until all members of a community are sufficiently equipped, they will remain members of the herd, and those who are not members of the herd will be condemned either to manipulate the herd or remain subject to their judgments.

This means, however, that unherding requires a concerted, collective, effort to generate the conditions that make for freedom. It requires an operationalization of achieving the unherd, a very un-Nietzchean idea.

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