Despising the Judgment of the Many

I ended a recent post with a Pythagorean ethical maxim. Since I happen to have been wandering in that territory of late, let us return to the Pythagorean school for another lesson. Today’s advice, like my previous example, is offered to us by the very late (5th Century AD) Macedonian writer Joannes Stobaeus, who collected various valuable quotations from ancient Greek writers, a compilation which we are lucky to have, since many of these quotations were not preserved for the modern era in their original contexts. Stobaeus’ attributions are sometimes disputed, as in today’s case, although such authorial disputes are always a tricky business when dealing with ancient Greek authors, who often borrowed one another’s wisdom pretty freely.

Furthermore, these Pythagorean ethical sayings, to the extent they may be taken as authentic representations of the school, were probably intended primarily for teaching to the general public as advice for living well. The Pythagoreans were a secret philosophical society, who did not share their highest teachings publicly, or only stated them in symbolic or metaphorical ways. But due to their founder’s illustrious reputation, they also became influential as wise counsellors in various cities, where they would be consulted as political or moral advisors, particularly during the life of Pythagoras himself and in the years immediately following his death. These sayings, then, generally represent the kind of ideas they taught to non-philosophers, and thus do not reveal the full depth of the Pythagorean philosophy, although they do grant us an excellent impression of the way of life the founder and his scholars recommended for popular benefit. Nevertheless, a few of the sayings do seem to represent something closer to the beliefs of the Pythagoreans themselves, rather than merely the attitudes they believed to be good for the people at large, as may be judged from their specific content. Let us highlight one such case.

Do those things which you judge to be beautiful, though in doing them you should be without renown. For the rabble is a bad judge of a good thing. Despise, therefore, the reprehension of those whose praise you despise.

Not having the Greek text in front of me when I first read the quotation, I was not sure what words Thomas Taylor had translated as “the rabble,” but guessed the Greek might have been hoi polloi, typically translated into English as “the many,” as Plato commonly uses that expression: the people in general, who are not philosophical or even particularly rational, but rather live in accordance with their passions and pleasures. Having now searched through Stobaeus’ original Greek collection of quotations and found the passage in question, I realize that “the rabble” was Taylor’s translation of oklos, which basically means “mob.” The meaning, then, is similar to “the many,” but the implication much harsher, which is interesting, as it would seem to support my suggestion that this particular maxim was intended for students of philosophy, rather than for the general public.

In any event, let us analyze this advice into its three parts.

1. Do those things which you judge to be beautiful, though in doing them you should be without renown.

Follow your honest judgment of the beautiful (the Greek word here, kala, can also mean “good things”) — beautiful actions, beautiful thoughts, beautiful productions — even if doing these things gains you no public fame, attention, or approval. In other words, do not even allow considerations of public acceptance or agreement to become a factor in your choices. Now, this injunction to follow your own judgment obviously does not mean “Do whatever you like.” The advice assumes that you have the ability to judge well about the beautiful, so that you know what is best; or at least that you have a better chance of judging what is beautiful if you do not rely on the approval or agreement of others, but rather on your own rational assessment, which is why you should follow this judgment even if doing so gives you no practical (public) benefit or good reputation.

2. For the rabble is a bad judge of a good thing.

The reason you must ignore the judgment of those who give “renown” is stated here: The many, seen as a crowd that approves or disapproves collectively, have poor judgment, since they are invariably motivated by “groupthink,” the noisy pressure of belonging, emotional comfort, fear of practical failure or hardship, or in general by something other than reason. We can obviously see the truth of this in everyday terms. Is the best music that which has the most listeners? Is the best book that which becomes a bestseller or wins a big literary prize? Is the best movie that which makes the most profit at the box office or wins the most famous award? Is the best political thinker the one who gets elected president? Certainly not — perhaps in many cases the very opposite, which shows clearly that there is a vast difference between what is truly good, and what is merely popular or pragmatically successful. This does not mean that a thing cannot be good and popular, although this will be rare, but simply that the rabble (the majority of the population, which by definition determines popularity and material success) cannot be trusted as a guide for living, thinking, believing, or making. The good man must and will judge for himself, neither aiming at what is already popular nor calculating his choices according to what the many may like or reward. If they will hate it or ignore it, but it is best, then you should choose it anyway, without hesitation.

3. Despise, therefore, the reprehension of those whose praise you despise.

This final sentence completes the thought. If you should choose according to your own rational, careful judgment of what is beautiful, without regard for whether the rabble approves of it or rewards it, then this has another implication: The rabble will often disapprove and hate — perhaps even directly punish in some way — your honest choices. But if the rabble’s preferences ought to be ignored because they are bad judges, then the same is true about the rabble’s disapproval, which ought to be despised (from kataphroneō, to think of with contempt) because they do not know what is beautiful. Why should you fear or be perturbed by the negative judgment of bad judges, which is to say non-judges?

Conclusion in the form of a paraphrase: Follow your honest best judgment of what is beautiful, right, and true, not allowing yourself to be swayed by popular opinion, and also not allowing yourself to be intimidated by popular disapproval.

That seems simple, but it isn’t. Rather, it is easy to say, but most difficult to do. In fact, most people would likely agree with this maxim as a collection of words, because the words sound like wisdom; and the majority might even like to believe they themselves are living in accordance with these words. But in truth almost no one ever does. Most people, in the end, would claim to agree, or half-believe they agree, only because “most people would agree,” meaning because this kind of ancient wisdom now sounds like a popular opinion, a bromide, and the kind of sentiment one should believe. In practice, the many live almost entirely according to popular beliefs and attitudes, and have no capacity to form their own judgment about anything significant, let alone how to live and what to uphold as truth, because they lack both the necessary background knowledge for judging and the requisite emotional independence for freeing themselves from the push and pull of the common sentiments of their age and compatriots. So they may say, “I always follow my own judgment of what is best in my goals and actions,” but then they will show us that they choose exactly the sort of things that everyone in their comfortable milieu chooses, and for the same reasons: fear, a sense of need, moral intimidation, lack of apparent alternatives, indoctrinated or habituated familiarity. (A cursory look at modern political discourse and affiliations demonstrates this all too well.)

This disparity between self-perception and fact becomes all the more apparent when we cut through the popular conception (i.e., the rabble’s conception) of the opposition between “the many” and “the few,” and recognize that almost all of those who are popularly designated as “the few,” “the elite,” or “the wise,” are in truth merely the best-publicized faces of “the many.” Think of our popular intellectuals, demagogues, and the would-be leaders of mass movements — these are the thinnest masks of “the many,” living entirely as chasers after acceptance and reputation, giving their perceived audience what that audience seems to crave, trading whatever vestiges of independent thought they may (or may not) have once possessed for the satisfaction of all-too-earthly emotional needs and material desires.

Understood properly though, and applied without delusion, this Pythagorean maxim is excellent and wise advice for living. If we remembered and recited these words to ourselves every day — and not only the words but their full meaning — we would live better lives, and be far less likely to find ourselves trapped in other people’s goals, or living for the approval of “society,” or lost in the popular attitudes of our preferred faction, tribe, or demographic. Again, and contrary to the way this maxim is likely to be read by those who interpret the words through the filter of popular sentiment, there is nothing rarer or more difficult, as a matter of spiritual development, than judging and choosing without reference to the preferences or expectations, the acceptance or disapproval, of one’s contemporaries, a fact revealed above all in the extent to which we, in our normal but self-concealed identity as “the many,” fall to admiring and seeking to emulate, as avatars of intellect and independence, precisely the least intellectually independent, and most anxiously obsessed with reputation, material reward, and praise, from amongst the rabble of our age.

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