Whispering in a Crowd

The philosopher eschews the crowd, knowing that neither will his lone, strange voice be heard above the crowd’s incessant and familiar din, nor will his pointed questions and logical complexities penetrate minds caked in the mire of the tribe’s roiling certainties. This has been axiomatic among thinkers from the earliest times: The crowd is the enemy of thought, and hence of conversation, and of teaching and learning. Likewise the following corollary of that first axiom: Thinking and learning with others — i.e., friendship and education — can thrive only in detachment from the collective, in spaces of psychological quiet; therefore, never try to converse, teach, or learn amid the crowd.

Today, however, our late modern socialism of the mind — universal government schooling, establishmentarian popular news and entertainment industries, and the ubiquitous and incessant vanity-pontifications of “social media” — diffused and amplified into every corner of the world and flowing through every individual’s fingertips, thanks to our technology, threatens to recast the old philosophic axioms about thinking and crowds as reason’s death certificate. For “the crowd” no longer implies a place which may be avoided, or an influence which may be resisted, but has rather become coextensive with modernity itself. The crowd is everywhere, encompassing everything; it is the filter through which all reality is experienced, the white noise underlying all thought. In the world of this ubiquitous social mind — to properly name this progressive concept in the spirit of one of its theoretical founders, John Dewey — the problem is no longer a few sophists, poets, or false prophets stirring collective man against his reason with their distracting public discourse. On the contrary, in compliance with the progressive sophistry of the social mind, everyone is forever talking, where talking means little more than trying to be noticed (“expressing oneself”), and where, conversely, listening, without which meaningful conversation is impossible, is reduced to the continual strain to hear oneself echoing off any passing objects (one’s “audience”).

Today, there are more leading voices, popular wise men, and profiteering “influencers” filling every nook and cranny of our public space than there were enthralled audience members back in the days when Socrates expressed mock amazement at the tragedian Agathon’s courage in front of thousands at the Dionysian festival, only to draw Agathon into conceding that it is easier to be courageous in front of a large crowd than in front of a few intelligent men in private, because a crowd is inherently stupid. Everyone has a voice now, as we say — which only indicates how disastrously we have devalued speech. With everyone talking into his own megaphone or microphone, society itself becomes a soul-deafening noise and a safe haven for universal foolishness, slavishness, and the easy wisdom of authoritative certainties and officially certified “expertise.” There is no silence into which one might interject with something incongruous or unexpected, no intellectual space where humans may turn away from the chatter and attend to the quiet, confusing voice outside the circle.

There is almost no outside anymore, as the individual mind itself increasingly becomes a medium for the digital transmission of the social mind’s unending high-pitched static. Hence, the axioms of the philosophic life with regard to the crowd, as explained above — the crowd is the enemy of thought, friendship and education require spaces of psychological quiet — have become the most direct diagnoses of the near-death condition of the intellect today. From the individual living among the crowd, we have devolved to the individual living as the crowd. Where, today, is one to find the spiritual silence, or the exhausted pause in the chanting that may be seized upon by the quiet thinker, either for a precious moment of uninterrupted contemplation, or for a chance to catch the attention of any rare other minds which, like his, are naturally configured to hear whispers more clearly than shouts? When “the social” becomes coextensive with thought and discussion as such, rather than the mere rival of these, the whispers will no longer be audible at all (even where they are still legally permitted). The soul will be the noise, the noise the soul. The socialism of the mind will have supplanted philosophic reasoning as the archetype of the intellect — the nadir substituted for the zenith.

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