Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University. His teaching and research interests include history of political philosophy, religion and politics, and contemporary liberal theory.
I spent much of the first three weeks of December in a grading frenzy. This is usually a humbling exercise, as I have to confront how little “wisdom” I’ve succeeded in imparting to my students. Sometimes, however, I learn from them, not so much about the “Great Books” we’ve been reading together, but about the Zeitgeist. What they say about the texts and arguments reveals what’s on their minds.
This year, I’ve learned something about how my students approach politics, something that points to the risks of demagogy when we don’t have a proper understanding of citizenship in a democratic regime. The context is a prompt (we apparently don’t call them questions anymore) asking them to think about Aristotle’s claim that human beings are political animals. Aristotle quite forthrightly tells us why he thinks this is the case: human beings have logos—which can be translated as either speech or reason—that they use to deliberate regarding better and worse, just and unjust. For a variety of reasons, the city is the setting where we can best develop and deploy our rational faculty, which we use, not merely to think instrumentally about how best to satisfy our desires (as someone like Thomas Hobbes might assert), but to persuade and be persuaded about how we should live well together. From this point of departure, we can see how Aristotle gets to issues like the best way of life for a human being and the best regime.
But that’s not where some of my students went. For them, being a political animal means looking for a leader to follow. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised by this. They have little or no experience of political life as deliberative or conversational. For them, it’s all about expressing their identity or (perhaps) allyship in settings that seem for the most part not even at the level of James Madison’s mob of Socrateses. This is the politics of expressive individualism, not that of citizens who respect and learn from one another, who seek a not always immediately evident common ground and dedicate themselves to common purposes they have taken the trouble to establish.
And then there’s that word leadership, which has been repeated almost ad nauseum by cognoscenti in a variety of contexts, both political and non-political. It’s certainly a term that they have heard in relation to politics, displayed in the settings with which they’re most familiar: there’s someone with a bullhorn leading the chants or someone with a microphone addressing a crowd that responds with an inchoate roar. They might also think about leadership in terms of social media: “thought leaders” tweet and the rest of us follow them. For them, “good” politics consists in the BLM marches they may have joined this past summer and “bad” politics consists in the rally that culminated in the recent sacking of the Capitol.
Fortunately, I can return to Aristotle to show them what’s wanting in their understanding of human beings as political animals. In the Politics, Aristotle draws a contrast between two different democratic settings. In the first, he offers an “idealized” version of democratic deliberation, where each of us contributes what he or she knows to a judgment, so that the collective judgment is superior to anything an individual could render on his or her own. So long as we know what we know and what we don’t know, so long as we’re willing to offer our reasons, when appropriate, and listen to others, when appropriate, the result of this process could arguably be better than could be achieved by any genuinely virtuous kingship or aristocracy. The “individual” so constructed is arguably superior to any natural alternative. Aristotle concedes that such collectively excellent deliberation is hard to come by, but says that “nothing prevents what was said from being true for a certain kind of multitude.”
I haven’t seen such a multitude—certainly not in faculty meetings, in the town halls I’ve attended over the years, or in the many times I’ve observed what was once called “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” So I suppose that my students have an excuse. I’d like to think that, at their best, college classrooms can work that way, with people reasoning together and learning from one another, but Zoom doesn’t do the trick.
On the second occasion, Aristotle shows how another kind of “individual” can be constructed out of a multitude, this time actually using a word that can be translated as leader. To be sure, it’s compounded with the Greek term demos, forming the word whose English cognate is “demagogue.” This democratic collective is unified by its desire, resentment, or indignation, not by the self-aware modesty and openness of its rational constituents, and the unity is created, orchestrated, or heightened by its leader, its demagogue. For Aristotle, this is the democratic equivalent of tyranny, as it should be for us. An “individual,” thus constituted, does not brook any opposition to its impulses and seeks only the gratification of the passions that unite its members. Its demagogue gains his or her influence or authority by figuring out which appeals to which passions are most likely to move the crowd. Whether my students would recognize this as a kind of tyranny, or experience the shock of recognizing themselves or their contemporaries in this picture, is a question I will seek to answer at the first available opportunity.
I’ve already said that we haven’t seen many examples of what Aristotle would regard as genuine politics. On the other hand, there are too many examples of the bad kind. This is, I think, by design in our modern polity. Having been subjected, over the past two months here in Georgia, to the most expensive and elaborate campaign technology that can be deployed on behalf of candidates, I can testify to the fact that what our political class seeks is a kind of successful demagoguery, stoking and appealing to our personal fears and hopes, alarming us with worries about “radical socialism,” appealing to our resentments over a candidate’s wealth, distinguishing between people who are or aren’t like us, scaring us about threats to our healthcare or our guns, shaming us by claiming that our neighbors will know whether or not we’ve voted, and, finally, offering us pictures of cute puppies so that we can feel warm and fuzzy inside. Whatever unity this creates does not come from the hard work of political deliberation, the mutual exchange of reasons and understandings, but the commonness of a particular passion, which has been heightened by one or another demagogic appeal.
This brings me back to the classroom, where I hope to spend a lot more time once we all feel safer about in-person educational gatherings. (Indeed, I have a seminar on tyranny, ancient and modern on the schedule for the Spring Semester.) I am certainly not my students’ “leader,” but I think I can encourage a conversation where insights and experiences are shared, resulting in a fuller understanding than we had before we began. I don’t mean to argue that there’s a straight path from the college classroom to our republican and democratic political life, but good habits cultivated in one place can and ought to carry over into another. This may well require that we teachers run a few risks, offering our students the opportunity to go beyond “book learning” and to discuss the application of the arguments and ideas they find in the texts to our contemporary life. Tempers may flare, and we may have to calm things down. But we can model a kind of respectful political discourse ourselves, and insist upon it from others. And we may have to give voice to arguments and ideas that challenge our students, that make them uncomfortable, insisting that reasons on one side have to be met with reasons on the other, and that the resolution may not be found in victory by one partial position or another, but in the reconciliation that puts each view in its proper place.
To be sure, too many colleges are not in the business of cultivating these good civic habits. There’s too much evidence that lots of them are political monocultures where the loudest voices drown out or actively seek to silence the others, through deplatforming, restrictive speech codes, or straightforward indoctrination, often organized by student affairs staffs.
But I have not altogether given up hope. Leaving aside the various centers and institutes that have developed, often under the aegis of the Jack Miller Center, there is the student programming offered by the Institute for Humane Studies, such as book clubs and undergraduate discussion colloquia. My personal experience with the latter, both at my own institution and as a guest at others, suggests that, under the right circumstances, a group of motivated students with intellectually diverse points of view can have productive conversations, where we all learn from one another and come away wanting more. For the past few years, those sessions have been among the highlights of my life as an undergraduate teacher.