Years ago I had a heated discussion with some guy in a pub. I had forgotten the discussion until today. I don’t remember the guy much. He was young. White. Scared. Insecurity dressed up as bravado. I could be snarky about his intelligence level. I could say he was basically a cabbage with legs. But to belittle and simplify him is never going to be helpful in trying to change his mind and the minds of those like him. I can say he was “misguided” though, in the purest sense of the word. He was seeking guidance. He had found guidance. The guidance had shrunk him. He had been to some sort of conference and it had galvanised him.
He was under threat, it seemed, and he wanted us all to understand how we were under threat too. People who didn’t look like him – they were the threat and we were all too complacent to see it. Parroting his simplified and fearful belief structure, he appeared to think most people saw the world in a certain way. He made a little straw man about how everybody but him thinks, and then poked holes in it, as you do with straw men. We’ve all experienced that: “This is what you think!” – that’s what we keep getting told.
I was drunk and garrulous so I started asking him questions, just mining this inherited bad thinking and trying not to be too oppositional so he didn’t put his guard up. I put on my “curious gentleman” mask. I was using sophistry, under the guise of being on his side, to reach conclusions with his logic that he could never say were his. I kind of just wished he’d go away but I realised that to tell him to go away would only further entrench him. I wanted to try and plant a few seeds of doubt. He had what was new knowledge to him. He had found it. When you think you’ve found something rare – a piece of furniture or some nugget of information – you hold onto the notion that it has value. Nobody likes it if they find out Granny’s “one thousand pound” sideboard is only worth £10. Nobody likes it if they realise that those secret videos that “they don’t want you to see” are just the product of some scared individual with a few ill founded opinions and a camera. I wanted to puncture him a little with the equivalent of saying “oh yes, I nearly bought a sideboard like that last week – isn’t it lovely. Yes it was in a charity shop but they wanted £30 for it – far too much!”
“You haven’t done your research,” is something I hear a lot when arguing with stupid, and I got a version of it from the guy in the pub when I suggested his sources were perhaps a little partisan. “I’ve been trying to stay open minded,” I assured him. “Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. You tell me where to look and then I’ll tell you where I’ve been looking.” I thought I’d see if I could guide him to something useful. But this is where he blindsided me.
“You seem the sort of guy that’ll appreciate this,” he said. And he pulled a few sheets of photocopied paper from his bag. Aristotle’s Politics. “This is what I’ve been studying today. Do you like that? Do you agree with Aristotle?”
Aristotle was the greatest of Plato’s disciples, twenty three centuries ago. A direct line to Socrates. The “mind of the Lyceum”. Perhaps the greatest ancient polymath. “He was not only well acquainted with every science, as his works abundantly evince, but he wrote on almost every subject which is comprehended in the circle of human knowledge, and this with matchless accuracy and skill.” A prolific thinker, trying to make sense of everything in the ancient world. Fascinating to study.
“Do you like that?” “Yes”, I told him, somewhat blindsided. “You’re considerably more curious than I thought you would be. You surprise me.”
“Do you agree with Aristotle?” “Well… I mean sometimes yes, sometimes no, but he was a philosopher – he was covering a lot of ground. That’s what he did… I haven’t read him all. It’s generally a mistake to go to books for answers. Books are for questions. We find the answers through the questions. Um.”
“I agree with Aristotle,” he told me, brandishing his print-outs. None of this made sense suddenly. This guy, waving Aristotle. I associated interest in the Greeks – particularly from those who haven’t had it through a classical education – with a very peculiar and delightfully geeky type of person. A curious person, who would probably be my friend. Not somebody likely to parrot a simplistic ideology. Somebody with that crucial skill of critical thinking: “This is what I’m receiving. This is the intention of this prose. To what extent do I agree with it? To what extent is it trying to recruit me? What is the actual situation?”
To what’s left of my memory, I just cut and ran when he started waving Aristotle. I got another beer. I went to another corner of the pub. I had nowhere to put it. So I forgot about him entirely for over a decade until I was driving through the Sussex Downs listening to the radio this morning, and the penny dropped and I remembered the conversation, and I understood it. And it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I don’t like bananas up my nose.
You could cut out the first four words of that sentence and use it to justify eating all the bananas. “You don’t like bananas. You said so in your blog!”
“I agree with Aristotle” the man said. But which tiny snippet? There’s the thing.
Aristotle wrote about everything, and he did it in a very specific thought context at the Lyceum, coming out of a particular world view, building on the Platonic School, working in a set of circumstances so far removed from ours as to be another world entirely. He’s interesting. Maybe he can be an authority in some things still. But really he’s just a preserved voice from another era having interesting scattergun thoughts about esoteric stuff.
Katherine Harloe did a great programme this morning called “Detoxifying the Classics” Have a listen.
This is what I was listening to through spotty reception up near Ditchling Beacon when that penny dropped. In it she touches on Aristotle’s Politics and his discourse on “natural slavery”. I had no idea. Aspects of this have been taken wildly out of context by some people to justify their mean spirited worldviews. People like whoever that guy had been foie-grasing himself with. He came to that pub brandishing his little bit of out of context Aristotle to try and lend weight to his views.
Dammit. How did I miss the teachings of the ancient world being shoehorned in as authorities to justify simplistic arguments? Aristotle would certainly have thought that the man in the pub was an oaf. I did and I’m not a patch on him.
It puts me in mind of the Leviticus tattoo meme.
I should’ve just shoved a banana up the guys nose.