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Winding you up (eristic discourse): I once shared a house with an Italian girl who had a PhD from Harvard—from the Kennedy School of Government. She could speak three languages—her doctorate was in political philosophy. Yet she read an article in The Guardian that criticised Swedish social democracy and became very upset—very perturbed. She fretted about it and was outraged. How could they…how could they, The Guardian, criticise Swedish social democracy? For her, Swedish social democracy was a shibboleth, a religious point—it really upset her. How could The Guardian, of all papers, the defender of social democracy, say such things?

So this girl was about as elite as you can be in our world—she went to the university that trains the people who lead the world’s most powerful country, America. She spoke many languages. She studied an abstract subject that is pretty complicated—perhaps not the most complicated, but pretty abstract. Yet she became completely incensed at this article and “couldn’t understand it”.

Yes—she’s a woman, so she can’t think straight about things. That is true—yet it points to a wider malaise. Now, the reason the article was written is obvious: The Guardian knows its readers like Swedish social democracy—which is like the Soviet Union, but nice (with Ikea too). Now, The Guardian is not a sensationalist newspaper like The Daily Mail but it still needs to keep the readers a bit interested—I mean, you can’t think about sustainable knitting projects in Malawi all the time, you need a bit of interest (even if you are a pious lover of humanity).

So, what do? Well, why not spice things up at bit with an article that criticises, in a mild way, the Swedish social democratic model? You know all your readers love Swedish social democracy—hell, you like it a lot yourself. But why not, feeling a little devilish, stir up some interest among the readership—a bit of controversy in the comments…why not? So write an article that criticises Swedish social democracy—get those Harvard PhDs expostulating into their fair trade green tea. Stir them up a bit, drive a bit of traffic to the site. Don’t we all have a bit of a Daily Mail journalist in us? Don’t we all want something prurient, something a bit scandalous to talk about?

Now, that was obvious to me—but it wasn’t obvious to her. She was really upset—really angry. And, well, we’re governed by people like that—people who don’t have the detachment from a newspaper article to realise it’s a game to get people interested, because most of the time life is humdrum and the news has to be made (if not entirely made up, then given a certain spin). Now, our elite can’t all be that emotional and subjective—there are actual men involved in decision-making, so I’ve heard—but there are enough people like that about to make a difference.

Newspapers work by what Schopenhauer called eristic argument. If you want to see perfect eristic discourse go on X—there you will see people who say things just to win the argument and for no other reason (and that means to make the other person look bad, it’s all audience-centred). There are some people who engage in eristic discourse for Nietzschean reasons—just to exercise their will-to-power over others by coming up with the best “own”. Online discourse is itself, especially on X, an arms race to develop the most effective eristic club to beat your opponent.

Schopenhauer contrasts eristic discourse to straightforward rhetoric because the latter is strictly done for money, like a professional PR person today—whereas eristic discourse exists for its own sake (it’s like verbal boxing, effectively). Schopenhauer developed this idea from his observations of discourse in beer halls, where people tried to “own” each other in the same way as on X—and did so in predicable ways.

Schopenhauer actually advocates for eristic discourse in his The Art of Always Being Right (isn’t that just every online argument summed to perfection?) because most people will not sit down and talk to you in an open and reasonable give-and-take way about any topic—so, in effect, you’re always in a verbal club match, usually with people more stupid than you (the audience certainly is, in aggregate), so you must resort to the tactics deployed “just to win” (the reason being that the way these tricks work mean that if you engage in good faith your interlocutor will just slice you up—so if you want to be in contest, so says Schopenhauer, channeling Machiavelli, you have to resort to the same tactics).

I doubt that you can really sit down with another person and have a give-and-take rational discourse—man’s pride just doesn’t allow him to concede to another man even if that man is right (it damages his self-interest). Conservatives like to make little interview discussion shows where they sit by a log fire in an oak-panelled library in tweeds and talk about having a “reasonable, rational” conversation—but all they mean is that they swap verbal formulas they happen to agree with (actual reason would cause you to be thrown out for being anti-social). A “rational discussion” is a discussion with people I happen to agree with, so it turns out—there are no bruised egos here (but no reality either).

People aren’t really converted to different views by argument—they’re converted through shamanic elusion, through ideas rubbing off on them like static from a balloon. Reason is chimerical. People like a person, like the way they put it, and then agree with them. When I was younger, Schopenhauer diverted me because I realised, “Yeah, it’s all eristic—so I’ll be eristic too,” but that leads to an empty “I just say whatever it takes to win” which cuts you off from reality. Of course, reality can only be found in solitude—everyone else is just winding you up.


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