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In the Shallows: Why Do Public Intellectuals Condescend to Their Readers

Becca Rothfeld at The Yale Review

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson / Unsplash
Middlebrow Writing
There used to be writing that was “middlebrow.” You’d find it in urbane and smart publications that were lower than academia and fine writing (highbrow) and higher than sports columnists and dimestore novels (lowbrow). It was always a limited market. When Henry Fowler self-published his own set of…

A few months ago, I was working on an essay about mindfulness and other schools of uplift, and I found myself in the unenviable position of thumbing through a number of books by the motiva­tional writer and “thought leader” Ryan Holiday. It turns out that there are many of these, including several tracts on public relations that Holiday wrote before his turn to guruism. My project was about Stoicism, not corporate publicity, so I was spared Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising. But I could not dodge The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

The book annoyed me in all the ways I thought it would: its engagement with intellectual history was facile (“many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out”), and its reduction of Stoic doctrine to a series of slogans was grating (“you don’t control the situation, but you con­trol what you think about it”). But what was most irksome was the sheer smirking quality of its tone. Holiday writes in a cooing, coax­ing mode usually reserved for standoffs with obstinate children. “Could these ancient and obscure pages really contain anything rel­evant to modern life?” he asks. “The answer, it turns out, is yes.” Later, he explains that he and his co-author “sought to organize and present the vast collective wisdom of the Stoics into as digest­ible, accessible, and coherent a form as possible…for the busy and active reader, we have attempted to produce a daily devotional that is as functional and to the point as the philosophers behind it.”

The problem is not that the book’s stated aspirations—making Stoicism “something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry”—are unworthy. The humanities are too often treated as the preserve of tweedy specialists, and they ought to speak more clearly (and more enjoyably) to life on the ground. But Holiday’s execution conflicts with his intentions: To write as if your audience is made up of your intellectual inferiors, as he does, is not to make philosophy “accessible,” but rather to render it, however inadvertently, snobbish and alienating. I cannot help resenting the assumption that I am incapable of appreciating ancient philosophy on my own, or the suggestion that I could only ever savor the complex flavors of the primary sources if they were converted into snackable nuggets. The guiding premise of The Daily Stoic is that its readers are not peers but pupils.

Holiday’s patronizing style may be particularly craven, but it is not unusual. As Mark Greif observed in an unforgettable essay in The Chronicle Review in 2015, condescension is widespread among public intellectuals. The problems Greif encountered when he invited junior academics to write for n+1, the literary magazine he helped found in 2004, “were absolutely not those of academic stereotype—not esotericism, specialization, jargon, the ‘inability’ to address a nonacademic audience.” Instead,

the embarrassing truth was rather the opposite. When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the “public,” it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial lan­guage with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than them­selves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly.

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