On Exhortations, Ancient and Modern

What is an exhortation? It is a speech that pushes the listener to think differently; it may cause him to see himself and the world differently. However, if the exhortation does not lead to action, it means that the speech or the man that the speech is directed at is ineffective or impotent.

An exhortation does not explain everything. It is not a demonstration. It is not a refutation or an argument.

An exhortation may supply some reasons. It may point out what you and the world stand to lose or gain if you don’t act. Ultimately an exhortation is emotive: it must stir up feelings in the listener. It somehow appeals to something that you know in your bones that you can’t quite put into words. You will know a proper exhortation when you encounter it.

The best kind of exhortation or the one gets closest to revealing a bigger shard of the truth, is something that appeals to what is in our blood; or which directs our various competing parts toward becoming unified or whole. We can be exhorted to be concerned with all sorts of small problems in ourselves and the world, but the life giving exhortation has to hit on something we cannot ignore; or that we know we would be gutless to ignore.  

One last note: the person who exhorts us to do something, is exhorting us to do something that they cannot do for us. It is up to us to find a way to answer the call.

Let’s stop speaking in the abstract and look at some actual exhortations. We will start with a bad one, then look at a mid-ling exhortation, and finally, a great but failed one.

Bad Exhortation: Greta Thunberg’s UN Climate Speech

Here is a small snippet: “My message is that we’ll be watching you.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!…

“To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.”

Response: She begins with a veiled threat—we’re watching you. If you want to genuinely change someone’s mind, you can’t threaten force—you need to gently work through the premises or presuppositions that the audience has in mind already. As Mencius Moldbug might say, you cannot persuade a conservative to like gay marriage by showing him the movie 120 Nights of Sodomy. It is too direct, too threatening, too shocking.

She tries to make us feel bad. She insists that something has been stolen from her and that it is ridiculous that she of all people has had to travel to ask for it back. She does not entice us with the promise of high adventure, or the prospect of noble grandeur for taking on a tall task. Rather, at best, we can become slightly less like criminals.

Exhortations often have to simplify things. But, Greta makes things too simple. Why does all of the machinery of industry exist in the first place? What problems were the industrialists trying to solve? How will every country or people in the world that depends upon CO2 producing technology re-work everything all at once? Greta has asked us to clean our room without at all considering the infinitely complex interplay of interests, constraints and peoples. And that is to say nothing of her appeal to scientific authority that is not as certain as she makes it out to be.

Moderate/Passable Exhortation (written by me):

Imagine something as simple as this. You order a steak. Your waiter brings out a grilled chicken sandwich. Your blood tells you that the steak is better and that the negligence of the wait staff can and should be corrected. The waiter asks if everything looks right. You look at the food, you look at the waiter, and almost reflexively, you say “yes, thank you.” You thank the person who brought you something that you don’t want that you are paying for. Your wife sees that you will not assert your will on a stranger that you are paying; there is no way she can think better of you for it. You lose respect for yourself. Maybe I shouldn’t have got the steak in the first place, you embarrassingly rationalize to yourself—maybe things have worked out for the best.

Response: The appeal hopefully hits home in bringing to light how many of us are too polite to impose ourselves on a fly. We KNOW better, but we take the easy route that causes the least conflict. We prioritize seeing ourselves through the waiter’s eyes instead of our own. People often tell us to be authentic, to be our true selves and not to care what other people think about us, but we often cannot muster the wherewithal to stick up for ourselves in simple matters. If you cannot stand up to the waiter do not expect that you will stand up for yourself when something really matters. This exhortation is a small one that does not call on us to do very much. It may, though, if taken seriously slowly prepare one for greater ones.

Powerful Failed Exhortation: Plato’s Socrates in the Cleitophon

The Cleitophon is the shortest Platonic dialogue and features Cleitophon’s praise and blame of Socrates for his incredible exhortations that fail to make clear precisely what one should do with those exhortations. A few remarks from Cleitophon’s long speech:

“When I was together with you, Socrates, I was often amazed at what I heard. You seemed to surpass all other human beings, so very finely did you speak, whenever, taking human beings to task like a god on the tragic stage, you declaimed as follows, ‘Whither are you borne, O human beings? Know you not that you do nothing of what you ought, you to whom all that matters is laying up riches for yourselves…

How do we take Socrates’ exhortation to virtue? As if there were nothing more, it not being possible to see the business through and grasp it completely, and is our task throughout life but this, to exhort those who have yet to be exhorted, who will then do the same to others in their turn?…then what?

This speech of yours ends finely, too—that, for anyone who does not know how to make use of a soul, it’s better for him to keep his soul at rest and not to live than to live and act on his own…

For I shall maintain, Socrates, that to a human being who has not been exhorted, you are worth everything but that to one who has been exhorted, you are almost even a stumbling block in the way of his arriving at the goal of virtue and becoming a man”…leading him to seek guidance from Thrasymachus and others.

Response: Cleitophon experiences what many of us have felt. We meet a human who exceeds us in capacity so much so that we hold them to be a god. We feel a kind of awe and reverence for them, and after having a conversation with them, we feel vitality rush through us, and try to turn ourselves to becoming better, to becoming like the god we admire so much. But we face what might be an insuperable problem: what if it is not in our nature to become like the one we admire?

Socrates’ exhortation shows us that human life is a high stakes matter—and, that we are not prepared at all to properly assess how we should live. Cleitophon wants a formula to emerge out of the feeling that he should become better that will show him the easy and obvious path toward becoming better. Unfortunately, no such formula exists. Instead, we are compelled on a case by case basis, to judge and discern what is good or what is appropriate for our own peculiar needs.

Cleitophon is deeply impressed with the seriousness that Socrates bestows upon life. He feels that he awakes from a slumber. Before he was hazily led by the confused opinions of his political community. He is now in a position to say, what if the question is not whether an action is just or unjust by Athenian standards, but what is justice at all? He appreciates the momentous difference this waking up has made for his life. He feels the sting of his ignorance and does not know what to do next; it may be that the sting of that ignorance was so overwhelming that Cleitophon took refuge with simpler answers of men like Thrasymachus.

Socrates’ exhortation was unsuccessful. But this may be because of the kind of man that Cleitophon is, rather than the kind of exhortation offered by Socrates.

Next time we will examine three more exhortations: Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto, Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life, and BAP in Bronze Age Mindset.


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