Sneering at Experts

Defamatory remarks and jokes about entire professions, regardless of the individuals pursing them or their actual performance, are a stock element of western comedic culture. Among the most ridiculed group of professionals, since ancient times, are teachers, professors, and other highly trained specialists and experts.

From Aristophanes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land to the scholastikos of the late-antique joke collection that is the Philogelos (‘Laughter Lover’): there is always someone ready to lash out at those who devote themselves to learning and the pursuit of truth – cackling at their reclusive absent-mindedness, at the alleged irrelevance of their studies to an imaginary ‘real world’ (as if certain parts of the world were more real than others!), at their conveniently dishevelled appearance, and, of course, at the (unsurprising) insight that experts, like everyone else in the world, are wrong from time to time.

Recent times have seen a certain high in such comments about experts in British political discourse – from Michael Gove’s egregious claim that the ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ –

to Glyn Davies’s snarky remark that –

to the ever entertaining Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comment in the bleak context of Britain’s most recent economic forecast:

There is a great line from Cicero that there’s nothing so absurd that it hasn’t been said by some philosopher.’

What Cicero actually said in his treatise De divinatione (‘On Divination’), in the context of a dismissal of some outlandish philosophical concepts, is (Cic. div. 2.119, transl. W. A. Falconer):

The Pythagoreans make a point of prohibiting the use of beans, as if thereby the soul and not the belly was filled with wind! Somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s comment draws on a passage that essentially constitutes an ancient fart joke (and a popular one at that), not exactly a passage that aims to discuss the value of philosophy and specialisms at large.

Be that as it may, both the subtlety of Cicero’s joke, making fun of philosophy in a work of philosophy (that discusses the matter of fortune-telling) and the obvious need to contextualise one’s quotes appear to have eluded Britain’s self-styled present-day Cicero.

But, since Rees-Mogg seems to enjoy his Cicero so much, may I use this opportunity to suggest to him another passage from Cicero – a passage from the treatise ‘On Duty’ (De officiis)?

Discussing expediency, Cicero writes (Cic. off. 2.72–3, transl. W. Miller):

From this we come to realize that since Nature is the source of right, it is not in accord with Nature that anyone should take advantage of his neighbour’s ignorance. And no greater curse in life can be found than knavery that wears the mask of wisdom. Thence come those countless cases in which the expedient seems to conflict with the right. For how few will be found who can refrain from wrong-doing, if assured of the power to keep it an absolute secret and to run no risk of punishment!

Let us put our principle to the test, if you please, and see if it holds good in those instances in which, perhaps, the world in general finds no wrong; for in this connection we do not need to discuss cut-throats, poisoners, forgers of wills, thieves, and embezzlers of public moneys, who should be repressed not by lectures and discussions of philosophers, but by chains and prison walls; but let us study here the conduct of those who have the reputation of being honest men.

Turns out experts, academics, and philosophers are not the only ones who regularly find themselves at the receiving end of snide remarks.

As the famous saying goes: people who live in glass houses should undress themselves in the dark.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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