After reading this piece on “erisology” in The Atlantic my thoughts instantly went to one of my favorite pieces of writing when I think about the impossibility of civil political argument. “Homer’s Contest” by Friedrich Nietzche.
In this piece, Nietzsche spells out the relationship the ancient Greeks had with competition and how a competitive edge kept their society going. Competition lifted everyone up through a conception of “jealousy” - I want to outperform my neighbors, in public, in various arts and athletic abilities. This sort of competition kept society organized and stable because one wants to excel, to work to be the best at something, and to prove it through performance in front of others.
Nietzsche calls this practice “eris” after the ancient Greek goddess of jealousy and envy. But he says our conception of jealousy is vastly different than that of the ancient Greeks.
This isn’t a jealous about things or about limited resources. That’s the bad eris. The bad eris considers people a problem, and that they should be eliminated so you can have what is rightfully yours.
This dark eris is responsible for collapse of civilization as people no longer work toward a collective end nor do they see the point in investing in public services or things. Everything is a threat, because everyone wants your stuff.
The good eris is responsible for community because you need a group of evaluators, judges, and critics to say who did the better job. Instead of worrying about what public places might take from you, you worry about what you can perform or share there. Instead of worrying about someone taking your stuff, you worry about someone outperforming you.
I think the concept of Erisology is perhaps too scientific to be useful in its current form, but if we start to think more about eris and the role of envy and competition in political controversy we’ll be on a better track. It starts with some simple givens: In order to be right about a political view, you need an audience. Being right by yourself is just getting closer to your own opinion, isn’t it? There has to be some verification, otherwise people wouldn’t post their thoughts online.
The funniest thing about the essay is how angry so many rhetoric scholars got about it. Imagine, people we’ve never heard of talking about OUR field and not mentioning US! Yes, there’s plenty of bad Eris floating around the university. This should surprise no one. Where’s the good Eris, where’s the professional or academic rhetorician desire to compete, to show that we get it better than the Erisologists? That we have better, more useful perspectives? Where’s the desire to add to their performance something they are missing? All I see on Twitter are professors making fun of someone who is asking pretty good questions. Not a great moment for the field, but a common one whenever anyone dares to mention things we consider in our territory.
Since the contemporary field of rhetoric is much more interested in talking about oratory and persuasion than teaching people how to do it, it makes sense that other people would rush in to fill the gap. More attention is obviously needed on the question of how to teach people how to argue, persuade, discuss, and advocate, and if the professional rhetoricians in rhetoric departments aren’t going to do it, other people will fill that space because it’s important.
Good envy or bad envy. Envy-ologists might focus on what makes someone want to share their view. It’s odd isn’t it? If you are right about something, and if all the evidence supports your view, why do you get so upset with other people when they don’t agree? Let’s see who has the best answer to that.