The Swinish Multitude

All of my life I have found one Shakespearean constant objectionable: his view that the people are an ignorant rabble, incapable of genuine civic engagement. In Julius Caesar, for example, written probably in 1599, Shakespeare has the rabble denounce Caesar as a tyrant who deserves to be assassinated, then minutes later, swayed by the clever rhetoric of the demagogue Marc Antony, so riled up on Caesar’s behalf that they want to lynch the republican conspirators. You can find similar denunciations of the “swinish multitude” in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

As an American, earlier a believer in American democracy, more recently (thanks to Jefferson) a devotee of the idea of an American republic, I have rejected Shakespeare’s contempt for the people. We are Jefferson’s people. We are reasonably well-informed, reasonably capable of seeing through nonsense and demagoguery. I agreed with Jefferson’s view that the people, even those who lack the discipline to inform themselves about their civic lives, nevertheless have “good sense,” and their good sense will usually prevail over fanaticism, political faddishness, and illiberal impulses. Moreover, I have always believed that there is safety in majority rule—the many being inherently more reasonable than the few—and that we are especially blessed to be the inheritors of the Enlightenment’s system of checks and balances, so that no mere majority can run away with the country.

But the politics of recent years have fractured my optimism. Well before the election of Donald Trump, at least on the surface the least fit person in my lifetime to be President of the United States, I had come to despair about the capacity of the people to check the bombast and darkness of the demagogues. Now things have reached a critical stage. It would be one thing if somehow a tiny minority had hoodwinked the country in a moment of great crisis, but it seems more accurate to say that a very substantial minority, perhaps an actual majority, of the American people are now openly jettisoning the Enlightenment for a politics of outrage, spasmodic responses to complex questions, the systematic distortion of facts, evidence, and truth, and the vilification of anyone who tries to bring a nuanced view of our public destiny to the public square. In other words, it does really seem that Shakespeare was more accurate than American optimists were.

I suppose that is precisely what a classic writer should be: fascinatingly new each time we encounter her or him. The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said you can never wade into the same river twice. Great books are greatly new every time we wrestle with them. Shakespeare means something quite different to me now, in 2017, than he did when I was what he might call “an unlicked bear whelp” in my “salad days.” I hope it is not just my own hardening of spiritual arteries and sense of life’s possibilities. No, I think we are, as a nation, in steep decline.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been a lifeline for American culture. With its puny and always too-limited funds, the NEH and its sister agencies have helped to lift America towards the Jeffersonian. Those who hate robust democracy have always wanted to kill off the NEH, the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the humanities programs at our colleges and universities in favor of workforce training and naïve and spineless patriotism. Here we go again, but this time they might just get away with it.

Any reading of Shakespeare reminds us of what is at stake in the culture wars. One doesn’t have to agree with great books to see why they are great. But as we move more emphatically than ever into a post-literate era, we begin to feel the dank new world in which the humanities have been put in their place. Now we have a man who, arguably, is the least well-read President in American history. And the multitude, or some significant portion of it, can only yell, “Lock her up, Lock her up,” like the rabble in Coriolanus.