The mediocre man has some notions about many things. By this, I mean he has vague and fluctuating notions which demand no effort to acquire or preserve. Whenever he wants to express his notions, he thinks he attains utter fulfillment by finding a showy word, or at least one that is not used as part of daily speech.
In his milieu, the term “radical” is one of the mediocre man’s favorite words. He senses that branding a foe a radical will be harmful to that person. To be “radical” provokes a meticulous and disproportionate rejection. He feels that it is a good thing to be anti-radical because one can receive much support from taking this position. Thus, we can see our mediocre man quixotically displaying anti-radicalism wherever he goes. However, as soon as someone contends that such a fiery anti-radicalism is nothing but another form of radicalism, he will shrink and change the subject, because to refute that objection — so obviously true by the way — the mediocre man would have to know in depth the exact meaning of the word “radical.” And his idle spirit abhors precise and profound concepts.
The mediocre man’s use of the word “liberty” is analogous to this. It reminds him right away of the hackneyed trilogy he likes (and of which he has already heard a thousand praises): “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” Besides this motto, liberty calls to mind the striking statue in New York City, which he has seen in pictures and ads. In Brazil, he would associate it with a vast and densely populated neighborhood of the city of São Paulo. He might even think of the Liberty brand cigarettes he smoked in his youth. In his mind, he has the general idea of liberty as something that provides everyone with the possibility of doing absolutely anything he finds delightful.
When he was a child, this word found its way into his mind. His teacher used to keep undisciplined students in detention after school and have them copy endlessly sentences like “A good boy is obedient and studious.” When time was up, the teacher would happily exclaim that they were at liberty. And all the brats would dart out into the street eager for foolishness and rowdiness. This was the ideological core that the word liberty left in his mind. In one way or another, the cigarette, the monument and the neighborhood celebrated that delightful thing called liberty. The trilogy seems to suggest to him the same thought the teacher had in mind when the word blossomed from his smiling lips.
The mediocre man has no idea that his superficiality can have profound effects. If someone were to affirm this to him, he would laugh in disbelief.
Anyone can easily face a mediocre man. It is less easy to face hundreds or thousands of them. This, however, is the inevitable possibility awaiting anyone who publishes something today, because the mediocre fill the earth.
I do not believe the mediocre will be the greater part of those who will read these lines about them. It is understandable that they will not find them pleasant. However, just a glance at one or another topic inside this article will be sufficient to infuriate many, because every man — even the mediocre one — is sharp and perspicacious when he is the object of criticism.
Nevertheless, I do not hesitate to declare, even before the mediocre ones, just how lethal, how profoundly lethal, their frivolity is.
Being persuaded that liberty is good, the mediocre man concludes that the more liberty the better. For him, absolute liberty is total happiness. As a voter, the mediocre one will cast his ballot for the candidate who will promise him unrestricted liberty. As a candidate, the mediocre one draws the support of all those of his ilk. Whence he transforms his electoral campaign into promises that are a foretaste of absolute, total and unbridled liberty. This naturally brings about, for all slates, the listing and the victory of a varying though sizable percentage of mediocre men. Hence, we see the diffuse impetus of legislation and government towards the foolish, the offensive and the grotesque. Because, when anything goes, then…
That impetus also spreads from the sphere of the state to all other sectors of society.
For a picture of what is happening today, let the reader examine the following text:
“When a people is devoured by the thirst for liberty, it will have leaders who are ready to minister to this craving as much as the people wish, to the point of inebriation.
“If rulers then resist their subjects’ ever more demanding desires, they will be called tyrants.
“It also happens that he who is orderly under his superiors is singled out as a servile man without backbone.
“And that fathers, in dismay, end up treating their sons as their equals and are no longer respected by them.
“Masters dare no longer reprove their pupils, who laugh at them.
“The youth will claim the same rights and consideration given to their elders and the elders will say the youths are right, so as not to seem too severe.
“In this atmosphere of liberty there is no consideration or respect for anyone, for liberty’s sake.
“Amidst so much license there springs up and develops an evil plant: tyranny.”
Is not this a picture of what is happening today? Certainly, the picture describes very well the stormy days in which we are living. With genial subtlety and precision, it points out how the sowers of tyranny — the leftists of our days — profit from the typhoon of demo-mediocrity.
However, this description was written long ago… in the fourth century before Christ. Its author is Plato, who so denounces the radicals of liberalism in a democracy, as the true fathers of dictatorship. The passage is taken from The Republic.
It fits not only the fourth century before Christ or today. Its message is perennial. It is in the very nature of things.
And I have something else to add: I did not transcribe it directly from the great philosopher’s work. I limited myself to verifying that those words are truly his. They are simply extracted from the original by way of condensation (cfr. “The Dialogues of Plato,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, London, Toronto, 1952, p.412).
A friend of mine found it framed and hung on a wall of… a union headquarters. Thus did the great and solemn Plato penetrate into a union. Not a union of rich employers, or of scholarly professors; but rather one of… taxi drivers in Rome!
Such a placement is the fruit born of a people’s culture and tradition and not demagoguery. And I emphasize the word “tradition.”
The preceding article was originally published in the Folha de S.Paulo, on March 26, 1983. It has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. –Ed.