Peter Jones

Aristotle’s advice for young protestors

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In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 bc) sets about identifying the various headings under which you can be persuasive about any topic. One of the topics is the nature of the young, and as today’s students pick up their loud hailers to make demands about events more than 2,000 miles away in alien cultures which despise most of them, there is much of interest in the similarities and differences.

In general, Aristotle says, the young, not having lived long, are inevitably ignorant and lack experience. So they are inclined to do whatever they feel like doing, and are easily satisfied because their wants are not overwhelming. They also lack guile and are trusting, because they have not experienced double-dealing; they tend to assume all men are honest.

Because they have not experienced much failure, they are full of hope and optimism: ‘for hope is concerned with the future, and remembrance with the past, and the young have very little past, but hope for a future’. But being at the beginning of life, they have nothing to remember, and can be easily tricked.

At this age more than any other, Aristotle says, they love companionship because of their pleasure at simply being together but also because of their inexperience in making judgments according to their own best interests. As a result, they prefer to do what is noble rather than to their personal advantage.

Their desires are intense, but the intensity is equalled only by the speed with which those desires cool, since they tend to be carried away by their impetuosity but lack firmness of purpose. Knowing little, they think they know everything, so are obstinate. But they become angry if they are mocked, because they love to be highly regarded and, even more, to win.

So much for Aristotle. There were, however, no youth movements in the ancient world. Protests there resulted from debt or food shortages and, far more significantly, people’s feelings of injustice about the way they were being ruled.

The result was Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism, systems that did not favour leaving mothers and children in the front line of battle to protect their soldiers.