It’s a fitting warning about man’s nature that in the Old Testament, God would command his followers, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and to resist the pull of the multitude when they persecute someone on false charges, only to find thousands of years later that this would be the fate of the man who claimed to be his son.
This idea that the judgements of the mob were dangerous and must be avoided is a timeless theme in the ancient world—and one that appears both in the Bible and in the writings of the Stoics. Only a few generations before Jesus, the Stoic Rutilius Rufus was brought up on and convicted of obviously false charges by corrupt political enemies. Around the same time, in one of the first signs that the norms of the Roman Republic were collapsing, a mob gathered and stoned to death a man named Saturninus. Marius, the consul who encouraged Rufus’s demise, was powerless to stop the mob justice he had ridden to power on.
By Jesus’s time, the mob was a political force in the Roman empire. It could be pandered to. Riled up. Used to do one’s dirty work. It was a feared and ominous presence. Just a few decades after the mob killed Jesus, Seneca would write that “consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is filled with admonishments to ignore the jeers and the cheers of the mob, to think for himself, to avoid the violent spectacles they demanded in the form of gladiatorial games, to do the right thing even if everyone else is insisting (or getting away with) the wrong thing.
If only this advice was not relevant today. Unfortunately it is. We have a mob which sways our culture—online and in real life. These are people who attend speeches on college campuses with the intent of disrupting and shutting them down. These are people who march with tiki torches and chant slurs and epithets. These are people who use social media to bully and intimidate. These are people who shout for violence and demand retribution. These are people who are incapable of mercy or empathy or forgiveness.
It would be nice if their numbers were few—but they are not. They are legion, and they exist on both sides of the political spectrum (indeed, they often hold contradictory views on various issues and share the same nihilism whether they are extreme left or right). In some cases, they are often the majority view and their pressure costs people their jobs, forces them into hiding, or convinces them to keep silent. They claim to be protecting our way of life…as they destroy it before our eyes.
Which is why today and every day we should heed these Stoic (and Biblical) reminders to avoid the mob, to think for ourselves and to stand up for what’s right, especially when the mob is doing evil. When you find yourself on the side of the mob, pause and reflect. Ignore their venom. Speak out.
P.S. This was originally sent on October 30, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.