Tom Hodgkinson: 'Would Aristotle have used Twitter?'


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The Independent Online

For many years, when packing a book for a mail-order customer, I would proudly put a bookmark printed with the legend "Read: Don't Twitter" into the envelope. As well as loathing the execrable Facebook, I had in mind that I also hated Twitter, for the simple reason that it presented a distraction from the real business of living, which is intellectual reflection and debate.

As an Aristotelian, I follow and believe the great philosopher's notion that real happiness is to be found in the contemplative life, and that the purpose of leisure is study. That is not to denigrate the manual arts, by the way: I also believe that glimpses of happiness can be found in craft and creativity.

For one thing, I had heard that Twitter could become seriously addictive. One friend admitted he had not read a single book since joining the hyperactive social network two years ago. This would seem to me to be a step backwards: he is essentially admitting to becoming more stupid since he starting tweeting. I also suspected Twitter of being a storm of self-promotion.

However, it seems I was virtually alone in my hostility to Twitter. Practically everyone I talked to on the subject, from small business advisers to Idler Academy prefects, held forth on its merits. So with a mixture of regret and excitement, I set up an Idler Academy Twitter feed. And I have to say that while it might be a distraction, it is an enjoyable one.

For one thing, the form is aphoristic and perfectly suits the short quote. It is with great pleasure that I send out a philosophical quip or line of poetry to the Idler Academy's followers. I also use it to send out notifications of events coming up, although Twitter seems to be rather ineffective at actually selling tickets: Stephen Fry, no less, retweeted my note about a QI event to his three million followers, and only 20 of them shelled out the price of admittance. That's a hit rate of one in 150,000, which in direct-marketing terms is pretty feeble. I'd have had more success spending an evening chatting to people in the pub.

One downside is the stream of self-regarding liberal tweets, as do-gooders go on about so-called "good causes" to make themselves appear to be charitable. "When you do your alms," warned Christ, "sound not thy trumpet before thee." Charity should be done in secret.

Another downside is that most tweeters can't write and have no idea what might interest the reader. Martha Lane Fox, for example: "About to arrive in Liverpool – first mtg w/ jed fitzgerald ceo of council to talk @ #GoOnliverpool and the 5k digital champions in the city." But it is quite easy to unfollow the bores and time-wasters, and stick to the quality tweeters, such as Steve Martin, who can use the form to tell an entire short story: "Idea! Book deal. Wine. Toast. Type. Wine. Drunk dial @AlecBaldwin. Nap. Pulitzer dream. Reread. Stare. Delete all. Refund advance. Tweet."

I also have a fancy that we can use Twitter to educate. It gives me inexpressible joy to send out a tweet such as the following: "Omnia Vincit Amor, Love Conquers Everything, Virgil", or to conjugate the future tense of "amo" – Latin for "I love". I like to think an Idler Academy tweet will amuse, instruct and inform the Twitteree as they sit on the top desk of the bus. I think, for example, that "I wander thru each charter'd street/ Near where the charter'd Thames does flow /And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe," would make an excellent tweet.

Thinking about Twitter leads me to speculate on whether the great thinkers of the past would have used it. Would Aristotle have joined the Twitterati? Would Christ? I suppose "Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin" would have made a good tweet. Jesus could perhaps have divided the Sermon on the Mount into chunks and sent them into the twittersphere over a few weeks, and started Christianity that way. Socrates, I think, would have declined to tweet: he was too high-minded even to write anything down or charge money for his lessons, much to the fury of his wife Xanthippe. As it turned out, though, he, Christ and Aristotle had no small influence on the development of Western thought over two millennia without the help of Twitter, and there may be a touch of hubris to our self-congratulation when it comes to the invention of social media, and the internet more generally, as communication tools.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'