A few years ago, I discussed a passage from Proclus’ Parmenides commentary. It was a short post, and I didn’t share much beyond that. I want to flesh out some thoughts about that, speaking very heavily in first person, with the expectation that I am facing challenges similar to many people.
Here is what Proclus said again:
Writings of a genuinely profound and theoretical character ought not to be communicated except with the greatest caution and considered judgment, lest we inadvertently expose to the slovenly hearing and neglect of the public the inexpressible thoughts of god-like souls. The human mind cannot receive all the contents of Intellect, for there are some things known to Intellect but inconceivable by us. Nor do we think it proper to put in speech all that we think of, for there are many matters that we keep secret and unexpressed, preferring to guard them in the enclosures of our minds. Nor do we put in writing all that we express in speech; we want to keep some things in our memories unwritten, or deposit them in the imaginations and thoughts of friends, not in lifeless things. Nor do we publish indiscriminately to all the world everything that we commit to writing, but only to those who are worthy of sharing them, indulging with discrimination our eagerness to make our treasures common property with others.Proclus, Parmenides commentary, 718, trans. Morrow & Dillon
Now, let’s talk. I have written many posts about social media on this blog, particularly as someone who struggles with finding ways to reduce isolation without overusing shallow parasocial platforms. I’m an ambivert (Myers-Briggs ENTJ/INFJ, with NJ stable, and E and T oscillating; or, if you’re into astrology, Gemini-sun-Libra-rising-Pisces-moon with a pile-up of various celestial bodies in my ninth house all interacting boisterously) — I either really want to be around people or in a float tank cocoon of ambient electronica.
One of my 2022 resolutions was similar to previous years’ resolutions — decrease use of public social media (a vexing place filled with disappointment) and prioritize building actual acquaintanceships and friendships, plus keeping in better contact with my family. It is only January 20, but it has been going better than previous years.
Lately, I’ve been reviewing whether I want things I write to be broadcasted or if they’re actually more appropriate for private speech — social media exerts a pull towards making everything public, when in fact appropriateness matters, as Proclus emphasizes in the passage quoted above. He is primarily discussing philosophical, theological, and hieratic matters (and perhaps some initiatory things, too) — but the same principles apply to most types of interpersonal communication.
One very helpful tip I learned to ask myself before sharing anything on social media is whether my words are a better fit for privately sharing with someone I actually know, motivated by that passage (which I read years ago) and by more recently being acquainted with Gus Andrews’ reflections in the chapter “Conversation Breakdown” in Keep Calm and Log On, in which she discusses public venues as broadcast media and recommends always asking if one is truly hoping to connect to specific people. In that case, she recommends reaching out directly. Ensuring that one asks this question about broadcasting vs. private communication is a good step for reinforcing both the types of trust interactions among medium-distance and close acquaintances and the higher-level trust-based relationship that is a friendship. I’ve paired that by just being more mindful about my appetitive homeostasis and how I’ve been conditioned into being online. As a child, I lived in a very small town and didn’t fit in. After we got the Internet in 1996, online people were my primary social outlet — starting off that young, it was easy to fall from the chats and messaging tools and blogs into social media without realizing that the water’s temperature was rising and threatening to boil me. And it really stung a few years ago when I realized I needed deeper polytheistic friendships, that parasocial stuff didn’t cut it, and that I didn’t even know how to start at building those kinds of trust-based relationships. I imagine it’s similar for a lot of people — worse for those who are younger than me. How many young people are broadcasting all of their UPG and drama, unfiltered, simply because it’s what everyone does and it never even occurred to them that some things (or details of things) are private?
Truly, online communication on social media — with all of its likes and pings and bite-sized chunks — encourages us all to behave like mini-Influencers with audiences. For many of us, especially those with low and tenuous levels of immediate social connections, this backfires because we actually want a sense of belonging (a human instinct), and the likes, comments, and other proxies simulate such feelings up to a point. We’re encouraged to share more and more of our lives until there is nothing left but the persona, and it is nothing but an eidolon. Many people are left in a state where they are already composing tweets or Instagram posts about their daily mental chatter in anticipation of validation. Many are left following the ups and downs of the dopamine depletion appetitive response. It can be profoundly self-alienating, especially when the algorithms don’t lead to the reception one wants.
The only remedy for it is to back off and get to know oneself, truly — what is merch and persona and habituated behavior, and what is you as a real person? (Note: Platonists and non-Platonists will answer this question completely differently …) And — a zinger for polytheists — how many times has your social media use gotten in the way of actually connecting to the Gods in your daily or cyclical rituals?
And things are a bit more complicated than they were in Proclus’ day. Proclus mentions private writings — but no writing is actually private. Ethically, there are many types of writing that must be kept private during our lifetimes: texts with loved ones and close friends, confidential advice we give, and so on. Afterward, much of that moves into the custodianship of our estate, unless a trusted person destroys things not meant for the world. At least historically, many families have edited/censored and published such documents. Nowadays, we have the problem of screenshots and people disclosing online the actual text of what was said in confidence — often to please an audience, stoke drama, or cut at someone when ties have been severed and both parties are in a lot of pain. So many things that would once have been small community or friendship group fallouts are now explosive, drawn-out, drawing-real-blood events advertised to thousands of followers who are expected to take sides in the drama, as if it’s reality television, and who come to derive a sense of belonging and pleasure from showing loyalty to an Influencer persona. It often feels like a sophistic renaissance in which everyone is platform and audience simultaneously.
This environment leads to a wicked trust problem, which is the very foundation of moving from a casual acquaintance or parasocial connection to one of the closer types of interpersonal relationships, especially for those of us who lack local or semi-local deep connections — there’s a difference between chatting with others at the group fitness spin class and being able to jump from casual conversation to deeper topics. Online, in many public arenas, it is a trust fall with total strangers: You have no idea how it will go, and you could end up falling backward into mud.
Some things can just be offline or kept between friends/acquaintances. It’s not all content to be offered up to parasocial audiences. You can even keep an account restricted to only people you are sure about on it (which is what I do on my private Instagram)! And the best part is, again, that it strengthens those things, and the very act of strengthening sets even better boundaries between oneself and the faceless online.
And I leave you with one of my favorite Peter Gabriel songs, “Signal to Noise,” from his album Up.