Journey to the Centre of Life

When I started university, I picked up Karl Marx and read everything. You name it, I read it – except Capital II, I never got around to that one. I soon styled myself as a solidly left-wing kind of person. I hated the current government, I did not respect my boss at all, I voted for standard left-wing politicians. I demonstrated in the streets, the US was evil, and Lenin was just misunderstood. I didn’t go so far as to sign up for the communist party and I would not consider myself a radical, but I certainly had some sympathies.

What attracted me to thinkers like Karl Marx was the answer he provides to the question of why injustice exists in the world. In an increasingly agnostic world, we can’t just use God to explain the way things are – which is a rather horrible place. Everywhere one looks there just seems to be endless suffering and injustice. Marx gives you the answer to this question.

So, I progressed through university, reading everything I could get my hands on including a lot of books from all across the political spectrum, but I remained fairly left-wing. I saw injustices in the world and thought this was inherent to a corrupt system of exploitation and I dreamt of a world where things were just easier for myself and everyone around me.

It broke my heart once to see a group of men sleeping in the street, not because they had no job, but because they had to start work at 4.30 in the morning and this was the only way the could be on time because they had no car and public transport doesn’t run at that time. This to me was unjust, and an example of exploitative system. Now I see this as just a bunch of guys trying their best to do what they think is right.

Something that really stuck in my mind though was that things on the left just never seemed to add up. If a socialist system was superior, why were we not at least edging towards it? Surely, even the average person would be able to understand that socialism is far more attractive than exploitative capitalism? Most important of all was the question – why is the other side winning?

To answer these questions, I committed myself to read a lot more of thinkers on the right, but without my left-wing lense. In other words, I wasn’t going to read these texts any less critically, but I was going to approach them differently from what I had previously. Before they were the thinkers that justified capitalist enslavement of mankind through a corrupt political system, now I wanted to assess them for what they had originally intended their texts to be.

My first port of call was Rousseau and his Du Contrat Sociale – and boy was it an eye opener.

Rousseau’s famous line:“man is born free, yet everywhere I see him in chains” resonates with me to this day. Rousseau’s answer for the existence of justice said to me that more fundamentally than exploitation, we are held back by convention.

Then I moved onto the other heavyweights: Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Burke. The collective achievement of these writers showed me the enormous progress western philosophy has taken to lift off the shackles of superstition, deference, and servitude.

I threw in other important writers, especially those who I would describe as confused socialists, Orwell and Camus. It was important for me to understand their relationship with socialism and why they turned their backs on international communism. For me, the story of Camus particularly is the most poignant

when your ideology justifies violence against others it is broken.

I recognise now that left-wing ideology fundamentally does not work. That is not to say right-wing ideology is any better. So, I sit now in the centre. That all changed when I read Schmidt, and now I don’t sit anywhere, I’ve just left the party altogether. Basically, I’m floundering on the floor in crushing cynicism.

So, what are the lessons I have learned so far?

  1. Marx was wrong: capitalism is not coming to roaring conclusion. It’s just not going to happen.
  2. Always be sceptical: no one has the right answer, they have only an answer.
  3. I am free: my life and destiny are entirely my responsibility.
  4. Power should remain within the individual: Governments cannot be trusted – delegating power will invariably lead to worse outcomes for people.
  5. Suffering is a part of the human condition: it is what we do with it that counts.

And what I recommend for people? Two words: Marcus Aurelius.

The Seperation of Powers

Inherent within our liberal democracies, the separation of powers doctrine is designed to ensure that no one branch of government can come to dominate the others. In simple terms, the executive cannot interpret law, the legislator cannot not enforce it, and the judiciary cannot (shouldn’t) create it. Reminding ourselves of this important doctrine could act as the basis for improving our democracies and re=empowring citizens.

This principle, widely recognised in the modern period, serves as a foundation for our political systems even today. The likes of Montesquieu, John Locke, and Rousseau pioneered the modern approach but the idea that the power of the government goes as far back as the Greeks. Herodotus, for example, noted distinctions between institutions as much as between factions within the Greek City-States,  and in the famous Constitutional Debate three Persian nobles debate the merits of government and the extent of its power. Inherent within Herodotus’ ideological scope is also the idea that political power should be limited.

Among ancient writers Polybius perhaps stands out from the rest. He famously argues that what made the Romans superior to the Greeks was their ability to harness Monarchy, Oligarchy and Democracy within one system. This was the Republic, or Res Publica to the Romans. By doing so the Romans were able to harness the benefits that each of these systems created whilst simultaneously mitigating the negative aspects of each system. Scholars to this day doubt that the system Polybius describes  ever existed and functioned as he would have us believe, but the staying power of this idea

had profound effect on later thinkers and leaders who founded our modern democracies. The Founding Fathers of the United States were particularly influenced and aimed to balance the powers of each branch of the government against one another and with the powers of the states. Indeed, among the Founding Fathers there was a fierce debate as to the balance of these powers and interests.

Some, like Thomas Jefferson fought tooth and nail to ensure that the Federal Government was not too strong, and advocated that Congress be the most important institution of the Republic. Others, like Alexander Hamilton, wanted a more centralized state lead by a strong executive represented by the President. Of course, over the centuries the balance of these powers has waxed and waned depending on the circumstance. This is true of the United States, and it is true elsewhere.

Important to understand within this concept of the separation of powers is the idea, or perhaps the recognition that power tends to accumulate and consolidate towards a single institution. This simple tenet led some political theorists in the early 20th century to turn towards fascism as the natural conclusion.

Robert Michels argued that within democratic structures there always exists an ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ progressively moving the democratic structures towards an oligarchical one that serves the interests of the few.

Karl Schmidt also thought that democracy created the conditions for fascism because each constitutional crisis lead to a consolidation of more powers within a single institution in order to resolve that crisis. This idea remains prevalent still today among those who believe that governments are concentrating too much power and leaving citizens feeling alienated from the political process, in turn feeding radical reactions on both sides of the political spectrum.

The separation of powers is the cornerstone of our modern liberal democracies. As our economies and societies become increasingly complex governments are struggling to maintain pace. This is turn places strains on the political system forcing governments to operate more efficiently. Unfortunately for citizens, this can mean a reduction in liberties and freedoms for the sake of efficiency. The consolidation of powers by an institution, or a group of institutions is often justified on this basis.

The democratic deficits that modern democracies are facing will not be solved by political powers who seek to “reform” institutions and make government processes more bureaucratic and obscurer for citizens.

Going back to the fundamentals of our democracies should act as the roadmap for governments and citizens alike. Personal freedom and legitimate means for citizens to control their lives outside of mere economic choices will lessen the democratic deficit and lead to less extremism on both sides of the political spectrum.

The Social Contract

The 4th of July gives us time to reflect on the age-old question, do people have the right to self-determination? Many have opposed this idea, and continue to do so even today. But liberal thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau give us cause to think that perhaps we do. Indeed, Locke, Rousseau and other such contemporary thinkers were influential for the American founding fathers when they drafted the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. A reading of Locke in particular suggests that there is in fact a right for all peoples to be able to self-determine their government which entails the right to secede from a pre-established order.

From as far back as Plato and Aristotle, humankind has continually asked how to organise itself. For Aristotle, this question was fundamental to human existence – hence he defined humans as ‘political animals’ and so, according to Aristotle, it is within our nature as humans to organise ourselves into political communities. Writing much later but in constant reference to Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau also attempted to answer these same questions by using a philosophical construct known as the social contract. This has been a radically persuasive argument ever since, and the foundation for much of our modern political discourse.

The State of Nature

The social contract describes how humans move from the state of nature to form the political community. The state of nature is outside the political community. Hobbes illustrates this as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It’s a state of war against all, where humans have absolute license to do as they wish. The expression ‘nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted’ would aptly describe the state of nature to Hobbes. Everyone in the state of nature is equal.

Locke’s state of nature is different. Whereas Hobbes thinks it is a state of war against all, Locke thinks that because all are equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions”. For Locke, it is a law of nature that calls for the preservation of one’s “life, liberty health or goods” and when someone violates this natural law then there is a natural right in the state of nature to execute the law of nature and seek retribution, like for like. By violating the law of nature even in the state of nature the offender declares themself outside the bounds of reason and common equity,

Equality

Liberal thinkers all believe that humans are equal. This is an important departure from Plato and Aristotle who both agreed (but particularly the latter) that some are intended for slavery and others for freedom. Hobbes writes in chapter 13 of Leviathan that “nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body”. We also have an equal desire to attain the same things, which due to scarcity they cannot all enjoy. This creates conflict; and from conflict war. As equals all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one has more power than another.

Freedom and Liberty in the State of Nature

In the state of nature, humankind is free to the greatest possible extent. Liberty in this sense is “the absence of external impediments […] to do what he would” (Leviathan, Chapter 14). It is a natural law that humans are free to do as their reasons determines because in the state of nature there is no one to stop us from doing so.

Locke describes the state of nature as follows: “the perfect freedom to order their actins and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man”. In the state of nature, humankind is isolated from each other – a real Robinson Crusoe (as Rousseau put it), looking on the other in hostility. Locke adds though that the state of nature has some constraints. One is not free to dispose of their body (i.e. to commit suicide). The state of nature has a law of nature that governs it and obliges everyone (The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2).

Leaving the State of Nature

The state of nature is governed by certain rules of nature. The first law of nature for Hobbes is that humans naturally seek peace. The second, “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary […] and to be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would all ow other men against himself. In this way, Hobbes is saying that reaching a state of peace requires reciprocity from all parties.

Leaving the state of nature is to set aside certain rights for the sake of peace. Agreeing to seek peace equally between parties is the initial contract. Importantly, it is a voluntary act. One cannot be compelled by force to give up their rights. Rousseau notes (On the Social Contract, Book I, chapter 3) that “force is a physical power [without] moral effect. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will…let us then that force does not create right.”

And so for the sake of peace humankind agrees one among another equally that they shall lay down their rights to pursue war. This forms the basis of the social contract. As Rousseau (On the Social Contract Book I chapter 6) formulates it:

“These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one – the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights to the whole community, for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others”

Creating the Political Community

Hobbes say that the end or purpose of the political community is the preservation of the self and to exit the state of nature. It cannot be a state where the individuals would be worse off than if they had stayed in the state of nature, otherwise the parties would not agree to leave the state of nature. As noted above, the conditions of the contract are to apply universally and to not favour one over another, and I only give up only so much of my power as I would have another have over me.

In the state of nature, we each are executors of the law of nature. But since none of us are omnipotent, and all of us have a subjective reality one of the most important aspects of the social contract is that disputes between parties should be adjudicated by a third party who can apply the collectively agreed upon laws. Thus, by entering the political community, we give up our right to seek retribution when another violate the law of nature.

This alienation of one’s rights to the other parties in the form of the political community creates political power. Political power is the “right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of the laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury and all this only for the public good” (The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 1).

Hobbes writes that “covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” This is an important distinction between Hobbes and other liberal thinkers because Hobbes believes that humankind is naturally vicious (in the sense that they will always tend towards vice if left alone) and therefore, for the sake of peace, the community needs a superior being, a Leviathan, to enforce the peace in the community. Hobbes observed, as Aristotle had before him, that some animals such as ants and bees live in societies without a coercive power. The difference between these animals however is that humans are, firstly, in constant competition for honour and dignity and thus, inversely, envious and hateful towards others, and secondly, the common good is identical to private good whereas for humans, the two are distinct from one another.

The political community therefore is for the sake of preserving the life, liberty, property and health of its members. Each of the members agrees to give up some of the liberty in order to live in peace with one another. Investing the community with political power arises from the transference of that natural right to seek retribution on those who violate the law of nature. The aggregation of this right is in turn executed by the community on those who seek to harm it, whether these be foreign powers, or members of the community who act outside of the laws of nature.

The Right to Self-Determination

From the above account it follows that individual have the right to self-determine their choice of government. This can be done peacefully, qua ritualistically, via free and fair elections, or they may do so violently, by overthrowing the government if the government is deemed to have acted in violation of the natural law.

It is notable that, all but Hobbes agreed that democracy was the best form of government for this reason. The fact that one voluntarily gives up their rights in order to join the political community suggests that one is free to also retract the transference of those rights and thereby return to the state of nature.

It remains to be seen then, if once agreed, a social contract can be dissolved. On this point, Locke and Rousseau are silent. Hobbes’ answer is as outlined above. That once transferred is cannot be given back and the sovereign has the right to enforce the peace of the commonwealth. Locke and Rousseau, who were both more liberal in their beliefs do not account for situations when a group of a society wishes to secede from a commonwealth.

The American Experiment

With that said we do know that the founding father of the United States were heavily influenced by the likes of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The founding fathers used language directly taken from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to justify their secession from England. It is no mistake that the opening phrase of the American Declaration of Independence reads as if Locke had written it himself,

“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The founding fathers then go to list of the grievances against King George and reason why they were to wage war against him. It is perhaps the most famous case for the self-determination of a group of people. The Founding Fathers clearly saw that the social contract had been violated by King George, just as the English Parliament had in 1649 when they cut the head off Charles I.

The power of American experiment on political discourse ever since cannot be understated enough. It has determined the course of history ever since its inception and helped to inspire other revolutions around the world at the time, and afterwards, most notably the French Revolution.

Modern Times

In the 21st century, despite its enduring influence, the social contract and the right to determination do not maintain the same ideological place it once had. This has been due in part to the rise of Communism beginning in the 19th century which offered an alternative to liberal principles. Since the American revolution we have seen the rise and fall of fascism and communism and growth of modern capitalism on the back of four industrial revolutions. This is a different world to the one of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. But this shouldn’t mean that the power of their ideas should have any less relevance for us.

Reading List

(the links will take you to pdfs of the texts)

 

Aristotle, The Politics

Jean=Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government

The Honest Atheist

There are two types of atheist that exist, and only one intellectually honest position to take. On the one hand there are those atheists who claim that no god exists at all. This asserts a truth claim. The more intellectually honest position is the philosophically agnostic position. This group recognise it is not possible to even know whether god exists or not and therefore choose to take no position either way but otherwise live their lives (i.e. construct their moral edifice) as if no god involved itself. Fundamentally this is the only real difference between these two groups. In reality both live their lives as if god does not exist recognising that it is up to us humans to create the ‘heaven on earth’ which the religious seek in oblivion.

The likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris sit firmly within the former group I described above. Their work sets out to show the inconsistencies of religious doctrine by using the scientific method, or what might be termed more generally as rationalism. The latter group, though not necessarily representative of all, reject this rationalist atheism on the grounds that it fails on its own premises. The rationalist seeks to order and the universe and to make sense of it, just as the theist does, albeit by alternative means. These are evangelising claims to the masses that we no longer need religion to explain our existence and we can find meaning in the universe using science. Moreover, the religious claim to moral rectitude no longer retains its merit given the history of religious intolerance and willful ignorance. The rationalists is therefore similar to the theist by searching for meaning in the universe.

Camus was an atheist who famously rejected rationalism. Camus asserts, rather than demonstrate that rationalism fails because he thinks that humans do not have the capacity to comprehend the universe. This is a part of the human condition and is what makes life absurd. We struggle our entire lives to make sense of a meaningless universe that we cannot possibly ever hope to make sense of. This contradiction between man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe is at the heart of Camus’ notion of the Absurd: “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal” (Sisyphus, p. 17). He clarifies that it is only mankind’s relation between itself and the universe which is absurd. Neither are absurd in isolation, only when they come into contact with one another.

Placed in the meaningless universe, searching for meaning, man believes his actions to be meaningful while all the while the clock ticks down until it is his turn to die. This is another aspect of the absurd which becomes clear in the final pages of L’Etranger when Meursault is confronted by the priest. The absurdist man comes across as indifferent to the world around him, as Meursault does, when in reality he has just recognised the meaninglessness of it all. Camus adds the absurd man expresses what he calls a ‘confession of ignorance’, similar to Socrates’ famous maxim, “I know that I know nothing.” In those final pages of L’Etranger, Meursault tells the priest that he does not have time to think about matters such as the existence or not of god. Instead, Meursault focuses on his experience of the here and now. L’Etranger ends with Meursault saying that he “felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again” (L’Etrangerp 123). Meursault is in the final state described at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus claims that we must think of Sisyphus as happy as he descends from the mountain to push his rock once more up the hill (Sisyphus, p. 123). Thus, Camus’ Absurdism, prima facie is a rather pessimistic theory, but in reality is rather optimistic in its simplicity.

Camus rejects rationalism, and differs from the likes of Richard Dawkins, because, he says, our attempts to understand the universe are ultimately in vain, but only so for the reasons often ostensibly given for understanding the universe. Dawkins on the other hand claims that rationalism and science is just a better method for understanding the universe than a religious one. Ultimately Dawkins holds onto the notion that the universe has a meaning and which is best explained through science. Camus on the other hands says:

“You enumerate its laws (the universe’s) and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanisms and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me in an image. I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know…science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art” (Sisyphus, pp. 19-20).

The world just is and is, in itself, not reasonable. The questions metaphysicians and epistemologists ask about the nature of reality fundamentally do not concern Camus. The universe just is, and we are experiencing it. After all, it does not really matter if we are a brain in a vat someplace else; this is the reality we experience as it is:

“here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. The scents of grass and stars at night, certain feelings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world who’s power and strength I feel?” (Sisyphus, p. 19).

Camus invites us then in the face of such meaninglessness to embrace a philosophy of the here and now. To enjoy the world around us despite our vain efforts to understand it. Camus’ notion of an absurd universe is one that I believe is the more intellectually honest position to take for atheists. Camus does not prove that god does not exist. Instead his idea is an extension of Nietzsche’s idea that god is dead. Camus is therefore more like the epicurean who says that god might exist, but, that if he does he has no bearing on existence. Therefore, Camus is the agnostic atheist. The moral implications of Camus’ absurdism is a subject for another essay, except to say, that again, Camus offers us a much better theory than what rationalists such as Dawkins can ever offer us.

 

Les Artisans De Notre Paysage Intellectuel:La Séparation et La Distinction entre Logos and Mûthos

Nous vivons en démocratie, quand nous tombons malades, nous nous tournons vers la médecine et les médecins pour nous guérir, nous croyons en eu justice la loi, et nous utilisons les mathématiques de Pythagore dans nos vies quotidiennes. En Europe, il suffit de sortir pour voir l’influence de l’architecture grecque. Cependant, s’il y a une chose que les Grecs nous ont légué, et ce qui serait la plus importante? Pour moi, c’est la philosophie et la science. Je les mets ensemble parce qu’á l’époque, les penseurs grecs n’ont pas fait la distinction entre les deux comme nous le faisons aujourd’hui.

Pour eux, ils sont les deux faces de la même médaille. Cette relation étroite a eu une profonde influence sur l’histoire, notamment l’histoire de la religion qui se poursuit encore aujourd’hui. Cependant, je veux aller plus loin, plus fondamental, et dire que ce n’est pas seulement la science et la philosophie per se, mais, en fait, quelque chose plus fondamentale de la pensée qui sous-tend ces sujets, qui a eu l’influence la plus profonde sur la société contemporaine partout dans le monde. Donc, aujourd’hui, je vais essayer de discuter de la forme fondamentale de la pensée des Grecs dans le cadre de la science et de la philosophie d’une part, et de la religion de l’autre.

À un certain moment dans le passé, science et religion ont été différenciées. Linguistiquement en ancienne grec, nous avons deux mots qui résument avec justesse cette situation. D’une part, nous avons le mot mûthos, à partir duquel nous obtenons le mot mythologie. Ce mot signifie en grec, « discours formulé, que ce soit une histoire, un dialogue ou l’énonciation d’un plan.» L’autre mot, logos, à partir duquel nous recevons beaucoup de mots comme la logique, la biologie, la technologie et cetera, à l’origine il signifie également la parole dans un sens général. Cependant, entre les 8e et 4e siècles avant Jésus Christ mûthos et logos deviennent des termes séparés et distingués. Nous pouvons remercier les Grecs pour cette distinction. Lorsque nous comprenons mieux les conditions dans lesquelles ces mots deviennent non seulement distingués, mais aussi en contraste l’uns de l’autre, nous apprenons aussi beaucoup sur la façon dont les Grecs pensent en y réfléchissant, j’espère que, nous pouvons aussi en apprendre plus sur la façon dont nous pensons aujourd’hui dans un monde où le débat entre laïcité et religion est de plus en plus passionné. Le n’est pas une coïncidence si aujourd’hui religion et science semblent anatomiquement opposés une á l’autre. Le débat qui fait rage aujourd’hui entre les deux côtés n’est pas un nouveau combat, propre à l’époque moderne. Ce débat a fait rage pendant des milliers d’années et il a commencé il y a 2700 ans en Grèce, quand le philosophe grec Thalès se mit à répondre à des questions sur la nature au moyen de démonstrations.

Au huitième siècle avant Jésus Christ les Grecs commencent à écrire. Commence alors la lente évolution d’une société de tradition orale en une société où l’écriture permet la conservation des connaissances collectives et du discours public. Au sixième siècle l’écrit est si développé que nous pouvons retracer les débuts de plusieurs genres littéraires différents. Ainsi, par exemple, l’Iliade et l’Odyssée sont écrites dans les formes que nous connaissons aujourd’hui. La poésie sous diverses formes commence à fleurir et se développe dans la dernière partie du siècle dans la tragédie, puis la comédie. Nous recevons aussi les premiers traités de médecine, ouvrages philosophiques, textes géographiques et de la documentation publique sous la forme d’inscriptions. Plus tard au cinquième siècle, nous obtenons des textes historiques et de la prose philosophique remplace la poésie philosophique (pour la plupart). Ces évolutions sont indispensables pour le développement du logos, ou argument rationnel. Car, non seulement le fait de communiquer dans une certaine langue, mais aussi la manière dont on communique, représente un autre mode de pensée par exemple, via les différents genres littéraires. On peut mieux comprendre ce mode de pensée en pensent la différence entre dire la poésie et un article de Wikipédia. La poésie est très symbolique et joue sur l’esprit d’une façon diffèrent d’un article de Wikipédia indiquant les faits. Les sociétés orales diffèrent des sociétés littéraires parce que « l’organisation du discours écrit va de pair avec une analyse plus rigoureuse et la commande stricte du matériel conceptuel ». Ainsi, ce n’est pas seulement le contenu lui-même, mais la façon dont il est organisé qui est différente. C’est un tournant pour la séparation des récits mythologiques traditionnels et de nouveau récits, plus rationnels, de la réalité.

Le philosophe, contre revendications des techniques persuasives de l’argumentation rhétorique avec les procédures démonstratives sur le modèle des processus déductifs utilisés par les mathématiciens qui travaillent avec des nombres et des figures géométriques. De cette façon, comme l’écart entre mûthos et logos s’agrandit, le processus se reproduit. Aristote, par exemple, en exposant ses différentes catégories est simplement retombé sur les catégories fondamentales de la langue dans laquelle il pense. En outre, quelqu’un comme Aristote ne rendre pas seulement explicites les relations logiques de sa langue, mais pense également dans la langue d’un philosophe. Par conséquent, le logos et le mûthos ont dévié l’un de l’autre au point où le logos devient non seulement «parole» simple, mais aussi la rationalité démonstrative, et en opposition complète à la fois dans sa forme et dans sa signification fondamentale au mûthos.

Grâce à la forme du discours écrit, le logos est plus exigeant sur l’esprit. Son objectif est d’établir la vérité de l’affaire par investigation qui fait appel à la raison critique du lecteur seul. Dans un sens, cela égalise le terrain de jeu. L’instauration de logos dans sa forme écrite signifie que les arguments ne peuvent plus être gagnés ou perdus uniquement sur la base de l’éloquence de l’orateur. L’organisation interne d’un texte écrit correspond à une logique qui implique désormais une forme de débat dans lequel chaque côté argumente dans des conditions d’égalité avec les arguments et contre-argument, aboutissant à la vérité a partir de raisons avancées dans le texte devant eux. Les Grecs eux-mêmes sont très conscients de cela. Thucydide écrit au début de son oeuvre.

« L’absence de merveilleux dans mes récits les rendra peut-être moins agréables à entendre. Il me suffira que ceux qui veulent voir clair dans les faits passés et, par conséquent, aussi dans les faits analogues que l’avenir selon la loi des choses humaines ne peut manquer de ramener, jugent utile mon histoire. C’est une oeuvre d’un profit solide et durable plutôt qu’un morceau d’apparat composé pour une satisfaction d’un instant. » (Thuc. 1.22.4)

Dans son histoire, Thucydide ne se préoccupe pas de simples histoires, mais de la dure réalité de la situation. Les faits parlent d’eux-mêmes et sont accessibles à tous. En effet, le mot grec pour histoire est historia qui signifie enquête. Le même engagement envers les faits, pour ainsi dire, est aussi prolifique dans les textes médicaux et philosophiques. Commentant dans la Métaphysique sur théologiens, Aristote dit:

« Hésiode et tous les Théologiens n’ont cherché que ce qui pouvait les convaincre eux-mêmes, et n’ont pas songé à nous. Des principes ils font des dieux, et les dieux ont produit toutes choses […] quant à nous, nous ne comprenons même pas comment ils ont pu trouver là des causes […] Mais nous n’avons pas besoin de soumettre à un examen approfondi, des inventions fabuleuses. Adressons-nous donc à ceux qui raisonnent et se servent de démonstrations, et demandons-leur comment il se fait que, sortis des mêmes principes, quelques-uns des êtres ont une nature éternelle, tandis que les autres sont sujets à destruction. » (Meta.III.1000a)

Ainsi, le logos se distingue de mûthos de telle manière que le logos suggère une reconnaissance d’une réalité objective qui est observable et est en mesure d’être comprise. Depuis des millénaires, cette idée a été débattue par les philosophes au sujet de l’épistémologie. Au 21e siècle, la science cognitive commence enfin à donner de nouvelles lignes de pensée.

La citation ci-dessus d’Aristote indique clairement la distinction entre mûthos et logos. Ils sont si distincts au quatrième siècle, qu’Aristote dit que nous ne comprenons pas les théologiens. Le dialogue entre les deux parties est devenu similaire au débat d’aujourd’hui entre religion et laïcité où souvent il semble que les deux parties ne s’écoutent pas. La raison de cette rupture est intrinsèque à la langue et la forme de pensée. Mûthos, ou discours spirituel est beaucoup plus symbolique et parle d’une forme de pensée totalement différent de celle de logos et il est moins intéressé à répondre aux questions de «ce qui est». Le mûthoi de différentes cultures et religions sont différenciés temporellement et spatialement si bien que même deux personnes parlant sous la forme d’un mûthos ne peuvent même pas se comprendre les uns des autres. Les Grecs, par exemple, pensent d’une manière très bipartite et le mûthos des Grecs est mieux comprise comme une description de tensions et contrastes interdépendants qui permettent aux Grecs de comprendre l’univers. Ce système bipartite est prolifique dans les sociétés primitives encore aujourd’hui où le noir est opposée au blanc, la gauche à la droite, le bon du mauvais, les hommes des femmes et cetera. Un tel système bipolaire fait sens superficiellement pour nous en tant qu’observateurs, mais nous reconnaissons également qu’il est complètement différent de notre propre forme de pensée. Ainsi, alors qu’Aristote et les théologiens pourraient parler la même langue, ils occupent différentes formes de pensée. Aristote pense sous la forme de la pensée en tant que philosophe, il voit le monde à travers le logos, tandis que les théologiens voient le monde à travers le prisme du mûthos. Les deux sont incompatibles entre eux.

En tant qu’historien l’un des textes les plus fascinants pour moi est les Histoires d’Hérodote. Il a probablement été la première personne à écrire en prose. Il vivait à une époque ou la paysage intellectuel était en mutation. Son oeuvre contient beaucoup de mûthos. Cependant, son travail démontre aussi le premier vrai engagement avec objectivité. Pour voir comment le logos s’est développé, je voudrais comparer l’introduction des Histoires avec l’introduction de l’Iliade d’Homère, le premier ouvrage jamais écrit dans la littérature occidentale, et qui démontre clairement la forme de la pensée du mûthos. Les cinq premières lignes sont:

« Chante, déesse, du Pèlèiade Akhilleus la colère désastreuse, qui de maux infinis accabla les Akhaiens, et précipita chez Aidès tant de fortes âmes de héros, livrés eux-mêmes en pâture aux chiens et à tous les oiseaux carnassiers. Et le dessein de Zeus s’accomplissait ainsi. » (Hom, Il, I.1-5)

Le premier mot en grec est la colère. Le deuxième mot est chanter, et le troisième mot est déesse. Ensemble, ces trois mots sont importants. Le poète fait appel à une déesse pour l’aider à chanter la colère d’Achille. Le chant se réfère à la manière dont le mûthos sera livré et le poète ne se réfère pas à lui-même, mais à la volonté divine dans sa tentative de livrer l’histoire. A l’issue de l’introduction ligne cinq le poète réaffirme la connexion au divin avec la ligne “ainsi le plan de Zeus est venu à son accomplissement”.

Quand on compare cela avec les Histoires d’Hérodote nous pouvons remarquer quelques similitudes, mais plus important encore, les différences marquées dans les premières lignes de l’ouvrage. Hérodote commence en écrivant:

« En présentant au public ces recherches, Hérodote d’Halicarnasse se propose de préserver de l’oubli les actions des hommes, de célébrer les grandes et merveilleuses actions des Grecs et des Barbares, et, indépendamment de toutes ces choses, de développer les motifs qui les portèrent à se faire la guerre. » (Hdt. Histoire, préambule)

De nouveau, en référant au texte original, Hérodote commence en se référant directement à lui-même. Puis il se réfère à la manière dont il livrera son travail en utilisant deux mots importantes historia et apodexis. Historia est le mot pour investigation alors qu’apodexis signifie démonstration. Ici nous pouvons clairement voir une rupture entre logos et mûthos. La forme complète de la pensée a changé. Hérodote ne ressent pas le besoin de faire appel à un dieu pour raconter son investigation d’événement réel qu’il vise à démontrer. Tout cela pour dire qu’Hérodote n’est pas un hyper-rationaliste. Loin de là, en fait. Tout au long de son oeuvre, un soupçon de divin se fait sentir mais il est clair que, dans l’ouverture de son oeuvre monumentale, Hérodote se réfère à la fois à ses prédécesseurs tout en se détachant d’eux.

Platon est également très critique envers le mûthos notamment dans sa capacité à manipuler les gens, surtout les jeunes. Il bannit de façon célèbre presque tout mûthos dans la République pour son influence corruptrice sur la jeunesse. Cependant, dans un de mes dialogues préférés l’Ion de Platon fait un travail de démolition philosophique d’Ion qui est un rhapsode. Un rhapsode est en Grèce antique quelqu’un qui mémorise les poèmes épiques d’Homère et d’Hésiode et voyager de ville en ville donnant des spectacles et des conseils. Ces personnes étaient généralement bien respectées dans les communautés grecques et Platon détestait cela parce qu’ils n’etaient pas engagés au logos et à la vérité de la même manière qu’il l’était. Ainsi, à la fin du court dialogue, Socrate a montré qu’Ion est un imbécile et indigne de tout respect de la communauté.

Ce qui est frappant à propos du logos c’est son universalité. Le même engagement à démontrer la réalité à travers le logos se poursuit aujourd’hui, presque dans tous les domaines de nos vies. La façon dont Platon traite Ion dans l’Ion est tout aussi vraie aujourd’hui qu’elle l’était à l’époque. Nous avons relégué mûthos à la religion et l’aven mis de côté. Ceci est la raison pour laquelle beaucoup de gens ont commencé à dire que la religion est de plus en plus redondante au 21e siècle, ce même sentiment semble avoir été exprimé par Platon et beaucoup d’autres il y a 2500 ans. Le logos est universel parce que, même si Aristote et la foule d’autres penseurs grecs pourrait être avoir catégoriquement tort sur presque tout ce qu’ils disaient au sujet de la science, la biologie, la chimie, la physiques et cetera, ils ont néanmoins, développé une méthodologie pour établir la vérité par la démonstration et la rationalité qui sont encore d’actualité aujourd’hui – ils nous ont essentiellement donné les fondations de notre paysage intellectuel. Pour cela, nous leur devons beaucoup de gratitude et, je pense, le respect intellectuel. En effet, dans le domaine de la philosophie, Aristote et Platon sont encore étudiés à ce jour, encore plus qu’avant. Les gens semblent avoir oublié que le siècle des Lumières a été déclenché par des hommes comme Copernic, Galilée et Newton, qui étaient eux-mêmes étudiants engagés de la philosophie antique et la science. Galileo était, entre autre, un platonicien. Peut-être que dans les pages de Platon, d’Aristote, et d’autres penseurs grecs, les premiers penseurs des Lumières ont trouvé une nouvelle source d’inspiration pour l’engagement à démontrer la réalité via le logos après des siècles de mûthos chrétien ajoutés á l’aristotélisme corrompu.

Ainsi, même si Copernic, Galilée et Newton ont démarré la révolution scientifique à l’époque moderne, nous devons tout autant aux Grecs de nous avoir transmis une tradition universelle de la critique et du questionnement distingué d’abord dans leur propre langue entre mûthos et logos. Il y a une leçon à en tirer pour notre époque. Le débat moderne entre la religion et la laïcité peut parfois sembler frustrant pour les deux parties parce que l’un des côtés ne semble pas comprendre l’autre. Je pense que, ce que les Grecs peuvent nous apprendre, est qu’il n’y a pas un côté stupide ou ignorant, mais plutôt une différente de la forme de la pensée, une différence entre mûthos et logos. Il est important de noter que le mûthos devrait ne plus être considéré, en fait plus de tout. Cependant, le rôle du mûthos dans le monde moderne est un autre sujet, pour le moment, remerciés les Grecs de nous avoir offert ce formidable courant de investigation rationnelle scientifique.

Democracy Trumped! Plato and the Degenertion of Democracy

Much has been said already about the phenomena which is Donald Trump. How is that he has become so popular despite his vulgarity, crudeness and fascist policies? Most of the establishment is left dumbfounded because they wouldn’t know grassroots populism if it came and punched them in the face. A similar situation is occurring on the democratic side of the American spectrum with Bernie Sanders. Both candidates are tapping into a strong populist streak that rejects establishment politics. The differences between the two are of course the different countries and time periods each candidate is taking their inspiration from. Bernie wishes to take a leaf out the book of countries like Sweden, Denmark and other social democratic states. Trump on the other hand looks to emulate policies of 1930’s Germany. Stark differences between the two, and yet both are so very different from establishment politics (which is essentially conservative as both parties perpetuate the existing socio-economic order), that they can almost be clumped together.

Many would see this election as a degeneration of democracy, and some could be justifiably afraid that democracy is in serious danger if Trump was to be elected. Certainly the language Trump is using when describing how he would implement many of his policies suggests that he would ‘rule’ in an authoritarian manner. Taken with his populism and relatability to a large cross section of the American population, I think some who point to Trump’s similarity to Hitler in the 1930’s are not wholly inaccurate in their analysis. Outside of the American context Trump is a fascist and is essentially running on that ticket. People forget that Hitler was voted to power, and the German parliament voted itself out of existence, it wasn’t some glorious coup d’état, and neither will Trump’s rise to power.

Plato describes such a situation in book 8 of the Republic (543a-569c) when returns to the topic of morality which has supposed to have been the main topic of discussion in the dialogue (543c). As he had done previously, Plato decides to map different types of human constitutions on the four main types of political constitutions as existed in his own times (543c-d). It is important to note that Plato recognises that there are certainly more than four different types of constitutions (544c-e), but that the four he discusses are the essential archetypes of the rest and will serve well for the analogy. It is important to stress that the Republic is not a serious exercise in political theory as so many scholars have interpreted it over the years.[1]  What follows is in an insightful discussion on how the ideal society which Socrates and his interlocutors have just created will decay and degenerate; first, into ‘timarchy’, followed by oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The entire section is worth reading but for the purpose of this article, the final discussion on how democracy degenerates into tyranny is interesting for contemporary analysis of the Trump phenomenon.

Prior to the discussion on democracy and tyranny, in his account of oligarchy Plato discusses the flaws of an oligarchical system. This is an important aspect to consider. One oligarchy’s main flaws, Plato points out, is that positions of authority are chosen based on wealth and not skill (551c). This is a topic I have discussed before,[2] and is relevant here given the political context of America, where money now has a huge corrupting influence on the politicians while also posing as a severe hindrance to poorer people who seek election for office. We should point out from the get go that Trump exists purely because people admire anyone who is rich, while also despising anyone poor despite their morality (551a).

Moving on Plato describes how tyranny arises out of a democratic state. He states explicitly that he thinks tyranny arises out of democracy (562a). His account for the decay of democracy seems odd to the modern reader, but hinges on the idea that the people become relentless in their pursuit of freedom. Plato uses a metaphor in this section which has particular resonance with a Greco-Roman audience because bees and ants were thought to the most superior of the animal kingdom because they lived in communities resembling human societies.[3] The people refuse to take orders from the authorities, they become indignant at any idea of restraint in their freedom and the laws, both written and unwritten, are unobserved (5563d). Here is where the potential for dictatorship apparently develops.

While everyone is trying to make money, only the most undisciplined become rich. These men become a pot of honey to the buzzing crowds around them, giving them extravagant gifts (564e). The people begin to forcibly take the wealth of the rich who are forced to defend themselves. In doing so they become oligarchs not because they want to, but more because they are perceived as such (565b). The people raze up a champion against the foul oligarchs and give him prodigious power (565d).

This is the situation we find ourselves with in this American election cycle. To be fair, the policies of Senator Sanders, by Plato’s account could also be construed as tyrannical, except for the fact Sanders’ character is such that it seems unlikely that he would transform from the champion to the dictator as Trump would. Trump’s policies and rhetoric go far beyond anything Sanders is asking. Trump is an every-man candidate precisely because he has no one policy position.

The people are able to project their desires onto him as they wish. For example, in debates and interviews, he will express a wish both for and against a single payer healthcare system; for and against military intervention around the world; and both for and against low taxes and free trade. No one knows what his policies really are because he doesn’t really have any. Except for perhaps the “really big wall, which Mexico will pay for.” He captures votes from both side of the aisle. Contrary to mainstream media bubble-think, most Republicans are in favour of Medicare and Medicaid. Many also want universal background checks. A large portion also want to stop foreign interventions. Trump appears on the Republican side just as Plato describes the people raising a champion up to combat the rich. Trump said in a recent interview:

“you know the funny thing, I don’t get along with rich people. I get along with middle and poor people better than I get along with rich people.”

Plato gives us a reason how a figure like Trump is able to emerge. He says that the democratic man who becomes a dictator exists because he was brought up by a father, who only cares about desires, acting without restraint (572e). The son is spoilt b
y the offering of indulgent pleasures. He is person purged of self-restraint and shame (573a). In Plato this is intended as another metaphor. In this case however, it is almost precisely the biography of Trump, who was raised in an environment where he could have whatever he wanted. He now thinks he is “just the best” and worked hard to make the money he inherited from his father. Moreover, the words that come forth from his word-hole show little sign of self-restraint. Plato concludes, perhaps forebodingly:

“people who are insane and mentally disturbed try to dominate…other human beings, and expect to be able to do so…the dictatorial type is the result of someone’s nature or conditioning – or both – making him a drunken, lustful maniac” (573c).

Even as a critic of democracy in many places, Plato gives us much food for thought on the degeneration of democracy and the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. Plato’s account makes it seem inevitable that this will happen. We don’t have to accept this to recognise the threat that Trump poses to democracy in America and around the world. Most importantly however, Plato makes it clear that a large factor that creates a dictator is the environment in which he is raised and exposed. For Plato, environment has a profound influence on the constitution of a person. Ultimately this means that we ought to recognise that Trump is not an exceptional phenomena, he is product of our society. If you think Trump is a madman, maybe we should change society for the better. Like Marx, who thought the mechanisms for socialism were built into capitalism (making socialism inevitable), Plato thought the mechanism for dictatorship was built into democracy. This is exactly why founding documents of modern nation-states like the American Constitution have procedures to try and avoid this eventuality. This leaves no guarantee however and we should remain ever vigilant to long term threats on our freedoms.

[1] Robin Waterfield stresses this emphatically in his edition of Plato’s Republic. See: Plato, The Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.1993. pp. xiv-xviii. esp. xvii.

[2] https://welcomeintothecave.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/expertise-in-the-polis-and-democratic-governance/

[3] This is common trope in Greek and Roman intellectual thought. The relevancy of this metaphor is striking. See: Ober J. (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press. Particularly Chapters 1-4; Virgil uses the same metaphor in the fourth Georgic and Aeneid. See: Polleichtner von W. (2005). ‘The Bee Simile: How Vergil Emulated Apollonius in His Use of Homeric Poetry’; Winsor Leach E. (1977). ‘”SEDES APIBUS”: FROM THE “GEORGICS” TO THE “AENEID”’, Vergilius No. 23 (1977), pp. 2-16.

Bibliography:

Plato, Republic. translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press. 1993.

Does Philosophy Still Matter?

This is a popular topic on many people’s lips at the moment. As someone who has studied philosophy and thinks it is one of the most rewarding pursuits one can follow in their life I have a slight bias when answering this question. My answer in short is: when did it ever not matter?

For many out there in the big bad world philosophy does not matter. This is due invariably from ignorance of what philosophy actually is and the general impression that philosophers are a bunch of know-it-all layabouts who add very little to society, if by society we mean the economy and if by the economy we narrowly mean farming and other narrow minded senses of what the economy actually is.

Those in government certainly think that philosophy does not matter. Funding across the board for philosophy departments is declining. On the other hand, investment in the sciences is increasing. By pointing this out I do not mean to imply that funding for sciences should not be increasing. Indeed far from it. If the government in their infinitely limited wisdom does not think philosophy is of any use though, then it is hardly surprising that we are discouraged from pursuing philosophy from within the funding structures of education.

Many people claim that philosophy does not add anything to society. This is best reflected in a recent quote by Marco Rubio, the US presidential candidate, who also recently had a major glitch in his computer programming and repeated the same speech three times in cringeworthily fashion. Marco claimed, to rapturous applause from the audience, that “we need less philosophy majors and more welders”. This idea that philosophy is of limited use is both pervasive and popular to say the least.

But how useful is philosophy really? A short but perhaps unsatisfying answer is, well, very useful. A longer answer is much more difficult to give, but one facet of it comes from pursuing philosophy yourself. It’s like heroin with none of the negative side effects. Don’t knock it till you have tried it. A passage in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in a way sums up what I really mean. Towards the end of ‘1984’ Winston begins to read ‘The Book’ and as he finishes the first chapter he bothered to turn to he gets the feeling that the book has told him nothing that he already didn’t know but had arranged things in such a way that it all made sense now.

If you ever had this feeling then you will know what I am talking about. Philosophy is the activity that gives you this feeling about the really important questions in life that we all should think about at some point. And no, it isn’t what dress I should wear today, or which sports teams will win this weekend. Philosophy can give us the answers to: why are we here? What is life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? With philosophy, you can try to sort it all out, and in one night, find the meaning of life.

The ancient philosopher Aristotle might answer the question, “what is the meaning of life?” by saying, well, to do what is in our nature, and it is in our nature as humans to think and rationalise and we do this best by doing philosophy.

Therefore, the meaning of life is to philosophise

Is that it though? Does philosophy have any real world application? “Can philosophy build a bridge or a road?” I can hear someone at the back clamouring. Well no, but neither can a lot of other things.

After answering some of the most profoundly personal questions, philosophy also gives us guidance about how we should behave with one another. Questions like, what is moral? And, my personal favourite: How should we organise our society?

Philosophy might not build a bridge, instead it builds society.

Those of us who live in the west are fortunate to live in nominal democracies. Even if we don’t like our governments in power we at least are guaranteed the right to express our dislike of those governmSteven-Joyce-e1454696263804.jpgents by throwing dildos at them or writing in a blog. This is a great freedom not enjoyed by millions of people around the world at present and is even rarer when we look back on the course of human history. We can thank philosophy in large part for this, and many other freedoms.

The extent to which we all want to live in wealthy and successful societies, is the extent to which philosophy matters today. Personally I do want to live in a wealthy and prosperous society so I am going to continue to pursue philosophy. Everyone should participate in philosophy. Martin Luther King had a dream, and so do I, mine is to see every child taught philosophy from a young age in order to create a society, across the board and at every level, that appreciates the process of questioning things.

In the Republic Plato says that only when kings become philosophers, or philosophers become kings will the world’s ills come to an end. Well, he doesn’t say that exactly, but that is the general gist of it anyway. A society where all of us pursue philosophy is one where the philosophers become kings, and we can solve for the first time in human history the world’s problems.

Some Reading:

Goldstein Rebecca (2015), Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Pantheon Books.

And A Video:

 

Expertise in the Polis and Democratic Governance

Expertise in the Polis and Democratic Governance:

The Decay of Democracy in Modern Democracies.

 

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those that have been tried before.”

Winston Churchill

 

 

Democracy is not a particularly popular topic on people’s lips in modern society. They look at the rampant election fraud and wholesale purchasing of elections as ‘unattractive’ to say the least. The feeling that one’s vote counts on the outcome is seldom felt anymore – except perhaps if you are a CEO of a large corporation. Indeed, democracy, until very recently in human history, has been the least popular form of government. Most governments of ‘natural states’ prior to the modern period were autocratic or severely restricted. Most of these governments were hereditary in nature, meaning that only the family members inherit the means and power to continue to rule. In Europe and the United States people rebelled against this hereditary system beginning in the 1600’s, and many of the democratic systems that exist today are the reactionary result of this criticism. Of course there have been those that supported the old autocratic system as in the best interests of the population for the sake of security. One can go no further than Hobbes’ Leviathan, which to this day remains a quintessential work of political science. However, political utopias have been dreamt up by theorists for millennia; from Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum to Marx’s communism. All manner of utopias have been argued for and against. One such utopia that is consistently appealed to is Plato’s Republic.

 

In its content, the ideal state, as constructed by Plato in the Republic, seems the most intuitive and praiseworthy. Plato explains how such a state would come about, the principles upon which it would operate, and also why such a state would ultimately fail. At a simple glance, Plato divides society into three parts; the mass of everyday people, the auxiliary guardians, and the rulers themselves, the philosopher kings. The principles which divide society are founded upon a principle of justice which it is Socrates’ aim in the Republic to argue for at large. Plato argues that each man should only do one job. Where one man interferes with another man’s work is where the root of all injustice stems from. Upon this basis society is divided between rulers and ruled. Plato appeals to a very convincing argument when establishing this principle. He points out that if one was to have, say for example, his or her computer fixed, would he or she go to the specialist who knows how to fix it, in this case the computer technician, or would he or she go to an historian, someone who has expert knowledge of some period in the past. Naturally, we would expect any rational person to seek out the expert in this case the computer technician. Plato’s argument for government is therefore built upon the premise that the act of governing is a skill, one that can be learnt. This being the case society should act like the rational man who seeks out a computer technician to repair his computer and entrust the process of governance to group of educated experts. This group, Plato says, are the philosophers.

For Plato then, government should be conducted by experts. It is this principle which makes Plato’s political utopia so persuasive because the processes of government are done most efficiently. When we look back over the course of human history we can clearly see that expertise has long been absent in government. As noted above, most natural autocratic states have been founded on a hereditary basis, a very unlikely mechanism to ensure future good governance. Roman history illustrates this point and its inverse well. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, is perhaps most guilty of this, insisting that his lineage be continued which ultimately resulted in the disastrous reigns of Caligula, and later, Nero. The same mistake was made by Vespasian until finally, the series of ‘good’ emperors began with Nerva, when candidates were chosen on the basis of expertise in the important areas of governance as considered important by the Roman senate at that time. The five good emperors Nerva, Hadrian, Trajan, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius were not related to one another on a hereditary basis. Instead they were chosen by each emperor in turn on the basis of their experience. This saw Rome reach its zenith of territorial, military, and economic power. Fast forward to the modern period, and most positions in government are appointed positions based upon expertise on a similar basis. For any elected government official in charge of an important branch of government, there is a small army of unelected experts behind them offering policy advice and expertise. Plato’s vision is far closer to reality now than it ever was in the past.

Furthermore, with large truly global organisations expertise is even more so than ever before the basis for governance. The United Nations, the European Union, the European Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are giant institutions which have massive influence on international politics. Of the institutions listed, only the European Union has parliamentary elections and the European Parliament’s power is limited in its role in the European Union. The rest are closed institutions run on the basis of expertise (diplomatic, financial, policy). Thus, in our governance at the domestic and international level, expertise is increasingly the basis for functioning power. Plato’s vision of an entire society run by experts seems more than ever a reality.

As this is the situation, in true Socratic style, we ought to question our assumptions about expertise and its role in governance. Plato wrote the Republic in the fourth century B.C., in Athens, at that time a participatory democracy. Plato is consistently critical of democracy throughout his work, firstly because they killed his friend and mentor Socrates, and secondly because he believed that the system was run by non-experts, and made foolish mistakes such as per the first reason. His utopia expressly denies all political rights to the masses and gives unilateral power to the auxiliaries to maintain order.

Democracies in the modern era look nothing like the Athenian system. Whereas their system was direct, ours is representative. We vote every few years, depending on which country one lives in, for a person or persons to look after our interests in government. This is done, it is argued, because it is more efficient, and it allows those who are experts in government to come into the foreground and make best use of their expertise, while the rest of us can be left to get on with the all the other things we would rather be doing. The people that argue for this appeal first to our inner self-centredness. It is much easier to focus on myself than the concerns of the community around me. Secondly, they fail to tell you that Athens was a highly specialised democracy and was the leading state of its time. Its democracy lasted for 200 years before an outside power dissolved it, but during that time, it was the leading economic power in the Mediterranean. In this way, we are lead to believe through very persuasive arguments to give up our rights to a group of experts in the interests of efficiency without considering any plausible alternatives. The only alternatives presented are autocratic regimes such as communism and dictatorial states. We the people, are never presented with a democratic option in a realistic manner.

Given that there already exists giant international associations with no positions that electable by the normal electorate it is high time that we question the future of expert run governments. The greatest drawback of Plato’s Republic, is that he does not account for the interests of the whole population. Plato assumes that through the process of education the philosopher kings will take into consideration what is best for society overall. This does not necessarily correspond to the interest of the majority. This is incredibly paternalistic and appears to violate the very principle upon which Plato founds his utopia. Surely it is us, the people, who know our own interests best. As it is we don’t like being told what we can and cannot buy, so why do we accept that a group of others will best represent our interests. There are many experts out there that we could in theory give our money to who then buy the goods and services that best serve our interests. There are many people who have bad spending habits, they eat the wrong foods, buy things outside their means, or fail to save for a house and retirement. By the logic under which we freely give up our politic power to a group, we should also give up our rights to choose how and when spend our money. But don’t worry we get to vote on who we give this power to, and that is democracy. This seems absurd, and rightly so yet no one is concerned when it comes to political power.

Furthermore, Plato does not take account for the reality that different groups have access to better or worse education largely based on wealth which naturally determines the educational outcomes for certain groups. Plato’s republic in reality would result in an educational elite dominating power through their access to the best educational institutions. This is already the case in places like the United Kingdom where according to a recent study “Almost a third of new parliamentary candidates with a reasonable chance of winning seats in the general election were privately educated and one in five attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities.”  In France seven of the past ten prime ministers have come from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while in the United States there are 44 US Senators with at least one degree from an Ivy League school or other comparable elite institution of higher learning. Statistics such as these demonstrate that the liberal democracies we live in are not entirely representative as they claim to be. A meta-analysis of the role elite institutions have generally in global governance at all levels is important avenue of enquiry required in order to complete this picture of an educational elite dominating political power.

The flipside of the utopian state in the Republic is a democracy similar to which Plato himself lived in. To a committed democrat Plato’s utopia is a dystopia, where the demos is denied any political power. We find ourselves today in a world where a contradiction exists. On the one hand, government has become highly specialised and most positions are appointed on the basis of expertise, with a significant proportion of those elected to representative bodies coming from a select group of elite educational institutions. As we edge closer and closer to a Platonic utopia, we move further towards a democratic dystopia. In addition, given the proliferation of multinational associations with zero direct public accountability serious questions need to be raised about the state of our democracies around the world. On the other hand, the general public are lead to believe that we live in stable liberal democracies where the interests or the people are looked after by their representative in the government. Does democracy really exist anymore? Consider whether government today is more like that of democratic Athens, or Plato’s Republic. Then consider which one you would rather live in.

The problem, as I seem to pose it, is mutually exclusive. This is because, democracy, as envisioned by the Athenians is not based on expertise. If it is, then it is based on an expertise manifested by the collective decisions of the Athenians themselves – in the ecclesia, boule, and dikasteria. Certainly, the Athenians would agree that there is a role for specialised knowledge and expertise in government, as they often used themselves. However, they were always careful to hold these public officials to account. Proponents of the current system, might claim that this is the case already, given that officials cannot break the law, are limited by the laws that govern them, and are accountable to the elected representatives, which by proxy makes them publicly accountable. However, given that the government is the one to make the law, they are also free to draft the rules in their favour, meaning that officials cannot break the law because they are the ones drafting the laws. In addition, since elected officials are in theory accountable to their constituency, they have the perverse incentive to skirt the rules in order to avoid scandal and maintain their hold on power.

My aim in this article has been to use the basic premises of Plato’s Republic to question the state of democracy in the modern period. Governance has become highly specialised. This has led to a dramatic increase in unelected officials into positions of real power. An analysis of this aggregate power in any given system would be an interesting study for a later and more in depth paper. My second aim was to defend democracy from the encroachment of these undemocratic processes and to open a dialogue on the role these unelected officials should have in our democracies. With the Republic in mind, it is important to remember that Plato denies all political power to the majority of the people. We ought to remain always vigilant of such a possibility eventuating moving forward. My final aim was to suggest that there is an alternative for society to look at which comes from Plato’s own time. Athenian democracy was vibrant, long-lived and very successful. The claims that direct democracy is unrealisable in the 21st century do not pass muster any more. Democracy is an issue that should unite people from all across the spectrum whether left or right leaning. Whether you want big government or small government, the health of democracy should always be on the political agenda. Perhaps this writer is an optimist, but the collective power of the majority is far wiser in the long run, than any expert. It is important to remember this when we consider who best understands and can represent our interests, us, or someone else.

Bibliography

  • Carugati F. Ober J. and Weingast B.R, (2015). “Development and Political Theory in Classical Athens”. Polis (Forthcoming).
  • The Economist, (2005). ‘In ENA we trust: The long reach of the class of 1980’. Jul 21st. http://www.economist.com/node/4198541
  • Perraudin F, (2015). ‘Private school and Oxbridge educations over-represented among likely new MPs’ in the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/05/private-school-oxford-cambridge-educations-over-represented-parliamentary-candidates.
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996). The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press.
    • (1998). Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (2006). ‘Thucydides and the Invention of Political Science’ in Brill’s Companion to Thucydides. (eds) Antonios Rangakos and Antonis Tsakmakis. pp. 135-159. Leiden.
    • (2010). “Wealthy Hellas”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volume 140, Number 2, Autumn 2010, pp. 241-286. John Hopkins University Press.
    • (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.
  • Plato, The Republic, (1993), translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.
  • Rhodes, P.J. (2013). “The Organisation of Athenian Public Finance”. Greece and Rome, 2 pp. 203-231. The Classical Association.
  • Weingast B.R. (1995). “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market Preserving Federalism and Economic Development”. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. 11. No. 1, pp. 1-31.
    • (1997). “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law”. American Political Science Review. 91, pp. 245-263.
    • (2013). “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Political Aspects of Decentralization and Economic Development”. World Development. 20, pp. 14-25.
  • Zinn H. (2003) A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial.

From Athens to the 21st Century: Blueprint for Real Democracy

Direct participatory democracy in the 21st century is a viable alternative option to the restricted democracy that the majority of western nations live under. The inspiration for such a system can be found in classical Athens between 508 and 322 B.C.E. This article shall not give a detailed description of this system, for such a work would require a monumental work, rather I shall outline the Athenian system to demonstrate the important principles of large numbers who can control an ideological hegemony in the interest of the many. It shall also attempt to dispel some myths about direct participatory democracy.

The efficacy of such a system has been derided for centuries by political theorists as both impossible to implement, and even if so, would cause a general upheaval of society as the poor clamour for gross redistribution of wealth. What these people fail to tell you is that Athens solved these two problems in such a way that the elite retained their wealth but used it such a way that the Athenian economy was one of only a few in the pre-modern era to experience extensive and prolonged economic growth.

There are various reasons for the success of Athens. One of the factors was certainly the direct participatory democracy with its multiple institutions. The ‘constitution’ of Athens was a de facto federalist system. At the base were the 139 demes perhaps best understood as villages. These were the basic political unit are were the centre of political life for the everyday man.
Kleishtenes REFORMS
The demes were in turn organised into trittyes. This process worked to mix the Athenians up so that local political alliances could not be cemented in a bid to gain a stronger foothold in Athenian politics. With the trittyes it was practically impossible for one group, or even a small group to take control of Athenian politics through the manipulation of the voting and representation systems.

The phylai, or tribes, were the largest political groupings. These consisted of 10 trittyes again in such a way as to mix the groups up so that each tribe had to look out for the interests of each subdivision in that group. In 508 when democracy was first instituted, there were 10 tribes, increased from the previous 4 under the old regime.

At the ‘national’ level the participation by all citizens did not cease. The national system consisted of three main parts: the Boule (Council), the Dikasterion (Law Courts), and the Ekklesia (Assembly). The first two of these used a lottery system to allocate its members while the Ekklesia was open to all citizens.

The Boule was the body that oversaw the everyday business of the state. They numbered 500 lotteried officials with attendant slaves and servants available to assist in the business of government. They were in essence the executive branch of the government. All decisions were done by majority votes and every tribe was represented by 50 of its members chosen from the demes according to the proportion of their population. Members served for one year, and were restricted to twice in their lifetime and not within a period of 10 years between each.

The Dikasterion were the law courts where public disputes were settled. Each session consisted of either 201 or 501 jurors. There were no judges or legal experts, only public magistrates available to read out aloud to everyone the relevant laws. Courts met on most days of the year, and jurors received a daily wage much as they do these days when one is called up for jury service.

The most important body in the system was the Ekklesia. It was here that all Athenian citizens could come together and debate political issues. There were no restrictions on who could speak. The floor was open to everyone. Assemblies generally numbered 5000-8000 persons, about 1/5th of the voting population at any one time. For very important legal cases the Assembly would also sit in judgement and like all other decisions resolutions and laws were passed by simple majority.

The Athenian system is not a direct blueprint to a viable system of democracy in the 21st century. However, it provides the inspiration for system where large numbers are directly involved in the system. The numbers were so large in the Athenian system that bribery was virtually impossible. The wholesale purchase of politicians as it is done nowadays through lobbying groups and special interests would have been impossible in Athens.

Now, many political theorists would claim that Athens was not the real democracy that many idealists claim it was. The say that it was democratic in name, and that in reality the elite were the ones to control affairs behind the scenes. More often than not, such claims come from those who have not actually taken the time to consult the necessary literature on the matter. Thankfully, towards the end of the 20th and into the 21st century scholars are moving on from these cynical interpretations of the Athenian political system.

What is clear from the extensive evidence left to us by the Athenians is that the everyday people maintained an ideological hegemony over the elite. This meant that the state on whole served the interests of the majority but net necessarily at the expense of the rich minority. It is true that the rich were compelled to contribute to the costs of society through infrequent direct taxation and the system of liturgies. However, the fear of a grand, sweeping redistribution of land and wealth never happened in the c.200 years that Athenian democracy existed.

Indeed, to the contrary in these 200 or so years Athens went from being a middling power both militarily and economically to the regions’ leading economic power and a leading military power through the use of its swift navy.

In its own time, Athens was unique for its wide base of citizen participation. How the Athenians were able to mobilise themselves despite their large numbers in such a decentralised system is not short of phenomenal. The system enabled the Athenians to become very rich through the exploitation of local mines, and trade networks. Democracy made Athens an attractive destination of foreign traders, and by the late fifth century Athens was the trade hub of the Aegean. To those that claim that democracy is inefficient, I say, you have little evidence to support this claim, given that historically speaking the wealthiest and most successful nations have been democratic.

If we want to live in wealthy nations were the interests of the many in society are looked after it is high time that we start creating political systems that accurately reflect this aspiration. The current system despite what politicians and other supporters say is a system that is easily hijacked by the elite. We entrust a small group of individuals to look after the interests of us and yet those interests are consistently ignored in favour of the interests of the elite.

Moreover, we are convinced to vote for these people through a perverse ideology controlled in a vice-grip by the elite. When persons arise that attempt to offer change in the benefit of the poor majority, they are discredited by the machine of elite propaganda and piecemeal voting that is apparently what democracy is focused toward establishment candidates. We need a system that reflects the everyday man’s interest. They only way to do this is to work for it ourselves. The lesson we can learn from the Athenians is that not only is direct participatory democracy possible, it is actually more efficient and can promote economic growth and flourishing.

In conclusion, as outlined in this article, Athens provides the inspiration for a system of direct participatory democracy. This system should include all citizens in the system with the use of large numbers to counteract the aims of special interests who otherwise corrupt our politicians. The goals of such a system would be recreate a ideological hegemony in the interests of the many. The results will be more efficient for society in the long run, as such a system will promote economic growth and prosperity. Insofar as we all have an interest in society we should all have equal power to affect change and participate in our society.

Bibliography

  • Carugati F. Hadfield G. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Building Legal Order in Ancient Athens. Conference Paper July 2015.
  • Carugati F. Ober J. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Development and Political Theory in Classical Athens”. Polis (Forthcoming).
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996). The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press.
    • (1998). Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (2006). ‘Thucydides and the Invention of Political Science’ in Brill’s Companion to Thucydides. (eds) Antonios Rangakos and Antonis Tsakmakis. pp. 135-159. Leiden.
    • (2010). “Wealthy Hellas”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volume 140, Number 2, Autumn 2010, pp. 241-286. John Hopkins University Press.
    • (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.
  • Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press.
  • Raaflaub K.A. (1995), ‘Kleisthenes, Ephialtes und die Begründung der Demokratie’ in Demokratia: Der Weg der Griechen zur Demokratie, Konrad H. Kinzl. Wege der Forschung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
    • (1996a). “Equality and Inequality in the Athenian Democracy“, in Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, Josiah Ober and Charles Hendrick. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996b). “Power in the Hands of the People: Foundations of Athenian Democracy,” in Democracy 2500: Questions and Challenges, Ian Morris and Kurt A. Raaflaub Atlanta, American Philological Association.
    • (1996c). “The Thetes and Democracy: Response to J. Ober,” in Morris and Raaflaub.
  • Scheidel W. (2005). “Military Commitments and Political Bargaining in Ancient Greece”. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics. http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/110501.pdf.
  • Weingast B.R. (1995). “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market Preserving Federalism and Economic Development”. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. 11. No. 1, pp. 1-31.
    • (1997). “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law”. American Political Science Review. 91, pp. 245-263.
    • (2013). “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Political Aspects of Decentralization and Economic Development”. World Development. 20, pp. 14-25.

Plato’s Republic and Star Wars

At the heart of the Star Wars Universe is the Force. That mystical energy that “surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” In Star Wars the Force is most commonly manifested by either the Jedi or the Sith.  The Sith and Jedi are sworn enemies, duelling it out over millennia in an attempt to eradicate one another from the galaxy. This dualism has many parallels with Plato’s Republic in which Socrates attempts to defend morality from immorality. The problem is posed by Adeimantus to Socrates at 367b, “why does one of them, in and of itself, make anyone who possesses it bad, while the other one, in and of itself, make him good?” In other words, without reference to the consequences of either morality or immorality, i.e. the reputation that follows from each, what it is about each that makes it good or bad. This problem reflects in many ways the struggle between the Sith and Jedi in the Star Wars Universe.

The Jedi use the force for good. They have a greater appreciation for the subtitles of the force and what it has to offer. They value wisdom and courage; peace over war. They only fight when it is necessary. They are at peace with themselves, and they seek to bring balance to the universe. Why they do this is not always evident. However, at their core, the Jedi are in many ways akin to Socrates in the Republic. They are defenders of morality for morality’s sake. They believe that by doing good, not for the intendent consequences, but for the act in and of itself is worthwhile. It is what the force is calling them to do. This is what identifies them as a force for good. It also shrouds them is an air of mystery. Meanwhile, due to this air mystery sometimes the actions of the Jedi are frustrating. We don’t connect fully with their ideals. We see that what they aim for is noble and good, but we do not think that their means of doing so are the most efficient. Here is where another parallel exists between Plato and Star Wars. In the Republic, Plato gives a long analogy describing the life of a philosopher as one who ascends from a cave to find the truth and the light, only to descend once again to free his comrades and be ridiculed and even punished. The Jedi are much the same. We do not fully understand their methods and intentions and so they are ridiculed, in the same way that those in the cave are ignorant of what the philosopher has learned outside in the light. What he speaks of seems silly, even crazy. Ultimately, this is what enables the dark side of the Force to manifest itself.

The Sith are the opposite of the Jedi. The see the force as a tool in which to better themselves. They are selfish and self-centred. They think only of themselves. They seek power in the manner of 1984, just for the sake of power. In the Star Wars films they rise to power through cunning and deceit, in the same way that that Thrasymachus and Adeimantus describe the unjust man using deceit and cunning to trick everyone around him into thinking that he is a moral man and deserving of praise and reward. For the audience it is easy for us to identify the Sith as evil but in reality we are more like the Galactic Senate at the end of episode III giving away our freedom to the Emperor. Everyone is at times a little selfish, and we can even be greedy. Moreover, we can identify with Anakin’s struggle. He wants to have the power to save the lives of those he cares about most just as many of would in reality. On closer inspection then, many of us are actually closer to the Sith than we are to the Jedi, even though we can recognise the Jedi as a force for good generally in the galaxy our personal habits and society indicate that we are in fact closer to the opposite.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the parallels between the Republic and Star Wars is the inverse in the methods by which Plato would create a just society. His image of the just society looks nothing like that of the Jedi. Instead it is closer to what the Sith aim for. One supreme figure resting a top the rest who is the source of all wisdom and authority within the society. This is exactly what Palpatine accomplishes at the end of episode III. This inversion can tell us much about ourselves. The Sith and the Empire in the Star Wars universe are a reflection of the 20th century’s scariest political movement, fascism. The very fact that fascism was so popular in Europe during the earlier part of the 20th century tells us something scary about ourselves. Point for point, many people would actually prefer to live in a fascist society. The Empire is a gross exaggeration of this, but we can see how Plato’s image of the ideal city would be attractive to many people. At this point is probably necessary to note that Plato did not intend for someone like Hitler to take control of society. His idea was far more benevolent and came from a good place where he thought it was the best for society overall. Fast forward to our own times, and he can see that the same problems still exist. People wish for security from perceived threats in exchange for their rights and freedoms. They see the alternative of Plato’s ideal city as one that they would like to live in without realising that those they are giving up their freedoms to are not the philosopher kings that as Plato described.

We should also consider on the other hand however, that the Republic is not a serious attempt at formulating a political science. Plato’s ideal city is merely a metaphor for identifying justice in the soul of an individual. Socrates is far more concerned with the individual than society at large, although society is still important. In this area, perhaps Plato is correct and is in this respect closer to the Jedi. The Jedi are trained to be masters of themselves just as the Philosopher king in the master of soul. He lets wisdom dictate his actions and suppresses his emotions and baser instincts.

These parallels between Star Wars and Plato’s Republic also suggest how the struggle will ultimately end. By the end of the Republic after the long exposition of justice by Socrates, it is left unclear and ambiguous. Socrates has certainly made a good effort at defending morality from immorality but in doing so he has had to use myth and analogy to defend his position. A reader might be left thinking that indeed, yes, Socrates has successfully defended morality from the attacks of Thrasymachus. The situation is like that at the end of the sixth film where the audience is left wondering what will the fate be of the Jedi order now that the Sith are destroyed and Luke is left as the only surviving Jedi. We have seen the redemption of Vader and the death of the Emperor, the people are rejoicing as if final victory has been achieved. Nevertheless, that feeling lingers in the back of one’s mind as to whether the galaxy is truly rid of this struggle. On closer inspection of Plato’s Republic one might also be left wondering if Socrates has really defended morality in the terms set out to him at 376b. In the course of the long dialogue, Socrates has made many cogent arguments, and the reader is drawn further and further into Plato’s way of thinking. But like many of Plato’s other dialogues it ends in aporia, and we are left to ponder for ourselves as an exercise whether Socrates has really defended morality.

What are the conclusion from all this. The first is that everyone should go out right now and purchase a copy of the Republic for themselves to read. It is probably the most important book ever written and is an almost endless stream of insight upon every reading. The second and more important one is this. We don’t need to be either like the Sith or the Jedi. We should accept that there are parts of our human nature which can be a force for evil. On the other hand we shouldn’t punish ourselves as the Jedi seem to do in Star Wars. We could try however to be more like them in conquering the fears and anxieties that can lead us toward wrongdoing. Like Plato we should try to allow wisdom to guide our actions, recognise good actions in and of themselves as meaningful and worthwhile. In essence we could imagine an ending to episode VI in which neither the Jedi nor the Sith win, but instead humanity.