An Innocuous Case of Elite Power

Some key tenets that one must adjust themselves to when living in Europe is that rules and regulations apply only to some and not others; that rules apply universally, except when they don’t; and rules can be changed just as easily as they are made. The result fundamentally makes a mockery of the rule of law.

A perfect example of how European elites piss all over the rule of law is the recent call to change the International Monetary Fund bylaws to pick Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria as the new head. The example is rather innocuous. Who gives a fuck? – it’s just the head of the IMF. True, it’s a rather inconsequential example. But it’s a case that illustrates my point exactly.

For context, the situation is that the bylaws need to be changed so that Ms. Georgieva can be appointed because she will be 65 at the time of taking up the office where the current rules state the person must be 64 or below.

This is a classic example of how the European elite make rules, only to change them the next day. What is the point of making the rule if you are only going to change it? Do elites actually think for a second of why the rule was put there in the first place. Maybe it was to make sure that the person in charge can make it through the day without inadvertently pissing themselves. Maybe it’s so we don’t have someone with Alzheimer’s disease running the show.

The truth is that they never cared about the rule. They knew they would be able to change it as soon as it suited them. Rules and regulations serve two functions for the elite. First, laws create the illusion in the eyes of average citizen that the system is just. Second, it makes political systems complex and difficult to understand. The effect is that it excludes people who do not have the time or resources to understand the system better. Third, laws give justification for elites to exclude and reprimand those who do fundamentally challenge the system.

This situation where elites just change the rules on a whim to fit their agendas allows them to control the system for themselves whilst keeping the boot on the throat of the poor and downtrodden. A part of this is due to the elitist mindset that pervades European political circles inherited from their aristocratic ancestors. Power is, and should be, exclusively reserved for those of the right type i.e. those who look and sound the part. This is not a system based on bloodlines. In some ways it far more nefarious. It’s a system based on ideological and behavioural homogeneity.

“The peasants are to be kept apart from us.”

This elitist mindset cuts to the core of why some of the most powerful positions are not elected ones. The Presidents of the European Council, European Commission, European Parliament and European Central Bank[1] are all politically appointed by other elites. The average citizen has zero power on the outcome, and they enforce the status quo power structure.

Unfortunately, much of the elite are growing old, and so this case also shows how baby boomers can’t help themselves when it comes to entrenching their decades long power structures. This woman should be retiring along with the rest of these knuckleheads. Give the position to a younger, more vibrant, candidate who represents the vast majority of the world’s population.

Don’t give me the bullshit talking point that “we need someone with experience.” Fuck that. Experience doesn’t change anything. Trump is 73 going on 107 – the man is fucking idiot. Experience doesn’t equal to intelligence, nor does it equal performance. Most people in politically appointed positions have subpar intelligence because they were appointed by people with subpar intelligence.

Politics does not attract the demographic of society which we could describe as exceptionally gifted with intelligence (case in point: the current occupier of the White House). The best of our species are doctors, scientists, and engineers. Politics is the epicenter of mediocrity, neither cripplingly stupid, nor amazingly smart.

To be absolutely clear to those who read this, and also suffer from retardation. I am not critiquing or criticising Ms. Georgieva herself. I am pointing my finger at the power structure that is controlled by baby-boomer elites who control and manipulate power to their ends at the detriment of the rest of us.

This rather innocuous case of a political appointee to the IMF demonstrates how the European elite are willing to change rules and regulation whenever they are an inconvenience to their power. But they will insist to the ends of the earth that other rules need to be kept in place when it benefits them!

That’s why an ambitious and radical program to address climate change, for example, will never advance. It will always be ‘debated’, ‘discussed’, ‘deliberated’, ‘examined’, ‘resolved’, ‘argued’, and ‘considered’.

As Carl Schmidt describes in Political Theology “Christ or Barabbas, the liberal answers with a motion to adjourn the meeting or set up an investigative committee”.

Carl Schmitt, 1922, Political Theology, p. 78.

Governments rush to sign non-binding international agreements championing how great and magnanimous they are, but few actually follow through with tangible actions.

What is tangible is when the IMF give loans to countries on the condition that they deregulate their domestic markets, and change other public policies that ultimately entrenches economic austerity.

Elites control institutions such as the IMF. These institutions control our lives. Institutions are themselves governed formally by rules and regulations. But conveniently, elites take upon themselves to change the rules and regulations as they see fit, and for their exclusive benefit. An innocuous case of a bylaw change at the IMF is a perfect example of this thesis. For the elite rules and regulations apply only to some and not others; rules apply universally, except when they don’t; and rules can be changed just as easily as they are made. The rule of law does not apply to elite.


[1] I understand that the European Central Bank is apolitical. But who are we kidding, the choice has political implications.

[2] Carl Schmitt, 1922, Political Theology, p. 78.

Monuments of Racism – A tale of two cities

Since the founding of the European Union, and especially in the last thirty years or so, the construction of a collective sense of what it means to be European has accelerated. Thanks to the European Union, citizens of each Member State are happily also European Citizens. One feature of being European is to partake in the ritual of burying one’s head in the sand. I’m speaking of course about the millions of skeletons that Europe has in its closet that the populace continues to ignore. The skeletons are those of the millions of people who died because of European slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

It is this wilful ignorance that makes Europe a paradise for racism. While extremists like Hans Breivik shock the conscience, his existence does not result from a vacuum. Racist ideology is fomented by institutions and cultural practices. It comes in many forms such as the warped teaching of history, the representation of people outside of Europe in museums and cultural exhibitions, news reporting, public policy and a host of other mediums.

A favourite for me are museums, which Europe has in abundance. Museums have a unique function for a society. They are monuments to the cultural, scientific and social achievements of a nation. They reflect the ‘strength’ of a nation which is why they flourished so much in the 19th century when imperialism and nationalism were in their zenith. Importantly, they mirror the attitudes of the nation. Thus, when museums perpetuate colonial and racist thinking it is a natural reflection of the nation’s thinking when it comes to issues such as racism and colonialism.

Two contrasting examples illustrate the point. On a recent trip to the Netherlands, I has surprised to see that the museum I visited properly explained the context in which many of the cultural artefacts and works of art were created. A Romanticised depiction of a road construction in 19th century Dutch East Indies is captioned with the preface that thousands of local Indonesians perished building this monument of colonisation.


The Great Postal Route near Rejapolah, Auguste Antoine Joseph Payen, 1828

While it’s not a miracle, it at least acknowledges that Romanticised scenes such as this are far from the reality of what colonialism was about. But such efforts are rare in Europe. The populace by and large shows a staggering level of wilful ignorance for the actions of their ancestors. People even forget that they do not even need to go back very far. In many cases it was their grandparents who took part in national colonial projects.

By contrast a visit to the Central African Museum in Belgium is the epitome of this failure by Europe to account for its atrocities. The exhibition is controversial to say the least. The King of Belgium even refuses to visit it. It’s controversial because of Leopold II. In Belgium he is remembered as a national hero, a father of the country sort. He built magnificent buildings, created many national parks, and oversaw a flourishing of Belgian culture during the late 19th century.

Of course, such an image was built on the backs of the Congolese people whom he enslaved and butchered. Tens of millions of Congolese perished in the Congo Free State which he ruled over personally between 1885 and 1908. The reality of Leopold is that he would make good company with the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

The Central African Museum is a testament to Leopold’s legacy. Indeed, the entire museum is housed within opulent classical style buildings with large French gardens surrounding. One would think they are about to serve high tea at noon when visiting. Instead, you’re visiting a mausoleum to some of the worst crimes against humanity – lovely.

Recently the exhibition was ‘reformed’. The collection previously run by the colonial office, has since been changed to modernise the exhibition. In some limited respects it makes attempts to more accurately show what Belgium did to the Congolese people.

But based on what actually went on there, it would be like going to Auschwitz and seeing a sign that just said, “some people died here”.

But this attempt falls short because it fails to acknowledge the brutalities of King Leopold II. Here is a short list of the regime’s greatest hits. In the Congo Free State every person was required to produce a certain amount of goods for the king. If one failed to do this their hands would be cut off. If the man needed his hands for working the hands of his wife and children would be cut off.

It is estimated that in the 19th century Congo has a population of around 20 million people. By the time of the first census in 1924, that figure had dropped to 10 million. It wasn’t just hand amputations. Most of these deaths were due to mass starvation, overwork, disease (sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza, and amoebic dysentery), in addition to outright mass executions of ‘rebellious’ villages.

Leopold II advertised his takeover of the Congo Free State as a civilising mission. A quintessential example of the white man’s burden. A golden statue in the central rotunda still stands of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes along with a plaque that reads: “Belgium bringing civilisation to Congo.”

The Central African Museum should be recommended for those who would like a class in how Europe continues to this day to perpetuate racist and colonialist ideologies. Just as the Belgian state made only cosmetic changes to the Congo Free State when they took over in 1908, so too has this museum. At its core is a message of murder and genocide. All the while you are greeted with a smile.

The Belgians were well known for setting up human zoos – the greatest irony is that they themselves have become a zoo themselves. It’s a zoo of various perverse, sick and degenerate ideologies. The hypocrisy is glaring and it’s time Europe takes its head out the sand. Oh, but they have lovely museums don’t they!

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 this day 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 – capitalism.

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 lens. 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 that 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

Did Socrates Exist? – Yes you idiot

So, I recently had a prolonged argument with someone over, of all things, the existence of Socrates. This person claimed, in short, that there is no proof that Socrates existed. What follows herein outlines why we can be pretty sure that Socrates, the man, indeed existed.

Since none of us alive today actually met Socrates (he has been dead for 2400 years) then we require evidence for his existence. We don’t have photos, nor video, nor any paintings. What we must rely on are written accounts because that is the only source that we have. Such evidence exists in abundance.

The most famous, and most immediate texts one thinks of when one mentions Socrates are the dialogues of Plato. A series of texts written by the student of Socrates, during the fourth century B.C. following the death of his teacher and mentor. Plato ‘s dialogues cast Socrates as the main character and some of the most dramatic pieces of Greek literature out there. The Apology of Socrates is perhaps the most famous trial in history, while the Republic has been described as “the most important book ever written”. Did Socrates believe everything that Plato put in his mouth – probably not. But this does not equate to saying he didn’t exist. Plato likely drew many ideas and principles from his mentor and teacher and combined them with his own.

Another lesser known text is Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Xenophon is better known as an historian, particularly for trying to replicate Thucydides in the Hellenica anf for his infamous book the Anabasis. The Memorabilia on the other hand is a lesser known work  but like Plato, casts Socrates as the main character. Like Plato, the setting is a dramatic one, Socrates is in conversation with interlocators. The ideas of Socrates however, are more or less ‘rudimentary’ than as they appear in Plato. There are some similarities, but what the picture we get from Xenophon, was that Socrates might have been a very different sort of person than how Plato depicts him.

In addition, others of Socrates’ students published Socratic dialogues. We have, for example, fragments from Aeschines of Sphetus. The other texts of Socrates’ students are unfortunately lost to us, but we know of them from later writers who likely had access to them and who give us details of what was contained in those texts. All these texts were written in the fourth century, after the death of Socrates in 399 B.C. In the vast majority of cases, Socrates is the main character and the focus of the text. Taken together, historians can reconstruct a historical biography of Socrates’ life and personality with a certain degree of accuracy. As a result, we can be certain that the claim that Socrates, the man, existed is probably a true.

The best source, despite the above evidence, would be a contemporaneous piece of evidence to when Socrates was alive. Luckily, we have Aristophanes’ Clouds, which was staged in 423 B.C. and in which Socrates is the main character. Aristophanes lampoons Socrates for running a ‘thinkery’ (phrontizerion).

We also have the indirect evidence for Socrates that we can cross=reference with other sources. For example, Socrates in the Apology notes that he served the city well and was congratulated by his peers for his displays of heroism at the battle of Delium in 424 B.C. We can be fairly sure that Delium was an historical event because Thucydides (another contemporary of Socrates) describes the battle in his History of the Peloponnesian War (4.23). By cross=referencing events related to Socrates’ life, we further build up a clearer picture of Socrates’ life.

Just because he never wrote anything does not mean he didn’t exist!

Yet, Socrates never wrote any text himself. This however does not mean he did not exist, it just means he never wrote anything down. We learn from Plato that Socrates did not think that real knowledge could be transferred through books, but through the dialectical method, by which it was thought that one could reach the truth of a given topic through a series of questions and answers. Indeed, this idea casts some doubt as to the purpose of Plato’s dialogues and suggests the reason why Platonic doctrines in the dialogues are elaborated inconsistently. That aside, the fact that Socrates’ ideas are inconsistent, or that he never wrote anything himself, does not mean he never existed.

On the other hand, what is true is that the portrayal of Socrates is inconsistent from one text to another. This merely suggests that Plato and Xenophon use the caricature of Socrates differently to serve different purposes in their respective texts. One of the consistent images of Socrates, however, is that he was a particularly unattractive person. We often hear Socrates degrading himself in Plato’s dialogues, and Aristophanes in the Clouds depicts Socrates as ugly.

I am perfectly happy to sit down with anyone to discuss the ideas of Socrates and how he differs in his portrayal between Plato and Xenophon for example. Having to sit through a conversation with someone who thinks the person didn’t exist however is ludicrous and a waste of time. Socrates was a dude who lived in Athens 2400 years ago. He was a bit of dick according to the Athenians so they tried him and passed sentence against him. He committed suicide with hemlock, and he was probably one of the most important thinkers in Western history.

 

Here is a list of useful links that will take you to some of the books mentioned above so that you can see for yourself that Socrates mostly likely existed.

Plato

Xenophon, Memorabilia

Aristophanes, The Clouds

Aeschines of Sphetus

Thucydides

 

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: