Monthly Archives: February, 2010

After Democracy, the Deluge?

Plato’s Republic would not come to mind for many as a major resource for left-wing political critique. His hostility to democracy, and his elitist insistence on the distinction between nobility and baseness, stand very much at odds with modern egalitarianism. Yet in the dialogue’s account of how one type of regime gives way to another, greed and the excessive desire for unnecessary pleasures are the primary factors in an ongoing process of spiritual disintegration that ultimately culminates in the emergence of the worst regime, tyranny. Indeed, it is hard not to think about the present political situation in the US when reading Socrates’s account of the decomposition of democracy into tyranny in Book VIII of the Republic.

The downfall of democracy is to be found in the strife and turmoil that arises from the following factors: (1) a thoroughgoing relativism, in which all aspirations and ways of life are considered equally valid; (2) the desire for freedom from any and all restrictions; (3) the prevalence of lives given over to unnecessary desires and pleasures. Although democracy receives the ambiguous praise of being the “fairest of the regimes,” meaning it is the most pleasing in a superficial sense, Socrates makes clear that the permissiveness of the regime, its refusal to consider some ways of life superior than others, undermines respect for the law and progressively weakens the government. This line of critique might have sounded deeply conformist and authoritarian during the 1960s, but in the present, when the fiercest attacks on government come from the political Right, it sounds a sobering note on behalf of the necessity of limits on human behavior, especially unrestrained consumerism, and on the need for citizens to overcome their self-centeredness and attend to the common good.

Excessive freedom coupled with weak government leads to the coming of tyranny: “the greatest and most savage slavery” springs forth from “the extreme of freedom” (564a). The failure to cultivate order in the soul, and the erosion of public forms of authority, leads to endemic strife. Tyranny then emerges as a solution to this impasse, in which the structures of authority that make possible peaceful resolution of differences have dissolved. When conflicts become irresolvable, the only method for dealing with them is to smother them.

One could add that a society dominated by sensual pleasures and useless desires tends to provoke a mounting sense of revulsion among its people, not least among those who partake of such enjoyments (for example, some of the 9-11 hijackers were spotted in strip clubs not long before the attacks). The idea of excessive freedom resulting in tyranny is usually associated with the passage from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany, a linkage that has typically been made by the Right. Indeed, Shadia Drury asserts that the neoconservative disciples of Leo Strauss view US politics largely through the lens of Weimar: the alliance between the lofty theorists of esotericism and the anti-intellectual religious Right is aimed at preventing a recurrence of the nihilism that paved the way for the rise of Hitler. But it is interesting to note that George Soros, in a book attempting to account for the factors behind the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, invokes the Weimar thesis for left liberal purposes. Clearly, any account of contemporary US politics will not get very far unless it examines, with honesty and dispassion, the force of such emotions as revulsion, self-disgust, and moral recrimination in American society.

The question remains as to how we in the US have arrived at such a predicament, and why large-scale policies to benefit the whole of society are so difficult to implement in the present. Why are there such formidable obstacles arrayed against a politics that seeks to serve the common good? In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch notes that liberal democracy has lived off the “borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions” that predate the rise of liberalism [1]. One might say that Weimar Germany ate through this capital rather rapidly. Although these traditions are not expressed exclusively in political terms, nevertheless they have exerted a vital influence in shaping the conceptions that people have of what is good and what ought to be common. It is our lot, on the other hand, to live in a more advanced phase of relativism, when the reservoir of these moral and religious traditions has largely dried up. The relativism that Socrates attributes to democracy has only become fully manifest in the US with the rise of postmodern individualism, whereby the libertarian spirit of the Sixties was found to be quite compatible with emergent forms of consumer capitalism. During the Great Depression, by contrast, such relativism was not a determining factor of political life.

Of course, the US was a far more racist society at that time, and more stratified by religion and ethnicity, with a narrow Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite on top. But another significant difference between then and now, in my view, is that during the 1930s, there was wide agreement among people of various backgrounds about what constituted the morally good life. If one were to have asked a black sharecropper in the South, a white ethnic factory worker, and a wealthy East Coast WASP about their conceptions of the moral life, one would have received answers that would have been more or less similar. Nowadays, it is taken for granted that there is a diversity of views regarding the good – ethics has become indistinguishable from a consumer choice.

Perhaps then the major constraining factor of political life is not racial and ethnic pluralism, but rather moral pluralism, in which disagreement or indifference to the question of what constitutes the good life exacerbates distrust and antagonism, and thereby discourages large-scale efforts to bring material improvement to the lives of one’s fellow citizens. Moral pluralism instead leads to a politics of depriving the other of his or her enjoyment, to put in Zizek’s terms. Jealousy of the other’s pleasures become a dominant factor of political life, and the major question then becomes that of the extent to which one is willing to hurt oneself in order to take from those one dislikes those things which they enjoy. There is a contradiction in the fact that moral pluralism constitutes a dominant ideology, but I’ll say more about this in a future post.

Text cited:

1. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), p. 86.

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The Case Against Moderation, the Good, and Virtue

“Moderation cannot claim the merit of opposing and overcoming Ambition: they are never found together. Moderation is the languor and sloth of the soul, Ambition its activity and heat.”
– La Rochefoucauld

“… under Socrates’ influence ethics ceased to be the art of living well in a dangerous world – as it had been for Homer. it became the search for a super-good that nothing can destroy, a uniquely potent value that defeats all others and insures those who live by it against tragedy.”
– John Gray

“Love and virtue, their self-conviction was an astonishing thing: a pantomime of wishes, a sham dream that made actual, detectable, dreamable dreams as real as rock.”
– Lorrie Moore

Finding the Navi in Plato’s Republic

Like the creation of the cosmos in the Book of Genesis, the creation of the just city in Plato’s Republic takes place twice. In the first version of the city, undertaken as an attempt to determine the meaning of justice, Socrates describes a modest and frugal society, in which the citizens lead simple lives focused on securing the necessities for life. Their diet consists of austere fare – bread, figs, olives, onions, greens, wine, but no meat – and they pass their evening hours singing hymns of praise to the gods. They are careful to limit the number of children they bear, being on guard against overpopulation, which necessarily gives rise to poverty and war. They eschew all luxuries, including furniture. Socrates notes that their life of honest labor will enable them to enjoy health, to live out their lives in peace, and pass along their self-sufficient ways to their descendents (372d).

This city and its way of life fit the image of the type of human community exalted by present-day environmentalists, a sort of sustainable utopia where the foremost concern is not overstraining the resources at one’s disposal. But Socrates’ principal interlocutor, Glaucon, finds this depiction of the moderate and modest community revolting, disparaging it as a “city of pigs” (372d). Where are the couches and tables, he asks, or the relishes and desserts? Stanley Rosen suggests that the reason for Glaucon’s strident interruption might lie in his hunger, in that he has his mind set on the feast promised by Polemarchus at the beginning of the dialogue (Rosen, 75). But Glaucon, the brother of Plato who is generally associated with the idea of spiritedness, being a warrior who thirsts for glory and victory on the battlefield, can be said to force the conversation toward the direction of cities as they really exist, rather than indulge in idle philosophic speculation. Socrates consents, and sets aside this vision of the just city as a frugal and moderate collective. Instead, they will speak instead of a city in which “relishes, perfumes, incense, and cakes” are not only plentiful but available in a wide variety.

Interestingly, the first profession to be welcomed into this new, “feverish” city, the first profession emphatically not related to providing for the necessities of life, is that of the prostitute (373a). After the city is opened to the courtesans, trailing in their wake are poets, actors, dancers, craftsmen, makers of perfume, servants, teachers, wet nurses, beauticians, barbers, and cooks. Socrates then observes that such an expansion of the city will compel it to seize territory from its neighbors, in order to grow enough food for its inhabitants. The need for increased farmland entails the mobilization of an army, which in turn raises the specter of further wars of expansion to satisfy the growing demands of the city. Thus, the city, Socrates implies, becomes locked into a certain fate, a future about which he expresses grave reservations. For in contrast to the reigning conventional wisdom of contemporary liberalism, in which commerce and the attendant multiplication of desires are held to promote peace, Socrates identifies the transition from an economy of restraint to one of unlimited abundance as the “origin of war,” as well as the factor that “most of all produces evils both private and public” (373e).

The image of a sustainable society, in which human beings spontaneously respect limits and seek only to fulfill necessary desires, exerts, not surprisingly, an especially powerful allure in the age of climate change and resource depletion. Indeed, the Navi in James Cameron’s Avatar appeal to these yearnings, as they have absolutely no desire for anything that the Earthling corporation can offer them in exchange for moving to another part of the planet. Rosen, however, questions whether Socrates actually prefers the healthy city to its feverish successor, since the former’s emphasis on necessity would create an unpromising climate for philosophy. Indeed, the true city can be said to be less real than its “unhealthy” counterpart, since it aims at creating a “happiness that is undisturbed by desire, in particular, erotic desire” (Rosen, 81). The problem of the injunction to respect limits lies in how human beings usually arrive at this respect: through trial and error. To put it somewhat tautologically, necessity is that which we encounter against our will.

Though Rosen considers the “healthy” city to be “subnatural” and “subpolitical,” since its inhabitants live at what he considers an impossible level of simplicity, nevertheless, the distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires remains a vital one in the dialogue, reappearing in the discussion of the democratic soul in Book VIII. It is the reign of useless desires that, according to Socrates, tips democracy over into tyranny. The political consequences of pursuing the necessary desires, on the other hand, remain enticingly ambiguous.

Text cited:

Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).