In college, I hated Plato. We read his Republic, and, as a patriot and an idealistic young (small “d”) democrat, I was appalled at the hegemony of the Guardians and at Plato’s disdain for democracy. It seemed to me that his Guardians were the archetypal totalitarians, and that it was a fundamental human right — enshrined in the Constitution — to be ruled only by consent of the governed.
In my dotage, I am more sympathetic to Plato — it’s remarkable how much smarter the old philosopher has gotten in the past 40 years! I am still uncomfortable with Guardians, at least of the secular sort. But I think John Adams got it right when he observed that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Philosopher Edward Feser (pictured) has a superb and timely essay in American Mind “Ideology Is a Psychological Disorder.” He explores the startling relevance of Plato’s theory of the soul and of government in the Republic to 21st century America. Feser notes that it’s as if Plato had a time machine and was writing about our current summer of American discontent. I’ll summarize his essay here but be sure to read it—it’s a nice review of the great philosopher’s theory of the soul and its relevance to politics.
Plato posited three parts of the human soul — reason, spirit, and appetite, which correspond roughly to Aristotle’s intellect, will and sensitive appetites (Aristotle was, after all, the first Platonist!). Reason for Plato wasn’t mere abstract rationality or calculation; it was the ability to understand the Forms, real Goodness, and the real truth of things. Spirit is righteous and honorable will, our desire to do right. Appetites are our physical drives — desires for food, shelter, sex, and so on.
In the healthy soul, reason, spirit, and appetite are rightly ordered. Plato used the analogy of a horse-drawn chariot. The driver is reason, the horses are appetites, and the reigns are spirit. If reason or spirit are weak or disordered, the appetites run away with the chariot (the soul) into all kinds of trouble. If reason and spirit are rightly ordered, the appetites pulling it are well controlled and take the soul effectively and efficiently to where it should rightly go.
Plato’s understanding of the state is that it is an extension of the souls of the individuals comprising it. He posited that different kinds of people (with different kinds of souls) constitute the state. He thought individuals tend to be governed by different aspects of soul — some governed by reason, some by spirit, and some by appetite.
While Plato believed that reason is the highest attribute of the soul, he did not believe that spirit or appetite are inherently evil. Rather, he believed that, just as a righteous person is best governed by a good chariot driver who controls the powerful horses with strong reins, the state is best governed by individuals who were themselves governed most perfectly by reason, that is, the Guardians. Citizens driven by spirit (military and police) are good and necessary, as are citizens driven primarily by appetite (craftsmen, manual workers, etc.). But the reins of government should be in the hands of Guardians governed by reason.
The best form of government, for Plato, is a philosophical aristocracy. Feser points out that by philosophical aristocracy Plato did not mean government by modern Ivy League Marxist academics but by (Platonic) philosophers with profound understanding of the Forms and will to do the Good. He believed that such pristine aristocracy is hard to maintain over time, and tends to degenerate to a timocracy, which is rule by individuals dominated by the spirited part of the soul — dominated, that is, by a sense of dignity, honor and order. At its best, this might be, in modern terms, rule by ethical and honorable military men.
Timocracy tends, over time, to degenerate to oligarchy, which is rule by the wealthy. This is suboptimal in Plato’s view. But he notes that oligarchs often make decisions based on self-interest that are of real benefit to the community (think of the social benevolence of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie). Rule by oligarchy is not all bad.
Oligarchy tends to degenerate into democracy, which is characterized by radical mass egalitarianism, universal lust for freedom, and rule by appetites. Plato had great disdain for democracy, not because of the way in which leaders are chosen in a democracy but because it is characterized by what he saw as mass rule by the basest motives of the soul — by lust of the eyes and the flesh.
It’s hard to argue with the view that radical egalitarianism, lust for freedom and “lust of eyes and flesh” characterize 21st century America rather well.
Democracy, as Plato saw it, is unstable. Like a chariot driven only by the appetites of its horses, it runs erratically and wild. It is in this sense that John Adam’s admonition about American democracy, as fit only “for a moral and religious people,” is on target: democracy only works if citizens keep tight reigns on their baser appetites.
As a glance at the internet or MTV or church attendance affirms, America’s chariot drivers are stoned, the reins are in tatters, and the horses are in a frenzy.
Eventually, thugs take control of the pandemonium and democracy degenerates into tyranny. Tyranny is rule by the strongest, most violent, and most crafty of appetite-driven thugs. Plato called them “stinging drones.” Tyrants impose order of a sort but it is a brutal, irrational order fit only to sate the lusts of the tyrants.
What Plato didn’t write about is totalitarianism. He has the good fortune not to know of it—the first totalitarians were the Jacobins of revolutionary France. It’s noteworthy that all major totalitarian governments in the 20th century arose from degenerate democratic systems — the Bolsheviks from the Kerensky government, the Nazis from the Weimar Republic, and the Maoists from the Chinese republic.
This implies, in Plato’s paradigm, that totalitarianism is a modern iteration of tyranny, a natural outcome of degenerate democracy. What is it in modernity that has transformed the pandemonium of democracy — not into mere tyranny by lustful thugs — but into the focused cold hell of the gulag or Auschwitz or the Cultural Revolution?
What Darwin has to do with it
The transformation of tyranny to totalitarianism, as explained by philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is Darwinian. Arendt (pictured in 1975) notes that “Darwinism met with such overwhelming success [in totalitarian systems] because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race and well as class rule …”
Underlying the Nazi’s belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks’ belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.Hannah Arendt, “quotations from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)” at Atlas of Places
… the great and positive interest Marx took in Darwin’s theories; Engels could not think of a greater compliment to Marx’s scholarly achievements than to call him the “Darwin of history”… the movement of history and the movement of nature are on and the same.
This is not to say that Darwin caused totalitarianism. Totalitarians were on the scene a century before Darwin. Marx also drew heavily from Hegel’s “World-Spirit” metaphysics and from Feuerbach’s atheism and materialist anthropology. But Darwin provided a naturalist rationale — a scientific imprimatur — for the indispensable characteristic of totalitarian movements, which is the claim that their triumph is an inexorable natural movement. In the Platonic scheme, totalitarians are tyrants (thugs) who rule not by their mere base lusts but by a fanatic devotion to an ideology of human evolution—biological/racial evolution (Hitler) or economic/class evolution (Marx, Lenin, Mao).
In each totalitarian variant of tyranny, the pandemonium of late democracy is atomized, terrorized, and paralyzed, like a herd of unruly cattle stampeded in a single direction dictated by the alleged irresistible laws of nature. Totalitarianism is, in short, the tyranny of guided evolution. Thus, Darwin provided a scientific imprimatur for this modern mutation of ordinary Platonic tyranny.
A careful reading of Plato and Arendt goes a long way toward explaining our world in the past century and our country in this century, but it’s reading best not done at night, if you want to sleep.
You may also wish to read:
Interview with a woman (or women) formerly called Susan Blackmore. A professor of psychology argues that there is no continuity between our present selves and our past selves.
No free will means no justice. Materialist biologist Jerry Coyne doesn’t seem to understand what denying free will would mean for the criminal justice system.