A Tutorial in Platonic Political Philosophy.

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A Tutorial in Platonic Political Philosophy.

Post  Sauwelios on Wed Jan 04, 2017 12:46 am

Here's a translation of a tutorial I wrote in the Autumn of 2015. One may want to compare my "The West. A Straussian Metanarrative."

[As of yet, this is only a quick translation and still a work in progress.]



What is political philosophy? The usual conception is: as philosophy is love of wisdom, so political philosophy is the love of political wisdom. But one can also conceive it differently: not as the love of political wisdom, but as the political love of wisdom...

What does this mean? It means that the love of wisdom, philosophy, has become political--not so much in the narrower sense, of "being in politics"--although Francis Bacon for example was Lord Chancellor--, as in the broadest sense, of political activity in general--for example the publication of a political manifesto. Political-philosophical writings are basically manifestos for the benefit of philosophy, written by philosophers who felt they had to rise up for philosophy. Or rather, descend. Thus the first word of Plato's Republic is katebên, "I went down". Political philosophers are philosophers who, at least now and then, leave their height in order to involve themselves personally with its foundations.

But why then is the usual meaning of the term "political philosophy" the love of political wisdom, and not the political love of wisdom? This is itself an effect, indeed a success, of political philosophy. For Plato, the first Western man who undisputably practiced political philosophy, lets his Socrates go among the people in order to determine what is political wisdom--but the latter does so only in order with his feigned naivety and objectivity to actualize the implications of his own political wisdom!

His own political wisdom? Was Socrates then wise? How can a philosopher be a wise man or vice versa? How can anyone at the same time possess and desire one and the same thing?--Instead of answering this question, we should rather make the following distinction here. Philosophy basically seeks natural revelation--although it would not spurn divine revelation, either. But until the essence of things has revealed its true nature, i.e. until we possess true wisdom, true knowledge of existence, the most rational thing we can do is: to search for true wisdom. And given this, that a life in the service of philosophy is the best life, at least until we possess true knowledge of the best life, one can certainly reason out what is the best political order: namely that political order which makes philosophy prosper the most.

But with this, we're still missing a second premise. The first is that a life in the service of philosophy is the best life. But one can only draw a conclusion regarding the concretely best political order if one also knows in what sort of social conditions one lives. These are dependent of time and place. This is the reason why, in broad lines, I distinguish four political philosophies in the history of the West.


The first political philosophy I distinguish is the Homeric. The culture whose first literary works are ascribed to Homer is the culture in which Western philosophy arose: the natural philosopher Thales of Miletus is usually considered the first Western philosopher. But in truth, Homer started it all, and there was a continuous tradition from Homer until the end of the eighteenth century. What has changed since then is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Nietzsche, writing a century later, did not consider Kant and Hegel philosophers but only philosophy scholars: what has changed is that philosophy scholars are now considered philosophers, whereas actual philosophers are usually looked down on as "amateurs". This is ironic, however, as the word "amateur" literally means "lover", and a philosopher is literally a lover of wisdom; whereas so-called "professional philosophers", professors of philosophy, are often dry as dust, academics without any real passion. And yes, I'm aware of the irony in my saying that.

Anyway, let's get back to Homer. Whatever may have been the exact social conditions that drove Homer to effect his political turn, that turn was aimed at guaranteeing a certain minimum of civilization--a minimum on which, whether this was intended or not, even philosophy could prosper. The mechanism by means of which this was effected was the following. Homer promoted the Olympian gods to the highest rank and demoted the cosmic gods to a lower rank. The cosmic gods were the gods whose possible existence was manifest to sight, like the Sun, whereas the Olympian gods were invisible. By "invisible" I do not mean that they weren't depicted or even enacted, by the way; just that one couldn't see them in their true form. Well then, what Homer introduced was the notion of invisible gods who saw all your shameful deeds and punished you for them in Hades, if not already here on earth.

Contrary to Christian culture, which is a guilt culture, the Homeric culture was a shame culture. As a rule, punishment in Hades was no corporal punishment, like in the fires of Hell, but a spiritual punishment: the pain of knowing that people didn't respect you. Except for those who directly harmed or tried to harm the gods, the Homeric reward was honor and the Homeric punishment was dishonor. The recipient par excellence of the Homeric reward was Achilles: upon his death, the soul of Achilles went to Hades, where the recently deceased and the occasional visitor to Hades would inform him of the fact that he was still considered the greatest warrior here on earth, that his impressive tomb site was still [daily] swarming with pilgrims and his feats were still the stuff of legend. In this way, people were encouraged to behave according to a moral code--a code of honor.


In my introduction, I said that Plato's Socrates goes among the people solely "in order with his feigned naivety and objectivity to actualize the implications of his own political wisdom". But this basically only goes for the older, the wiser Socrates. The younger Socrates does go among the people in order to determine what is political wisdom, so without knowing it in advance. For originally, Socrates was no political philosopher but a natural philosopher, like Thales of Miletus. This is the Socrates who is sharply criticized by the oldest of our three direct sources, the great comic poet Aristophanes. In his comedy, 'The Clouds', Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, a scientist of the Greek enlightenment. About this enlightenment, Lampert writes (in his forelast book): "it actively schooled the best Athenian young in a lightly veiled skepticism about the gods while mocking ancestral or paternal submission to them and counseling its students on just how to make the best use of the piety of others." This is precisely Aristophanes' reproach of Socrates, and therefore Socrates, from that time on, begins his so-called "second sailing". His first sailing was his journey into the clouds, that is to say, his quest for the true nature, or true cause, of natural phenomena. His second sailing is his return journey, his return to the earth, to the world of men. On Socrates as he's described by the second of our three direct sources, the historian Xenophon, Lampert writes (in his latest book):

"Socrates' turn to the human taught him that the humans in charge, the males in charge, judge nature to act unbearably toward humans, like a sea always in motion, always threatening humans and human constructs with destruction, always failing to distinguish worthy from unworthy. Xenophon's images bring to light Socrates' insight into the male need to master feared and hated nature, to conquer nature. They show Socrates, the student of nature and human nature, learning that he will have to persuade ruling males of what he learned they would dearly want to believe, that nature is not what she seems but wholly otherwise, end-directed for human benefit by caring gods who ensure that the worthy benefit and the unworthy suffer. Socrates has no quarrel with nature, but he teaches a fiction to make it appear that the male quarrel with nature misunderstands nature."

I repeat: "end-directed for human benefit by caring gods who ensure that the worthy benefit and the unworthy suffer". This is what Lampert calls Socrates' "teleotheology": a teleological theology, that is to say a theology which teaches that the ways of God may be unfathomable, but that there absolutely is a plan behind them--a master plan whose succes is guaranteed: the good will be rewarded and the wicked be punished, perhaps not yet in this life, but certainly in the hereafter. And the rewards and punishments will not consist in the knowledge that one has a good or a bad name in this world, but in direct experience of the enjoyments of heaven or the horrors of hell, respectively. I'm putting it in Christian terms, and indeed, Platonism is proto-Christian. Thus Nietzsche called Christianity "Platonism for the people."

Platonism for the people is simplified Platonism. For example, Christianity has a single deity whereas Platonism, just like the Homeric religion, has many. The difference from the Homeric religion in this respect is in the following. The Homeric gods often disagreed with each other: thus in the Iliad they are divided between the Greeks and the Trojans. According to Platonism, on the other hand, the gods are wholly of one mind, seeing as they are all wise, and therefore cannot disagree with each other.

It doesn't really matter if there be a single deity, or multiple deities who are wholly of one mind. But Plato had to stick with polytheism, because his intended audience happened to be used to that. Thus Lampert, in his forelast book, writes:

"[S]peaking as a theologian, [Socrates] promulgates laws for gods who resemble the gods Adeimantus already knows from Homer and Hesiod but are moral models fit for human imitation. Socrates uses Adeimantus's beliefs about the gods to instill the old gods with new virtue."

Platonism, then, sticks to the invisibility of the most important gods, but changes their norms and values, and thereby the idea of Hades. Now Hades no longer in the first place serves to be able to hear whether one's good or bad name lives on on earth, but to be able to enjoy or suffer from things within Hades itself. This change is accompanied by the transformation of a shame culture into a guilt culture.

Yet even within a guilt culture there are people for whom shame and honour are more important than guilt and a good conscience. Plato flatters these people with the notion that they are philosophical because they love what they know and hate what they don't know. For, seeing as such loyal and vigilant dogs constitute the axis around which society turns, and are for that reason highly esteemed by the people, philosophy acquires a better name if they call themselves philosophers.


Machiavelli and Nietzsche

In the third political philosophy I discern, Machiavellian political philosophy, such people once again have a key role. With this I jump to the Machiavellian age, since I can best explain the key role they fulfill in the Platonic age by comparing it to their later role.

In the Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity after Plato, political philosophy basically remained Platonic. Yet although Christianity--and Judaism and Islam, likewise--was a form of Platonism, this only applied to the spiritual world. As regards the physical world, not Plato but Aristotle was in the right, according to the Church. Thus in the Middle Ages, Christian theology got almost inextricably tangled up with Aristotelian natural science. And when, after the high point of the Renaissance, philosophy was acutely endangered by religious zeal--religious wars, the Inquisition, the persecution of Galilei, the burning of Giordano Bruno--, then Machiavelli got the brilliant idea to use that entanglement against the Church. Now the unworkability of Aristotelian natural science was only an assumption on the part of Machiavelli, and it wasn't until Descartes that that science was vanquished by the scientific revolution made possible by the latter's mathematised natural science. Enter Francis Bacon. As Lampert writes in his latest book:

"Bacon introduced an experimental science that, granted time, would make the implied cosmology of the Bible as evidently untrue as the cosmology of Aristotle. To gain time, the new science had to equip itself with what Bacon knew to be rhetoric: he transformed the Bible's promise of paradise forever in the next life into the promise of paradise forever in the human future through work in the world now and for generations--his truly Napoleonic strategy. By converting minds like Descartes's and influencing the minds of many, to establish the Royal Society for instance, Bacon advanced [...] natural science."

In his New Atlantis, which was the direct inspiration for the founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Bacon advertises a social order in which scientists and inventors are praised and rewarded for enhancing the people's well-being. The scientists and inventors are the people for whom shame and honour are more important than guilt and a good conscience. And even as in Baconism, which is basically scientific Platonism, a lover of wisdom took care that lovers of honour voluntarily took to serving the lovers of ease, by making discoveries and inventions for them, so did in religious Platonism a lover of wisdom take care that lovers of honour voluntarily took to serving the lovers of ease by teaching a gospel which they themselves lived--to which belongs the myth that the philosopher has a mind's eye for the Ideas, that the priester has a mind's ear for the word of God...

The purpose of Platonism was to allow philosophy to continue to flourish in the shadow of religion. But under Christianity, philosophy became the handmaiden of the religion. According to the Medieval philosopher Alfarabi, such an absorption was inevitable unless there was always at least one philosopher among the high priests. By taking care of that, the life-cycle of the society would remain at its high point instead of coming to an end. But after this, too, had failed in the Middle Ages, at least in the Christian world, if not in the Islamic and the Jewish world, too, then Machiavelli thought of a new way to avert that fate. He realised that the fact that such life-cycles naturally come to an end could be undone by virtue of a "conquest of nature". This conquest would specifically be not so much natural-scientific as politicological in nature: Machiavelli did not regard the last possible phases, but the middle phase of such a natural life-cycle as the high point: according to him, the high point of the whole cycles was not a scientific or philosophical high point, but a political high point. Science was to be put in the service of politics, and philosophy as metaphysics was to be completely abolished. It was with this, and really only with this, that philosophy became science, modern science, and as such the new religion. In Lampert's words:

"The Machiavellian strategy succeeded in its one great aim ["to crush Christianity's spiritual tyranny"]; but by adopting its enemy's means and conscripting science into the service of propaganda, it caused philosophy to fall prey to a new tyranny, the tyranny of supposed enlightenment via science." (Lampert, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche.)

The Baconian scheme, in which science serves the common good, was so successful that the unreasonableness of such utilitarianism was almost completely obscured by it; today, virtually everyone considers democracy's absolute superiority a self-evident fact (though not everyone may find things are sufficiently socialist or anarchist yet). Near the end of 2012, I saw a nice example of how much people regard certain moral values as self-evident and science as their vehicle. It's an imaginary postcard sent to religion by science, in the week that skydiver and BASE-jumper Felix Baumgartner jumped from the stratosphere in a stunt sponsored by Red Bull.

Dear Religion,

This week I safely dropped a
human being from space while
you shot a 14 year old girl in the
head for wanting to go to

I kinda feel like you need a
better hobby....


I won't say much about this other than that the idea behind it seems to me to be the following: "We over here in the West are, thanks to our scientific enlightenment, already able to employ science for the purpose of excitement and sensation, whereas you over there in the Middle East haven't even used it to guarantee peace and security!" For these, I think, are the two value sets which are met by the Machiavellian strategy. A student of Leo Strauss whom I haven't yet mentioned, Harry Neumann, may express the truth behind this even better than Lampert and Strauss. Thus he writes:

"Sometimes I ask students if any real restraints, limits set by something like nature or gods, exist to curb scientific experimentation. Can science, for example, make men immortal or transform them into eagles? Most students deny that anything is intrinsically impossible. They acknowledge that some things probably will not happen tomorrow or even in a century, but, in principle, nothing prevents anything imaginable from happening at any time. Like good liberal democrats, these same students usually cling to a groundless faith that science's uncurbed experimentation ought to be used for liberal democratic goals--to promote freedom rather than slavery, peace rather than war. As if that made any difference in the nihilist world revealed by science! The faith that science's omnipotence can be restrained in the name of some non-arbitrary moral obligation is unscientific. It is relapse into the philosophic illusion from which science liberates itself. Interpreted scientifically, any such relapse, any moral-political commitment, springs from the tyrannic decision to have it so: all moral-political demands are efforts to tyrannize over reality, to replace nature or truth with the propaganda dearest to one's heart." (Neumann, Liberalism.)

"The philosophic illusion from which science liberates itself" is the illusion of "a universe in which [the philosopher] and what is good for him exist as something more than nihilist experience" (Neumann, ibid.). So not only are the said value sets valuable only insofar as people insist on their being valuable, but man himself only exists insofar as he insists that he exists... The latter idea, that beings exist only insofar as they value themselves, is of the essence of value ontology. But since we're talking about political philosophy, not about metaphysics, I won't go into that too deeply. Suffice it to say the following. Democracy exists owing to the fact that the people who want it to exist together are more powerful than the people who do not want that. These, however, are people with relatively weak wills: hence they must be with a great majority. That their individual wills are weak may be appreciated from the fact that most of them at least cannot acknowledge the aforesaid; they have to believe that their values are universal, that they are not driven by will to power but by moral sense. Nietzsche's philosophy, on the other hand, indeed, all esoteric, that is to say actual philosophy, is scientific: it is the most spiritual will to power, the tyrannical drive to the creation of the world... Thus Nietzsche wants the world to be will to power and nothing besides, and therewith as hierarchical, not egalitarian. Thus Neumann writes:

"Although the past was responsible for the present egalitarianism detested by Nietzsche, for the most part it was characterized by the inequalities dear to him. However, lack of awareness of nihilism's threat formerly led men to take those inequalities for granted, to interpret them as necessary consequences of natural or divine justice. Modern thinkers culminating in Nietzsche made men aware that human creativity or technology was not limited by anything. Nietzsche feared that contemporary egalitarians would employ this unlimited power to create a world of universal peace and equality. He yearned for a superman whose will to overpower nihilism and egalitarianism would use modernity's immense power to create the eternal return of the past's inequality and wars. Then there would be no wars to end all wars." (Aldaar.)

Allow me to explain. Inequality was dear to Nietzsche because it leads to spiritual growth into the heights; likewise crises like war, because suffering and danger bring out the best, namely the strongest, in people. With the aid of science, however, we could arrange the world in such a way as to no longer be able to be hit by natural disasters or diseases, and we could even alter human neurochemistry and genetics in such a way that we would not longer be capable of suffering and aggression! This is exactly what certain prominent transhumanists advocate.

Nietzsche's superhumanism wants the opposite thereof: the eternal recurrence of all inequality and all suffering. For with that, at least in the enormously distant future there will be inequality and suffering again. But it's well-nigh inconceivable that, if time is not yet a circle, we could so to say bend it into a cirkel; let alone that we could ever know that we'd succeeded. And indeed, this not the principal meaning of the eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence is the ideal of a man who values his life and everything that preceded it so much that he wants it all to return; but this also means that he would strongly prefer the time between the present and for instance the return of the Big Bang to not be essentially different. With the eternal recurrence, then, he also wants historical recurrence: to speak with Mark Twain, not just that history repeats itself, but also that it rhymes.

It's highly improbable that man could ever cause a new Big Bang; but a new Great Flood is already much more probable... Lampert suggests that, even as Nietzsche had Machiavelli as his predecessor, and Machiavelli had Plato, and Plato had Homer, so Homer, too, had a similar predecessor: Tiresias. But contrary to Homer, Plato, Machiavelli and Nietzsche, Tiresias is someone we know nothing about, content-wise.; there is a break in the tradition immediately before Homer. Therefore, couldn't we bring about another such a break? After which a new Homer might appear, and a new Plato, a new Machiavelli and a new Nietzsche? The Machiavellian and Platonic turns, and possibly the Homeric turn, too, were aimed at preventing such a break from occurring; but whereas the Homeric and Platonic turns sooner or later led to the threat of a new break, the Machiavellian turn, conversely, has led to the threat of stagnation: the stagnation of man in the single ideal--"the last man".

But although the Nietzschean turn stimulates precisely such a break, it can paradoxically lead to continuity. For, besides stagnation and interruption, there is yet another alternative: a spiral. This would mean that, at the end of this Machiavellian age, an even more advanced age should dawn--but one which as regards its value system will correspond to the pre-Homeric age--which must have been an animistic age. Upon this, in turn, a new Homeric age could then follow, that is to say one which as regards its value system will correspond to the Homeric age, but which will be even much more advanced than ours. I regard Fixed Cross and myself at least as pioneers of the coming age.

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