Jan 222017

Times like these create a special type of difficulty and suffering for the philosopher, as they do for many others. What afflicts the philosopher is a situation, such as that recently inaugurated, in which not only do political and cultural currents shift backwards, leaving the forward-thinking person disoriented, and not only are the concepts of truth, justice, and freedom met with the most pernicious nihilistic challenge, but, further, words in general, and with them ideas, lose all power. This is not a question of political party affiliation, since it is well-known that the plutocrat1 pledges allegiance to no party and no idea except to the cult of his own facade of power through wealth and popularity. The plutocrat represents something more than merely the despicable views which go beyond what the nice and decent traditional party politicians say in public. The plutocrat is the anti-philosopher.

There was, in the Inauguration Day speech and more so in the speech at CIA headquarters2, absolutely no concern for norms of rational political discourse and no attempt to give an argument for any of the policies and actions that are being proposed. There was, on the other hand, (1) banter between the plutocrat and imagined adoring spectators, (2) words used as triggers meant to appeal to supporters on an emotional and subliminal but never rational level, (3) and, more than all else, the constant connecting of every topic back to the personality and popularity of the glorious plutocrat. A healthy dose of (1) and (2) is to be expected from any politician, but the total domination of (3) in these speeches is an indication that all other aims–all policies, all ideas, all principles, all words–are to be sacrificed at once and without remorse to the singular goal of gaining favor and approbation for the plutocrat. One of the first things to go, then, is the commitment to a reasonable attempt to given an account for actions which are in the public interest, for such interests only put the character of the plutocrat in the potentially embarrassing situation of having to defend himself. If no attempt to give an account is made, as when he scoffs at the norms of traditional political discourse, and if the meaningfulness of reason-giving at all is doubted from the beginning, then there is no reason and no hope to ever challenge the magnanimous and infallible character of the plutocrat, for there is no common language. The only language permitted is flattery, of which Spinoza says:

The proud man loves the company of parasites or flatterers, and hates the company of those of noble spirit.3

This situation is particularly distressing for the philosopher because the entire project of philosophy–which centers around the power of words, the necessity of rational accounts, and the effectiveness of ideas in human affairs–is brought into question.

Which is all to say that I have been left completely without words that could accurately describe the unique and gruesome spectacle that the plutocrat has put on. But then it occurred to me: this is the exact moment for which Plato’s cave allegory was crafted. I can imagine Plato grappling with the difficulty of explaining the difference between opinion and truth to a world at a turning point in the human being’s intellectual and linguistic relation to nature, a world between mythos and logos. He sees the difference–to him and others brought up in this new discipline of giving account of things based on principles and forms (the eidos), the difference is clear–but it seems impossible to communicate the difference to the public of his time, which, under the sway of mere opinion, could not be made to see the logos of his eidos unless they already had a familiarity with truth. That is, he saw the following paradoxical problem: the difference between opinion, or mere belief, and truth, or principled knowledge, can only be given if one already has some grasp of truth, but one cannot have a grasp of truth without first distinguishing it from opinion. Thus I imagine him struggling with this idea, until finally, unable to put into direct speech the spectacle before his mind’s eye, he gives up in desperation and decides to write a story instead. And so he tells us the story of how certain sorry folk live their lives as in a cave, in slavery to the appearances and gestures of the figures presented to them, and to gain their freedom they must seek what lies behind those shadows. But since they could never seek that which they do not know exists, someone comes along one day and offers them a glimpse of the world above. In taking a glimpse, they become familiar with a higher good and a greater human capacity that sheds light on the illusion of existence as it is in the cave, in such a way that they know that what they now have is truer than the things below because they are able to give an account of those things and their relation to the eidos. That is, the truth distinguishes itself from opinion and mere babble by relating things and appearances to the eidos via a logos.

The story is compelling and can be understood by anyone, but what compels us is nothing like what appeals to supporters of the plutocrat. The plutocrat appeals to himself and, consequently, sets himself up as the eidos without an idea and the unprincipled principle around which he would turn the whole world. Plato, on the other hand, appeals to each person’s own ability to reorient their activities and projects around a greater shared reason, a true eidos, and therefore to decide between the life of someone like the plutocrat and the life of the philosopher. The difference between opinion and truth in the story is not between an incorrect belief and a correct one. The key difference is one step back, namely, between the life based on mere belief (or appearances) and that based on principles and ideas, whatever they may be. The turning of the prisoners from shadows to light is not the forceful turning from one side of the political spectrum to another or from the interests of one to the interests of another–it is not, in other words, the attempt to convert by subliminal or emotional appeal one’s interlocutor to one’s political program–but it is the more basic turning of the person (of whatever political beliefs) to the ability and responsibility to give an accounting for his or her actions and beliefs in a way that connects with “higher things” shared by a community of citizens and philosophers.

This turning is just called education, and we may see the spectacle of the plutocrat as appealing precisely to that fault in humankind that can most easily be converted into a tool of flattery and approbation, namely, lack of education, or, ignorance. This does not mean, to be clear, that only the uneducated “fall for” such a charade or that no educated person could find reason to support the plutocrat. To the contrary, the educated supporters fill in the intellectual and spiritual gaps left by the plutocrat’s transparent narcissism with their own reasonable accounts of what is at stake in his otherwise depraved rhetoric, and the “uneducated” in one sense could be well-formed and wise in a different sense that gives a grasp of the common good and of higher principles that allow them to see through the appeal of the plutocrat. The education at stake is not one that can necessarily be measured by academic standards of achievement or by professional training, though those certainly contribute their part.

What is at stake is the ability, available to all equally and immediately but honed over time through the development of “fine habits” of the soul and mind, to appeal not to the basest in us but to the highest, to the power of words and the ideas they express to ground our collective existence in a common good and a shared reason. For Aristotle, this ability and discipline is just called philosophy, which does not mean that it is the right of those who call themselves philosophers but, rather, of all human beings insofar as they appeal to the logos and the eidos in political life as much as in the contemplative. When this type of education is lacking, a people is left defenseless against the rise of the unprincipled and self-worshipping plutocrat, and before long a whole world will turn from a love of wisdom to a love of blathering. 

  1. The plutocrat is a relatively new creature on the scene of political history, in some ways similar to but in others distinct from well-known species of zoon politikon (king, tyrant, dictator, bureaucrat, president, etc.). []
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/trump-white-house-briefing-inauguration-crowd-size.html []
  3. Ethics, Part IV, Prop. 57. []

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