Over the last couple of months I have been reading three distinct books that uniquely and richly deal with a societal and political challenge that is ever before us: the tendency of mankind to place too much hope and power in class of rulers, and the tendency of those rulers to work to assume more power and decision-making authority over the ruled. The books are 19th Century French Economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. The three books represent authors of different time eras, professional and political experiences, and in a couple of cases, imprisonment and exile. Each powerfully attacks these aforementioned societal and political challenges in such a way that still resonates in the modern Western era given our constant flirtation with socialism and of socialism’s growing popularity as a political response to Trumpist populism. I also find it fascinating and tragic that early prophets such as Bastiat and Dostoevsky foresaw the catastrophes that socialism would bring while Solzhenitsyn lived them. They key question for today is: are we still listening?
I begin with Bastiat from a chronological perspective as well as the fact that he served as an early prophet to the ills of socialism. Bastiat, as a French economist, philosopher, and statesman in France in the mid-1800s, is mostly known for his remarkable intellectual stands against mercantilism and protectionism. He also had to contend and argue against pervasive French dirigiste statism and had plenty of exposure and debates with leading philosophers and legislators who espoused Socialism. As such, he forewarns us of the ills of Socialism extensively in his book The Law. Here are a few notable excerpts:
How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain – prosperity, in a positive sense, wealth, science, religion – should ever have gained ground in the political world? The modern politicians, particularly those of the Socialist school, found their different theories upon one common hypothesis; and surely a more strange, a more presumptuous notion, could never have entered a human brain.
They divide mankind into two parts. Men in general, except one, form the first; the politician himself forms the second, which is by far the most important.
In fact, they begin by supposing that men are devoid of any principle of action, and of any means of discernment in themselves; that they have no initiative; that they are inert matter, passive particles, atoms without impulse; at best vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected….
…the Socialists look upon mankind as a subject for social experiments…the relations between mankind and the legislator appear to be the same as those that exist between the clay and the potter. Moreover, if they have consented to recognize in the heart of man a capability of action, and in his intellect a faculty of discernment, they have looked upon this gift of God as a fatal one, and thought that mankind, under these two impulses, tended fatally to ruin.
Whilst mankind tends to evil, they incline to good; whilst mankind is advancing towards darkness, they are aspiring to enlightenment; whilst mankind is drawn toward vice, they are attracted by virtue. And, this granted, they demand the assistance of force, by means of which they are to substitute their own tendencies for those of the human race.
Bastiat has a number of retorts to this tendency of politicians to want to treat mankind as their own science experiment:
Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves, the task would be arduous enough for them…
…One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine that is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind – the omnipotence of the law – the infallibility of the legislator: this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic: It is true that it professes to be social. So far as it is democratic, it has unlimited faith in mankind. So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.
Bastiat’s prescience is a marvel to behold, with the tragic exception to date on the part that descendants would scoff at, rather than continually marvel at, the impossible notion resting upon the triple hypothesis that we can achieve utopia through democratic socialism.
As a French statesmen, social scientist, and economist, one might expect Bastiat to have a great amount to say about the subject of Socialism. I am perhaps even more intrigued by what a 19th Century Tsarist era Russian novelist, once imprisoned and then forced to live in exile for “radicalism” (he joined a circle advocating for abolishing Russian serfdom), had to say on the subject given the horrors that would beset Russia a few decades after his eminence. The themes of anti-radicalism in general is a prominent theme throughout Dostoevsky novels. Recency of reading is perhaps the only reason a certain setting within Crime and Punishment resonates with me at present. The setting itself is the makings of high drama – an investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, has suspicions of the main character, Raskolnikov, as a committer of a recent murder and is feeling him out in a normal social setting. One particular scene that helps Porfiry set the stage for a line of questioning on who has rights to judge and oppress whom on earth is set up by a debate between the investigator and Raskilnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, in which Porfiry goads him into attacking socialist thought in an attempt to get Raskilnikov’s own thoughts on the matter. It was common for Dostoevsky to speak through his characters. I believe Razumikhin speaks for Dostoevsky when he states this regarding socialists:
Their views are well known: crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social set-up – that alone and nothing more, no other causes are admitted…Hence if society itself is normally set up, all crimes will at once disappear, because there will be no reason for protesting and everyone will instantly become righteous. Nature isn’t taken into account, nature is driven out, nature is not supposed to be! With them, it’s not mankind developing all along in a historical, living way that will finally turn by itself into a normal society, but, on the contrary, a social system, coming out of some mathematical head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless.
One can sense not only Dostoevsky’s cynicism related to the “mathematical head” but also skepticism regarding the desire to use government means and rulers to try to reform and direct society in a vain attempt to eradicate human flaws.
Despite the prophecies of Dostoevksy, one can’t imagine he would have foreseen just how pernicious these “mathematical heads” would become in future Russian generations. These molders of mankind into lumps of clay would, to use Bastiat’s phrase, truly place man into the mud. Or as the statement attributed to Stalin goes, more than treating men as clay, men were treated as millions of broken eggs in a tragic attempt to create an omelette concocted in a “great” mathematician’s head. This tragic reality is captured throughout the corpus of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works with such masterpieces as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Perhaps there is no work in which Solzhenitsyn displays such profound sadness at a vain attempt at utopia gone horrifically wrong combined with clarity of moral purpose and tragic irony and wit as in his novel, In the First Circle.
The epic novel is far too rich and deep for me to describe in detail here (for a great podcast introduction to the book, visit EconTalk), but some key context: the novel’s name itself belies the artist’s craft and wit – the concept of the “First Circle” was adopted as a literary device from Dante’s Inferno. The first circle of hell was the highest and most painless level of hell in which philosophers and other world notables who did good but without knowing the true God were relegated. Similarly, the novel’s prison settings is the sharaska – a forced work-camp for those Russian political prisoners who had some particular skill (engineers, physicists) that allowed them to serve prison sentences in relatively livable conditions compared to the deprivations of the Siberian gulags.
There is a common chilling theme throughout the book, at one point expressed by one of the free women workers who toil alongside the male prisoners by day – “they (the state) can do anything they want to us.” But specifically to the point in my title, there is a powerful and pithy statement made by one of the prisoners that succinctly captures the essence of the horrors of communism. In this context, as new prisoners are brought into the camp, the speaker says to a fellow prisoner who happens to be a still committed communist:
What century are we living in? Numbers sewn on human beings? Tell me, Lev Grigorievich, is this what you call progress?
Indeed, a broader theme of the book is that everyone is trapped in this system – it is a prison to all, and all within the country are mere numbers, whether one was officially in prison or not. One diplomat in the book tells his sister-in-law:
You see this circle? That’s our country. That’s the first circle. Now here’s the second. A circle with a large diameter. That is mankind at large. You would think that the first forms a part of the second, wouldn’t you? Not in the least! There are barriers of prejudice. Not to mention barbed wire and machine guns. To break through, physically or spiritually, is well-nigh impossible. Which means that mankind, as such, does not exist. There are only fatherlands, everyone’s fatherland is alien to everyone else’s….”
I love when I see parallels of themes between books, and indeed, within In the First Circle Solzhenitsyn echoes the point in the novel made (and captured above) by Bastiat about “reforming society” and whether we should focus on ourselves or of society:
Where should you start reforming the world? With other people? Or with yourself?
In summary – what I find so moving and powerful about the connections between these works of art from great authors is the healthy and much-needed skepticism regarding whether legislators or autocrats will solve humanity’s ills, that these ills are impossible to remove completely, that the best way to reduce them is setting men at liberty, and the captured fear and progression of what men will do to one another once they hold unrelenting and unlimited power over others – man turns into clay, mud, mathematical, numbers, slaves…
It also goes without saying that I recommend all three books for reading.
“Could you kindly explain these socialist ideals that you talk about? They’re nowhere to be seen at present. All right, maybe somebody’s botched the experiment, but when and where can we expect to see them; what do they amount to, eh? Socialism, of whatever variety, is a sort of caricature of the Gospel message. Socialism promotes only equality and a full belly, and that only by means of coercion…you’ll find equality and full bellies in any good pigsty! What a tremendous favor they have bestowed on us! Equality and plenty! Give us a moral society!”
In the wake of my second-highest viewed post of all time, which covered the topic of decentralization of government (please don’t ask for actual viewing values; allow a man writing an obscure blog his small relative victories), I was pleased to get philosophical support from one of the greatest writers on the topic of government and political science of all time – David Hume. Most people who have enjoyed, or endured, depending on one’s perspective, an Economics 101 course are well familiar with one lion of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Smith gave credence in his Wealth of Nations to a philosophy of full-throated support of the individual liberties of merchants practicing their crafts and generating profits unencumbered by the meddling state that was a novel philosophy and code of ethics for the times. Smith forcefully advocated that betterments in society occurred in imperceptible and novel ways through people seeking profits, guided by the “invisible hand” of the pricing mechanism, which effectively coordinated their ideas and actions in ways that no government planner could match. Never mind that both modern day proponents and detractors of Smith both seem to believe that Adam Smith was some form of Machiavellian profit maximizer and utilitarian, thereby completely missing his comprehensive views of bourgeois ethics that he espoused in his perhaps even more compelling and powerful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith speaks of the “impartial spectator” within us which guides and regulates our behavior such that it is socially acceptable and in most cases benevolent. The impartial spectator of Smith is driven by a mysterious combination of divine nature and the nurture that occurs as people (or the vast majority of people comprising society) interact with each other and seek approbation and praise of others. Scorn is something most of us do our best to avoid. In other words, while profit-seeking is a virtue of prudence, the vast majority of people operate in their daily lives with other self-regulating and self-controlling virtues that balance the prudence of profit-seeking. All of this social self-regulation is performed through emergent order without the need of heavy-handed law and government.
I digress, so back to the topic of David Hume. Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment contemporary and great friend of Adam Smith, and it is through his remarkable Selected Essays as compiled by Oxford World Classics that I find support for decentralized government under a different and additional rubric than I articulated in my original musings on the subject. Specifically, in his essay on Of The Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, in which Hume generally makes the case that people living in free governments are much more likely to contribute to the progress of arts and sciences than those living in autocracy, Hume makes compelling arguments for divided and decentralized government. The first point Hume articulates is this:
A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny, because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which being distant from a majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection: not to mention that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contracts when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expense in order to support the pomp of majesty, this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them.In a small government any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole; the murmurs and discontents proceeding from it are easily communicated; and the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not to apprehend, in such states, that the distance is very wide between them on their sovereign. ‘No man,’ said the prince of Conde, ‘is a hero to his Valet de Chambre.
But the divisions into small states are favorable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power…To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite this work: experience must guide their labour: time must bring it to perfection: and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes, which they inevitably fall into, in their first trials and experiments. Hence appears the impossibility that the undertaking should be begun and carried on in an monarchy; since such a form of government, ere civilized, knows no other secret or policy, than that of entrusting unlimited powers to every governor or magistrate, and subdividing the people into so many classes and orders of slavery. From such a situation, no improvement can ever be expected in the sciences, in the liberal arts, in laws, and scarcely in the manual arts and manufactures. The same barbarism and ignorance, with which the government commences, is propagated to all posterity, and can never come to a period by the efforts or ingenuity of such unhappy slaves.
In other words, a centralized government taking on too much power is reduced to trying by sheer exertion of a “Tyranny of Experts” to borrow the William Easterly phrase, of trying to plan for and rule a great diversity of people. As Hume implies, it is an impossible task that starves us of all natural freedoms and the ingenuity that we would have exhibited without the heavy hand of a meddling government, and it makes us “unhappy slaves.” Or as Hume’s good friend Adam Smith might say, it also torches our invisible hand and extinguishes the impartial spectator within. Lest anyone think that I am speaking of some distant and ancient European monarchy, I am looking at you America and your Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, your Health and Human Services, your Obamacare, and your Dodd-Frank.
I have written in previously in support of freedom of choice in our education models and in particular for support of the classical education model. I firmly believe that it is an inalienable right to be free to choose what manner or education is received, rather than the myopic and freedom of choice smothering one size fits all and centrally directed and dictated (and increasingly expensive with little return on investment) modern American education model we have blundered into. Recently, I found an ally of sorts in an unexpected corner – in the writings of C.S. Lewis. Many will recognize Lewis for \ his Chronicles of Narnia series or perhaps his more direct Christian books such as Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters, but oft neglected is his powerful and remarkably prescient book on primary education, The Abolition of Man.
In the Abolition of Man, Lewis takes aim at the then (1940s) education reformers and their zeal for removing the development of a foundation of objective values and replacing it with something in which the individual becomes much more critical and subjective. In a sense, this era witnessed the shift from attempts at educators to develop the moral and ethical character of a child to simply treating them as children to be loaded up with facts and to ostensibly create nothing more than rational and logical human beings who could conform to a certain desired standard way of thinking. With the hindsight of the year 2016, it is apparent to me that such reformers were successful in their aims with the modern education system as we know it. Of the reformers, Lewis has these rather harsh critiques:
They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the young minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head…. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.
The consequence of such teaching is not benign in Lewis’ estimation, rather, it leads to the creation of an adult who is not really a human at all. Lewis has these dire observations about what the new education model would produce:
The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the bird knows nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda…
…We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment- these are indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man…
…It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism or self-sacrifice or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings by fruitful.
[As an side, since Lewis invoked the great word Magnanimty – I am linking to a previous article on the subject of that very word, that also connects back to the broader themes and points I am attempting to make in this one.]
To be clear, what Lewis has in mind when he speaks of the “old” is a return to fortifying the character of a child through teaching of objective values. One might call this conecpt ‘Natural Law’ – basic, fundamental, or even first principle universal virtues that we should all aspire to and should commonly agree should be inculcated in our children. Lest I set off any alarm bells for my secular friends, I should indicate that of all the Lewis books, this is one that is the least explicitly Christian. In fact, the virtues and values he builds up in the narrative he collectively labels The Tao, borrowing heavily from an ancient Chinese term that seems to translate roughly into “The Way.” While there are many Christian principles that are consistent with the Tao, Lewis endeavors to build a comprehensive list of virtues that reach back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Confucius China, Indian Hinduism as well as building on ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it is a very Aristotelian list of virtues and ethics that Lewis builds into his Tao, echoing much of what Aristotle includes in his Nicomachean Ethics. Specifically, Aristotle indicated that, “The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Years prior, Aristotle’s mentor Plato said much the same about education when he stated that, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred.” In Plato’s Republic, he elaborates that the well-nurtured youth is one, “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.All this before he is an age of reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”
Lewis provides ample examples of what is included in the Tao – Natural Law elements such as honor, courage, good faith, justice, being free from cruelty and calumny, charity, and many others. The list of objective values that we could be teaching in schools could be distilled to seven virtues or as expansive as four-hundred. Our ample history and thousands of pages published on the subject from some of the world’s greatest philosphers and theologians provides us plenty of rich and viable options to choose from. I am personally partial to a recent innovation and list from Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality in which she arrives at seven core values – a snapshot at which I have taken liberty of including in the (rather amateurish) picture below. Perhaps the broader point is that our public education systems aren’t teaching any of these. If there is any “value” being taught, it is the maniacal pursuit of of tolerance under a veneer of moral relativism. I believe this to be a travesty of the highest order, and I find it morally repugnant and offensive that we are under the shackles of being forced to pay tax dollars and forced to send our children to a school teaching such methods (and neglecting all others) by simple virtue of the arbitrarily drawn school districts we live in. We scramble to live in the right neighborhoods and pay dearly for housing and property taxes to buy into certain school districts while ignoring that there truly is little difference in the education that is received out of them. There may be better “outcomes” due to clustering into wealthy neighborhoods, but ask yourselves, is there truly any differnece in what is learned? Does your chid truly develop any better character than the child forced into the “poor” school down the street? Isn’t it an injustice that the child born into poverty has no choice but to go to their locally zoned school? The connection back to my opening paragraph is that I believe school choice and reform is an idea ripe for harvest. I only hope to convince my fellow citizens of this fact one day, so that we can benefit our children, our families, communities, states, and nation.
A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”
Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.” So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.
Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:
The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.
Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.
The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.
While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.
Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker, offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.” The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.
More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government, democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.
While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.
Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are, “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”
These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan King Archidamus II in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.
The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”
Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:
“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”
I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.
Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:
“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”
Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.
Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:
“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”
Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.
A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:
“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”
As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:
“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”
And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:
“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”
“I know that if there’s a desire, one can accuse the innocent, such are the times. I do not want defamation, I do not want to suffer while innocent and have to justify myself, I prefer death to defamation and suffering.”
– Russian coal worker suicide note, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power , – Stephen Kotkin
The context of the suicide note is one that showcases the tyranny that can befall man once a government exists for its own sake and the rule of law becomes what that government arbitrarily decides the law is in order to increase and keep power. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was a typical cycle of increasing power grabs and more movements to a totalitarian and collectivist society that went something along these lines: Stalin, who was a true Communist ideologue and not simply a pragmatic totalitarian that he is often portrayed by historians to be, would have a grand design of moving the Soviet Union closer to the utopian dream of a collectivist “worker’s paradise.” In order to get the political capital required to move millions of people into this utopia, he would need to foment a pretext of class war in order to generate support of the “have nots” against the increasingly vanishing “haves.” Stalin had a firm grip on the secret police through his own self-appointments of men who depended on his patronage. During these times the secret police carried the name of OGPU, and Stalin could count on the complicity of the OGPU henchmen to drum up confessions whenever he needed them to. Then what would follow would be a show trial against class enemies that had the benefits of creating terror amongst and outside of the Communist Party, providing the cover Stalin needed to enact sweeping social and political change.
Such is the macabre script that induced the suicide note that serves as the quote of the week. Kotkin chronicles one such case in which Stalin’s overarching goal was to enact his biggest gamble yet as ruler – the mass removal of peasants from individual farms and communes into state-owned large scale collectivist farms. In the events leading up to the forced confiscation of farms, mass repression of so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants), and forced movement of peasants onto these large scale farms, Stalin needed a pretext of class warfare. He received such a pretext in gift from his North Caucasus OGPU leader, Yefim Yevdokimov, who presented fabricated evidence to Stalin of foreign agents and Soviet citizen collusion to sabotage production amongst industrial facilities and mines in Shakhty. What ensued was ever more repression and forced confessions through torture that culminated in a globally publicized show trial. The show trial set in motion a series of dual events that further entrenched Stalin’s power and provided the means necessary to reshape Soviet society. Firstly, Stalin was able to maneuver around his internal rivals and initiate the Great Purge. It is clear from Kotkin’s account that Stalin could tolerate no dissent and was a particularly vindictive person. Secondly, Staling was able to launch a broader Class War, in which anyone that stood in the way of forced collectivization of farms and industrial settings would be labeled various forms of epithets such as bourgeois, petit bourgeois, kulak, enemy of the state, or foreign agent. Stalin’s ultimate goal was collectivization of the farms, and the Shakhty trial gave him the pretext to neutralize, repress, and outflank members of the Politburo who were opposed to the forced collectivization of the farms as well as liquidate kulaks and force the migration of peasants to collective farms. The outcome was a tremendous famine in which millions perished due to predictable ensuing drastic decrease in agricultural production. That is a topic for which Kotkin indicates he will turn to once he publishes Volume II, which is currently in draft form.
The horrific stories one reads out of books, like Kotkins, that chronicle life in the Soviet Union (others that I have appreciated reading in the past include Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands) always give me a sense of great gratitude for having a tremendously comfortable life in the United States. More unnerving, I always question myself on how I would act in the face of interrogation and a show trial, in which I am being asked upon pain of torture and death to denounce and turn on family and friends. It is a sobering thought experiment.
“Acting well or badly requires both thought and character.” – Aristotle, from Nicomachean Ethics
For Aristotle, the essence of happiness comes from a life of virtue, which is defined as man having command over his thoughts and actions in pursuit of command over the rational and passionate functions of the soul and body. Virtue from Aristotle’s vantage point is the intermediate state between some defined excessive of deficient states with boundaries amongst these that can depend on the situation. An example of an intermediate state would be that within the virtue of courage, bravery is the mean virtuous state, cowardice is the deficient state, and rashness is the excessive state. An example of boundary flexibility is that one could be justified in getting greatly angry if someone strikes them or strikes a loved one, while one would present the excessive state of irascibility that gets greatly angry at a child spilling her water.
One suspects a modern day Aristotle would have much to say about the tenor of the current Presidential race regarding brashness, vulgarity, and dishonesty and how our would be statesmen fail to measure up to these intermediate virtues of bravery, prudence, moderation, justice, and many others.
There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.
-Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.
This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.