Features, Philosophy, Review, Top Stories

Liberalism Can Succeed

[This is Part II of a two-part review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. You can read Part I here]

If we’re already at the point where liberal citizens cannot remember what our regime is supposed to protect — the individual and her natural rights to self-determination — what do we do? Answer: remind them what it is to be one, and why the individual is the pearl of greatest price. If we want to stand athwart the march toward illiberalism, moreover, and are so bold as to try to reverse its course, restoring confidence in the justice and wisdom of liberal practices and philosophy, what do we do? Answer: respond to liberalism’s critics, whether Deneen, the postmodernists, or the illiberal regimes abroad. After all, our preference for Western liberalism over these rivals is not enough to exonerate it from their critiques. We must respond to them, urgently, so that thoughtful Westerners who have lost confidence in the project, or at least its coherence, may find it once again.

In a pair of essays on this site at the end of last year I tried to do just that. I began by presenting the best postmodern critiques of modern philosophy. While I argued in the first essay that some of these critiques were sound, in the second essay I defended the best features of modernism —liberal values and empirical science — against them. I did this, in short, by replacing the basic approach typical of modern philosophies (that the world is of indifferent value, and that our character is not relevant to our understanding it) with the premodern approach of Plato and Aristotle (that the world is suffused with value, and that we must undergo character training in order to understand it). My aim then was to give liberalism and science the philosophical support they need to remain cogent and compelling to rational people in the wake of serious objections. My aim is similar in this review.

Having acknowledged the power of Deneen’s best arguments against liberalism, I here wish to defend it by showing how it can be refined in order to avoid these arguments. For he does not criticize liberal values — such as freedom of speech or religion, constitutional government, and the rule of law — but instead criticizes a particular, albeit very influential, version of liberalism. This version, characteristic of the modernism I rejected in my essay last year, is epitomized by the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Consequently, if those same values can be supported by philosophies that do not commit their theoretical errors, these alternate philosophies and their new version of liberalism could avoid Deneen’s critique altogether. My goal in articulating this new version of liberalism is less to refute Deneen than to answer his own invitation (in a concluding section of his book, entitled “After Liberalism”) to develop “a better theory of politics and society.” In my view, this better theory still deserves to be called liberalism.

Whatever we call it, though, Deneen insists that it meet two conditions. The first concerns the relationship of theory to practice; the second, the relationship of liberalism to its preliberal inheritance. After a century of ideological wars, in which the victory of liberalism appears to have been pyrrhic, this better theory should not be, Deneen warns, “a replacement ideology.” The ideologies of Communism and (to a lesser extent) fascism were sprung from philosophers’ heads. Tyrants then took complex societies and made their practices conform to the dictates of simplistic theory. Stalin and Mao, for example, killed millions by famine when they insisted against all practical wisdom that their economies should conform to central planning. To avoid this error, as we develop the better theory of politics, Deneen believes “we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” Practice first, theory later.

Now, the development of practices will surely enhance this better theory of politics, whatever it turns out to be, but we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for it to emerge from “the cauldron of such experience.” While liberalism is starting to fail at home and around the world, rivals are filling the vacuum with competing visions. Xi Jinping and other autocrats have some, while the populist Western demagogues have others. Often they are difficult to distinguish. In any case, none of them is going to wait for the people who order farm boxes and darn their own socks to get their theoretical house in order before attempting to bang down the door. They have been on the portico since at least the financial crisis of 2008. Their attempts have become more explicit, and more successful, since Trump’s election — which, it must be said, happened after Deneen had finished the first draft of his manuscript.

So, the theoretical work to bolster liberalism must be done now. What warrants our liberal values? How can they be made coherent and compelling when they are being challenged from every quarter? Fortunately, the answers to these questions don’t need to be invented; they can be found. “The outlines of such a theory are already discernible,” writes Deneen, “guided by liberalism’s own retention of essential concepts from a preliberal age.” That preliberal age, with its emphasis on character-development rather than desire-maximization, on self-mastery rather than self-expression, is the premodern world of Plato and Aristotle invoked by the second of my essays last year: “Premodernism of the Future.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on this point Deneen and I agree.

Premodern Liberalism

The better theory of politics and society, Deneen specifies, “must eschew liberalism’s ideological dimensions yet be cognizant of its achievements and the rightful demands it makes — particularly for justice and dignity.” The rightful demands it makes are juridical and political. The individual citizen — not the group or the state — is the primary concern of politics. Her basic rights must be respected, whatever concerns the collective may bring to bear against her. She must be permitted to speak, for instance, even if a group finds her speech offensive. She must be allowed to worship, even if the majority despises her god. She must be afforded due process, even if the state and its leaders are sure of her guilt. These leaders must be constrained by laws, and both laws and leaders must be answerable, however indirectly, to the individuals they rule.

Deneen endorses these juridical and political aspects of liberalism, even if all of them require philosophical justification. What he rejects are those justifications that involve “liberalism’s ideological dimensions.” What, then, are these? Although he often speaks of them collectively as “individualism,” his approval of the juridical and political individual makes this name too general to pinpoint his specific complaint. At his most precise, however, he distinguishes two dimensions of this baleful ideology: (i) voluntarism and (ii) alienation from nature. Deneen sees both coming to prominence in the thought of the early-modern philosophers who are the consistent villains of his story: Machiavelli, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. (As his argument develops, he adds to the wanted list: The Federalists, Rousseau, Marx, J. S. Mill, Dewey, and Rorty.) Let us consider what these ideological dimensions mean before examining (a) the problems with them, and (b) whether the juridical and political accomplishments of liberalism can be preserved without them.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

First, voluntarism. In Hobbes, for example, the human individual exercises his will in order to accomplish his desires, but this will is not inherently ordered toward anything, except perhaps survival and the gratification of bodily appetites and base passions. “Whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire,” he writes in Leviathan, “that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion, evil.” In other words, good and evil are not inherent features of the world, which is of indifferent value. Instead, “good” and “evil” are names we give to whatever we happen to like or dislike. Desire is primary, value secondary. Our will is directed towards the objects of our desire, not toward some independent good. There is no such good, and so our desires cannot be evaluated against it. Education will focus not on them, then, but on the means to acquire their objects.

Hobbes’s voluntarism contrasts with the views of Plato and Aristotle (or Aquinas, for that matter), who believe there is real value in the world, independent of our desires. For Plato, this is the Good; for Aristotle and Aquinas, it is God. For all three, an important part of living a good life is reforming your desires, or re-orienting your will, so that you seek what is truly good. One guarantee of an impoverished life is pretending to be content with what merely seemed good according to your untutored appetites and passions. This pretense is like living in the bottom of a cave, believing that the images projected by firelight onto a wall are real things. To avoid such a fate, education is necessary. But unlike education in the voluntarist mode, which aims outward, to acquire the objects of desire, education in this classical and Christian mode aims inward, to reform desire itself. Reformation of desire and re-orientation of the will — in a word, character-training — are the route to self-mastery.

Second, alienation from nature. Bacon articulated more clearly than any other early-modern figure the opposition between needy humans and stingy nature. As we seek to satisfy our appetites and desires, we meet natural obstacles, but whereas ancient philosophies and religions taught us to accept our limits and tame our cravings, the new science he championed would give us the power to master nature instead. According to Bacon, in fact, nature is “a prisoner, who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” Rather than reforming and re-orienting our desires, in the classical and Christian mode, we can now force nature to yield our satisfactions and leave our untutored desires intact.

In this quest for mastery over nature, Bacon and his 17th century contemporaries did not envision controlling human nature itself. When Hobbes designed his social order, for instance, he assumed that humans would always remain greedy, so that the best society would be one that channeled this individual vice toward the common good. In the 19th century, however, the Baconian project of control over nature rejected that assumption and extended its ambition to human nature too. Whereas Hobbes tried to contain human greed, Marx dreamed of a utopia that would eliminate it. The most extreme case of this approach — not mentioned by Deneen, but chillingly described in Masha Gessen’s The Future is History — is the Homo Sovieticus conceived by the Russian revolutionaries. This “new man” would be constructed by the socialist society, his desires aligning perfectly with its needs. Here is the antecedent of the “social constructionist” view of human nature.

Both the Marxist and the Hobbesian approach depart from that of Aristotle. According to him, each natural thing, whether a plant or a human being, has a natural purpose. A good human life is not one that violates those natural purposes in order to satisfy desires, but instead one that respects them in order to bring them to their fullest actualization. The good farmer, then, knows and respects the natural purposes of each species he cultivates. Recognizing their inherent weaknesses, he seeks to master them through planning, rather than eliminate them by tampering with their genetic codes, say, in order to maximize calories produced or minimize infectious threats. The good human, whatever his craft, knows and respects the inherent purposes of his own body and nature. Recognizing his inherent weaknesses, he seeks to master them through character-training, rather than eliminate them through scientific or social interventions. This would be living in harmony with nature, not at war with it. This would be living virtuously, where the virtuous life is understood to be the fulfillment of natural purpose.

These comparisons with Aristotle throw into sharp relief the two anthropological views criticized by Deneen: (i) voluntarism, and (ii) alienation from nature. They were indeed ideological dimensions of the early-modern philosophies that served as the foundation of liberalism. But is he right that they were baleful? And if so, were they necessary premises of the liberal revolution? Or might they be abandoned in favor of a better anthropology? Let’s take them in order, starting with voluntarism.

The dangers of this view to political life are obvious. If citizens come to believe that there is no good or bad, aside from whatever they happen to desire, calling “good” what they like and “bad” what they hate, it will become impossible to resolve public disputes according to any commonly accepted moral vocabulary. Human desires are infinite and variable — between individuals, and even within any given individual — so that political life, which requires some regimentation of behavior, if not also desire, will become impossible once the rationale for that regimentation (living a good life, one that is really good, not simply one that seems desirable to some people some of the time) has been undermined. Every social order requires a shared philosophy, if only as a set of knee-jerk responses that most citizens give to certain fundamental questions. A durable social order, moreover, requires a philosophy according to which there are real goods and real bads in the world, independent of our desires. Around the former we can rally, against the latter we must fight. Global politics are too perilous for anything less solid to survive.

What about the Baconian approach to nature, including human nature? Is this baleful? “Conservatives,” on one hand, have preserved the 17th century approach to nature, as something available for our exploitation, and Deneen never misses an opportunity to mention the environmental crisis that they are exacerbating. “Progressives,” on the other, have followed the 19th century development of the Baconian approach, seeing human nature as malleable, and Deneen is also rightly critical of them. We have already considered the liberal arts professors who ignore empirical science (biology, by Deneen’s reckoning), teaching that human nature, especially gender, is but a “social construction.” But when we spell out Deneen’s own criticism of these professors, we notice a problem that keeps recurring throughout his book: Aristotelianism.

Critics of “social constructionism” know that more emphasis must be given to nature, but the most apposite empirical science is not always biology. In the debates about gender, for example, the science ignored by liberal arts professors is not so much biology as it is evolutionary psychology. In any case, both are Darwinian sciences, and Darwinism has rendered obsolete the natural teleology of Aristotelianism. Whereas Aristotelians saw various organisms of the same species as more or less imperfect instances of an eternal type, the virtuous paradigm, Darwinists see various organisms of the same species as multiple possible solutions to the perpetual problem of adaptation. Different environments require different adaptations, so that the “vicious” organism in one environment will be “virtuous” in another; and vice versa. There is no natural virtue and vice, in other words, because there are neither natural purposes nor natural environments. There are simply the environments that happen to be, the adaptations that happen to be best for them, and the organisms that happen to flourish as a result.

We may not be able to change human nature — at least not so easily as Marxists thought — but the human nature we must grapple with, like the wider nature we must inhabit, does not work according to Aristotelian principles. No natural purposes can be found in plants and animals, or for that matter in our genitals, so the way we should behave with regard to them, not to mention the way we should desire them, cannot be found in them themselves. What we find when we study human genitals, floral stamens, or anything that has made it this far in evolutionary history on this planet, is not the final word on what should and should not be done, let alone what should or should not be desired. What we find instead is merely the last sentence in a very long book that is still being written — thank God! Its meaning, if there be any, depends to some extent on the sentence that comes next. And likewise for that sentence, until the end, if there be one — God forbid! To find meaning in this book, one must turn one’s attention away from its text and toward its Author.

Deneen, here, is at cross-purposes. What he wants is a philosophy that is non-voluntarist, one that presents an independent good for the orientation of our will. Any number of philosophers will do: Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, among others. What Deneen also wants, though, is a philosophy that will put us in accord with nature. To do so, first of all, it must be compatible with the best science of that nature (Darwin). This eliminates Aristotle and the philosophies that are heavily indebted to him (such as that of Aquinas). Secondly, it should set limits to our interactions with nature, both without and within. We cannot any longer project our own purposes onto nature, either for its exploitation (à la Bacon), its reformation (à la Marxism), or its use to rationalize our traditional customs (à la Robert George and Deneen himself). What we need is a philosophy that orients us toward the Good, yet obliges us to respect everything made in its image as such. This is the philosophy of Plato.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), in a detail from Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’

Platonic Liberalism

Liberalism has not failed. If anything has failed, it has been the anthropology with which early-modern thinkers tried to underwrite liberal values. In the 20th century, Marxist societies were also founded on that anthropology, and they failed miserably. If liberalism is to survive, by contrast, it must be given another foundation—another anthropology, to begin with, but other philosophical premises too. In my “Premodernism of the Future” essay, as well as the previous section of this essay (“Premodern Liberalism”), I have begun to argue how Platonism supplies this foundation. In brief, it can save the juridical and political benefits that modern liberalism has given the individual, without ever adopting the “ideological dimensions” that made it susceptible to critics from Deneen to the postmodernists. In this section, then, I would like to elaborate this argument in response to some of Deneen’s other complaints.

Before turning to them, let’s summarize the basics of the Platonic approach to liberalism and how it meets the objections already leveled by Deneen against it. Before this summary, furthermore, a proviso is in order: what follows are Platonic doctrines, not Platonic arguments. The doctrines are only as valuable as the arguments are sound. To investigate the arguments, however, one must study Platonic texts critically, and that is the task of a lifetime, not an essay. This essay, then, is merely an advertisement for that task, hinting at its importance for our times.

First of all, most generally, Platonism underwrites liberalism by its account of the world: everything short of the Good is an image of it, from inanimate to human beings. We humans, as reasoners, have minds whose purpose is the contemplation of the Good. The summit of this contemplation is union with the Good; short of that consummation, however, we find our satisfaction not only in seeking, but also in imitation of It. As humans, in other words, we have twin duties according to our twin purposes: to seek the truth of the Original and to steward Its images. Heeding the first purpose, the exercise of our will is not arbitrary, as in voluntarism, for it has an inherent goal: the Good. Heeding the second purpose, we are not alienated from nature, as in the Baconian project, for everything under heaven, from plants to our own bodies, is an image of the Good, which we must respect as such.

What about freedom? Our innate freedom, while not perfect, is nonetheless an image of the world-making freedom of the Good. It is sufficient, when untrammeled by oppressive government, for the pursuit of truth and the stewardship of the earth. Liberalism is the best regime for us because it grants us, as individuals, the external freedom we need in order to realize this innate liberty. Think only of the pursuit of truth, and how it warrants the three most basic rights of the First Amendment. We must be free to speak and to publish our ideas, because this is a minimal condition of the pursuit of truth. We must be free to worship the Good as we have come to understand It (God), for this engagement of our whole selves — with our appetites and passions engaged by stories, sounds, tastes, and smells — is the only way to re-orient them fully. Finally, we must be free to associate with one another, if only because the truth is best pursued in community. There are many reasons why this so, but consider at the moment merely how differences of viewpoint and opinion keep the pursuit of truth from becoming ideologically blind.

Such justifications — supplemented by appeals to our duty of stewardship — can be given for all the fundamental juridical and political rights granted to the individual by liberalism. That, at least, is the proposition of Platonic liberalism. Nowhere in this variety of the political philosophy, therefore, is there any need for a social contract, so the postmodern critiques of that fantasy never gain purchase. Nor does the critique that liberalism requires a spurious “tacit consent” from those who were never party to the original contract. Everyone who stays in a country past a certain age, goes the early-modern version of this argument, has tacitly consented to its original contract. Hume compared this to the consent of someone who has been forced by pirates to walk the plank. “You are free to jump into the open sea,” say the pirates, “so if you walk back to this ship you have tacitly consented to its piratical customs.” Deneen alludes to Hume’s criticism, and is right to do so.

With Platonic liberalism, by contrast, all of these doomed stratagems can be avoided. No consent whatsoever is needed. The rights and freedoms of liberalism flow not from any contract, real or imagined, but from the fact that they are our birthright as reasoners. Our government must grant us the freedom to use our reason, individually, to pursue the truth and to steward the earth. No further justification is needed. But this emphasis on the individual does not neglect, let alone destroy, those mediating institutions whose importance Deneen and Tocqueville acknowledge for the cultivation of virtue and self-mastery. A liberal government, Platonically justified, must respect, and in some cases even establish, the mediating institutions that train us to pursue the truth and steward the earth. Neither skill comes naturally, after all, to untutored children. On the contrary, they need families, synagogues, and voluntary associations of all kinds, not to mention compulsory public schools, to bring to perfection the activity of their free reason.

Here is where the sharpest point of Deneen’s critique of liberalism can be blunted. Only a character that has been rigorously trained can pursue the truth with any effectiveness, not to mention steward the earth responsibly, so the government must promote self-mastery as well as self-expression. Yet the two will come into conflict from time to time, and sometimes when they do there will be no easy resolution. As with many such conflicts of our times, such as Obergefell, one account of the Good (a religion) will demand favor for self-mastery (say a specific rule for sexuality and marriage), while others who do not accept this account of the Good (other religions) or who do not believe there is any such thing as the Good (atheists and agnostics), will seek instead self-expression (more license for sexual pleasure and greater diversity in marital contracts). The always difficult, never finished work of liberal government will be to adjudicate this kind of conflict.

The White House on the evening of June 26, 2015.

Although Platonic liberalism will be committed to the existence and supremacy of the Good (Nature’s God, if you will), it can never lay claim to any particular account of It, recognizing, as Plato does, the limits of human beings in their pursuit of this understanding. Thus, although one might assume such a government would favor the advocates of self-mastery over those of self-expression, this would be a mistake. Whenever the advocates of self-mastery make their arguments in the certain terms of specific accounts (religious dogma), they have failed to abide by the rules of this best of all regimes, which allows imperfect humans to seek the truth, often together, sometimes in inevitable conflict with one another. However certain dogmatists may be within the walls of their sanctuaries, whenever they step outside, they must appeal to natural reason if they are to persuade anyone else. This compromise — if it be considered that, rather than invitation to deeper understanding — is the price to be paid for peace. After the religious wars of the 17th century, we learned it was worth paying.

How do we get to Platonic liberalism from here? Like Deneen, I believe that the renaissance is most likely to come from a renewed appreciation of the liberal arts, a renewed contact with the best of our intellectual tradition, especially ancient literature, and Greek philosophy in particular. Postmodernism seems to have crested. Even if it has not yet begun its retreat from the humanities, wise and persuasive critics are attacking it everywhere else. Its ultimate defeat will take time, just as it took time for the philosophical pathologies of modern philosophy to reach the practices and discourse of everyday citizens. Let’s play the long game. And let’s do so with some hope. The U.S. Constitution makes no commitments to voluntarism, alienation from nature, or any of the other philosophical errors that have infected modern thought. On the contrary, it is largely neutral about philosophical questions. What it does instead is show us how to organize a government that will allow us to exercise political freedom without compromising our juridical rights. These are the very things Deneen thinks worth preserving from the liberal tradition.

Yes, the Constitution has been abused by administrations both Left and Right in recent years. President Obama bypassed the legislative branch with his abuse of executive orders, and President Trump receives emoluments from foreign governments through his businesses, even if he did not also obstruct justice when he fired James Comey. But compare these abuses with those of 1964–1973 and you’ll find the Constitution more durable than present commentators fear: President Johnson went to war in Vietnam without the approval of Congress, and President Nixon tried to undermine the electoral process with the Watergate burglary. Nor have the abuses of the Constitution been limited to our imperial presidents. Congress has recently encroached on the executive branch by undermining treaty negotiations with Iran, while the Supreme Court has encroached on Congress by confusing interpretation with legislation (e.g., Roe v. Wade). Yet here we are. For all its abuse, and as embarrassed as we may be of our current administration, our Constitution is still a model of a just liberal order.

American flag and Constitution

American Platonism

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning Deneen’s criticisms of the Federalists: Hamilton and Madison. For if the way out of liberalism’s crisis must follow the Constitution, while awaiting a renaissance in culture that will give its principles their proper foundation, it better be the case that the Constitution itself is not infected, as Deneen argues it is, with the failures of early-modern liberalism.

First of all, Deneen observes, the Federalists were anti-democratic. Like most of the other participants in the Constitutional Convention, they had been trained in the Greek and Roman classics. They knew both Plato’s penetrating critique of unchecked democracy in Republic, and the history of Athens that had confirmed it: its ostracism of its best patriots (Aristides, Themistocles, and Cimon), its fickleness whenever a clever speaker got their attention (Cleon or Alcibiades), the debacle of the Sicilian Expedition and the unjust trial of Socrates. Indeed, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution knew the dangers of Athenian democracy at least as well as Shays’s Rebellion, which had only months earlier reminded them of the risks of mob-rule on American soil. To avoid these risks and dangers, they made sure to the filter the will of the people through several constitutional sieves: Representatives, Senators appointed by state legislatures, a President who would be elected not directly but by an electoral college, and finally Supreme Court justices whose appointments would be for life.

Were the Framers’ fears of mob-rule irrational? Or were those fears rational then, but inappropriate now? If so, have the dangers of mob-rule passed? Are the American people really wiser now than they were after the Revolution? If so, by what measure? Deneen admits that American democracy is broken, referring in one particularly caustic passage to “the deformed and truncated demotic actions of a degraded citizenry.” But unlike the Federalists, he does not leverage such judgment as a critique of democracy itself. Instead, he accepts the essentially Rousseauian argument that life in a corrupt society (liberalism) has made Americans that way. So when exactly did the corruption of the otherwise non-demotic people occur? Were the people ever non-demotic? Even if sense can be made of that oxymoronic question, the Framers of the Constitution were no more confident in popular sovereignty than we should be nowadays, for they drew their wisdom from the deep wells of antiquity before public survey data could confirm their dim judgment.

James Madison (1751-1836)

Secondly, Deneen argues that the Constitution was designed to empower government to destroy mediating institutions and thereby undermine self-mastery. In Federalist 10, Madison claims that the primary goal of government is to protect “diversity in the faculties of men,” especially in their attainment of private property. He recognizes that the nascent Republic will contain competing economic interests: farmers, manufacturers, merchants, and others will each try to incline the government in their own favor. With more such interests, though, the chance of any one dominating the others will diminish. This principle applies not only to economic interests, but also to interests of other types. “A religious sect,” writes Madison, “may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy,” but the wide expanse of the Union ensures that it will be challenged by other factions from elsewhere. Madison is arguing for the advantage of a large Republic over the small ones (such as Athens) where such factions proved lethal.

From this argument, however, Deneen draws the following invalid conclusion: “The government itself is to be given substantial new powers to act directly on individuals in order at once to liberate them from the constraints of their particular localities.” According to Deneen, in fact, these new powers will extend to our intimate lives, because Madison’s arch-liberal goal is “liberation from interpersonal ties and connections, fostering mistrust toward others, so that interpersonal relationships would be tenuous, fleeting, and fungible.” The only thing tenuous here is Deneen’s conclusion, which is based on a misreading of Federalist 10. Madison expected federal representatives to rise above local attachments when they traveled to the capital, adopting the national perspective that befitted their new role. But there is no evidence that he expected the citizenry to do the same in their daily lives.

On the contrary, as Gordon Wood has summarized in a recent response to Deneen’s book, the Federalists feared the erosion of mediating institutions, imagining “this awful kind of world, where the individual is alone and without any kind of connections with anyone.” This did not stop the anti-Federalists, any more than Deneen, from worrying that the new Constitution would empower the central government to annihilate state and local governments. Against these critiques, the Federalists protested that state and local governments would remain strong (e.g., 17, 39, 46, 84), and the subsequent history of the Republic showed them to be right. To this day, after all, the average American citizen is more affected by the decisions of her state and local governments than she is by those in Washington, even if the eyes of a histrionic media are always upon the minutiae of the federal melodrama.

Deneen is nonetheless right that the Federalists argued for a stronger central government than had been afforded by the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, this was their defining issue. Had their arguments not already been sufficient to prove them right on this score, subsequent history would have supplemented their prudence. The new Republic had heavy obligations, both financial and military, and only a federal government that taxed individual citizens directly could meet them. Focusing only on the military challenges for the moment, let us recall that the U.S.A. was surrounded on all sides by global superpowers (Britain to the North, France to the West, Spain to the South, and all three patrolling the Atlantic to the East). To preserve its territorial integrity, never mind expand westward, it would need to field more than the band of militias that had sufficed to win what amounted to little more than a long guerilla war of patience. As in the present context, when Deneen never mentions China, Russia, or Iran, so too in the 18th century context he neglects international politics.

Hamilton was too seasoned a warrior, and too savvy a statesman, to make that mistake. In one of the only other Federalist Papers Deneen adduces by number (34), he discusses the revenues to be gathered by state and federal governments. His first object is to establish the co-ordinate sovereignties of these two levels of government, against the persistent anti-Federalist objection that the federal level proposed by the Constitution would annihilate the state level. Satisfied that he has established the endurance of state government, he then turns to the taxes to be levied by each. Whereas some had proposed that the states should always receive two-thirds of the tax-revenue, leaving the federal government only one-third, Hamilton objects that the proportions should not be fixed, but instead remain indefinite. Only so, he argues, will the nation remain free to adapt to unforeseen circumstances — especially foreign war. “Where can we stop,” writes Hamilton, “short of an indefinite power of providing for emergencies as they arise?”

This is Deneen’s proof-text of Federalist ambition, seeing in it the confession of a metastasizing federal government capable of effacing all mediating institutions. But as with the quotations from Federalist 10, when this passage is returned to its proper context the menace dissipates. Hamilton is wisely recognizing that no Framer can foresee the needs of the future (e.g., a Department of Energy, supervising our nuclear arsenal?). And the subsequent history of the country has vindicated his judgment. Only when the federal government could tax the wealthiest at 94 percent, for example, could it generate the revenue it needed to defeat German and Japanese fascism in 1944. Yet even then the state governments, like the wealthy, survived — which they would not have done had Hamilton’s anti-Federalist opponents tied the federal government’s hands with fixed limits upon its revenues.

So, yes, as Deneen observes, the central government conceived by the Federalists acquired great powers; and certainly, since the country has grown accustomed to fighting long wars with vague goals (1941–1991; 2001–2018), it has abused them. But this is still the country, lest we forget, where such critiques can be made. And it is still the country where the Amish ride their buggies unmolested. Besides keeping us secure from foreign rivals, then, it has also done a passable job at preserving our liberties, both for self-expression and self-mastery. So let’s trust in its Constitution a little longer. We’ve been through more serious crises (1790–1800, 1861–65, 1968–1973) and have good reason to believe our system will weather this one. My counsel of patience, however, is not an excuse for passivity. We are waiting not for deliverance from some mysterious curse, but for the cultural renaissance Deneen and many others are already working to effect. Let’s join them, post-haste, restoring confidence in the established practices of our liberal regime, encouraged more than ever by its new theoretical foundation: the ancient philosophy of Plato.


Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here. 

Filed under: Features, Philosophy, Review, Top Stories


Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here: http://www.duq.edu/academics/faculty/patrick-lee-miller


  1. I find this philosophical criticism of Deneen’s political science by Miller difficult to follow. The only philosophy I’m comfortable with is curbstone stoicism. Further, neither Deneen nor Miller seem to have any idea where modern liberalism came from.

    Modern liberalism was born in England 1613 when Sir Edward Coke began using his office as Chief Justice of the King’s Bench to challenge Bacon and James I’s positive law notion that the law was the king speaking. Coke’s view of the law was neatly captured in 1881 by O W Holmes, Jr.: “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” Coke held that experience required that the king be the king under the law.

    The lineage of modern liberalism begins in the 16th C. with Erasmus and the luminaries of the Continental Reformation (Luther, Calvin Zwingli and the rest) as well as Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy”. They all owed a debt to Marcilius of Padua’s 14th C. “Defensor pacis.”

    The rivalry and debate between Coke’s defense of the common law and unwritten constitution and Bacon’s defense of the notion of positive law flowing from the mouth the king began in the towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and intensified after the ascension of James I. Bacon’s views found favor with the king and Coke’s were did not. Both Bacon and Coke were unabashed place seekers and both were perfectly willing to trim their opinions to suite their immediate objectives.

    After being thrown off the bench by James I in 1616. Coke cast his lot with a Parliament dominated by wealthy calvinist commoners and reformers who had coalescing into a political estate with sufficient wealth and power to oppose both the Crown and the House of Lords. Between 1620-29 Coke, Pym, Selden, Hampden and many other others laid the ground work (culminating in the Petition in of Right) for the civil war that broke out in 1642 between the King and Parliament.

    But Parliament was not unified. By 1643, two factions had emerged; the Presbyterians and their allies in Scotland and the City of London on one side and the Independents and their very much down market English populist adherents on the other.

    Initially, the Presbyterians and Independents differed on only the point of how a true church should be governed. The Presbyterians insisted on a state religion governed by presbytery and enforced by the power of the state while the Independents insisted that each true church should be independent and governed only by the members of the congregation with little or no interference from the state. This dispute over church governance bled over into a dispute on the nature of secular government. The Presbyterians favored a strong central government enforcing positive law that originated in Parliament and natural law interpreted by a presbytery. The Independents favored broad toleration of all reformed sects. They also had a strong attachment to notion of the ancient rights and liberties of Englishmen as they had been restated by Coke in his Institutes. The Independents were the party of the Levellers after 1646.

    Anticipating the eventual fracture of the Presbyterian-Independent coalition that defeated the King, Cromwell began packing the New Model Army with radical Independent sectaries in 1645; they were his russet coated captains. When a second civil war between the Presbyterians and the Independents broke out in 1648 the Presbyterians controlled Parliament and the City of London but the Independents controlled the New Model Army and the 40 shilling freeholders. The Independents won.

    While all this was going on, New England was settled by a mixture of Presbyterians and Independents between 1630-40. The form of government that emerged in New England was a republic of church-towns with a very limited central government controlled by the Presbyterian gentlemen of trade and the profession who had the leisure and ability to run a government and strong towns controlled by the 40 shilling freeholders who had a monopoly on force (the police power). In New England, the franchise to vote in colony wide elections was very narrow but the franchise to vote in town elections was very broad.

    After 1647, Hobbes, also a Presbyterian, was in exile in Paris and became Charles II’s tutor. Locke’s father was a captain in Alexander Popham’s Presbyterian regiment in the New Model Army. Popham cast his lot with the monarchy after 1660 and became a patron of John Locke. These Presbyterians finally ended the Restoration in 1688 and triumphed in England as the Whigs the following the Glorious Revolution.

    How anyone can discuss the tradition of liberal Anglo-American politics without reference to the Reformation, Coke, the schism between the Presbyterians and the Independents, the English Civil Wars, and the mixed government that emerged in New England is beyond understanding

    • This history is all very interesting, but Deneen’s book is a short work of political philosophy, not historiography, so naturally he omits these details. Following his lead — it’s a review, ultimately, even if I use it to sketch my own political philosophy — I did the same. But the question remains: does any of this history falsify anything said in the review? If so, I’ll be happy to consider a correction. If not, I don’t see why it’s relevant to the task at hand.

      • I think my chief problem is that you say “liberal” but the liberals you reference are exclusively Whigs like Locke, Hamilton and Madison (before he jumped ship) or proto-Whigs like Bacon and Hobbes.

        The greatest good of the Whigs has always been state protection of private property, piety expressed as religious conformity enforced by the state and a limited franchise to vote.

        From its earliest days in the 17th C., this attraction to property and piety has often appeared to be nothing more than greed and hypocrisy. Free speech, liberty of conscience and a broad franchise to vote have never been core Whig values; although Whigs, like the Federalists, were fond of using these ideas as propaganda.

        Whig governments tend to be oligarchic republics that represent only the particular interests of the wealthy. They are much more like the Venetian and Dutch Republics than the Swiss Republic or the American Republic before 1900.

        Nevertheless, Whigs have a place in any any stable, liberal, constitutional democratic republic. The better sort of people are wealthier and smarter than the rest of us. They have the leisure and the ability to manage things. The trick is to confine their sphere of activity to things are useful to the commonwealth and prevent their excesses from destroying the commonwealth.

        In the past, this has been accomplished by denying Whig governments the general police power. This was the rule in the American colonies before 1765 and that was the type of government that eventually emerged in the US between 1800-1900.

        It should be observed that the radical democratic-republicans in the colonies were comfortable under a British Whig rule for 65 years after 1700 and became rebellious only when the British attempted to replace locally controlled government institutions with a royal government that exercised the general police power.

        • I think it will be best if I reply ad loc.:

          “I think my chief problem is that you say “liberal” but the liberals you reference are exclusively Whigs like Locke, Hamilton and Madison (before he jumped ship) or proto-Whigs like Bacon and Hobbes.”

          So who are the non-Whig liberal political philosophers who, according to you, must be included in Deneen’s book in order to make it a better work of political philosophy? There are constraints implicit in that question. Deneen’s purpose (and mine) is not to tell an accurate history of liberalism, but instead to ferret out the principles of liberalism that have animated the USA (and its imitators) and contributed to its current crisis. Thus, these unduly neglected non-Whig political philosophers must have articulated such principles. Who are they? And what were these principles? How do they falsify or qualify philosophical claims Deneen makes?

          “The greatest good of the Whigs has always been state protection of private property, piety expressed as religious conformity enforced by the state and a limited franchise to vote.”

          I’m confused here. You name Locke, Hamilton, and Madison as Whigs, but now say that they endorsed “religious conformity enforced by the state.” Yet these three thinkers are famous for their refusal to insist on religious conformity (Letter Concerning Toleration? Federalist 10? Federalist 51?), let alone to endorse the enforcement of that conformity by the state.

          “From its earliest days in the 17th C., this attraction to property and piety has often appeared to be nothing more than greed and hypocrisy. Free speech, liberty of conscience and a broad franchise to vote have never been core Whig values; although Whigs, like the Federalists, were fond of using these ideas as propaganda.”

          What is the evidence that the Federalists used free speech and liberty of conscience as “propaganda”?

          “Whig governments tend to be oligarchic republics that represent only the particular interests of the wealthy. They are much more like the Venetian and Dutch Republics than the Swiss Republic or the American Republic before 1900.”

          I’m confused by this reading of American history. Your view is that the American Republic before 1900 was not an oligarchic republic, but became one thereafter? It would make rather more sense, it seems to me, to say that the USA was *more* oligarchic before 1900 than afterwards. After all, the late 19th century was the age of the robber barons, and the 17th Amendment (making the election of national Senators more democratic) was adopted in 1913. Those are just two pieces of evidence for the contrary thesis that come immediately to mind. I’m not myself arguing for 1900 as a decisive turn *toward* democracy, but I don’t understand why someone would choose that date to pinpoint a turn *away* from it.

          “Nevertheless, Whigs have a place in any any stable, liberal, constitutional democratic republic. The better sort of people are wealthier and smarter than the rest of us. They have the leisure and the ability to manage things. The trick is to confine their sphere of activity to things are useful to the commonwealth and prevent their excesses from destroying the commonwealth.”

          There seems to me to be a confusion here between Whigs (people with a certain political philosophy), and aristocrats (people of a certain social station: wealth, education, birth, talent, etc.). The argument you make above is the very argument that the Federalists made for the mixed constitution that would incorporate but tame the influence of the aristocrats. In this sense, you seem to be a Federalist. But if your claim is not about aristocrats, but instead Whigs, I can’t understand it. No political thinker I know has ever proposed a mixed constitution where people of a certain *political philosophy* were to be given a constitutional role. That seems to confuse the thinkers with the actors.

          “In the past, this has been accomplished by denying Whig governments the general police power. This was the rule in the American colonies before 1765 and that was the type of government that eventually emerged in the US between 1800-1900.”

          Again, I can’t make sense of this version of American history, especially the 19th century. You seem to be saying that the US 1800-1900 was a period in which Whig governments were denied access to the general police power. Yet it was during the 19th century that the Federal government acquired a standing army, used it to fight wars of conquest (the Mexican War and later the Spanish-American War), and above all used it to subdue a massive rebellion by its own citizens (the Civil War).

          Back to the English history you told in your first comment (Coke, etc.), what’s the single best book on that period you would recommend?

  2. I think a quote from Yogi Berra is appropriate here: “Every good has a bad.” Philosophers have a tendency to argue down from some lofty “Good” to derive rules for living. This method creates a dogmatic frame for looking at issues. For example, the goal of “Social Justice” is fine, but the implementation of that goal has not been fine. So in human thought the Good quickly acquires that Bad. The mechanism is per Hobbes.

    This essay presents Liberalism as a Good. It also espouses positive views of Religion and Plato. This is a typical dogmatic premise and leaves a suspicion of authoritarianism which is the heritage of Plato’s Republic. It is trying to lure back into the fold, in a friendly way, the Post Modernist who recognize no Truth (except their own.) Although I am sympathetic to the good intent of the writer, I feel uneasy about the method.

    In my view, the “Western” form of government is negatively defined. Take the separation of Church and State. The most visible aspirational institution for Good was denied access to the political discussion. It has protected both the state and the church from the ever present Hobbesian corruption. Similarly, the separation of powers is a negative measure because it prevents a possible Good King from exercising a just rule. History teaches that the benefit derived from such a king if he/she exists does never outweigh the damage done by subsequent tyrants. This is perhaps underneath the sentence in the essay that says “Besides keeping us secure from foreign rivals, then, it has also done a passable job at preserving our liberties, both for self-expression and self-mastery. So let’s trust in its Constitution a little longer.”

    Is it possible to redefine Liberalism from this negative, jaundiced view of human nature and of Good? To do so, we must realize that a Liberal society is a side effect of a systematic effort to deny various philosophical notions of Good from gaining too much power. The checks and balances cause the result. The problem with checks and balances is that they are not inspirational (because they are negative goals.) This forces politicians to repackage the positive results of the mistrustful attitude towards government into the shiny new Good: Liberalism. However, for a philosopher, it is not possible to derive the political landscape with these checks and balances from Liberal principles because it confuses cause and effect. That is the root cause of my unease with this essay.

    • Every good short of the Good does indeed involve a bad; this is one feature that distinguishes images from the Original. A Platonist argues upon this basis, to be sure, but this is not “arguing down from some lofty “Good” to derive rules for living” in any straightforward sense. Central to Platonism is the recognition that the Good (or the One) is beyond being — and thus beyond understanding, not to mention speaking. We can know *that* It exists, but we cannot know *what* It is (its essence). Without such clarity, there can be no derivation of rules for living (such as Kant’s categorical imperative, the Utilitarian pleasure calculus, or even the Golden Rule), unless rules such as those in the First Amendment be counted. The basis of such rules is the unknowability of the Good, which justifies the wide latitude humans must be afforded for their pursuit (or rejection) of It.

      So the essay does not present “Liberlaism as a Good.” It presents it as the best of all political regimes for a world in which, as you rightly observe, good is always mixed with bad. The essay obviously does espouse a positive view of Plato. I believe Platonism is correct about all the most important questions in philosophy, and am happy to explain or defend it to anyone seriously interested. Because this was merely an essay, and one arguably too long for this format already, it could not do that explanatory or defensive work; indeed, it said explicitly that it was presenting only Platonic *doctrines*, not Platonic *arguments*. If that were all, it might indeed propose “a typical dogmatic premise and leaves a suspicion of authoritarianism which is the heritage of Plato’s Republic.” But as I say, if you earnestly desire an explanation or defense of anything said on Plato’s behalf in this essay, I’m happy to try to satsify you.

      You and I agree on the wisdom of the separating Church and State. I gave my argument for that position in the essay when I discussed the Obergefell case, and I hope that my elaboration in the first paragraph of this comment helps to clarify my position. Perhaps, as you put it, I put forward a positive view of Religion, but only the sense that I put forward a positive view of Philosphy. Religions, like philosophies, can be good or bad. Some religions are poisonous, as are some philosophies. I choose my philosophy and my religion according to whichever I deem best. It is not the role of liberal government to make that choice for anyone. If someone chooses to be a Platonist or a Catholic, the (liberal) government should permit him to do so. If someone chooses to be a Wahhabist or a Postmodernist, the (liberal) government should permit him to do so. All I am saying in this regard is that Platonism gives the best explanation of why this political freedom is best.

      About the “authoritarianism which is the heritage of Plato’s Republic,” there is a lot to be said. Yes, some authoritarians have used it to underwrite their political thinking (e.g., Ayatollah Khomeini). I believe that is a misreading of the text. (As I recall, I explain this briefly in “Premodernism of the Future,” so you may wish to check that out). Plato calls democracy the most beautiful of all constititions, “while it lasts.” He saw no way to make it last, and with the example of Athenian democracy before his eyes he had every reason to reject it. But the framers of the US Constitution, using the Platonist Polybius as their guide, saw a way to that solution. By mixing constitutions, giving the government both oligarchic and monarchic elements atop its democratic basis, they argued that rule of the people, by the people, for the people could be made to last. Unless Deneen, the Postmodernists, and Xi Jinping are correct, and Lincoln was wrong, it is need not perish from the earth.

      • Patrick,

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I particularly enjoyed the ending “Unless Deneen, the Postmodernists, and Xi Jinping are correct, and Lincoln was wrong, it need not perish from the earth.” Happy to leave it on that note.



  3. I found this more difficult to follow than your previous essays (Premodernism of the Future was excellent)

    It feels sort of like philosophical gerrymanding to pluck Hobbes and Locke out and plug Plato in, and think liberalism has changed in any way. The turn to Plato seems only to reinforce Deneen’s central thesis – a turn to premodern virtue and cultivation of the self is the only path forward, despite liberalism’s managerial and exploitative dimensions, which cannot be addressed by more liberalism.

    The closest thing I can think of that fulfills that is what Jordan Peterson is doing, encouraging people to cultivate their character via Dostoevsky, Carl Jung and an understanding of the shadow and its infinite appetites.

    But still, it remains trapped in liberalism, which I see as a social contract spiraling rapidly out of control in a digital marketplace that currently has no rules, a new state of nature. We’ll see if blockchain is another false promise or the start of an online social contract. But as it stands, I don’t think liberalism can be rescued by pulling out blocks in its structure and replacing them with older, deeper blocks. Locke and Hobbes remain part of the system.

    • Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you like the previous essays. I’m curious why you found this one hard to follow. (It merely elaborated an argument for Platonic Liberalism that was already in the essay you name. Indeed, if I were to compare the two essays, I should think that was the harder to follow, as it involved work with Nietzsche and Mill, and more detailed work with Aristotle and Darwin.) Was there a particular premise or inference in this review of Deneen that was obscure? If so, I’d be happy to explain it (or them).

      I can see how it would *feel* like “philosophical gerrrymandering” to use Plato to underwrite the liberal values championed by Hobbes, Locke, and other modern liberal political philosophers. But is there any *reason* for seeing it as such? Platonic Liberalism goes off the tracks of conventional political philosophy, I grant, but I’m trying to solve a problem and this seems to me the best solution. I’m as eager as anyone to see what its rational deficits are, because I would like to grapple with them and either remedy them or abandon the project. At the moment I can’t see any. That’s one reason why I’m grateful to *Quillette* for publishing my work. It’s a magazine that publishes arguments for unusual positions without concern for the intellectual conventions of the day.

      As for this particular essay, you are right that my turn to Plato “seems only to reinforce Deneen’s central thesis – a turn to premodern virtue and cultivation of the self is the only path forward, despite liberalism’s managerial and exploitative dimensions, which cannot be addressed by more liberalism.” Many are reading my review of Deneen as critical, even “scathing,” but I endorsed his central thesis, as you call it. I made three main critiques: (1) he is wrong to use Aristotle to elaborate this thesis, (2) he ignores international politics, and (3) his reading of the *Federalist Papers*, and thus the US Constitution, is wrong.

      Put positively, I am trying to make three contributions in this essay are. First, to show why Plato does the work better. I said more about this in “Premodernism of the Future,” and am saying much more about this in a book I’m writing, but the most immediate point was that Plato’s philosophy is not only compatible with Darwin but is necessary to make sense of Darwin’s (or any scientist’s) claim to know (truth). Second, I gestured towards the international context of today and the 18th century, implying that any theory of American (or liberal) politics better understand that context and integrate it. (I did a little more of this in my Novermber 2017 review of Luce’s book for Quillette, “The Implosion of Western Liberalism”.) Third, I gave a reading of the US Constitution, and thus the *Federalist Papers* that shows compatiblity with Platonism.

      Jordan Peterson is reaching a wide audience and making some important points, so I would include him in the big tent I refer to in the penultimate sentence of my review, where I mention the “the cultural renaissance Deneen and many others are already working to effect.” People sense a crisis in liberalism and are looking for political, even constitutional, solutions to the crisis. I think that’s a mistake. Of course we need some policy changes, and perhaps we need a constitutional amendment, but the basic structure is sound. The problem is ultimately neither political nor constitutional, it is cultural. That’s going to frustrate people who want the crisis to end tomorrow. Cultures can be ruined overnight, but they take a long time to improve. It’s going to take thousands, even millions, of people working hard over decades. We have to be patient; there’s no other way.

      That’s scary when we think of how many catastrophic things can befall us in the meantime: nuclear war, environmental disaster, germ explosions, and so on. Nor should we think it easy work. A friend of mine put it this way last week: it’s going to be like keeping a plant alive while we give it a new set of roots. But I don’t think that’s quite right. The philosophies of Greece are our roots, and the Platonic one is the strongest of them. We are not giving our plant new roots, then, but cutting out the intellectual weeds that have grown round it.

      • Thanks for engaging, that definitely did help clarify. What you propose doesn’t sound much different from Deneen’s final plea to focus on the local and communal in the face of liberalism, and I think Deneen would agree with your Platonic angle. The more intractable problems of atomization, depersonalization and the loss of community seem, sadly, out of anyone’s hands, so we can only do what we can at that individual/cultural level.

  4. defmn says

    The first thing I want to say is thank you. What you are attempting is both difficult and thankless for the most part.

    Secondly I want to agree with you that Plato still stands today as the pre-eminent thinker and writer on the human condition. Startling, really, given the advances in so many other areas of human thought but I am not sure who I would place second although I am coming around to think maybe Hobbes for reasons below.

    For me I see all political philosophy in relation to Plato’s writings but I think we read him somewhat differently.

    For me The Republic is part of a trilogy. The three different dialogues deal with the three parts of the soul that he designates as nomos, thymos and eros. The Republic examines the role of Thymos and, as such, is his most explicitly political work since the will/ spirit/ thymos – not sure there is an english word that quite captures the idea – sits at the centre of the most salient political question. How to turn the wolf that is the young ambitious male into the loyal companion that is man’s best friend.

    I mention this because I see it as central to understanding Hobbes in the context of Plato’s most famous ‘idea’ of a philosopher king. Plato rejects the possibility but Hobbes, imo, takes it up. In Plato’s formulation there are three – really four but that distinction is irrelevant to this discussion – classes of humans based upon three categories of primary desire. Those governed primarily by nomos, those governed primarily by thymos and those driven primarily by eros. A hierarchy based upon the telos of human nature.

    Plato identifies the philosopher king as coming from the first group but, of course, concedes that such an event is highly unlikely for any number of reasons. Machiavelli takes a stab at establishing a theoretical framework for establishing a political order around those primarily driven by thymos but it remains for Hobbes to establish the rule of a philosopher king with the publication of his Leviathan. The Leviathan is the philosopher king whose theoretical influence built the cave of the modern liberalism.

    This interpretation is, I realize, quite off the beaten track. There is a hint of it in Leon Craig’s ‘The Platonian Leviathan’. He almost gets there but doesn’t quite make the final leap. I know everybody and their dog has a favourite book that explains and makes sense of the world and that they want everybody else to read so that they can look smart for recommending it so I hesitate to do this. It is definitely not a book for every one but I think that it might be something you will find useful in filling in what I see as a few blanks here and there. And I say this with respect. Craig will make an argument that Hobbes agrees with Plato philosophically while offering a political prescriptive that has the advantage of utility in conjunction with his mentor’s reformation of the purpose of science.

    Anyway, I have offered my observations on your Aristotle/Darwin dichotomy before. I think you misstate both of their positions somewhat in this essay but since I don’t see that disagreement as central or even salient in the way that you do I will leave it alone other than to note that the ‘d’ in the acronym I use to identify myself on the internet stands for Darwin. I have ploughed through most of his writings. He has to be one of the most boring and prosaic writers of fame to come out of the 19th century so maybe this clouds my opinion of his observations.

    I am not American so I really have nothing much to say about how America started out or got to where it is at isn’t a question of any particular interest to me.

    Although most of my remarks are pointed to where I think you have missed my silence on the larger argument is meant as general agreement and I want to again offer my thanks and gratitude for whatever little that is worth.

    • Thanks for reading my work and for offering thoughtful criticisms and suggestions. Know that I have taken them to heart. Your expression of gratitude is heart-warming. Such work is not quite thankless, but I do wish its importance to the present political debates were more widely recognized. Yet a few good interlocutors is all a philosopher needs to be content, as I’m sure you know, and now thanks to *Qullette* I have many more than that.

      About Hobbes, I would not myself put him second in my ranking of political thinkers (that palm I would award to Nietzsche), but I spent a year as a sort of Hobbesian, so I’m familiar with his appeal as well as his importance. I had not heard of Craig’s book, but I am intrigued by the paradox of the title (as it’s hard for me to think of two political philosophies more opposed than those of Hobbes and Plato); I hope to read it.

      You mention that you see *Republic* as part of a trilogy, but I don’t think you mentioned the two other dialogues with which you pair it. What are they? (*Gorgias* and *Symposium*? Just guessing based on nomos and eros.) I am skeptical of any reading that says *this* is what *Republic* is really about (whatever we substitute for “this”) because it seems to me to be about almost everything philosophical. It is indeed about thymos, but it is also about nomos (Thrasymachus) and eros (Book 3 especially, but everywhere desire is operative, which is to say nearly everywhere in the text). I don’t think, as you seem to, that the superior types in Plato follow nomos, unless you mean the nomos of Kallipolis. Then yes. But in any degenerate constitution — which is to say any actual earthly city — they will to some extent depart from nomos by following their understanding (noesis) of the Good. That said, Socrates himself, in *Crito* for example, constitutes an objection. If he is Plato’s model, he does seem to follow even the irrational and unjust applications of nomoi.

      The idea that thymos is a particularly male phenomenon is interesting to me. I have a friend who is pursuing this line of thought. I myself am skeptical. First of all, Socrates permits women to be warriors and guardians and argues for complete equality of opportunity between them and men in these regards (Book 5). Secondly, to cover the logical space in his argument for the tripartite soul, the thymoeides (the middle part of the soul) has to do more than explain anger, let alone the anger of young men. I interpret it as *emotion*, reading that it is especially concerned with status (this is why the young warrior, e.g., Achilles, gets angry: he has been dishonored), and believing (with Robert Solomon) that all emotions are devices for tracking and promoting one’s social status. Plato discusses anger, in my interpretation, not because it is the phenomenon to be explained, but because it is the most salient example of the phenomenon to be explained. The logistikon (reason) tracks the real good; the thymoides (emotions) tracks the good according to social convention; and the epithymetikon (appetites) tracks the good according to bodily perceptions, if it is sensitive to goodness at all.

      It looks like we’re going to have to disagree on the Aristotle / Darwin question. Rest assured, however, that I am going to pursue it further, and by “pursue” I don’t mean keep making the point in the same way, but instead that I plan to read those (e.g., Gilson or Lennox) who believe that Aristotelianism can handle Darwin, either by incorporating him or otherwise taming the enthusiasm for him. In the meantime, you have me intrigued about about your anonymous acronym. I can only imagine how much abuse you heap on Darwin with the efmn! 😉

      Finally, I understand why a non-American would lose interest in detailed discussions of the US Constitution and the debates between Federalists and Antifederalists of the late 18th century. However, I think they are far more relevant than most people interested in politics nowadays realize. Obviously the US Constitution was a model for many other liberal constitutions, especially after WW2 and the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s important to everyone interested in world liberalism and its crisis. As for the Federalists, et al., I am frequently amazed that they are not being quoted chapter and verse by the British and the Europeans whose Union they are leaving. Those questons (of sovereignty, democracy, and federalism) animate nearly every page of the *Federalist Papers*. The British and the Europeans are unwittingly re-playing those debates, although with less genius than Hamilton, Madison, and the others had to offer.

      I’ve enjoyed your comments and hope to hear more. Until next time …

      • defmn says

        Thank you for your response.

        Until very recently I would have agreed with you – and Leo Strauss – that Nietzsche represents the 2nd highest peak of philosophy. And viewed and judged from the viewpoint of seminal metaphysics I am in complete agreement.

        My perhaps overly enthusiastic observation regarding Hobbes was based upon his impact in creating the cave we call western liberal democracies. It still remains to be seen what Nietzsche’s thought will produce over time.

        And I would have nodded in total agreement with your assessment that Hobbes and Plato had little in agreement with each other prior to reading Craig’s book. Since then I was forced to re-read Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bacon’s New Organon and, of course, The Leviathan – I am still in Part Two on the Commonwealth as I write this – in order to see if his perspective holds up. I have to admit that it is very, very persuasive.

        The Republic, as I understand it, is an examination of the city based upon the premise that political association is dictated by human nature. The city is “man writ large”. As such it begins with an examination of what the city would look like without the passions unique to humans – the city of pigs – introduces those passions unbridled at Glaukon’s protestations and spends the bulk of the book demonstrating the necessity and tools for ameliorating the effects of those passions most destructive of society – given that man is political by nature. He tames the wolf Thrasymachus in Book 1 not by defeating his argument but by shaming him into silence due to Thrasymachus understanding that he cannot refute Socrates without revealing that what he really thinks. That will harm him in his need to make money by showing that he does not really care about the good of his students – only what is good for him since that is the necessary consequence of arguing that intelligence dictates that appearing just while actually being unjust is the correct conclusion.

        Book 5 is Plato’s parody of Aristophanes and his comedies. His revenge, if you will, on Aristophanes ‘Birds’ as the starting point for Miletus taking Sokrates to trial for corrupting the youth. You are correct that nomos and eros play a part but the way I read it is that they are introduced and then systematically excluded in order to focus on the role that thymos plays in dictating human behaviour. I am on holidays at the moment so do not have access to my library but there is a very famous ‘image’ in the Republic describing human nature as being like a chariot pulled by two horses. One horse is eros and the other thymos who are able to move the chariot. Nomos is reduced – elevated ? – to the role of dictating the speed and direction. I know you know this but I suspect we view the significance of that image differently.

        Anyway. I am not trying to convince you of anything. This is hardly the venue for doing so and I cannot think of a single reason why an anonymous voice on the internet would persuade anybody of anything. But I did feel compelled to respond with my reasons for my conclusions.

        Oh, and you are right about the Symposium being the dialogue devoted to an examination of Eros. You will recall that Alciabides – the prototypical example of thymos – disrupts that dialogue in a particularly dramatic fashion and that the event in the SYmposium is set to a very definite date – the night that Alciabides castrated the priapus at the entrance to the houses of the Athenian elite before defecting to Sparta and leading that city to the final defeat of Athenian democracy in the Sicilian war. I could be wrong about which war. As I mentioned I am going by memory here and I am 40 years from my university years.

        As the Symposium ascends through the rank ordering of expressions of eroticism Alciabides interrupts just before Anaxagoras – the tragic poet – followed by Aristophanes – the comic poet – followed by Socrates – the philosopher who stands at the pinnacle. So it is not that nomos does not have a component of eros and thymos – just that the dialogues attempt to provide a psychological examination of how each part contributes to the whole by isolating their respective functions. A different approach to psychology than our modern version whose fixation on abnormalities and diseases leave unexamined the question of what constitutes a healthy psyche. My little off topic rant just to throw a little Nietzsche into the conversation. 😉

        The ‘d’ in defmn comes from my understanding of those thinkers whose voices most shaped the thought of the 20th century in the west. 😉 I never made it past Nietzsche in my formal education so all but the ‘n’ were self taught. I am pretty sure you can figure out who the 3 in the middle refer to.

        Thank you again for the conversation.

    • “Craig will make an argument that Hobbes agrees with Plato philosophically while offering a political prescriptive that has the advantage of utility in conjunction with his mentor’s reformation of the purpose of science.”

      I think I’ve seen you discuss this elsewhere in a Quilette comment thread, but just to understand, do I take it that you/Craig are saying that Leviathan’s goal is foremost the freedom of scientists and philosophers (and artists, I suppose) to pursue their aims without threat of instability or repression? It seems relevant given Hobbes’s history, being born prematurely during a Spanish invasion and then having to flee later in life to France during the civil war. So was his goal to set the groundwork for a political system that would maximize the opportunity for thinkers to be left alone to do their work basically? That’s an interesting interpretation, if so.

      • defmn says

        Yup. Pretty much. The way that I read Hobbes is prior to my discovery of Craig’s book so I will not burden him with my interpretation but in a nutshell.

        Bacon sets out to reform Aristotelian science with a view to weakening the hold on truth that the churchmen had absconded from Aristotle with their particular biases to support Christianity. It was always a political project as Bacon makes clear on a number of occasions in his ‘New Organon’. The purpose being to mitigate the excesses of religious zealotry that were particularly dangerous and annoying to those who disagreed with their conclusions. And so he set out to create a framework that would allow science to be useful as opposed to contemplative as envisioned by Aristotle in his book on science ‘Organon’. This would allow for the ‘improvement of men’s estate’ if I remember the quote correctly. There is much more in there and well worth reading for yourself.

        Hobbes was Bacon’s employee/friend/student and the one that Bacon mentions as actually understanding Bacon’s thought as he was transcribing it for him. He takes up the 2nd half of the project – the overtly political part – that will establish a regime in which there is incentive to participate in Bacon’s project. It is accomplished by the incentive of ‘commodious living’ unleashed by new freedoms and the expected fruits of the technology Bacon’s new science promises to reveal.

        It is not particularly controversial to claim that all political philosophers start their writing by either agreeing or disagreeing with Plato. He is the gold standard. It is also not particularly controversial to claim that Hobbes writings signifies a major break from Plato and the birth of modern thought although there are some who prefer to give that honour to Machiavelli.

        In my understanding of the tradition you have Plato arguing that the ‘good’ regime can only exist when a philosopher rules because only philosophers honour nomos over thymos and eros as the rightful ruler of the human psyche because wisdom or reason is the highest purpose of man. But in Plato’s hierarchy thymos comes next and that is explored in the Republic through the warrior or silver class with Glaukon representing the highest end of that part of the psyche and his brother Ademantis a lower version. Those who are ruled by bodily desires are the third group. This is all very rough but not that unique an understanding of this work.

        Machiavelli comes along and creates a template for society that can actually work in his opinion by lowering the objective of wisdom to the objective of the warrior class who seek victory and honour as their goals.

        Hobbes says no and establishes myths and rules that lower the values yet again to the largest class of people – those whose primary interest is safety and commodious living acquirable through industry. Again, this is not all that unique an interpretation although I am constantly amazed how little it is taught.

        What is unique is Craig’s analysis of the metaphysical construct that Hobbes uses to establish his regime and how he shows that it is all rhetoric meant to create Plato’s cave in a totally different fashion while he actually agrees with Plato on all essential points. Having agreed with Plato he then sets out – and this is my opinion, not Craig’s – to show that he can establish a philosopher as king through the written word. Something Plato clearly doubts.

        But to return to your question – because my wife is waiting for me and wondering what the heck I am doing that is delaying us – ‘YES’ – the intention of the Baconian/Hobbesian regime is to create a political system that will allow philosophers and what we call scientists but who are really physical philosophers the freedom to indulge in what all philosophers regard as the highest activity of homo sapiens – rational thought – without fearing for their lives from religious zealots.

        Hope this helps. I have to run.

        • Fascinating. Thank you for that thoughtful summation. Luckily I have access to the book through my institution, so I’ll have to read it this weekend.

  5. The comments section on your article “Premodernism of the Future” was closed, so apologies for posting my questions on that article here. I had a couple questions after reading that article (which I had a great time reading by the way – I actually read all 4 of your articles about modernism/liberalism as it’s been a topic on my mind recently).

    But just to start:

    1) Aren’t there some goods that are tied extremely tightly with our biology? Just as an example, I’m thinking of practices (both mental and physical) that affect serotonin levels in the brain. I suppose the counter would be why we necessarily value the secondary effects of higher serotonin levels, but insofar as those effects are related to almost universal experiences of human happiness, you have to start somewhere.

    2) Since we’re historical beings with an *extremely* short timespan, don’t we basically have zero existence as Darwinian organisms? And aren’t our bodies *insanely* stable across generations? I think the last major evolution in human biology was lactose tolerance and that’s somewhere around 5,000 years old (possibly 20,000 years apparently). It seems like Darwinian evolution works across incredibly large timescales and even then never on the individual level. (Disregarding epigenetics for now…) So even though human beings might be human becomings, individuals will always be individuals. Just because our species doesn’t have a predetermined endpoint, doesn’t mean there aren’t a set of circumstances that we live our entire lives under. So it might not be an absolute truth, but it might be absolutely true for a couple millennia. And since most people live for less than a century, our essence is innate for all intents and purposes.

    • It’s just fine by me that you’ve left here a comment provoked by “Premodernism of the Future.” As I imagine you already see, all four of these articles are connected. There’s lots more to say about all of these topics, but sometimes a question raised by one of them can be answered by looking into the discussion of another.

      I’ll quote your questions before replying:

      “1) Aren’t there some goods that are tied extremely tightly with our biology? Just as an example, I’m thinking of practices (both mental and physical) that affect serotonin levels in the brain. I suppose the counter would be why we necessarily value the secondary effects of higher serotonin levels, but insofar as those effects are related to almost universal experiences of human happiness, you have to start somewhere.”

      I agree that some of our goods are tied tightly with our embodiment. Let me explain how I see that as compatible with the Platonic view of our selfhood. In the Platonic view, we are above all immortal souls, imaterial intellects; but we project ourselves into the material realm as bodies. This is not, therefore, the dualism of Descartes, which is but a degenerate version of Plato’s imagism (via Plotinus and Augustine). According to Descartes, there are two substances (mind and matter) which exist independent of one another, but can be linked. The nature of this linkage is the perennical problem with Cartesian dualism. How can matter affect mind, or mind matter?

      This problem of linkage is not a problem for Platonism because these two things (mind and matter) are not independent substances. Only mind is a substance, properly speaking; everything material is an image (or projection) of mind. There is thus a complex but intelligible account of causation between mind and matter. Mind affects matter the way a projected original affects its images. Matter does not affect mind, properly speaking, as immaterial intellect. It does, however, affect mind understood as embodied intellect. These are the sensible experiences, appetites, passions, and even thoughts of organisms with brains sophisticated enough to sustain those derivative mental phenomena.

      This will all sound rather odd and obsolete to many who are hearing it for the first time, but I believe it is supported by sound arguments in epistemology and psychology. In any case, I tried to make it come alive in our present context in this paper: http://bit.ly/2xYv63W
      Having read four of my essays, what’s another? Seriously, if you do read it, I hope it will make clearer some of the wider philosophical implications of Platonism for today (beyond the mostly political points I have been investigating on *Quillette*.

      So, assume for that moment that this doctrine of selfhood and psychology is true. Our good as embodied selves will depend, to some extent, on the flourishing of our bodies and all those mental phenomena listed above. Insofar as serotonin levels are integral to those phenomena, they are important to our embodied happiness. But according to the Platonic account, they do not affect our ultimate happiness, the flourishing of the self we are above all else: a disemboded intellect. The flourishing of that, as it happens, is imperturbable. The ethical goal of Platonism is to recognize oneself as such, and thus to gain freedom from the vicissitudes of things like serotonin levels, satisfied passions, appetitive gratification, tissue integrity, and so on.

      The freedom thus gained is not, however, indifference. In Platonism there are two motions, so to speak. There is the ascent, to self-recognition (as disembodied intellect, and ultimately as the One). But there is also the descent, the curation of images, the stweardship of a body and its environment. The Platonist thus cares for his serotonin levels, etc., the way an actor playing Hamlet cares for the Prince of Denmark. He takes care to make him come alive, to make his performance beautiful; but he does not confuse himself with his role. That would be madness. From the Platonist perspective, that is the kind of madness that characterizes so much of human life.

      “2) Since we’re historical beings with an *extremely* short timespan, don’t we basically have zero existence as Darwinian organisms? And aren’t our bodies *insanely* stable across generations? I think the last major evolution in human biology was lactose tolerance and that’s somewhere around 5,000 years old (possibly 20,000 years apparently). It seems like Darwinian evolution works across incredibly large timescales and even then never on the individual level. (Disregarding epigenetics for now…) So even though human beings might be human becomings, individuals will always be individuals. Just because our species doesn’t have a predetermined endpoint, doesn’t mean there aren’t a set of circumstances that we live our entire lives under. So it might not be an absolute truth, but it might be absolutely true for a couple millennia. And since most people live for less than a century, our essence is innate for all intents and purposes.”

      Yes, Darwinian arguments work over long time-scales, much longer than any human life, so if the critique of Aristotle were merely that he speaks of eternity whereas Darwin warrants only millenia, the critique would be weak. But I think the critique is not so much about the time-scale as it is about the intelligibility of natural teleology. For Aristotle, organisms divide neatly into species. First of all, that turns out not to be true. For the sake of argument, though, let’s grant him that.

      Take one of the organisms, X, there will be an ideal of its type, and this is the telos (the perfect X). After Darwin, the notion of a perfect X is unintelligible. Each reproductive cycle generates a variety of organisms. The process is not *aiming* (in any sense, not just consciously) to produce the perfect X. Rather, what it does is transcribe proteins in such a way that there are statistically common offspring (call them typical), and statistically uncommon offspring (call them atypical). Nothing makes the one better than the other, save perhaps the environmental conditions. Even then, if the atypical organisms flourish because the environment changed, they will survive to reproduce, becoming for a time the new “typical”.

      “For a time” — this could be a year, it could be millenia, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the notion of “typical” cannot be underwritten by any innate striving of the organism for a perfect version. There is no perfect version, there is simply the version that happens to “work” (survival, reproduction, parenting so that many offspring surive to reproduce themselves, ad infinitum). So take us, we humans. Let’s say, with your example, that we haven’t had a genetic change for 5,000 years (since we became lactose tolerant). That started as a random variation, and then came to predominate in the gene pool because it increased the chances of survival and reproduction. It’s not that there was a perfect type beforehand and this new variation was imperfect, anymore than that it is now the perfect type from which lactose intolerance is the imperfect version. No, none of that makes sense because those are just meaningless categories in this theory. There is no perfect or imperfect, only what happens to happen, what the environments happen to be, which organisms happen to survive and reporoduce.

    • Dary,

      You make a very important point about the time scale of evolution. It is extremely slow. Initially, Darwin said “survival of the fit”. Only later did it become “fittest”. The first form suggests a “weak” process suitable for maintenance/repair of the genome. The second, currently popular form suggests an optimization process. However, optimization is difficult to do in a highly discontinuous design space. (Having a random variation in your genes is essentially always bad news.) So the natural world we observe matches the initial and weaker form of the theory much better. This does not preclude the expression/activation of capabilities already there to suit circumstance. Such a process is analogous to the enormous variation in dogs teased out of a single genome by human breeding. Nonetheless, we should not expect and hope for outliers beyond those already experienced in history. There may just be an increase or decrease of the frequency thereof. More Plato’s, not better Plato’s.

      Nonetheless, popularization of Optimization Darwinism, such as by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” have had a big and wrongheaded effect on our understanding of ourselves. That particular book engages in a denial of group selection by proposing an impossible cognitive mechanism as the only possible foundation (Green Beards). This while his contemporary Maynard-Smith had already worked out the math with his “Haystack Model”: Evolution of a fractured, but mixing, mouse society with selection against aggressive mice. The selection is entirely passive in it’s mode of operation. Unexpectedly, perfect isolation is not a requirement. (Obviously, no isolation eliminates group selection altogether.)

      The consequence of group selection is that it benefits characteristics that help the group rather than the individual. Altruism is suddenly strongly selected for and so are pretty much all the characteristics that we as humans appreciate in each other. The downside is that it requires us to continuously split into small competing groups and that is also what we naturally do. I have to think that this tendency is genetically driven and constitutes a form of self breeding. To people that note that Hitler was a proponent of group selection, I would answer that the system worked, because his empire did not last a thousand years.

      The above realizations have a profound effect on our self perception. One effect is that pre-Darwinian points of view regain traction, because they cannot so easily be dismissed as unscientific. A love of a moral order may bestow significant benefit on an individual’s procreation through the positive effect on his/her society. Europe has been wildly successful against those with less social cohesion and more domination by the powerful. As a result, Darwin’s theory will diminish in stature in Biology and it’s effect on philosophy will be much reduced. No longer will we have to be atomic individuals destined to compete with each other or perish. No longer is it a surprise that human advancement is strongest in fractured civilizations such as Greece, China during the Spring and Autumn period and Europe from the renaissance until now.

      The consequence for the success of Liberalism is that it will survive as long as we stay away from a single global government. In a world with many competing states, those that implement Liberal societies will outperform their neighbors. It isn’t even necessary that the current liberal societies survive as such, because the essential features will be rediscovered elsewhere as long as there is an elsewhere. After all, civilization is not a place, but a way of being.

  6. From Patrick:

    I find it completely appropriate to answer here questions provoked by “Premodernism of the Future.” All five of the essays I’ve published on *Quillette* in the last four months are connected, so that questions provoked by some are occasionally answered in others. But you’ve read four of them, so not surprisingly I have not yet answered these anywhere on this site. Let me quote and the answer each one in turn. (Apologies if this is terse, but I’m doing it for the second time: the first time I pressed “Post Comment” to a long reply and it all disappeared.)

    “1) Aren’t there some goods that are tied extremely tightly with our biology? Just as an example, I’m thinking of practices (both mental and physical) that affect serotonin levels in the brain. I suppose the counter would be why we necessarily value the secondary effects of higher serotonin levels, but insofar as those effects are related to almost universal experiences of human happiness, you have to start somewhere.”

    Yes, I agree, some goods are tied extremely tightly with our biology. Serotonin levels are as good an example as any, so let’s use that throughout. On a purely materialist account of selfhood, this is easy to explain: the self just is the brain (or body) in which the serotonin is functioning. There are other problems with a purely materialist account of selfhood, but this is not among them. On a dualist account of selfhood, this is harder to explain, and maybe impossible. Descartes is an example of this kind of dualist. He thought there were two independent substances: mind and matter. He never satisfactorily explaied how one could influence the other. I don’t think that any subsequent dualist has succeeded.

    So what about Plato? The first thing to be said is that he is not a Cartesian dualist, as he is often misunderstood to be. Descartes’ philosophy of mind is a degenerate version of Plato’s (via Plotinus and Augustine). In any case, Plato’s theory is best understood as “projectionist.” Mind is the only true substance. Matter is a projection, or image, of this original. Thus, mind affects matter in the straightforward way that an original affects its images. Matter’s causation is more complex.

    Think of an analogy. An actor is playing Hamlet. In these terms, he (the mind) is projecting the image of Hamlet upon the stage, which is the “material world.” The actor causes what happens to Hamlet; but also, in a way, Hamlet can cause what happens to the actor. This happens to the extent that the actor confuses himself with his role. To do this completely is madness, but to be a good actor one must do this to some extent.

    A disembodied mind plays the role of an embodied mind in the material world. It causes things for its embodied role by projecting itself one way or another. But if it confuses itself with its role, if the immortal soul fails to recognize itself and considers itself to be nothing more than an embodied human being, this is akin to the madness of the actor who thinks himself Hamlet. This would be an extreme case of matter causing mind. In less extreme instances, it happens to all of us to a greater or lesser extent.

    Our serotonin levels are low. If we have completely lost sight of our true self, we believe we are unhappy — and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, however, we have achieved full self-recognition (as much as that’s possible while embodied), we look on the low serotonin level (or whatever event in the drama of our human life caused that) as outside the true home of our happiness. Again, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is some freedom, therefore, over the contribution of serotonin (or whatever) to our happiness.

    This will all sound rather weird, I understand, to most people, even most philosophers. It’s not a position on the standard map of philosophy of mind. And there are no doubt other strikes against it. But I find that it’s supported by sound arguments, especially from epistemology. I get a little into the arguments in this paper ( “Avatars of Oneself” : http://bit.ly/2xYv63W ), but mostly I recommend it as an illustration of Platonism using virtual-reality, something that seems au courant, and thus shows Platonism not to be obsolete at all, but to fit neatly with fresher currents of thought.

    “2) Since we’re historical beings with an *extremely* short timespan, don’t we basically have zero existence as Darwinian organisms? And aren’t our bodies *insanely* stable across generations? I think the last major evolution in human biology was lactose tolerance and that’s somewhere around 5,000 years old (possibly 20,000 years apparently). It seems like Darwinian evolution works across incredibly large timescales and even then never on the individual level. (Disregarding epigenetics for now…) So even though human beings might be human becomings, individuals will always be individuals. Just because our species doesn’t have a predetermined endpoint, doesn’t mean there aren’t a set of circumstances that we live our entire lives under. So it might not be an absolute truth, but it might be absolutely true for a couple millennia. And since most people live for less than a century, our essence is innate for all intents and purposes.

    The Darwininan critique of Aristotle is not that he speaks of the eternal, whereas a long but slow time-line would have done. It is deeper than that. The Darwinian critique of Aristotle is that his notion of natural teleology is incoherent if Darwin is correct. Let me illustrate with an abstract organism, and then do so again with human beings as you’ve described them.

    So an organism, according to Aristotle, is a member of a species. That’s already to run afoul of Darwinism, on many interpretation, because the notion of species is essentialist and thus unintelligible on a historical account. But let’s set that aside. Let’s take an instance of a species, X, and tell the standard Aristotelian story: there is perfect version of X, the telos, and the instance we’ve taken either achieves that telos or it does not, it is imperfect in some way. Every generation of new instances of X show a great variety, but that’s because some few are perfect, while many others are not.

    This description has been upended by Darwin. Instead, confronted by the great variety of instances of X, the Darwinist sees the genetic variation consequent upon sexual reproduction, and occasionally exogenous factors such as radiation, viral invasions, etc. None of the offsrping is perfect or imperfect; there is simply a natural variety because of the way the process works. In a stable environment, there will be a statistically common version (“typical” or “normal”) and some statistically uncommon versions (“atypical” or “abnormal”). The proportions are merely a matter of fit between the genetic profiles and the (stable) environment. The “normal” organisms fit, and the “abnormal” ones do not.

    Then the environment changes. Now the “abnormal” ones become “normal”. It is not that they were imperfect and now they are perfect. The environment could change back, so that the formerly imperfect but recently perfect would become imperfect again. The teleology (“normal,” “perfect,” and so on) is adding a terminological layer that is doing no scientific work. It is a projection of human expectations onto the natural world. I find this obvious in the case of milk-drinking. (I don’t know how this really happened, or why, but I think it’s pretty easy to imagine, and I’ll simply use your date, 5000 years ago, for the change. It works nicely as an illustration, even if the details are wrong.)

    Our species (granting that there is such a thing) was once universally lactose intolerant. Was that the perfect version, so that lactose tolerant humans were imperfect somehow? Then a change in our environment happened. The genetic variation of lactose tolerance that had been generated from time to time in previous generations then became advantageous. Over a longer period, it came to predominate in most of the species. So now it is the perfect version, and lactose intolerance is imperfect? What does that terminology achieve, beyond redescribing the statistical fact (common or uncommon, typical or atypical) in moral terms (normal or abnormal, perfect or imperfect)?

  7. From Me:

    I think we’re actually of the same mind (heh) with regards to the first question.

    But with the second question, especially as our human technology allows us to artificially attain fitness or even cheat death (so to speak) by making our less fit genetics not necessarily a huge detriment to survival, I would argue that humans are no longer actually Darwinian. I don’t know that Darwin’s theories work for an organism that uses technology. So Aristotle might be wrong about all other animals or even pre-technological humans (if you can even call those humans), but his natural teleology might still apply to a human species with a sufficiently advanced technology. And where you draw that line is somewhat arbitrary, but seemingly by the time of Aristotle you have already largely moved out of a Darwinian framework for humans.

    • That’s a very interesting thought to me, Dary. Whenever we reached that point, we have indeed reached a point at which we can begin to exert some control over our nature. Indirectly, this began as early as when we developed culture, and its extension, technology, because we thereby changed the environment to which we would then be adapting. And this initiated a feedback loop between (our) nature and (our) nurture. But more directly, after we became self-conscious of our Darwinian origins, and we developed technologies that could tinker with genetics, we have entered an era where we can self-consciously change our nature. So far, it seems, the technologies are too crude, and our understanding of our nature too primitive, that we are not able to do this in any dramatic way. And we certainly can’t yet do it in a way that will avoid unintended consequences. In principle, though, I agree with you that we are in a new era as a result.

      Whether this means Aristotle is (oddly) right about us and natural teleology is, to my mind, another matter. After all, insofar as he is supposed to be different from Plato on this question, Aristotle thinks that we can find our natural purpose by looking to our bodies. But if the above paragraph is correct, our bodies supply no non question-begging telos because we now shape them according to a telos (or tele: plural) of our own devising. Insofar as he is similar to Plato, by contrast, I agree. We can look to a telos, or purpose, that transcends our bodies, and this has not changed recently because of technology, nor did it change with the discovery of natural evolution, nor did it change with the advent of culture. This purpose is the pursuit of truth (on the ascent) and the curation of its images (on the descent), and it is discernible to students of philosophy who discover that this is the only way to make sense of science itself as a quest for knowledge.

Comments are closed.