Long Read, Philosophy, Top Stories

Premodernism of the Future

Modernism and Postmodernism are at an impasse. This was the conclusion of the first part of this essay. Without its argument, though, you are unlikely to agree. Most people aware of this debate—whether in the hallways of academia, the online magazines, or the corridors of power—are partisans of one side or the other. For them, there is no impasse, only a conflict between the reasonable and the foolish, the duped and the woke. Most readers of this site favor modernism, and there are many reasons to do so. The first part of this essay catalogued the main ones, especially universal rights and empirical science. But it also presented some scientific reasoning about reason, showing the limits of the modernist approach, including science itself.

“The Impasse” began with Michael Aaron’s division of our culture wars into three camps: postmodernists, modernists, and traditionalists. After quickly knocking down a straw-man of traditionalism, Aaron reproduced the critiques of postmodern political excesses that are familiar to every reader of this site. Modernism was the winner by default. What he failed to consider, and in this failure he is not alone, are two points that need to be absorbed by champions of universal rights and empirical science. First, while postmodernism fails as a positive politics, it is still powerful as a critique of the blindspots of modernism. That was part of the argument of “The Impasse.” And second, that there is more wisdom in “premodernism,” especially the philosophies of Greek antiquity, than is dreamt of in most accounts of our present crisis. This is the argument of the essay’s second part.

What is most needed in our present crisis is a philosophy that can move through the impasse between modernism and postmodernism. This philosophy must be able to assimilate, if it hasn’t already anticipated, what is best in each. It must preserve the universal rights and empirical science promoted by modernism, but it must do so in a way that respects postmodernism’s sober recognition that both can be co-opted by the powerful, corrupted to serve their unjust domination. “The Impasse” considered whether empirical science itself could be this philosophy and argued that it could not. If science can be corrupted by the powerful, after all, science itself cannot be the remedy—not without arguing in a circle. Something else is needed to break that circle.

This something else, this new philosophy, must be able to surpass the limits of science drawn in “The Impasse,” limits which were simply redrawn on the lines charted by skeptical philosophers since antiquity. It must do more than describe reality in terms without value, as if the world were nothing but meaningless collisions between lifeless matter; otherwise it cannot help us in this or any other crisis. For however accurately such a philosophy describes a valueless world, it will never be able to prescribe what we should do within it. This philosophy must, in other words, present a world suffused with value. Finally, if we are to know anything about this world, our new philosophy must allow knowledge of it to be possible. In the terms presented in “The Impasse,” it must close the gap between knower and known, a gap that afflicts every method which relies ultimately on the senses.

I. Platonism and the Pursuit of Truth

Plato was one of the first empirical scientists (see his Timaeus), and his best student (Aristotle) became one of history’s best empirical scientists. For Platonists, however, the world as it appears to us through the senses—the material world—is no more than an image of reality, rather than reality itself, which is immaterial. This does not mean it should be ignored. On the contrary, it merits rational study for that very reason. You can learn a lot about something by studying its images. In any case, it is with our images of the world that we must begin, whether we are hard-nosed empiricists or not. For even if the goal of inquiry is ultimately to transcend these images, the Platonist begins with a critical scrutiny of them, as on a cave wall, in order to turn around from this darkness toward the daylight that awaits in the world above.

This sunny world, the real one, comprises immaterial and eternal Forms, consistent objects accessible to our immaterial intellect. Only so can there be knowledge, argues the Platonist, because only so can knower and known become one, closing the gap into which skeptics drive their wedges. In the world thus described, the truth is good for its own sake, because the supreme Form is the Good Itself, the original reality of which all other goodness is an image. A search for truth is thus a search for Forms, and above all the Good. The reward for success in this search is unity with the best of all things, the source of all goodness.1 These doctrines are of course foreign to modern sensibilities, not to mention postmodern critique. Platonism is accordingly ridiculed by empirically minded thinkers—until it is recognized that most objections against it would also undermine mathematics, the study of immaterial and eternal numbers.

Take two stones. What makes them two, rather than one or three? Is it merely the fact that we call them “two,” or some equivalent in another language? Is it merely the fact that we consider them so, whoever we are, whichever culture we inhabit? If so, the truth of “2 + 2 = 4”—to borrow an example from Orwell’s 1984—would be relative to our ways of speaking and thinking.30 Were we to speak and think otherwise, the truth would change too. But if the two stones are two on account of something about them, regardless of what we think or say, there must be something they share that makes them so. It cannot be in either one, for then that one would be two. Nor can it be in both exclusively, for other things elsewhere and at other times can be two as well. If truths can be non-relative, or absolute, there must be some realities that are in no specific place, at no specific time, which can account for them. These are Plato’s Forms.


On one understanding of them, they are themselves mathematical structures, the hidden geometry of our world. It is no coincidence that Galileo’s father was a student of this tradition, or that Platonism flourished during the Renaissance. Returning to the present, the new theory of “digital physics,” that the universe is ultimately information rather than matter—“its from bits”—continues this tradition.31 In truth, though, it’s not a theory in physics, but instead in metaphysics; it’s an account of reality beyond matter. Far from being anti-scientific, then, Platonism gives science its best foundation. It solves the riddle of skepticism, saving science from futility, and it rescues truth from relativism, underwriting the broader pursuit of wisdom of which empirical science is only one part.

A human being is born into a world of overpowering sensations and must make her way through sights and sounds to the truth that explains them. For the Platonist, though, the ultimate goal is not to know all the scientific truths, if ever that were possible, but rather to live the best possible life. To do so, she must know what is best. How else to distinguish what is good from what is bad, let alone make difficult decisions between competing goods? The value of everything, after all, depends on such wisdom. Being rich, for example, can do you more harm than good unless you know how to spend your money. So likewise for being famous or honored, if you don’t have a healthy contempt for flattery. Imagine someone whose narcissism has never been challenged by the demands of honest work or the bracing lesson of doing what’s best to general disapproval. These days, it’s not hard.

Intellectuals who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of truth—again, the scientific community are exemplary—tend to believe that knowledge, unlike wealth and honor, is good for its own sake. But is it? It certainly isn’t good in the wrong hands. Knowing how to build a nuclear bomb may be good, for the right people in the right circumstances, but it is certainly bad for the wrong people in any circumstance. Yet that fact, if it be granted, argues only that the use of knowledge can be bad. What about the truth itself? Imagine it is never used, but merely known. Why, if at all, would this be good?

David Hume

What kind of account of the world could allow that truth is good for its own sake? The question cannot even be posed within postmodern worldviews, which do not accord any value to truth, which is only a fictional name for power. What about modern ones? They esteem the pursuit of objective truth—exemplified by empirical science, wherein the scientist sets aside her particular desires in order to explain the world dispassionately—but only as a means to other ends. “’Tis not contrary to reason,” wrote Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”32 It goes without saying, therefore, that ‘tis neither contrary to reason to prefer anything else—honor, wealth, power—to objective truth.

Reason’s practical function according to Hume is not to find the truth, but to satisfy our preferences or desires. In part, then, he anticipates Mercier and Sperber, who, as we have seen, have agreed that reason’s function is not to find the truth. But their account was not merely negative; they conclude that reason has a positive function. On this part, Hume is close. Reason is not for satisfying all preferences and desires, but only one in particular: the desire for social status. Have the empirical scientific findings of Darwinism on reasoning thus vindicated the empiricist philosophy of Hume and his modernist successors? Or have they bolstered the postmodernists, by elaborating Nietzsche’s early thinking about the vanity of reason?

Both, in a way; in a way, neither. By granting truth only instrumental value, as a means rather than an end in itself, modernism hides a danger that postmodernism has made explicit. The postmodernist is contemptuous of truth as such, whereas the modernist pretends to care about it. But really, the modernist should care about truth only when it serves his purposes. Whenever it ceases to do so—witness the response of many intellectuals to Darwinism, forecast by Nietzsche’s seminal essay on truth—he should no longer care. He could still pursue it, but his motives would have to be external: money, if his job requires it; fame and honor, if prestige is won by discovering it. In the last resort, when neither wealth nor status can be won through inquiry, habit may be his only motive.

This, by the way, was Nietzsche’s mature diagnosis of the scientific revolution.33 Enlightenment thinkers and their successors were still behaving as if truth were good for its own sake, even though their philosophies made this impossible. They carry on, Nietzsche argued, because they are running on the fumes of “the ascetic ideal,” especially Christianity, according to which God declares himself to be the Truth, the Way, and the Life. In Christianity, truth is good for its own sake—it’s divine, offering eternal felicity, or at least salvation from the fires of Hell—so its pursuit is compelling. Pursuing it for its own sake, as a modernist, makes sense only if the modernist is secretly an ascetic. That was Nietzsche’s conclusion.

Some modernist thinkers are Christians, or ascetics of another faith, but more and more are not. One of the principal features of the modern era, at least in the West, has been secularization.34 Why would non-believers still devote their lives to the truth? For money? With some people, yes. It’s still possible to earn a living this way, although there are many more fertile fields for the growth of capital. For status? With other people, perhaps. Professors are still more respected than lawyers, although that is changing.35 When money and status can be more easily achieved in less strenuous and lonely professions, then, why would any non-believer still choose this one?

Nietzsche forecast that this question would haunt a culture that had lost its faith in the divinity of Truth. He forecast, in other words, the advent of postmodernism, calling it nihilism. Many think he was a nihilist, or a postmodernist ahead of his time. In fact, he was neither. He predicted that a culture that had reached this precipice without finding a new purpose would be doomed. Writing in 1887, he prophesied an unprecedented world-historical drama, a struggle between the destructive forces of nihilism and the hollow shell of European hopes. “That great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries,” he wrote, “the most dubious drama but perhaps also the one most rich in hope …”36

What was his hope? That from this drama would emerge new meanings, non-ascetic meanings, for living. To this end, he preached an eternal return of the same—that time was not a line from past to future, but a circle for which the past is future—which would free humanity from the resentment over loss and death that fostered asceticism.37 If he was right about the crisis of modernity—and I believe he was—we are past the midpoint of that drama, whose climax should surpass the awful opening acts of the 20th century. Whether or not he was right about the eternal return, well, that is not for us here to decide.

Such questions are instead for the vanguard in this war, those who occupy neither trenches nor bunkers, but universities, or, if universities have become so enervated by internal critique and corporate corruption that they cannot any longer make the pursuit of grand truths and purposes their goal, then such questions must be debated openly wherever it is nowadays that thinkers can do so. Here we can say what must be true of any purpose—future or past—that could preserve the best facets of modernism (empirical science, universal rights and freedoms) while correcting the flaws that postmodernism has exposed in its philosophical foundation. Three requirements are salient.

II. A Durable Purpose

First of all, this purpose must conceive truth as good, if not The Good of Plato. Only with such a notion of truth could scientists pursue truth for its own sake, choosing this pursuit even when the activity of research, arduous even when it is uncontroversial, becomes unpopular, as it must, given the perennial human attraction to flattering illusions. Not unless you believe truth to be its own reward—a pearl of great price—will you endure the penury and obscurity, never mind the persecution, that occasionally attend its pursuit. Martyrs to the pursuit of truth need no memorial here, as their honor always soars after their cultures reconcile themselves to the shock of their discoveries.

Secondly, this durable purpose must form a community so devoted to its pursuit that its members become capable of prosecuting this pursuit in the face of adversity and temptation. The solitary genius is a Romantic myth; difficult truths are found in concert with other reasoners, often in competition with one another. Reason is social, as Mercier and Sperber have demonstrated, so it goes quickly astray when it is exercised for too long in isolation.38 A truth-pursuing community must be formed not only with this fact in mind, but also vigilant against the vices endemic to common and competitive pursuits. Because reason aims to secure social status, there must be safeguards against reasoners’ satisfaction with the easy victories of conformity.

The scientific community may be our best present model of such a community, but the training of its members is still insufficient to withstand the adversity and temptations of the crisis heralded by Nietzsche. Scientific training is rigorous, to be sure, but it is almost entirely intellectual. You can become a scientist—or for that matter a professor in most any field—without any formal character training. Without such training, how can you be expected to resist the vices endemic to social reasoning? The temptation for profit and the longing for prestige too easily compromise the pursuit of truth in every field. As the drama reaches its climax, the community of truth-lovers must be trained in both courage and temperance as well as the disciplines of the intellect.

Thirdly, and finally, this durable purpose must legitimate a political order capable of granting citizens the stable freedom required for this complex training. A variety of purposes will satisfy the first two criteria, which is to say that a variety of philosophies will rightfully claim to form communities of this sort. A certain plurality of such communities must therefore be permitted to flourish in one state. So too must other communities founded on other philosophical bases, communities who reject these criteria, or even this way of posing the problem—including the postmodernists, not to mention other philosophies not yet devised. For even if they would undermine the science and freedom protected by the constitution, were they to become dominant, they are beneficial to everyone so long as they do not.

J.S. Mill enumerated four such benefits.39 In the midst of so much philosophical acrimony, they are all worth remembering. Your philosophical opponents may prove to be right: always grant them the opportunity to develop and defend their doctrines so that you may be corrected when you are wrong. Even when they are not wholly right, they may be onto a partial truth, which you could incorporate into your own doctrine to make it richer. And when they’re fully wrong, something that rarely ever happens, their challenge nonetheless forces you to go deeper into your own doctrine, understanding it better and formulating better arguments in its favor. Indeed, writes Mill, without engaging your opponents regularly in debate, “the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct.”

Postmodernists who wish to celebrate diversity nowadays are typically relativists. This is one reason they end up as hypocrites: preaching inclusion in theory, in practice they exclude anyone whose worldview threatens their group’s notion of diversity. This is why, when they speak of it, they refer to race, sex, and a host of other bodily differences, but never intellectual viewpoint. Modernists also wish to tolerate diversity, as On Liberty makes abundantly clear, but their primary concern is viewpoint (especially religion). In Mill’s account, the purpose of this toleration is the pursuit of truth. Everyone can pursue the truth better in the midst of vigorous debate. Notice, then, that the modernist case for toleration—and thus for liberalism—depends on the pursuit of truth. Only if that pursuit is coherent, only if truth is possible, can a liberal political order remain coherent.

Surveying these three requirements—first, a notion of truth as good for its own sake; second, a community organized for the pursuit of truth and empowered to train character as well as intellect; and third, a political order that permits a diversity of such communities—which of the many philosophies available to us should we choose as the new foundation for the modernists’ achievements (empirical science and universal rights), the foundation solid enough to support them without inviting the collapse presaged by Nietzsche? With regard to the first two requirements, many philosophies may stake a claim, but to my mind two stand out immediately: Platonism and Aristotelianism.

III. Premodernism of the Future

Both Plato and Aristotle put the divine at the summit of their cosmos, making union with it the supreme goal of life. Each did so in a different way—with epochal consequences for the rest of their philosophies—but neither left any room for doubt that pursuit of the truth was the best way to live, and achievement of it was the greatest happiness for us.40 In order that this pursuit might happen most efficiently, with the least opportunity for corruption, each founded a community that was concerned with character virtues as well as intellectual excellence. For Aristotle, this was the Lyceum; for Plato, the Academy.41 Evidence about both is scarce, but Plato’s Republic is full of educational recommendations for philosophers, many of which address students’ characters.42 Some of these must have entered, in some way, into his training of real students.

Both flourished in democratic Athens, yet each was ambivalent about this sort of constitution. They were critical of it, to be sure, but both also praised it with qualification. Believing many heads were better than one, Aristotle was the most sympathetic.43 Plato observed that a democracy, while ostensibly one constitution, “contains all kind of constitutions, as a result of its license.”44 It is, in the popular meaning of the word, liberal. “Isn’t that a heavenly and pleasant way to pass the time,” he adds, “while it lasts.”45 Some choose to read this as sarcasm, but it cannot be entirely so: democratic Athens executed his teacher, but it also permitted Plato to develop and found his Academy; it could not have seemed to him all bad. Furthermore, as most readers either do not notice or quickly forget, Plato’s “utopia” is only his second best city. The perfect one is a place where equals enjoy simple pleasures.46

In any event, the most serious problem with democracy is that it is unstable. A state that grants freedom and equality without any limits is bound to become tyrannical.47 Indeed, Plato recognizes that everything here (in the sensible, material, temporal world) is bound to perish, including his own utopia.48 He is generally regarded as advocating totalitarianism. Karl Popper famously argued that his utopia inspired 20th century dictators, although of the most notorious only Ayatollah Khomeini is on record as an actual reader of Republic. Yet Plato is careful to say that this utopia is not for this world below, but instead for the heavens.49 It remains open, therefore, for a Platonist to argue that the best regime for this fallen world is democracy, as Churchill said, because it is “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The problem with democracy, highlighted by Plato, but never solved by his fellow Athenians, was how to make it last, how to keep it from degenerating into tyranny. We are still wrestling with this problem in our own times, most urgently in recent months, but we do so with more confidence, and more historical evidence, than either Plato or earlier Platonists could have had. For the decline of democracy into tyranny was also a problem that exercised the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who were sometimes aware of Plato particularly, but nearly always conversant in the ancient thinkers he influenced.

John Adams said that the writings of Polybius “were in the contemplation of those who framed the American constitution.” Benjamin Franklin suspected there were flaws in the document they produced, but he was a man of the world, well aware how difficult it is to achieve ideals perfectly, and so he said at the end of their deliberations: “It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does.” Assume for a moment, then, that it is possible to agree with Franklin and argue as a Platonist that the U.S. Constitution, with the many liberal democracies modeled upon it, does the best to meet the third requirement articulated above, providing an account of the political order best suited to the pursuit of truth, not to mention a coherent account of truth that is worth seeking for its own sake.

Indulging that assumption, and granting everything claimed thus far, it still does not follow that we should choose Platonism, or for that matter Aristotelianism, as the way out of our present crisis simply because the minimal requirements of an escape have been met. How could we profess either philosophy as the way to secure the pursuit of truth without believing, and first arguing, that it is itself true? Someone such as Michael Aaron, who sees the present cultural conflict as a contest between modernists and postmodernists, while premodern philosophies (“traditionalism” in his terms) stand idly by, should not take seriously the claims of Platonists or Aristotelians to have resolved it unless they can be shown to be true. So: can they?

That is obviously too large a question to be answered here. One does not present the case for a whole philosophy, answering all the credible objections to it, in two essays. Here we can at most consider two hints. Quickly, let us recall that the first requirement was already about truth itself. According to it, a durable philosophy—if not also a true philosophy—must conceive truth as something good for its own sake. If there are other philosophies besides Platonism and Aristotelianism that do so, while also making sense of the very notion (truth), they too must be assessed for whether they achieve this good end.

That’s far harder than it might seem, and yet these premodern philosophies, whatever their other faults, did so naturally. If only for the purpose of brevity, then, let us focus on them, comparing their relative success or failure to assimilate the scientific advance most pertinent to their projects: Darwinism. This comparison will also involve, not coincidentally, a discussion of sexism. In this way, the kind of controversies that are presently drawing the lines between modernism and postmodernism (e.g., Googlegate) will coincide in an assessment of Plato and Aristotle.

IV. Platonism of the Future

Aristotelian philosophies (whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) have always suffered from several serious problems, but until Darwin it was reasonable to assume that these problems could be solved. Since Darwin, however, this hope has become unsustainable for a crucial one of these problems. Aristotle’s notion of the good is specific to each type of organism: the good for dogs is good for dogs but not for ferns, and vice versa.

Humans, most importantly, are supposed to have a good unique to our species, a purpose inherent to our kind of bodies. Aristotelian ethics and politics thus depend on our species having an essence and a goal inherent to this essence. His practical philosophy depends, in technical terms, on natural teleology. Yet in the wake of Darwin’s revolution, it is clear to most thinkers that there is no such thing—at least not as Aristotle understands it.50 Put another way, Aristotle’s practical philosophy ties the human good too tightly to the human body, as something stable across generations, with an innate essence that supplies a natural goal.

It was this mistake that led Aristotle to argue, for example, that women were inferior to men. If the good of each type of organism is inherent to its type of body, the bodily differences between women and men should have some consequences for their fulfilment of the human goal. “Silence is a woman’s glory,” he wrote, quoting a traditional poet in his argument that women may have had reason, but that they were unable to use it, as mature men could, to counteract their unruly emotions.51 The roots of this political argument go down into his ethics and psychology, then deeper into his physics and embryology, which understood women as malformed men.52 Aristotle’s “scientific” sexism thus stands with Kant’s “scientific” racism as an infamous illustration of the postmodernists’ critique of truth.

Even if they exaggerated that critique by claiming that all pursuits of truth are exertions of power, however, they were right that some philosophical and scientific theories are rationalizations for injustice. (Whatever the fate of postmodern philosophy, this insight will forever be its contribution to our intellectual culture.) Considering only the injustice of sexism, we should note in passing that Plato argued against the grain of Athenian misogyny to the conclusion that women should be given the same educational and political opportunities as men, right up to the office of Philosopher-Queen.53

As for Aristotle’s “scientific” sexism, Aristotelians have recently argued that it can be eliminated from his philosophy—rather as Kantians argue that his philosophy can be purified of its original racism. Whether or not those arguments succeed, Aristotelians cannot escape their problem with Darwin. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals, for example, is a sustained effort to present human biology in a way that maintains Aristotelian ethics without remaining committed to the outmoded aspects of Aristotelian biology. Yet the effort fails. It remains committed to the notions of species, natural teleology, and flourishing. At one point, MacIntyre even explicitly brackets evolutionary concerns, something he must do in order to preserve the coherence of the whole project.54

MacIntyre’s failure to reconcile Aristotle with Darwin is especially important for the argument of this essay. For it was MacIntyre who first saw that the soundness of certain postmodern critiques of modern philosophy would require returning to premodern philosophy in order to find philosophical foundations that modernism could not supply. Unlike this essay, though, he did not argue for preserving what is valuable in the modern, but instead for refashioning culture on a premodern basis. In his first and most famous effort, After Virtue, this basis was supposed to be Aristotle, exemplified by the choice posed by the subtitle of its final chapter: “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” Those were roughly the alternatives: a revived Aristotelian account of social life, or a Nietzschean dancing over the abyss of an exhausted modernism.

The title of that chapter was in fact longer: “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.” However it was that Marxist revolution and Christian monasticism were supposed to be compatible, MacIntyre eventually focused exclusively on the less radical, Thomistic version of Aristotle. This made his revival of Aristotle more plausible, by giving it the concrete institution of the Catholic Church for social influence, but to many non-Catholics this move was obviously alienating.55 Catholic Aristotelianism, whether in the person of MacIntyre or Robert George, is the intellectual component of the traditionalism Aaron rejects for its lack of “social influence.” Whatever its social influence, though, Darwin had already doomed its intellectual potential. Both MacIntyre and George try, in different ways, to underwrite their moral philosophy by appeals to biology, but each fails to account for the perpetual flux at the heart of Darwin’s account of nature.56

To Platonism, by contrast, Darwin poses no threat. On the contrary, when you believe, as Platonists do, that the physical world is but “a moving image of eternity”—where nothing we perceive through our senses will have a permanent form, and everything tangible must be in perpetual flux—you should expect something like Darwinism to be true, long before it receives the imprimatur of empirical science.57 This is not to say that you would credit natural evolutionary theories before they received confirmation through experiments and the other techniques of modern science. Instead, you might propose it as a hypothesis awaiting confirmation, with the equanimity of a thinker who fears no inquiry, wanting only to know the truth, whatever it is, because the truth is good for its own sake.

Disputes between Platonists and Aristotelians about the effect of modern biology on philosophy, not to mention the ancient debates about the correct conception of the relationship of matter and form, are not appropriate for this occasion.58 So too must we bypass for now many interesting quarrels over the relationship between reason as it is understood by Darwinians, as a tool for achieving social status, and reason as it has been understood by Platonists and Aristotelians alike, as something inherently aimed towards the truth. As a hint, with a tip of the hat to Plotinus, we might say that embodied reason is an image of the pure intellect of our disembodied soul, just as social status is an image of the true good beyond powers and principalities.59 But for now, that must remain only a hint. For the natural home of such quarrels, debates, and disputes is within the walls of a properly oriented university.

To summarize: such a university will be an institution that seeks truth as something good for its own sake, an institution that motivates this pursuit as integral to a life well-lived, and finally an institution that recognizes the corrupting influence of power upon this pursuit and strives to mitigate this corruption with disciplines of character as well as intellect. My suggestion here, which must therefore remain at most a suggestion, is that such an institution should look to those of Athens in the 4th century BC. Not those of London of the 18th century, nor Berlin of the 19th, century, never mind Paris of the 20th century. We should look backwards not because we wish to go backwards, in the manner of the traditionalists mentioned by Aaron, but because we long to move forward again. What we need, in short, is neither modernism nor postmodernism, but a peculiar sort of premodernism … a premodernism of the future.


Part one and part two of this essay were originally published as “Platonism of the Future” in S.Ph.: Essays and Explorations.

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. 


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[1] http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Radical-College-s-Public/241577


[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/11/the-surprising-revolt-at-reed/544682/


[3] https://quillette.com/2017/06/08/evergreen-state-battle-modernity/

[4] https://hyperallergic.com/383776/why-we-need-to-start-seeing-the-classical-world-in-color/

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/inside-the-madness-at-evergreen-state-1506034740

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Truth_and_Lies_in_a_Nonmoral_Sense

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/world/europe/turkey-evolution-high-school-curriculum.html

[8] https://quillette.com/2017/08/31/google-memo-economist-nothing/

[9] https://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/01/27/why-viewpoint-diversity-also-matters-in-the-hard-sciences/

[10] From Kant’s Physical Geography, translated and quoted by Eze (1997: 118).

[11] Mills 2017.

[12] Pateman 1988: 42.

[13] https://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/08/10/the-google-memo-what-does-the-research-say-about-gender-differences/

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

[15] Mercier and Sperber 2017: 218–19.

[16] Mercier and Sperber 2017: 143.

[17] Gordon 1980: 133.

[18] Foucault 1977.

[19] http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-illusionist

[20] See, for example, The Greek State, and essay contemporaneous with On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense. Both are available in Pearson and Large 2006.

[21] “What are the Iranians Dreaming About,” Le Nouvel Observateur, October 16–22, 1978. Also excerpted on pp. 203–9 Afary and Anderson 2005. The original article is available here: http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/007863.html

[22] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/richard-spencer-trump-alt-right-white-nationalist

[23] Butler 1999, 15

[24] On the Genealogy of Morality 1.13.

[25] Butler 1993: 232.

[26] http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2016/11/truth-in-the-age-of-trump.html

[27] Theaetetus 161–67.

[28] http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy



[29] For a fuller account, see Miller 2011, Ch. 4.

[30] Part 1, Ch. 7.

[31] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics

[32] Treatise of Human Nature

[33] Genealogy of Morality, Third Essay. (Available in Clark and Swensen 1988.)

[34] For a sophisticated account of the phenomenon, see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007).

[35] http://www.chronicle.com/article/Most-Republicans-Think/240587

[36] On the Genealogy of Morality 3.27. Available in Clark and Swensen 1988.

[37] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On Redemption.” (Available in Del Caro 2006.) For the best account of Nietzsche on the eternal return of the same, see Loeb 2010.

[38] Mercier and Sperber 2017: 205–7.

[39] Mill 1978: 50.

[40] For Plato, see Republic 6. For Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 10. This was nearly the consensus of Greek of Roman philosophers; see Miller 2012.

[41] For what little we know about each, see Hadot 2004: 55–90.

[42] See especially Republic 3 and 7.

[43] E.g., Politics 1295a–b.

[44] Republic 587d.

[45] Republic 588a.

[46] Republic 372a–d.

[47] Republic 562a.

[48] Republic 546a.

[49] Republic 450c, 472c–473b.

[50] See, e.g., Dupré 1995, part I, chapters 1–3.

[51] Politics 1260a30. Available in Barnes 1984.

[52] See, e.g., Generation of Animals 737a28 (also 775a15–16 and 784a5). Available in Barnes 1984.

[53] Republic 455d.

[54] Species (23, 78), natural teleology and flourishing (64–65), evolutionary concerns (56),

[55] See, e.g., MacIntyre 1988 and 1989.

[56] See, e.g., George et al. 2012.

[57] “Moving image” (Timaeus 28a). An anticipation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was available to Plato in the poem of Empedocles (B57, B59, B60, B61).

[58] For a hint of such theoretical disputes, see Gerson 1990: chapter 3, especially 139–41.

[59] Enneads 1.1. Available in Armstrong 2000: 95–121.

Filed under: Long Read, Philosophy, 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. A brilliant cap to the previous essay with the reality that the good and the true are in discord through reason alone, and a transcendental principle is required to mediate them. In the ‘pre-modern revival’ I see a return of myth, what Jordan Peterson is doing, and also an understanding of the unknown that is contained within the transcendental image. The gnostic image of God includes a critique of Yahweh himself as a monster created by the true logos, who is Sophia – the exile of Sophia from the world is a key archetypal moment in human history. It is the severing of the feminine from the world, and reminds me of Terence McKenna’s vision of the archaic revival, in the form of his talk “Eros and the Eschaton.” You’re certainly on the right track. These essays are much needed – the ultimate truth preserves all that came before, from the primordial to religion, reason and the postmodern. Nothing is lost in true synthesis.

  2. Clint says

    This was an excellent diagnoses of what ails us right now, and I largely agree with the broad outlines of the offered solution. However, sociologically, what can deliver this “premodernism of the future” to the masses in the West if not renewed Christian churches that have rooted out the negative aspects of modernism and postmodernism they too have absorbed and are championing contemporary versions of Thomism (whether Protestant or Catholic)?

    Churches are the only institution, historically, as far as I’m aware that have widely disseminated a culture among many peoples that pushes many more than would have otherwise to pursue matters of both virtue and intellect, universal rights and empirical science.

    Finally, I doubt Darwinism has defeated Aristotelianism. This is the description of the forthcoming anthology book “Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science”. It hardly sounds like a dead end for natural teleology, intellectually.

    “The last two decades have seen two significant trends emerging within the philosophy of science: the rapid development and focus on the philosophy of the specialised sciences, and a resurgence of Aristotelian metaphysics, much of which is concerned with the possibility of emergence, as well as the ontological status and indispensability of dispositions and powers in science… The chapters in this volume are divided into two main sections covering the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of the life sciences. Featuring original contributions from distinguished and early-career scholars, this book will be of interest to specialists in analytical metaphysics and the philosophy of science.”

  3. defmn says

    I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this essay.

    I guess the first thing is that I am in complete agreement with Mr. Miller’s conclusion that the best hope for finding an escape from Nietzsche’s attack on the tradition of political philosophy is a return to the study of Aristotelian and Platonic writings. And I totally agree that it is Nietzsche who is responsible for the current state of philosophy in the west – even if I think large parts of that are a misreading of his metaphysics. The post-modernists have simply gorged at the trough of his thought picking and choosing which morsels to digest and which to ignore.

    I have some difficulty with his view of how modernism developed, however.

    In bypassing the seminal writings of Hobbes and Bacon and directing attention to the ideas of second level writers such as Hume and Mills etc. I feel that he has missed the fact that the western liberal democratic model as first envisaged loses a lot of nuance. In particular he totally misses the distinction between Hobbes philosophic position and his rhetorical endorsement of so many of the positions that characterize modern life.

    Properly understood – imo – Hobbes is in agreement with Plato’s understanding of human nature. His Leviathan is his answer to Plato that a philosopher king can govern if the myths he creates are directed to a lower common denominator of human nature. To this end he directs his rhetoric to the establishment of a regime governed by a fear of violent death and commodious living which will be attractive to the largest percentage of any population at any time. In order to accomplish this he begins the dismantling of the more egregious aspects of Christianity in order to subvert religious authority to that of the civil regime.

    Bacon’s re-writing of Aritstotle’s teleological science so as to emphasize the utility of technology rather than the development of human nature’s highest attributes provides the wherewithal to accomplish this.

    So while Nietzsche is correct in identifying the philosophic underpinnings of modernity as expressed in Hobbes’ rhetoric his destruction of those arguments supporting materialism, determinism, hedonism etc. which most take to be Hobbes understanding misses the point that the modern liberal democracy designed by Hobbes had the intentional result of providing a safe and productive setting for the philosophically inclined to live their lives by eliminating piety and other personal attributes as the standard by which citizens would be judged – as long as they did not reveal the truths of Hobbes deceptions. Democracy is a very flawed political system for many reasons. But it is the only practical regime which leaves the philosophically inclined alone.

    Anyway, I applaud the effort. The focus on Darwin is somewhat perplexing to me. I am guessing that Mr. Miller has somehow arrived at the conclusion that evolution challenges Aristotle’s idea of an eternal purpose for humanity based upon the old joke about whether or not we should be called ‘human beings’ or ‘human becomings’.

    If that is his position I must admit I don’t see it. Aristotle was most definitely aware of Darwin’s idea that species evolve since it was first proposed by Empedocles well before Aristotle’s time and Aristotle specifically refers to his writings in his Metaphysics at least. I would have to go search to see if he is referenced elsewhere.

    Why the theory of evolution – not that it is really much of a theory without Mendel’s contribution – should affect the sphere of ideas as elucidated by Plato is not at all clear to me. Should humanity evolve to the point where its purpose to pursue knowledge of first causes is no longer a viable understanding of our nature I would presume we would no longer be talking about homo sapiens but another link forward to a different species.

    • I’d like to address three of these points:

      (1) I gather you take *Leviathan* to be a rhetorical exercise, rather than a statement of Hobbes’s own views? Although I think there are some ad hominem arguments there, especially in the third and fourth parts, I have to assume the first thirteen chapters are Hobbes writing in his own voice. After all, he makes the same arguments in *De Cive*. These arguments are a combination of the Sophistic thinking with which he was familiar from his translation of Thucydides, and from the modern revival of Greek atomism in authors such as Gassendi. In any case, insofar as those first thirteen chapters describe a worldview antithetical to Platonism (materialist, mechanical, value-neutral, rather than formal, animated by the Good and immortal souls), I don’t see how Hobbes and Plato could share the same theory of human nature.

      (2) The focus on Darwin need not be perplexing. His theory is one of the most important in the history of science; more to the point, his is the theory that — as I argue in the first part of this seriece — needs more than any other to be integrated into the humanities and social sciences. It is true that Empedocles anticipated some of the theory (I mention this in note 57), and that Aristotle refuted this early version in the second book of his Physics. If there were no final causes in nature, he reasoned, why is it that humans keep reproducing humans and fish keep reproducing fish, rather than the other way round. However, his refutation only worked before, as you point out, Mendel (and Watson and Crick). Once there was a way to explain heredity without final causes, his argument became unsound. As for the old joke about Aristotle, which I had never heard, yes, that is roughly my point.

      (3) The theory of Darwin does not at all affect “the sphere of ideas,” as you rightly observe. That is why it leaves Plato untouched; for Plato, the Forms are “ante rem” (prior to the material things). By contrast, it is devastating to Aristotle; his forms are “in re” (in the material things). As I hint in the essay, there are ontological and epistemological reasons for seeing the Platonic approach to the form-matter relation as superior. But overlooking those, the scientific reason of compatibility with Darwin’s theory is yet another (though less decisive) reason. In Platonism, we as intellects are knowers, and the shadow of reason we find in our embodied state is an imperfect approximation of this perfect relation between us and the objects of our knowledge (Forms). Thus, as you anticipate, humans could evolve to use reason differently, or not at all. We are no doubt doing so (slowly) as we speak. But the purpose of intellect is eternal: assimilation of the Good through knowledge of its images, the Forms.

      I hope that helps.

  4. I would have liked for Professor Miller to mention Leo Strauss, who had a lot to say about this problem.

    • defmn says

      I always feel obliged to say hi to anybody who mentions Mr. Strauss. Thank you for doing so.

  5. defmn says

    Thank you for your response.

    To clarify though I do not think that Hobbes’ Leviathan is a rhetorical exercise. I think that it is political philosophy and as such it is a mixture of rhetoric and philosophy. As is Plato’s Republic.

    More than that I think that it is Part Two or the sequel to Bacon’s New Organon and as Bacon so coyly points out near the beginning of that book “He that is ignorant (says the proverb) receives not the words of knowledge, unless thou first tell him that which is in his own heart.”

    Bacon introduces two major changes to Aristotle’s conception of science. Purpose and methodology. He redefines the purpose to support a utilitarian objective rather than a contemplative one and he introduces a methodology of rigourous experimentation. Both of these points are, of course, worth a treatise unto themselves but for the purpose of this explanation I mention them only because the ‘relief of man’s estate’ was the objective of these changes. Not the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as proposed by Aristotle but for a political goal.

    That political goal is then given form by Hobbes who creates a myth claiming that man’s purpose is ‘avoiding violent death and desiring commodious living’ and lays out the outline of a political structure that will further the accumulation of the sort of information which will build a technology capable of providing for a safe and pleasant life for the majority.

    In this you have to see the resonance with Plato’s division of the soul and how he characterizes those three aspects resulting in the three classes (actually four but another long discussion) of citizens in his so called utopian vision of the city.

    So, to shorten my response, Hobbes took up Plato’s challenge that there could be no peace until a philosopher ruled. The philosopher is Hobbes’ book The Leviathan. He tames the excesses of religious zealotry and introduces a system of government that appeals to the largest percentage of every population everywhere and in all times – those primarily ruled by their desires for commodious living.

    And all you really have to do is read Nietzsche in order to understand this because it is Hobbes’ descent from knowledge (Plato) to honour (Machiavelli) to pleasure as the guiding virtue of human life that Nietzsche rails against.

    Hobbes took Plato’s city of pigs – the first and best incarnation of the city (as you yourself noted in the first part of your essay – and refashioned the 2nd incarnation to mitigate its excesses by lowering the aim. “The true and legitimate humiliation of the human spirit” to use Bacon’s words from the great instauration that begins his New Organon.

    And I realize this explanation requires you to jump and leap as it is a long journey captured in a short space but if you believe that Hobbes was so silly as to believe in Egoism, hedonism, determinism, materialism and didn’t understand that teleology is essential to all understanding then I think you have missed the point of the book most responsible for creating the cave we still refer to as the modern liberal democracy – the only possible regime that tolerates philosophy btw.

    As to your point regarding Darwin. I don’t know if you have ever read Darwin and maybe it is unimportant since the mystique of his theory has a life of its own but Darwin is without doubt the most boring, uninspiring, ‘heel to toe’ writer I have ever ploughed through. He makes modern scholarship look sprightly. Please feel free to correct me but as far as I can tell the following paragraph sums up the entirety of his thousands of pages of pedantic prose.

    Something happens when we breed that somehow produces a change in us. We have no idea how that happens but when the change suits the environment in which it takes place those individuals tend to prosper more than those whose attributes are less successful and over time produces a more refined version of that species that we eventually refer to as a new species.

    In other words there is no theory because there is no mechanism of action for one thing. It is simply an observation that became famous. As I noted earlier Lamarck at least had a theory even if it was treated with disdain and ridicule for over a century until recently.

    It is still not clear to me why you consider this so important. We evolve over long periods of time. So what? There is absolutely no proof that we are any smarter – the attribute most people regard as our most salient attribute – than anybody born 2,500 years ago. In fact you have just made an argument – and I agreed with you – that Plato’s writings offer us the clearest path to recovering a sense of humanity that makes sense. Heredity does not preclude a final cause in the Aristotelian sense in any way that I am aware of. The rank ordering of human types has not been affected by genetic theory.

    I hope this helps.

  6. Andrew Roddy says

    Reading this hurts the muscles in my head. That may or may not be a good thing.
    A pre-modernism of the future…

    The past is not what it used to be
    The future was brighter then,
    While it might be unpleasant
    To dwell in the present
    Tomorrow will soon come again.

  7. Andrew Roddy says

    If Aristotle really understood women as ‘malformed men’ then that can only be understood as psychopathology. It is not unreasonable to imagine that he had amongst his contemporaries, perhaps particularly the lower orders, people who had a healthy sense of gratitude to the people who bore them. And all his thinking, all his words, fruit of a profoundly poisoned tree.

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