ierre-Francois Bouchard never got the fame he deserved. He was a decorated military officer and valued engineer in the service of Napoleon, dispatched to multiple theatres of war. But he was taken captive in battle and imprisoned five separate times. Maybe Bonaparte preferred heroes who weren’t captured.
Yet Bouchard’s contribution to history is indelible. As he supervised the reconstruction of an ancient fort on the banks of a Nile tributary in the closing days of the 18th century, he noticed a foundation rock with three separate sets of inscriptions. The bottom sentences were etched in Ancient Greek; the middle in Egyptian script; and the top in--to that point--indecipherable Egyptian hieroglyphics. When it was determined that all three were identical messages, simply written in different languages, one of the world’s enduring mysteries was solved. The translation of those obscure symbols on the top of this Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of ancient Egypt.
h, friends, to have that decoding power today! To make sense of this Alice-in-Dunderland chaos that surrounds us. Here we stand, engorged with information, buffeted by anger from all sides, locked in a state of intellectual catatonia.
What is going on? Whose news is fake? Are “alternative facts” the same as real ones? If simple math proves that your electoral victory was not the biggest ever…if photographic evidence demonstrates your inaugural audience was not the largest ever—does that even matter anymore?
The New York Times reports that one-third of America doesn't believe in climate change. One third thinks humans have never evolved. One third believes the government is hiding a cure for cancer.
And their votes count as much as yours does.
During the W campaign and presidency, we moved from disbelief to anger to despair. Then, with Obama, eight years of stability, and even a little hope. And now, back again on the train from disbelief to anger…and an even deeper despair.
How can this be happening?
You already know all the outrages. The list grows daily. No need to belabor them here. Instead I want to suggest a Rosetta Stone for our times—and maybe a prescription for hope.
It comes primarily in the form of a book written in 2013 by Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light. By itself, no single book can ‘fix’ things. But this one does offer the reassurance that what is happening now is just part of an eternal push-and-pull, a tug-of-war that began almost 25 centuries ago. The rivals then were Plato and his prized pupil, Aristotle, whose fundamental disagreement formed the central tension in what we now call Western Thought. I can’t match the breadth or depth of Herman’s scholarship, but it’s worthwhile applying his take on classic philosophy to demystify what’s happening all around us.
ssentially, Plato stands for idealism…and Aristotle for reality. Slippery terms, to be sure. So first think of this as a four-quadrant exercise:
“Seen” and “unseen”; “knowable” and “unknowable”. That already seems ridiculously abstract. So let’s start to unravel it.
Plato learned at the foot of Socrates, who is reputed to have gladly accepted his final cocktail of hemlock in order to move to the other side; there, all that can never be comprehended on Earth would finally be revealed in the afterlife. To put a finer point on it, Plato believed, “all certain knowledge requires an element of abstraction from concrete reality.” He believed that this ‘certain knowledge' was encompassed in ‘Forms’, or perfect models that were the templates for all existence. That form could define, among other things, “beauty” or “friendship” or “school”. Everything we know and see and realize are imperfect versions of invisible, foundational Forms. They can’t be understood in our lifetimes. But we must try anyway, and the path to knowing is contemplation. Sit. Think. Look within.
Aristotle’s belief was radically different. He said truth is tangible and finite and everywhere around us, just waiting to be discovered. In his 40’s, he moved to a remote village, and by walking beaches and hills developed a keen fascination with nature. So keen that he personally identified 170 types of birds, 169 forms of sea life, and 66 different mammals. His mind organized and categorized and theorized to the point that he invented the scientific method. He wrote pioneering treatises on biology, gerontology, geography, physics, astronomy, zoology and meteorology. (All this aside from his seminal works in logic and rhetoric and metaphysics). He invented the terms ‘species’ and ‘hypotheses’ and ‘analysis’.
To him, reality is there for the taking. Don’t look within—look around!
If this sounds like the eternal argument between religion and science, that’s a step in the right direction. But only a step. After all, if Plato and Aristotle are considered as ‘coaches’ of 2,500 years of rival philosophical ‘teams’, each lineup includes both deists and scientists (in several cases, both at the same time). So something more is at work.
Fine, but in the end, what does all this have to do with the mess we find ourselves in today? The answer comes when Plato and Aristotle applied their core beliefs to the messy business of government.
f Plato believed in ideal forms, he then must believe in an ideal form of government. And he did. It was something to be sought, something that could and should be achieved. But the ideal could not be realized if the masses were left to their own devices. Someone wise must lead; ideally, a philosopher-king. But by whatever title, there must be authority. And order. And compliance.
Aristotle, and his disciples through the ages, saw it differently. To them, people can and should act in their own individual interests, but get together when necessary to work toward a common goal, and the common good. Start with something, then revise as you move along, retaining what’s right and rejecting what doesn’t work. You won’t achieve perfection. Government is a constant experiment, without a perfect antecedent, and ultimately without a perfect solution.
In their times, each could point toward a real-world example of what they were describing—because they lived in them. For Plato, it was Sparta, a place where, in his words, “everyone feels pleasure and pain at the same things, so that all (will) praise and blame with complete unanimity.” And where no citizen should, “…get in the habit of acting alone and independently.” In Sparta, no one could use money or write a poem. Herman points out that it was comprised of rural villages, not a central city; and essentially ruled by thirty blue-blooded families (one headed by Plato’s uncle). This was a place of military might and minimal rights…where austerity and authority ruled.
Aristotle, on the other hand, was a man of Athens through and through. His was a teeming city of trade and argument, democracy and corruption, both “sophisticated…(and) freewheeling.” (And also, predictably, the city that fell decisively to the might of Sparta in the Pelopennesian Wars.)
So here, the two have established an argument of governmental theory that has lasted through the ages:
Twas ever thus. We can see how this has played out in more recent history:
· Beginning with their settlement at Plymouth Rock, the Puritans established a Platonic beachhead in the New World. Theirs was an absolute faith that not only had a benevolent God delivered them on a perilous voyage; but that the same divine guidance also condoned the usurpation of Native American lands…the theft of their corn…and their subjugation at the end of a musket. Might was right.
· One hundred and fifty years later, the Founding Fathers weren’t so sure. Jefferson called Plato’s Republic “nonsense”. They drafted a Constitution firmly bedded on individual rights, with three co-equal branches of government aimed at safely dividing authority.
· Shortly thereafter, a French Revolution that began as a demand for individual rights against the corrupt authority of the church and crown turned sharply to a Platonic demand for 'ideal’ authority, enforced by Robespierre and the guillotine.
· The Russian Revolution expanded the list of French targets for disempowerment to include intellectuals, professors and journalists—all that would remain was ‘the party line’. (Is there not an echo here in our times?)
· Or, to make all this more familiar, maybe a discussion like this has occurred in your house:
o Parent: “young man, this is not how we do things in this family. You will not do that again!”
o Teen: “You’re not the boss of me—I can do whatever I want!”
Somewhere, Plato and Aristotle are smiling.
The tug of war never ends. The pendulum swing is perpetual motion. Rights versus authority. Fact versus belief. Control versus anarchy. What’s happening now is profoundly troubling; but it is not new. The question is, what to do?
o, let me turn from the descriptive to the prescriptive.
We live in society where each side sees dangerous extremes in the other. The left fears an emergent ‘American fascism’. The right rightly ridicules the idea of campus ‘snowflakes’ cowering in their ‘safe spaces’.
But this is quite a false equivalency, isn’t it? Yes, the right is correct in seeing the quest for individual rights as uneven and messy and, at times, even preposterous. Perfect equality will never fully be realized. And in the process, different people will be annoyed for different reasons, and to different degrees.
But the path to authoritarianism is something else altogether. History can point randomly to villains from Genghis Khan to Vlad the Impaler, from Pol Pot to bin Laden. As if they were anomalies that pop up from time to time, like evil four-leaf clovers.
But In modern times, their ilk represents more than accidents within a long-forgotten history. Leaders like Stalin and Mussolini and Mao were equally empowered by a vision from Plato—leaders whose authority must not be questioned—because they embody salvation via a perfect form. And their form of authority was sanctioned by a straight-line progression of Platonic thought delivered from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel to Nietzsche to Heidegger—those last two the direct sanctifiers of Nazi Germany.
Without promoting the premises of Hitler directly, Nietzsche in his Will to Power says,
“…every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force and to thrust back all that resists its extension. It will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.”
Remind you of anyone?
here is no need here for me to invent solutions—because noted Yale professor Timothy Snyder has already done so briefly and brilliantly in his book, On Tyranny. His twenty steps form an action plan for all who truly care about the future of our country.
I’ll highlight three:
1. Believe in truth: To abandon facts is to abandon freedoms. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. (Here is where the attack on journalists and ‘academic elites’ is especially poisonous).
2. Defend institutions: Institutions do not defend themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. Choose one you care about—a court, newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.
3.Be a patriot: Set a good example of what America means for future generations to come. They will need it.
Let me add a thought on the ‘patriot’ issue. Those who reflexively attempt to make a point on the backs of the ‘Founding Fathers’ almost always do so incorrectly. Those guys did not intend to establish a permanent authority, a legalistic bible, on which all future laws and actions must be based. In fact, just the opposite. Just before he died, Jefferson asked:
"Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. A generation…holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent unalienable rights of man.”
He is channeling Aristotle for America. And so should we.
The founding fathers were revolutionaries. They knew the odds. They knew the price they might need to pay. But they took a stand.
Are you ready?
o be sure, authority is now in the saddle. But the cinches are loose.
Pick a cause. Not all of them—just one. One issue...one candidate...one remedy. If Barack Obama decides to focus only on redistricting, there’s a lesson there for the rest of us. Attempting too much is the path to paralysis. Focus.
Because it’s not enough to decipher our modern Rosetta Stone. We need to etch our own.
Take your stand.
And then get busy.
We can do this.
In our next issue, we'll explore Trumpism from a different angle...and suggest an added remedy--one that might trouble you.