Through a Nightmare, Darkly
From Plato to Postmodernism, we can use philosophy to understand and combat tyranny.
Cracks in the Foundation
I hate to wake up early these days, the news waiting is almost always negative. And so it was this morning when I rose at 6:30 am only to be greeted by a tweet from President Trump in his usual form: using racial stereotypes to degrade political opponents while also ‘joking’ about becoming a dictator.
I’m sure some of you are getting used to this by now, but I still struggle to comprehend it. Perhaps its why, when Trump was initially elected — and some of my friends and family suggested I was overreaching — I refused to calm down and instead kept prodding and poking, turning over rock after rock, and watching the festering critters scurry with each new discovery.
I needed not go far for such discoveries. I first turned to Plato, remembering my introduction to ethics course and The Republic where Plato sought to define the nature of justice and examine society, its different forms, and how they relate to the individual.
As Trump continues to redefine America in his own image — simultaneously threatening dictatorship — I’m haunted by Plato’s words. Democracies, Plato argued, are doomed from the start, as are all of the “imperfect societies.” Why? Because each raises a single virtue above all others and is eventually consumed by it. In the case of democracy, this virtue is individual liberty, and taken to it’s natural extreme, Plato argued, it could be dangerous.
What did he mean by this? How can one have “too much” individual liberty? The definition of liberty is freedom from social restrictions. Well, some restrictions are good, aren’t they? Not hurting others or trampling their rights is good, but it’s also a restriction on your individual liberty.
Plato argued that democracies are extremely tolerate governments. He described them as a rainbow cloak of diverse peoples and ideas. As such, they’re a great place to live. That is until they reach a certain point.
As a democracy progresses, it grows more tolerant, allowing the worst elements to fester. Its lax ideals bleed over to financial life and the society falls into debt. At this point, con artists arise, taking advantage of the people’s tolerance and anger, using it to line their own pockets.
When the system reaches this critical stage, Plato argued, a man from the upper class will turn to the people promising to right their wrongs by attacking his peers, the elite. The nefarious elements of society will align behind him smelling their chance for power.
Plato tells us that this man, because he’s wealthy and enjoys the tolerance of a democratic society, will have a tyrannical nature. Tyranny is none other than absolutely liberty. It is someone saying, “I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.”
Some years ago, Mr. Trump invited me to lunch for a one-to-one meeting at his apartment in Manhattan. We had not met before and I accepted … Even before the starters arrived he began telling me about how he had asked a number of people for help after his latest bankruptcy and how five of them were unwilling to help. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying these five people. -Richard Branson
Once in power, the game is up. By his very nature, the tyrant will not be able to hold back. His personal liberty will override any norms or systems of checks and balances. He’ll create enemies and in retaliation seek to solidify power. Stepping down becomes dangerous in such a climate.
Yes, I said; but small and great are comparative terms, and all these things, in the misery and evil which they inflict upon a State, do not come within a thousand miles of the tyrant; when this noxious class and their followers grow numerous and become conscious of their strength, assisted by the infatuation of the people, they choose from among themselves the one who has most of the tyrant in his own soul, and him they create their tyrant.
-Plato, The Republic
The tyrant has little control over his desires. His “master passions,” as Plato called them, will completely take over as he gains power, encouraging a feedback loop once he’s in office. Liberty taken to the extreme becomes just another type of prison.
Let me explain. The tyrant has no respect for laws. It’s just another social restriction on the desire to exercise their will. And because the population has reached a stage of hyper-individualism, they will not be able to present a united force against the would-be tyrant, choosing instead to focus on maneuvering for their own positions.
But this will, undoubtedly, leave them all worse off. The tyrant has no desire to lead well. In truth, leading poorly is the only route available. Good leaders aren’t concerned with pleasing their egos. As time goes on, more and more people will turn against them. As the list of enemies grows, so does the fear and anger. Eventually, the tyrant will turn on even his most loyal supporters.
They are always either the masters or servants and never the friends of anybody; the tyrant never tastes of true freedom or friendship. -Plato, The Republic
This, Plato argues, is the fate of all democracies that take this path: a spiraling into the depths of hate and authoritarianism as the people suffer the backlash of their own selfishness.
It’s not a pretty picture and it’s one of the reasons democracies have been so rare in the world; people have read their Plato.
So, as I watch the President of the United States wield his power to attack those who insult him personally, as I watch its people callously close their hearts to the crisis at their border — a crisis of their own making, I might add — I can’t help but nod to Plato who would surely be shaking his head and telling us all to “read theory.”
Eyes on the Horizon
As America descends into barbarism and capitalism solidifies its position as the bringer of the apocalypse, I’ve turned to Plato for guidance. When I’m lost I often return to the beginning and retrace my steps, and perhaps this logic applies here as well.
But Plato isn’t the only voice I’ve turned to, far from it. As of late I’ve looked to indigenous authors whose significance for the world is enormous. With climate disaster nipping at our heals and our political institutions unraveling, it is them who can best offer insight into our failures.
One such author is Linda Tuhiwai Smith whose brilliant analysis has been transformative and helped to demystify these circumstances. In her work Decolonization Methodologies, she shows why indigenous views matter.
For example, there’s been much hand wringing over postmodern philosophy in the media. Charlatans like Jordan Peterson have made a lot of money by attacking postmodernism as some sort of cultural boogieman. These people see postmodernism as kind of “Gramsci Nightmare,” aka a dangerous cultural force that will eventually achieve dominate political power.
But postmodernism is not a cultural force, it’s an effect. Often, postmodernism is presented as a transition from grand narratives into fragmented perspectives. This could also be described as a disillusionment with modern ideals like Utopian futures and other all-encompassing ambitions. Smith, however, connects postmodernism with the destructive power of imperialism:
As Fanon and later writers such as Nandy have claimed, imperialism and colonialism brought complete disorder to colonized peoples, disconnecting them from their histories, their landscapes, their languages, their social relations and their own ways of thinking, feeling and interacting with the world. It was a process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carveup of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviours to psychologists. To discover how fragmented this process was one needs only to stand in a museum, a library, a bookshop, and ask where indigenous peoples are located. Fragmentation is not a phenomenon of postmodernism as many might claim. For indigenous peoples fragmentation has been the consequence of imperialism.
-Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonization Methodologies
I’m sure Linda would agree when I say we have a lot of work ahead of us. Imperialism has been a terrific global force over the centuries and its wreaked untold havoc on million of lives, caused multiple world wars, and brought us to the brink of climate disaster. The clock has nearly run out.
We must turn to author’s like Linda Tuhiwai Smith whose critique can show us the ineptitude in our way of life. Colonialism hasn’t only been a destructive outward force; it’s often been turned inward as well, warping the lives of it’s citizens and using the colonized as tools in that regard.
One of the great sins of our time is denying the truth of the subjugation that led to the present: its effects are still with us today. We are still undergoing the process of it. A process that, looking at Trump’s twitter feed, should be apparent to everyone by now.
Plato argues that an unexamined life is not worth living. With author’s like Smith we have a chance to reexamine ourselves and the tools we’ve used to construct our lives. Even by Plato’s standards, this is the greatest possible use of our time.