Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a series of recent posts I explored ways in which to be politically engaged is to be philosophical. I celebrated the heightened political consciousness we see today, and encouraged attention to philosophy as a means of supporting this new consciousness.
I now realize that the portrait I offered may be overly optimistic, or at least crucially incomplete. This is because powerful anti-philosophical forces have been unleashed. Whereas philosophy emphasizes truth there are those indifferent to it, not only ignoring it but also actively undermining and manipulating any sense of truth, in order to engender confusion and paralysis. Whereas philosophy emphasizes reflection, there are those who cannot be bothered by any sort of reflection, and worse, who see it as a sign of weakness, presenting a strategic vulnerability to their unreflective opponents. Whereas philosophy emphasizes dialogue there are those who only know monologue, through self-absorption, and worse, because refusing to dialogue can enable primitive domination. Whereas philosophy emphasizes integrity and virtue, there are those for whom these are naïve conceits, another sign of weakness presenting strategic vulnerabilities to those who ignore such notions. In short, there are those who wage war against everything that philosophy stands for and cares about.
Such an attack on the philosophical commitments to truth, reflection, dialogue and virtue was on full display the evening of September 29 – on world stage, no less. I refer to the appalling spectacle of the President of the United States – the person holding the highest office in the land, the single most powerful individual in the world – running roughshod over any and every norm of honesty, decency and integrity. He is the anti-philosopher – the most concentrated and potent negation of philosophical values I have ever witnessed. In place of respect for truth were lies upon lies, both rehearsed and extemporaneous. In place of reflection and introspection were the workings of a mind that appeared never to have considered its own ideas and perspective, never experienced the humility of doubt or the appreciation of complexity. In place of dialogue was brutal monologue, a refusal to listen, an instinct to dominate. In place of integrity was casual willingness to say or do anything, regardless of any past statements or commitments. In place of virtues such as decency, kindness, compassion and respect were meanness, hardness, callousness and mockery.
I could go on in attempting to characterize what was on display, as words cannot capture it fully, nor can familiar conventions of public life. I am still in shock. But I am moved to reflect on this not simply because the man threatens everything that philosophy holds dear, but also because he threatens so much more that we hold dear. He threatens the most minimal civic virtue, and trust and confidence in one another, which had already been torn asunder in the past four years, before the ripping and tearing that occurred on Tuesday. He threatens one of the most essential aspects of a democracy, free and fair elections. He threatens decades of gains in racial progress and healing, by emboldening white supremacist who are prepared to use violence against fellow citizens and to intimidate voters. He threatens black and brown people, whether natives or immigrants, who are told that they are not welcome and that their lives do not matter. He threatens the precious earth, through refusal to admit that we do violence to it, and need to change our ways. He threatens all of these things and more.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that a just society would be ruled by Philosopher-Kings, the select few who embody wisdom and virtue (as with many of his arguments, it’s not clear whether Socrates actually believes this, or is provoking us to articulate a more defensible position). The alternative, he maintained, was to be ruled by tyrants, who would eventually emerge in a democracy, as it descended into intense selfishness, pervasive ignorance, and deep cynicism. Such an atmosphere allows demagogues to rise, to play to this selfishness, ignorance and cynicism, by offering to maintain order through force and expulsion.
We do not need to embrace the Republic’s 2,500-year-old proposal for rule by Philosopher-Kings to be horrified by the antithesis – the Anti-Philosopher-King - who now rules. He appears more clearly than ever before, and threatens our own republic. May philosophy help us - and may we not sacrifice honesty, decency, and integrity in our opposition.