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In America today, we are living in a toxic political climate that is the product of a very dangerous combination: Our rulers lack the learning necessary to ask the kinds of deep and fundamental questions that leaders and lawgivers ought to make a habit of pondering, while our people rebelliously scrutinize all orthodoxies and impose themselves into every controversy…

“There are no longer protagonists as such: there is only the chorus.”  —José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

Thinkers as dissimilar as Matthew Arnold and Martin Heidegger have championed the need to comb through the relics of our collective past in order to sweep away the mundane accretions imposing a veil of illusion over the deeper truths our predecessors have, at various times, in one form or another, unearthed. Arnold, in his oft-quoted words, implored us to take up culture, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turn[ ] a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” For Heidegger, we find ourselves “always already” in a world that feels “familiar” and that steers our lives and our thoughts toward certain well-trodden paths constructed out of commonplaces. This is the life of “the Anyone,” a kind of generic, “inauthentic” existence. To attain “authenticity,” we must study the cultural monuments of the past and learn the truths they have to teach us, the alternatives to our time-bound contemporary way of “being in the world” that they present.

Such dictates to learn and reflect are variations on a venerable theme. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates is reputed to have said. But his fellow Athenians who put him to death for examining too many of them a bit too ardently appear to have had a different view. While eternally memorializing his teacher as a martyr for philosophy, Plato, one of the most articulate, abiding enemies democracy has ever known, understood that true wisdom is the province of the few, whereas in a democracy it was the “many” who hold the reins. Nor did Plato portray the many as particularly susceptible to wisdom’s subtle incursions. A central irony of the Dialogues, more a Platonic irony than a Socratic one, is that a good number of Socrates’ interlocutors emerge from his interrogations far more confused but little the wiser. Befuddled by Socrates’ questioning, many would likely echo the conclusions of the title character of the Meno:

Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never did anything else than exist in a state of perplexity (aporia) yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish (narkē) of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb (narkan). For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you.

It is noteworthy that Meno comes to Socrates for an education, asking whether virtue can be taught, a question to which, irrespective of Socrates’ own more equivocal answer within the dialogue, Plato offers a resounding, “No! … or, at least, but not to the likes of you, buddy!” … for Meno, as any contemporaneous reader of the dialogue would have known, was, despite having been given every advantage in life – wealth, high status, and good looks — someone who would become a notorious scoundrel and traitor to the Greeks. His encounter with Socrates, in other words, does not appear to have yielded any increase in his own virtue or wisdom.

By no means does the case of Meno present an isolated instance of a would-be-student who proves unteachable. Anytus, another participant in the same dialogue, is so incensed by Socrates’ questioning that he goes on to become one of the accusers at Socrates’ trial. The Charmides, a dialogue on the subject of moderation (which Socrates comes to define as a kind of knowledge of knowledge, or meta-wisdom), gives us another rogues’ gallery of interlocutors, as both the title character and his participating uncle, Critias, would have been known to Athenian readers as members of the notorious “thirty tyrants,” who, in 404-03 B.C., had succeeded in overthrowing the Athenian state and imposing a bloody oligarchy allied with Sparta. Socrates’ sparring with multiple Sophists in the dialogues likewise appears not to have changed their ways. And this, we should keep in mind, is how Socrates’ own devoted student, Plato, chose to depict his teacher. In Aristophanes’ far less charitable send-up of Socrates in The Clouds, a farmer (Strepsiades) tries to obtain a Socratic education to get out of paying his debts; thrown out as unfit for an education, he then sends his son in his stead to go get some wisdom in him for the same purpose, but the famed philosopher only succeeds in instilling upstart arrogance in the son, convincing him he is wiser than his father to such an extent that he is qualified to give his own sire a beating. This result prompts Strepsiades to go burn down Socrates’ school. Such examples and more would suggest that a Socratic education — the noble effort to unmask lies and half-truths and dispel the illusions with which we live — is not exactly a rousing success.

“The unexamined life is not worth living…” As we have now seen, Plato himself implies that we are well-served not to take this high-sounding dictum at face value, but rather, to respond to it Socratically and ask, “Not worth living for whom?” For the “wise,” perhaps? For most others, it would seem, the very opposite is true: it is the examined life that is not worth living. The search for truth and wisdom unsettles, confuses, benumbs, and depresses us. For most of us, given a choice between truth and illusion, the shadows cast on the walls of the cave will do just fine. And yet, the contours of the cave matter: we need a clean and comfy interior, and we need the shadow puppets flashing across the walls not only to entertain but also to inspire.

In America today, we are living in a toxic political climate that is the product of a very dangerous combination: our rulers, our societal elites, are largely drawn from a techno-financial, professional, entrepreneurial, and managerial class of a sort that is able to act but not taught to think. They are, to put it plainly, by and large uncultured, uneducated rubes and Philistines who lack the learning necessary to ask, much less answer, the kinds of deep and fundamental questions that leaders and lawgivers ought to make a habit of pondering. On the other hand, the masses, our general populace, the very ones for whom it is the examined life that is not worth living, are increasingly examining everything. Radicalized on both the political left and the political right, they are recklessly questioning and upending everything in sight, vomiting forth knee-jerk notions and throwing badly aimed cogs into every machine. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset diagnosed this looming threat some 90 years ago in The Revolt of the Masses, his brilliant manifesto that has been aptly described as the Communist Manifesto in reverse:

If the psychological structure of this new mass-man is considered in regard to its social effect we find the following: 1) he is possessed of an inborn and deep-seated belief that life should be easy, plentiful, without tragic limitations; thus the average individual is animated by a sense of power and success which 2) leads him to affirm himself just as he is, and to consider himself complete in his moral and intellectual being. This self-satisfaction leads him to deny any exterior authority, to refuse to listen, to evade submitting his opinions to judgment, and to avoid considering the views of others. He is driven to make his weight felt. He tends to act as if only he and his kind exist in the world; and thus 3) he will involve himself in everything, putting forth his mediocre view, without hesitancy, reserve, reflection, or negotiation.

The people’s rebellious scrutiny of all orthodoxies and imposition of themselves into every controversy is in no small part a direct reaction to the lack of such questioning by their purported betters, the dereliction of that duty resulting in a society that is a stagnant, begrimed, and stinking cesspool at the highest levels but in perpetual mindless turmoil at the bottom, ceaselessly sending up bubbles of its noxious miasma to the top, where they invariably burst, roiling and further sullying the surface. The stagnation at the top and the frenzy at the bottom are, therefore, not at all unrelated. Being lorded over by an elite of uncultured, unreflective plutocrats, functionaries, tinkerers, and wheel-greasers has a way of inducing alienation and disaffected contempt. Because, moreover, the principal advantage enjoyed by the techno-financial elite over their underlings is pecuniary — a lawyer or banker being no more broadly educated than a teacher, nurse, artist, or engineer — there is no particular reason for the latter to defer to the former on political questions that call for the exercise of informed wisdom, while there is every reason for the multitude to believe that money and connections — too often acquired in our polity not through hard work but through accident of birth and the mysterious workings of entrenched and corrupted hierarchies rather than erudition — are the key to ascending through our social order. There is simply little cause for those at the bottom to respect those at the top. Wealth accumulation, unlike learning, being a zero-sum enterprise, the aspiring masses, if merely exercising rational self-interest, narrowly conceived, will want to displace and overthrow the upper strata of our day and, failing that, will create disruptions while clamoring for privileges, rights, and handouts.

The consequences of rule by individuals not wired for reflection extend still further, however. Focusing literally and figuratively on what Matthew Arnold referred to as “machinery,” the means to achieve outcomes rather than the wisdom of ultimate ends, the Philistine ruling class (precisely the class that Arnold predicted would come to displace the hereditary aristocracy and take over the reins of power) has led us on a heedless technological sprint into the dark unknown. Several recent prominent think-pieces have warned of an approaching technological apocalypse, in which the speed of automation and the A.I. revolution portend a looming threat of mass joblessness, designer genes and, further down the road, the possibility of outright replacement of human beings by intelligent machines acting rationally to rid the earth of their more impulsive and (self-)destructive human cousins.[1] Our food supply is being poisoned by short-sighted profiteers creating Frankenfoods that threaten to turn us all monstrous. Our cell phones and wireless devices keep leaping and bounding merrily along on a technological level, while the potentially devastating health effects of such pervasive exposure to their electromagnetic pollution remain largely outside the sphere of public discussion, with the result that we are running a massive, uncontrolled experiment upon ourselves. Meanwhile, the bright, blue-shifted L.E.D. lights emanating from screens of these same devices and many others, and from energy-efficient lights at home, in our stores and offices and on our streets are wreaking havoc, disrupting our circadian rhythms and our sleep cycles and causing eye strain, cataracts, macular degeneration, and mitochondrial dysfunction.[2] Examples of this sort are legion. And they are a direct consequence of the fact that we are led by doers rather than by thinkers, by the very people who are most readily corruptible by industry, special interests, lobbyists, and the like because their background and education are in the none-too-delicate art of making a quick buck, and their orientation is toward the fulfillment of material ends. Given this state of affairs, we need not wonder why we have restlessness, resentment, and recoiling against all established norms and traditions at the bottom. The distrust of elites and alleged experts — what Tom Nichols laments in The Death of Expertise (2017) — has a valid cause. The revulsion, as we have seen, is justified.

What we need is the polar opposite of what we have. The non-elite strata, which should rightfully include most of the techno-financial “professionals” and all those lacking a broad education, thrives when it is embedded within what Hegel referred to as “civil society,” stable, traditional structures and institutions that set expectations for a fulfilling life, establish norms of behavior, and tend to the satisfaction not only of material but also of spiritual needs. Rapid technological and social changes for which people are unprepared leave them unmoored, displaced from familiar roles and perches. The certain result, as thinkers like Justus Möser and Edmund Burke recognized, is dislocation, turmoil, and a pervasive sense of anomie, as old values and erstwhile sources of meaning are exploded without the bedrock having been laid for anything new and lasting to emerge that might serve as a suitable substitute within which people can see and situate themselves once again. At the same time, our leaders should be drawn not from the concrete-minded ranks of those who dwell entirely in the here and now and live for wealth accumulation, status, and worldly pleasures (the superficially educated, posturing pseudo-intellectuals and perpetual protesters railing about people’s skin color, gender, and sexuality being just a particularly odious example of this category), but rather, from the comparative few driven by the pursuit of beauty and truth grounded in broad learning in the sciences and humanities. While not quite as narrow and potentially totalitarian as Plato’s notion of philosopher kings, this approach ensures that those who steer the ship of state are the ones most able to navigate uncharted waters, avoid icebergs, stow enough lifeboats and provisions to survive unanticipated contingencies, and even come upon one or two promising undiscovered countries along the journey.

A significant step in this direction is the emancipation of general education from professional education and the concomitant stripping of the latter’s current cultural caché. A post-graduate, Ph.D.-level degree in general studies — a free, highly selective, merit-based, rigorous, five- or six-year intensive curriculum of studies in history, philosophy, and literature, along with essentials of biology, chemistry, physics, economics, and probability and statistics, followed by a year of work on a thesis — should become, somewhat like the grand écoles in France, a stepping stone to entry into the political class and other societal elites, replacing our current crop of pettifoggers, shysters, and financiers, who remain as free as they ever were to attend their professional schools and pursue their passion for moneymaking. While I am not naïve enough to believe that anyone is beyond corruption (and, thus, do not favor the elimination of our system of checks and balances), the self-selection manifested by the choice to pursue many years of intensive academic study in lieu of a comparatively short entrée into a profitable career is one that leaves the welfare of our polity a bit more insulated from the kinds of baser motivations that have brought us the excesses and distortions of the corporatist state. Of course, many other fundamental changes are necessary to dislodge the financiers from their present perches, and these — most importantly, getting money out of politics through sweeping reforms in our system of campaign financing — will lay the groundwork for reversing our civilization’s flipped polarity.

Plato held that in a just, correctly constituted state each class of citizens performs its distinct and proper function and does not interfere with the business of other classes. While the particular vision of the good society that he proceeded to elaborate is foreign to us now, the underlying principle animating his vision remains as sound as ever it was. When we cultivate a class of broadly and deeply educated thinkers and let them chart our course, the rest of us will be freed up to man the oars, reel in the catch, sunbathe on the decks, and indulge in the buffet without having to worry unduly about where we are going or how we are going to get there. And, in time, this freedom from restlessness, anxiety, and alienation will give us back to ourselves and allow us the luxury of tending to our higher needs, not the material scramble or the life of the body but of the mind… and of the spirit.

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[1] “The Doomsday Invention” and “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot–and Sooner Than You Think.”

[2] “How LED Lighting May Compromise Your Health.”

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron” (1481-82) by Sandro Botticcelli, courtesy of Wikipedia
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1 reply to this post
  1. While an otherwise excellent article, the author does make one minor error. With respect to the accumulation of wealth, it is not entirely a zero-sum game when viewed from the angle of wealth creation. Wealth is not a fixed stock, but does come into being through the creative endeavors of individuals, thereby increasing not only their own wealth, but also the total social stock of wealth. What should be condemned is the accumulation of “unearned” wealth by means of political contrivances, protections, and other activities that may generally be labeled “rent-seeking behavior,” which is also not zero-sum, but a net negative in accumulation of real wealth.

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