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Op-Ed: Whither America? Philosophy and Presidential Politics

Where, oh where, is Plato's philosopher-king?
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 10:58 PM


Plato’s Republic endures as a canonic centerpiece of Western thought. It was, after all, in this foundational dialogue, that college freshmen first read of a “philosopher king." This was to be an ideal political leader, one who could combine real learning with virtuous governance. What could possibly be more unique, and more important?

The philosopher king represented a conspicuously promising combination, a perfect fusion of traits not reasonably subject to any intellectual challenge.

So, what went wrong? Why have we steered so distressingly far from the leadership mark in these United States?

Where, we have the right to ask, is the philosopher-king?

Our query deserves to be addressed in candor. Today, almost 2400 years after Plato, such enviable leadership, either sitting or still-aspiring, remains confined to narrowly fictive or purely academic realms. This limited presence includes our own country, a fragmented and starkly divided nation where even the best educated citizens are eager to trade "high thinking" for high net worth.

Despite our palpable declensions - social, economic, and political - we Americans continue to place our electoral bets upon one or the other airbrushed presidential contender. Still captives of a quaintly enduring political mythology, we stand willing, yet again, to wager our very lives on one or another invented candidate.

But to what avail? Plus ca change... . "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Self-deception is not helpful. To be sure, each candidate is more-or-less a contrivance. Neither can ever hope to move us even inches beyond the excruciatingly breathless rhythms of our machine-like existence.

Ironically, the founding fathers had absolutely loathed any notion of democracy, and had unconditionally rejected any concept of a government "by the people." A republic, yes, of course. A democracy? Never.

Accordingly, in a history lesson heard by no one, 1776 intentionally set the stage for endlessly recurring generations of plutocracy.

There are additional ironies. While proclaiming an enthusiastic national preference for "excellence" to the wider world, we Americans actually esteem our political candidates in direct proportion to the decipherable simplicity of their promises. Nowhere, perhaps, are these vacant promises more baseless and insidious than in the ritualistically adrenalized calls for "victory" in war.

It is easy to be "heroic" with the lives of others, especially with eager and well-intentioned young men and women who are chronologically unable to rise above the most primal forms of patriotism. Whether the fervent pleas for greater force are applied to Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, their political origins are always the same. Inevitably, they are the devastating product of a diaphanous propaganda, of an utterly transparent deception that cheerfully masquerades as serious thought.

"Where there were once great military actions," observed the French poet, Saint-John Perse (1887-1975), "there lies whitening now, the jawbone of an ass."

Now, We the people - we, who were once nurtured by Ralph Waldo Emerson's clarion call for high thinking, and by Henry David Thoreau's related plea to "consider the way in which we spend our lives" - we obediently reduce our campaign judgments to a crass assortment of numbing clichés, "zingers," and empty witticisms. Whatever else one might say about the rapidly-approaching election, the entire process of choosing a president has once again been fraught with delusionary expectations, shallow understandings, and humiliating self-parodies.

We Americans, we who now casually supplant Emersonian inwardness with an incessantly dreary conformance, are stubbornly proud to reject even any tiny hints of authenticity. Ready to do virtually anything to avoid being alone with ourselves, because authenticity is widely associated with an unbearable loneliness, we now prefer a lifetime of measureless atrophy in the mass, to one of personal growth in the once-sacred Self.

In all American national elections, the celebrity politician draws huge audiences and generous donors in spite of, or perhaps because of, an ineffable absence of substance. In our politics, less is always more....less intellect; less stature; and less courage. "We have a winner. All hail to the chief."

Exeunt omnes? Shall everyone be forced to depart from the once Promised Land?

In our sullied national politics of veneered résumés and blatant half-truths, whenever a particular candidate's spoken words seethe with an evident meaninglessness, the crowd applauds. Gleefully. Mixing desire with an absence of memory, it nods approvingly, en masse, and then, even before anesthetizing itself yet again with mountains of drugs and oceans of alcohol, it cheers America's "special place in history."

Whatever the circumstances, it is always a boisterous cheer. Loud. Volume on max. "We're number one; we're number one!"

This anxiety-driven American mantra has become inextinguishable. It screams assuredly, robustly, and triumphantly, even as it remains, at its essential human core, egregiously false.

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." In the always stupefying theatre of American politics, key protagonists play their stock parts with a predictably prepared zeal, and also with an openly unbridled ambition.

Always, the actors, who naturally have no time themselves for any serious reading, thinking, or reflection, play their embarrassingly one-dimensional roles without any meaningful content or nuance.

Predictably, they perform with nary a nod to true philosophical, historical, or intellectual understanding. As for the "chorus," We the people chant our trivial and prepared lines imitatively. Our dried voices remain as carefully rehearsed as those of the more "professional" cast.

Usually lacking any real conviction, we Americans nonetheless offer our silly words and preferences reverentially, with a stoic enthusiasm; sometimes, with even a resoundingly "passionate intensity." Unsurprisingly, our exuberant shouts of approbation and condemnation lack all credibility. These eruptions, too, have already been degraded to a demeaning genre of caricatural gestures and banal incantations.

The historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, once wrote insightfully about the "celebrity," of the person who is known simply for wellknownness. Offered as an ostensibly valuable commodity, this American idol usually triumphs because of the synthetic but brutally successful alchemy of "public relations." It doesn't really matter that a vaunted public figure may venture forth without a scintilla of intellect, manners, courage, or "Platonic" integrity. In the all-important "big picture," these are obviously minor deficiencies, liabilities that readily become inconspicuous, or else, oddly enough, a welcome asset.

Once, many of our national heroes, including those who could actually read real books, by themselves, were created by tangible achievement. Today, the successful American politician is fashioned exclusively by invention. Here, via glaringly sophisticated and closely-intersecting systems of advertisement, a shameless industry for profit effectively preempts any promising public choice. Now, our leaders are created by an openly shabby process that is refractory to both intelligence and judgment.

In the end, the fusion of raw commerce and visceral conformance is what we really mean by "American Democracy." Now, more than ever, this shameless pattern of personal surrender is sustained by a grotesque collection of ready slogans and empty chatter. It is, to be sure, not an hospitable residence for a philosopher-king.

Most ominously, at a time when badly-fabricated national leaderships could clear the way to bioterrorism, "dirty bombs," or even enemy nuclear attack, our unrelenting transformations of politics into amusement have spawned an intolerable strategic hazard. Over time, measureless lamentations, rather than expanding wealth and power, will likely result.

No longer are our elected leaders merely an expression of foolishness. Now, their elections (Democrat or Republican, it makes no vital difference) pose unprecedented policy implications, consequences that are potentially existential.

When will we Americans finally learn to look behind the news? When will we learn to acknowledge that our pitifully flimsy political world has been constructed entirely upon ashes? The correct answer is not difficult to grasp.

Not until we learn to take ourselves seriously as persons.

Not until we begin to read and think with clarity and sincerity.

Not until we stop amusing ourselves to death.

Not until we seek rapport with genuine and universal feelings.

Not until we can restore all levels of education to the dignified grace of real learning.

In principle, all this can change, but only after personal meanings in America are first detached from ubiquitously vulgar commerce, and from correspondingly frenetic marketing. Paradoxically, in the very midst of our cherished democratic "freedoms," we are still held captive, not by physical chains, but by consciously consuming fears of not "fitting-in." To a significant extent, the celebrated "team" has become the author of suffering.

What we require, in our young people especially, is not more chief executive officers, marketing managers, venture capitalists, social networking entrepreneurs, or even rocket scientists. Desperately, we need more high-thinking individuals, not more high net worth members.

Across our battered cities, the Occupy Wall Street movement was not entirely wrongheaded. Yes, they were naive to subscribe to the original Edenic myth of American "equality" (it never was the way it was), but they were also correct to understand that our increasingly stratified American democracy could eventually bring forth unsustainable inequities, and corollary explosions of violence.

Maybe there is still time for a gainful civilizational change in our national politics. After all, the terrible moment must never be allowed to arrive, as H.L. Mencken had once warned, when a "higher authority, tired of the farce at last, obliterates the entire race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard gas and streptococci."

Plato's enviable standard of political leadership remains far out of our reach. Still, shuddering with a reasonable human foreknowledge of what perils might lie ahead, we may yet be able to think imaginatively beyond the rigorously expanding limitations of "democracy." Even without a philosopher-king, we Americans have a right to expect better than the abundantly barren choices that we are offered every four years.

Thomas Jefferson, an American president who had sat down long enough to actually read Plato, not to mention Grotius, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, Vattel, and Pufendorf, would doubtlessly have affirmed this right to excellence as "unalienable." For Jefferson, whose deeply appreciative understanding of major thinkers from Plato to Pufendorf eventually found its way into the Declaration of Independence, entitlement to a genuinely thinking American leadership would have appeared as both "natural" and "self-evident."

Unwittingly, perhaps, Jefferson may have been America's first and last philosopher-king.

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LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is Professor of Political Science at Purdue.