Friday, July 02, 2004

Platonic Conservatism and the War

I have written quite a bit in this space regarding the political ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle is generally rational and deliberate, concentrating on politics and government as central the habituation of virtue and the development of opportunities for human flourishing. Man is a political animal, and as such requires a well-ordered community and political setting in order to individually develop into something more akin to what he or she should be. Plato in this respect says something similar: that there is such are such things as Ideas, that Good is real and absolute, and that in our lives we should all individually attempt to become more like that which we should be. However, this superficial analysis hides very deep divergences in the two great philosophers' thought. Plato, as emphasized in his cave analogy in The Republic, sees human goods as mere 'shadows' of what truly matters. Indeed, our competition for human goods, our desire for scientific knowledge, all of this is a degree removed from some true reality the average person does not ever come to know. When the man breaks his shackles and leaves the cave, ascending to the light above, he is blinded by the brightness of the sun, the Good, and cannot at first contemplate it. After his eyes adjust, he returns below to share his new knowledge with his colleagues still living amongst the shadows. They are startled and try to kill him, as he upsets their system of values based on the shadows they see before them on the wall. This discovery of the ultimate Good, which can be likened to the salvation of the soul, or perhaps redemption by faith in the Christian condition, seems unrelated to the skill with which the cave dweller identifies the shadows on the wall. Thus, Plato seems to be telling us that the shadows of this world are only related to the Good insofar as they have the same ultimate source -- light, the symbol for the Good, casts the shadows on the wall. But we all need to 'turn around' away from the shadows to really see the source of the light. Better yet, we need to come out of the cave. In a way, the more successful the shadow-makers are their business of creating a system of shadow-based values, the less people would ever come to know the source of the light of the Good. In order to avoid strife (recall that the person who leaves the cave and returns is threatened with violence), the shadows and that system of living is key. But it should also be the duty of those who run that shadow show to allow somehow for those who are prepared for it to turn around, see the light, and to leave the cave.

Analogizing to a system of government, the government which governs best seems to be the one which maintains an orderly 'shadow-show,' that is, promotes the more mundane human virtue and their practice, i.e., courage, moderation, consideration for others, etc. These lesser virtues are virtues in and of themselves, and they relate to the Good. Ultimate Good, however, salvation, must not be stymied by such a system. It seems that the practicing of the virtues cannot bring one to that salvation, that 'turning around' to see the true source of the light, even though to practice them is a good thing in and of itself. But government cannot be allowed to promote the shadows above what they are -- just shadows of what really is. And thus we must realize that government is a facilitator of something higher. While providing for order and earthly goods, it must facilitate and allow philosophy and revealed truth to bring souls to that higher Good. It must not kill the philosopher, kill Socrates or Christ. And it must not put other things in the place of the philosopher, or of Christ (as an aside, it was perhaps one of the most intelligent statements of a politician of our times when President Bush called Christ his most admired political philosopher). In our democracy, the government, promoting an entitlement mentality amongst the people, has come dangerously close to placing material well-being and an ideology of egalitarianism into that place which ought to be reserved for higher things. In extremist Islamist societies, the dogma of a particular interpretation of the Koran as the ungrounded and never bending will of a not necessarily logical god takes the place of true philosophy. Both are dangerous. While religion is clearly a path to that higher good, dogma cannot be, and the state must leave that arena open for the individual. Freedom of religion and to philosophize is crucial even as our modern first amendment jurisprudence which borders on enforcing a total freedom from religion is precisely the kind of evil I am describing. Thus in the philosophy of Plato we see the roots of those values which modern American conservatism cherishes: freedom to be religious, freedom to philosophize, and the need to combat evil, to combat those at home and, more pertinently now, those abroad who would through their dogma would kill a modern day Socrates and reverse the proper ordering of beings and of the Good.

As a final note, I was struck watching Saddam Hussein being brought before the investigative Iraqi judge yesterday by one of his comments. After asserting that he was still the President of Iraq and chosen by the people, he challenged the law under which he was being brought to trial. After the judge attempted to put Hussein in his proper place, Hussein did something very interesting -- he, as a last resort in an argument he was losing by any measure of logic, appealed to something illogical, to the Koran, specifically making an appeal to it as the only true source of law, a source of law which, Saddam implied, makes the laws of the infidel Coalition and those who cooperate with them not law but rather anathema. This is a fascinating example both of the increasing tendency Saddam had been showing of his willingness to use Islamism as a driving doctrine and tool for his regime of terror, but also now after his defeat, to use it as a battle call to rally insurgents and fundamentalists to his cause. Remember that these are the terrorists and radicals that, according to the press, are not in any way connected to Hussein and never were nor could have been. Thus, as usual, by refusing to be philosophical and failing to look past their own ideology, the American left and the press miss the greater intellectual currents that tie the dictator to the terrorists, and entirely miss the philosophical foundations of the current war. Wolf Blitzer and company should reread their Plato.

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