Tyranny from Plato to Trump

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.

The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.

The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.

The Wisdom of WTF

Sometimes you just have to say “WTF.”  In an imperfect world there is wisdom in a shrug of indifference.   

I’ve been thinking about this when considering student responses to a scandal that recently rocked my university involving the Chancellor of the California State University, who was our former President.  What’s remarkable is that most of my students don’t seem to care.  When I discussed this in class, most shrugged it off.

Some may think those students are callous and clueless.  But I’m not so sure.  A shrug is a strategy of self-preservation in a world of alienation.  To say “WTF” is to express disbelief at how stupid things are.  Sometimes it is an outburst of anger.  Sometimes it is a cry of despair.  Almost always it is an expression of alienation.

The world is too big for us to comprehend.  The forces that buffet us are beyond our control.  The omnipresence of alienation poses a challenge for the human spirit.

One of my mentors, the philosopher John Lachs, describes this in a recent book as the peculiar unhappiness of the modern world:

Huge institutions surround and engulf us: we feel powerless to influence their course… We are lost in their bowels and experience much social life as a sort of homelessness.  The devastating sense of the meaninglessness of what we do and of our own unimportance moves us alternately to shoulder-shrugging indifference and to personal despair. 

An obvious solution is to reform our institutions and make them more friendly and transparent.  But even that work is mostly beyond our control.  It also helps to understand that alienation is, as Lachs puts it, “the cost of comfort.”  Even though we are alienated, the modern world provides us with previously unimaginable health, wealth, and power.

And so we take the good with the bad.  And on occasion we sigh and say, “WTF.” 

Outrages abound.  Powerful leaders make huge mistakes.  Democracies elect buffoons.  Ecosystems are in crisis.  War is on the horizon.  Poverty continues.  And the pandemic plods along.

We fret and fume about all of this.  And our anxiety increases.  There is mostly nothing any individual can do solve these problems.  So there is wisdom learning to say “WTF.”

Alienation has a long history.  Karl Marx thought capitalism was built upon alienation.  The existentialist of the 20th Century saw it everywhere.  Human beings do not feel at home in the world.  We are estranged from one another and even from ourselves. 

Alienation is a common theme in literature and film.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield thinks everyone around him is phony.  In The Matrix Morpheus tells Neo, “You are a slave.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.” 

Alienation appears when we are stuck in traffic.  We experience it when prices rise and paychecks shrink.  It occurs when we work on our tax returns.  The world’s systems are indifferent to us.  We are cogs in a machine over which we have no control.

Alienation gives birth to resentment and anger.  It is part of the discontent fueling “the great resignation” (as I discussed in a recent column).  It fuels suicide and addiction. 

It even helps explain conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy believer is trying to make sense of a world that makes no sense.

And so instead of beating your head against the wall, learn to shrug it off.  We say “WTF” because we know we deserve better; but also, because we know there’s not much we can do about any of this.

Sometimes “WTF” is a cynical abdication of responsibility.  Imagine, for example, saying “WTF” as you jump off a cliff.  So we must be careful not to let “WTF” give rise to nihilism.

To avoid that we should recognize solidarity in the shrug of indifference.  You and I both know that the world is out of joint.  But at least we’re in this together.  The process of making meaning often begins when we look at our neighbor and say “WTF.”  From there we can begin to make things better, one shrug at a time. 

On the Importance of Looking Up

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of people talking.  It is a black comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s about corporate greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and the apocalypse.  Its bleak conclusion gets you thinking about the dangers of power, narcissism, and willful ignorance. 

The movie’s fans see it as a cautionary allegory about climate change, science denial, and clueless amateurs running the government.  Some worry that its gloomy ending may encourage despair.  Others hope it will be a call to action. 

Reviews of the film reflect our polarization.  Conservatives claim it is another example of Hollywood preaching a liberal gospel.  One critic in the National Review suggested it is the worst film of 2021.  He lambasted is as a “better-than-you comedy” that “reveals the nastiness of liberals.”  Another critic in the Washington Examiner said it was a “lazy anti-Trump comedy.” 

More subtle criticism came from New York Magazine, where a sympathetic commentator accused the film of oversimplifying the climate crisis.  He said liberals “need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales.”

I suppose the point is that we are all in this together.  Narcissism and stupidity cross party lines.  Hollywood is part of the problem.  The film seems to recognize this.  It shows how the cult of celebrity corrupts everyone, even the neurotic scientist played by DiCaprio. 

At any rate, this is an allegory, not a documentary.  Allegories simplify reality. They tell memorable stories that get people talking.  In this regard, the film succeeds.  It provokes conversations about life, death, politics, and American culture. 

This conversation should extend to the very idea of “looking up.”  The film’s title calls to mind Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.”  In Plato story, we are prisoners chained in a cave.  We are not permitted to turn around and see reality.  Even when we are set free, most of us refuse to turn around. Plato suggests the masses would go so far as to kill truth-tellers and educators, who like Socrates are trying to get us to look up.

Plato’s allegory is about willful ignorance. Plato warns that most people don’t want to know the truth.  We deliberately choose not to look up.  We are happy with our illusions.  We don’t want to confront reality.  We keep our heads down, preferring slavery over enlightenment.

In the film, this idea becomes the slogan of the political party led by Streep’s character, President Orleans.  The party encourages people not to look up at the comet hurtling toward earth.  This is a parody of our culture’s struggle with science denial, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.”  It also implies authoritarianism.  “Don’t look up” also means “mind your own business” and don’t criticize the elites.

The philosophical solution to all of this is the pursuit of wisdom.  We ought to look up.  It won’t be easy or comfortable.  We may discover things that confuse us or make us unhappy.  But it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.

One of the questions raised by the film is whether you would want to know how and when you are going to die.  The scientists in the film know the exact time of the apocalypse.  And there is a supercomputer using big data to predict how people will die. 

What would you do with this knowledge?  Would knowledge of your death cause despair?  Would you prefer to remain in ignorance about your death?

A modest hopeful appears toward the end of the film when DiCaprio’s character responds to knowledge of his death by changing his life.  He refutes the computer’s prediction about his death, thereby reclaiming some modest dignity.

This is the kind of dignity that knowledge provides.  When we look up and confront reality, we can take charge of how we live and how we die.  To live in ignorance is to live as a prisoner.  The truth sets us free. 

Knowing the truth won’t change the indifferent reality of the cosmos.  Knowing the truth won’t stop a comet or cure you of Covid.  But knowledge allows us to live responsibly and, if necessary, to die with dignity.  It is tempting in a crisis to bury our heads in the sand.  But wisdom is only available to those who look up.

New Year’s Resolution: Live as an Adult

We live in a childish age.  This is an era of immediate gratification, temper tantrums, and short attention spans.  It’s time to grow up.  Here’s an idea for a new year’s resolution: let’s live like adults.

This is an ancient resolution.  In the Second Century, the philosopher Epictetus said “Grow up!  Stop behaving like a child.”  Now is the time to get serious.  “The Olympic games are now,” he said.  Stop procrastinating and start living a good life. 

But it is easy to mope and whine like spoiled children.  We are childish when we expect the world to satisfy our wishes.  The truth is that reality does not conform to your egoistic expectations.

It is difficult to be an adult.  There are bills to pay and work to be done.  There are battles to be fought and losses to be endured.  Adults understand that life is difficult and that it takes hard work.  Adults do their duty.  They avoid self-indulgence and ingratitude. 

Adults also understand that nothing lasts forever.  They prepare for death, realizing that everyone dies and that the world imposes significant limits upon what we can achieve.

The word adult has an intriguing etymology.  It comes from a Latin word for growth, related to the word adolescence.  An adolescent is one who is growing.  An adult has completed that process. 

To be an adult is to be ripe and mature.  Fruit also ripens.  Each creature has its own path of maturation and completion.  The playful puppy becomes a dog who hunts, defends, and stays loyal to its pack.  The sapling grows through several seasons until it produces flowers and fruit.

To be mature is to have reached the final stage of development.  It implies a sense of completion and fulfillment.  Maturity depends on what we take as the essence of the thing that is ripening. 

In our culture, we tend to think that the human essence is defined by liberty and license.  They key coming-of-age milestones in our culture are about the freedom to consume.  At age 21, we gain the freedom to drink alcohol, smoke pot (in California anyway), and gamble.  There are other milestones.  At 16, you can drive a car.  At 18, you can vote. 

It is a sad world in which the entry into adulthood is marked by your ability to buy beer.  Perhaps this is why we often fail to grow up.  In our culture, too many adults are focused on consumption, sensual indulgence, and self-satisfaction.

The philosophical tradition has a different notion of the human essence.  This idea holds that to be fully human is to develop wisdom and virtue.  Adolescents are not yet virtuous or wise.  But adults have ripened to the point at which wisdom and virtue are possible.  This is not about liberty and consumption.  Rather, it is about self-restraint and obedience to the moral law.  Adults know how to control their bodily urges.  They also understand that there are duties and obligations that must be fulfilled. 

At what age does wisdom and virtue become possible? 

Plato suggested that at around age 50 people had the capacity to rule themselves (and others) wisely.  The U.S. Constitution holds that you have to be 25 to run for the House, 30 to run for Senate, and 35 to run for President.

Of course, age is merely a number on a calendar.  Some young people are wiser than their parents.  And some old people are foolish.  The point is to grow up. 

The poet Horace once said: “To begin is only half the battle.  Now is the time for the audacity of wisdom.  Begin!” Horace was referring to a timid animal standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop flowing for its chance to cross.  We might picture this as a juvenile, waiting for its chance to jump into the flow of life.

But the river stands still for no one.  The point is to take the plunge and get going.

So here is a philosophical new year’s resolution: let’s resolve to be adults.  That means we should be audacious in the pursuit of wisdom.  We should overcome childish self-indulgence.  And we should get to work on being good. 

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.