Dennis Rasmussen: National Friendship Day

Today, August 6, is National Friendship Day. Rather than celebrate this Hallmark holiday by sending a slew of greeting cards, as its originators hoped, I propose to use it to raise and answer a fascinating but seldom-asked question: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy?

I am convinced that the answer is clear, once the leading contenders have been considered: the greatest of all philosophical friendships was that of David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume is, after all, widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, and Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we would now call capitalism. They are two of the most significant figures in the entire Western tradition, and they were best friends for most of their adult lives. My new book, The Infidel and the Professor, follows the course of Hume and Smith’s friendship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death more than a quarter of a century later, examining both their personal interactions and the impact that each had on the other’s outlook.

During the course of writing the book I frequently invited fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians to nominate alternative friendships as the greatest in the history of philosophy. Most people’s first instinct was to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The strongest contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

Given their stature and influence it is remarkable that no book has heretofore been written on Hume and Smith’s personal or intellectual relationship. One likely reason for this is that friendships are more difficult to bring to life than feuds and quarrels: conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there have been many books written on philosophical clashes—think of David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker and Rousseau’s Dog, Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, and Robert Zaretsky and John Scott’s The Philosophers’ Quarrel, to name only a few recent titles—but far fewer on philosophical friendships. Even biographies of Hume tend to devote less attention to his long friendship with Smith than to his brief quarrel with Rousseau, which, sensational as it may have been, was not nearly as central to Hume’s life and thought.

The relative lack of attention paid to philosophical friendships, while understandable, is unfortunate. Friendship was understood to be a key component of philosophy and the philosophical life from the very beginning, as even a cursory reading of Plato or Aristotle should remind us. The latter famously claimed that friendship is the one good without which no one would choose to live even if he possessed all other goods, and Hume and Smith clearly concurred. Hume held that “friendship is the chief joy of human life,” and Smith proclaimed that the esteem and affection of one’s friends constitutes “the chief part of human happiness.” Indeed, Hume proposed a small thought experiment to prove Aristotle’s point. “Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man,” he suggests. “Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him. He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.”

Aristotle divides friendships into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by pleasure, and—the highest and rarest of the three—those motivated by virtue or excellence. Smith draws a similar distinction in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though he insists that the latter alone “deserve the sacred and venerable name of friendship.” Smith’s relationship with Hume represents a nearly textbook model of this kind of friendship: a stable, enduring, reciprocal bond that arises not just from serving one another’s interests or from taking pleasure in one another’s company, but also from the shared pursuit of a noble end—in their case, philosophical understanding.

An examination of Hume and Smith’s personal and intellectual relationship thus allows for a different kind of reflection on friendship than is found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and the like. Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were. As my book aims to show, it is a friendship very much worth celebrating.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Which Heretic are You?

Steven and Ben Nadler’s Heretics is a graphic novel account of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged the authority of church and king—risking excommunication, imprisonment, and even execution—to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science. But which of these radical philosophers would you have been? Take our quiz and find out:

Do you believe that God is:

When a tree falls in a forest, do you think that:

When one body gravitates toward another, is it because:

Do you believe mind and body are:

Are miracles possible?

What is the source of a political sovereign’s authority?

Is this the best of all possible worlds?

What happens when you die?

Steven and Ben Nadler: Happy Father’s Day

by Ben Nadler

Nadler

It’s now been two years since I began a collaboration with my dad, a philosophy professor, on a graphic book. He was wanting to do a philosophy book that would reach a wide readership, especially high school and college students, and I was fresh out of art school and looking for something big to do. When he suggested we do a project together, I didn’t hesitate at all. With his knowledge of seventeenth-century philosophy and my training in illustration, we could do something really original and exciting. Although he was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was living in Seattle, we were able to work through hundreds of emails and phone calls. He would send me the text for the book, and I’d give him some comments and suggestions on what seemed to work and what didn’t. Then I would send him my pencil sketches and he would give me feedback as I tried to make these philosophers and their abstract ideas into a visually engaging and philosophically and historically informative story. Now, when people ask me what it was like working with my dad, it is hard to come up with even one example of friction or disagreement that took place during the process. We are both really happy with the final result, a 200-page graphic book that makes seventeenth-century philosophy—perhaps the most important and fascinating period in the history of philosophy—accessible and entertaining. In addition to having this book to show for our work, which I am incredibly proud of, I now have a far greater understanding of what my dad does for a living. And because he has an understanding of what it is about comics I find so compelling, we’re even closer now than before we worked together.

 

NadlerSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics. They are the author and illustrator of Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

Bart Schultz on The Happiness Philosophers

SchultzIn The Happiness Philosophers, Bart Schultz tells the colorful story of the lives and legacies of the founders of utilitarianism—one of the most profoundly influential yet misunderstood and maligned philosophies of the past two centuries. Best known for arguing that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” utilitarianism was developed by the radical philosophers, critics, and social reformers William Godwin (the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley), Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Schultz recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

Well, I suppose it represents one of the ways in which I try to “do good better,” as the saying goes.  Among other things, I would like to see it help spark a more critical approach to the so-called “happiness industry,” that vast literature (both popular and academic) on the subject of happiness that far too often lends itself to questionable political (or apolitical) agendas.  The great nineteenth-century utilitarians—Godwin and Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick—developed and deployed their notions of happiness as part of their tireless efforts to advance social reform, e.g. seeking to promote happiness by securing political and social equality for women.  They had their failings, but their energetic reformism was often admirable and their example remains relevant to our political situation today.  Were they around today, they would all be participating in the Women’s Marches, fighting global poverty, and sounding the alarm about global warming.

Many people might not think of utilitarianism in that way, or of academic philosophy as holding that potential.

Yes, but those are views that I am out to challenge.  I hope that my book will inspire people in many different walks of life, academic or not, both to revisit the classical utilitarians and to engage with the wonderful utilitarian philosophizing at work in the world today, as evidenced by the journal Utilitas.  Curiously, although there is a laudable and widespread interest in the work of Peter Singer, particularly the animal liberation and effective altruism movements that he did so much to advance, that interest often fails to extend to the philosophical roots of his utilitarian perspective in the work of Henry Sidgwick, the greatest of the nineteenth century utilitarians.  But if the philosophizing and activism of Singer can so engage people, the work of Sidgwick and the other great utilitarians should be able to inspire them as well.  True, the old, malicious caricatures of the classical utilitarians are still far too common.  In my own experience teaching at the University of Chicago for thirty years, even many of the brightest young students of philosophy harbor views of classical utilitarianism that owe more to the hostile depictions of it by critics than to the classical utilitarian writings themselves.  They have read Michel Foucault on Bentham, but not Bentham; John Rawls on Sidgwick, but not Sidgwick, and so on.

How will your book change that?

By providing fuller portraits of the lives and works of the classical utilitarians taken together.  The philosophizing and the activist life of, say, William Godwin (but the others as well) were genuinely inseparable, and one gets a much better sense of what his philosophy actually meant by looking at how it was realized in his life—for example, in his relationships with the amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and the daughter they had, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.  When students meet classical utilitarianism only through one or another stylized argument (often not one that was actually made by the great utilitarians), as in the popular “Trolley cases,” they do not gain a good sense of the resources of the utilitarian perspective, of its potential as a change agent.  Thus, much of what people today champion as a many-sided liberal education—the kind of education that Martha Nussbaum has done so much to articulate and defend—was in fact defended by such figures as Mill and Sidgwick, on utilitarian grounds.  They loved and promoted the humanities, and often criticized the universities for failing to support philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as for failing to open up educational opportunities for all.  On these topics and others, we still have much to learn from them.

What is your biggest worry or regret about your book?

Naturally, I wish that I could have spent another ten years on it—there is still so much research to do, especially on Bentham.  Also, it breaks my heart that Derek Parfit, who died on January 1st, will not around to read the final published version.  He read various drafts, especially of the chapter on Sidgwick, and was very, very supportive and helpful, as he always has been.  My first major publication was an article contributed to the 1986 Ethics symposium on Reasons and Persons, an article to which he wrote a Reply, and I think that from that time to this I have never published anything without wondering what he would think of it—and fortunately, very often finding out, since he was so generous in his comments.  Some of my more recent work was devoted to On What Matters.  And I was profoundly honored to include him in the book symposium that I edited on Kasia de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer’s recent book, The Point of View of the Universe.  Readers familiar with Derek’s work will see how parts of my Sidgwick chapter, relating to personal identity and other issues, are addressed to some of the points that he made about Sidgwick.  I once remarked to him that I thought his work was ultimately more about reasons, and mine more about persons, in the full biographical sense.  But really, he was the one who, with J. B. Schneewind, gave me the confidence and courage to pursue my Sidgwick studies, which in turn led to this book.  I am glad to have this opportunity to explain just how much I owe to both of them.

Bart Schultz is senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians.

Steven and Ben Nadler on Heretics!: An enlightening graphic novel

NadlerThis entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations by father-son duo Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form. These contentious and controversial philosophers—from Galileo and Descartes to Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton—fundamentally changed the way we look at the world, society, and ourselves. Heretics! tells the story of their ideas, lives, and times in a vivid new way. Read on for a conversation between Steven and Ben about the process of working together on a graphic novel, their favorite illustrations, and what they each learned along the way.

Ben:  So Dad, tell me, what gave you the idea for us to do a graphic book together on modern philosophy?

Steven: Well, my editor at Princeton University Press had asked me to write a big new history of philosophy, perhaps with some illustrations done by you. But I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do. However, I was intrigued by the notion of doing something really creative with a history of philosophy in the seventeenth century, my specialty. And then, with you recently graduated from art school, I thought it would be really fun to do something together. And it was! Let me ask you: why did you want to do it?

Nadler

Ben: It was an offer I could not refuse. I was an intern in Seattle just out of RISD, but not really employed as an illustrator. So I was hoping this book would be a good way to get that career started. I was also part-way through a graphic novel that didn’t seem to have an end in sight, so the idea of doing a more collaborative project that had some structure and a deadline was appealing. Plus, it was a chance to bond with my father! What were your expectations going into it?

Steven: I was hoping that we could find an engaging and entertaining way to introduce a broad audience to a really interesting period of philosophy and a fascinating group of philosophers. I want this book to be read not just by professional philosophers and philosophy students, but general readers of all kinds, including high school and college students. It had to be really accessible and tell a good story. The hard part for me, in writing the text, was to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, being too dry and academic, and, on the other hand, being condescending and patronizing. I had to find the right balance between academic writing and simplistic popularizing. What was the hard part for you?

Nadler

Ben:  The hardest part was finding the right visualizations for some of the really abstract, conceptual and heady ideas that you wrote about. It’s one thing to draw biographical comics about philosophers, and another to try to illustrate Leibniz’s concept of “monads.”

Steven: Yes, I do remember your panicked phone call asking me what the hell a monad is.  We had to give a lot of thought to how to depict a monad visually, and I checked in with various colleagues to see if they had any ideas.  Everyone was kind of stumped.  I think you came up with the best solution.  The other tough challenge was how to illustrate a person’s soul (as distinct from their body). Again, I think you did a great job with that visually.  What’s your favorite page or chapter of the book?

Nadler

Ben: The page where the two guys are getting pushed out the window was really tough, I had to spend a whole day trying to get the perspective right. That might be my favorite illustration, because of how much work went into it and seeing the final pay-off. I also tend to like the later pages, after I settled into my drawing habits and improved over the year and a half we worked on the book. I completely re-drew the first twenty pages or so after everything else was finished, just to try to maintain a consistent look. What about you? I’m going to guess it’s God waving goodbye as the earth gets on the school bus.

Steven: Yes, I love that image of God waving goodbye to the world.  And the illustration of the defenestration is wonderful, really bold.  I also like the corpuscle in motion, roller-blading with headphones, in the section on Gassendi, and the image from the Newton chapter showing the earth and the moon being tugged toward each other by gravity as they hold on to the edges of the panel.  In the end, did you enjoy the experience of illustrating philosophy? It’s hard to do, and I think you did a brilliant job—but then again, I’m your father, and a little biased.

Nadler

Ben: Thanks, Dad! I did enjoy it, it was challenging and fun. I learned a lot about what makes a book come together. I especially liked researching and implementing all of the costume design and set pieces for 17th century Europe, it was a really immersive way to learn about western philosophy.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Nadler, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an illustrator. They are the author and the illustrator of Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

 

Nadler portraits

Presenting the trailer for Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

This entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority—sometimes risking excommunication, prison, and even death—to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form—smart, charming, and often funny. A brilliant account of one of the most brilliant periods in philosophy, Heretics! is the story of how a group of brave thinkers used reason and evidence to triumph over the authority of religion, royalty, and antiquity. Watch the trailer here:

 

Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler & Ben Nadler from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

HereticsSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics.

A peek inside The Art of Philosophy by Susanna Berger

Delving into the intersections between artistic images and philosophical knowledge in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, The Art of Philosophy shows that the making and study of visual art functioned as important methods of philosophical thinking and instruction. Featuring previously unpublished prints and drawings from the early modern period and lavish gatefolds, The Art of Philosophy reveals the essential connections between visual commentary and philosophical thought. Watch the trailer to learn more:

The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment by Susanna Berger from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Susanna Berger is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California.

David Alan Grier: The Light of Computation

by David Alan Grier

When one figure steps into the light, others can be seen in the reflected glow. The movie Hidden Figures has brought a little light to the contributions of NASA’s human computers. Women such as Katherine Goble Johnson and her colleagues of the West Area Computers supported the manned space program by doing hours of repetitive, detailed orbital calculations. These women were not the first mathematical workers to toil in the obscurity of organized scientific calculation. The history of organized computing groups can be traced back to the 17th century, when a French astronomer convinced three friends to help him calculate the date that Halley’s comet would return to view. Like Johnson, few human computers have received any recognition for their labors. For many, only their families appreciated the work that they did. For some, not even their closest relatives knew of their role in the scientific community.

GrierMy grandmother confessed her training as a human computer only at the very end of her life. At one dinner, she laid her fork on the table and expressed regret that she had never used calculus. Since none of us believed that she had gone to college, we dismissed the remark and moved the conversation in a different direction. Only after her passing did I find the college records that confirmed she had taken a degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1921. The illumination from those records showed that she was not alone. Half of the twelve mathematics majors in her class were women. Five of those six had been employed as human computers or statistical clerks.

By 1921, organized human computing was fairly common in industrialized countries. The governments of the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia supported groups that did calculations for nautical almanacs, national surveys, agricultural statistics, weapons testing, and weather prediction. The British Association for the Advancement of Science operated a computing group. So did the Harvard Observatory, Iowa State University, and the University of Indiana. One school, University College London, published a periodical for these groups, Tracts for Computers.

While many of these human computers were women, most were not. Computation was considered to be a form of clerical work, which was still a career dominated by men. However, human computers tended to be individuals who faced economic or social barriers to their careers. These barriers prevented them from becoming a scientist or engineer in spite of their talents. In the book When Computers Were Human, I characterized them as “Blacks, women, Irish, Jews and the merely poor.” One of the most prominent computing groups of the 20th century, the Mathematical Tables Project, hired only the impoverished. It operated during the Great Depression and recruited its 450 computers from New York City’s unemployment rolls.

During its 10 years of operations, the Math Tables Project toiled in obscurity. Only a few members of the scientific community recognized its contributions. Hans Bethe asked the group to do the calculations for a paper that he was writing in the physics of the sun. The engineer Philip Morse brought problems from his colleagues at MIT. The pioneering computer scientist John von Neumann asked the group to test a new mathematical optimization technique after he was unable to test it on the new ENIAC computer. However, most scientists maintained a distance between themselves and the Mathematical Tables Project. One member of the Academy of Science explained his reservations about the Project with an argument that came to be known as the Computational Syllogism. Scientists, he argued, are successful people. The poor, he asserted, are not successful. Therefore, he concluded, the poor cannot be scientists and hence should not be employed in computation.

Like the human computers of NASA, the Mathematical Tables Project had a brief moment in the spotlight. In 1964, the leader of the Project, Gertrude Blanch, received a Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson for her contributions to the United States Government. Yet, her light did not shine far enough to bring recognition to the 20 members of the Math Tables Project who published a book, later that year, on the methods of scientific computing. The volume became one of the most highly sold scientific books in history. Nonetheless, few people knew that it was written by former human computers.

The attention to Katherine Goble Johnson is welcome because it reminds us that science is a community endeavor. When we recognize the authors of scientific articles, or applaud the distinguished men and women who receive Nobel Prizes (or in the case of computer science, Turing Medals) we often fail to see the community members that were essential to the scientific work. At least in Hidden Figures, they receive a little of the reflected light.

David Alan Grier is the author of When Computers Were Human. He writes “Global Code” for Computer magazine and products the podcast “How We Manage Stuff.” He can be reached at grier@gwu.edu.

Browse Our Philosophy 2017 Catalog

We invite you to browse our Philosophy 2017 Catalog:

If you are attending the 113th Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division in Baltimore, Maryland from January 4 to January 7, come visit us at the Princeton booth! Follow #APAEastern17 and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

With masterful storytelling and color illustrations, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form—smart, charming, and often funny. This entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world.

Nadler Heretics cover

In On Human Nature, acclaimed writer and philosopher Roger Scruton presents an original and radical defense of human uniqueness. Confronting the views of evolutionary psychologists, utilitarian moralists, and philosophical materialists, he argues that human beings cannot be understood simply as biological objects. We are not only human animals; we are also persons, in essential relation with other persons, and bound to them by obligations and rights.

Scruton Human Nature cover

In Ethics in the Real World, Peter Singer applies his controversial ways of thinking to issues like climate change, extreme poverty, animals, abortion, euthanasia, human genetic selection, etc. Provocative and original, this collection of brief essays will challenge—and possibly change—your beliefs about a wide range of real-world ethical questions.

Singer

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Jason Stanley: On the Question of the Stability of Democracy

After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?

Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:

First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
It is.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]

What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]

A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].

Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.

Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]

About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:

During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]

What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]

Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.

Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.

Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.

Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.

American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.

The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.

Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?

Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.

This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.

Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.

For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?

In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.

It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.

There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.

From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.

Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.

And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?

We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.

Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.

Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.

Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.

Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.

StanleyJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

Stanley Fish debates the eternal

This podcast on Stanley Fish’s panel discussion was originally posted by the Institute for Arts and Ideas

While the world turns we think ideas, right or wrong, are eternal. Yet meaning changes over time and context. Should we conclude that, like the material world, ideas are transient and knowledge and morality passing stories? Or is the eternal in our grasp after all? New York Times columnist and author of Think Again Stanley Fish, philosopher of language Barry C. Smith, and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna seek out the eternal.

Stanley Fish is the author of numerous books, including How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Versions of Academic Freedom. He is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Florida International University and the Visiting Floersheimer Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School. He previously taught at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.