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.

Eléna Rivera on her new collection, Scaffolding

RiveraEléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.


Why the sonnet?

ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?

ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.

Is that why your sonnets are dated?

ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.

I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?

ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).

So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?

ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.

Do you think of yourself as European or French then?

ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.

About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?

ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.

Why poetry?

ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).

Eléna Rivera is a poet and a translator. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times and many others. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land. Her  ranslation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Rivera was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She currently resides in New York City.

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.

Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.

And…?

It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.

Singer

 

An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics

Westacott

Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.

Maurizio Viroli: Machiavelli not in support of Donald Trump

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Maurizio Viroli

Donald Trump has cashed Niccolò Machiavelli’s political support. The endorsement, with important qualifications, comes via Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a world authority in the field of Machiavelli studies (The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2016). In his view, Donald Trump puts well in practice Machiavelli’s advice that “winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Trump does not care at all of being regarded as a gentleman, and has openly expressed his disrespect for John McCain and Mitt Romney, two leaders who are, in his mind, gentlemen but losers. He wants, on the contrary, to be a winner.

The problem with Machiavelli’s alleged endorsement is that he would consider Trump a very poor pupil, if he truly believes that to be a good Machiavellian one must endorse the view that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably. ‘Donald – Machiavelli would say – I appreciate your efforts, but you have got my counsels wrong. Read my books carefully. I have never ever written, or implied, that to win dishonorably is better than losing honorably. What I have taught is that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably, if you cannot win honorably. Your goal, to put it differently, must be to win honorably, unless you are compelled to use dishonorable means.’

Is there anyone prepared to argue that an unescapable necessity forces Trump not to be a gentleman? If he wanted to, he could run his campaign against Hillary with impeccable gentlemanly style. I am almost sure that Professor Harvey Mansfield too would agree that nothing prevents Trump from being a gentleman. Unless it is his very character, his truest nature, and his deepest self that force him to behave in an ungentlemanly manner.

But if this is in fact the case, Machiavelli would severely reprimand the republican candidate ‘Donald, how many times do I have to tell you that if you want to become the president of the United States of America you must learn to simulate and dissimulate? I repeat it: a wise prince must be very careful never to let out of his mouth a single word that would not make him appear merciful, trustworthy, humane, blameless and religious. If you cannot restrain your tongue, just keep being a businessman and leave politics alone. People like you do cause great, and often tragic, damages to their countries.’

If one of Trump’s distinctive qualities is that he is always himself, that he always does things his way, then he lacks yet another virtue that Machiavelli regards as necessary in political leaders, namely the ability of adapting one’s conduct with the times. Although firmness is, in general, a virtue in private life, in politics it is often a vice. The main cause of the success or failure of men depend upon their manner of suiting their conduct to the times. Impetuous and cautious leaders alike may lose, or win, “but he errs least and will be most favored by fortune who suits his proceedings to the times,” Machiavelli writes. On balance, therefore, Machiavelli would endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump: not because she embodies his ideal of a political leader, but because he would consider her less amateurish than Trump. And for him a political amateur in power is a sure recipe for tragedies.

Professor Mansfield maintains that Machiavelli and Trump have in common the mark, of “deplorable, out-of-date sexism.” If by sexism we mean the mentality based on the belief that males are better fit than females to be leaders in the most prestigious social activities, above all in politics, then Trump qualifies as a sexist, but Machiavelli surely does not, even if he was not politically correct either. He has written in the most eloquent manner that women do in fact possess the fundamental leadership qualities of prudence, courage and compassion. Caterina Sforza, the duchess of Forlì whom he met in 1499, was for him the perfect example, but not the only one. It is the princess of Carthage Dido who illustrates, in The Prince, the fundamental Machiavellian principle that it is impossible for a prince new to avoid the reputation of being cruel. In the unfinished poem, The (Golden) Ass Machiavelli puts in the mouth of a women a long and wise lecture on politics, history and the human condition.

Like Professor Mansfield, I mourn and bemoan the fading of gentlemen in political life in particular and in social life in general. I know I will be severely chastised, but I do believe that women can be, and many of them are, perfect gentlemen, if to be a gentlemen means, as Mansfield writes, to be a person “who is gentle by habit and character,” and not because he or she “is somehow forced to be.” By these standards, Hillary is surely a better gentleman than Trump. For this reason too Machiavelli would support her over. Professor Mansfield, I respectfully suggest, should do the same thereby gaining Machiavelli’s admiration. I know that this would mean a lot for him, as it does for me.

Viroli Maurizio Viroli is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, and professor of political communication at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His many works include Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (Hill & Wang) and How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens (Princeton). His most recent book is The Quotable Machiavelli.

 

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

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Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.

 

Philosopher Jason Stanley on Donald Trump and mass incarceration

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Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration

by Jason Stanley

Donald Trump’s support is in large part due to the fact that he gives explicit voice to ideologies that are outside the bounds of public respectability. It is natural to think that the problem then is not Trump, but rather the prevalence of these ideologies. Indeed, you might think that in some sense Donald Trump couldn’t be the problem. A candidate giving voice to such ideologies would only attract support to the extent to which those ideologies have underlying support. If so, much of the criticism that has been directed at Trump’s candidacy is misguided. Perhaps we should even be grateful to Trump for making explicit what is so often present yet hypocritically denied.

And yet it is a powerful thought that the very mark of a demagogue is precisely their willingness to exploit the ideological spaces left firmly outside the sphere of “respectable” public discourse. Hannah Arendt writes:

…the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over.[1]

Arendt is quite clear that Trump’s campaign strategy is the favored choice of democracy’s worst enemies. But she does not explain how giving public voice to disreputable ideology is a greater threat to democracy than the fact of its existence.

The prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and commitment to harsh retributive justice is undeniably a problem that is independent of Donald Trump. But Trump’s political strategy poses an additional threat to democratic practice. Even when fundamentally illiberal ideologies are publicly repudiated, they serve as barriers to fair democratic deliberation, as politicians appeal to them with the use of coded language (“inner city”, “welfare”). As long as the public ethos against them remains firmly in place, there is a strategy to combat coded appeals to illiberal ideologies, colloquially known as “calling it out”. But Trump is not denying he holds these ideologies; he rather advertises it. In so doing, he legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain. When illiberal ideologies are rendered legitimate, it is no longer clear what strategy to employ to combat them.

In a healthy democracy, democratic deliberation is guided by a norm of impartiality, in the sense that policy makers at least take themselves to be responsible to such a norm, others take them to be responsible to this norm, etc. In political philosophy, there are disputes about which notions of impartiality should be at the basis of liberal democracy. The most important aspect of impartiality is what has come to be known as reasonableness. To be reasonable in one’s conduct towards others is a matter of being open to these other perspectives.

The norm of reasonableness has a long history in democratic political thought. The most well-known contemporary formulation is due to John Rawls:

Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so. Those norms they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them; and they are ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose. (John Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 49)

It could hardly be fair to expect some citizens to comply with a policy if it was devised without their perspectives in mind. Policy that is genuinely fair must come from deliberation that takes every reasonable perspective into account. The stability of democracy as a system therefore depends upon a citizenry who are not sealed off from the perspectives of their reasonable co-citizens by fear, panic, or hatred. A general belief that Jews are out to deceive will undermine reasonable public discourse, as it will lead citizens to discount the actual perspective of their Jewish co-citizens in forming policy. It would be no surprise to discover in such a society policies unfair to Jewish citizens.

Problematic ideological divisions do not immediately disappear in a society even when wars are fought to overcome them. But in the presence of a public ethos that repudiates them, it becomes unacceptable to endorse them in public. As Tali Mendelberg has brilliantly described, this does not mean that the problematic ideological fissures become politically neutralized. It rather means that politicians who seek to exploit them must do so in a way that does not undermine the public’s view of them as reasonable public servants. This dialectic, applied to the ideological fissure of racism in the United States, is aptly reflected in a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, later to lead George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, with the notorious Willie Horton ad:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

When a politician uses language that explicitly represents a group in negative terms, it undercuts the social norm that keeps such ideological fissures part of the private sphere. Since it is assumed that legitimate public discourse is guided by a norm of reasonableness, it gives an aura of reasonableness to the description of Muslims as terrorists, Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, or climate science as “bullshit”.

Certain ideologies subordinate by targeting a group, and representing the perspectives of its members as unworthy of consideration in the formation of policy. In the extreme case, such ideologies dehumanize its targets. When ideologies that subordinate or dehumanize a group are legitimated in public debate about policies governing members of that group, democratic deliberation about policy is placed into crisis. We can see this process quite clearly at work by considering the effects of public discourse about US criminal justice practices from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

Violent crime declined continuously and steeply throughout the 1990s, beginning in 1991. But the debate about criminal justice policy and practice during this time was ideologically removed from this reality. Criminal justice policy had become a proving ground for politicians to demonstrate their perceived toughness. Debate was infused by an ethos that frowned on expressions of empathy for perpetrators. Dehumanizing vocabulary targeting those caught up in the criminal justice system was commonplace, and many of the words were racially coded (“super predator”, “thug”, “gang member”, though not “sex offender”). Rehabilitation is hard to envisage for those described as “thugs”, “super predators”, or “gangsters”. These are words that describe persons whose characters are resistant to any such method. Criminal justice practices became harshly retributive as a consequence.

Though the precise mechanisms continue to be a matter of debate, it is widely agreed that the culture surrounding crime policy had an effect on criminal justice practices that was both rapid and extreme. The U.S. Incarceration rate hovered around the norm for liberal democracies of 100 per 100,000 for many decades until the late 1970s. Then it started to rise; the current rate of 756 per 100,000 in prison or jail is by far the highest in the world. The United States has also developed a culture of policing marked by a level of fear and lack of empathy that is without parallel in liberal democracies (a 2015 headline of an article in the Guardian states “By the Numbers: US Police Kill More in Days than Other Countries do in Years”). Nor is the unprecedented decrease in crime since 1991 tightly connected to the intensely punitive criminal justice path the United States chose to take in the 1990s. Canada has experienced a similarly unprecedented drop in crime during this same time period, without following the US path into mass incarceration.

The harshly punitive criminal justice practices that emerged from the American public culture of the 1990s have harmed the United States morally and fiscally, as well as its standing in the world. Rhetoric in the public sphere that describes immigrants as “rapists” and “terrorists” can be expected to have a similar effect on immigration policy. And since Trump uses all opportunity for political debate as a means to signal toughness, the realization of the electoral power of his political strategy poses a broad challenge to democratic practices.

Let us return to the comparison between a political climate in which politicians must cleverly conceal an appeal to (say) racism so it is noticed only by fellow racists, on the one hand, and one in which politicians feel free to loudly proclaim it, on the other. A plausible moral to take from the politics of criminal justice policy and practice in the United Slates in the late 1980s and 1990s is that there is a significant additional policy cost in the latter climate. Politicians signaled their toughness to voters by flaunting their lack of empathy for those accused of crimes. The criminal justice practices that grew out of this were harshly cruel and socially and economically destructive.

American politicians typically avoid rhetorical strategies that explicitly dehumanize even widely disparaged groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, this mechanism of protection evaporated in the debate surrounding criminal justice. American politicians eagerly trolled for votes by employing incendiary rhetoric to describe criminal offenders. The result is the current crisis.

Trump’s candidacy is focused on policy debates whose structure parallels that of the criminal justice debate, where there is a clear “friend/enemy” distinction exploitable for political gain, such as immigration and terrorism. His rhetoric emulates the dehumanizing tropes of the late 1980s and 1990s criminal justice debate. This is no accident, as Trump developed this rhetorical style during these very debates. Indeed, any history of the rhetorical excesses of that debate must include the full page advertisement Donald Trump published in several New York city newspapers in 1989, during the trial of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers on trial for the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park, entitled BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY BRING BACK OUR POLICE”. It said the “crazed misfits” causing crime in city streets “should be forced to suffer, and when they kill, should be executed for their crimes” (the teenagers were later discovered to be innocent). In the current campaign, criminal justice is again central. Trump urges the country, in language evoking that previous era, “we have to get a lot tougher on crime.” One of this signature campaign issues is broadening the use of the death penalty. His “tough on crime” rhetoric has already been credited with threatening to undermine the bipartisan consensus that there is a crisis of incarceration.

Trump is also increasingly experimenting with the most extreme dehumanizing representations, ones that have pre-genocidal associations. His first national advertisement, released this week, showed Mexican immigrants as insects scurrying and scattering like an infestation. It would be nice to dismiss such representations as unlikely to affect public debate. History suggests that this is wishful thinking. The representation of targeted groups as insects or vermin is a theme in Nazi propaganda about Jews; in the buildup to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu ethnic radio pride radio stations began calling Tutsi, “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”. Recent US history with the criminal justice debate suggests we may even be particularly vulnerable.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, politicians across the political spectrum seemed to tacitly agree that reasonable criminal justice policy would have to be sacrificed for electoral expediency. Debate about criminal justice became a way of appealing to the worst appeals to fear and voters’ desire for revenge, without fear of social sanction by the media or the public. Democrats could freely use it to enact the flawed masculine ideal of a complete lack of empathy. The case of US criminal justice policy shows that when democratic deliberation breaks down in this way, it is not just the democratic process that is lost. Trump’s campaign promises to broaden this to every policy debate. Its success is already leading to broader emulation. More than just our democracy is in peril.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace and Company: San Diego, 1973), p. 351.

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Most recently, he is the author of How Propaganda Works. Read more on his website, here.

New Philosophy Catalog

We invite you to explore our Philosophy 2016 catalog:

 

Stanley Be sure to check out How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley’s examination of how our political system is influenced and debilitated by the subtle use of propaganda, supported with historical examples.
Frankfurt From the New York Times bestselling author of On Bullshit we bring you On Inequality in which Harry G. Frankfurt cogently argues that instead of focusing on reducing inequality, we should be focusing on eliminating poverty. This book will change the conversation on one of the most divisive issues of our time.
Smith Don’t miss The Philosopher. Justin E.H. Smith challenges us to rethink our traditional view of what makes a philosopher by introducing us to different types and putting them in historical context.
MontgomeryChirot PUP is excited to see that The Shape of the New by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot has been included in the New York Times Sunday Book Review Notable Books of 2015.

For these and other new titles, scroll through our catalog above. If you would life updates on new titles emailed to you, subscribe to our newsletter.

Finally, if you’re attending the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Annual Meeting from January 6 to January 9 in D.C., visit us at the Princeton booth!