22 September 2017

The dirty e-word

Let’s look at the Republic again.

And I can hear you groaning, gentle reader. Too bad.

The thing members of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite who seek a prisca classica seem to either forget about him, or simply never bothered to look at in the first place, is that he has a complex and dialectical approach to the topic of equality ἰσότης. It’s not a dirty word for him. There are two places in the Republic where it appears prominently: the first, in the introduction to Glaucon’s myth of Gyges, where it’s decried as a fiction of law which the truly powerful would ignore if they could, to make themselves happy. The other is in Socrates’ conversation with Adeimantus in describing the traits of Athenian democracy.

Glaucon’s charge against equality actually rings very similar in tone to that of Callicles in the Gorgias, and it’s noteworthy that:
  • The charge against equality in the Gorgias is linked intrinsically to the notions of ‘natural justice’ that Callicles levels at Socrates. What Callicles misses (but Socrates is astute enough to catch, when he calls Callicles a ‘lover of the Athenian dēmos δῆμος’) is that this demand for inequality is shaped by a certain attachment to the law of mass rule. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is precisely a democratic sentiment – but not an egalitarian one.

  • What Socrates objects to about democracy itself, though, is that it establishes a ‘law of equality’ (Adeimantus’ phrasing – 561c) and ‘dispens[es] a certain equality to equals and unequals alike’ (558c). This establishment and dispensation of equality-as-a-law (even between unequals) has the ironic and tragic effect of destroying equality in practice. This we can see most clearly when the democratic régime degenerates into tyranny; when the ‘law of equality’ ceases to distinguish between noble and base pleasures. Orwell’s ‘some animals are more equal’ was originally a Socratic paradox.
Socrates’ treatment of equality, as we can see, is wrapped in thick layers of irony. Democracy and equality exist in an unstable dialectical tension with each other, as democratic norms require certain egalitarian assumptions for their legitimacy, and yet the practice of democracy can (and does) undermine that same egalitarianism by establishing it as a law – equalising the desires, equalising the passions, equalising want with need, equalising base with noble, equalising youth with age, equalising vice with virtue. But this is a logic that leads to tyranny as individualist qualms begin ‘crowding out’ the possibility of persuasion. The truth is that Mencius Moldbug, Vox Day and the like are the perfect democrats, the perfect Cathedral-dwellers who still uphold the full meaning of equality-as-a-law, and indeed demand it for themselves and their ideas.

But Socrates clearly doesn’t do away with the desire for ἰσότης altogether. He knows too well where that leads! To deny equality altogether would be to emerge in the rôle of Callicles, the Thirty, Alcibiades or an unreformed Glaucon (Gyges) – on the other side of the equality-democracy-tyranny dialectic, denying the desirability or even the possibility of justice. Equality is, instead, a conditional good. Instead of holding up equality-as-a-law to be accepted in full or denied in full, the Socratic dialogues (and especially the Republic) ask the questions of ‘what is equality for’?

The irony is that Marx is a better follower of the Greek Classics than the alt-right is. Sadly, Americans (vulgar and propagandistic as our educations are) have been conditioned to hear ‘Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen’ as a slogan of pure egalitarianism, but it clearly isn’t. It conditions the demand for equality on physical ability and on biological need. In fact, in context, the Kritik des Gothaer Programms more broadly attacks idealistic and naïve understandings of ‘equality’ and upholds this more conditional understanding, situating it within a broader anthropological and historical teleology.

The dirty little secret of Hegel, in fact, is that he’s a not-so-secret Aristotelian, and so is his dialectical-materialist student who stood him on his head. The Germans depended on the Greeks as much as the Greeks depended on the Persians. This is why good Aristotelians of our age like MacIntyre found much to admire in Marx even after their conversions away from Marxism, and why good Platonists of our age like Milbank, though approaching Hegel and Marx much more cautiously, still do not reject them outright. This may be a topic I revisit in further depth some other day.

In the meantime, Plato deserves to be read as he is. He clearly doesn’t approve of ἰσότης as something to be pursued for its own sake, as a law unto itself, but he does see the value of ἰσότης in conditional forms, as an indicator (but not the sum total) of justice.

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