I’m not going to apologize for being thoroughly pessimistic in the past month of posts; or if I do ask pardon, then I should start by craving it of myself. I have to live with me—and it ain’t easy these days! When a few national commentators dare to go off the script and mention the number of suicides that our lockdown will inspire, I know exactly what they mean. I’ve never been less afraid of death. I keep thinking of the first words uttered by Sophocles’ Teiresias when the blind prophet is led onto the stage of Oedipus Tyrannos: “What a fearful thing is thinking when it brings no profit to the thinker!”
Stay busy: yes, that’s always good advice. I’ve been in “lifeboat” mode now for several months, really. By that I mean that I have given the ship up as lost and am occupying myself with considering alternatives for possible survival on the dark, cold sea. Only since President Trump has begun signing off on multi-trillion dollar “stimulus packages”, though, have I actually been consuming distinctly less political commentary from sources I used to trust. There’s too much stuff that begins, “This is our last chance,” or, “We need to act immediately if we are to avoid disaster.” Wrong. The last chance has come and gone. Those spending bills were one helluva big iceberg that just carried away half of our hull. I can’t tolerate any more evasion of such hard facts. Lower the damn lifeboats.
But survival does indeed call for profitable thinking… so disillusion and even pessimism mustn’t turn to abject despair. We’ve lost the big one: now let’s win some little ones. I scarcely know where to start. I continue my routine of trying to acquire greater understanding, however, as a retired academic who mucks about in his infant orchards much of the day. I’ve begun reading two works that I probably should have read long ago: Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. As part of my regimen, I try to read new books in one of the non-English languages that I’ve studied for years—not in the illusion that I’ll ever “use” them in the future (whatever that means), but just because I hate to let a skill lapse into decay. You fire up your old Triumph and give her a little spin around the block once a week, not because you’ll ever seriously use the thing for transportation, but because… well, she deserves not to die if keeping her alive costs so little.
So, anyway, here I am reading Popper in Italian and Hayek in Spanish. (Somebody might murmur wryly, “You’re going to need that Spanish”… but, no, the Spanish I read isn’t anything remotely like the jabber we hear at Wal-Mart.) The irony is that both of these men came to English as a second language; so I’m accessing their thoughts through a tongue into which the original text has been rendered—but that text itself represented a tongue with which they struggled. Could there be a better illustration of the Spirit taking serene shape above a great cacophony of words? We are one, even in our misery.
I haven’t actually read quite a third of either book at this point, but I’ve seen enough to be intrigued. Hayek’s much-reprinted classic is littered with forewards and prefaces in the early going. I infer from all the explanations and further explanations that he was greatly surprised by the work’s success, especially in the U.S.; that he was nevertheless dismayed at how it had become caught up in a political tug-of-war as Joe McCarthy brought to public attention the degree of communist infiltration in our society; that he had never intended to condemn all kinds of government “planification” out of hand or to declare that their presence made totalitarian rule inevitable; and that his primary concern was simply that exposure to the notion of paternalistic government begins a long, long process of corrupted and surrendered freedoms. There is a mildness to this man, I find, that indeed makes him an unlikely dynamo at the center of a whirlwind. I see in him an apt illustration of a phenomenon we’ve come to know only too well: the slanderous caricature by the Left of anyone who dare question centralist, statist orthodoxy. McCarthy himself was thus tarred and feathered, and with scarcely more reason.
For my own purposes, considering where I am (i.e., deep in the hole of despair), I find a kind of comfort in Hayek’s big picture—a comfort, of course, which he would have been chagrined to provide. He obviously believed that we yet had time to reverse course in the Fifties, and even the Seventies (when the final edition of Road to Serfdom appeared). I suppose we probably did have time, even in the Nineties… but instead of regretting our bite of the apple, we came back and stripped the tree (with no less zeal during the two terms of George W. Bush than in any other era). The air of fatality which Hayek so heroically rejected settles, in retrospect, quite heavily over the past thirty years or so.
My son’s generation, in short, was not sold down the river into slavery only by Pelosi/McCormick “stimuli” and President Trump’s compliant pen. The dark stranger has been riding down the road since that distant day when we might first have spotted him exiting the mountain’s pass. And here I’ll toss a bone to the enemies of capitalism and slanderers of innocents like F.A. Hayek: our ravenous appetite for ease and convenience is deeply implicated in our rush to greet this sooty rider. We’ve been reared, at least since the end of World War II, to desire more stuff, cheaper stuff, and stuff of ever greater frivolity. The market made us such uncritical, undisciplined consumers. The cry that spurred us on from the new screens before which we were reared was, “Get it now, cheaper than ever! You deserve it!” Has not such thinking fed—yes, inevitably—into the yet more seductive cry, “Get it now, paid for by the rich! You’d already have it if they hadn’t stolen it from you!” The devilish rhetoric of the sell was indeed inevitable. It was our response that might have offered up resistance… but, you know, getting something free at the expense of “the rich” is an even better deal than getting it cheap at the expense of Chinese slave labor.
Karl Popper seems an odd companion in this discussion. I was surprised, upon consideration, at how perfectly The Open Society slides right in. I had no initial inkling that the book was a study of Plato’s utopian project in The Republic… and I was a little let down, honestly, upon making that discovery. Why would the previous century’s premier philosopher of science (as I like to think of him) be scribbling away like the antiquarians with whom I attended graduate school? Popper’s footnotes, indeed, were so voluminous that they posed a major obstacle to finding a publisher for the book. Among additional obstacles were the author’s self-imposed and shifting exile as Hitler tightened his grip on Central Europe, his struggles with the English language (as I’ve noted), and his need of American friends and contacts to mediate as he met with one rejection after another from publishing houses. Hayek was running up against exactly the same barriers at the same historical moment.
But at least one Austrian was tackling the central ideological issues of our time, while the other was retreating to… Plato? Not a retreat, however: no, but rather a recognition that these very issues were not at all distinct to our time, but were embedded in the human condition. As I muddled through the first pages of Popper’s tome (its title grotesquely caricatured by George Soros, that living master of satanically torturing words to mean their opposites), I made the further error of supposing that he was just thrusting his personal preoccupations where they didn’t belong. What had Plato to do with Hitler and Stalin? (And both Popper and Hayek, by the way, realized that those two miscreants had issued from the same sulfurous ideological womb.)
I won’t exhaust both myself and the reader by trying to encapsulate Professor Popper’s reading of Plato. A brutal compression would be to say that Plato, everybody’s most admired philosophical transcriptionist, is unmasked as having commandeered the reputation of Socrates—everybody’s most admired philosopher—to sell a totalitarian vision. (Just one example: Socrates’ “a man with power should always beware of his ignorance” becomes Plato’s “a man with power should be purged of ignorance”.) It’s all finely reasoned and meticulously documented, I promise you: hence the merciless footnotes. Yet I had never heard a peep about such interpretive possibilities during all my years in the academy. By the way, that interpretation turns out to fit. It isn’t the whimsy of an expatriate who subconsciously imposes the shadow of the dictator he so detests upon every bird, cloud, and blade of grass. It’s all perfectly convincing.
By way of illustration, I’ll confine myself to the Platonic theory of Forms or Ideas. I recall being exposed to this first as a college freshman, and thinking, “Those ancient Greeks… what a strange lot! Did they really think that we’re born with a Table Archetype in our heads that allows us to recognize a table?” Plato was offered up in just such incoherent, irrelevant terms; and, as I say, nothing I later heard in any ivory corridor added any profundity to my initial impressions.
Popper’s view, however, makes of the Forms something very like what I’ve written of recently as “future worship”: the adoration of hazy objectives, that is, merely because they exist in “tomorrow”, where we’re assured of having transformative superpowers. It is an irony, to be sure, that Plato’s gilded castles exist in the remotest of yesterdays—in the atavistic Heroic Age when men feasted with gods. Yet behind the irony is the link which binds Hitler and Stalin, Nazism and communism. Both visions take as their destination a point whose access—whose mere reality—cannot be validated by current perceptions, common sense, and humane moral imperatives. Both require that we become something we’re simply not; or, inasmuch as they acknowledge our being unequal to the task, both urge upon us the acceptance of a superman or a super-race. Both concede that the Peerless Leader’s superior authority cannot be logically deduced or rationally defended. Both demand of us, therefore, that we embrace a cultic fanaticism—that we suppress our individuality and merge ourselves into an obedient herd.
Precisely. This is true, it’s brilliant… and it’s disparaged or ignored by our academic institutions and broadcast media as they condition forthcoming generations to chew the cud of totalitarianism. Add Hayek to Popper, and you have an all-too-prophetic warning that the adoration of the Charismatic Leader who solves all of our problems for us is forever leaking into human societies, drop by drop, decade after decade. Didn’t the Old Testament teach us about our self-destructive craving for kings?
How is the combination implied in “permanent collapse” possible, I wonder? How can things forever be deteriorating in Hesiodic fashion if there were no genuine Heroic Age at the head of all the fallen dominoes? If we have always been as we are now—flawed, corrupt creatures in need of a redeemer outside our earthly time frame—then how can we also always be getting worse? Since we’ve always been bad, how do we manage to keep doubling down on it?
I don’t know, my friends… but such is the truth, or what little we can see of it. Perhaps it is our societies that are forever coming unraveled—and perhaps it is only redeemed individuals who forever keep bits and pieces of them from careening over the precipice: just enough for yet another try where the run-off of Eden’s gentle rain puddles.