MATERIALISM AS THE PRIMARY CAUSE OF TOTALITARIANISM, DEMONSTRATED (AT LEAST?) 2400 YEARS AGO

Choose your world, choose your regime

By Mark Sunwall, 10/7/22

Is the universe comprised of souls or composed of matter? If you consider that alternative an oversimplification, understand that it is only ventured in the hope of sparking some moral clarity. Perhaps you have no metaphysical inclinations, and are begging off from even having an opinion on the issue. That doesn’t matter and I’m not in the business of offering any definitive answers, although I have to admit, that its hard for me not to make a few passes in the direction of modern science, since in a cosmos now recognized as teaming with non-local forces, relativity, quantum mechanics, and other forms of weirdness, the philosophy I favor looks increasingly apt. But enough of that! Be a materialist if you want, but realize that your chosen ideology has consequences, grave consequences. Arguably, Materialism is the root of nihilism, but most patently, it is the route to tyranny.

This isn’t rocket science! I know materialists like to talk about something called “rocket science” as the acme of intellect, and we all have to respect that. No, you can be as dumb as dirt and understand this. It is a simple matter of A causes B, where A is materialism and B is tyranny. On the other hand, if you are wearing ideological blinders, you can happily ignore it. The choice is yours. But to illuminate that choice, it might help to have a genius point out the exact nexus between A and B by which the former causes the latter. Don’t worry, the proof has already been available for twenty-four centuries.

Plato’s choice

People raised on modern philosophy, tend to wince whenever Plato is mentioned as a political thinker. My intention here is not to make Plato out to be some sort of crypto-libertarian, but to show that his metaphysical-political argument in the Laws can be appropriated in the defense of liberty against modern totalitarianism, including, though not limited to, any and all contemporary Marxisms, which, however “Neo-“, or “Cultural” they may appear on the surface are grounded in the same materialist presuppositions as Classical Marxism. Granted, Plato is an odd friend of liberty. He was perhaps what we would call an authoritarian conservative today. Moreover, in his most famous dialogue Republic it seems that he even dabbels with the idea of a totalitarian utopia. Yet I sincerely doubt, whatever Karl Popper and others have opined on the subject, that Republic has been a major inspiration for latter day experiments in tyranny. The dialogue’s plot seems more like an elaborate thought-experiment than a serious manifesto. However for present purposes, these Platonic embarrassments are moot, including even the more realistic, but still very authoritarian, legislation in the Laws itself.

Before bashing Plato, one might consider from what direction comes today’s clear and present danger to human freedom and, indeed, to human survival. Is it, perhaps, from “religious fundamentalism” or perchance from crazed idealist sects, fanatically devoted to the likes of Plato, Spinoza, Leibnitz, or Malbrache? Even to the extent that they exist, I doubt that these are major threats. Rather it is a new form of intolerance, a kind of secularist “fundamentalism” which now haunts the entire world. And how did this come about? Through an unfortunate series of historical accidents? Through cunning plots and deceptions? Or has it been simply the concrete manifestation of an inevitable set of metaphysical presuppositions, which are finally bearing their bitterest fruits. If we are able to leave off Plato bashing, and disentangle the core metaphysical/normative nexus in the Laws from its half-baked cosmology and over-baked legislation, we may find ourselves in possession of an invaluable key for unlocking the mysteries of today’s moral crisis.

Chance, Art, and Nature

Though there are excellent translations available today, the core argument in the Laws for the metaphysical/moral nexus requires more than just a rendering into modern languages, it demands an imaginative clarification and restatement, to which I will now try my hand. On top of the usual distracting chit-chat of the interlocutors, this core argument is also obscured (perhaps deliberately) by heavy handed legislative suggestions, as well as disquisitions concerning the nature of the soul and rationality. These latter assume premises, such as that rotation in place is a more “rational movement” than locomotion, which are unlikely to persuade modern readers. Again, none of this really matters, because the core argument is only sketched out obliquely within the entire narrative section which ostensibly deals with “religion” and it doesn’t depend on any one or other of the assertions regarding particular metaphysical objects, e.g., “the soul.” That said, at least we are able to get some traction on the primary terms of the argument in the section following (889ff.) where the “Athenian” is illustrating the opinions of “the atheists” i.e., of materialists. (note)

“The facts show–so they claim–that the greatest and finest things in the world are the products of nature and chance, the creations of art being comparatively trivial. The works of nature, they say, are grand and primary, and constitute a ready-made source for all the minor works constructed and fashioned by art…They maintain that fire, water, earth, and air owe their existence to nature and chance, and in no case to art, and it is by means of these entirely inanimate substances, that the secondary physical substances– earth, sun, moon, and stars–have been produced. These substances moved at random, each impelled by its own inherent properties…and the consequent establishment of the four seasons led to the appearance of all plants and living creatures. Art, the brain-child of these living beings, appeared latter, the mortal child of mortal beings. But…there are in fact some techniques…that cooperate with nature, like farming, and medicine, and physical training…”

Thus far the Athenian has given an easily recognizable (both then and now) portrait of the materialist world-view. The world is the result of random interactions of substances, which accounts for the vast majority of the facts of the universe. However at some point living beings discover they can produce intentional works, which are different from the given works of nature. The appearance of “art” doesn’t require any revision of the overall materialist world-view, and the Athenian goes out of his way to indicate that the materialists (at least of Plato’s time) saw the human world as a small and superficial island in the vast ocean of matter and chance. Obviously this is not a particularly attractive world-view from the point of view of Plato, or other (religious, idealistic etc.) thinkers. None the less, it might be considered a virtuous point of view, if realism and tough-mindedness were the only points in consideration. However there is a further factor to be taken into account, the political dimension, which, after all, is the ostensible theme of the Laws. Hence the Athenian continues,

“This school of thought [materialism] maintains that government, in particular, has little to do with nature, and is largely a matter of art; similarly legislation is never a natural process but is based on technique, and its enactments are quite artificial.”

Immediately we can see a number of things. First of all, here we can find an obvious motive for adopting the otherwise uncongenial world-view of materialism, the promise of freedom. It may be a false promise of an illusory “freedom” which, on the contrary, will guide its advocates down a road to political subjection. Many, especially in modern times, will embark on this road to serfdom, ignoring the warning contained in the Laws. For example, in the 19th century Nietzsche will prefer Thucydides to Plato, an in the 20th century so will certain followers of Leo Strauss, not all of them, and perhaps not Strauss himself, but at any rate those who have had an influence on American public policy.

Plato’s argument against materialism (as opposed to the positive arguments concerning “rationality” etc.) is an argument from consequences as contained in 889ff of Laws. This argument revolves around three critical terms, chance, art, and nature. Chance (or chaos) and art (moderns prefer the term “culture”) are antithetical, and according to which of them is primary “nature” will take on either one or the other of two opposing meanings. These two meanings are not explicitly defined in the Laws, but from the gist of the argument can be clearly understood. The following sequences illustrate the contrasting structure of materialism on the one hand, and the opposing view, for which there is no single name, but which might be called “spiritual” or perhaps (since we are speaking of Plato here) “ensouled” or more simply just the “pious” world-view.

Materialism: chance–> nature (a)–> art(y)

“Pious” world-view: art(x)–> nature(b) –> art(y)

Obviously, art (y) refers to human art in both cases, while art (x) refers to the action of a creator, in the case of Plato the demiurgos, or divine artisan. More interesting is the difference between the opposed concepts of nature. Nature (a) is a chaos, produced by chance, while nature (b) is an order, or a cosmos. Plato, through his interlocutors, is plugging for the “pious” view, against the popular materialism of his time, and adduces several arguments on its behalf. These kinds of arguments have continued down through history, and in its present form is generally referred to as the “argument for (or against) intelligent design.” As promised, I won’t delve into that argument here. Rather, we will remain focused on the ethical, and especially political consequences of accepting one or the other of these world-views.

Politics as Imitation vs. Politics as Creation

Granted, there are few libertarian delights to be found in the works of Plato. One especially erudite libertarian thinker has even advanced the contrary thesis that the pedigree of Western liberty should be traced back through Piere Gassendi (17th century) to ancient materialism. Yet whatever one thinks of Plato as a legislator or his pet projects involving “philosopher-kings” the core argument at the end of the Laws regarding the nexus between world-views and politics stands alone. Not only do I think it is valid, but would seem that it has assumed increasing relevance with the acceleration of modernity.

If we take the alternative versions of nature sketched above, and put them into graphic (or as per Plato “mythic”) form, we get the following. In the first world view we have a vast ocean of chaos, which after aeons of chance eventually manifests a small island of human rationality and consciousness which Plato calls “art.” In the second world view the cosmos is ordered and rational from its origin, and the only remaining task of human societies to reduce the disharmony and chaos of human nature by imitating the archetypes provided by a rational creation.

From Plato’s perspective, the worst possible outcome would be that the wanton drives of human passion would destroy society, leading to a state of anarchy. Needless to say, the anarchy of Plato’s imagination was no “anarchist utopia” where human nature is so perfected that laws are superfluous, but rather a sub-social war of all against all. Whether his fears were justified, and of course they were a product of his own historical experience, the modern imagination has generally tended to evaluate the liberties of Periclean Athens more highly than the puritanical legislation of the Republic, or even the milder Laws.

Unfortunately, Plato may have been more accurate as a prophet of modernity than as a critic of ancient society. The “worst case scenario” of today far exceeds the fears of Plato for the democratic Greek cities, because the modest “art” of Plato has developed into the Cyclops-like demigods which we call modern “science” and “technology.” Therefore we must extend the argument of the Laws to show how dangerous the metaphysics/politics nexus has become. In terms of the materialist world view, we find that the island of human rationality has expanded to continental size, and now it can be imagined that it will replace the ocean of pre-human chaos completely. In essence, although it is seldom stated so boldly, it is held that the task of the human species is to create a new universe.

The “pious” of the world object that this is madness, and that there is no need to recreate a world into which we were born and to which we owe our being. Or in the poetic words attributed to a certain ancient king, “It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves.” If the materialist were candid, which they are not, their rebuttal would be a restatement of their basic paradigm as outlined by Plato in the Laws. They would say “We are growing human freedom at the expense of the outer world of chaos. We are making the island of humanity larger in the void of space, or if you prefer a different metaphor, we are enlarging the clearing of rational consciousness by pushing back its perimeter against the forest of chaos.”

In fact, they ceased to make any such arguments long ago. If they had continued to do so, it would have exposed their true motives, and it would have made them vulnerable to the central argument against materialism which appears in Plato. Instead they have tried to out-pious the genuinely pious with misdirection and moral censure. Now total social and technological control must be maintained “to protect Mother Nature.” The piety seems to be for exoteric consumption, and the control for insiders.

Which, ironically, was always the big objection to Plato, elitism. However, with regard to the metaphysics/politics nexus he seems to have got it right. Materialism and tyranny go hand in hand, but more so in our age than in his. The authoritarianism of Plato was intended to limit his model human society within the bounds of nature, a nature conceived as a created order. In any case, the key word here is limit. Even the supposed adversary of Plato’s interlocutor “the Athenian” vaguely described as “the young atheist” was a creature of limited imagination. He might have wished to debauch nature (conceived as chaos) but he had not the means of actually replacing nature with a novel world of his own creation. Keep in mind that Plato lived in a world which was not only prior to the industrial revolution, but even prior to Archimedes.

In contrast, we live in a world where all limits have been removed to the possibilities of reality-creation. I am not speaking here of magic. The materialist does not seek to pull reality out of thin air. She or he does not seek to replace the Creator God of the Abrahamic faiths. Materialists don’t believe in such a God who creates ex nihilo. Rather, they seek to perform the work of the Platonic demiurgos, subjecting the matter of a preexisting chaos to their own intelligence. Not that they believe in Plato’s divine workman either, who might have endowed them with a cosmos worthy of imitation. Rather they, as the first intelligent beings born into a world of chaos, conceive themselves as having a free hand in the creation, not even a of “new order”, but of the first cosmic order to merit the name. The free hand given to the world-planners by technological advances allows them to restructure reality without limit. There is certainly no ethical limit, because modern materialists, like Plato’s “young atheist” but with greater salience, are working on chaotic matter of no intrinsic value, apart from the form which has been imparted to it by the planners.

If the “chaos” which the planners intended to replace was limited to physical things it would be alarming enough to genuine conservationists and natural preservationists, keeping in mind that the rhetoric has been inverted as a form of misdirection to portray the reality-makers as allies of all things “natural.” However the primary “chaos” which the materialist seeks to replace are “mental” (a.k.a., spiritual) things such as the “archaic” foundations of human mores and institutions. These things, above all others, serve merely as the raw materials for the creation of a new reality dictated by the whims of the planners.

Venturing out on seas of lemonade

In conclusion, we can see that embedded in the ontology of materialism is the eschatology of totalitarianism, since, given sufficient technological advancement, it generates a logic of autonomous reality-creation by human planners, themselves necessarily limited to a small group of like-minded people possessed of a coherent plan. Everything hinges on a prejudice against the existing cosmos, which is devalued a chaotic. Without a cosmos or a cosmic Creator, there is no standard of judgement apart from arbitrary human will, and in practice, of whatever group attains sufficient hegemony to become the world-planners. As unlovely as Plato’s legislation seems in retrospect, we can understand how both its authority and rationale was limited by unchanging archetypes beyond the reach of human manipulation. On the other hand, even the “young atheist” of Plato’s consternation was merely a bad boy in contrast to modern totalitarianism, the essence of which is unlimited and continuous expansion of authority in accordance with the dynamic of reality-creation.

All of this could have been easily deduced, minus the Cyclops-like coefficient of modern technology, by Plato’s 2400 year old distinction between originary chaos and originary creation, with the materialist drawing the “correct”, so to speak, ethical conclusions from the first cosmogony. Granted to speak of “reality-creation” as the actual teleology of materialist elites seems rhetorically overblown, and more in the province of those who go in for magic, fantasy, and the more speculative genres of science fiction. It is hard to imagine serious people thinking in such terms without being mentally deranged. Yet the attitude is profoundly salient throughout the development of modernity, usually in unconscious, or at least tacit forms.

Occasionally the attitude has broken through the surface of private opinion and into public forums, sometimes in very odd, even charming forms. For example two centuries ago the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, thinking himself to be a prophet, pronounced that after the revolution of the future the seas would turn to lemonade. Whether he was altogether serious about this, or whether he was simply alluding to the power of reality-creation which would be granted to a future version of humanity I cannot say. Significantly, he doesn’t seem to have pondered the toxicity of a lemonade ocean, or that the rapid replacement of the salt water bodies by sugar water would bring life on Earth to a rapid end. Whatever the value of Fourier’s prognostications, he does seem to have understood the principle motive for materialist elites, at least in their modern forms.

And yet, when all is said and done the reality-making game must come to an end at some juncture, since “limits” are not just a prejudice of ancient philosophy, but they tend to manifest themselves in some fashion, whether one calls such manifestations, scarcity, the reality-principle…or simply, God.


(note) translation of Plato’s The Laws courtesy of Trever J. Saunders (Penguin, 1970)

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