Chapter 65: One Power
“Once upon a time
those who ruled according to the Way
didn’t use it to make people knowing
but to keep them unknowing.
People get hard to manage
when they know too much.
Whoever rules by intellect
is a curse upon the land.
Whoever rules by ignorance
is a blessing on it.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
In her commentary on this chapter, LeGuin observes: “This is a mystical statement about government—and in our minds those two realms are worlds apart.” World events are now conspiring to help us understand how they are bound.
Last week, Tara Isabella Burton profiled the man often referred to as “Putin’s brain”: Alexander Dugin. She explains:
“The notion of an independent Ukraine, in [Putin’s] view, is a fiction propagated by the “secular authorities” of the decadent West. Instead, to the Russian president, Russia and Ukraine exist in “spiritual unity” — not only because of their shared Orthodox Christian faith but also because both peoples claim the lineage and cultural ancestry of “Ancient Rus,” a medieval, Kyiv-centred federation. The idea of “spiritual unity” hints at a mystical strain in Putin’s thinking. Indeed, he appears to see his imperial war as an earthly manifestation of a wider, mythic battle between traditional order and progressive chaos. To understand that mysticism — to understand the ideas underpinning the assault on Ukraine — we must look to one of Putin’s most profound influences: the far-right occult writer and philosopher Alexander Dugin.”
“The far-right mystical writer who helped shape Putin’s view of Russia,” Washington Post, May 12th
Dugin’s worldview is shaped by a late 19th century philosophy known as Traditionalism, a reactionary movement that sees modernity as a spiritual calamity.
Lao-Tzu’s cryptic remarks might sound like music to the ears of a would-be dictator. After all, ruling “by intellect” would seem to be the MO of modern democracy: liberal institutions are designed to produce and disseminate knowledge, to inform and educate citizens as much as possible. Whether it comes to education, politics, technology, science, or economics, the general thrust of modernity is that, as Kevin Kelly puts it, “information wants to be free,” and free access to information is good.
But for today’s autocrats (from Trump to Putin to Xi) and their court intellectuals (from Steve Bannon to Dugin to Wang Huneng) this freedom is a curse. In his book, The Great Delusion, international relations theorist John Mearschiemer points to the dark side of liberalism’s attempts to “govern by intellect” articulated by Leo Strauss:
“A close look at Strauss’s writings suggests that he believes reason’s strong suit is not discovering truth but calling into question existing moral codes and other widely held beliefs. He comments at one point that “the more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.” This belief in reason’s deconstructive power helps explain why Strauss thinks political philosophers are a danger to their own society and also why he believes political philosophy reached a dead end with Nietzsche. In other words, even though political philosophy is deeply concerned with the noble pursuit of the good life, it is ultimately a self-destructive enterprise because it privileges reason.”
For Mearschiemer, the war in Ukraine is a sign that we are waking up from “the dream of reason,” the view that has prevailed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and, more broadly, since the end of World War II: that history is a progressive movement toward liberalism, a form of policy economy rooted in reason that is neutral about substantive moral and religious questions. This is our common sense, and it is why LeGuin perceives a gulf between the mystical and the political. Fukuyama’s “end of history” means not just the end of the contest between different forms of political economy, but the defeat of the mystical by the rational.
Fukuyama’s teacher—and Strauss’s student—Allan Bloom was well aware of the dangers posed by liberal modernity. The second part of his classic The Closing of the American Mind is devoted to “Nihilism, American Style.” But unlike the Traditionalists, Bloom saw a way through: not rule by intellect, but intellect integrated with imagination. It is buried in his masterful translation and commentary on Plato’s Republic.
The Republic is a dialogue about the nature of justice, and begins with the elimination of several proposed definitions. The first definition, advanced by the old man Cephalus, is that justice is telling the truth, paying one’s debts, and making due sacrifices to the gods in hopes of a good afterlife. The definition is dispensed with within the first page of the dialogue; in so doing, Plato immediately tosses out tradition, and with it what Bloom calls “the authority of the ancestral.” Autonomous reason, not inherited tradition, must now secure the legitimacy of the laws.
But it quickly becomes obvious that reason is not up to the task. In Books II and III, as Socrates and his interlocutors design the system of education for the rulers of their fledgling ideal society, they become preoccupied with the question of what stories they will tell to make the rulers good. They quickly realize that the storytellers, or poets, must be strictly supervised; all the R-rated stuff from Homer must be cut out, and the gods can never be depicted in a bad light. Instead, the guardians—and the society as a whole—must be told a “noble lie”: that they are all children of Mother Earth, and that everyone is born with a certain concentration of metal in their veins—gold, silver, and bronze—that determines their rank in the social hierarchy—as rulers, soldiers, or workers. To top it all off, a prophecy warns that any tampering with this system will result in social collapse. Socrates insists that we must tells a story, because we do not know the truth about the gods and the origins of society. Censorship and propaganda, in short, are presented as pillars of Plato’s just society. Beyond that, there is a eugenics program: the philosopher-kings fit to rule are not only given the best education; they are selectively bred. Not without reason did Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society, criticize Plato as a proponent for totalitarianism.
But all is not as it seems, especially in Plato’s texts. In Book VIII, the aristocracy collapses. Why? Because the rulers miscalculate the breeding schedule, and the mongrel rulers that result “drag the constitution toward money making.” The attempt to rule by intellect “brings a curse upon the land.” So commences a corruption of constitutions. Democracy, the second worst regime, becomes “drunk on the unmixed wine of freedom,” and because they come to “know too much”—or think they know so much—the people become “hard to manage.” The resulting political paralysis is so unbearable that they cry out for a strong man to come in and, well, fix it. Democracy breeds tyranny.
Both dictatorship and what Andrew Sullivan has called “late stage democracy” are “ruled by intellect.” Put more precisely, they are ruled by different forms of certainty, both of which turn into reason’s opposite: fantasy. By trying to control the populace through propaganda, the dictator is ruled by an intellect ruled by the desire for power. He projects a fantasy onto the people because he is spellbound by a fantasy of his own. By abandoning all respect for tradition and hierarchy, the democrat is ruled by an intellect ruled by the desire for pleasure. The dictator is certain that certainty must be instilled, the democrat is certain of the contradiction that nothing is certain and that his view is correct. They are different forms of closing minds and being close minded.
The surface reading here is that Plato rejects democracy and prefers aristocracy (and keep in mind that aristocracy literally means “rule by the best,” not the Downton Abbey situation the word conjures in your mind). But the text also suggests that aristocracy is doomed due to human error. The human situation, we are led to surmise, is inherently tragic, and history is a cycle of the rise and fall of flawed regimes.
But Bloom offers another interpretation: The Republic is not a tragedy, but a comedy. The main goal of the text is to present a caricature of the attempt to design an ideal society on rational foundations without tradition. The result is so absurd, so ridiculous, so foolish that it should not be attempted. There are only two types of regime that allow space for philosophy: aristocracy and democracy. Since aristocracy ultimately breeds tyranny, and tyranny is the worst regime, democracy is the best form of government. Plato agrees, in other words, with Churchill: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Why? Because a healthy democracy leaves space for conscious ignorance—knowing what you don’t know. While it runs the risk of being consumed by unconscious ignorance and turning into an idiocracy, the risk is worth taking.
But to the freedom of intellect must be married the fruits of imagination. The key to a well-ordered democracy is found in the allegory of the Cave in Book VIII. The deep teaching of this is that the philosopher who has escaped the cave and seen the truth must return. Socrates points out that he must be careful, since the troglodytes will not believe what he says, think him crazy or dangerous, and will likely mock, exile, or kill him. He must therefore speak the language of shadows, work with images, and tell stories to subtly convey his ideas. He must perform a kind of inception on the people, seeding ideas in their unconscious, using dreams to draw them closer to reality. Analogy is the alchemy of intellect and imagination, and the allegory of the Cave is itself an analogy meant to help us see the necessary union of the logos and the mythos. It is that union that links the political and the mystical.
The autocrats are winning not because the story they are telling is true, but because they are telling a story and we are not. Liberalism is neither self-evident nor self-executing; it needs a good story to move people to fight for it. And as the dreampolitik of Trumpism, on January 6th, and Putin, this Spring, has slipped the bounds of rhetoric and burst into reality, liberalism is reawakening from its dogmatic slumber and called once again to use myth and might to make right. Might does make right, but only the mighty who doubt whether they are right have the right to make it.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”