Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Plato Meets Putin

It’s safe to say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left most of the world stunned. Political pundits have been rapidly adjusting their paradigms to account for such an action, spinning speculative tales of how, precisely, the world could finally get to this point. On Sunday, Politico published a piece by Ben Judah entitled “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West.” The story? A formerly strong American and European alliance in defense of human rights has dissipated with the rise of a corrupt European business practices and a decline in American diplomatic influence. In short, Europe may talk big about human rights, but it’s unwilling to put its money, or in this case, it’s trillion-dollar trade partnership, where its mouth is.

The Republic and Western Decline

This all stands in stark contrast to an era in Western history where Americans and Europeans rallied against the terrors of communism, and denounced the egregious human rights abuses of the dread former Soviet Union (all with the best of motives in mind, of course). But the West has moved on, departing from a glorious military alliance to a conglomerate of corporate empires with all the evil Western capitalistic corruption contained therein.

To better grasp exactly the force of this argument, it’s time to dust off our Plato. The Republic contains a lengthy description of the nature of the aristocratic society, a just, well-ordered government, in which the spirit and appetites are held in check by the ordering principle of reason and all is done to promote the harmony of the whole.

From there, unfortunately, society begins a trajectory of decline. The first step is a fall from aristocracy into a timocracy, a form of government that now seeks power through honor and military force, as spirit is exalted above reason. The timocracy then declines into an oligarchy, a society in which money is exalted above feats of arms, and in which government power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Oligarchy declines to democracy, which, for Plato, elevates freedom above all else, but its elevation of freedom brings about the destruction of limits and restraint. Ultimately, the democratic society is unsustainable, and needs a strong figured to impose order through power, resulting in the final collapse into tyranny.

The bleak picture of the dissolution of military alliances in the rise of a European trade empire is reminiscent of The Republic’s movement from timocracy into oligarchy. The grand military alliances have all given way to the business regime, an economic mammoth run by European executives, which have rendered the West impotent in the face of Russian aggression. Why? If Plato's diagnosis is to be believed, it's because the timocracy had already been rocked off its moral foundation, and money is a good peacetime alternative to glory.

At the very least, I think we have another problem popping up on our radar, and that is the tendency of Plato’s dread democratic soul to surface in our own society. The elimination of restraints because of “FREEDOM” to do whatever you want is quite the rage, nowadays (see the proliferation of sexual ideologies, mass entertainment culture, and all the other despicabilities of contemporary Western culture). It seems that the West today is a hodge-podge of all of Plato’s less-than-ideal governments tossed together.

What then? Go back to timocracy because it’s better than an oligarchy?

I give that a resounding no. It may be that an appeal to arms is necessary, I’ll leave that decision to those above my pay grade, but I can say that pro-‘Merica, saber-rattling hawkishness is not the solution. The answer to a deficient system is not a slightly-less-deficient one. The solution is always the pursuit of that which is good, which is a daunting task in our crazy society.

At anyrate, I think the Politico article also serves as an excellent reminder of how culture and morality steer politics. Western culture is spending its moral capital faster than it can replenish it, and other nations are calling our bluff.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: Unidentified Soldiers patrolling the Simferopol Airport in Crimea, Feb 28, 2014.

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