Plato’s dialogues are full of strikingly individual characters who have been stamped by the accidents of their time and place but are nevertheless familiar to us from our own. A particularly fine example is the teacher of rhetoric Thrasymachus, who appears in the Republic.
Thrasymachus is directly acquainted with Athenian justice. He was a citizen of Chalcedon, one of over 100 subject-cities of Athens in the late 5th century. The imperial yoke so chafed the Chalcedonians that they revolted in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. The results were predictably bad.
Besieged by Athenian forces, the Chalcedonians were saved in 408 by the satrap Pharnabazus, who paid off the aggressors with Persian coin. In the Republic, which unfolds against the backdrop of these historical events, Thrasymachus is brought to a hard boil of indignation by the ridiculous spectacle of two Athenians, of all people, agreeing that it is never just to harm anyone. He interrupts the philosopher Socrates — for he is one of the Athenians — with astonishing belligerence.
Thrasymachos (Bold in Battle) knows that politics is nothing but domination and servitude, and that everything is political. He also thinks Socrates and his interlocutor are either fools or hypocrites, and Socrates in any case deserves scorn as he is a lowly craftsman, a stonecutter and intellectual amateur, whereas Thrasymachus’s professional knowledge and political office — he represented Chalcedon in diplomatic negotiations with the Athenians — place him in the ranks of the elite.
Thrasymachus polices Socrates’ language, forbidding him to offer certain answers to the question “What is justice?” An expert in the field of politics and an early practitioner of the hermeneutics of suspicion, he is certain that Socrates aims only to obscure the truth with specious arguments. He is therefore perfectly entitled to restrict his means of doing so.
Thrasymachus is quite the familiar character. Our highest-ranked universities have been training and credentialing his descendants for decades. He is more aggressive than inquisitive. His ideas are more precise than accurate, more critical than enlarging. His embrace of intellectual fashion springs in no small part from ambition. His combination of indignation, cynicism, social and intellectual elitism, and proclivity to abstract and totalising constructions is today unavoidable. He is the ancient ancestor of the contemporary ideological technocrat; types like him have recently flooded the political mainstream, altering the character of virtually every part of American life. They are the bitter fruit of an illiberal education.
By ideology, I’m referring to a reductive political theory that, when implemented, is incapable of securing the free and informed assent of the governed and so must rely on extensive fraud and compulsion. By technocrat, I mean someone belonging to a regime in which claims of scientific or technical expertise override traditional kinds of political authority and substitute for political debate.
Technocracy and ideology are intimately connected. Technocracy is necessarily ideological, for while the management of abject slaves may perhaps be reducible to a science, the governance of a political community — one in which free citizens share in the determination of public affairs — is not. Politics, a continual process of public deliberation and negotiation in the light of the available facts, engages and exercises the capacities of practical reason. It is a school of virtue, capable, at its best, of dignifying and ennobling human existence. Technocrats, though, regard human existence as a problem to be solved or a sickness to be cured; knowledge and agency belong almost exclusively to them, who approach the ignorant like surgeons preparing to operate on a patient.
Equally, ideology is very often technocratic. It is almost invariably so in late modernity, an era infatuated with what is unreflectively called Progress — the advancement and practical application of science. But the mixture of ideology and scientific expertise generates pseudo-sciences, such as Leninist dialectical materialism, which are used to consolidate and justify despotism. In this, as in other respects, modern ideological tyrannies trace their ancestry, as Karl Popper showed 80 years ago in The Open Society and its Enemies, to Callipolis, the Republic’s infamous city of philosopher-kings.
The prototype of all scientific tyrannies, Callipolis deceives, manipulates, and constantly surveils its citizens; its very name, Noble and Beautiful City, is a lie. The regime claims to achieve perfect justice for all, offering what Karl Marx, in another context, called a “solution to the riddle of history”. Although radical technocratic and ideological responses to that riddle seem to lead only to final solutions, the nightmare of total scientific control in the name of justice and human liberation continues to stalk the West like a zombie horde.
The United States remains a constitutional republic, but technocratic progressivism threatens its future as a representative democracy. It is telling that, in the mouths of the governing elites, the word “democracy” no longer refers to government of, by, and for the people, but to progressive policies that are endorsed by credentialed experts yet have little popular support. And now we must contend with a monstrous union of science and politics that lames and deforms both.
Consider government responses to Covid. At the outset of the pandemic, a handful of unelected public health officials immediately began to advise and direct policy decisions of enormous consequence. Our elected officials in the US, trembling before these scientific experts, have followed their recommendations with little consideration of the cost that lockdowns, school closures, vaccine mandates, and the like exact on the economic and political well-being of the country and the mental and physical health of its citizens. Similar measures were adopted across the globe.
Americans have from the beginning been told to follow the science, but the science has mostly followed politics. In June 2020, for example, over 1,200 medical and health professionals signed a letter arguing that, despite the high risk of viral transmission, prohibitions then in force on small gatherings like church services should not apply to large (and frequently destructive and violent) demonstrations protesting what the authors called “the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy”. And when the science pointed toward the likely origin of Covid in a Wuhan lab, top health officials conspired — for political reasons — to smother that news.
More ominously, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and most of the corporate media have acted, and continue to act, as willing handmaids of our public health officials. They have eagerly embraced the role of Covid censors, monitoring and restricting debate, dissent, and the flow of information — the lifeblood of all knowledge, and, in Tocqueville’s view, the last bulwark against complete servitude to the new form of oppression he called “administrative despotism”. Public speech is now substantially mediated by digital technology, whose constantly expanding and probably irreversible influence on our lives is a unique feature of contemporary technocracy.
Digital technology has amplified and accelerated the politicisation of almost everything, including scientific inquiry. Researchers who publish findings or explore questions that run afoul of progressivist ideology are regularly attacked by social-media mobs and can expect little support from the leaders of their universities and academic organizations, some of which, like Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, have formally institutionalised censorship. The situation has drawn thoughtful and informed comparisons with the Soviet Union, where engineers, physicists, geneticists, linguists, and others were purged from the academy for practicing “bourgeois science.”
This is not all. For technocracy and technology exacerbate the worst characteristics of late-stage democracy, a transitional period that Plato illuminates with prophetic clarity. His description of the growth of tyranny in the midst of democracy cuts close to the bone today.
In the Republic’s grand arc of political decline, democracy emerges from oligarchy, a regime ruled by stingy and avaricious money-makers. Oligarchy contains the seeds of its own destruction. The children of the wealthy are “used to luxury and unaccustomed to labors in body and soul, weak in resisting pleasures and pains, and idle”. The old misers are furthermore happy to make loans to this spoiled cohort. This produces a class of indebted and dishonored young men “hating and plotting against those who acquired their property, and all the rest, and longing for political change”.
The revolutionary longing of these frustrated and dispossessed elites finds fulfillment in democracy, which is characterised by freedom and free speech, personal license, the indulgence of criminals, the neglect of education, and the equality of equals and unequals alike. License and leveling go hand in hand, because the acknowledgment of fundamental differences between what is noble and base, good and bad, hinders the unrestricted satisfaction of individual desire. The democratic man turns a deaf ear to the admonishments of older relatives and banishes shame and moderation, calling them foolishness and cowardliness.
The desire for limitless freedom eventually becomes insatiable, especially among the young, who attack customary restraints with sacred fervour. Rulers who resist are accused of being religiously polluted, while obedient citizens are vituperated as willing slaves and nonentities. Anarchy pervades the polity and enters the household. Fearing vilification, fathers capitulate to their sons, while sons have no fear or shame before their parents. Rulers imitate the ruled and the old come down to the level of the young, flattering them “so that they won’t seem to be unpleasant or despotic”. The condemned carry on like free men, foreigners are treated like citizens, and the souls of the people become soft and tender and unable to bear anything that smacks of servitude.
In the end, ancestral customs and written laws lose all authority, and the city is governed by the most ferocious among the idle sons of the oligarchs — the ones who had longed for political change under the regime of their fathers. These rulers seize the wealth of the money-makers, the class that is most invested in civic order, keeping the lion’s share for themselves and distributing the rest to the poor.
In the Republic, we see the present in an ancient mirror. The radicalisation of the children of the elites; the repudiation of ancestral customs, political traditions, parental and educational authority, and the very idea of sacred order; the normalisation of previously illicit pleasures; and the weakening of civil rights are all features of contemporary American life. So are the vehement shaming and scapegoating of political opponents; clemency toward criminals amid a surge of lawlessness; the enrichment of the ruling class, destruction of the middle class, and increased dependency of the poor; the fragility and unwonted aggressiveness of the young; and the fatuousness and cowardliness of the old. Is this not astonishing?
But these ills are now supercharged by technocracy, which is perfectly compatible with democratic passions even if it is incompatible with representative democracy. There is currently no shortage of “scientific” support for the liberation of human beings from the constraints of nature and custom alike.
Wesley Yang recently used his Year Zero substack to draw attention to a 2019 USA Today article that cites policies adopted by the American Medical Association in 2018 to substantiate its claim that feminists who resist the inclusion of transgender women within female-only spaces, including restrooms and athletic competitions, “deny transgender people their full humanity and go against what the medical community today has accepted as scientific fact around gender and sex”. The arguments of these “transphobic” feminists get no mention; the exclusionary position is summarily dismissed on the ground that it violates an implicit and newly minted right to “full humanity”— a term that can mean whatever those who claim that right want it to mean.
This example illustrates the invidious political dynamic of our time. Having begun to condemn great masses of Americans as scientifically illiterate bigots, our self-appointed guardians find themselves on a road from which there is no exit. Turning political disagreements into occasions for public shame and vilification has failed to produce the desired alignment of public opinion. It has only emboldened the opposition, whose refusal to be silenced has been met with increasingly heavy-handed controls. Extreme democratic passions have paradoxically fuelled the anti-democratic takeover of the public square.
Read in the twilight of the present, the great books of the past disclose new meanings. The Republic’s Cave Image offers a chilling prophecy of the human terminus, the total triumph of ideological technocracy in the age of advanced technology.
Chained prisoners facing the bottom of a cave watch a play of shadows on the cold wet wall beneath them. The shadows are cast by puppets manipulated in front of a flickering fire by men above and behind them, players in a rigged game of whose existence the prisoners know nothing. Living in social quarantine, they cannot move their heads and have never seen a human face, never directly encountered another existing individual. All they know of themselves and one another is mediated by the shadows of artificial things: dark, flat, uniform, fundamentally negative shapes, abstract forms not of light but of its absence.
These shadows — today limned by an electronic glow — tell only the official story, the thin and impoverished “narrative”, that the puppet masters, competing for money, power, and honour, wish to project.
This whole human tragedy will be complete, the dying embers will sputter and smoke, when not a single person in this dank and gloomy underground — not one prisoner or puppeteer — has any remaining inkling that, on the sunlit uplands above and beyond their poor constructions, there is a warm, vibrant, colourful, three-dimensional, naturally ordered organic world. The one that was once called reality.