BISHOP ROBERT BARRON: The Platonic roots of our totalitarian tendencies
April 15, 2021
One of the most fundamental divides in the history of philosophy is that between a more Platonic approach and a more Aristotelian approach.
Plato, of course, saw the universal or formal level of being as more real, more noble, whereas Aristotle, while acknowledging the existence and importance of the abstract, favored the concrete and particular. This differentiation was famously illustrated by Raphael in his masterpiece “The School of Athens,” the central figures of which are Plato, his finger pointing upward to the realm of the forms, and Aristotle, stretching his palm downward to the particular things of the earth.
This archetypal demarcation had (and has) implications for how we think about religion, science, society, ethics and politics. Just as most Beatles fans separate themselves rather naturally into Lennon or McCartney camps, so most philosophers can be, at least broadly speaking, characterized as either more Platonic or more Aristotelian in orientation. So far, so harmless, for each side complements and balances the other.
However, in the political arena, the option for a Platonic rather than an Aristotelian framework has more dangerous implications, and no one saw this more clearly than the 20th-century theoretician Karl Popper. In his principal work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Popper identified Plato as the father of modern totalitarianism, for Platonic political thought, he argued, subordinates the individual to a grandly abstract construal of justice.
So as to attain the right balance between the three great divisions of society – guardians, auxiliaries and workers – the guardians, Plato’s philosopher-kings, can utterly control the lives of those in their charge, even to the point of censoring music and poetry, regulating pregnancy and childbirth, eliminating private property and annulling the individual family.
Though he reverenced Plato, Aristotle departed from this conception of the good society and took as his point of departure the aspiration and freedom of the individual – though certainly by our standards he was far from ideal in this area.
Popper contended that the Platonic streak runs perilously through Western history, but manifested itself with particular destructiveness in the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, which had their roots in Hegel and Marx. These highly influential Germans were, Popper held, basically Platonic in their tendency to subordinate the individual to the abstractions of “history” or “progress” or “the revolution,” and their practical political disciples in the 20th century presided, predictably, over the piling up of corpses.
Why this little tour of the history of Plato’s influence on political thinking? I feel obligated to rehearse it because, in many senses, we are all becoming Platonists now – and this should worry us. Under pressure from the “woke,” politically-correct culture, almost all of us automatically think in terms of generic categories and not in terms of individuals.
When considering, for example, an appointment or an election or the constitution of a board of directors, we hardly ever ask the question, “Well, who is the best-qualified person?” Rather, we wonder whether a candidate is African American, or Hispanic, or lesbian, or transgendered or a woman, etc. Or we fret whether the right balance of minority groups will be met by hiring this or that man, or to what degree a given woman represents an intersectional crossing of generic traits. In so doing, we are trying, in the Platonic manner, to satisfy an abstract norm of justice by subordinating the particular qualities of individuals to collective categories.
An upshot of this political and cultural Platonism is that we are tending to reverence equity of outcome over equality of opportunity. The former is a function of compelling conformity to pre-determined abstractions, while the latter, congruent with a much more Aristotelian mindset, is a determination to level the playing field as much as possible so as to give each individual a chance to achieve his or her goals.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his dream that his “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he was extolling the value of equality of opportunity, not equity of outcome. And he was explicitly distancing himself from the view that we should look first to abstract categories of race and skin color when making determinations of social status.
The “woke” movement today is decidedly Platonist in orientation, and it carries with that Platonism the totalitarian attitude that Karl Popper identified. It thinks in relentlessly abstract terms, seeing individuals only as instances of racial, sexual, ethnic and economic types, and hence it is altogether willing to reorganize society so as to conform to its conception of justice.
Read a book such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” in order to see the “woke” program laid out with admirable clarity. All white people, she argues, simply by virtue of being white, are bearers of a privilege that they must acknowledge and are, without exception, racist. All black and brown people, again just by virtue of their ethnic heritage, belong to an oppressed class and must consider their white colleagues oppressive. An ethnically African American man who rejects the “woke” ideology is, in DiAngelo’s view, not truly “black”! Very much in the Platonist manner, everyone in the society must accept the new ideology or be seen as an opponent of justice. Appeals, such as Martin Luther King’s, to a color-blind society and equality of opportunity are pilloried as reactionary and supportive of the racist status quo.
The bottom line is this: Any political program that subordinates the individual to collective categories and ideals is dangerous and will conduce, in short order, to oppression and profound injustice. I would suggest that we all take a good, hard look at the Platonic road down which we are heading – and head back the other way.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.