Peter was fishing for my responses on Christianity and its relation to modernity’s three stages in America AND on whether or not America is more oligarchic than democratic according to Plato’s sense of the terms. Well, that first topic is huge, but even as I focus upon the second one here, I’ll eventually say a few things about it.
So what follows pushes my occasional attempts to explain the 60s cultural revolution, which I otherwise label as a shift from intermediate modernity to full modernity, in the terms used by Plato’s Republic book VIII account, where the oligarchic regime and soul become the democratic one.
1.1 I admit that to the extent you can politically apply classical regime theory to modern liberal democracies, you’re better off utilizing Aristotle’s articulation of it than Plato’s; America would be seen as a mixed regime and/or “polity,” even if its political development has made this mix more democratic over time.
1.2 However, the cultural content of our regime, its “way of life,” which is not at all as grounded in the Constitution, has gone through a lot of change, in an ever-more freedom-focused and modern fashion. This has been readily visible since the 1920s, and quite in our face since the 1960s.
1.3 You need the more character-focused regime account presented in book VIII of Plato’s Republic to explain 1.2.
1.4 Regarding Plato as an analyst of our times is possible because certain cultural dynamics, especially ones connected to the democratic idea, are perennial, and he thought through their implications, even ones not realizable under ancient conditions.
2.1 Critics of Plato’s account have denounced its description of democracy as quite unrealistic—no Greek democracy was ever so extreme. Some have said similar things regarding his account of tyranny. But no one has adequately noted that the most hyperbolic regime picture given in Book VIII is actually the one of oligarchy. Plato gives us a picture of a society obsessed with money-making; it is totally ruled by contracts and sharp-trading misers. But the evidence about the actual cities that called their regimes oligarchies shows that while they were somewhat more focused upon money and trading, they essentially thought of themselves as aristocracies (or, something like Aristotle’s “polities”). They were by no means as lacking in martial virtue as Plato suggests, and none of them honored merchants as much as modern commercial republics do. Exhibit A here would be Corinth. Conclusion: Plato was more concerned to present The Oligarchic (regime and soul) as an archetype than to describe what was happening in his Greece.
2.2 I speak of The Oligarchic in this sense here. Moreover, I am generally uninterested in reasoning about whether our regime is oligarchic in the political sense, as this usually comes from cranks, socialists, and humanities departments, and as the most one can actually establish is that certain businesses, rich individuals, or affluent cliques have more political influence, albeit in a shifting manner, than any of the rest of us do. But I am interested in the Cultural Rule of oligarchic principles, so that a good American president, Calvin Coolidge, could actually say that “the business of America is business.” He could have quoted Tocqueville to the same effect.
2.3 The centerpiece of Plato’s account is the revolt of the Oligarchic Man’s son against his father’s ways which makes him the Democratic Man. In one sense this is just the perennial story of the miser’s son becoming the playboy, but Plato puts much more into it. He presents all the cities, households, and souls prior to the democratic one as requiring repression and as attempting to mold everyone (who matters) according to one correct way of life. The Democratic society and soul, by contrast, allows and celebrates a diversity of pursuits and character dispositions.
2.4 This Freedom to do whatever you wish, so long as you do not harm others, is in certain respects illusory. The Democratic society/soul-type regards the way of life that incorporates the most human diversity into itself as the best one, even as it sometimes says all lives are equally good. And, it becomes nervous if you display seriousness about one way of life besides the variability-encompassing one. That sort of belief should be kept to oneself.
2.5 This is part of the reason why the 60s Revolution, which I say culturally enacted Democratic Freedom in Plato’s sense, made certain Christians feel they could wear the radical aspects of their faith on their sleeve as never before. In the period of intermediate modernity, one’s faith was to be muted amid or even cloaked behind one’s general respectability. Azusa Street was not a respectable address. But the 60s suggested that all freak-flags could now be flown, and that a truly radical conversation would be welcomed. After all, Pentecost looked like a kind of happening, and the Acts 4 church looked like a commune.
2.6 It is also why Jesus-freakery was tolerated by the most thoroughly democratic/modern Americans only initially. An altogether different attitude towards on-your-sleeve Christianity would be adopted once, from the 80s on, it became apparent that it might obtain enough political power and popular acceptance to actually trim-back key advances of the 60s. A Lou Reed could pen a sympathetic account of why troubled 60s folks might turn to Jesus in 1969, but by the 90s, we would hear him and many like him bitterly incredulous in interviews about the very existence of the religious right.
2.7 Were he an academic, Reed could have quoted chapter and verse from John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, the heart of which really can be read as a construction designed to enforce the conception of Freedom held by Plato’s thoroughly Democratic Man. Plato would laugh at this unwitting vindication, enacted by those in some sense to be called “philosophers,” of his playful theory about what really dwells at the heart of the democratic creed. It is less a laughing matter for today’s Christians, against whom Rawlsian imperatives such as the Public Reason Test would likely be employed given sustained Democratic Party victories or a creeping “Liberal-tarian” capture of elite institutions.
3.1 Peter’s way of contrasting the Oligarchic and the Democratic seems to be to contrast the bourgeois with the bohemian, and then to suggest that we are more bourgeois/Oligarchic than bohemian/Democratic. Perhaps that works to criticize Brooks or Marx, but Plato saw further.
3.2 He saw further because his account shows us that even the fully Democratic Man retains certain aspects of the Oligarchic. The citadel of his soul is said to have re-admitted, once the moment of psychic revolution has passed, some of the oligarchic “exiles” it had previously ejected.(561b) We are also told that even at the moment of revolution, the democratic man still spends half his time satisfying the “necessary pleasures,” with the other half devoted to the “unnecessary” ones, which means that the mature democratic man must devote even less of his time to the unnecessary pleasures. The mature Democratic Soul seeks to protect its ongoing enjoyment of pleasure-pursuit, diversity-embodiment, and Change by means of respecting certain bottom lines of necessity. Frenzy and addiction lead one into tyrannical and/or self-destructive life, disabling the pursuit of Change. Impoverishment also disables it. Thus, the description of the Democratic Man being ruled by whichever pleasure “happens along” (561b) cannot be strictly true, although it accurately reports his talk.For with a truly random occurrence, he might be ruled by many unnecessary desires in succession, say, thirteen in a row. So, while he will not abide speeches that say the oligarchic life is superior, or that some pleasures are bad(561c), he secretly pays heed to certain oligarchic instincts and advices.
3.3 For Plato, then, there is nothing terribly remarkable about the bourgeois-bohemian compound; he would not need to suggest that America from the 60s on is a mixture of the oligarchic and the democratic, because in a democratic-tilted way such a mix is the basis of democratic society. Even a democratic age needs elites (bobos), and the most thoroughly democratic life needs limits and affluence. A purely “bohemian” devotion to Freedom necessarily transforms a democratic soul into a tyrannic one, and a purely bourgeois attitude towards material necessity is actually a mark of an oligarchic one. The Democratic Soul stands between those.
3.4 So by Platonic terms, our 60s-on-forward age, which in my three stages of modernity schema I label full modernity, can be seen as culturally Democratic compared to earlier stages when democratic and modern imperatives were restrained in many areas our culture. True, we can conceive of a fuller modernity yet (Peter mentions a society in which contract and consent govern every last corner of life). Whether a society can actually arrive at such a state before it a) succumbs to tyranny, b) becomes Islam-isized from within, or c) figures out how to extinguish human self-consciousness, is another question.
4.1 The best account of the oligarchic attitude comes from that great dissertation Ceaser and I were alluding to. To the materialist hedonist, the oligarchic man can say “material pleasure can only be protected by material, and so in the long run it is more pleasurable to forego unnecessary pleasures.” This view stems from a fearful and somewhat bitter view of life, and it fosters an irrational pride in frugality, but it faces the facts about scarcity and competition that the democratic man refuses to, at least in his speeches.
4.2 We should also compare the oligarchic man to the tyrannical one on economic matters. The oligarchic man fears indulging material pleasures not because they inherently damage the soul, but because they make one’s soul incapable of competing in society. Society is characterized by scarcity and cloaked selfishness, its politics by trickery and ingratitude—thus, all that one can trust in is protecting one’s own, one’s family particularly, through hoarding acquisition, and one must fairly rigorously deny oneself to do so.
4.3 The tyrannical man also thinks it is a dog-eat-dog world, but goes further, in that he hasn’t the oligarchic man’s respect for basic justice and family loyalty. The oligarchic man accepts society’s base-line justice, despite his deep disappointment with its political life. That is, the city’s specialized economy provides material abundance (369) and it’s law provides a necessary restraint to man, but a man shouldn’t give himself to it for mere honors, lest he wind up like the oligarchic man’s timocratic father, who like an uncelebrated Aristides, got screwed by the city’s ingratitude and lawyerly trickery(553b). Wealth acquisition is a good middle way b/t being a sucker for the city(heroic polis fodder) and unnaturally revolting against civic life entirely(beast or god), because it provides one with tangible goods, and perhaps intangible honor also. One can at least become comfortable, and hopefully, respectability will follow.
4.4 The tyrannic man, by contrast, holds that not only is the intangible honor of the city generally corrupt, but so is the very restraint employed by society. Justice is an illusion. Nature, and not simply the controlled competition the city has to allow, is dog-eat-dog.
4.5 The oligarchic and tyrannic souls do share the understanding that material pleasures must be of a limited number, and thus must be competed for. The tyrannic man assumes that all desire a constant enjoyment of material pleasure, but the nature of political power means that only one can really attain this. He tries to maximize his pleasures, to be sure, but until he attains tyranny, he knows he must not do so at the expense of opportunities to seize it. He often looks respectable. In American terms, both the mobster and the businessman wear suits.
4.6 The democratic man, by contrast, talks as if there were a limitless source of material pleasures. Everyone ought to act as if there will always be enough for everyone, because that must be the way it is. Or the way it ought to be. Inequality angers him as something unnatural, as does the idea of competing against others for your material well-being. Thus, he sees both the oligarchic and tyrannic lives as distastefully revealing, and scandalously resigned to, the existence of scarcity. He thus likes to read Marx, or anyone else who says that the natural and rational state of man is one that allows each and every one to develop all their potentialities. But again, he still checks his bank account.
Enough Plato for ya? Well, if too much, I’ll boil it all down with a few lyrics from a Byrds song next.