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Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy
by costin alamariu
independently published, 368 pages, $29.69

Costin Alamariu, also known as Bronze Age Pervert, is a minor celebrity on the internet. “A leading cultural figure on the fascist right,” according to a recent profile in The Atlantic, BAP mixes “ultra-far-right politics, unabashed racism, and a deep knowledge of ancient Greece.” But before becoming BAP—the solid, original core of an online subculture with a soft, highly derivative periphery—Alamariu received his doctorate in political science from Yale. This book, “very little” changed from his dissertation, was briefly an Amazon bestseller.

In my admittedly limited experience, Alamariu’s appeal, especially to his young audience, is a complex phenomenon, extending to partisans of both the right and the left. Some of the reasons for his appeal are bad; others are shallow; still others are deep. Alamariu knows his history, and when he merrily recounts the feats once performed by merry bands of men, he thereby reminds you that our world is not the only one possible. There have been other, perhaps better, more ennobling worlds before. Maybe there will be again?

Alamariu thus opens the door to exhilarating and terrible possibilities, possibilities your teachers (popular culture included) either did not dream of or did not want you to dream of. He gives the impression that the only thing stopping you from going through the door is you: your guilt, your fear that you will be struck down by lightning. Once you are through the door, however, no lightning strikes, you breathe a sigh of relief, and he warmly, playfully invites you to take in the crisp, clean air. The old you, by contrast with the new you, looks increasingly like a terrified, guilt-tripped, half-voluntary commitment to an unhygienic, overbureaucratized insane asylum. Overall, Alamariu speaks to his young audience in a way that echoes how, I suspect, Mishima’s longing for the past in all its heights, on the one hand, and Houellebecq’s despair of the present in all its depths, on the other, first spoke to him.

Behind the exhortations or lamentations, however, lies something worth thinking through. Alamariu’s recently self-published dissertation offers an opportunity to do just that.

Alamariu never tires of repeating that his thesis is a shocking one, and indeed it is. He defends the practice of “breeding” human beings on the grounds that some people and even peoples are naturally, in their “blood,” superior to other, inferior people or peoples. (To his amusement, his dissertation advisor called him a Nazi.) Throughout, he emphasizes “the fundamental principle of breeding as the foundation for . . . personal distinction [in virtue].” “Virtue,” he writes, “cannot be taught. . . . It is a matter of blood, of birth, of nature.” The Greeks, he believes, bred human beings accordingly. At the same time, he elevates courage and, to a lesser extent, cunning so far above other virtues (moderation, justice, and piety) that he defends pleasure-seeking, lying, and ultimately even tyranny itself.

On Alamariu’s telling of history, we owe philosophy or science to the Greek aristocrats who, he thinks, first discovered the all-important idea of “nature.” The good guys, in short, are the aristocrats enlightened by the discovery of nature, who live for something more than “mere life” and self-preservation. The bad guys are the sheeple who predate this elite: the benighted, self-interested, utility-minded members of a social order that threatens to reestablish itself today in the universal and homogenous state of Nietzsche’s “last man” (a man, in C. S. Lewis’s words, without a chest). In four chapters on, respectively, Greek aristocracy, Pindar, Plato’s Gorgias, and Nietzsche, Alamariu argues that all of them agree with him on a couple of key points: not least, that lawless behavior—courage or cunning severed from any connection to moderation, justice, or piety—is virtue from the perspective of philosophy or nature; that virtue so understood is observably hereditary; and that breeding is therefore required for virtue and philosophy.

Now, even if these parties are all in agreement on these points—a big “if,” which, to be clear, I find preposterous—one must still wonder whether they are right to agree. But Alamariu does not address this question. For example, when the time finally comes to make the crucial case against justice, not simply make the case that others made the case, Alamariu begs off. We are only ever told that “the teaching of nature” purports to justify lawless behavior, not how, by what reasoning, it does so. The result is that the book amounts largely to an argument from authority.

Alamariu never adequately explains what he means by “nature,” whose discovery was supposedly—for reasons he never adequately explains either—the “precondition” for philosophy. The closest he comes is in the offhand remark that “nature exists apart from both the divine and from convention and could be argued to be superior in power even to the divine.” But—quite apart from the incoherence of continuing to speak of “the divine” when nature is “superior in power”—that does not tell us what the idea of nature is, so much as what it is not.

Nature, for Alamariu, somehow means breeding. But here, as elsewhere, shock value fills the gaps in Alamariu’s argument, as if cowardice were the only thing standing in the way of everybody’s accepting something so painfully obvious. He frequently tells the reader that he means what he says about nature-as-breeding “literally,” indeed “quite literally,” even “very literally.” The Greek state was “nothing more or less than a breeding project for superior specimens”; men were “quite literally . . . bred for areta as one might breed a plant or stallion for a particular purpose.” (My italics.) All right, who was renowned in the ancient world for, “quite literally,” breeding humans? Pyrilampes was renowned for his peacocks. Who, then, was renowned for his humans? According to Alamariu, Xenophon’s short works evince a “fascination” with breeding horses and dogs (actually, they do not, but leave that aside). Why are there no surviving fragments or even testimonies, to say nothing of full texts, dealing with the breeding of human beings? Why, if “we find that Greek aristocrats in Plato’s time enjoyed especially the pastime of breeding animals,” do we find no one dutifully doing the work, for which the Greek state supposedly existed, of breeding humans? The prize in horse races was, we are told, given to the victorious horse’s breeder, not to the rider. Why then, when discussing athletes, does Alamariu make no allusion to the breeders of the human beings who were victorious in foot racing or wrestling? Did the victorious Strepsiades get the prize for wrestling, or did his breeder? Precisely if you take Alamariu “quite literally,” you end up with Aristophanic comedy.

Often, Alamariu’s specific claims about texts are contradicted by the very passages he cites. Homer’s comparison of Agamemnon to a bull standing out from the herd leads Alamariu to suggest that a novel principle of hierarchy developed from the “practice of breeding livestock.” But Homer attributes Agamemnon’s preeminence on that day, not to his superior breeding, but to Zeus’s intervention. Again Alamariu asserts that, for Nietzsche, philosophy requires beautiful youths whose beauty is the result of selective breeding. His only evidence seems to be two aphorisms from Twilight of the Idols. In the first aphorism, however, Nietzsche is obviously disagreeing with (his own rendition of) Plato’s suggestion that philosophy requires beautiful youths. Breeding is never mentioned. Nor is breeding ever mentioned in the second aphorism cited by Alamariu, where Nietzsche traces beauty not so much to eugenic as to epigenetic sources (training and diet).

Sometimes, Alamariu will make claims about a text so false you can only wonder whether he has actually read the book, as when he says that “the principal concern” of the Oeconomicus “seems to be the estate holder’s relationship with his wife, including their meeting and courtship,” neither of which are ever discussed. At other times, he will take giant leaps, unaware that he has been refuted in advance by our most reliable sources. “Aristippus is a Socratic,” he writes, uncritically accepting the word of the ancient gossip Diogenes Laërtius over no less than Xenophon’s testimony in the Memorabilia. Indeed, although Alamariu rightly takes Xenophon to be an authority on Socrates, he seems not to realize that Xenophon takes up and roundly rejects Alamariu’s entire thesis. In Memorabilia, Socrates explains in great detail that those who think they are good by nature—the erromenesteroi, in fact—are bad natures incapable of an education, though they’re held by opinion (convention) to be best.

You would expect the first philosophers to figure large in a book about “the birth of philosophy.” Alamariu himself suggests that the study of the “earliest philosophers” is a “must.” But he makes virtually no mention of the fragments and testimonies of the first philosophers—the pre-Socratics—or of the numerous passages in Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle that are our best sources of information about the original, secret meaning of philosophy. Maybe he studied the pre-Socratics, but chose to keep his findings to himself because (like me) he cannot think of a single place where they evince any interest in breeding, much less equate it with the idea of nature. However that may be, a study of the birth of philosophy that is too preoccupied with Pindar to say anything about the first philosophers is like a study of the birth of logical positivism that is too preoccupied with some poems by T. S. Eliot to say anything about Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle.

For the first philosophers (to let them get a word in edgewise), nature meant primarily the first, necessary, and thus eternal being or beings on account of which the contingent beings of our experience ultimately come to be, endure for as long as they do, and perish. The first philosophers worried that if there were not some necessary cause or causes of the world, then anything could happen. The beings, able to change (or be changed) on a dime, would lack the stability required to be objects of genuine knowledge. They would lack natures, to use that word in its secondary meaning. The discovery of the idea of nature was by no means the sufficient condition for philosophy, then: The first philosophers were acutely aware that their way of life would be absurd if they failed to demonstrate, actually demonstrate, the existence of nature in its primary meaning.

Alamariu’s book rests, from start to finish, on a simple misunderstanding. The only pre-Socratic text he ever mentions—he lifts it from Leo Strauss—is a “crucial” statement of Heraclitus: In effect, the good, the noble, and the just exist not by nature, but by convention (the arbitrary fiat of society) alone. The first philosophers denied the existence of natural right—of morality, that is, irreducible to social fiat—in the name of nature. Nature, for them, ensured that doing the right thing is not necessarily rewarding, except in the vivid imaginations of human beings who mistakenly believe that the world was created by gods willing and able to enforce good behavior. For Alamariu, by contrast, nature is a “principle of rule,” an “ethos,” an “ideal,” or, as he also puts it, a “morality,” irreducible to social fiat. He thus conflates nature with natural right. But the discovery of natural right was so far from amounting to the birth of philosophy that it was precisely what the first philosophers denied could ever be discovered. In other words, Alamariu labors under the delusion that philosophy was born when the first philosophers discovered a morality with a basis in nature, irreducible to social fiat. In fact, the moment philosophy was born, the first philosophers reduced all morality to social fiat (convention).

The book’s thesis is largely that “Excellence, virtue . . . is a matter of nature, of blood, and it cannot be taught.” But then, in the course of the argument, something funny happens. Alamariu blinks. “Though a certain kind of training may be necessary to cultivate [virtue],” Alamariu says, “this is not primarily a matter of being taught.” May be necessary? Primarily? In fact, Alamariu does not just blink, he turns tail and runs. Breeding turns out to be only one of two elements required for “virtue,” the other being . . . training or education. Effective training is “indispensable,” he writes, for which reason he often speaks of “breeding and education” or “breeding and training” in the same breath. Sparta, he thinks, is “the aristocratic regime that fits the [aristocratic] model . . . par excellence.” But Sparta’s all-encompassing education system, the ruthlessness of which Alamariu stresses on more than one occasion, obviously put precious little trust in the spontaneous goodness of well-bred natures.

If you pull on this thread, everything unravels into a convoluted, self-contradictory mess. Imagine a dog breeder who insists that dogs “cannot be taught” because, for dogs, good behavior is “a matter of the blood,” at which point he offers to breed you the best of dogs, a dog well-behaved by nature, on just one condition: that you follow up with a “severe,” “strict,” “intolerant,” and “cruel” training regimen starting when the dog is a puppy and ending never. Somehow, the difficulty completely escapes Alamariu. But if breeding must be supplemented by training or education, nature is not enough. At most, nature makes it possible for a person to be receptive to training or education to virtue. “Breeding” does not cut it, then, not even for Alamariu; he needs habituation or learning, too. So, both nature and nurture. But that is just good old-fashioned scholasticism, if not common sense.

Alamariu’s argument from history proves to be equally absurd. Alamariu professes to want “to understand the prephilosophical regime as it understood itself . . . without the aid of philosophical or of modern notions.” Yet, by his own admission, he “relies heavily” on James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the picture Alamariu paints of prephilosophic “totalitarian democracy” relies almost exclusively on five pages of The Golden Bough in which Frazer relates how “totalitarian democracy” gives way to kingship. Alamariu accepts Frazer’s account of early religion, if not in all particulars, in all essentials. For Alamariu, too, early religion is tyrannical, and it is up to “an energetic, deceitful man,” pretending to be a magician, to overturn the ancestral nomos and gradually introduce the “liberty to think one’s own thoughts.” This turn in the argument comes as a surprise, not only because the five pages of the abridged text on which Alamariu relies would seem to be entirely speculative, if not simply imagined—they are completely uncorroborated, even in the unabridged text—but also because Frazer viewed the whole past through the distorting lens of historical evolution and Enlightenment rationalism. The prephilosophic regime did not understand itself to be an outrageous tyranny ripe for a trickster’s picking. Alamariu remains in the grip of the very “modern notions” from which he wants to escape.

For all its shortcomings, there is something (as Socrates once said) “somehow serious” about Alamariu’s book. By now, liberalism has largely succeeded in radically transforming or even undermining the religions responsible not only for causing their fair share of suffering in the world, but for giving meaning and purpose to virtue by placing it in a larger, eternal context. Alamariu’s brand of Nietzschean vitalism constitutes a self-defeating, last-ditch effort to restore the depth and height of premodern life to just about the only authority left standing for us today: modern natural science (biology).

With that, though, he jumps out of the frying pan into the fire. Alamariu isolates and elevates the most spectacular part of virtue (courageous self-sacrifice) to the detriment of the whole, as is particularly evident in his preference for war over peace. But courage is courage only if it is put to worthy ends. Alamariu, a burned child of his time, cannot say what those ends are, and (fearing the question is unanswerable) he is too afraid to ask, even though he feels in his bones that to live in a world without something worth fighting and dying for is a fate worse than death. He is in a predicament, and he is not alone.

Liberalism lets us enjoy the right to live as we please, only so long as we respect the right of others to do the same. In other words, liberalism asks or requires relatively little of us. The steep demands of morality or politics, which in other times or places are a matter of life and death, thus start to seem like ancient history, especially in the developed world, where, generally speaking, the reward for meeting historically low expectations is a historically high standard of living. Perhaps liberalism eventually creates a situation in which dutiful, courageous citizens are replaced by “last men,” and fits of madness break out from others looking for something, anything to do, if only it is done with or for courage. This possible outcome, a “strange brew” of spiritual desolation and fanatical obscurantism, is well-known.

Less well-known, however, is the fact that liberalism makes it particularly hard for us to appreciate the fundamental question: Is virtue conducive to happiness? Simon Blackburn once said that an answer to this question is “the holy grail of moral philosophy.” But just as young, healthy people are unlikely to seek the holy grail of lore, sufficiently happy people assured of their virtue are unlikely to seek the holy grail of moral philosophy. For we do not go in search of solutions to problems of which we are unaware, and the outward conformity between virtue and happiness, particularly in places where—in addition to asking or requiring little of us—the machinery of the state keeps the “state of nature” at bay, helps us forget the tragic fact (if it is one) that vice may be conducive to happiness, virtue to misery. Alamariu’s “problem,” such as it is, is that he cannot bring himself either to forget or to face the question.

What “most concerns” Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, “most concerns” Alamariu, too. Tyranny, if you can believe it, deeply disturbs him. Alamariu is saddened and angered when people do not get what they deserve—for instance, when a man like Socrates is put to death by a city like Athens. Contradicting his anti-utilitarianism, Alamariu makes the admission that “men can’t be induced . . . into accepting duties without commensurate rewards.” It follows that Alamariu must doubt that we have “duties,” or that we can perform them, insofar as we do not necessarily get the “rewards” we deserve in this life. To assuage his doubts, he dreams up a new natural law theory, which closes the gap between virtue and the rewards of virtue. His Calliclean “law of nature,” by blurring the lines between might and right, lets him tell himself that the mighty have a right to their might, the suffering a duty to their suffering. Alamariu lowers the bar of virtue in order to cope with the pain caused by his inability to accept any of the religions, with their promise of justice in another life. But he is not nearly as unmoved by that promise as he thinks. If he were, he would abandon right altogether and grant that because nothing is just, everything is permitted. So the fundamental question returns or, rather, remains: Does the world exist, as Maimonides put it, “in virtue of natural necessity” or (as Alamariu, deep down, believes) “in virtue of the purpose of one who purposes”?

Alamariu’s work is “inspired,” he says, by “the fundamental tension between reason and tradition.” But he has not thought the tension through to the fundamental questions at its root, or very far past the point of grasping them in name alone. I wonder whether the “radicalization of the youth”—at least, of the best and brightest of them—is due in no small part to the fact that their teachers do not know even this much of the questions animating the philosophic life.

Admittedly, though, the spectacle of a globe-trotting foodie with a wicked sense of humor, an uncanny aesthetic, a romantic longing for noble deeds, and a keen historical sense for calling them movingly to mind, is already teaching the youth some lessons. For one, the fight against the “last man,” when started by someone unable to finish it, ends in only-half-joking last-mannishness. Starting the fight is not nothing, however.

Dustin Sebell is associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. A longer version of this review will appear at the Political Science Reviewer.

Image by Rawpixel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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