The Narrow Passage:
Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy
by glenn ellmers
encounter books, 120 pages, $21.99
The year 2020 revealed two dominant impulses in the American-led world order. First, the yearning to transcend politics in favor of scientific administration, embodied in the widespread eclipse of self-government by public health experts to manage our response to COVID-19. Second, a fascination with a racial-cultic substrate that lies below the ordinary plane of politics, embodied in the ritual destruction of “whiteness” and veneration of “Blackness” after the death of George Floyd.
Glenn Ellmers is not in the business of prediction, and his new book The Narrow Passage does not opine on the stability (or fragility) of our regime. Instead, he analyzes its contradictions as a scholar of political philosophy and as a disciple of Leo Strauss—and especially of Strauss’s student Harry Jaffa. A reader expecting the clichéd conservative formula—“We must reinvigorate the principles of Western civilization (namely, the liberal values of America two or three decades ago) to halt the left’s extremism and correct the impoverished philistinism of the Right”—will be disappointed. Though Ellmers is opposed, without qualification, to the political agenda and anti-philosophical currents of left ideology, he is surprisingly sympathetic to their psychological roots. His book is an inquiry into the human condition that occasioned the culture war.
Following Strauss, Ellmers understands Western civilization, and perhaps humanity itself, as animated by the tension between “the philosopher” (for whom the unexamined life is not worth living) and “the city” (which requires the authority of unexamined opinions). Every political order sees itself as “the holy city,” animated by a divine commandment to make no covenant with and show no mercy to alien nations, but instead to destroy their altars, cut down their groves, and burn their graven images. But “the philosopher” questions all opinions, including those that his “holy city” accepts as true and unquestionable. The deepest roots of our present discontent are found, not in 1968, or 1789, or 1776, or “the Enlightenment,” or medieval nominalism, but in the human soul itself.
So far, so Straussian. But Ellmers, following Jaffa, accords far more respect to the possible truth of revelation, to the dignity of the moral virtues, and to the demands of political life than most Straussians, whose philosophic supremacism typically results in contempt for politics even unto complicity in the leftward drift of our political order. Though he collapses even religion into “the political,” Ellmers’s respect for politics grants him access to the motives of the revolutionaries on the left who are prosecuting our “cold civil war” and the radicals on the right who wish for nothing more than the destruction of our decadent regime.
Ellmers describes the contradiction within our present regime as between a “scientific-bureaucratic-rational state” indebted to Hegel (and represented by Fauci-ism) and a “post-modern rejection of all objective standards” indebted to Nietzsche (and represented by Floydism). This is the point at which a genealogist of our present regime such as Christopher Rufo might observe that these two strands were masterfully interwoven by the New Left during its half-century march through our institutions; that the contradiction between these strands explains the growing nihilism of the victors; and that their nihilism should encourage Americans attempting a cultural and political counterrevolution. Ellmers addresses the nihilistic terminus of our present regime via a discussion of Michel Foucault, whom he takes as a guide to “how today’s intellectuals perceive the world, and therefore how the ruling class, at least to some degree, thinks and operates.” But he frames the Hegel/Nietzsche or Fauci/Floyd contradiction as the most recent incarnation of the tension between the “rational tyranny” of philosophy and the “tribal passions” of politics, between two aspects of human nature described by Aristotle: that “all men desire to know” and that “man is by nature a political animal.”
Neither aspect can be abolished. What is often described as a worrying return of “tribalism” is in fact a reassertion of our political nature, “an attempt to recover a sense of meaning and purpose by recreating a holy community of citizen-believers.” Drawing on Fustel de Coulanges’s classic study The Ancient City, Ellmers notes that “the spirit of the closed city, with its intense religious and civic camaraderie, seems to be deeply embedded in the human psyche.”
And doubling down on the importance of philosophy is no answer, at least not in the conventional way. Plato cannot be a simple hero for Ellmers, representing as he does the philosophic tendency to “rational tyranny” over ordinary politics. Yet it is from Plato’s Statesman that Ellmers concludes that the promise of “a comprehensive political ‘science’ which seeks to displace the moral virtue and practical wisdom of the statesman’s prudence” remains “dubious.” Plato, then, teaches us as much about the danger that philosophy poses to politics as he does the danger that politics poses to philosophy. The “open society” and “rational state” that was the dream (or nightmare) of so many twentieth-century intellectuals, and which presupposed a final resolution to the tension between philosophy and politics, is impossible for both psychological and scientific reasons.
Ellmers thus accepts what so many centrist and conservative intellectuals cannot: that we have never transcended our political nature, and never will, unless and until we achieve the abolition of man. This allows him to avoid a typical conclusion by conservative scholars and culture-warriors: the lamentation of the decline of the postwar liberal order and of the purportedly neutral or at least tolerant postwar academy. Such lamentations, insofar as they wish for a culture without conflict and a nation beyond partisanship, ignore our ineluctably political nature.
The great (but largely unannounced) theme of Ellmers’s work is thumos or spiritedness, the part of the human soul that C. S. Lewis called “the Chest,” “the middle element [by which] man is man” rather than pure intellect or mere instinct, the part that unifies and dignifies us and by which we feel indignation, righteous or not. Aristotle argued that the best regime required both the habits of freedom of a high-spirited culture and the rationality of an advanced civilization; one without the other produces either overzealous tribalism or slavish subjection. “It is thumos that creates affectionateness,” the civic friendship or “civility” whose decline is so often lamented today. But friendship among fellow-citizens is itself a species of what St. Thomas calls piety, the virtue of justice exercised toward those to whom we are indebted for our being and our government: family, country, and God. Little wonder, then, that decline in religion has been followed by declines in patriotism and family formation.
Ellmers errs in largely subordinating religion to his discussions of citizenship in “the holy city.” Perhaps for this reason, he neglects some of the most interesting features of Coulanges’s Ancient City, namely, what distinguished Rome from the Greek cities, and how the eclipse of the ancient city prepared for the advent of Christianity. Still, Ellmers offers a helpful corrective from which Christians can learn. It is not enough to dismiss “wokeness” as a new and false religion, to be combatted with the true religion. Nor can we forget our political duties while seeking to do right by our fellow men and women. We are naturally citizens. Proper piety to our human creditors is not only a school for piety to our heavenly Father, but also a duty enjoined upon us by him. Perhaps our full conversion requires that we recollect the relation between our duties to family, country, and God.
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos is assistant professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.
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