Søren Kierkegaard considered the primary human good to be individual freedom: the freedom to judge for oneself, to speak and act for oneself, and to come to be oneself in the fullness of one’s concrete particularity. “The good cannot be defined at all,” he wrote in The Concept of Anxiety (1844). “The good is freedom. The difference between good and evil is only for freedom and in freedom, and this difference is never in abstracto but only in concreto.” The goodness of the natural world resides in the harmonious abundance of existing beings—this improbable lily, that joyful bird—each of which earnestly inhabits no more or less than its allotted place and time, spontaneously expressing, within these limits, its own rich particularity. The goodness and meaning of human life similarly consists in the irreducible particularity of individuals and communities—families, congregations, nations—that arise in freedom and are sustained by freedom.
As early as the 1840s, however, Kierkegaard warned that late modernity is animated by a crushing spirit of abstraction that poses the gravest threat to the human good. The Hegelian philosophy that dominated the age’s intellectual culture, he observed in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), was of no use to actually existing human beings; it spoke absurdly “of speculation as if this were a man or as if a man were speculation,” and would perhaps someday find its “true readers” among “inhabitants of the moon.” But such philosophical lunacy was the least of the matter. Long before the revolutionary followers of Marx and Engels brought Hegel’s systematic science down from the heavens and settled it in the cities of men in a malignantly inhuman form—the reductive ideology of dialectical materialism—Kierkegaard prophesied the inevitable destruction of individual character and passion through an inherently reflective social process of “leveling.” The present age, he wrote in Two Ages (1846), is democratically “oriented to equality” and marked not by “the happy infatuation of admiration but the unhappy infatuation of envy,” a “censorious” passion that wants to “stifle” and “degrade” individual excellence rather than to emulate it. A constant bane of human existence, envy is particularly destructive in the present age because “the abstraction of leveling is related to a higher negativity: pure humanity.” Late-modern leveling, Kierkegaard predicted, would destroy all organic structures that mediate between living individuals and the bloodless abstraction of humanity as such. Nothing—no person, institution, or even “national individuality”—will be able to halt what he calls the “spontaneous combustion of the human race.”
Kierkegaard’s bleak prediction was fulfilled in the twentieth century by the totalitarian regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their many lesser imitators, which collectively sacrificed as many as one hundred million people to their ideologically purified Idea of Man. Victims and students of communism have not failed to affirm Kierkegaard’s intuition that human freedom, meaning, and particularity are inseparably interwoven, as well as his warning about what the philosophical positivist Auguste Comte promoted as the “religion of humanity” (as Daniel J. Mahoney informs us in his new book, The Idol of Our Age): a scientific, morally progressive substitute for the worship of the transcendent God of the Bible.
What constitutes “the freedom, the soul of an individual life,” Vasily Grossman wrote in Life and Fate (written 1960, published 1988 in the ussr), the greatest novel of the Soviet era, “is its uniqueness.” And because “the only true or lasting meaning of the struggle of life lies in the individual, in his peculiarities and his right to these peculiarities,” the proper purpose of “human groupings” is “to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel, and live in his or her own way.” The philosopher Chantal Delsol amplifies these thoughts in Unjust Justice: Against the Tyranny of International Law (2008): “If being loses its specificity, it loses its dignity. The biblical anthropology, and later that of Christendom, ties the value of being to its unique singularity. Any unity that sought to dissolve these singularities would ipso facto abolish its own value. This is why God prefers a harmony to a unity.” And in Hope Abandoned (1974), the sequel to her literary memoir Hope Against Hope (1970), Nadezhda Mandelstam—the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag—observes that “The house in which a man lives has grown out of his native soil and merges with the landscape: it is made out of the timber and the clay produced by that particular soil and no other.” These authors sing in harmony. They teach us that one cannot make a human home in the frozen sky, for no matter how dense and leaden the theoretical principles of political constructivism may be, such materials will not keep us warm.
In what used to be known as the Free World, this lesson has not so much been forgotten as never learned at all. Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the specter of ideological leveling in the name of humanity continues to haunt the democracies of the West by means Kierkegaard also anticipated in Two Ages:
For leveling really to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of leveling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage—and this phantom is the public. Only in a passionless and reflective age can this phantom develop with the aid of the press, when the press itself becomes a phantom.
Press and public today largely coalesce and dissolve, according to their own unerring logic, in cyberspace—an ethereal realm that is itself everywhere and nowhere. The psychologically compressive emptiness of these monstrous phantasms of authoritative judgment produces souls that are pinched and flat. Disdainful of the precious accumulated traditions and local conditions of the human world—the rich soil that alone nurtures robust individuality—such souls willingly conform to sterile ideological artifacts and other empty mass constructions. Kierkegaard asserted that leveling in the name of the “infinite abstraction” of pure humanity would in modern times be “correlative to fate in antiquity.” He foresaw with terrible clarity the inevitable emergence of great masses of deracinated individuals who know not who they are or what they do: people who “run nameless through the innumerable multitude” (in the words of The Sickness Unto Death, 1849), living in ignorance of their true and unrepeatable names.
Kierkegaard was not the only nineteenth-century prophet of democratic leveling. Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1830s, hoping to find an antidote to the kind of despotism, as he wrote in Democracy in America (1835), that “is particularly to be feared in ages of democracy.” Tocqueville envisioned a time when citizens would be kept in “perpetual childhood” by a government of “schoolmasters” who “relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living,” a government that “extends its embrace to include the whole of society.” Burdened by “a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform,” even “men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament” would be unable to “force their heads above the crowd.” Individuals would nevertheless willingly submit to being collared like dogs, because they “see that it is not a person, or a class of persons, but society itself which holds the end of the chain.”
Tocqueville’s worries have proven to be well founded. And while the enormous nanny state he so perceptively foresaw exercises a relatively benign form of democratic despotism, real ideological hardness draws closer by the day. In the academy, the old social calculus of class, race, and ethnicity favored by both Marxists and National Socialists is again in vogue, updated to include gender, sexual orientation, disability, body type, and other categories in which inequality, and therefore presumptive oppression, may be ferreted out. An all-purpose tool of moral judgment and social policy, this zero-sum reckoning treats the phenomena of freedom only in the aggregate. It crudely predetermines guilt and innocence, and reduces individual thought and action to points on a probability curve. More broadly, the political parties, media outlets, international organizations, multinational technology corporations, charitable foundations, and cultural and educational institutions whose efforts to promote “soft” Tocquevillian despotism have recently been met with popular resistance in the United States and Europe increasingly resort to the chastising orthodoxy of political correctness. Acting in the name of what Grossman called the “Good with a capital ‘G’ ”—an abstraction, he adds, that can produce “greater evil than evil itself”—the new orthodoxy does not argue with nonconforming individuals, but seeks to take words from their mouths and put others in them. So far, professors, writers, artists, performers, and others who refuse to wear the bit, or who have been exposed for having done or said things that run afoul of current dogma, have only been publicly shamed, de-platformed, financially harmed, and in some cases forced to abandon their careers. Who expects matters to end there?
What’s past is prologue. While the tyrants of antiquity were not ideological revolutionaries, they practiced leveling with a primitive directness that returned on an industrial scale under Fascism and Communism. The quintessential Greek tyrant was Periander of Corinth (d. 585 B.C.), of whom Herodotus relates a memorable tale in his Histories (ca. 420 B.C.) Having just come to power, Periander sent a messenger to Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, for advice about how to proceed:
Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town and into a field sown with grain. While they walked together through the crop, Thrasybulus kept questioning and cross-examining the messenger about the reason for his arrival from Corinth, and whenever he saw one of the stalks extending above the others, he would cut it off and cast it away, until he had in this manner destroyed the finest and most flourishing part of the crop. . . . [Returning to Corinth] the messenger said that Thrasybulus had given no advice at all, and that he was amazed that he had been sent to a man who was clearly not in his right mind and who destroyed his own possessions; and then he reported everything he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander understood the meaning of what Thrasybulus had done and perceived that he was advising him to murder the prominent men of the city.
Herodotus’s story impressed no less a mind than Livy, for he tells it again in his History of Rome, this time about the notorious Tarquins: Sextus, who had just gotten control of the city of Gabii, and his father, Tarquin the Proud, whose overthrow at the end of the sixth century birthed the Roman republic.
The king, as if absorbed in meditation, passed into the garden of his house, followed by his son’s envoy. There, walking up and down without a word, he is said to have struck off the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick. Tired of asking questions and waiting for an answer, the messenger returned to Gabii, his mission, as he thought, unaccomplished. He reported what he had said himself and what he had seen. Whether from anger, or hatred, or native pride, the king, he said, had not pronounced a single word. As soon as it was clear to Sextus what his father meant and what was the purport of his silent hints, he rid himself of the chief men of the state.
The ancient historians present leveling in its simplest and purest form, that of direct tyrannical oppression. Whether maddened by envy and hatred or motivated merely by cold self-interest, all tyrannies, ideological or otherwise, seek to destroy the good and the beautiful: the most nourishing human grain and the loveliest human blossoms. For they know that individuals who publicly lay claim to the goodness of their freedom—people of real moral stature, who in dangerous times continue to speak, think, and act for themselves—especially endanger their rule.
Kierkegaard’s study of antiquity informed his understanding not only of democratic leveling, but of its particular connection with reflective abstraction. His dissertation, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (1841), drew heavily on Aristophanes and Plato, two Athenian contemporaries who understood that democracies are particularly susceptible to ideological leveling in the name of equality. Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen (ca. 390 B.C.) depicts a matriarchal dystopia that comically foreshadows Tocqueville’s vision of a smothering and infantilizing government. The play is an extreme realization of the rage for equality: women take power, seize private property and redistribute it in equal shares from a common store, abolish families, and eliminate—or rather, reverse—discrimination on the basis of age or beauty (any man may have sex with any woman, provided that he first satisfies all others who request his services, starting with the oldest and ugliest ones).
The fate of Socrates was probably even more important than Aristophanes’ comedies in shaping Kierkegaard’s intuitions about democratic leveling. A few years before the philosopher was put to death in 399 B.C., he was targeted by the oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants that came to power in Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a long and wasting conflict into which the city had been drawn by the imperial ambitions of Periclean democracy. Led by Plato’s older cousin Critias, the Thirty practiced a politics of aristocratic purity. According to the speechwriter Lysias (whose brother Polemarchus they murdered), the Thirty proposed “to purge the city of unjust men, and to turn the rest of the citizens toward virtue and justice.” Over the course of their eight-month rule in 404–03, they arrested, robbed, and exiled their political opponents and put to death roughly fifteen hundred Athenians. When Socrates criticized the regime, the oligarchs made it illegal to teach the “art of speech” and forbade him to associate with anyone under the age of thirty. After the Athenian democrats returned from exile to overthrow the oligarchy, they, too, sought to purge their opponents. Suspecting Socrates of having influenced Critias—the two are together on three occasions in the Platonic dialogues—they denounced him as a religious and social pollution (miasma) and engineered his execution for the crimes of impiety and corrupting the young.
The trial and death of his teacher gave Plato ample material for reflection. Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology (both set in 399) sketch a vivid portrait of a now all-too-familiar public type: the young radical democrat who scorns traditional values and practices; whose thinking is highly schematic and confined to empty abstractions; whose inflated self-perception manifests itself in envy and resentment; and who seeks personal advancement by attacking nonconforming individuals and groups. All of these attributes are shared by a matched pair of ignorant, arrogant men: Socrates’ accuser Meletus and a crank named Euthyphro. Taken together, these defective characters depict a brave new kind of political actor born in the restored democracy of post-war Athens—and destined, apparently, to be reborn repeatedly in late modernity.
TheEuthyphro takes place at the courtroom where Socrates has come to answer the preliminary indictment by someone “young . . . and unknown” he seems never even to have met (“they call him Meletus, I believe”). Socrates instructs the Athenians at his trial that it is noblest “not to restrain others, but to equip oneself to be the best possible.” But it is always easier to blame others than to improve oneself, and the philosopher is a natural target. He tells Euthyphro that his philanthropic practice of freely sharing his thought with anyone he meets has aroused the Athenians’ spirited opposition.
When Euthyphro asks what charge he faces, Socrates tells him with characteristic irony that Meletus’s indictment is “not ignoble”:
For that one, as he maintains, knows in what way the young are being corrupted, and who are the ones corrupting them. And he may be someone wise, and, looking down upon my ignorance, he is coming to accuse me before the city as before his mother on the ground that I am corrupting those of his own age. And he alone among the politicians seems to me to begin correctly. For it is correct to care first for the young in order that they may be as excellent as possible, just as it is fitting for a good farmer to care first for the young plants, and after this for the others. And moreover, Meletus is perhaps first purging us, the corrupters of the young shoots, as he claims. Then after this it is clear that, having taken care of the older ones, he will be responsible for the most and greatest good things for the city, as is likely to happen for one beginning from such a beginning.
Herodotus’s vigorous grain-stalks have here become weeds that stunt and embitter the Athenian sprouts—actually a single weed, for Meletus claims in the Apology that Socrates is the sole corrupter of the young. This is in some respects an apt image, for weeds, like philosophers, are undomesticated and spring up spontaneously. Yet the “not quite full-bearded” Meletus, whose name roughly translates as “Mr. Care,” is somehow not a tender shoot but a wise farmer!
In fact, Meletus wants to be treated as if he were both. Socrates’ description of Meletus deftly exposes the internal contradictions of a politically ambitious type of character one may find on any college campus today. Meletus’s apparent conservatism as a defender of traditional religious belief is less relevant in this context than his radical opposition to socially unorthodox speeches and deeds. He wrongheadedly advocates a legal solution to a crisis of civic and ethical education that he himself exemplifies. Hauling Socrates to court, he accuses him “as before his mother”; he regards the city as an in loco parentis authority that will protect him and his vulnerable young peers from harmful speech. At the same time, he aspires to be recognized not only as a mature and fully independent individual, but also as the source of the greatest good for the city. If he is to elevate himself in the public eye, he must publicly destroy another human being, rousing against him the community’s collective power to shame and make a scapegoat of another. As Meletus makes clear in the Apology, he proposes to cure the city’s ills by removing from its midst the “most polluted” individual who is the sole source of its moral infection. In advocating this solution, however, he lays claim to wisdom that he does not possess. Socrates easily shows at his trial that Mr. Care “never cared” about the Athenians’ well-being.
The sympathetic Euthyphro is quick to compare himself to Socrates. Both, he asserts, are envied for their special knowledge of divine matters: just as Socrates invites slander because he claims to be counseled by a divine voice, he himself is unjustly ridiculed as a madman whenever he utters prophecies in the Athenian Assembly. But while Euthyphro deplores Meletus’s indictment, he fails to notice how similar he is to Socrates’ accuser. His statement that Meletus is “doing evil to the city, beginning from the hearth” is an unselfconscious projection that perfectly describes his own deeds.
Euthyphro proudly observes that he has come to the court to indict “someone whom in prosecuting I again seem to be mad.” Socrates is shocked to learn that he has charged his father with homicide; respect for ancestral authority was a cornerstone of ancient piety, and he naturally assumes that the victim must have been a relative. But Euthyphro, whose name means “Straight Thinker” as well as “Instant Mind,” is a man of inflexible principle. With quasi-scientific exactitude, he asserts that a homicide must be prosecuted “even if the killer shares your hearth and table. For the pollution is the same if you knowingly associated with such a man, and do not purify yourself as well as him by proceeding against him in a lawsuit.” Asked whether he doesn’t fear that he himself may be acting impiously in prosecuting his father, he replies that he wouldn’t “be any different from the many human beings, if I didn’t know all such things precisely.” Like Meletus, Euthyphro hungers for recognition—Socrates bitingly remarks that no one “even seems to see you”—and it soon becomes clear that he, too, hopes to make a name for himself and settle scores by indicting an old man.
Euthyphro says that his father’s crime took place on the island of Naxos, where his family was farming. If so, it must have occurred before 404, when the Spartans took control of the Cyclades. Euthyphro has been biding his time in a way that is inconsistent with his supposed concern for religious pollution. “A laborer of mine,” he tells Socrates, got drunk and slit the throat of a slave; his father tied up the man and threw him in a ditch while he sent to inquire of the exegete, an expounder of Athenian religious law, what he should do. Naxos is roughly a hundred miles by sea from Athens, and the man died of hunger and exposure before the messenger returned. Euthyphro’s real motives are clear enough from this story. It was a family slave whose throat was slit, but it was his hired man that his father killed. What is more, he is himself an expert in matters of piety; what need, then, to consult an exegete? By prosecuting his father in a court whose special jurisdiction concerns sacred matters, he intends publicly to establish his claimed expertise while avenging these paternal insults.
But things do not go well for Euthyphro in his conversation with Socrates. Like the wings of Icarus, his boasts melt into air under the light and heat of Socratic scrutiny. His ostensible science of piety turns out to be the unprincipled or ad hoc practice of giving the gods whatever they want, whenever they want it. It is nothing but the utterly conventional “art of commerce” (as Socrates puts it) first described in Homer’s Iliad: the slavish gratification of great amoral powers in the hopes of currying favor or at least avoiding destruction. All that is left of Euthyphro’s fine talk of justice toward gods and men is shameful nakedness: the indignant self-assertion of a young know-nothing who, failing to obtain the respect he craves but has not earned, is prepared to make criminal the religious practices of the older generation and to tear apart his family. He would have made a fine commissar.
TheApology and Euthyphro anticipate several crucial political developments of the twentieth century. Seen against the backdrop of the Athenians’ successive purges of socially corrupting elements, Euthyphro’s spurious knowledge of pollution and purification looks like a rudimentary version of the ideological pseudoscience that has justified the widespread “cleansing” of undesirables in every totalitarian regime since the foundation of the ussr. And viewed in connection with Euthyphro’s attack on traditional practices and beliefs, Meletus’s attempt to present himself as caring for the city’s future by zealously protecting its exclusive power to inculcate young minds prefigures the progressivist propaganda that substitutes for education in all ideological tyrannies. Meletus condemns Socrates for impiety, but in fact hopes to eclipse the Athenian gods by usurping their traditional role as the source of “the most and greatest good things for the city.” He thus also offers an inchoate (if unsuccessful) example of the strategy by which leaders like Stalin and Mao would become the human equivalent of pagan deities, adored for their paternalistic benevolence in cults of personality that were especially popular in youth organizations like the Komsomol and Mao’s Red Guard.
Plato’s dialogues are also distant prophecies for the twenty-first century. Democratic leveling thrives in an atmosphere of ignorance and fear. Such was the case in Athens, which by 399 had largely become the “wretched theatocracy” deplored in Plato’s Laws. The justice system provided a form of social welfare: Athenian juries were huge (Socrates’ had 501 members) and included many regulars who depended on the modest remuneration of a few obols per day—and who enjoyed the spectacle of defendants pleading for mercy. Socrates declares in the Apology that one should be governed by justice rather than shame, and he repeatedly asks the jurors not to shout; by turns cowed and riled up by public opinion, many are evidently incapable of calmly attending to his defense of the philosophical life. Like one “fighting with shadows” (including all who have anonymously maligned him in the past), he confronts a multitude of indolent souls whose uncritical capitulation to decades of slander places them beyond the reach of rational persuasion.
The absence of mediating political structures in the direct democracy of ancient Athens amplified the destructive effects of cowardice, envy, resentment, and intellectual slackness. Paradoxically, modern media has the same effect as ancient immediacy: the internet, itself a wretched theatocracy, not only rewards these vices but weaponizes them. In that electronic wasteland, moral condemnation is a blood sport, and libelous flash mobs are drawn to the merest suggestion of heterodoxy like hammers to nails. (In the exemplary case of the Covington Catholic teenagers, the ritual identification of social pollution and its purgation through scapegoating was performed by a monstrous fusion of press and public.) But while individual responsibility dissipates in a crowd, especially in the faceless ones of cyberspace, so does individual visibility. This fact perversely encourages extremism in the service of compelled conformity, as the Euthyphros and Meletuses of the present age can hope to achieve the recognition they crave only by outdoing others in their enthusiasm for ideological purity and moral scourging.
Democratic leveling cannot take place unless a people (demos) is already on low ground. Socrates’ final public act was to point out that this was the case in Athens. It is just as much the case today, although we lack anyone of his stature to say so. But even when there is no one above us to absorb the blows, it may still be better to be a nail than a hammer. Grossman, who forever regretted the moment of abject weakness in which he signed a letter denouncing Jewish doctors on the cooked-up charge of plotting to kill Stalin, writes in Life and Fate that “everything in the world is insignificant compared to the truth and purity of one small man.” If the witness of the poets does not steel us for whatever lies ahead, perhaps the prophecies of the philosophers will help, just because they dispel the illusion of individual control in an epoch of democratic leveling. For if everyone is fated to be under the hammer eventually—as millions of passionate Bolsheviks and Maoists discovered when the State’s blank and pitiless gaze fell on them—then let us resolve right now to be judged by the amount of force it takes to pound us down.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 19
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