The Winding Passage Back to Plato

The Narrow Passage: Plato,
Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy 

by Glenn Ellmers

Encounter Books

120 pp., $24.99

Two years ago, Glenn Ellmers caused both the mouth-foaming Left and the surrendered Right to soil their undies by arguing that radicals have changed America so significantly that the Right must no longer speak of conservation but of counterrevolution.

Ellmers’ new book offers a more thorough sketch of the problem the genuine Right faces. The three-headed Hydra of the Left has further solidified its power. The race-obsessed Black Lives Matter activists and the anarchist Antifa thugs do the dirty work in the streets. The wealthy elites of the corporate, media, and academic worlds give them ideological cover and pay the bills.

There is also a problem on the Right: it ideologically despises the Left but embraces its moral nihilism.

Ellmers offers a cogent philosophical criticism of both developments and reminds readers of the need for a robust understanding of nature in any well-grounded conservatism.

His account of the advance of the Left outlines a rapid and aggressive New Left in the ’60s and ’70s, followed by a 25-year ceasefire in which the Left went underground. This period began with the fall of the Russian Communist regime and ended with the climax of the War on Terror at the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The insinuation is that the ostensible defeat of the Left at the fall of the Marxian regimes and the solidarity produced by the 9/11 attacks served as a temporary barrier to further the Left’s advance. Yet, inside the universities and especially in the media and popular cultures, the leftist onslaught continued. The collapse of the Soviet Union did nothing to slow the leftist takeover of the academy. As Ellmers describes, the discourse of the Left continued to fester within academia, becoming even more ungrounded from reality than was Marxist theory. The steady radicalization of faculties and curricula during the supposed hiatus produced the propitious conditions for the Left during and following the George Floyd Revolution of 2020.

Ellmers, a student of Harry Jaffa and a member of the West Coast Straussian school of thought, sees Leo Strauss as the thinker who most appropriately sets the stage for modern political philosophy. The field’s central question comes to us from the origins of Western political thought: Was Socrates rightly condemned, or does a proper understanding of the relationship between the citizen’s freedom and responsibility to the State indicate he should have been found innocent? Many modern citizens in the West see tolerance and intellectual freedom as sacrosanct. But there is a principled philosophical argument that Socrates was legitimately convicted for failing to recognize the extra-rational, sacred source of political authority. Ellmers insinuates Strauss may have believed not only that Socrates was guilty of this crime, but Plato was as well for publicly advocating for the position of his teacher.

The argument for the superiority of reason as a generalized principle can be refuted through the study of the distribution of human intelligence. Variability in reasoning power is significant. Many human beings are incapable of high-level reasoning and logic. One has only to look at how many of us engage in behaviors—drinking and driving, for example—that the most basic rational risk analysis would indicate should be avoided.

But the problem is not limited to the least rationally gifted among us. Our capacity for reason as a species is far from unlimited. There is abundant evidence that many solutions arrived at painstakingly over long periods (what we call “tradition”) are superior to those that can be concocted at any given time by a group of the most intelligent, especially if they are too separated from traditional knowledge. Our technocratic modern societies are working hard to replace traditional knowledge with formal rationality, and the results are something less than the advertised utopia.

Plato believed the game of rationally thinking through moralities and truths would stay within the elites. It did not, and the results were predictable. What is needed is not a refinement of elite rationality. It is a return to intellectual humility, the establishment of a hierarchy rooted in the eternal, and subservience to permanent ideals.

Ellmers gives us a wonderful chapter that summarizes insights from one of the founders of the modern social sciences, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, on the connection between citizenship and religious identity in the ancient world. The great French scholar described the inseparability of political membership and adherence to a religious cult. To hold dual citizenship would have been to adhere to two religions, an unthinkable prospect in a world in which religious identity was a serious commitment. The very idea that in America we uncritically cheer “freedom of religion,” that is, the celebration of members of multiple cults sharing citizenship, as a triumph is proof of the lowering of our valuation of both citizenship and faith. Fustel de Coulanges might well have argued that a society that accepts more than one faith must necessarily count on the fact that such faiths must be weakened to the point of death.

Ellmers focuses on the French poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault as his representative of the leftist thinking that emerged during the hiatus and that is now operating outside the universities at the level of elite policy and government. There is indeed plenty in Foucault to arouse the suspicions of conservatives. His influence has been significant in academic thinking. Yet Foucault and his legacy are more complicated than Ellmers insinuates. Foucault’s arguments about the relationship of truth and power did indeed lead in a relativist direction. And yet he moved politically away from the collectivist Left in reaction to what he saw in the totalitarianism of the Communists.

The real poison in Foucault is less in his analysis of truth-power than in other seedier and more anarchist lines of thought. The argument that power can assert untrue “truths” and have them reliably function as truth simply because of their insinuation in power is a useful perspective for criticizing modern Woke regimes of the West. What is more problematic in Foucault is his embrace of forms of sexual behavior and identity, which he believed potentially escaped the bonds of totalitarian power, that are dehumanizing and destructive. It is worth recalling that Foucault died of the effects of AIDS, which he likely contracted during extended anonymous adventures in the homosexual bathhouses of San Francisco.

But the gist of Ellmers’ criticism is still on target. Foucault’s move away from the totalitarian communist Left to escape the tendrils of power failed and crashed hard into the shoals of relativist anarchy because he had thrown away any notion of a pre-existing and stable moral order. In The Order of Things, he predicted the identitarian lunacy we are currently witnessing in a “return of masks.” Beyond identitarian confusion and sexual insanity, Foucault embraced literal madness and the criminal violence that accompanies it as forms of “unreason” that free criminals and the insane from the reason-power apparatus. Here, we see an echo in the BLM and Antifa rioting, even if it is a certainty that few of those in the streets now needed to read Foucault to take up this depraved mode of life.

Foucault also sought methods for eluding State power that conservatives might find more congenial, even if the examples he described do not resonate. He even suggested religion might still offer the possibility of ecstatic escape from the prison house of reason and power. However, the form to which he was drawn was the militant Shia Islam of the nascent Iranian Revolution. Foucault believed what was happening in Iran was “an inner experience” that linked “collective action, religious ritual, and an expression of public right.” He saw it as the “first great insurrection against … the weight of the entire world order.”

Another point worth remembering is that Foucault considered Nietzsche a central influence. A central idea in Nietzsche is his intense dislike of what he called the ressentiment mentality. This is the embrace of victimhood as a means for the purportedly subjugated to gain an ideological upper hand over their alleged oppressors. If Foucault were around today, he would almost certainly oppose Woke moral totalitarianism and the endless intoning of the victim mindset that drives it, even if his advocacy for the moral disintegration of sexual normativity would align him with the enemies of tradition.

Ellmers supports a return to a conception of nature as something existing outside our will and ability to control and manipulate fully. He speaks approvingly of the “intense faith of premodern Christianity” as a proper position on the question of nature. It is a solidly argued position. The big question is practical: Is there any way to imagine America or the West returning to such a grounded view?

The Editor’s Thoughts

As someone who wrote a book on Leo Strauss and his followers, I was revisiting familiar territory when I opened up Glenn Ellmers’ The Narrow Passage. Ellmers does not hide his hand and writes as an unapologetic devotee of Harry Jaffa and Jaffa’s interpretation of the Straussian tradition. His newest book emphasizes the need for virtue as a prerequisite for self-government and warns repeatedly against cynically rejecting the pursuit of civic engagement as a moral activity. While Ellmers is certainly in favor of the academic study of political philosophy, he urges us not to divorce “the work of citizens, of morally serious men and women dedicated to recovering ‘our ancient faith.”’

This book returns more than once to Plato’s dialogue, The Statesman, a work that underlines the difficulty of measuring true statesmanship. Strauss interpreted that text to signify that the true leader could never have perfect knowledge of his craft but should understand the limitations of what he was doing in order to do it well. 

But this “in between” state, in which the political actor acts, according to Ellmers, should not prevent him from behaving virtuously and honorably. Ellmers seems particularly concerned that intellectuals preoccupied with political life have moved toward one of two equally problematic poles, either claiming to have perfect scientific knowledge of the best political arrangements for the rest of us or opposing any political order as utterly arbitrary. Ellmers describes the alternatives that issue from this polarity as “oppressive bureaucracy” or “irrational lawlessness.”

Ellmers offers a critical discussion of Michel Foucault, the abstruse French analyst of power relations. He focuses on Foucault’s harsh conclusion that almost all human relations can be reduced to the exercise of power. The strength and weakness of Foucault’s work, according to Ellmers, was his inability to view human interactions as something more than a power game. Although Foucault’s insights were useful, his vision of the world was also necessarily narrow and jaundiced. Also interspersed throughout Ellmers’ work are detailed references to Harry Jaffa. Most of his statements are predictably reverential, but worth reading to grasp Jaffa’s understanding of America’s founding documents. 

This book also devotes a relatively long section to the problem of public administration, which Ellmers correctly observes represents a radical departure from the constitutional design of America’s Founding Fathers. Although he and I may differ about who bears the chief responsibility for this bureaucratization, I would not dissent from his caustic judgment about the end result of the process: “The United States seems to be ruled today s a post-constitutional regime governed by a secular theology cobbled together from various modern European philosophers.”

Although admittedly we are experiencing a “woke occupation,” which treats George Floyd as “the faith’s greatest martyr” and Anthony Fauci as “its most authoritative prophet,” I’m not sure those whom Ellmers and the Claremont School treat as the heavies are principally behind this misfortune. I could think of far worse culprits than Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, or even Marx. Perhaps we should start with cultural Marxists as the distant ancestors of the woke Left and then proceed to those doctrinaire egalitarians, embattled feminists, and assorted antifascists I’ve been researching for decades.

But I certainly won’t contest Ellmers’ view that the Progressive Era was critical for the modern administrative regime. Out of the creation of “democratic administration” have emerged such monsters as the Deep State and the Surveillance State of the present age. Ellmers is also correct that a cult of bureaucracy had to be fashioned and then disseminated to justify the regime change that the U.S. underwent in the early 20th century.

We find an intriguing observation at the end of this book that may be read in more than one way: “What is perhaps most disconcerting about the anti-liberal elements of the Right is not the vehemence of their complaints against modernity but their cynical retreat from politics, in the false belief that nothing can be done.” Ellmers reminds us that Harry Jaffa warned against despair not only as a religious offense but as an intellectual error. “If historical determinism is false, it means that virtue and chance will always play a part in shaping our destinies,” he writes.

It may indeed be the case that many historical developments come close to being predetermined. Changes that occur are often irreversible, as much as we may lament this and look for counterfactual narratives in which the wrong turns were avoided. But even if the forces leading to the present situation are, to use a French Marxist phrase, surdéterminé (“overdetermined”), that does not relieve us of all moral choice. One may believe in both determinism and the necessity of taking a stand for what one considers to be right. Even if the Left presents us with a fait accompli, there is no justification for treating what has been imposed on our lives as morally acceptable. Rectitude and integrity can operate even for historical losers.

We might also ask, who exactly are those “elements of the Right” that are engaging in a “cynical retreat from politics”? There may be some members of the Right who are acting in this manner, but most of those on the right whom I know are intensely committed to fighting the political Left. 

Ellmers’ judgment may apply more appropriately to certain self-described cultural conservatives whom I used to meet at academic conferences. These acquaintances held strong views about certain aesthetic points or recondite theological questions but never said anything controversial about current events. It wasn’t cynicism that drove them to behave this way. Rather it was a fear of having to take sides in a professionally precarious situation that occasioned such caution. Those who wished to stay out of harm’s way voiced certain judgments but not eyebrow-raising political ones. Since then, that niche these aesthetes once occupied has been closed off by political censors. It was supposedly all about binary, white privilege.

Whence the relevance of what Ellmers’ teacher once wrote and which he cites for our benefit: “The destiny of souls in eternity is reflected in how they act in history, in their moral and political lives in the world. Western civilization is above all … constituted by a concern for eternity, whether by the instrument of reason or of revelation.”

—Paul Gottfried, Chronicles’ Editor-in-Chief

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