Philosophy Politics

Metaphysics and the Politics of Tyranny

Man is by nature a political animal.”  This is the famous saying from Aristotle’s Politics, a statement that has reverberating through the ages and was the de facto understanding of humanity until the Enlightenment.  By political animal Aristotle meant that man was a social animal, whose sociality necessarily lead to the formation of social organization, and this is beginning of “politics.”  However, what type of social organization is one to have?

Metaphysics is the study of first principles.  It is one of the major cores of philosophy and is the starting point of philosophy itself.  Before the rise of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – the “classical turn” in philosophy – Greek philosophy begins with the “Pre-Socratics.”  The Pre-Socratic philosophers, characterized best by Thales and the Ionian School, and Anaxagoras and the Pluralist School, featured a one-hundred year conversation over the nature of existence.  What was the first principle (or principles) of existence?  This sparked a debate in philosophy which is ongoing even to this day: monism or pluralism, which contingently develops into universalism and particularism respectively.  This is important because political “pluralism” is all the rage, yet, is the “pluralism” being promoted a defended today actually pluralistic?  Or has “pluralism” (as in the mind and consciousness of the public today), simply a result of what Lenin called “phrase-mongering”?

Metaphysical monism asserts that there is a single source of reality and existence.  Prominent monists included Thales, Plato, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hegel, and Karl Marx.  Sans Plato and Hegel, although Hegel is confusing since he’s also a cultural particularist, the dominant unifying thread in monist metaphysics is materialism.  That is, all life and existence can be reduced to matter, which means matter is also the force that propels all human activity. Metaphysical pluralism asserts the opposite of monism, rather than one source that constitutes existence and reality there are multiple sources that ground existence and reality.  If we identify and believe in only two, this is called dualism, and is generally associated with Descartes.  To some extent, dualism is rooted in an augmented form of Platonism, though Platonism properly speaking was actually monistic.  Three or more constitute “pluralism” proper.  Within pluralist thinking rest figures like Empedocles, Aristotle, and the Catholic philosophical tradition (rooted in the likes of St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine (especially), and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Although Marx himself was a monistic materialist, he is famous for his criticism of liberalism.  Marx associates liberalism with giving rise to capitalism, as well as the divisions and conflicts within society.  For Marx, this is a paradoxical problem with monism and universalism.  In fact, pluralists would add that this problem that Marx observed is the fault of monism itself.

For Marx, the universalism of liberalism was really one that divided and atomized.  In part, this is from liberalism’s anthropology which asserts that the state of nature was ripe with conflict and anxiety, but also because men are a-social and solitary animals.  For instance, Hobbes thinks that the root of our problems is Socrates and Aristotle – their charge that men were social animals necessarily leads to conflict in Hobbes’s mind, which means men must be a-social to avoid conflict with each other.  Marx asserts that this runs contrary to human nature.  We are social animals who desire community, hence, the a-social and solitary attitude of the classical liberals is internally conflictual because it runs counter to human nature.  The end result is our alienation and estrangement from not only the natural world, but with each other.  We atomize into groups, seek our own self-interest, and eventually these atomized and self-interested groups slip into perpetual alienation. And, more importantly, since society is premised on the social contract, the most powerful groups in this post-state of nature society are the ones that come to dominate over other groups that have been split apart and segmented.

But this is not a post on the Marxist critique of liberalism, though it is an important and, in my view, a largely accurate one.  Rather, we are looking at the broader phenomenon of how monism and universalism lead to tyranny, or at least from the perspective of the critics of universalism.

Universalism as a political ideal is first seen in the Prophetic Books of the Tankah, or Hebrew Bible.  They are represented by the likes of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Assyria, moreover than the others, really stands out.  For one, Assyria is the empire that causes the first deportation or exile.  When the northern Kingdom of Israel collapsed under Assyrian invasion, two things happened.  The Israelite leadership is sent away, and the remaining Israelites who stayed in their lands were assimilated into Assyrian culture and society.  Assyria is not only an expansionist and universalist power, but it is also emancipationist and assimilationist in its politics.  So disgusted by this political hand from Assyria, the later Prophets accost their fellow Jews for having abandoned their identity and tradition.

Universalism reemerges in force during the Enlightenment.  What many call “the dream of the Enlightenment” is what Steven Smith has said of it: Enlightenment liberalism, which is a form of universalism, offers an open invitation to emancipate and liberate oneself from past communities, traditions, and identities, offering to form those who take this invitation into a “new man.”  The Enlightenment dream is one of abolition and emancipation – but abolition and emancipation from what?

The problem with universalism should be straight forward, especially when you factor into it the Whig Idea of Progress.  It necessarily dichotomizes in the manner that Marx described.  It is pushed forward by a puritanism that Augustine and the Catholic Church – embracing the doctrine of the “mixed church” – condemned as heretical, and what philosopher David Hume described as “false philosophy” (for Hume, false philosophy was politicized ideology).  There are “bad” people and “good” people.  There are the “enlightened” sages who have “seen the future and it works!” and the “uneducated” and “bigoted” people who are too stupid to know what is best for them and ensnared in darkness and superstition who, in this logical syllogism, necessarily need “enlightenment” and to “emancipate” themselves from “ancient prejudices and tyrannies.”  There is the “the right side of history” and the “wrong side of history.”  There are capitalists and the workers.  There are acceptable opinions and unacceptable opinions.

Ultimately, universalism embraces the view that all the conflict and problems in the world are the result of “the other” who has yet to be “enlightened” or “transformed.”  In sum, then, universalism seeks a universal solution to all of our problems.  Of course, being the scenes of such political movements and ideas is the longstanding debate between monism and pluralism.  If there is truly one source for reality and existence, the logical corollary is that there is to be one, proper, and formal answer to all of our problems.  Of course, if there is a multiplicity to reality and existence, then that means there can never be one answer to all of our problems.  And this doesn’t even begin to touch questions of human anthropology and human nature – whether humans are malleable and perfectible, or whether humans, however good and beautiful, have inherent limitations to themselves.

Behind the scenes of our contemporary political movements, our own critiques of others, and beliefs about others (and the world), lays a question that few in mass society seem to be attune to or aware of, but still drive us forward unconsciously.  This too hits on Lenin’s conception of phrase-mongering.  If pluralism means real, meaningful, and, differences – then does the claim of contemporary “pluralism” as “we’re all the same” or “what’s the difference between us” (with the implication being sameness) really constitute pluralism? And if difference is a cause of conflict, and conflict is bad, then there must be a universal imposition to enforce the peace. Thus, enforcement of peace becomes the autocratic politics of modernity.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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