The Truth Is Out There

 Authored by Emina Melonic via RealClear Wire,

The cacophony of the Internet has been distracting from proper intellectual discussion for quite some time now. Over time, it has added clashes of ideological cymbals and symbols, signifying not much other than anger, destruction, and despair. The fact that Americans are divided has become a forgone conclusion. People have been split into so many subsets that it’s impossible to carry out a proper conversation. We indeed have an American Tower of Babel.

To make matters worse, discourse appears to be the least of our problems. Political philosophy and political life itself have entered a post-everything phase, and this has rendered the very meaning of America on shaky grounds. What can we do in this situation? Is it possible to restore order not only in America but also in society as a whole? Glenn Ellmers’ new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, offers challenging questions to this problem. Unlike many political analyses of today, Ellmers’ book engages deeply with several thinkers, seeking and providing clear paths out of a disorienting and dense thicket.

Reminiscent of the past tradition of philosophical essays, The Narrow Passage is a concise and sharp reminder of philosophy’s relevance. In a world in which ideologues fancy themselves journalists, and journalists fancy themselves philosophers, Ellmers brings clear and deep thinking into the intellectual fold. Thoughtfully and with supreme confidence as well as intellectual humility, Ellmers dares to do what most writers and cultural critics are afraid of: challenge the mediocrity of ideological dogmatism, be it on the Left or Right.

Guided by the wisdom of Plato, Leo Strauss, and Harry Jaffa, Ellmers explores the idea of political life in the context of dramatic changes our world has seen in the last few years. Ellmers’ book is part philosophical exegesis, part cultural critique, and it is these two elements that make the book and Ellmers’ voice unique. He brings together several elements of political philosophy, and “one of the central themes of this book is this battle between the scientific-bureacratic-rational state (which comes out of Hegel) and the post-modern rejection of all objective standards (which comes out of Nietzsche).”

The extreme use of rationalism has gotten us into such metaphysical trouble. This inevitably leads to moral relativism, and no one is immune. We are more post-modern than we’d like to admit, despite the fact that we may be fighting for age old tradition. We shouldn’t run away from this. In fact, post-modernism cannot be properly dealt with without engaging with thinkers that we deem enemies.

Enter Michel Foucault. While most conservatives either ignore or entirely dismiss Foucault as an unserious thinker, Ellmers engages with his thought in a very careful and deep way. While Ellmers’ philosophical conclusions differ greatly from Foucault's, he asks us to reconsider Foucault’s arguments for purposes other than the French philosopher envisioned. As Ellmers writes, “Foucault's central theme was the power discourse, or the relationship between political power, knowledge, and truth…It might be tempting to dismiss [Foucault] so much academic babble. But I would argue that we should reflect on Foucault’s argument in part because he is offering a quite accurate description of how today’s intellectuals perceive the world, and therefore how the ruling class, at least to some degree, thinks and operates.”

Foucault understands the strangeness of modern life, and the power structures that are strangling humanity. The discourse Foucault is interested in is the one that reveals the power structure and power struggle. He “shows that what may seem like propaganda and lies to abnormal or mentally recalcitrant subjects are nothing but the ebb and flow of the power discourse as it modulates in response to environmental changes.” In other words, we are just cogs in a big machine. But do we have to be?

“You are being manipulated. But you already know that,” Ellmers writes. You might wonder what technological and social media-influenced manipulations have to do with political life; in reality, it has to do with everything. As Ellmers writes, “...Americans are lied to on a daily basis - by corporate advertisers, medical hucksters and spiritual charlatans, the sensationalist media, and of course the authorities in government.”

Because of this, reality is constantly challenged. If reality itself is questioned, then how can a human being expect to participate in political life? All we have are forms of control, yet all of these attempts at totalitarianism are not definitive and hard. For example, it’s clear what the meaning of censorship is, theoretically speaking, but today’s censorship works in shapeshifting ways. One is censored through ambiguous means reliant on pseudo-morality.

The authoritarians in charge are many, but who are they? Everyone and no one is in charge. The system of tyranny appears to be a mesh of vertical and horizontal lines, absolving the authoritarians of guilt as they enact their tyranny. Ellmers rightly asserts that our awareness of all of this may be an actual hindrance to doing something about it. “Our cynical hyper-awareness of being “in the cave,” our post-modern sophistication, actually drives us deeper underground and away from the natural experiences of moral-political life. We accept the idea of the authoritative political narrative or discourse, and then assume (as Foucault did) that reality is nothing but discourse.”

Throughout his book, Ellmers is not interested in so-called solutions. This is not to say that he is not concerned about the state of the world, or that he doesn’t want to offer certain strategies in combating the chaos that is before us. But he deeply understands that if political philosophy is to be used in any way, then it has to be given room to breathe without any imposition of ideology or specific practical matters. Of course, one could argue that there is nothing more practical than politics because it gets into the heart of the matter of being a citizen. But in a society that appears to have lost interest in deeper thought, one that has gotten used to “content” and “products” that take care of immediate gratification, it will be difficult to figure out how to move away from a mob-oriented politics to one based on citizen and community.

In all this bureaucratic and cultural mess, people are attempting to feel like they belong somewhere, that they have home. “Part of what we are seeing,” writes Ellmers, “in the re-emerging tribalism of both Left and Right may be a creation of profound emptiness in the soul created by the loss of this “belonging," an attempt to recover a sense of meaning and purpose by recreating a holy community of citizen-believers.”

One cannot blame people for turning to something that may resemble a like-mindedness. But caveat emptor–there are many intellectual frauds out there that are stoking the fires of chaos all for the purposes of their own self-interest. As much as the need to belong is a truly human and noble desire, we ask must ourselves: to what do we really want to belong?

In a 1955 lecture titled “The History of Political Theory,” Hannah Arendt said that “The modern growth of worldlessness, the withering away of everything between us, can also be described as the spread of the desert. That we live and move in a desert-world was first recognized by Nietzsche, and it was also Nietzsche who made the first decisive mistake in diagnosing it.” But even deserts, as Arendt later observes, are full of storms and elements that are beyond our control. This, more than anything, seems to be a human condition, and each generation ends up experiencing it in their own way.

But there is something more at play here, which includes the inevitable impact on the political life of a citizen. Our atomization (perhaps something Foucault already recognized) is spreading despair. As Ellmers writes, “Despair, Jaffa was fond of saying, is not only a sin (because it presumes we have been abandoned by God), but also an intellectual error.” We don’t believe in political life anymore. There is a reason for this–everywhere we look, we see corruption out in the open and we can’t do anything about it.

Maybe we have entered a post-political age, but wouldn’t even that assessment render us weak in embracing our unwanted post-modernism? No matter what, despair should never be an option, even if sadness, anger, and loneliness often rise to the surface. It’s in the act and encounter that we become fully human, and part of that act is a recognition of political life as well as truth. Ellmers’ book is a valuable exploration of the significance and singularity of truth and authenticity, without which political life cannot exist.

Emina Melonic's work has appeared in National Review, The New Criterion, The Imaginative Conservative, American Greatness, Splice Today, VoegelinView, and New English Review, among others.

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