Political Literacy: What do you need to know about the classics that’s relevant today?

Too much blather, not enough specifics. Memo to all conservative writers and bloggers: until you treat people like they’re intelligent, we’re doomed. Here’s what you need to get started if you’re interested in what the Founders and those who influenced them knew. I’m sticking to contrasts, because I want you to see how different this stuff is:

  • A different view of reason. For Aristotle, a reason was something that a person stated because it was good for him and people like him (from Harvey Mansfield, “A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy.”) Notice how this is extraordinarily different from what we consider a “reason:” we want “truths” that mirror scientific truth in certainty (cf. Descartes) and that apply universally, regardless of the situation. We don’t really make room for statesmen to have “prudence:” we instead shove them into a mechanism, i.e. 3 branches of government that spend more time attacking each other than governing, and the “science” behind that mechanism is supposed to keep us free.
  • The question of the soul. Cf. Plato Republic, Phaedrus; Virgil, Aeneid. A person has his appetites, the “epithumos,” that which the “thumos” (heart) sits upon: the stomach and the genitals. Then there’s the “thumos,” the heart, the “spirited” element. Heroes, with their courage, are “thumotic.” The Greeks didn’t quite consider the brain the seat of reason: it was what sat immediately above the “thumos,” the “phron,” from where we get our word “diaphragm,” which was where speech/reason – also known as “logos” – made itself known. Obviously this has been dispensed with entirely in favor of modern psychology, and the question of the “self.” If Freud is considered the origin of modern psychology, you can take a pretty good guess at which element of the “soul” the “self” is.
  • A humanistic piety: I don’t know what we can learn from worshipping pagan gods directly, as some nowadays do. I do know that we can learn much from reading how the more advanced authors such as Homer, Euripides, Plato treated the stories about the gods. It looks like for Homer especially, the gods are reason simply. To contemplate the stories about them is to wonder about how rule in the most basic sense exists – mind over the body. Also, note that the idea society could be wholly secular, an idea the modern academy and many anarchists, socialists, libertarians, elites entertain, would be laughable to any ancient people. The objection “you’d find a new way of worshipping yourself” would just be the beginning of the argument – most people today would be unaware how worshipful they are of “freedom” and “rights,” to the degree they injure freedom and rights unknowingly very often. “Know thyself” was what the oracle at Delphi instructed: we’d rather be fundamentalists and put that question off the table.


  1. The Delphi Oracle was the one who went into a hole and sniffed the fumes and got High. Spoke in gibberish as I recall and Every body thought she was a genius… Sounds a lot like today’s Politicians to me

  2. @ David: The “Know Thyself” phrase was written atop the oracle before you entered.

    When you entered, there was the priest, a sybil, and a poet. The sybil would ingest a hallucinogenic plant, start babbling. The priest would clarify what she’s babbling, and the poet would take that and make it poetic. Then the visitor would get his prophecy.

    I think it’s the most awesome system I’ve ever heard of. It gets right to the core issue, whether we should be taking instruction from people who are high or not.

  3. “The priest would clarify what she’s babbling. . .”

    Intermediaries are disturbing because they bring their own shadows (Jung) into the conversation. This has always bothered me about the Bible (and other religious documents). The guys who wrote the Bible (and the priest interpreting Sybil’s gibberish (adding gibberish to gibberish perhaps)) just make me blink. God as filtered through man (inherently prone to error) is disturbing.

    That makes me appreciate religions like Zen Buddhism where every man is left to his own devices before an “expert” messes with his mind. I refer here to meditation sessions only.

  4. I am not sure if you get too respectful of these figures yourself Ashok. On the Homer issue do you think there was a ‘Homer’. Definitely lots of his writing is inconsistent when it comes to its cosmology- and more reminiscent of Babylonian mythology than anything else. Where do you put Christianity within these figures- for Augustine and most early Christians, Aristotle and the rest were initiators of devilish science, for Julian Christians were atheists?

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