Philosophical horror: Making the world anew

Perceiving political disorder, religious strife, social unrest, or economic collapse, philosophers have not infrequently regarded themselves as saviors who could, from out of the resources of the mind itself, create the world anew. This, argues Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis, is what occurred to Descartes who, upon witnessing the Thirty Years’ War, believed that he could provide a new philosophical foundation upon which the modern world could stand firm. It is also the lure that ensnares Plato whose Republic could quite possibly have been written in response to the political debacle that led to the trial and death of Socrates.

Not refashioning the world, not an incendiary apologia for the philosophical life, but another, humbler path could have been taken and sometimes has. In Book VI of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates describes a moment when philosophers, few and rare, go into exile from the unjust city. Because they see the ‘madness of the majority,’ because philosophy is generally regarded by the majority as being useless, and in order to safeguard philosophy from corruption or dissipation,

they [go away and] lead a quiet life and do their own work. Thus, like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, the philosopher–seeing others filled with lawlessness–is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content.

This passage, however, reads too much like a case of sour grapes–here, philosophical resignation–and not enough like genuine humility. Daoism, though itself sometimes overly critical of political intervention and of Confucian righteousness, provides an account of quietism that sounds lovingly quieter. Fung Yu-Lan, in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, writes that removing oneself from social conventions in order to live more quietly satisfies ‘the desires of a people living in an age of disorder and confusion.’ One’s powers are set so that they are in tune with the Dao.

At his peril, Plato passes over this moment. We know that Plato goes on to consider the philosopher’s engagement with the majority in the first instance by seeking to change its mind (this being a reform project) and in the second instance by wiping the slate clean so that the just city can be molded according to a Theoretical Model (this being the utopian project). The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, keying into such moments of utopian fervor, accused Plato of totalitarianism. Such, in any case, is the horror spelled in thinking that one can re-make the world and thereby save it…