Reflections on Power

Language and politics.– One man believes the central question of practical politics is, “Which powers should the government use?” Another man believes the central question is, “Which powers should the government have?”

One word of difference is all that separates these two men — one small word that holds within it all their respective premises about human nature, the individual, and the value of freedom.

Power and fear.– Every time you say, “The state needs to control that,” you are expressing fear. Some fears are reasonable, no doubt. But to the extent that this sentiment — “The state needs to control that” — becomes a reflex or intellectual habit in response to a theoretically unlimited series of problems, you may be certain that your fears are no longer reasonable, in the sense of being moderated by virtue and common sense. In other words, he who habitually turns to the state as a solution to personal or social problems (perceived or real) has become a coward — in fact, such a habit is almost the definition of cowardice.

Never forget that, when you encounter in your midst — as you likely will every day for the rest of your life — the statist impulse to demand new coercive controls over speech, behavior, wealth, attitudes, and whatnot. What you are encountering there is unrestrained fear. In other words, the will to external control indicates a profound absence of internal control.

Plato’s Socrates teaches that the tyrannical soul is a kind of mirror image — that is, a reversal — of the philosophic soul. From this it follows that a potential tyrant is also a potential philosopher; all the difference lies in upbringing, early influences, and developed character. Consistent with this view is Socrates’ sobering observation, in various contexts, that the many are incapable of committing any great evil, for if they were capable of the greatest evil, they would also be capable of the greatest good, which is manifestly not the case.

Essential to Socrates’ view, however, is a human politics, which is to say a political life determined by individuals of differing temperaments, intellects, and characters. It is in such a context that tyranny may be understood as the reversal of the philosophic life, and the tyrant as an exceptional individual who might, in principle, have epitomized the virtues of justice and wisdom, had he not been corrupted — who might have been the best of men, had he not succumbed to those special temptations of the unusually energetic soul that produce the worst of men.

This Socratic insight, while forever valid as the most profound psychological wisdom, is no longer applicable in modern practice. For our politics are no longer human in stature, no longer the Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle of freedom and reason against the unrestrained material urge to possess and dominate. Our late modern tyranny is a machine, an efficient apparatus of faceless, soulless bureaus and regulatory bodies. Xi Jinping is a pencil pusher who climbed his way up the administrative ladder, and whose outbox now micromanages over a billion human lives. Vladimir Putin is a run-of-the-mill grifter with a little extra ambition and a penchant for publicity. The American government, shifting rapidly toward the most unbridled and unhinged vanguard of soft despotism, literally has no discernible leader, only figureheads and public spokesmen.

Great tyrannical minds — potential philosophers poisoned by vice — programmed our machine in the early days, to be sure. Today, however, we are ruled by the machine itself — by the material nothingness, the spiritual void. Hence, in modern practice, Socrates’ observation is no longer applicable. Our tyranny is indeed maintained, operated, and managed by “the many,” or at least the many’s most sociopathic representatives. The many, as it turns out, really are capable of the greatest evil, if properly trained and calibrated to commit such abominations — though it certainly remains true that they are incapable of the greatest good.

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