What Everyone Knows
Everyone knows that a greedy man will never reach the limits of his desire for more, for it is the essence of greed to acknowledge no natural limit to its ambition. Everyone knows totalitarians are intrinsically, definitively, obsessed with totality with respect to control, and that an obsession with totality admits of no inherent restraint or misgivings, for totalism in the quest for political control is, as Plato taught, the spiritual reversal of the philosophic lust for wisdom, which means complete understanding without boundaries. Everyone knows that controlled societies inevitably fail. Everyone knows that a tyrant must and will subdue and palliate doubtful sentiments at home by inventing enemies within and without to blame for, and distract from, the controlled society’s failure. Everyone knows that a man who commits himself to a life of totalism in human power and social control, whose ambition is inherently without limits, will never be satisfied with what he controls today, but will always need to achieve greater control, and that the range of tyrannical imagination will necessarily widen in tandem with his sense of practical capacity.
Everyone knows all these things, because they are manifest in recent history, in basic definitions, in the daily workings of our technocratic governments, in the testaments of brave survivors, in the moral insights of major literature, and in the dark corners of every human heart. And yet so many people in places high and low are exhibiting mystification, denial, and an absolute refusal to admit the full obviousness of our current situation regarding Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not to mention Xi Jinping’s China. These are greedy men of totalitarian power, the tyrants of failing societies, driven both by a quest for total control defined, in their cases, in accordance with an almost limitless sense of physical power, and by a desperate need for enemies to prop up as domestic excuses for societal failure. They have devoted their respective lives to the goals of political totalism. They will seek to achieve those goals, to the extent they see them as practically possible. At this moment, the portion of the world that has the capacity to determine for Putin and Xi the exact limits on possibility, and thereby to shrink the range of their respective practical definitions of “totality,” has thus far proven unwilling to do so, and to an alarming extent unable even to admit the fact of the universal awareness that is being instantiated before our eyes right now. Part of this is due to the weakly educated modern mind’s susceptibility to propaganda from tyrants. Part of it is due to an ever-growing like-mindedness between the overtly totalitarian world and the passively totalitarian trajectory of the West’s nihilistic relativism about truth and goodness. But much of it, I believe, results from a simple failure of judgment.
Everyone knows many things which, if applied directly to current events, would make these events’ meaning and the severity of the threat quite transparent. But precisely what is lacking is the capacity to recognize that the events we are witnessing are indeed an instance of the universal premises that everyone knows. Aristotle observes, in Metaphysics I.1, that there are situations in which the theoretical knowledge of the principles of medicine is less valuable than the experiential awareness of having tried various treatments on a specific ailment many times over. The theoretician knows what works in this or that kind of case, and why, but cannot cure anyone unless he also has the ability to recognize a real situation as exemplifying the kind of case in question, whereas the man of experience, though unable to explain why this or that treatment works, will nevertheless be able to cure a real illness because he will recognize it when he sees it, and remember what worked in previous similar cases.
Are we capable of recognizing what we are looking at in the political arena anymore? Or have the stakes simply become so high, and our moral lassitude so severe, that our hearts are no longer willing to allow us to discern a readily apparent particular instance of causalities that our reason comprehends all too well?