Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts tagged Plato

Over My Shoulder #26: Robert Paul Wolff on democracy, anarchy, and elective guardianship, from In Defense of Anarchism (1970)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is beach reading, from Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism (1970), one of the few widely-read defenses of philosophical anarchism in contemporary academic political philosophy. Wolff’s central argument is that there is an irreconcilable conflict between any claim of legitimate State authority, and the duty of each person to live up to something like Kant’s notion of moral autonomy. In this passage, he’s just finished presenting the sole exception to this rule: the limiting case of a government based solely on unanimous direct democracy (in which the problem vanishes precisely because the distinction between goverors and subjects breaks down, and no-one is subject to a law that she did not legislate for herself). He goes on to critically discuss the excuses that are made for trying to transfer the legitimacy of unanimous direct democracy to systems based on either or both of two deviations from it: first, by putting direct legislative authority in the hands of elected representatives, and second, by making decisions (whether on the laws themselves or on the representatives to make the laws) on the basis of majority rule rather than unanimity. This is from the section on representative democracy:

We may distinguish a number of types of representation, ranging from the mere delegation of the right to vote a proxy to a complete turning over of all decision-making functions. The question to be answered is whether any of these forms of representation adequately preserve the autonomy which men [sic] exercise through decisions taken unanimously by the entire community. In short, should a responsible man commit himself to obey the laws made by his representatives?

The simplest sort of representation is strict agency. If I am unable to attend the assembly at which votes are taken, I may turn over my proxy to an agent with instructions as to how to vote. In that case, it is obvious that I am as obligated by the decisions of the assembly as though I had been physically present. The role of legal agent is too narrowly drawn, however, to serve as an adequate model for an elected representative. In practice, it is impossible for representatives to return to their districts before each vote in the assembly and canvass their constituents. The citizens may of course arm their representative with a list of their preferences on future votes, but many of the issues which come before the assembly may not have been raised in the community at the time the representative was chosen. Unless there is to be a recall election on the occasion of each unforseen deliberation, the citizens will be forced to choose as their representative a man [sic] whose general platform and political bent suggests that he [sic] will, in the future, vote as they imagine they would themselves, on issues which neither the citizens nor their representative yet have in mind.

When matters have reached this degree of removal from direct democracy, we may seriously doubt whether the legitimacy of the original arrangement has been preserved. I have an obligation to obey the laws which I myself enact. I have as well an obligation to obey the laws which are enacted by my agent in strict accord with my instructions. But on what grounds can it be claimed that I have an obligation to obey the laws which are made in my name by a man [sic] who has no obligation to vote as I would, who indeed has no effective way of discovering what my preferences are on the measure before him? Even if the parliament is unanimous in its adoption of some new measure, that fact can only bind the deputies and not the general citizenry who are said to be represented by them.

It can be replied that my obligation rests upon my promise to obey, and that may in fact be true. But insofar as a promise of that sort is the sole ground of my duty to obey, I can no longer be said to be autonomous. I have ceased to be the author of the laws to which I submit and have become the (willing) subject of another person. Precisely the same answer must be given to the argument that good effects of some sort will result from my obeying the duly elected parliament. The moral distinction of representative government, if there is any, does not lie in the general good which it does, nor in the fact that its subjects have consented to be ruled by a parliament. Benevolent elective kingship of a sort which has existed in past societies can say as much. The special legitimacy and moral authority of representative government is thought to result from its being an expression of the will of the people whom it rules. Representative democracy is said not simply to be government for the people but also government (indirectly) by the people. I must obey what the parliament enacts, whatever that may be, because its will is my will, its decisions my decisions, and hence its authority merely the collected authority of myself and my fellow citizens. Now, a parliament whose deputies vote without specific mandate from their constituents is no more than the expression of their will than is a dictatorship which rules with kindly intent but independently of its subjects. It does not matter that I am pleased with the outcome after the fact, nor even that my representative has voted as he [sic] imagines I would have liked him to. So long as I do not, either in person or through my agent, join in the enactment of the laws by which I am governed, I cannot justly claim to be autonomous.

Unfounded as is traditional representative government’s claim to the mantle of legitimacy, it seems impeccable in comparison with the claims of the form of democratic politics which actually exist in countries like the United States today. Since World War II, governments have increasingly divorced themselves in their decision-making from anything which could be called the will of the people. The complexity of the issues, the necessity of technical knowledge, and most important, the secrecy of everything having to do with national security, have conspired to attenuate the representative function of elected officials until a point has been reached which might be called political stewardship, or, after Plato, elective guardianship. The President of the United States is merely pledged to serve the unspecified interests of his [sic] constituents in unspecified ways.

–Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (ISBN 0520215737), pp. 28–31.

Over My Shoulder #7: Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels, as reprinted in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960–1990. I add only an emphatic reminder of Rule 4, Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

… And we may further suppose that Gulliver has certain hidden thoughts and intentions which are only to be revealed by closely cross-examining him. He indicates this himself at the close of his travels when he swears to his veracity. He uses for this solemn occasion Sinon’s treacherous oath to the Trojans, by means of which that worthy managed to gain admission for the horse and its concealed burden of Greeks.

I should like to suggest that this book is also such a container, filled with Greeks who are, once introduced, destined to conquer a new Troy, or, translated into the little language, destined to conquer Lilliput. In other words, I wish to contend that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last explicit statements in the famous Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns and perhaps the greatest intervention in that notorious argument. By means of the appeal of its myth, it keeps alive the classical vision in ages when even the importance of the quarrel is denied, not to speak of the importance of that classical viewpoint, which appears to have been swamped by history. The laughter evoked by Gulliver’s Travels is authorized by a standard drawn from Homer and Plato.

Prior to entering directly into the contents of the book, I should try to make this assertion somewhat more extrinsically plausible. The quarrel itself is today regarded as a petty thing, rather ridiculous on both sides, a conventional debate between old and new, reactionary and progressive, which later ages have resolved by way of synthesis. Both sides lacked perspective; intellectual history is but one long continuous development. Moreover, the quarrel is looked on largely as a purely literary dispute, originating in the comparison of Greek and Roman poetry with French. Now this understanding is quite different from that of the participants, who, if not always the best judges, must be the first witnesses in any hearing. They understood the debate over poetry to be a mere subdivision of an opposition between two comprehensive systems of radically opposed thought, one finding its source in ancient philosophy, the other in modern philosophy. The moderns believed that they had found the true principles of nature, and that, by means of their methods, new sources of power could be found in physical nature, politics, and the arts. These new principles represented a fundamental break with classical thought and were incompatible with it. The poetic debate was meant, on the part of the advocates of modernity, only to show the superiority of modern thought based on modern talents and modern freedom in the domain where the classics were most indisputably masters and models. The quarrel involved the highest principles about the first causes of all things and the best way of life. It marked a crossroad, one of the very few at which mankind has been asked to make a decisive change in direction. The choice once made, we have forgotten that this was not the only road, that there was another one before us, either because we are ignorant of a possible choice or because we are so sure that this is the only road to Larissa. It is only by return to our starting point that the gravity of the choice can be realized; and at that crossroad one finds the quarrel. It is not, I repeat, a quarrel among authors as such, but among principles.

In his own way, Swift presents and contrasts those principles. He characterizes ancient philosophy as a bee whose wings produce music and flight and who thus visits all the blossoms of the field and garden … and in collecting from them enriches himself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. This bee is opposed to a house-building spider, who thinks he produces his own world from himself and is hence independent, but who actually feeds on filth and produces excrement. As the bee says, So, in short, the question comes all to this; whether is the nobler being of the two, that by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement or venom, producing nothing at all, but flybane and a cobweb; or that which by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings honey and wax.

This description is drawn from one of Swift’s earliest writings, The Battle of the Books. Gulliver’s Travels was one of his latest. Throughout his life Swift saw the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns as the issue in physics, poetry, and politics, and it is in the light of it that he directed his literary career and his practical life. The quarrel is the key to the diverse strands of this various man; his standards of judgment are all classical; his praise and blame are always in accord with that of Plato. He learned how to live within his own time in the perspective of an earlier one. Swift, the Tory and the High Churchman, was a republican and a nonbeliever.

Gulliver’s Travels is always said to be a satire, and there is no reason to quarrel with this designation. But it is not sufficient, for satire is concerned with a view to what is serious and ridiculous, good and bad. It is not enough to say that human folly is ridiculed; what was follow to Aristophanes would not have seemed so to Tertullian, and conversely. If the specific intention of the satire is not uncovered, the work is trivialized. Swift intended his book to instruct, and the character of that instruction is lost if we do not take seriously the issues he takes seriously. But we do not even recognize the real issues in the Quarrel, let alone try to decide which side had the greatest share of truth. In our time, only Leo Strauss has provided us with the scholarship and the philosophic insight necessary to a proper confrontation of ancients and moderns, and hence his works are the prolegomena to a recovery of Swift’s teaching. Swift’s rejection of modern physical and political science seems merely ill-tempered if not viewed in relation to a possible alternative, and it is Leo Strauss who has elaborated the plausibility, nay, the vital importance, of that alternative. Now we are able to turn to Swift, not only for amusement but for possible guidance as to how we should live. Furthermore, Swift’s art of writing explicitly follows the rhetorical rules for public expression developed by the ancients, of which we have been reminded by Professor Strauss. The rhetoric was a result of a comprehensive reflection about the relation between philosophy and politics, and it points to considerations neglected by the men of letters of the Enlightenment. Gulliver’s Travels is in both substance and form a model of the problems which we have been taught to recognize as our own by Leo Strauss.

–Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels (1964), in printed in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960–1990 (1990). 35–38.

Over My Shoulder #6: Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989). I broke the rules a bit here: rather than a single passage of a few paragraphs, I have two, because the latter one reinforces one of the important points of the former, and also because it’s damn near impossible to pick out any one thing that is the most interesting from the chapter. So here goes:

The situation of the prelingually deaf, prior to 1750, was indeed a calamity: unable to acquire speech, hence dumb or mute; unable to enjoy free communication with even their parents and families; confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles–the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.

But what was manifest was as nothing to the destitution inside–the destitution of knowledge and thought that prelingual deafness could bring, in the absence of any communication or remedial measures. The deplorable state of the deaf aroused both the curiosity and the compassion of the philosophes. Thus the Abbé Sicard asked:

Why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men? Why is he reduced to this state of imbecility? Does his biological constitution differ from ours? Does he not have everything he needs for having sensations, acquiring ideas, and combining them to do everything that we do? Does he not get sensory impressions from objects as we do? Are these not, as with us, the occasion of the mind’s sensations and its acquired ideas? Why then does the deaf person remain stupid while we become intelligent?

To ask this question–never really clearly asked before–is to grasp its answer, to see that the answer lies in the use of symbols. It is, Sicard continues, because the deaf person has no symbols for fixing and combining ideas … that there is a total communication-gap between him and other people. But what was all-important, and had been a source of fundamental confusion since Aristotle’s pronouncements on the matter, was the enduring misconception that symbols had to be speech. Perhaps indeed this passionte misperception, or prejudice, went back to biblical days: the subhuman status of mutes was part of the Mosaic code, and it was reinforced by the biblical exaltation of voice and ear as the one and true way in which man and God could speak (In the beginning was the Word). And yet, overborne by Mosaic and Aristotelian thunderings, some profound voices intimated that this need not be so. Thus Socrates’ remark in the Cratylus of Plato, which so impressed the youthful Abbé de l’Epée:

If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?

Or the deep, yet obvious, insights of the philosopher-physician Cardan in the sixteenth century:

It is possible to place a deaf-mute in a position to hear by reading, and to speak by writing … for as different sounds are conventionally used to signify different things, so also may the various figures of objects and words …. Written characters and ideas may be connected without the intervention of actual sounds.

In the sixteenth century the notion that the understanding of ideas did not depend upon the hearing of words was revolutionary.

But it is not (usually) the ideas of philosophers that change reality; nor, conversely, is it the practice of ordinary people. What changes history, what kindles revolutions, is the meeting of the two. A lofty mind–that of the Abbé de l’Epée–had to meet a humble usage–the indigenous sign language of the poor deaf who roamed Paris–in order to make possible a momentous transformation. If we ask why this meeting had not occurred before, it has something to do with the vocation of Abbé, who could not bear to think of the souls of the deaf-mute living and dying unshriven, deprived of the Catechism, the Scriptures, the Word of God; and it is partly owing to his humility–that he listened to the deaf–and partly to a philosophical and linguistic idea then very much in the air–that of universal language, like the speceium of which Leibniz dreamed. Thus, de l’Epée approached sign language not with contempt but with awe.

The universal language that your scholars have sought for in vain and of which they have despaired, is here; it is right before your eyes, it is the mimicry of the impoverished deaf. Because you do not know it,you hold it in contempt, yet it alone will provide you with the key to all languages.

That this was a misapprehension–for sign language is not a universal language in this grand sense, and Leibniz’s noble dream was probably a chimera–did not matter, was even an advantage. For what mattered was that the Abbé paid minute attention to his pupils, acquired their language (which had scarcely ever been done by the hearing before). And then, by associating signs with pictures and written words, he taught them to read; and with this, in one swoop, he opened to them the world’s learning and culture. De l’Epée’s system of methodical signs–a combination of their own Sign with signed French grammar–enabled deaf students to write down what was said to them through a signing interpreter, a method so successful that, for the first time, it enabled ordinary deaf pupils to read and write French, and thus acquire an education. His school, founded in 1755, was the first to achieve public support. He trained a multitude of teachers for the deaf, who, by the time of his death in 1789, had established twenty-one schools for the deaf in France and Europe. The future of de l’Epée’s own school seemed uncertain during the turmoil of the revolution, but by 1791 it had become the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, headed by the brilliant grammarian Sicard. De l’Epée’s own book, as revolutionary as Copernicus’ in its own way, was first published in 1776.

De l’Epée’s book, a classic, is available in many languages. But what have not been available, have been virtually unknown, are the equally important (and, in some ways, even more fascinating) original writings of the deaf–the first deaf-mutes ever able to write. Harlan Lane and Franklin Philip have done a great service in making these so readily available to us in The Deaf Experience. Especially moving and important are the 1779 Observations of Pierre Desloges–the first book to be published by a deaf person–now available in English for the first time. Desloges himself, deafened at an early age, and virtually without speech, provides us first with a frightening description of the world, or unworld, of the languageless.

At the beginning of my infirmity, and for as long as I was living apart from other deaf people … I was unaware of sign language. I used only scattered, isolated, and unconnected signs. I did not know the art of combining them to form distinct pictures with which one can represent various ideas, transmit them to one’s peers, and converse in logical discourse.

Thus Desloges, though obviously a highly gifted man, could scarcely entertain ideas, or engage in logical discourse, until he had acquired sign language (which, as is usual with the deaf, he learned from someone deaf, in his case from an illiterate deaf-mute).

–Oliver Sacks (1989), Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, pp. 13–18.


When Laurent Clerc (a pupil of Massieu, himself a pupil of Sicard) came to the United States in 1816, he had an immediate and extraordinary impact, for American teachers up to this point had never been exposed to, never even imagined, a deaf-mute of impressive intelligence and education, had never imagined the possibilities dormant in the deaf. With Thomas Gallaudet, Clerc set up the American Asylum for the Deaf, in Hartford, in 1817. As Paris–teachers, philosophes, and public-at-large–was moved, amazed, converted by de l’Epée in the 1770s, so America was to be converted fifty years later.

The atmosphere at the Hartford Asylum, and at other schools soon to be set up, was marked by the sort of enthusiasm and excitement only seen at the start of grand intellectual and humanitarian adventures. The prompt and spectacular success of the Hartford Asylum soon led to the opening of other schools wherever there was sufficient density of population, and thus of deaf students. Virtually all the teachers of the deaf (nearly all of whom were fluent signers and many of whom were deaf) went to Hartford. The French sign system imported by Clerc rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here–the deaf generate sign languages wherever there are communities of deaf people; it is for them the easiest and most natural form of communication–to form a uniquely expressive and powerful hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL). A special indigenous strength–presented convincingly by Nora Ellen Groce in her book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language–was the contribution of Martha’s Vineyard deaf to the development of ASL. A substantial minority of the population there suffered from a hereditary deafness, and most of the island had adopted an easy and powerful sign language. Virtually all the deaf of the Vineyard were sent to the Hartford Asylum in its formative years, where they contributed to the developing national language the unique strength of their own.

One has, indeed, a strong sense of pollination, of people coming to and fro, bringing regional languages, with all their idiosyncracies and strengths, to Hartford, and taking back an increasingly polished and generalized language. The rise of deaf literacy and deaf education was as spectacular in the United States as it had been in France, and soon spread to other parts of the world.

Lane estimates that by 1869 there were 550 teachers of the deaf worldwide and that 41 percent of the teachers of the deaf in the United States were themselves deaf. In 1864 Congress passed a law authorizing the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and the Blind in Washington to become a national deaf-mute college, the first institution of higher learning specifically for the deaf. Its first principal was Edward Gallaudet–the son of Thomas Gallaudet, who had brought Clerc to the United States in 1816. Gallaudet College, as it was later rechristened (it is now Gallaudet University), is still the only liberal arts college for deaf students in the world–though there are now several programs and institutes for the deaf associated with technical colleges. (The most famous of these is at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where there are more than 1,500 deaf students forming the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.)

The great impetus of deaf education and liberation, which had swept France between 1770 and 1820, thus continued its triumphant course in the United States until 1870 (Clerc, immensely active to the end and personally charismatic, died in 1869). And then–and this is the turning point in the entire story–the tide turned, turned against the use of Sign by and for the deaf, so that within twenty years the work of a century was undone.

Indeed, what was happening with the deaf and sign was part of a general (and if one wishes, political) movement of the time: a trend to Victorian oppressiveness and conformism, intolerance of minorities, and minority usages, of every kind–religious, linguistic, ethnic. Thus it was at this time that the little nations and little languages of the world (for example, Wales and Welsh) found themselves under pressure to assimilate and conform.

–Oliver Sacks (1989), Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, pp. 21–24.

Happenings Elsewhere

I have some material coming down the pipe that I’ve been chewing on for a while — a little bit on philosophy, some stuff on copyrights and contracts, and some stuff on the nature of law. Plus some announcements about various things of varying interest. But my aching feet are going to keep me from getting to it today. So, in the meantime, here’s some things that I’ve had going on elsewhere:

Bloviating elsewhere

  • Tonight at No Treason, I dispute Stefan’s claim that tyrants and murderers often have satisfying lives (in any sense of the word satisfying that matters), and argue (with Plato) that being a tyrant is actually the most miserable kind of life. (The point is related, somewhat, to some similar remarks I made against some utilitarian arguments over at Philosophy, et cetera.)

  • Over at Kevin Carson’s Mutualist Blog, Kevin discusses land theft against farmers in modern history, and I follow up in comments by debating with P. M. Lawrence over land ownership, homesteading, and slavery. I defend the radical notion that the Southern plantations should have been expropriated from the slave-drivers’ illegitimate control, and distributed amongst the former slaves, after Emancipation. (It should have been distributed not as reparations for slavery — although the former slaves also deserved those — but rather because freed Blacks were the rightful owners of the land that they had lived and worked on all their lives.) Lawrence objects on several fronts; I defend.

  • At Project for the New Anarchist Century, I object to Jeremy Sapienza making shit up about the civil rights movement and Rosa Parks in particular. We go on to debate the historical significance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

  • At Alas, A Blog, I object to several commentators saying, over and over again, that society causes any number of conditions that make rape and other forms of violence against women, as if society were some looming presence outside of us. In fact it just is us. And refusing to recognize this snuffs out any questions we might have about just who, among the men and women that make up society, does most of the things that constitute a rape culture. (Here’s a hint: it is not, for the most part, women.)

Howard Dully and My Lobotomy on NPR

Meanwhile, NPR recently broadcast a riveting and heartbreaking audio documentary, My Lobotomy by Howard Dully. At age 12, diagnosed with nothing worse than being a difficult child, Dully was one of the youngest victims of Walter Freeman’s ice-pick lobotomy. It turns out that the complaints were nothing but a pack of lies, but even if they weren’t, the senseless mutilation of his brain would have still have been an atrocity. In any case, Dully somehow survived with his faculties mostly intact, and is able — unlike so many of Freeman’s other victims — to search for answers about his suffering and to tell his own story. Dully also talked about his experiences some more on Thursday’s Talk of the Nation. It’s not stuff you can enjoy listening too, really, but it is stuff that you should listen to. And listening to it is not a burden; while not pleasant, the tale is compelling, chilling, and, sadly, real.

Further reading

Roderick’s New Argument

Roderick has a new argument for anarchism. Here’s how it goes:

  1. If anybody should rule, philosophers should.
  2. But philosophers should not rule.
  3. Therefore, nobody should rule.

Any philosopher who denies (1) is excessively timid; any philosopher who denies (2) is excessively bold. Hence moderation demands assent to the conclusion.

It’s worth noting that Roderick’s argument also succeeds in combining the thesis embodied in uncritical democracy (2) with the antithesis embodied in Platonic totalitarianism (1). Thus anarchism is the dialectical synthesis of two genuine insights which are disastrous when taken out of context. Maybe this will convince Chris Sciabarra to be an anarchist again…

Anticopyright. All pages written 1996–2024 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.