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Following The “Magicians”: Origins of America’s Political Defilement

The masses have followed the magicians again and again…Socrates and Plato were the first to take up the struggle against them in a clear awareness of what was at stake.”-Karl Jaspers

The Pied Piper works his magic to banish the rats (image credit Wikimedia Commons)
The Pied Piper works his magic to banish the rats (image credit Wikimedia Commons)

Prof. Louis René Beres

“The masses have followed the magicians again and again…Socrates and Plato were the first to take up the struggle against them in a clear awareness of what was at stake.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952)

It’s glaringly ironic. Since Plato first characterized visible political activity as mere reflection or “shadow,” scholars have had a favorable starting point for serious intellectual understanding.[1] Nonetheless, purposeful thought[2] on the nature of politics has remained the province of just a tiny handful of specialists. Complex and bewildering, such thought can never become appropriate for “mass” consumption.

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               But it does still warrant a more prominent place in shaping national policies.

               On such arcane matters, there are gravely pertinent details. In the United States, recalling Plato, Americans will finally need to acknowledge core differences between “truth and shadow.” Oddly, what has mattered most to this country about politics are outcomes that “the people” themselves might never even recognize.

               How can this be?

               In general, few people are capable of acknowledging what they really want. Though millions of Americans can readily appreciate that they value assorted religious attachments and affiliations, few could then connect these preferential ties to palpable promises of one utterly supreme form of power. These promises concern the incomparable bestowal of immortality, the credible granting of power over death.

               Individuum est ineffable, reminds the poet-philosopher Goethe, author of Faust: “The individual cannot be grasped.”

               Within an American society unaccustomed to bothering with history, law or erudition (Donald Trump assured his servile followers that “attitude is more important than preparation”),[3] there is not much cause to expect many knowledge-based political inquiries. Still, whatever the anti-intellectual baggage of an American mass[4] that continuously disregards all discernible considerations of “mind,” lucid explanations of American politics will now require examinations conducted at a conceptual level.

               There is more. Three specific concepts will need to be highlighted. Intersecting and subtle, these concepts are death, time and immortalityPrima facie, discovery of pertinent meanings here can never be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted. To wit, this will not be a task for those who would choose yet again to “follow the magicians.”

                At the outset of any serious political inquiry, relevant phenomena must be examined at this conceptuallevel. Concepts represent the “building blocks” of any comprehensive theory, and theory (well fashioned) represents the beginning of any science. Science, in turn, identifies an optimal method of reaching conclusions, one involving the stipulation, examination and subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation of alternative hypotheses.

               This is what serious inquiry is necessarily all about. Indeed, when taken together, these recommended operations provide the textbook definition of science. Always, to sincerely believe in science is to reject “the magicians.”

               A “next question” dawns. How shall Americans proceed if their national and sub-national governance is to be meaningfully improved, especially in a world political system of belligerent nationalism now being shaped  by corrosive acrimony and nuclear weapons?[5] What can the three concepts of death, time and immortality teach us about America’s political landscape, both present and future?[6] How shall this nation ever be able to advance beyond the childlike prescriptions and gratuitous rancor of domestic politics, an advance (let us be candid) that has now become indispensable to actual survival?

               To answer thoughtfully, and not as marginally literate partisans of some presumptively precious political cause or personality, analysts must begin with the individual human being, with the microcosm. In this commencement, though disregarded and de facto invisible, power over death represents the ultimate reward for dutiful political compliance. Though spoken sotto voce (only in furtive whispers), there can be no greater power to confer in any political sphere than this tacit promise of immortality.

Personal Faith and the “Hunger of Immortality

               “I believe,” says Oswald Spengler in his 20th century classic, The Decline of the West” (1918-1923), “is the one great word against metaphysical fear.” In this inherently abstract connection, we may learn from Emmanuel Levinas something of head spinning import: “It is through death,” says the modern philosopher,  “that there is time….” It follows, among other things, that any nation that can seemingly enhance the promise of personal immortality among its people can thereby heighten the promises of time.

               These are multiple and mutually reinforcing promises.

               Could there possibly be any more enviable forms of power?

                These are not easy concepts to unravel or interpret. And yet they are more plainly explanatory of this nation’s dynamic existential problems than are the commonly ritualistic recitations of public political personalities. If chronology is in fact contingent upon death – in essence, because human mortality puts an irreversible “stop” to each individual’s personal time[11] – an antecedent question must also be posed: How does one gain tangible power over death,[12] and what does any such gain have to do with the fate of a particular state or nation?

               It is with precisely this near-preposterous question in hand that genuinely promising political inquiries should now be launched.

               What next? Before venturing a proper answer to any such many-sided question, analysts and thinkers must first distinguish between actual or tangible power and the personal expectation that such power lies in variously decipherable ties to God.  Naturally, though not in any way a matter of science, we humans have always sought reassuring links to the divine. In identifying humankind’s purported ties here to the sacred –  ties that are expectedly prior to relevant acquisitions of power over death – the most evident and “time-tested” path involves faith.

                It is hardly a coincidence that every one of the world’s major religions offers its adherents variously alluring and more-or-less comparable promises of immortality.

               There is more. Such powerful assurances come with assorted contingencies, some of which would prove far more difficult to satisfy than others. Nonetheless, in the main, whatever the specific contingencies or nuances of differentiation involved, it is a bargain being offered to individuals who usually hope most fervidly not to die. Seemingly, it is a gainful pact, one whereby the faithful adherents of any pertinent religion (1) commit wholly to the affirmation of all true piety (“I believe),” and (2) prioritize this sacred affirmation above all others.

Immortality and Martyrdom

               Additional particularities will need to be noted. On occasion, the doctrinal priority “I believe” can demand a faith-confirming end to an individual believer’s physical life on earth, that is, an act of martyrdom.  At other times, assorted high-minded doctrines of charity, caring and compassion notwithstanding, this priority can require the torture and/or killing of designated “unbelievers,” “heathen,” “apostates,” etc., to safeguard “the one true faith.”

               Whatever special circumstances of “sacrifice” may be involved  – and they need not be mutually exclusive – Reason must give way to Unreason. Ironically, as we have already seen, such grotesque surrender is no less likely in the Age of Science than it was in any earlier Age of Belief. Regarding this worrisome allegation, the daily news offers endlessly corroborative “evidence” ex hypothesi.

               There are several core truths being revealed here. Any cumulative hopes for an individual rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, for war and peace on Planet Earth.  In the nineteenth century, at his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined in his Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”

                Inter alia, these widely-cited views in political science and philosophy tie loyalty to the state (usually unquestioned loyalty) with the promise of power over death. By definition, this must always be a monumental promise, one generally recognized only in the Platonic “shadows” of political activity. Plainly, whenever the historian looks beyond the distracting shadows of true images, he discovers no plausible evidence of any such promise ever having been kept.

               There is more. This is an extraordinary and always-unfulfilled promise, but one that still remains incomparable. During his rabidly incoherent tenure as US president, Donald J. Trump’s openly pernicious brand of belligerent nationalism (“America First” offered “patriotic” adherents this dangerously seductive promise. In the end, because it was founded upon a fusion of stark ignorance with doctrinal anti-reason, “America First” brought with it a vision of time that hastened death rather than help “overcome” it.

               Additional nuances now warrant competent examination. In all related matters, faith and science intersect with coinciding considerations of law. The fearful “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation of ideology from simple principle of action to sacred end in itself, drew germinal strength from the doctrine of sovereignty. First conceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a juridical principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent far-reaching metamorphoses, whence it then became the justifying legal rationale for international anarchy (known also by political philosophers as the global “state of nature.)”

Sovereignty and Power Over Death

               To understand all such complex intersections, we must first understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute and above all other forms of law. In the oft-recited and oft-studied words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”

               As to any correspondences withtime, which is how we have come to consider such complex issues in the first place, Hobbes explains why this “no law” condition should be called “war,” even when there exists no actual “fighting.”  More precisely, because  “war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of Time…., scholars and policy-makers will need to broaden their most fundamental ideas of “war.” Though this would first appear to be an esoteric requirement, one without any discernible links to real world policy-making, exactly the opposite is true.

               There is still more. When it is understood in terms of modern international relations, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states  (a) lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and (b) act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states or the global system as a whole. Still, following the time of conspicuous Trump derangements, this doctrine threatened a wholesale collapse of civilizational cooperation and world order, a dis-establishment spawned  ultimately by the “timeless” human wish for immortality, and by variously misconceived human associations of “wish fulfillment” with “everyone for himself” foreign policies.

Time and the Hobbesian “State of War”

               Without suitable changes in the Hobbesian “tract of time,” the global State of War nurtured by refractory ideas about absolute sovereignty points not only to perpetual/immutable human mortality, but also toward death on literally unprecedented levels. One such notion is climate change denial, a stubbornly-preferred posture of anti-reason expressed most insidiously by earlier Trump-world derangements of science and law. Left unaffected by more proper considerations of scientific analysis and refined intellect, climate change denial could produce even another mass extinction on Planet Earth. At that point, time will have lost all of its once-residual meanings, and death will inherit absolutely all that still is.

               Considered by itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal, both because it is scientific nonsense (“An immortal person  is a contradiction in  terms” and because it fosters such endlessly injurious human behaviors as war, terrorism, genocide and “martyrdom.” The dignified task, therefore, is not to try to remove the individual human hope to somehow soar above death (that is, to achieve some tangible sort of immortality), but to “de-link” this futile and vainglorious search from grievously destructive human behaviors.

               But how best to proceed with such a multi-faceted task? This is not an easy question, and one that can never be answered in terms of shadows or Platonic reflections of reality. There are available here no science-based guidelines. And even if there were such availability, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield ipso facto to rationality-based solutions. On the contrary, and infinitely-distressing, the wish to immortality is so deeply compelling and universal that it can never be dispelled by logical argument.


A Perilous Political Lure: “Whisperings of the Irrational”

               Aware of this dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Always, and understandably, the  most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that offer to confer a selective power over death. But it is in the express criteria of any such “selection” that ostentatiously far-reaching evils can be born.

               In essence, this is because the promised power over death requires the “sacrifice” of certain despised “others.”

               For science, death is inevitably a function of biology. Moreover, because it “presents” together with decomposition and decay – and even calls for some human comprehension of nothingness within a so-called flow of time – there exist no conspicuously plausible ways of replacing mystery with rationality. By its very nature, which inevitably brings forth inconsolable fears and paralyzing anxieties, death will never submit to even the most refined sorts of intellectual management.


               It’s simply not that sort of “nemesis.”

               Nonetheless, at least in principle, some measure of existential relief can be discovered in transience, that is, in the unassailable awareness that nothing is forever and that everything is impermanent. What is required at this stage is the conceptual reciprocal of any imagined human decomposition or disintegration. This would mean deliberately cultivating the imagery of expanded human significance that stems from life’s limited duration. In scientific  terms, one might usefully describe this quality as life’s “scarcity value.”

               Though seemingly paradoxical, any such gainful mental cultivation may effectively represent the optimal human strategy of achieving “immortality” or of “not dying.”

               How did we ever arrive at such a complex and intellectually-challenging conclusion?  We began with the view that daily news reports and “assessments” are just changing reflections or shadows of much deeper human activities. In order to deal more satisfactorily with the incessant horrors of any national politics – e.g., the endlessly lethal derangements of Trump-era American policies – we will first have to understand the verifiably true sources of all such reflections.

               Again, these particular underpinnings of daily news events are rooted in certain conceptual intersections of deathtime and immortality. It is only with a more determined understanding of these many-sided intersections that America and Americans can reasonably hope “not to die.”

The Barbarism of Specialization

In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere – must remain a shadowy second-order activity, a distorting reflection of what is truly important. For now, in the United States, such politics continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an collective infirmity that represents the disfiguring reciprocal of personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warned the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

“In vain.”

                In even an authentic American democracy, only a few could ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider nation, but these self-effacing souls would generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is increasingly oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can plausibly expect to be “suffocated” by the many. Any such “asphyxiation,” in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would represent an especially bad way to “die.”

               Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the American political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent, corrupt and disjointed presidency was the direct result of a society that had long since abandoned any serious thought. When such a society no longer asked the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the hideous outcome was inevitable.

               It was an outcome that we are currently living through in the United States, and yet it is also one that might sometime earlier have had to be “died through.”

               Going forward, what Americans ought to fear most of all is this continuously self-defiling outcome of “shadows” or reflected truth, not any particular electoral result. To be certain, at this vital turning point, nothing could be more urgently important for the United States than to rid itself of the still-intersecting pathologies of Covid19 and Donald Trump’s now growing movement against Constitutional democracy. These evident afflictions are mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic. But even the much needed eradications would only be transient. More fundamentally, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialization,” this country must first resurrect an earlier ethos of education, one in which learning can benefit the whole human being, not just his or her work-related corner of the universe.

               Also necessary will be  the long-deferred obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and (correspondingly) the binding universality of international law. To survive as a nation and as individuals, more Americans will need to become seriously educated, not as well-trained cogs in a vast industrial machine, but as genuinely empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson, once discoverable in myriad sacred texts, is not easily operationalized.

                Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most conspicuously failed.

               In Trump-era American governance, the former president’s core message was never about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but rather about “winners,” “losers” and a presumptively rational citizen obligation to “Make America Great.” In this twisted Trumpian context, “greatness” assumed a Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one wherein each individual could finally favor harmonious cooperation over belligerent competition. The very last thing any sane person would ever seek in this abysmally crude condition is immortality.

               How shall we change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we”learn to make the souls of the citizens better?” This is not a question that anyone can answer in any elucidating detail. Still, it is a question that ought to be placed before the imperiled American polity before the next election, before it is once again too late.

               American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’Gasset “barbarism of specialization.” To be rescued in time, each such hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself but also in coordinated tandem with variously other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternative is simply no longer tolerable.

               Donald Trump’s electoral removal from office was a sine qua non for all still-applicable remedies, but even such an indispensable removal could target only a symptom of America’s “true” national pathology. By itself, saving the United States from Donald Trump was surely required, but it still left unchanged the country’s most deeply underlying “disease.” In the end, because Americans will finally need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, the nation will have to figure out various practical ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

               Can this sort of rational calculation reasonably be expected? Maybe not. Perhaps, like the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, this warning may “have come too soon.” If such a premature warning turns out to be the case, however, there may be no “later.”

What is “Drawing Near”?

               “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” The meaningful answer, which lies far beyond any measuring hands of clocks, is by no means self-evident. Determining this answer is now a fundamental expectation of American political destiny.

               Nothing could be more important.

               Soon, as we have just seen, Americans will need to get solidly beyond the demeaning banalities of partisan politics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “shadows” of what is genuinely important. Immutably, but also invisibly, most human residents of planet earth continue to regard “power over death” as the highest conceivable form of power. And yet it will likely remain unclear how such ultimate power can be linked purposefully to America’s politics, even to its Realpolitik-directed foreign policies.

Meaning and Belonging

               There is more. To look suitably beyond “shadows,” Americans must also discover that there are two other principal animating forces of their political realm. These forces concern Meaning and Belonging. They represent other true images of American politics – images additional to immortality or “power over death” – that can also bestow tangible feelings of personal self-worth.

               In essence, such images coalesce around activities that can confer pleasing human emotions of “time well spent” and/or group membership. The overriding problem, of course, is that such activities are not always benign. They can sometimes include war, terrorism and genocide.

               In his modern classic study, Being and Time (1953), Martin Heidegger laments what he calls (in German) das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon certain earlier seminal insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present herd, crowd, horde or mass, an “untruth” (the term favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) that can all-too-quickly suffocate intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous “The They,” the crowning human untruth lies in “herd” acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels, and in herd encouragement of the notion that personal power over death is sometimes derivative (recall earlier Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation-states.

               History reveals, prima facie, that this can frequently become an insidious notion.

               Any reassuring notions about a potential for personal immortality are themselves contingent upon the specific nation-state’s “sacredness.” Here, only membership in a presumptively “sacred” group can serve to confer life-everlasting. This connection is now markedly evident amid America’s rancorous “identity” politics.

               “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are creatures of our own making.” But to best ensure that such “creatures” are dignified, decent and meaningfully cooperative with one another, all societies must first be able to distinguish true human feelings and expectations from distorting reflections or “shadows.” Here in the United States, where a nation’s most basic tonality has already become dissonance, one conclusion is unassailable: Americans should finally acknowledge the existential risks of “following the magicians,” and firmly detach themselves from always-grave distortions of political reality.

                It’s a tall order, to be sure, but one that can’t reasonably be disregarded. The next time the United States chooses to “follow the magicians” could represent more than just another regrettable political error.  Prima facie, such an unforgivable mistake could prove to be existential and irremediable.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear.

You may find here his latest law review article Israeli Nuclear Deterrence And International Law: Calculating Effects Of Power Politics And Pandemics.

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy



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