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An “Unphilosophical Spirit”: Root Causes of American Intellectual Decline

“unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” hovering over the United States.

unphilosophical spirit
Unphilosophical spirit

Prof. Louis Rene Beres

The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.“- Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

For the most part, Americans loath mind-challenging excursions into philosophy. At times, certain other forms of intellectual activity are judged more-or-less tolerable, but only to the extent that they are conducted in pursuit of practical academic certifications or job-related advancements. To be sure, many Americans do remain conspicuously proud of their specific educational accomplishments and associations, but only rarely because of any connections to genuine learning.

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               In general, these university-based relationships are valued for presumed personal status and income enhancements.

               Still, in the final analysis, core origins of America’s intellectual decline are best explained by philosophy. Reasoning as an educated European in the late 20th century, German philosopher Karl Jaspers observes succinctly in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971): “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” Though there is nothing tangible about such a spirit – and while the philosopher’s subtle indictment would soar indecipherably over the heads of most Americans – this demeaning spirit has palpable consequences.

               Inter alia, it is anything but benign.

               We should begin at the beginning. What does it really mean for a nation to be “anti-intellectual”? On its face, intellect is “elitist.” Always. At a minimum, intellect seems impractical, contrived, “highfalutin.” Typically, in the United States, from its very beginnings, the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” has been met with opprobrium. In essence, such mention has elicited precious little in the way of curiosity. Instead, it has brought forth variously acrimonious cries of disapproval, an openly belligerent rancor and abundantly witless howls of execration.

               So what (if anything) has changed? Credo quia absurdum, exclaimed the ancient philosopher Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.”

                Significantly, with few discernible exceptions, the United States celebrates pragmatic accomplishments and “common sense.” Don’t bother with abstract or speculative learning, we are instructed early on, especially when any dedicated citizen excursions into literature, philosophy, art and poetry “don’t pay?” This command becomes still more worrisome when the broadest meanings of Jaspers’ “enemy” is uncovered and understood. Far worse than “merely” knowing nothing of truth, the philosopher already understood, is “wanting to know nothing of truth.”

               This distinction is more than a matter of degree. It is vastly meaningful per se.

               There are assorted pertinent details. Truth is exculpatory, always, and a proper answer ought always to be prompt, unhesitant and unambiguous. Accordingly, there are times for every nation when history, science and intellect will deserve an absolute pride of place. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic, our American politics and Realpolitik-driven foreign policies are just “reflection.” Inevitably, they are mere “shadows” of reality, epiphenomenal and misleading.

               In the United States, politics still offers only a deformed reflection of what lies below. This American  politics also reveals a problematic vacancy of “soul.” Sometimes, such wearying vacancies warrant even closer analytic attention than usual. Today, especially after Trump-led efforts at seditious conspiracy and cultivated criminality, we are in one of those dissembling times.

                Donald J. Trump is gone from the White House, but there are compelling reasons to fear his return (directly, or by obeisant surrogates) in 2024. The crudely retrograde and simplifying sentiments that first brought him to presidential power still endure unabated. Now, still lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind necessary for dignified democratic governance, We the people ought not to display incredulity at the unprecedented breadth or depth of our political failures.

               And the next time could be much worse.

Too-many American debilities remain rooted in a presumptive “common sense.” Over the years, it remains difficult too contest, American well-being and political freedom have sprung from variously orchestrated postures of engineered consumption. But in this steeply confusing derivation, our national marching instructions have stayed clear and demeaning:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such planned misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures represent the predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are routinely encouraged. Even more insidious, American success is measured not by any rational criteria of mind,  compassion or “soul,” but dolefully, mechanically, without commendable purpose and without any “collective will.”

There is more, much more. What most energetically animates American politics today is not any valid interest in progress or survival, but steadily-escalating fears of personal insignificance. Though most apparent at the presidential level, such insignificance can be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging,” about not being “wanted at all.”

                For any long-term intellectual renaissance to become viable, an unblemished candor must first be encouraged. Ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and jabbering politicos, We the people are rarely motivated by any elements of real insight or recognizable courage. We are just now learning to understand how badly our Constitution was recently battered by dissembling voices of anti-reason, of assaults by a law-violating head of state who “loved the poorly educated,”  proudly read nothing (nothing at all) and who yearned not to serve his country, but only to receive plaudits (and monetary “donations”) from its self-deceiving citizens.

               Truth is exculpatory. Donald J. Trump abhorred any challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it became a lethal and unforgivable combination.

               At the chaotic end of his incoherent tenure, the former president’s personal defeat was paralleled by near-defeat of the entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the catastrophic events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow the rule of Constitutional order in the United States. The once-unimaginable plan failed not because it lacked criminal intent (mens rea), but because its backers lacked all relevant intellectual and historical understandings. If there hadn’t been such an evident lack, leaders of the American insurrection would have readily understood that an SA-style (Sturmabteilung) para-military force would need augmentation by a more seemingly “respectable” infrastructure of field commanders and organizational bureaucrats.

               There is more. To understand the Trump presidency’s self-induced declensions, we must learn to look beyond “reflections,” beyond transient personalities and beyond the daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously imagined narrative. Even now, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, much of our American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself seriously.

               Quite the contrary.

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               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American citizens. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly senseless, in pitiful lockstep toward still impending collective declensions.

                What’s next for America’s increasingly-imperiled Republic? For the moment, whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, We the people have at least restored a basic normalcy to the White House. At the same time, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythms of a vast and uncaring machine.Once again, we witness, each and every day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward, and a day filled with yet another inexplicable inventory of mass shootings.  

               Let us be candid.  Even for those who can “work from home,” the cumulative outlook for happiness is dreary at best.

               “I think therefore I am,” announced Descartesbut what exactly do Americans “think?” Answers should come quickly to mind. But even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties, inane conspiracy theories and the hideously murderous brotherhoods of gratuitous violence.

               As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons, two-thirds of those released will likely return to lives of crime and mayhem. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, those Trump-era sycophants who managed to transform their humiliating personal cowardice into a religion – can look forward to lucrative book contracts and to far-reaching immunity from criminal prosecutions. Ironically, these contract agreements, prima facie, are for manuscripts that they themselves are intellectually unfit to write.

                We the people inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once upon a time we displayed discernible potential to nurture individuals to become more than a “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.” Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the United States as a nation animated by industry and “self-reliance,” not moral paralysis, fear and bitter trembling.  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals), but today a declining nation remains grudgingly content with the tiniest of metaphoric “elevations.”

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warns decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man” at the “marketplace,” but that is where a “practical” America discovered Donald J. Trump. What went so badly wrong? Though basically a manipulative confidence man, Trump was seemingly very rich. How then could he possibly not have been both smart and virtuous? Perhaps the best answer lies in Reb Tevye’s clarifying remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

                Previously, many could not understand Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot” or the improbable corollary that an American president could become the witting marionette of his Russian counterpart. Still, truth is exculpatory. The squalid derelictions that Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled nothing less than The Manchurian Candidate on steroids. These sordid derelictions could arise again.

               “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology; neither is it any one political party or another. It is We the People. As we may learn further from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” So we remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves, against our own literal survival, badgered by conspiracy theories and battered by the former US president’s inane policy forfeitures.

                Again, there are relevant specifics. North Korea presents much more of a nuclear threat today than before Trump’s proudly declared “romance” with Kim Jung Un. This potentially existential threat (especially if it should become synergistic when joined with coinciding dangers from Russia and China) was not in  any fashion diminished because Kim and Trump “fell in love” at their Singapore summit. To deal with growing nuclear threats across the world, national leaders will finally need to conceptualize their task as one of “mind over mind,” not just “mind over matter.” Donald Trump’s frequent assertions notwithstanding, world politics is never just about “attitude.”

               Never.

               There is a conceptual “bottom line” here. In spite of our commonly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are generally shaped not by any exceptional personal or national capacities, but by abysmally rote patterns of imitation and conformance. Busily amusing ourselves into oblivion with illiterate and cheapening entertainments, our endangered American society audibly bristles with childish jingles, chronic hucksterism, crass allusions and potentially fatal equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire: “Isn’t there more to this unhappy country than abjured learning, stomach-turning violence and endlessly manipulated commerce?”

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed  Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and a pervasive national culture of rancor and self-defilement.

                There are other special difficulties. Only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America, but these quiet souls remain determinably well hidden, often even from themselves. One can never discover these souls engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement on television or online. Our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among the massherd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating and anti-intellectual country, but not while We the people insistently inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-reason.

               Going forward, we must finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and newly virtuous citizenry. In this immense task, basic changes will be needed at the microcosmic level, that is, at the society-shaping level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an “art” (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”

               One again, as in earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is suitably acknowledged.

               Looking to history and logic, it would be easy to conclude that the monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies far beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to an irremediable collective surrender. This could be unconscionable. Far better that the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States (1) grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity; and (2) exploit this universal font for national and international survival.

               We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” During the past several years, huge and unhidden efforts have been mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. These often-shallow efforts ignore that the core value of a university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. When young people are asked to calculate the value of such a degree in solely commercial terms, which is the case today, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a serious education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the cumulative benefits of authentic learning.

               The core problem of U.S, decline is less that its people don’t know what is true than that they don’t want to know what is true. Even now, even when the risks of a nuclear war are rising over intersecting crises in the Ukraine and North Korea, America’s citizens remain too easily charmed by their suffocating national politics of gibberish and chicanery. To finally rescue this declining American democracy from a population that insists upon its own collective defilement, We the people will require nurturance by a suitably philosophical spirit. Recalling the philosopher Karl Jaspers, it is a spirit that openly rejects any witting destruction of American education and intellect by always-ubiquitous forces of anti-reason.

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               “Seditious conspiracy” is not just a matter of US criminal law and jurisprudence. It describes what happens whenever an “unphilosophical spirit” is allowed to displace core human obligations of intellect and mind. Now looking ahead to a more expressly chaotic world of nuclear proliferation and genocidal threats, such an allowance could no longer be accepted as tolerable. At one time or another, it would prove insufferably lethal.

Louis Rene BeresLouis Rene 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.

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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