Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Darwinian Larry on Chimps and Power Politics

Machiavelli would certainly agree with Larry that we can’t forget the beast within when thinking about effective political solutions. But what about the idealistic or erotic side of political ambition? Can a chimp really be either a tyrant or a philosopher-king?

Discussions - 11 Comments

Isn't a beast comparable to a tyrant--albeit less sophisticated than most human ones? An argument against tyranny (for the tyrant) is that in becoming a tyrant he becomes less human. Or am I missing something?

Julie I think you are missing why becoming less human would count as an argument for the tyrant. The tyrant holds humaness in contempt. It is by his grasp of human nature that he exercises power and dominion over mere humans. The Tyrant would not desire humaness because being human entails susceptibility to the instruments of control implemented by the tyrant. It is in being human that one is susceptible to manipulation by the very grounds of humaness. The tyrant is a stoic...so perhaps the argument for the tyrant against being a tyrant is that the stoicism required to pull it off deprives one of the capacity for enjoyment. This is why Bill Clinton was incapable of being a tyrant, he was a slave to his passions. This is to say that from the perspective of the tyrant humaness is equated with being a slave to passions...or being a slave to religion...or beliefs...or whatever means the tyrant uses to maintain power. Whatever humaness is...manipulating it is a means to maintaining power...the tyrant does not seek to find in himself the grounds by which he manipulates others. For the tyrant Humaness=weakness, becoming less human so long as it doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

Lawler is right. Beasts do not have the capacity to become tyrants. Man's capacity for evil is further proof of human distinctiveness. On this point, see Richard Hassing's fine review and critique of Darwinian Natural Right in Interpretation (1999-2000).

So we are stuck with vice as well as virtue.

In the Platonic account, the tyrant and the philosopher have a kinship since they're both distinguished by their great reserve of eros. The decisive difference is that the tyrant's eros is of a degenerate kind producing a narrow, uncontemplative view of pleasure. The problem with Arnhart's account might be that Darwinism fails not only to adequately account for the philosophic version of eros but even the despotical version: one couldn't account for the perversion of the tyrant in the same way one could explain the dominance of the chimp.

I am inclined to go with Aristotle on this--male animals are "more hegemonic" (more inclined to rule or dominate) than the female (GENERATION OF ANIMALS 608a8-b18, POLITICS 1259b1-2). Aristotle saw this desire for hegemonic dominance as common among political animals (HISTORY OF ANIMALS 553b15-19, 615b17-18, 625b17-18, 625a1-26b15). Although Aristotle does not identify chimps as political animals, he does see them as intermediate species close to human beings (HISTORY OF ANIMALS 502a16-b27, PARTS OF ANIMALS 689B1-35).

The crucial point of difference between Peter Lawler and me is that Lawler is a Heideggerian existentialist, and I am not. As a Heideggerian existentialist, he believes that the human mind/spirit transcends the animal body of human beings. Heideggerian existentialism expresses a Gnostic nihilism that denies human nature and natural law.

If I have to choose between Heidegger and Aristotle, I'll take Aristotle any day.

Dr. Lawler is a Heideggerian existentialist? Say it ain't so.

I think we could use a little Aristotle in this discussion myself...first of all by starting as Aristotle starts in the Nichomachean ethics...by looking for examples of people held to be (good)...in this case of tyrants. Mobutu, Hitler, Noriega, Hussein, Mohamed, George Bush...ah...well I suppose what we mean by tyrant will depend upon what we believe are virtues/justifications/arguments. I can find different people who will agree that the above are tyrants and I can look at the arguments they make for why these are good examples. Tyrants in the animal kingdom are really impossible because power is held much more organically. I would assume that for primates the prime criteria for tyrant=weak leader, but in the animal kingdom a weak leader can only exist so long as he does not lose a challenge...his very existence as ruler is proof that he is the best at that given moment. But humans may be tyrants when they fashion ways to maintain power that conflict with the true interests of the state. So long as rulers excercise judgement and authority within the constitutional boundaries of the reasonable, without importing new modes and orders by which to justify themselves, so long as they are not both princes and lawgivers...to this extent they are not really capable of being tyrants. Hitler was a tyrant in that he cast aside the old german ways and rode the wave of national socialism to power and justification that he could not have otherwise had...bringing about new modes and orders by which one is to be justified is the height of the tyrannical...provided that history judges these modes and orders to be detrimental? And then again we ask whose judgement? To the western mind the Prophet Mohamed was a tyrant, to Osama Bin laden he is the example. To moveon.org George Bush is a war criminal and a tyrant. To neocons he may be a hero...to sensible people he is just an unpopular president. Mobutu on the other hand never really bothered to justify himself...he simply plundered Zaire until he died...and maintained power by bribes. Mobutu was a tyrant...and in some ways of thinking this is the definition of tyranny: one who maintains power by bribery and force of arms.

But I think there is room for arguing that tyranny is not limited to maintaining an unpopular power...indeed the most tyranical rulers are along the lines of the prophet Mohamed or Hitler those who combine the role of lawgiver and prince in an attempt to achieve immortal glory. In essence then the truest tyrants are all philosopher tyrants...or rulers whose "Arms" are not dependent upon brute force alone, but the capacity to energize and inspire men to kill. The tyrant then is one who is capable of achieving complete dominion over the hearts and minds of men, such that to his subjects there is no capability for falsification. Tyranny of the highest type is impossible in the animal kingdom and tyranny of the lower type such as Mobutu's is simply the way of the world as the melian dialogue of apes would have it.

Good and provocative comments, all. JL, I did not mean to imply that any argument against tyranny would be persuasive to the tyrant. I only meant that what makes tyranny bad for the tyrant is that it makes him less human. (I'm thinking especially of Jefferson's thoughts on why slavery is bad, not only for the slave but also for the slave-master.) The tyrant will deny that tyranny is bad for him and his contempt for humanness will cause him to deny that it is bad for him to be less than human. But he is, nevertheless, wrong.

I think you are on to something, though, when you talk about Bill Clinton being incapable of tyranny. But I don't think that it is exactly correct because I think there gradations of tyranny. He's not Hitler or Stalin, of course. But isn't the man who is slave to his passions (as is a beast) a bit of a tyrant? Perhaps he does not have the stoicism to become a truly powerful and effective tyrant . . . but he still has a tyrannical soul. The more practical problem with what you imply in your analysis however, is that in America we don't really have to worry about the tyranny of a president. We have to worry about the tyranny of a majority (or even, now, a minority) who rule through a nameless, faceless, and institutionalized bureaucracy. That beast grows when the too human flaws of a president, a Congress, and the people permit them to look the other way.

I am fascinated by what Larry Arnhart says above and I hope the discussion will continue between him and Peter L. But I have to say that what he says sounds very . . . well . . . Catholic! I think Aristotle and Catholics (and Darwin?!--about that, I cannot say) are right to point out that we cannot simply separate ourselves from our bodies . . . and it reminds me of the discussion we had on this thread. And, Peter L., Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop comes to mind here too.

Yes, this line of thought is Thomistic. I agree with Thomas that "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." Thomas explains that something can be natural for human beings in different ways (ST I-II, q. 46, a. 5; q. 51, a. 1; q. 63, a. 1). The natural dispositions can be considered either as generic (shared with other animals), or as specific (shared with other human beings as rational animals), or as temperamental (the traits of an individual human being). This trichotomy of the natural dispositions comes from Aristotle's theory of biological inheritance (GENERATION OF ANIMALS, 767b24-69b31).

Of course, human beings are unique, just as any animal species is unique. So human tyranny is unique to human beings. But comparisons with other animals--such as chimps--can show the generic dispositions to dominance from which human tyranny arises.

Studying human nature as rooted in animal dispositions is what Heidegger dismissed as "biologism." Heidegger's Gnostic dualism had to reject any account of how the human mind could emerge out of animal nature. Hans Jonas saw this clearly when he showed how Darwinian science refuted Cartesian dualism and Heidegger's Gnosticism.

Peter sometimes adopts the idiom of Heideggerian existentialism and takes seriously problems posed by his philosophic account but he's surely no Heideggerian disciple (or any kind of existentialist). Also, I would be interested in where one finds a denial of human nature and natural law in his writings....

I can't help but notice that Larry is ducking the EROS issue. To some extent Darwin refutes Heidegger and Heidegger refutes Darwin. That's the beginning of the return to Thomism in some sense seen in Walker Percy and Ratzinger. It's even the beginning to a return to Strauss.

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