Here are two pieces of conventional wisdom: first, knowledge is power. Second, power corrupts. Anyone who believes both these things at once should feel seriously uneasy.
The first claim is derived at a distance from Sir Francis Bacon’s reflections on divine omniscience. The second is a summary of Lord Acton’s grim argument that “great men are almost always bad men.” For the enthusiastic natural philosopher, knowing more makes us able to do more. For the jaundiced student of history, being able to do more makes us able to do more evil.
If each claim is indeed true, then those who acquire and wield knowledge effectively will also gain power over their fellow men—which will prompt or at least tempt them to distort, falsify, and otherwise abuse the knowledge they are so good at acquiring and wielding. We have recently learned how vicious this cycle can become in the hard school of COVID-19.
The cycle goes something like this: certain truths, if they contradict important official narratives, can be offensive to the powers that be. Anyone who tried to explore the theory that COVID leaked from a lab—before that theory had the imprimatur of state approval—got a taste of what it’s like to seek or explore a really “inconvenient” truth.
To escape an unpleasant fate, the possessors or seekers of forbidden knowledge may wish to keep what they know secret or hide it behind coded language. But secret knowledge is limited in its effectiveness to those who can share it. For information to shape the world at large, it has to be known, discussed, and debated among the general public—ideally without anyone getting jailed, or censored, or otherwise mistreated in the process.
One way to make that happen is to try building a society which values truth and elevates its seekers into positions of authority. That is the kind of society in which knowledge really does translate to power—but then, power corrupts. Knowledge-producing entities like the CDC are supposed to find and disseminate truth—but because they have political motivations of their own, they very easily end up trying to control what counts as truth.
“Once science has to serve, not truth, but the interests of a class, a community, or a state,” wrote Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, “the word truth ceases to have its old meaning;… it becomes something to be laid down by authority.” State-approved knowledge easily becomes state-enforced knowledge, and neither gives knowledge itself a particularly good name.
Learning and authority are at best uncomfortable bedfellows. At worst, the relationship between them is one of toxic codependence which, like any torrid affair between two lovely but ill-suited partners, degrades them both and makes even their friends respect them a little less. This is among the oldest problems in political thought: should philosophers really be kings?
Peter J. Ahrensdorf subtly explores the history of this question in Homer and the Tradition of Political Philosophy: Encounters with Plato, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche. A professor of political science at Davidson College, Ahrensdorf presents the reader with four points of view—two of them ancient, two of them modern, and each in conversation with the ones that went before. He hosts a kind of seminar discussion among Homer, Plato, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche. The questions under debate are still urgent, if often unasked today.
The discipline we call philosophy took shape in the Greek-speaking world during the 6th century B.C., with notable hotbeds in and around Asia Minor (now Turkey). These outposts sat on the dividing line between two civilizations: they represented both the easternmost reaches of Greek adventurism, and the westernmost fringes of Persian rule.
People like Thales and Pythagoras, who inhabited this borderland of worlds, began wondering just what a “world” was in the first place and what it was made out of. These sorts of speculations trickled westward from Asia Minor, and eastward from the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy, into Athens as she gained notoriety during the 5th century.
The practitioners of this new art boasted an impressive pedigree. The “sophists,” who claimed to purvey special wisdom about nature and the mind of man, were not yet universally maligned for the hucksterism we now associate with their title. In a passage Ahrensdorf cites more than once, Plato has the cunning sophist Protagoras of Abdera trace his own intellectual ancestry back to Greece’s greatest poets. “Sophistry is an ancient craft,” Protagoras announces: “the men who undertook it in times gone by, fearing its unpopularity, hid it behind a façade. Some of them used poetry for this purpose, such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides” (Plato, Protagoras 316d).
Poetry, music, religion, even sporting events: for Protagoras practically any amusement, however ostensibly harmless, could serve as a pretext for conveying occult knowledge. If that knowledge should prove explosive—if, for instance, the traditional lore of Greek religion should fail to withstand logical scrutiny—it could always be passed off as mere artistic license. This was the age when dangerous knowledge was secret knowledge.
But those who love wisdom chafe at having to hide it under a bushel. Increasingly, philosophers in Athens were not content to couch their arguments in evasive poetic terms. Seen in this light, the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” to which Plato’s Socrates alludes in the Republic, was in fact a rancorous family feud. Some complained that philosophy had started “yelping like a bitch at her master,” turning around to bite the hand that had fed it lovingly in secret. No longer content to gnaw on scraps under the table, wisdom would not stand to see her profundities cherished tacitly among the cognoscenti.
“Homer may well have led… a wise or philosophic way of life,” writes Ahrensdorf, “but, by hiding himself, he did not allow others to imitate that way of life by leaving a memorial of that life in his poems.” This is among the bones that Plato’s Socrates has to pick with Homer: “in life he is reported to have given private tutelage to those who knew him,” but he left behind no publicly accessible school of thought. For posterity, Homer’s wisdom would forever remain stubbornly concealed within the many twists and turns of his poetry.
It is far from clear, to me at least, that Homer really was veiling some hidden metaphysics behind his myths and adventure stories—artists have other reasons to resist being pinned down in syllogistic terms, besides wanting to avoid a state pogrom. What wisdom a poet has to convey is in the poetry, not lurking behind it.
On the other hand, every work of art is in some sense a way of looking at the world. Certainly ancient Greek readers, if they went looking, could and did find plenty of oddities in Homer’s worldview that suggested something more than mere traditionalism. Philosophers sometimes pointed to these oddities as proof that they were saying out loud what Homer had said in private. So Ahrensdorf’s first three chapters are profitably spent discussing what kind of philosophical insight the philosophers might have found expressed in Homer, and what Plato might have found unsatisfactory about the means of expression.
The Watery Depths
Homer’s most dangerous suggestion, according to Ahrensdorf, was that the universe could have a rational order. Ahrensdorf cites the great expositor of ancient esoteric knowledge, Leo Strauss, who observed that the Odyssey contains our first extant use of the word physis (“nature”). The wandering hero recalls how Hermes, god of messages both true and false, “plucked a drug from the soil and showed me its nature (physis)” (10.302-3).
The drug in question, then, possesses what Aristotle later defined as “a principle of change and rest within itself” (Physics 2.1, 192b). The herb’s predictable behavior according to knowable rules makes it a pharmakon: it is at once a tool of medical science and a magic charm. Its power is limitless in implication. For if there are immutable laws that govern everything, and if those laws can be grasped, then even the gods might be circumscribed within the all-powerful limits of physis.
Who would have thought one lousy weed could cause so much trouble? But as Ahrensdorf ably demonstrates, plants are not the only problem. For the Olympian gods who seem to rule the Homeric world are not altogether eternal. They have a genesis, a place of origin: like flowers springing from the soil, the gods were born from Oceanus, the ageless river whose groaning depths encircle the whole earth. Here a dedicated reader, in the right frame of mind, might discern what Ahrensdorf calls “the natural order to which the gods themselves are subordinate.”
The hunt for such an order motivated those early philosophers who wondered about the composition of the world. Their musings might seem abstruse, but the stakes could not have been higher: if the world is made from water, as Thales argued, then the gods may be products and not creators of nature. If reality is founded on mathematical constants, as Pythagoras’ followers believed, then it cannot be subject to the arbitrary caprice of a fractious royal family.
Aristotle, surveying these views, reported that public piety cautioned against this impertinent line of questioning altogether. Upstanding citizens could have invoked Simonides’ warning that “‘a god alone should have the honor’” of such knowledge. But then Simonides would have been one to cloak his reflections in demure professions of reverence: he was a poet. Aristotle was not, and philosophy had outgrown the need for such misdirection. “Divinity is incapable of envy,” he wrote. “Anyway, as the saying goes, ‘poets tell all sorts of lies.’”
There, in Ahrensdorf’s view, is Plato’s fatal objection to Homer: “Homer teaches the Greeks by challenging their conventional beliefs. But in order to safeguard his radically provocative teaching he wraps himself in the protective garb of a singer directly inspired by the gods.” The poet who philosophizes in secret puts at once too much and too little trust in his public. He trusts them to hear melodramatic tales about divine and heroic antics without explicit philosophical instruction. But he doesn’t trust them to receive said instruction without tearing him, the unfortunate messenger, into little pieces.
This was not just baseless paranoia, as Plato would have ruefully conceded. However thoroughly Homer may or may not have interrogated Greek religion in private, Socrates certainly did so right out in the open, and paid the price. In the Euthyphro, just before his trial and conviction, he worries like a dog with a bone over the absurdities entailed in the standard myths. “It would seem that some things are hateful to some gods and beloved by others, making them both holy and unholy at once,” he says—a patent impossibility which forces a choice between polytheism and basic reasoning. Either some things are good and others bad, or there are many gods: you have to pick one.
For stating that choice so baldly (among other offenses), Socrates was executed. Plato, appalled, set about to rehabilitate philosophy and vindicate reason over mythology. His strategy was to recast the philosopher as what Ahrensdorf calls a “respectably and reassuringly pious figure”: someone from whom people can expect to hear the right kinds of stories, with the good kind of message.
Were he ever to succeed, though, what would be the cost? Bringing philosophy out into the light of day, and making it into an officially approved pursuit, could give it power and security. But philosophers who achieve such security risk tainting their philosophy with ulterior motives: that was Plato’s whole objection to the sophists in the first place. By seeking influence and station in conventional Athenian society, they turned themselves into relativists and profiteers, arguing and teaching whatever would make them and their students powerful.
So where should philosophers sit in society—on the margins, or at the center? That is the problem that animates the final two chapters of Ahrensdorf’s book, on Machiavelli and Nietzsche respectively. They are relatively short, but the provocations they offer are worthwhile now that Platonic rationalism has become its own kind of conventional piety.
Machiavelli, forced into exile by a reversal of his political fortunes, found consolation in private communion with the great books of ages past: “I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.” But the sheer effectiveness of this escape route may also have disquieted him. The philosopher who abstracts too far away from real-life battles makes himself harmless, but also useless: “many have dreamed up republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth.” For Machiavelli, argues Ahrensdorf, retreat is simply not an option. Separating philosophy from politics “is not only harmful to politics; it is also harmful to philosophy.”
But if Machiavelli worried that philosophers would absent themselves from palace intrigue, Nietzsche worried they had already gotten much too involved: Plato, in defending philosophy against its political opponents, offered it up for ideological co-optation by the dominant regime. In Ahrensdorf’s words, Plato “sought to present philosophy, which is at its heart moral and religious skepticism, with a moral and religious face.” And since “all Greek reflection hurls itself upon rationality,” as Nietzsche put it, rationalism itself became exactly the sort of state-sponsored idol that got Socrates killed. Philosophy, fleeing persecution, turned at last and became the persecutor. Knowledge is power. And power corrupts.
Power cannot hope to rule well without the guidance of genuinely impartial wisdom. But intellectual excellence, like any human virtue, is susceptible to perversion. Ambition and greed, like distortion fields, warp everything in their proximity. God knows we have seen more than enough proof of this in the purposeful contortion and obfuscation of medical data used to defend lucrative child castrations. Homer and the Tradition of Political Philosophy helps us to see why “experts” have come in for so much criticism lately, and why they have deserved so much of it so richly. They are intellectually bankrupt to the precise degree that they are unaccountably powerful. Even the best relationship needs boundaries. Maybe the poets were on to something: learning and leadership need each other. They should always inform and challenge one another. But for both their sakes, they should do so at a healthy distance.