Bronze Age Exotericism

There’s a book that was published, I believe, about half a decade ago, that has become a sort of cult classic within the online far right, and has been justly condemned everywhere else. Straussians are not its exoteric audience, but the pseudonymous author is, allegedly, a Straussian himself, or is at least someone who was deeply and extensively formed within the Straussian tradition of thought. I first encountered the book a couple years ago and have been reflecting on it again recently. Several other Straussians have already offered their thoughts on the book, often quite insightfully (and not always approvingly), but there were a couple things that stood out to me about the book that were not as clearly expressed by those reviewers.

I take an interest in the book since, although I have much to say about my frustration with the inexcusable conspiratorial and crypto-racist thinking which is too often characteristic of rightwing politics today (q.v. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), there are aspects of the book that are clearly relevant to a political question I’ve been trying to think through for some time now (e.g. here, and also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If we are trying to be good Straussian readers, we may begin with the surface. The book in question, as a whole, forcefully articulates the quintessence of conspiratorial thought. There are shadowy figures in power, those true rulers that hide behind elected leaders and business tycoons, tirelessly working to fill our minds with enervating deceptions, desiring that we be weak and easily satisfied, who are themselves motivated by no desire for wealth or fame but only by a desire to impose their biologically determined brand of mediocrity on humanity as widely as possible, making the mere defence of normalcy a duty of strong and clearsighted readers. The book sets forth no particular conspiracy theory for the reader to accept; rather, it is general enough that, once accepted, it can accommodate and invigorate any readers who are already convinced of one conspiracy theory or another. And those readers who do not yet subscribe to any particular conspiracy theory, but who exist in the grey zone where such theories could appear plausible or somehow attractive, are drawn by this book further down the rabbit hole. In short, the entire range of rightwing conspiracy theorists, and also of potential rightwing conspiracy theorists, makes up the exoteric audience of the book.

What is the message which the book presents to that audience? It is fundamentally an exhortation to virtue, to a piratical, militaristic, manly virtue. Be strong, be beautiful, be swaggering, be skillful in the ways of war and propaganda. When the moment is right, seize control of political power so that your virtue might radiate out to all the weak and directionless drones of modern society, who secretly, perhaps unknowingly, long to worship and to follow one such as you. This is a welcome message to a conspiratorial audience, many of whom are already convinced of the wisdom of forming small military brotherhoods to prepare for (or work toward) the sudden collapse of our civilization.

It may seem strange to say that the author is exoterically doing something as unexceptional as telling conspiracy theorists to act like conspiracy theorists. It is no more strange, however, than Spinoza telling liberal Christians to be liberal Christians, or Locke telling the commercial class that unlimited acquisitiveness is their duty, in societies where such views were not already taken for granted. Our book is not only telling conspiracy theorists to be conspiracy theorists, but is also counselling them how, by being true to the best part of who they already are, they might one day take their rightful place as lords.

In order to be confident that this exoteric project has a chance of success, the author has fascinatingly taken up the proven Cartesian/Hobbesian strategy of founding a fresh dogmatism upon a newly unearthed skepticism. He does so, this time around, by making use of a skepticism that manages to undercut even the older modern foundation, and which hearkens back in some ways to that distrust of authoritative teaching which was present in the first beginnings of philosophy itself. Distrust whatever you have not witnessed directly, the author instructs the conspiracy theorists and potential conspiracy theorists, who are of course again the ideal audience to receive this lesson. Be ready to distrust what you are told, all of it, even about history and geography, about who holds political power, and about what modern science has supposedly discovered. Everything is questionable but your experience. Who could possibly shake the convictions of a person who adopts this starting point? Indeed, who has ever succeeded in convincing conspiracy theorists to trust in something they have decided to suspect?

The thing that makes the teaching still more potent is the possibility that there is a grain of validity present in the paranoia of its audience. I cannot help thinking of Strauss’s comments about the militaristic young German nihilists who preceded the Second World War. Strauss knew well the faults of their thinking, but he also recognized the legitimate concerns underlying their passion, their concerns rooted in the difference between the closed and open society, concerns which are continuous with those that our book taps into.

One prominent Straussian reviewer has complained that the blueprint of the proposed new political regime is far from clear in the book; the author later replied with a note that communicated, if I remember correctly, something along the lines of, well that’s not really a fair criticism, how could I be expected to spell it all out, such wasn’t the point of my book after all. I have to say, however, that to my mind, the outline of the new regime shows itself in the book more than has been allowed for.

Let’s begin by thinking about the new ruling class, since, as we know, “The politeia is . . . the factual distribution of power within the community.” Who will rule? It will be not, as now, the commercial and industrial elite, nor, as per classical political philosophy’s prescription, the landed gentry; the new rulers will be, quite clearly, the dominant warriors or the commanders of the (reformed) military, those who have most faithfully conformed themselves to the book’s exhortation.

By itself this is a somewhat vague and formless vision, if we stop short of saying anything about the warriors except that they are warriors—but even just this much could serve as the basis of a valid description of a regime from the classical standpoint. Still, the author does not stop there. The way in which the book is itself written begins to direct us toward an understanding of the educations of the people of the new regime, that is, the education of the vulgar and the education of elites. If we think of how a society shaped by those inspired by this book would raise its young, we get a valuable glimpse of the new political order proposed in the book.

Take the vulgar or religious education first: the indoctrination into the myths of the city. The faith of the new regime will be, as the author indicates, one that is appropriately proportioned to the skepticism of its origin. It will be a creed more primal and human and inescapable than even the Savoyard Vicar could manage, an inborn catechism which can be taught simply by never habituating it out of a child in the first place. The religion would have as its basis a kind of instinctive animism or nature mysticism which emerges as the overflow of a rich emotional life. It is a religion that accepts more than base materialism but which is at the same time reflexively horrified by any suggestion of a conceptual separation between soul and body. Out of this first faith, there next appears hero worship, directed toward the greatest warriors and the greatest beauties, and also a modest doctrine of reincarnation that is morally much closer to Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same, than to anything that would smack of karma or theodicy. This cave is a realm of myth and splendour and magic; science and technology will present themselves as “big magic,” but by the same token, not as the totality of magic. The world here will be re-enchanted.

This version of faith, if accepted, will effectively undo the Enlightenment work of making fear of violent death the strongest passion. We need not fear death because, though our memories may vanish, our selves will live on for as long as there is humankind. We will not desire a long life so much as a glorious death at the height of our powers.

What of the education of the elites? Most obviously, there will be a martial character to their upbringing. They will train to become physically fit, powerful and graceful and quick. They will study combat sports and survivalism. This regimen is not the end of their preparation, however.

Think of the texts invoked by the author to justify, defend, clarify, and beautify his political vision. By firing the convictions and imaginations of his readers in this way, he implicitly predicts or counsels that those same sorts of texts may come to serve as the core of an elite education in the new order. In other words, our author has not strayed so very far from his Straussian roots here: the education of the elites is to be a Great Books program, particularly saturated with selections from classical literature and the books of the philosophers. The educational texts will of course be largely chosen and interpreted to promote piratical virtue. As in Strauss’s project, here also such an education would form the elites to rule, and may simultaneously serve as a preparation for those who will later be able to graduate into a life of philosophy.

Another undoing of modernity implicit in this work is the replacement of rational law with a kind of natural law. The virtue praised is not a morality of negotiated contractual obligations but of fidelity to the character of human nature, which has never changed since before there were records and which is or will be confirmed by the discoveries of biological science. By extension, what holds the community together and fuels it is not, as in modernity, a collection of carefully crafted institutions which could make a functional state out of the most degraded population: no, it is nothing else but a common life built around the pursuit and attainment of virtue, of piratical virtue.

There will also be a place, if a lower place, for math, science and engineering in this education, which is entirely fitting, since, as we are plausibly told, true mathematical or scientific genius is much closer to the experience of the mystic than of the factory worker. A political community that prizes military dominance can hardly, of course, allow other communities to gain too much of a technological advantage. It is too late to reverse the technological momentum of modernity, and yet it seems as though this reality may not need to be an insuperable obstacle to those who wish to replace modernity with something thoroughly unmodern.

The author, in calling us to cast off the failings of modernity in favour of ancient glories but without fully being able to jettison the political situation of modernity, stands in the tradition of thinkers like Rousseau, Burke, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss himself. Many (if not all) of these sought to overcome modernity by appealing to some strand within modern thought, and thereby their legacy ended up intensifying, rather than weakening, the modern situation which they had rightly decried.

As Straussians, we can’t avoid asking after the philosophical class’s interests. What is to be the place of a philosopher in this world of beauty and might? Recall that the golden age of Kronos itself will not be called happy until we have learned whether the people of that epoch philosophized. Certainly, any philosophers in the proposed regime will not be its rulers. That is no argument against it, considering that the classical thinkers themselves never considered the direct rule of philosophers to be a serious political possibility. However, there is perhaps a case to be made that the philosophers would be very well served by this political arrangement all the same. After all, the author might ask us, what lover of philosophy could be opposed to a regime that strains to revive the sort of world which produced Heraclitus and Socrates? And indeed, we must admit that in our own day, the Venn diagram of those who want to engage with classical philosophy as a living possibility on the one hand, and of those who are predisposed to entertain conspiracy theories on the other, does seem to have a depressingly large area of overlap.

We must come at last, then, to the question of adjudication. It seems to me that the most decisive objection to this new politics, from a Straussian standpoint, is the reality that it is generally preferable to “let sleeping dogs lie,” to minimize changes to any political situation that is not incontrovertibly intolerable. We can all agree that problems abound in the modern world, but political stability is always a higher priority than haste toward reform.

The book suggests a line of defence against this objection. What if we were to ask ourselves: is it reasonable to expect that military coups will become the normal way of things in the developed world in the next few decades, with or without this book’s help? The author indicates that this is his view, and if he is correct, then he is, not inciting an unnecessary riot, but only seeking to ride and direct, as well as possible, the coming revolution which will smash whatever stands against it. I can understand why he might think that such is the destination our world is rapidly and inevitably sliding toward. He may well be correct in his prediction that thumos is on the verge of breaking free and gaining ascendancy within the world of last men, a prediction echoing Strauss’s explanation of what would certainly happen upon the actualization of a universal and homogeneous state.

However, the attempt to preempt such a change strikes me as deeply modern. Until philosophy has become literally impossible, the work of the classical political philosopher that Strauss praised is to seek to improve the existing order in whatever ways it is susceptible of improvement; and after philosophy has become impossible, there is of course no more political responsibility attaching to a philosopher, until the situation will have changed to render philosophy possible once more, not through the efforts of philosophers but by the decisive action of the bold and indomitable souls of that age.

This book’s exotericism, in other words, is a modern, propagandistic sort of exotericism, just as we saw a reworking of the modern plan of a skeptically grounded dogmatism in the book’s rhetorical strategy. The book is anti-modern political goals packaged in a modern political plan. Its premise, questionable in my estimation, is that if we truly wish to be faithful to something other than modernity, the only option for us is to begin by overcoming modernity with its own tools.

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