British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the European philosophical tradition “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. It is not surprising that an attack on European/Western philosophy would inevitably involve accusations at this foundational philosopher. Karl Popper saw Plato as a proto-fascist, a proto-Stalinist, a defender of the “closed society”, and a totalitarian. To Sartwell, Plato was responsible for white supremacy, colonialism, slave trade, and (no surprises here) totalitarianism. If in the era of ascendant American supremacy, the best way to demonize a philosopher who has radical potential would be to call him a Stalinist or a fascist, in the era of near-hegemonic multiculturalism, calling him a white racist or a colonialist is a pretty effective way of shutting down debate.
Sartwell would, of course, be familiar with the fact that Plato has his defenders, too. Alain Badiou spends a whole book arguing that the communist imagination in the 21st century is impossible without rereading and reinventing Plato,[i] despite Marx’s own anti-Platonism. Marx was not accusing Plato of either totalitarianism or racism, but of being a class philosopher in a slave-owning society. Badiou refutes this and calls for a greater appreciation of the radical core within Plato. Slavoj Zizek also defends (Badiou defence of) Plato and, building on Chesterton’s remarkable novel The Man Who Was Thursday, attacks the so-called “philosophical police” whose task is to
“discover from a book of Plato’s dialogues or a treatise on social contract by Rousseau that a political crime will be committed. The ordinary political policeman goes to secret organizations to arrest revolutionaries; the philosophical policeman goes to philosophical symposia to detect proponents of totality. The ordinary anti-terrorist policeman tries to detect those preparing to blow up buildings and bridges; the philosophical policeman tries to detect those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundation of our societies.”[ii]
In other words, the philosophical policeman who is tasked with fighting Stalinism at one point or racism at another (which amounts to fighting anything that upsets the liberal consensus) seeks to detect in ancient philosophers, medieval theologians, or 18th-century thinkers the theoretical roots for whatever it is he is fighting against in the contemporary situation. Sartwell may very well be passionately and unconditionally opposed to all forms of modern racism and supremacy, but that still does not give him the conceptual tools to take this fight back to ancient Athens. The vehicle of anachronism may be convenient for philosophical policemen, but it does not travel far in emancipatory politics.
In his response to my response to his original article, Sartwell says “I definitely did not argue that every form and moment of oppression can be traced to philosophy, in the West or anywhere else.” In his original article, he did make a grand claim that “white supremacy lurks at the heart of Western metaphysics” and further that “The direct motivation for colonialism was economic, not metaphysical. But the structures mirror each other, and when Europeans came into contact with and conquered other peoples, they used the existing forms of thought, derived from figures such as Plato, to explain or rationalize the exploitation and even genocides that they were engaged in.”
Thankfully, Sartwell acknowledges the direct motivation for colonialism was economic, but he provides a very weak explanation for how Western metaphysics mirrors colonialism in both of his interventions, except to assert that colonialism and white supremacy “made use of Plato-style, Descartes-style mind/body dualism, which is beautifully suited to political oppression, and that the conceptual structure of anti-black racism is identical to that of substance dualism.” I cannot remember reading about the British East India Company using any such logic to justify its entry into and its subsequent economic pillage of the Indian subcontinent. If anything, the British colonialist rule in India legitimized itself by recognizing Indian culture as ancient, unique, and mostly not to be meddled with. One could even read into Western colonialist ideological structures the framework for the contemporary discourse of multiculturalism and tolerance of real or imagined ethno-cultural differences.
Responding to critics (largely on the left) who accused existentialism for being inspired by a Nazi like Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre said that, while Heidegger was indeed a Nazi, his philosophy was not Nazi philosophy. ‘Heidegger was a philosopher well before he was a Nazi […] Marx borrowed his dialectic from Hegel. Are you going to say that Capital is a Prussian work?’[iii] Now, Sartre was talking about an intellectual who was quite clearly a Nazi – the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks leaves no doubt about his political affinities – and yet Sartre could differentiate between the importance of Heidegger’s philosophical system and the man’s despicable character and political choices. Sartwell does not consider any such nuance when he accuses canonical Western thinkers of white supremacy. Were he able to provide exact evidence of a few colonial racists who justified their prejudices by referring to Plato or Descartes, Platonism or Cartesianism could not be blamed for colonialism. Descartes was a philosopher well before there was French colonialism as we know it today, and there is nothing in Plato to indicate that he might have known that Western Europe would be a globally dominant force two millennia later.
My contention remains that the reductive, anachronistic style of reasoning that Sartwell deploys could be used to dismiss any system of philosophy, or any philosopher who made foundational contributions, on the basis of contemporary problems. And I tried to explain this fallacy through a few examples in my previous article. Sartwell contends that the “main line” in Western philosophy is dualist and that thinkers like “Diogenes, Lucretius, Montaigne, Spinoza, Emerson, Dewey, and Foucault” and recent feminist and critical race theorists are but dissenters to it. Even here, he misses the elephant in the room, a non-dualist strand of Western philosophy that had the greatest intellectual and political impact in the last century not just in Europe, but more so in non-European countries – Marxism.
A truly leftist thing to do today would be to resist the philosophical policemen who want to arrest the emancipatory legacy within the Western tradition. And, yes, that includes Plato.
[i] Alain Badiou, Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015.
[ii] Slavoj Žižek, “The Three Events of Philosophy”, in International Journal of Žižek Studies, Vol.7 No.1, p.12.
[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975. Ed. Ronald Aronson and Adrian Van Den Hoven. New York: New York Review of Books, 2013, p.87.