Of Many Things

The first book survey I ever wrote reviewed a number of titles in futurology. There were profound studies like Jacques Ellul’s Calvinist critique The Technological Society, more popular works in the vein of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and a study by Herman Kahn, the controversial author of On Thermonuclear War. Kahn proposed that in the future, advanced societies, like the United States, would follow a two-tiered ethic: Epicureanism for the masses and Stoicism for the ruling elites. By that he meant that the vast majority of the population would pursue their own interests and amusement, panem et circenses, bread and circuses, as the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote. Meanwhile, the elites would exercise the personal austerity and public discipline necessary to keep the ship of state on a steady course.

At the time, I questioned Kahn’s thesis. His argument was preoccupied with the self-indulgence of the 1960s radicals. Having only recently graduated from college myself, I was determined to defend the honor of my generation along with the idealism of the civil rights and antiwar activists and especially the peace and justice commitments of the churches.


I wasn’t entirely wrong. The civil rights and peace movements changed American society, and the church’s social justice mission has helped transform international politics and bring freedom to Eastern Europe.

But Kahn was more prescient than I imagined. Any honest observer would have to admit our popular culture is Epicurean. Indeed, that may be too grand a name for an entertainment world that has given us “Jersey Shore” and Lady Gaga. The emphasis is on individual satisfaction of the most transient, titillating and often extreme sort.

Today’s Stoics are, like Kahn himself, pure technocrats. Think of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the newest Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan or her old boss Attorney General Eric Holder. They keep the system running. They don’t aspire to more. If, like Holder, they once hoped for grander achievements (closing Guantánamo, increasing civil rights enforcement), they have made a habit of folding under pressure. They represent the best of a meritocratic elite, trained by professional schools to manage but not to govern. The problem we now face is that some among the elite cadres, who might have been expected to exert themselves with stoic discipline and self-sacrifice on behalf of the common good, are suffering attrition because of the advance of the Epicureans.

In the session of Congress now ending, it was not the more democratic House of Representatives, but the supposedly more deliberative Senate that repeatedly failed to realize gains for the common good. Senators failed to carry out the most perfunctory governmental functions, with hundreds of judicial and executive appointments placed on hold, making even the ordinary business of government sclerotic.

Important international negotiations, like those on trade and currency rates, falter for lack of Senate approval of experts to take up senior administrative positions. Court cases have been allowed to back up for months while scores of judicial appointments were put on hold out of the pettiest of motives—to deny President Obama the possibility of exercising the power of appointment. One recent analysis suggested that the electorate is upset over the decline of the United States.

But it is a self-inflicted decline. The country has been hollowed out from within by lack of discipline, self-sacrifice and vision. We will need more than Stoic managers and politics to pull us out of this collapsing political culture.

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8 years ago
Dear Drew,

Kahn had his philosophers wrong. Epicurus' doctrine was one of semi-asceticism, recommending the avoidance of pain far more than the pursuit of pleasure and favoring retreat from the world into a small private garden of friends. 

Kahn's portrait of the mass base of society is more reminiscent of the third element in Plato's division of classes as found in his Republic. As you know, Plato's ideal three class were: 1) philosophical elites (supposedly living only for heavenly wisdom and without worldly desires); 2) military guardians (charged to live a celibate and spartan lifestyle); and 3) the "mob" (demos) of workers (encouraged to become distracted by sex, jewelry, other possessions, and entertainment).

While in Kahn's model there are no longer any truly deep philosophical elites (in sense of authentic "lovers of wisdom"), Kahn's interpretation of the broad base of society matches the class-structure interpretation of Plato more than that of Epicurus. Further, while apparently not mentioned in thje piece by Kahn that you refer to, our current military guardians figure as quite central in Kahn's wider vision.

So Kahn's social vision for crisis-ridden advanced capitalism may be better described as degraded Platonism, with the philosophical elite reduced to technocrats, the military caste as central, and the general population incessantly bombarded by the propagandaby  the dominant global culture industries promoting a distracting materialism (increasingly available only to the technocratic elites!). 

Since the Platonic revivial of the Florentine Renaissance constituted one of the cultural origins of early modern capitalism, since many of the great early modern continental philosophers began as Platonists (for example, Descartes and Kant), and since Protestantism (the dominant religious form of western modernity) drew heavily on Augustinian neo-Platonism, we should not be surprised that late modern analysts like Kahn implicitly portray crisis-ridden advanced capitalism in a manner that evokes a vision of degraded Platonism.

Best wishes, Joe 

Joe Holland
Professor of Philosophy
St. Thomas University, Miami Gardens FL
Elena Worrall
8 years ago
I'm sorry, but I couldn't disagree more.  Our current government is ENCOURAGING the so called "Epicurieanism" by insisting on more and more government intrusion into our lives and favoring more and more dependency on the government for the everyday needs of life.  Individual responsibility and non-governmentally-mandated interdependency and community-centered caring is what our country was based on, and in my opinion that's what will return our democracy to its roots.
7 years 11 months ago
While I regret all the difficulties caused by appointments going unapproved by the Senate, I have to point out two matters of importance.  First, I believe that at least some Senators have opposed appointments on the basis of the worthiness of the appointees.  Many of President Obama's appointees are strongly pro-abortion, for instance.  Secondly, is not this tit for tat?  I believe that President G.W. Bush ran into the same trouble.  


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