Some Thoughts on the Postmodern Critique of Enlightenment

Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightnment is a now classic source for the critique of the modern-era enlightenment ideal.

In the second half of the twentieth century there was either pessimism about or else just outright rejection of the ideal of “enlightenment,” a concept which could be characterized as the foundation for all discussion of politics in the modern era. “Enlightenment” as a Western European political concept, is essentially the idea that reason and rationality can show us the way toward social progress. That progress would be the result of ongoing dialogue. Democracy and other forms of government that allow for reasoned discussion and disagreement, which put the fewest impediments in the way of liberty and freedom of expression, are best according to that ideal, since they allow for the best chance of that development which depends upon free discussion.

Nevertheless, we can see actual and potential problems with liberty (gun control legislation or even the growth of fascism) and with freedom of speech (which seems to be subject to the influence of the media, or muted by political partisanship) present in our society and in modern history. The conclusion of some critics is that liberty is something too dangerous to be handed to the masses. There is too much potential for liberty to be manipulated in ways that lead the masses astray, sometimes with horrific results (e.g. the holocaust).

All this could very well make one think that the enlightenment project was misguided. I think a mistake was made in overestimating the extent to which we have actually developed. There is a distinction that must be made between knowing what is right and building that knowledge into a cultural norm that can be called true progress. In other words, the step from rational discussion to actual cultural changes, rooted in changes in actual human behavior, is much, much longer than the enlightenment philosophers expected.

The twentieth century bears witness to this: while to many people living at the start of the twentieth century authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascist ideologies might have seemed obviously wrong, there were equally obviously the seeds for such developments in human nature which were allowed to grow and were exploited by open societies that permitted such growth. If true enlightenment was attained at the end of the twentieth century, it would be in the form of the establishment of new cultural norms that reject such ideals and have the effect of guiding everyday people away from such behavior in their private lives. It would amount to a shift in consciousness and behavior on a social level.

This seems like a nice attainment, but certainly runs very much counter to the optimism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems that we must wait to learn things culturally, adopt ideals as cultural norms, even if just about everyone agrees upon them. Despite the extent to which the 20th century has disappointed our sense of our own progress, in a sense, putting such things as unjust authoritarian behavior behind us though a revaluation of values would be a major accomplishment. Arguably, such things as the growth of truer forms of equality in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st may have received some impetus by the growth of such consciousness; and again, what some perceive as fascist tendencies in Trump would not be so ruthlessly criticized were it not for the growth of such awareness.


Some Striking Similarities between the Political Philosophy of Ancient Cultures

Confucius (


From time to time I notice some striking similarities between ancient cultures. I was reading about Mencius’ theory of social division into “mind-workers” and“hand workers.” Interestingly, Aristotle uses the exact term “xeirotechnes” (hand-worker/hand artisan) to refer to those who work with their hands and are at the bottom of the social ladder. In each case, their function is to supply food for the mind workers. The role of the mind workers is to guard the true way of kingship which was founded by the ancient kings. An interesting addition to the Chinese tradition is that there is either one or very few persons who qualify as a top mind worker, who are called sages and given the title “Hsien.” A Hsien (lit. “better”) is someone who is fit to guide the king in the way of true kingship.


Some further reading gives the historical background for the emphasis on guarding the way of the true kings. The last true kings were considered to be the first three emperors of China. A series of tyrants followed them who basically led to what seems to have amounted to a de-civilization of Chinese civilization. It was at the end of this period (the 4th century BC) that Confucius and later Mencius began writing of the first emperors as the true kings and of their way of rulership as the way of true kingship. Their traditionalism may be viewed as way of getting back to a civilized, orderly society. This may explain the emphasis upon observing familial relations and respect for status in the social order. It may have been an attempt to imitate the old order as the true “way,” rather than an attempt to re-grow a civilization organically.

A Readers guide to Plato’s Republic–Part 1: the city of pigs

Plato’s “city of pigs,” which appears in Republic II (369a et seq.), has a greater importance for the discussion of justice in the Republic than is sometimes recognized.   As was mentioned above, the starting point for the discussion of justice was to be the creation of an ideal Republic in which justice could be seen “writ large”.  The city of pigs involves Socrates’ first attempt to create such a city.  It will be shown that, although it is discarded following Glaucon’s objection, this first attempt at an ideal republic in many ways provides the foundation for the discussion of justice in the remainder of the book.

Socrates’ initial city (the city of pigs)

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

The most outstanding feature of Socrates’ first city (the city of pigs/the original simple rustic city) is its moderate character. Created by need (Socrates says any gathering of individuals into a society is created out of need), it is a city in which each gets just what he needs, and provides for the whole according to his ability.  To accomplish this, each citizen is to develop a particular skill and to strive toward excellence at that particular craft.  It is a city which accepts that each has his own natural abilities, and that not all its citizens will have equal abilities.  Nevertheless, by ordering society so that each contributes according to his ability, by the combined contribution of all its members, it is able to serve all its members’ moderate needs.

It is a city with two main social classes, consisting, on the one hand, of craftsmen, farmers, builders, sailors, herdsmen, weavers and merchants, and laborers on the other.   Together they produce the “right quality” and “right quantity” (371a) of goods, which coincides with the requirements for the health of the city.  Socrates even pictures the citizens as drinking moderately (372c).  By contrast, Socrates pictures the unhealthy city as one that has grown fat with things Socrates considers immoderate, such as rich sauces, and other “luxuries” that go beyond Socrates’ image of rustic simplicity.

Now, it might be wondered whether a discussion of possible social tensions or of inequality should arise, as, for example, between  merchants and farmers.  Presumably, Socrates feels the questions does not need to be raised since all will be adequately provided for by doing what is best suited to their natural abilities.  Moreover, immoderate excess, which is the starting point for injustice, has not been introduced into this “healthy” (372e) city, and so, in theory at least, no one wants more than they need.  Socrates imagines that all will be well provided for since it is a city organized “according to nature”.  Presumably, its unity will arise from the fact that the needs of all are provided for and from its fidelity to nature.

Most of all, it seems that moderation is ultimately what holds a society together in a harmonious order for Plato.  Since injustice arises precisely where the spirit of moderation is broken and the city becomes “feverish” (373a), it might well be inferred that moderation is linked to justice.  In the present context, it is certainly the determining factor behind  ensuring harmony among the citizens (cf. 371e-372a for the notion that justice is linked to a harmony of the parts of the city with one another and 372e-373 where excess is linked to injustice and war (disharmony)).

The city of pigs passage comes to a close at 372c.  Glaucon objects that such people would “feast without relishes”; that they would, in view of their diet, be like pigs, feasting only on “noble cakes” made of barley and wheat flower.  Socrates in turn, admits into the city, and only when pressed, such things as boiled roots, acorns, and beans.  Where Socrates imagines such conditions as productive of a kind of rustic health and vigor, Glaucon sees a city that lacks the elegance and sophistication one would expect to find in an ideal republic.  Glaucon’s point might, again, be taken to be that even if such a city is moderate, it is in other respects an uncomfortable and deficient in many respects.

But it may be possible to read into the very spiritedness of Glaucon’s rejection another simple point: that human nature is such that it always wishes to go beyond moderation where it can.  Socrates seems to think that the remedy is to keep the citizens ignorant of any immoderate things they lack.  One wonders how long such a city could last.  Certainly, a possible analogy to an Eden-like scenario suggests itself.


The luxurious/feverish city

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

Its opposite, what Socrates calls a luxurious city, is an example of excess.  Desire for what is beyond the mean leads to an ever-increasing need for greater and greater acquisition and acquisitiveness until, fueled by a desire that seemingly no longer has any connection with the basic needs of the body, the result is war and injustice.  With a touch of irony, Socrates says, in passing, that the city will require farm pigs for the first time.  Perhaps the pig, with its consumptive nature, may be taken to indicate the sort of inhabitants that the city must have in both a literal and figurative sense.  This desire-pushed-to-excess is described in another way as a “fever” the city has.  It is this metaphor that provides a key to understanding the role of the Guardians within the polis.  The Guardians are, in fact, figures that moderate the feverishness of the luxurious city.  As will be seen, the analogy of feverishness works in tandem with that of the need to order the body of the state.

Toward the mean and political justice


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

In this connection, Socrates says at 444d of book IV, that disease, the opposite of health, is produced by a disharmony in the body.  It is, more precisely, a re-ordering of the body that is contrary to nature, and  one in which the relationship between elements that normally stand in a relationship of mastery and being mastered has been upset, and a new unnatural norm has been established in its place.  The virtue or excellence of the body is, of course, linked to good order.  This, in turn, connects the entire discussion to the topic of harmony, which, as in the case of a Lyre, involves the proper tuning of strings in relation to one another.  The guardian is thus both a kind of physician and a kind of musician.  The two analogies intersect at the notion of a proper or natural ordering that leads to virtue.  This right ordering, in turn, is also the basis of justice; a connection that was hinted at in Socrates’ initial temperate and healthy city.

Thus, the guardians play a rehabilitating and moderating role within the feverish city.  One might suspect that their function is to undermine the “progress” of the luxurious city, and indeed this must be true to some extent.  However, this deserves more careful examination.  What, it might be asked, is Socrates’ intention in creating the guardian class?  Is it a retrograde one designed to return the city to an earlier state of rustic simplicity?  Or has Socrates simply abandoned such an ideal?  Notice that the very philosophy that Socrates cherishes is never mentioned as having a presence in his city of healthy rustics; there is merely a simple, unquestioning piety and reverence for the gods in place of intellectual pursuits.  Nothing, even in the realm of intellectual questioning and investigation would seem to be lacking to the inhabitants of such a city. And yet, it might be wondered whether such unquestioning simplicity could really stand as an ideal for someone such as Socrates.  Moreover, one might consider in this connection whether such a city could, human nature being what it is, survive uncorrupted for long.  Socrates, might be read as tacitly accepting this fact by never actually rejecting the luxurious city as such and proceeding to modify it by immediately introducing the most essential moderating element for the whole: the guardians.

Indeed, if we take a broader, structural view of books II-IV, the guardians appear to enter the discussion as a mean between the extremes of the rustic and luxurious cities.  But they are more than this: they are adjusters, tuners, and harmonizers of a society that is constantly changing, evolving, and indeed progressing.