Meditations on The Republic: The Harmfulness of Radical Ideologies

As Plato taught us, all polities are like caves. Our puppet-masters cast shadows on the cave wall and teach us to believe these shadows are reality. Just read USA Today and watch an hour of the evening news and you will get to see the shadows of dozens of our modern idols.

The evangelists of radical ideologies have gotten part way to this truth. They recognize that the shadows that transfix most people are illusions, and that the icons used by the puppet-masters are artificial constructions. But they go wrong in thinking that the problem is this particular set of social arrangements. The implementation of their ideology will involve the carving out of a new cave and the inauguration of new puppet-masters wielding new icons. The people will sit in different sets of chains watching a different shadow drama on the a different cave wall, but the situation in essence will remain unchanged.

Radical ideologies:

1) If they catch on, lead to upheavals, which make the world much worse for a while, after which it becomes... roughly like it was before the upheaval.

2) Distract from the real problem. The problem is not The Capitalists, or The State, or Liberals. The problem is You. (Or me.) As Socrates said, the ideal city will not be built in this world. Therefore, what we should do is build an image of it in our minds, and let it guide our actions. This effort is inwardly directed, and consists in rightly ordering our own souls. In fact, this is the only secure route to positive social change.

But radical ideologies try to tell us the problem is really out there, that the ideal city can be built on earth, and that the real problem with us is them. Those are all lies. And...

3) They are traps. It is precisely those people who have begun to see the shadows on the cave wall for what they are who are most easily lured into a radical ideology, because the ideology seems to correctly diagnose the situation to which they are awakening. "Seems to" because, in fact, radical ideologies blame a symptom for the disease. The chains worn by the inhabitants of the cave, and the sway the puppet-masters have over them, are spiritual conditions, and can only be remedied by the περιαγογε, the turning around of the soul toward the light. An attack on the puppet-masters is a distraction, and will only lead, if it succeeds, to a new set of puppet-masters.


  1. "Chance will always rule history, because it is not possible to organize the state in such a way that it does not matter who rules."

  2. Awesome, Gene!


  3. Posts like this one are why I keep returning to this blog. Well done.

  4. "Every public passion was thus wrapped up in philosophy; political life was violently driven back into literature, and writers, taking in hand the direction of opinion, found themselves for a moment taking the place that party leaders usually hold in free countries… Above the real society… there was slowly built an imaginary society in which everything seemed simple and coordinated, uniform, equitable, and in accord with reason. Gradually, the imagination of the crowd deserted the former to concentrate on the latter. One lost interest in what was, in order to think about what could be, and finally one lived mentally in the ideal city the writers had built."

    –Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution


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