This is the first essay in a new weekly series by members of The American Mind’s editorial staff. —Eds.
I have been haunted lately by thoughts of kingship and the noble lie.
Polybius says in his history of Rome’s rise to empire that strict adherence to religious ritual was at the heart of Roman greatness. But “in a state of enlightened citizens, there would presumably be no need” for the myths and ceremonies Rome used to keep her populace in line. A nation of philosophers, one imagines, could get by on the subtleties of its people’s moral and metaphysical understanding. “But since the common people everywhere are fickle—since they are driven by lawless impulses, blind anger, and violent passion—the only option is to use mysterious terrors and all this elaborate drama to restrain them” (6.56).
Give the people rules and myths, in other words, because the truth and the full freedom to explore every possibility is simply too much for them to handle. It’s true enough that in a well-functioning society, the elites will be able to get by experimenting with innovations that would destroy the average bloke if unleashed upon him. The breakdown of that dynamic is part of the current state of play in our own fractured polity: extremes of sexual and ethical experimentation which ought to be handled with care by a discerning few are being preached en masse to a plebeian class ill-equipped to practice them.
The majority of folks neither enjoy having a full range of social freedoms nor flourish without guardrails. If you have a massive financial safety net and a highly refined moral intuition, you might experiment with multiple partners and be fine. If you’re an Uber driver being taught that it’s liberating to mess with polyamory, you’re going to end up crying in your car without knowing why.
It seems to me that these facts are reflected in our skyrocketing rates of addiction and mental disorder. They represent an unconscionable breach of fiduciary responsibility on the part of our “thought leaders,” whose decadence is both poorly thought out and far too widely broadcast. Democracy comes for us all, as Plato told us it would.
But none of these reflections is palatable to me. It is deeply uncomfortable for a man convinced of fundamental human equality to come up against brute facts of elitism that the Greeks were so happy to concede—indeed, so eager to insist upon. Equal under the law, of course, does not mean identical in wisdom or abilities. But still: as an American, I am squeamish about the hard truth that perhaps not everyone is ready for the hard truths.
Relatedly, and still more vexingly, Livy—hardly one to cast aspersions on the virtue of republican freedoms—notes in the second book of his history that some amount of time under virtuous monarchs was good for the Roman people so long as they remained in their civic infancy:
For what would have happened if that rabble of shepherds and vagrants…had thrown off their fear of kings only to be stirred by the ruffling storms of tribunician demagogues, breeding quarrels with the senators of a city not their own, before ever the pledges of wife and children and love of the very place and soil (an affection of slow growth) had firmly united their aspirations? The nation would have crumbled away with dissension before it had matured.
One could be forgiven for thinking that America is showing all the signs of a citizenry regressed to its merest infancy. Unreasoned mob violence, imperviousness to argument, and susceptibility to demagoguery are all signs that our education systems have so failed us for so long that we are perhaps no longer fit to govern ourselves.
That is a void to peer into if ever there was one. Must America go through a period of monarchic instruction and be fed noble lies so it can mature until it is ready to throw off the shackles of kingship and be liberated again?
I hope to God not, especially since the realities of our current moment suggest that the people ruling us in such an eventuality would be the very worst kinds of people. Maturation under a virtuous kingship, maybe—but under an arrogant hypocrite like Gavin Newsom? I would sooner die.
And in point of fact, I don’t think it’s the people who are the problem in the end. It’s our aristocracy, not our populace, that’s the real source of our decay. Regular Americans, in spite of it all, are good people—sensible people. You can find this out by getting off Twitter and going out to talk to them. You can also note that they repudiated wokeness en masse in the recent election, that they’re coming to see how disastrous the academy is, that they roundly reject the catastrophic policy proposals of BLM.
It’s the elites who have taken to carving out the people’s brains with a melon baller, and even for all their best efforts, I don’t think they have yet succeeded. But if we want to make sure they never do, we have work ahead of us. It seems to me that renegade conservative media actually is making inroads—if it weren’t, the systematic legacy disinformation campaign of the last four years would have had more success in driving voters (minority voters especially) away from Trump. The opposite occurred. We are making headway.
But fears of autarchy are still looming on both the Left and the Right, and if neither “populist strong man” nor “wokeist tech overlord” is an appealing prospect for the majority of sensible people, then we had better get about fixing the elites for good. We had better get to building the media outfits and school systems that can train a new generation in real civic virtue, and we had better make sure they are impervious to censorship in ways they currently are not. All the talent, all the resources, all the commitment that we need to do that is yet on our side. We can win if we get to work now.