Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Back to the Future: A Review of Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology by Patrick (William) Ophuls



Every once in a while you read a book and think, “Gosh, that’s the book that I would like to have written”. Well, you’re saved the trouble. Of course, this signals that you agree with the author. As I read this book, these thoughts came to my mind. 

My second thought after digesting this book (and one by Ophuls that I read immediately before this one), was “Who is this guy and how did I miss him?” I haven’t found out a lot about him*, but from his website and other sources I've learned that he served in the U.S. Foreign Service and has a doctorate in political science from Yale in the early 1970s. He’s not an academic (except  for a brief, early stint). He’s written several books, three in the last few years about politics. His earlier books were among the first to deal with the issue of the politics of scarcity that we face. I believe that he’s way out in front of the pack on this, even ahead of younger colleagues like Thomas Homer-Dixon (who provides a complimentary blurb for the book on Amazon). 

So what’s so great about this book? You could start with one word in the title. “Plato”: the fountain of Western philosophy, the incarnation of wisdom, and the enemy of the “open society” (Popper). Writing over two millennia ago, Plato, like all great thinkers, is rooted in his time and culture, and his thought is complex and given to varying interpretations. His most influential work (at least for politics), The Republic, is so full of ideas and seeming contradictions that one isn’t quite sure how to respond to it. And this is where Ophuls moves us to a new way of thinking about Plato and his thought. Plato, he argues, along with Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, understand the importance of community. Smaller communities, in the sense of smaller, more agrarian societies, are what the future holds for us. Ophuls summarizes his project: 

This book completes the task I set myself many years ago—to find a humane and effective political response to the challenge of ecological scarcity. The challenge arises from an ensemble of interlocking biological, geological, and physical limits that now threatens the welfare and possibly the existence of industrial civilization.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology. The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Why does Ophuls believe that industrial civilization will undergo significant changes? Ophuls appropriately and successfully incorporates other disciplines into his thinking (as any thinker wanting to breakthrough must). Ophuls bases his diagnoses on the ecological limits of industrial civilization that are rooted in the law of entropy. Any system needs an influx of energy to ward off entropy, and our industrial civilization, based on fossil fuels, faces physical limits on the supply of those fuels and limits on the amount of waste that we can dump into the biosphere. Ophuls concludes that this just can’t continue. Ophuls states: “To be blunt, modern political economy is contradicted root and branch by ecology”. Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 42). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Ophuls addresses the physics, biology, and ecology that supports the statement just quoted. Science has outgrown the simple mechanical models that began with Descartes and Newton and that helped foster a liberal society and the Industrial Revolution. But much of social science and political thinking hasn’t caught up and appreciated the new science (with some significant exceptions). (He also discusses the value of Plato’s thought viz. new perspectives in natural science and psychology.) 

Ophuls realizes that the changes we face will not come easily. He turns to Carl Jung as foremost among those who can help us understand ourselves and the depths of our minds that reflect the “2,ooo,ooo year-old man inside us”. He draws upon the natural law tradition (now out of favor but still alive) to provide an ecological view of individuals and society. He identifies a break in political thinking beginning with Hobbes that gives intellectual birth to our liberal, modern society: 

To make a long story short, all modern polity is rooted in Hobbes’s rejection of the classical conception of the polity—namely, that the state has a duty to make men and women virtuous in accordance with some communal ideal. Instead, said Hobbes, let individuals follow their own ideals and pursue their own ends with the state acting simply as a referee to prevent injury or harm to others. Hence, the function of the state is purely instrumental: it keeps the peace and relegates morality to the private sphere.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 16). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

 Leo Strauss (according to Dennis Dalton) places “the break” in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In my own study of the tradition of political thought, I've long noted a difference that begins with Machiavelli and Hobbes: a shift of emphasis from justice and a just society to a focus on liberty and individuality. But wherever we locate the break in history, it occurred, and we need to move to a new understanding of our society and our individuality. Ophuls isn’t programmatic about how we can realize a just, ecological society and still retain the benefits that liberty has bestowed upon us, but this is—at least for now—perhaps an impossible task that will only coalesce over time. He does, however, offer a suggestion of where we might find prototypes for this new order, and this is where Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau come into play. 

Ophuls believes that communities along the lines of the Greek city-states, Rousseau’s vision of community (decidedly not that embodied in revolutionary France), and Jefferson’s agrarian ideal provide us the best prototypes of future polities. It is at this point that I have the most hesitation with Ophuls’s argument. Each thinker, Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, has a shadow side to his project, perhaps in part because of misinterpretation by later commentators and readers, but nonetheless real. Each has a utopian aspect to his thought, each celebrates the agrarian over the city, and each tradition has never been realized in an existing polity. Take Jefferson as the one whom we might think of as the obvious counter-example to my point. As Ophuls notes, Jefferson was the least programmatic of these thinkers and the one with the most practical political experience. But while Jefferson drafted the Declaration, he missed the hard-fought political battles involved in forming a working government embodied in the Constitution and argued by The Federalist. As president, Jefferson’s ideal of a small, agrarian republic went by the wayside. We talked Jefferson; we lived Hamilton.  And under the historical circumstances, Hamilton had the greater foresight and more considered structures of thought and government. So while these traditions are valuable and should be mined, we have to retain and incorporate the liberal tradition and civilization—the life of the cities. For instance, someone like Lewis Mumford, the great American humanist and commentator on cities, provides some useful perspectives that might help us bridge these traditions. All of this is an ongoing project, so final answers aren’t in the offing, and it will be hard. 

With the list of Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, you might think Ophuls just this side of a libertarian, agrarian radical. But consider this: 

To mention Burke is to see that ecology, because it is grounded in evolution, has fundamentally conservative political implications. A long process of trial and error has weeded out the bad innovations, leaving behind what has stood the test of time. The result may not be perfect, but it is probably the best that can be accomplished with the materials at hand. Evolution or ecology should not be used to justify wealth and privilege or inherited evils, but it does imply a Burkean stance toward change. There is a kind of wisdom contained in the system—biological or social—that we would be wise to study and understand before we launch “reforms” based on our “progressive” ideas.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 41). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

With each review of an outstanding book, I have to stop with a sense that I haven’t done justice to it, and that’s certainly true here. If I could recommend one book as a blueprint for political and social thought for the future, this is my choice. Ophuls had me when I reviewed—as I often do—the bibliographic essay and notes before reading his text. He’s learned from many of the same pioneers that I have, and many others that are new to me. Going in, I want a sense of where the author comes from, and here I learned that we’ve explored much of the same intellectual territory. But my enthusiasm comes from more than a shared history of reading. Patrick (William) Ophuls has put together a call to understanding and action worth reading and contemplating, and one that we ignore only at our peril. 

Next, I will wrestle with his book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, about how civilizations go to hell in a hand basket, now and always. 

William a/k/a Patrick Ophuls
* Hold the press! His real name is Patrick Ophuls but he used the pen name William Ophuls.  While searching Amazon under both names, I came across this from a blurb for a book (Buddha Takes No Prisoners)(2012) he wrote with a forward by Jack Kornfield: 


Patrick Ophuls graduated in 1955 from Princeton University with a degree in Near Eastern area studies and obtained a PhD from Yale in political science in 1973. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1959, was a political analyst on the Afghanistan desk at the State Department, and was also posted to American embassies in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Tokyo, Japan, as a personal aide to two ambassadors. Leaving the Foreign Service in 1967, he became a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Patrick Ophuls has practiced insight meditation intensively for over 30 years. He began sitting with the Thai teacher Dhiravamsa in 1974, graduating from his teacher training program in 1977 and going on to assist him during several retreats in 1978. He began studying with Insight Meditation Society founders Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg in the late seventies, an association that continues to this day.

 The plot thickens!