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Why we stopped believing in origins and essences

The end of Platonism, its criticism and separation from the core, that which we believe to be the foundation of culture in “Europe” or “Western thought,” needed the experience of the bloodiest century in human history and was a truly epic intellectual adventure

mapa copernicanoAs we have seen in previous articles of this series, the story of what we call “Western thought” is not all about Plato and his ontological and idealistic worldview:

The core of Platonism is the theory of ideas. According to this theory, the world as we perceive it is only a representation of another abstract world of unchanging ideas. Everything that is “real” for us is just a degraded form compared to its origin. This importance of the ideal and original nature of things (ontology) has shaped many of the ideologies that still live among us. For Christian ontological thought, the heir of Platonism, things are pure in their origin, for ideas are divine creations, and their “passage” through the world is nothing but a degradation, which only makes sense if history is understood as a road towards restoration, a return to the origin. This source would be God, as conceived by Christians, but the general template morphs into many avatars: the class emancipates itself and in turn emancipates all mankind in Marxism, the motherland that gains back its original essence through the assertion of a state of its own in a culturally “purified” identity, etc.

It was the accident of the rise and imposition of Christianity that established the essentialist worldview as hegemonic. The essentialist idealism of Plato and Aristotle will be Europe’s “single thought” for centuries. There was never a lack of contrary voices and thinkers, who built from Stoic and Epicurean perspectives, but the truth is that Platonism set up a core of ideas and prejudices so strong that it took something more dramatic than the development of science or large political revolutions to question them.

The Platonic nucleus of Western thought

That is why it is so difficult today to understand the failure of Copernicus. His empirical results now seem obvious, and the resistance of his peers to accept them seems fanatic. However, Copernicus was actually asking his contemporaries to abandon a whole intellectual machinery that had been built up for centuries, and which provided the framework for understanding and meaning — all this for the sake of a few results based on the observation of celestial bodies. His proposal meant becoming an intellectual orphan in exchange for very little. Copernicus should not have expected acclaim.

marxIn the medium term, ontological thought managed to rebuild itself, incorporating what the new empiricism and the new natural sciences were declaring. After all, science was riding a wave of economic and social changes that the power structures did not want to give in to… but it took them some time to digest them. The very idea of dynamics, of an almost permanent state of change that first seen in the Baroque and then in the Enlightenment, will also encompass the very conception of society with the American and French revolutions. With the invention and rise of nationalism in the early 19th century, the Platonic approach incorporates dialectics, the idea of an essential, internal dynamism to the nature of history that will also be considered as its driving force. Based on ideas from Thiers and historians of the French Revolution, first Hegel and then Marx will build the ultimate Platonic fantasy: the idea of ​​the existence of a series of “historical laws” that govern, over and above the people’s will and actions, the course of great social events, and that could lead the way to a new kind of perfect state based on a “scientific” ideology.

enfant sauvageBut ontological thought brought something else: a story of human experience, of what it means to be a human being in Nature and society. The Enlightenment had retained the idea that what defined a human being was their capacity not only for “practical reason,” but also for “moral reason,” and empiricist nineteenth-century science quickly found case studies (remember “L’Enfant sauvage“?) that “proved” that, indeed, humans  have an innate sense of justice, and therefore, of good and evil.

The Enlightenment idea of personal and social development through education and the exercise of reason translates into a “dynamic” conception of human experience in the 19th century. It was conceived as a coming from the immaculate, essential origin of moral reason that came “factory-installed” in us.


But that “natural” reason is increasingly interpreted as historical-moral reason. Hegel and Marx will culminate the Platonic pirouette with the horizon of a “new man,” a better man, closer to the ideal that would live within our moral core, waiting for its development. The road could be no other than the knowledge and subjugation of these “laws of history” which supposedly pointed towards a perfect state, either national (perfectly expressing and materializing the spirit of the people throughout history) or universal (a product and agent of the end of class society). The parallels with the religious world are obvious, and it is easy to recognize there the “shekhinah” (the historical course of the people of Israel towards God) of the Jewish Kabbala, the idea of ​​freedom as submission to the will of God present in the very word “Islam,” or universal redemption through the “second coming” in Christianity.

If nineteenth-century ideology begins the critique of religion, it is because somehow it has completely internalized the ontological notion present in the three monotheistic religions in medieval Europe. What Marx says of Luther can also be said of himself: “He removed the priests because he put a priest in the heart of every man.”

The World Wars and the genocidal State

soldados británicos 1916And so World War I arrived, that great “meat grinder,” the first systematic application of scientific and industrial rationality to war, with its wrist watches for synchronizing assaults and bombings as if they were production cycles.

The results play homage to the cult of large scales: during the first battle of the Marne alone, two million fighters slogged through the mud, and half a million were dead in four days. The Thirties brought the atrocities of building “socialism in one country” (a million dead just through collectivization efforts), the conquest of Abyssinia by Italy, and the Spanish civil war. And finally, the Forties will bring the main course: a new World War and the greatest genocide in history, the first done in an industrial fashion, making use of all the power of the best state machinery of the time.

The world is stunned. The Platonic ideal of progress based on the deployment of Reason collapses. But something beyond awe and dread was needed: the blowing up of the very roots of Platonism, refuting the “laws of history” and removing essentialist thinking from the story of human experience. It was imperative to put an end to essences.

Popper and Arendt

karl-popperThe first assault had arrived in 1936, the year of the end of the Abyssinian War and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Paraphrasing Marx’s critique against Proudhon, it was called “The Poverty of Historicism” and its dedication reflected directly the author’s mood:

In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.

The following year, Popper emigrates to New Zealand. He will spend the war years writing his final assault. In a way, he is working on his own “ultimate philosophical weapon.” At first, he intends to call it Three False Prophets: Plato, Hegel, Marx, but a friend gives him the final title: The Open Society and its Enemies. Like a classic demigod, he is accompanied by the great intellectual heroes of the age, the latest theorists of liberal society in a time when everyone thinks that the future belongs to communism and fascism: Laski and Robbins proofread the text, and especially his two great friends, Gombrich — dedicated himself to finding a publisher for the work in the middle of the war — and Hayek, who paved the way for its dissemination.

The book does not deserve to be summarized, but read with pause and delight. It is one of those books that change the lives of those who read them. It starts with going back to the original point, the death of Socrates, to narrate how and why Plato betrays the early spirit of openness that characterized Greek democracy and which had impregnated his master. He then tells us how his ideas, which carry the seeds of totalitarianism, pass through to his disciple Aristotle, and from him to Hegel and Marx, intellectual fathers of the forces that are massacring humanity at that time in the name of “scientifically managed societies” that would be arriving on the back of inevitable historical laws. From Plato’s assumptions, from those ideal origins to which the historical course would “return” us to through “nation-building” or the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” could only arise totalitarian societies dedicated to worship the structures that purportedly embody them. Repression, totalitarianism, war, are not the consequences of excesses: they are in the original program.

Hannah ArendtBut something was still missing. Platonism and idealist ontological thought had gone beyond placing ideal figures on the origins of the great historical subjects (nation, class, etc.) It had also placed them at the heart of what human life itself means, on that supposedly innate sense of justice, of right and wrong, that would be our moral reason.

In 1957, the Mossad receives a tip: Adolf Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the Nazi death camps, was hiding in Buenos Aires. The young Israeli secret services kidnap him and take him to Jerusalem for trial.

Hanna Arendt realizes the historical importance of the moment and attends the trial sessions. The common explanation for the morality of the Holocaust does not convince her. She had lived through the rise of Nazi Germany and the way her own teacher and former partner, one of the great European intellectuals of the prewar period, Martin Heidegger, had ended up in collusion with the regime, while she had to go into exile to avoid extermination. She just could not believe in the idea of a million inherently evil, sadistic Nazis, enjoying a conscious moral choice, clouding the moral judgment of millions of other Germans through charisma and propaganda (a thesis from which sprang the anti-consumerist discourse and the anti-advertising paranoia of the counterculture). She had been there, and it had all “come of itself” through many small and endless concessions to power, to comfort, to safety, to common ideas about the need for a state that would restore the economy and the tranquil order of progress… Millions of Germans were accomplices of eugenics, repression, the Jewish and gypsy genocide, but they acted like zombies, not as moral beings who choose openly and consciously.

EichmannThe trial, and the defense that Eichmann opts for, give her the key to a simpler, more obvious interpretation, but which implies demolishing the foundations of what hegemonic Western thought had defined as a human being: the banality of evil.

I merely point out a phenomenon that, in the course of the trial, became clear. Eichmann had no reason except those demonstrated by his extraordinary diligence towards his personal progress. And by itself, such diligence was not criminal.

Eichmann would have been utterly incapable of murdering his superior to inherit his post. To put it in plain words, we can say that Eichmann simply never knew what he was doing. Eichmann was not stupid. Pure and simple thoughtlessness – which in no way we can equate to stupidity – was what predisposed him to become the greatest criminal of his time. And while this deserves to be classified as “banality,” and may even seem comical, and although even with the best intention it is not right to attribute Eichmann any diabolical depth, it is also true that we cannot say it is something normal or common.

To explain this, Arendt will need to distinguish between “thought” and “judgment” in order to indicate that the social development of the century has led to a point where “the very framework within which the understanding and judgment of [the society in which we live] could emerge is gone.” In other words, the ability to judge and discern between good and evil is a cultural construct, not an intrinsic quality. There is not a function that we supposedly come into the world with by virtue of being human, and that education and experience develops or stunts. Things that Platonism had shown us as part of our ROM, our inalienable essence, from moral reason to love, are conditioned by the environment and depend on our will to be incorporated into our lives. They are as optional as a printer to a computer or a GPS to a rental car. Their denial, what we call “evil,” does not have to be conscious, nor particularly sadistic or malicious. It may simply be… banal. In an elegant way, Arendt takes up the stoic thread according to which evil does not exist by itself – it is simply a dramatic and sad sort of stupidity.


So far in this series, we have discussed the idea that what we call “Europe” and “Western thought” has their roots in medieval Christianity and what that meant: the imposition of the Platonic-Aristotelian ideas as a structure of basic understanding of the world. This structure serves as a common basis of the great ideological systems of the great European expansion and Modernity.

But if as we have seen, thanks to Popper, these ideas can only lead to totalitarianism, and as Arendt said, we really are not “configured at the source,” as they claim, what is left of the European experience? What remains of the Western thought that we associate with the ideas of freedom and diversity that characterize an open society? Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans represent alternative paths to the necessary sorpasso of Modernity, to that postmodernity which we cannot renounce without accepting the revival of the Thirties that is taking shape underneath the social decomposition in which we live.

But how can life and history be thought of without a single system? How can we live morally in a world that is not based on all-powerful gods or inexorable historical laws, without essences or determinant origins? Which way is up in postmodernism?

Translated by Alan Furth from the original in Spanish.

«Why we stopped believing in origins and essences» recibió 0 desde que se publicó el martes 12 de agosto de 2014 dentro de la serie «» . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por David de Ugarte.

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