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Building a Mythos for the Non-Christian Right
Review of Costin Alamariu, Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy
Very few of us are willing to take a position that no one else on earth seems to ever have held. This is why those who are politically conscious need guideposts and reassurances that they are not out of their minds. For most educated people, liberalism is the most comforting ideology, arguably not primarily due to its content, but because it is the worldview of high status individuals and institutions within their society.
Conservatives have their own intellectuals, but those on the right can’t primarily rely on a belief in the good sense of our elite institutions and how the marketplace of ideas currently operates to validate their opinions. They therefore often seek solace in religion. Sure, contemporary institutions are confused about what a woman is, but God sure knows, as does every society that follows his commands.
If you’re neither a leftist nor a Christian, you need to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Ancient World beckons. The fact that there was a Western Civilization before Christianity, no matter how long ago, indicates that there can be one after it.
Reading Costin Alamariu’s Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, I realized that the point of the book, and the BAP project more generally, is to create a mythos for the non-Christian right. He didn’t write and publish this work to simply express his views on questions of purely historical interest, driven only by a curiosity towards the subject. Rather, the goal here is to discover — or one might say, construct — an intellectual and spiritual genealogy for the Nietzschean Right. I must leave to classicists questions regarding whether his arguments are actually true. But one thing I can say is that the larger effort they are a part of is desperately needed.
Was Ancient Philosophy Just Eugenics?
Selective Breeding is Alamariu’s Yale PhD dissertation, with a more recent preface and introduction added on. The first chapter, of four main chapters total, seeks to explain how the idea of “nature” emerged among pre-Socratic thinkers. Then comes a close reading of Pindar, a Greek poet who lived during the fifth and sixth centuries, in order to capture the aristocratic ideals of his era, which focused on celebrating traits like physical prowess, courage, and beauty. The final two chapters are about Plato’s Gorgias and Nietzsche.
Despite its insights, stylistically the book certainly reads like a dissertation. It repeats the same arguments over and over again, and a few times I even noticed it quoting on more than one occasion the exact same passage from an earlier author. The preface apologizes for presenting such big ideas in “this very inadequate format,” and lets us know that even though the author talked about Strauss a lot in the book out of a sense of professional obligation, he really doesn’t like or care about Strauss all that much. Alamariu also expresses guilt over having had to hedge and not fully embrace the anti-egalitarian views of Nietzsche and the ancients, though I don’t think he should be too hard on himself, as anyone who only reads the dissertation part of the book will still understand where the author’s sympathies are, even if they’re unfamiliar with Bronze Age Pervert.
In Alamariu’s telling, primitive man lives under a tyranny of the nomos, and is mentally and physically dominated by social convention. No kind of philosophy can exist under such circumstances. At some point a conquering people overtakes a weaker one, and only when different cultures collide do individuals begin the attempt to take a more neutral perspective. The victors in these encounters are often herdsmen with a background in animal breeding and this encourages them to think about inherent differences between individuals and across populations. That leads to the discovery of the concept of nature, something that exists outside of nomos, and which is a precondition for philosophy.
Pindar represents the Greek aristocracy at its highest level of confidence. By the time we get to the era of Socrates and Plato, the aristocratic ideals of the conquering tribe are in decline, which leads to a radicalization of philosophy and ultimately tyranny. Hence The Republic, in which Plato calls for a eugenic state that is ruled by a philosophically-trained elite. Socrates was put to death by the democracy in Athens for corrupting the youth, and they had a point, because philosophy was basically a kind of applied tyranny. History records Socratic philosophers continually providing support for authoritarian leaders throughout the ancient world, and being persecuted for it.
Much of Plato involves dialogues in which Socrates appears to praise conventional ways of thinking and put forth a value system that can be seen as a precursor to Christian morality. Chapter 3 argues that Socrates makes such stupid arguments in Gorgias that we are forced to take a Straussian approach to understanding the dialogue. In the conventional reading, Callicles is the villain of the story, with his support for tyranny and “might makes right” philosophy refuted by Socrates. Alamariu argues that the two speakers agree on a lot more than others have acknowledged, and Socrates is in effect trying to tame his interlocutor, since too open a defense of rule by elite will motivate the mob to ban philosophy altogether.
The last of the four main chapters is to a large extent long quotes from Nietzsche showing that he agrees with Alamariu on all of this. The problem with Plato’s project of making the world safe for philosophy is that it worked too well, and Western Civilization ended up buying all the egalitarian nonsense, especially given how compatible the surface reading of Plato was with Christian doctrine. By the end of the nineteenth century, then, Nietzsche needs to channel Callicles to wake us out of our stupor, hence all his rantings and ravings about the übermensch, slave morality and such. In the world of Nietzsche, and Alamariu’s Plato, what matters is not the greatest good for the greatest number, and certainly not looking after the weak, but creating the conditions under which the artist-tyrant-philosopher, preferably with shredded abs, can achieve greatness.
Cool story. Is it true? To investigate this theory, I decided to read Gorgias, and did in fact find myself having to constantly note how terrible Socrates’ arguments are. To take one example, here he is trying to argue that it is better to suffer evil than to commit evil, and if you do commit evil, it is better to be punished for the deed than to get away with it.
SOCRATES: And I affirm that he is most miserable, and that those who are punished are less miserable — are you going to refute this proposition also?
POLUS: A proposition which is harder of refutation than the other, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Say rather, Polus, impossible; for who can refute the truth?
POLUS: What do you mean? If a man is detected in an unjust attempt to make himself a tyrant, and when detected is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled or tarred and burned alive, will he be happier than if he escape and become a tyrant, and continue all through life doing what he likes and holding the reins of government, the envy and admiration both of citizens and strangers? Is that the paradox which, as you say, cannot be refuted?
SOCRATES: There again, noble Polus, you are raising hobgoblins instead of refuting me; just now you were calling witnesses against me. But please to refresh my memory a little; did you say — “in an unjust attempt to make himself a tyrant”?
POLUS: Yes, I did.
SOCRATES: Then I say that neither of them will be happier than the other —neither he who unjustly acquires a tyranny, nor he who suffers in the attempt, for of two miserables one cannot be the happier, but that he who escapes and becomes a tyrant is the more miserable of the two. Do you laugh, Polus? Well, this is a new kind of refutation — when any one says anything, instead of refuting him to laugh at him.
I’ve seen another translation that uses the word “castrated” instead of “mutilated” in the passage above, which does much more to drive the point home for what was a primarily male audience. In arguing that an aspiring tyrant will be less miserable being skinned alive than ruling from a palace, Socrates is clearly playing a stupid word game, in which he is using what is good in a moral sense as interchangeable with the concept of good for an individual, or what leads to his success and happiness. What else can we do but laugh?
This is not the only occasion on which the reader is invited to share in the frustration that other characters feel towards Socrates. Callicles calls him out later in the dialogue: “This man will never cease talking nonsense. At your age, Socrates, are you not ashamed to be catching at words and chuckling over some verbal slip?” Gorgias ends with Socrates ranting about the good and engaging in a dialogue with himself, after no one else is interested in continuing the conversation.
It is unquestionably true that ancient philosophers favored selective breeding and were skeptical of democracy. This isn’t exactly suppressed information, although it has historically been deemphasized for obvious reasons. The more radical claim that Alamariu makes is that Socratic virtue is itself a ruse, put forth to make the world safe for philosophy.
Is the fact that Socrates annoyingly makes such terrible arguments reason to believe that Gorgias was intended to have an esoteric message? Maybe. The problem here is that Plato often takes positions based on flimsy reasoning or nonexistent evidence, as when he argues for reincarnation or his theory of forms. If he can believe in those things, I don’t see why he can’t fool himself with word games.
In any event, it may be too much to hope to figure out what Plato really believed. If you search for “Plato biography” on Amazon, you find only one result focusing on the life of the man himself on the first page. That’s because we have very little to work off of in terms of hard evidence about much of the ancient world. Plato was a celebrity in his time, but there’s uncertainty about every aspect of his life, from his date of birth to which works and letters are authentic and which are forgeries. Think about the Twitter account of a modern intellectual who engages in a good bit of trolling, and how hard it can be to figure out when he’s presenting his authentic views as opposed to joking or trying to avoid getting into trouble. This is despite us being familiar with the full context of the state of our society and the contemporary networks and relationships between different political movements and strands of intellectual thought. With that in mind, working with only a fraction of such information, it’s probably impossible to develop a strong theory about the true beliefs of an ancient thinker living in turbulent political times, especially this one, who made generous use of irony and metaphor in his writings.
Alamariu as Plato, Nietzsche as BAP
As a book that is to a large extent a Straussian reading of Plato, it’s ironic that Selective Breeding seems to itself have been originally written to push an esoteric message. An idealistic young man goes off to study in the political theory PhD program at Yale. He’s repulsed by the radical egalitarianism of our time, which denies differences between individuals and groups, fails to celebrate physical beauty, and often favors the interests, emotions, and aesthetic preferences of some of the worst among us. Having a distaste for both modern elites and the religion around which those who resist them rally, itself based on the original slave morality, he nonetheless can’t just come out and say what he truly thinks about modern society and the changes he would like to see. He therefore begins a project to convince people that the most famous figures in the history of philosophy agreed with him in their fundamental political outlook, hopefully to inspire others to move towards a glorious future of weightlifting, homoeroticism, and good breeding.
This effort at first goes nowhere, because no one cares about political theory, much less some graduate student’s dissertation. So he leaves the Ivory Tower, and builds his own cult of personality in which he can preach the Gospel of Nietzsche without any gatekeepers in the way, finding success beyond what the vast majority of academics can imagine. Alamariu is thus Plato, perhaps from a time in his life when he thought he might end up getting a normal job. BAP is Nietzsche, or what you get when you realize that the Straussian approach doesn’t work, and just start to beat what you want people to know and understand into their heads. Twenty-two hundred years of philosophy is compressed into one man’s life.
The role of ancient philosophy in the BAP project is to provide inspiration for those of us who reject both Christianity and modern leftism, the latter having dispensed with all the supernatural elements of the faith while holding on to the worship of weakness and contempt for the body. There was once a world that unapologetically recognized that some individuals were better than others, and had an appreciation of the intoxicating effects of physical beauty and masculine courage. It can exist again. At least that is the hope. Due to the influence of Christianity, some of the most strident critics of current Western elites are often in many ways even more objectionable. Alamariu keeps returning to the aristocratic and Nietzschean concept of “contempt for mere life,” which makes me think of the opposition to euthanasia among the Christian right, one of a constellation of issues on which they attack Western elites from the left.
Of course, the ancient virtues never went away, in part because they speak to something deep in human nature, and particularly Western man. As Camille Paglia has written, they can be found in modern pop culture. Early Christianity was “Germanized” as the European version of the faith was formed. The cult of knighthood and chivalry owed much more of a debt to the Homeric epics than the Sermon on the Mount. Today, one can see a Pagan-Christian hybrid in Trumpism, with its portraits of Chad Jesus, which is part of the reason why the movement disturbs David French types so much.
Techno-optimism accepts, even celebrates, the creative destruction necessary to unleash man’s full potential. This is related to my own Nietzschean Liberalism, which takes the anti-egalitarianism of Nietzsche while rejecting his zero-sum thinking, like his idea that slavery is necessary for high culture, sharing the good news that capitalism is the best system ever designed for reducing the status and influence of the useless and parasitic while channeling masculine energy and virtue into socially productive ends.
Of course, when it comes to real world influence, there currently isn’t much of a contest between Christians and Nietzscheans. The former have the Republican Party, and represent a real constituency, made up of communities that are themselves composed of families that form part of the bedrock of our society. Unfortunately, some young Christians now even embrace socialism, rejecting the main redeeming quality of the contemporary Christian right. The BAP project is an attempt to create a group consciousness among the critics of our contemporary elite who are both secular and anti-egalitarian, which is the first step towards political influence. Applied philosophy has never been easy, but that’s precisely the point, as the only alternative is sterile passivity when faced with the concrete reality of the world as it exists. There could be no greater sin for a disciple of Nietzsche.
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