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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The return of William Ophuls, 13 Oct. 2012
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William Ophuls is that rare breed of writer who publishes one book every twenty years or so. I suppose "Plato's revenge" is the last we will see of the man. It might also be the most interesting. His previous books are "Ecology and the politics of scarcity" and "Requiem for modern politics". I admit that I'm impressed with Ophul's current book and find it difficult to review. And no, I don't agree with everything he says. Quite the contrary, in fact. However, everyone worried about the current ecological crisis and looking for solutions - original solutions, not "sustainable development" and one more UN summit - would do well to read Ophul's magnum opus and come to terms with it. It might not be easy!

"Plato's revenge" doesn't argue at length for the existence of a terminal ecological crisis or the need for radical solutions. This ground has already been covered in the author's two previous works. Rather, "Plato's revenge" is an attempt to present a solution to our current predicament.

The author doesn't believe that the ecological crisis can be solved by cornucopian high technology. While admitting that some forms of high tech might be able to sustain us above the pre-modern level (including thorium reactors or solar power), the perspective is really one of declining standards of living for everyone, more self-reliance, less international trade and other contacts, and a society centred on agriculture. Nor is this a temporary situation. No, the collapse of the modern West (and the societies mimicking us) will be permanent. In the future, we will have to learn to live within the limits imposed by ecology and resource scarcity. Ophuls attempts to construct the basics of a new political theory which will make it possible for us to transition smoothly from collapsing modernity to a sustainable steady state. It will also make it possible to live a civilized life in a somewhat less-than-modern society.

The new political theory turns out to be a somewhat eclectic combination of Plato, Aristotle, Jung, Rosseau and Jefferson. He also has a soft spot for Alan Bloom's interpretation of Plato. Ophuls' ideal is a Jeffersonian, agrarian-centred mini-republic with direct democracy and a civic religion based on natural law. The republic turns out to be governed by a natural aristocracy of people educated in the virtues. Ophuls doesn't consider Jefferson's ideals to be necessarily universal. Many cultures will opt for other solutions. However, Ophuls believes that all good polities must share certain traits: they have to be comparatively small, actively educate their citizens in virtue, respect ecological limits and have small or non-existent material differences between the citizens. A realistic appraisal of the human passions is also necessary. No polity is perfect or utopian, but those who follow the above principles are at least tolerable. Although Ophuls sounds conservative (no discussions about women's rights or gay rights in this book), he does occasionally crack a few "politically correct" remarks. Thus, he quotes Thomas Jefferson extolling the virtues of the American Indian polities, and claims that ancient Athens resembled a Sioux encampment rather than a modern city! He is interested in Confucianism and regards Balinese society as a possible model to emulate.

Most "moderns" will balk (or bark?) at the author's anti-liberal perspective. To Ophuls, modern liberalism is part of the problem, not the solution. In a liberal society, each individual is free to do pretty much anything he pleases, provided he doesn't stop anyone else from acting in the same way. In practice, this leads to an immoral, rapacious, acquisitive society that devastates our living environment and tears apart the fabric of society itself in the process. Most "solutions" to these problems entail tighter regulations and more legislation, which simply strengthens the power of the state, while not really solving the problems. While Ophuls doesn't identify liberalism with democracy (his preferred form of government seems to be direct democracy), many readers will see him as anti-democratic. His Jeffersonian direct democracy is (presumably) majoritarian rather than pluralist, and it's controlled by a de facto aristocracy, although one subject to recall by the citizenry.

Although "Plato's revenge" is interesting (hence the five stars), there are many problems with it. The author has let himself be mesmerized by Alan Bloom and therefore by Leo Strauss. In my opinion, Strauss and Bloom have been unmasked once and for all as nihilists by Shadia Drury. Especially Bloom. There is a contradiction in Ophuls' book between quasi-relativistic ideas (including the idea that all religions and philosophies are really noble lies) and a belief in absolute truth. When Ophuls discusses epistemology, he sounds like a relativist. When he discusses ecology, on the other hand, he clearly believes in material, real world limits which are very absolute - indeed, that's one of his central points. When he debates statecraft, he tries to have it both ways. Since every worldview is really a metaphor, every religion, political ideology or founding myth offered by the rulers to the masses is a "noble lie". Yet, these noble lies somehow make it possible for people to live morally upright and virtuous lives within ecological limits, something Ophuls considers both desirable in itself and materially necessary. In other words, he is forced to reintroduce absolute moral standards - something he surely cannot justify within a Straussian context.

(Strauss believed that when an obvious contradiction surfaces in the text of an author that should know better, this is a secret signal that an esoteric message is being communicated. Does Ophuls have a secret message? Strauss also had an obsession with numerology. I was somewhat disappointed that "Plato's revenge" wasn't 666 pages long, since this would surely prove that the author is the Beast of Revelation. Interestingly, Ophuls quotes both Bloom and Harry Jaffa, but not Strauss himself. Nor does he mention the Houyhnhnms. I haven't been able to figure out what *this* could mean, esoterically speaking. But enough of flippancy for this review.)

Another weakness with "Plato's revenge" is that Ophuls cannot explain how his ideal society should be set up in the first place. He seems to have a very idealist - in both senses of the term - scenario, according to which we all live by metaphors. Change the dominant metaphor of a society, and both political and economic changes will follow. Thus, the modern West was created by Thomas Hobbes. The poets are the makers of history, and a new rhetoric will surely lead to an improved polity on Jeffersonian-Platonist lines. Schiller and Barfield would have been impressed. Ophuls also claims that all political systems are in the final analysis based on ideas rather than violence - if the masses accept the ideas of the elite, the elite rule. I'm afraid I'm a bit more cynical (or realistic) on this score. Of course the elite rule by violence, certainly in the final analysis! The conservative Ophuls occasionally references Karl Marx. Well, I'm not a Marxist either, but surely the old Jew was on to something when he said that class society is ultimately based on bodies of armed men?

At the end of his book, William Ophuls does admit that perhaps his ideas are utopian, and that the collapse of our modern civilization will have some very nasty consequences. Unless we find a solution to our predicament very soon, *this* part of the book will become the most prescient in the decades ahead. It will be the revenge of Attila the Hun more than Plato.

It's impossible to do justice to "Plato's revenge" in a short review like this. Despite its relatively small size, the book covers a lot of ground: quantum physics, the teleonomic character of nature, Platonic ideas, natural law, education for excellence, the relationship between Jung and Freud...the author has poured out the learning (or at least the reading) of a life time. The list of sources is omnivorous, but I did notice a few old friends we've met before: Owen Barfield, Morris Berman, Neil Evernden, Aldous Huxley and even William Irwin Thompson. Weirdly, Ophuls also references Eric J. Lerner's "The Big Bang Never Happened" (which he can't possibly believe in).

In the end, I will give this book five stars for stimulating my thinking, although not necessarily in the directions intended by its writer. One thing is certain: the return of William Ophuls was well worth waiting for.
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Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology by William Ophuls (Paperback - 1 Nov. 2013)
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