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on 13 October 2012
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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on 21 August 2015
In this powerful, short, and lucid book, William Ophuls proposes a "politics of consciousness" that would be the basis for a future society. Ophuls is under no illusions. He knows that the inevitable end of industrial civilization will bring dire consequences. A poisoned earth will be our legacy to the not-so-distant future generations. He seeks, then, to suggest a sane polity for a future society, a rule of life to moderate the 5 great ills of civilizations: ecological exploitation, military aggression, economic inequality, political oppression, and spiritual malaise. “Unless the means of civilization are soon directed to an end that is higher than the endless accumulation of wealth and power, then the very entreprise of civilization itself, not just our particular form of it, may not long survive.” (p.9)

We're living in an ecological bubble. Western affluence is scarcity in disguise and our supposed domination of nature is a lie. We've just managed to pass the costs of the destruction of nature onto others: other species, other places, other people and other generations. "Our form of politics requires perpetual economic growth, so the idea of limits, much less retrenchment, is anathema. Besotted with hubris, we cherish the delusion that we can overpower nature and engineer our way out of the crisis. We are not yet ready to admit that the destruction of nature is the consequence not of policy errors that can be remedied with smarter management, better technology, and stricter regulation but rather a catastrophic moral failure that demands a radical shift in consciousness" (p.20) For that, Ophuls proposes a "natural law" based on the latest discoveries on the fields of biology, physics and psychology.

The author thinks that ecology should be the basis for this natural law: " Ecology contains an intrinsic wisdom and an applied ethic that, by transforming man from an enemy into a partner of nature, will make it possible to preserve the best of civilization's achievements for many generations to come and also to attain a higher quality of civilized life. Both the wisdom and the ethic follow directly from the ecological facts of life: natural limits, balance, and interrelationship necessarily entail human humility, moderation and connection." (p.29) In other words, humans should work with nature, respecting its limits, being careful not to disturb its balance and recognizing the great interconnection between all forms of being by understanding that we're all part of a big ecosystem. Above all, we need to understand that no species evolves in isolation and that mutuality, not competition, is the essence of Nature. Even predator and prey serve to perfect one another. Therefore, the tendency of evolution is towards greater sophistication, complexity and functionality - in a sense, quality - of evolutionary design. "The trend in ecosystems is from the relatively simple and wasteful pioneer stage characterized by competition toward the more complex and cooperative climax stage distinguished by mutualism" (p.65)

Our mechanical view of nature is obsolete. What we see is just a fraction of what really exists: "Physical reality is a reflection .... of one all encompassing and interconnected cosmic process. Everything form the tiniest quark to the largest galaxy, whether it is what we call living or nonliving, is simply an aspect of an undivided whole" (p.48). Rather than being one big machine, all systems in Nature are self-organizing. "A self-organizing system determines its own structure and functioning to achieve long-term, dynamic stability with its environment . . . . Self-organizing systems are relatively autonomous, stable, and enduring, whereas artificial [mechanical] systems are intrinsically dependent, unstable and transient." (p.53) The chaos theory argues that Nature is not mechanical; it is nonlinear: "Because each element of the system is related to all the others by multiple feedback loops, everything is simultaneously cause and effect, making it impossible to trace or calculate all linkages. It is as if complex adaptive systems had a mind of their own: their behavior is autonomous and not fully predictable." (p.57) With this understanding, it becomes obvious that the object of dominating nature is impossible and , indeed, mad: "We shall never bend such a complex world to our simplistic processes." (p.59)

The creation of mores should depart from this ecological view. A new "metaphor" is needed that provides meaning, encourages the pursuit of wisdom, virtue and an ecological sense of justice. Humans will never be able to know the cosmic process because what we see are just "shadows on the screen of the mind by the senses" (p.116) As the shadows don't make sense, it is necessary to give them order and meaning by inventing stories about them. "Without an emotionally satisfying story, the average man or woman simply has no answer to the riddle of life and death and is therefore liable to lapse into a state of spiritual vertigo." (p.80) "Myths are nor fantastic attempts by ignorant savages to explain reality in the absence of reliable methods to determine empirical truth. Rather, they are allegorical attempts, embellished with admittedly fantastic details, to express the interrelationship of the natural, cultural, and psychic aspects of reality - that is, the cosmic truth of kinship. In other words, the prescientific mythmakers did with imagination what the scientists have now done with theory - describe the cosmos as a living being and work of art, not a lifeless automaton." (p.86-87) In short, we need to "rediscover a sacred truth that neither conflicts with reason nor oppresses the individual to make that understanding the basis for a spiritualized politics. In other words, we need a nonsectarian, nontheological, nontribal, religious worldview that is compatible with science and that provides personal orientation, moral guidance, and a framework for public order without imposing dogmas that must be believed or priests that must be obeyed" (p.159)

"The ecological worldview provides the core around which such a philosophical and ethical religion could grow, for although it begins in scientific explanation, it ends in a vision that is awe-inspiring. To understand the beauty, unity, and intelligence of the cosmos is to see that it is holy; and to see that it is holy is to desire to live according to its laws - with humility, moderation, and a deep appreciation for one's connection to the totality of life on the planet." (p.159)

But we should not think that modern people are nonreligious. The Enlightenment didn't abolish religion; it redirected the spiritual drive towards worldly ends. "Lacking a coherent myth by which to live, human beings have desperately cast about for a substitute." (p. 83) Some filled the spiritual void with secular creeds, such as ideologies (communism, liberalism, nazism), that aim to achieve something like heaven on earth. Whether we’ll achieve a techno-utopia of human domination over nature or equality for everyone, the dominant view of all these ideologies is that we’ll achieve something close to heaven on Earth is attainable if we just use the right policies - many people think that it is inevitable because of progress or the ‘evolution’ of the human race. Others filled the void “turning politics into a religion of the self”, “by glutting themselves with pleasure,exalting their own self-gratification into a moral principle and exploiting the state for selfish ends”. I’d add those who attach the meaning of their life to the support of some sport faction in the same way that inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire fanatically supported chariot races (“as long as the party was successful, its deluded followers appeared careless of private distress or public calamity” – says Edward Gibbon) though that may be put in the breads and circuses category: “the bread of affluence, and the circus of the entertaining media”.

Ophuls supports the existence of small, self-sufficient, fraternal and relatively simple republucan societies that take care of their dominions instead of pillaging them. One of the arguments in defence of institutional and material simplicity is that societies that grow larger and more complex destroy themselves: “As societies grow larger and more complex, self-regulation breaks down, so they develop chronic and intractable problems . . . . As a a consequence, government grows first more powerful, then intrusive, and finally overbearing and even tyrannical, and the people themselves are corrupted themselves and made dependent.” Anthropologist Joseph Tainter shows how this works in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies”.

As in every society bigger than a band, an elite is necessary. Therefore, Ophuls supports the existence of a “natural elite” that is elevated to office on the basis of direct personal knowledge iwhich is more likely “to produce political sanity and good governance than one in which consent is engineered by means of images that have little or nothing to do with reality.” (p.150) It’s vital to distinguish between the “general will” and the “will of all”. The general will is the will that benefits the community as a whole whilst the will of all is merely the sum of private wills. Our system prioritizes the will of all but a simpler society, according do Ophuls could match both wills in a better way. And he warns: “Unless the polity is relatively small and simple, the doctrine of the general will can be perverted to legitimate the tyranny of a majority or the dictatorship of a central commitee – precisely what happened during and after the French Revolution.” And laments: “Unfortunately, in large, complex, interpersonal societies beyond any person’s ken or control, the temptation to ignore or flout the mores of the community becomes overwhelming. Only a relatively small, face-to-face community can exert sufficient moral pressure to make individuals consistently obedient to the mores”.

Ophuls thinks that the Balinese would be a good model for a future type of society: “A political future that follows the Balinese model would require an overall authority but would have no need for cultural or religious uniformity or top-down control. There could be a mosaic of cultures that are largely self-governing. The shape of future governance might therefore resemble . . . . the millet system of the Ottoman Empire in which various linguistic and religious communities were granted wide autonomy as long as they respected the suzerainty of the sultan.” (p.182)

He equates our situation with that of Australian aborigenes and Native Americans that caused the extinction of a huge amount of species when they reached those continents: “A race that has overrun the planet materially has nowhere to turn to but the spiritual realm. Now that we no longer live at the expense of the rest of creation, we must learn to live in harmony with it.” (p.178)

Those who were looking for a how-to guide will be disappointed. Ophuls clearly states that the conditions for the creation of that kind of society are not in place yet and we can’t imagine what institutions would be adequate for a future society. “Institutions do not create an ethos . . . . those who possess an ethos will naturally establish institutions that reflect it.” (p.132-133) As Gustav Le Bon said: “The memorable events of history are the visible effects of invisible changes in human thought.” (p.162) When the dominating metaphor loses credibility, its replacement is a matter of time. With the end of industrial abundance and the advance of science, our dominating, materialistic and mechanical view of the Universe will eventually end up in history’s dumpster. But a different society isn’t created out of the blue: it happens slowly and gradually as conditions allow.

In conclusion, this is a short but erudite and highly readable book. Ophuls’s vision for the future is one of the best we can realistically expect. An ecological view of reality is not only desirable but also necessary and his evidence drawn from several fields is compelling. Every civilization until now has gone into overshoot and collapse in a period of hundreds of years. Let’s hope that something like Ophuls’s vision might make the civilized project more humane and durable.
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on 4 March 2016
I'm reading this for the second time; it is dense and it isn't realistic to digest it in one reading - not for me anyhow. Ophuls covers themes covered by many other authors in the genre, but places the subject of man's technological development and rape of the planet in a more philosphical context. A very thought provoking work, but whether the bulk of humanity in its rush for self destruction would have any time to heed and reflect (let alone act) on his messages, I very much doubt. If traces of human civilisation can survive the approaching crunch, this book ought to be essential reading in figuring out where we went wrong. Essential reading for anyone left in the anglo saxon world who thinks we might be on the wrong path or that there may be something else to life other than making money and consuming stuff.
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