An Introduction to Ivan Ilyin, the Philosopher Behind the Authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia & Western Far Right Movements

Fascism had been creeping back into European and North American politics for many years before the word regained its currency in mainstream discourse as an alarming description of present trends. In 2004, historian Enzo Traverso wrote of the “unsettling phenomenon” of “the rise of fascist-inspired political movements in the European arena (from France to Italy, from Belgium to Austria).” Many of those far-right movements have come very close to winning power, as in Austria and France’s recent elections, or have done so, as in Italy’s.

And while the sudden rise of the far right came as a shock to many in the US, political commentators frequently point out that the erosion of democratic civil rights and liberties has been a decades-long project, coinciding with the financialization of the economy, the privatization of public goods and services, the rise of the mass surveillance state, and the extraordinary war powers assumed, and never relinquished, by the executive after 9/11, creating a permanent state of exception and weakening checks on presidential power.




This is not even to mention the autocratic regimes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which are tied to other anti-democratic movements across the West not only geopolitically but also philosophically, a subject that gets far less press than it deserves. When analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of neo-fascism comes up, it often focuses on Russian academic Alexander Dugin, “who has been called,” notes Salon’s Conor Lynch, “everything from ‘Putin’s brain’ to ‘Putin’s Rasputin.’” (Bloomberg calls Dugin “the one Russian linking Putin, Erdogon and Trump.”)

Dugin’s fusion of Heideggerian postmodernism and apocalyptic mysticism plays a significant role in the ideology of the globalized far right. But Yale historian Timothy Snyder—who has written extensively on both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany—points to an earlier Russian thinker whom he says exercises considerable influence on the ideology of Vladimir Putin, the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn called Ilyin “Putin’s philosopher” in a Foreign Affairs profile. Ilyin was “a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings.” David Brooks identified Ilyin as one of a trio of nationalist philosophers Putin quotes and recommends. Snyder defines Ilyin’s philosophy as explicitly “Russian Christian fascism,” describing at the New York Review of Books the Russian thinker's prolific writing before and after the Russian Revolution, a synthesis of German idealism, psychoanalysis, Italian fascism, and Christianity.

In brief, Ilyin’s theoretical works argued that “the world was corrupt; it needed redemption from a nation capable of total politics; that nation was unsoiled Russia.” Ilyin’s, and Putin’s, Russian nationalism has had a paradoxically global appeal among a wide swath of political parties and movements across the West, as Snyder writes in his latest book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. “What these ways of thinking have in common,” write The Economist in their review of Snyder's book, “is a quasi-mystical belief in the destiny of nations and rulers, which sets aside the need to observe laws or procedures, or grapple with physical realities.”

Snyder summarizes Ilyin’s ideas in the Big Think video above in ways that make clear how his thought appeals to far right movements across national borders. Ilyin, he says, is “probably the most important example of how old ideas”—the fascism of the 20s, 30s, and 40s—“can be brought back in the 21st century for a postmodern context.” Those ideas can be summarized in three theses, says Snyder, the first having to do with the conservative reification of social hierarchies. “Social advancement was impossible because the political system, the social system, is like a body… you have a place in this body. Freedom means knowing your place.”

“A second idea,” says Snyder, relates to voting as a ratification, rather than election, of the leader. “Democracy is a ritual…. We only vote in order to affirm our collective support for our leader. The leader’s not legitimated by our votes or chosen by our votes.” The leader, instead, emerges “from some other place.... In fascism the leader is some kind of hero, who emerges from myth.” The third idea might immediately remind US readers of Karl Rove’s dismissal of the “reality-based community,” a chilling augur of the fact-free reality of today’s politics.

Ilyin thought that “the factual world doesn’t count. It’s not real.” In a restatement of gnostic theology, he believed that “God created the world but that was a mistake. The world was a kind of aborted process,” because it lacks coherence and unity. The world of observable facts was, to him, “horrifying…. Those facts are disgusting and of no value whatsoever.” These three ideas, Snyder argues, underpin Putin’s rule. They also define American political life under Trump, he concludes in his New York Review of Books essay.

Ilyin “made of lawlessness a virtue so pure as to be invisible,” Snyder writes, “and so absolute as to demand the destruction of the West. He shows us how fragile masculinity generates enemies, how perverted Christianity rejects Jesus, how economic inequality imitates innocence, and how fascist ideas flow into the postmodern. This is no longer just Russian philosophy. It is now American life.” There are more than enough homegrown sources for American authoritarianism and inequality, one can argue. But Snyder makes a compelling case for the obscure Russian thinker as an indirect, and insidious, influence.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Causes & Prevalence of Suicide Explained by Two Videos from Alain de Botton’s School of Life

“Suicide,” writes Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon.” And yet, as Alain de Botton argues in his School of Life video above, at least when it comes to media and government priorities, contemporary societies prefer to hardly deal with the problem at all, even though it claims the lives of some 800,000 people every year. “It remains entirely strange,” says De Botton, “that through the media we should hear so much about killers and so little about those who take their own lives.”

Given that so much mass media seems to specialize in producing a fear of others, perhaps this is not so strange after all. However, when it comes to the allocation of government resources, most “in the wealthy nations tend overwhelmingly to direct their efforts to dealing with poverty, illness, and aging,” and devote little to the problem of suicide. This may be due to social stigma. “Suicide is the supreme reminder of our intense psychological vulnerability,” and in highly religious societies, like the United States, it carries an added stigmatization as a “sin.”

Nonetheless, “given that more people die by suicide than are collectively murdered, die in traffic accidents, or are killed by animals,” it should stand to reason that we would expend more effort on finding out why. Perhaps over and above philosophy and the social sciences, De Botton argues that literature alerts us to the importance of several qualities that make our lives matter, including “love, self acceptance, meaning, hope, status, pride, forgiveness.” Such intangibles have no price or value in the competitive marketplaces that increasingly dominate our lives.

The trivialization of psychological needs leads to another common feature of suicide—the “element of surprise.” The suicide of those we know, or thought we knew, nearly always comes as a shock, which De Botton takes as “evidence of an unwitting neglect of one another (and of ourselves).” It does not serve us at all to live in denial of suffering or push despair to the margins of thought. “We should always be mindful,” Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in 1818, “of the fact that no man is ever very far from the state in which he would readily want to seize a sword or poison in order to bring his existence to an end.”

Schopenhauer’s grim universalizing statement, however, does not accord with the vast differences in suicide rates across societies. Certain countries, like Kuwait, have rates close to zero, or 0.1 in 100,000. By contrast, China has the highest rate of all, at 25.6 in 100,000. One significant difference, De Botton argues, has to do with the “interpretation and acceptance of difficulty,” including “a greater acceptance of failure, a higher role for forgiveness,” and “a status system that honors intrinsic value over achievement.”

The difference in suicide rates between nations does not have anything to do, however, with wealth. “One of the most surprising aspects of suicide,” De Botton observes in the video above, is that rates tend to rise “markedly the richer and more developed a society becomes,” a phenomenon that might appear to “negate the whole purpose of economic growth”—that is, if we assume the purpose is the maximization of human well-being. The suicide rate of an “undeveloped country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he notes, “is a fraction of the rate of a developed country like South Korea.”

De Botton does not address the problem of inequality within wealthy societies. The United States, for example, the wealthiest country in recorded history, also has the greatest degree of economic inequality in history. Here, suicide rates have risen an astonishing 25% overall and over 30% in half of the states since 1999. De Botton’s cultural explanation for widely varying suicide rates between different kinds of societies may help us understand that alarming increase.

Paraphrasing the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, he tells us that “the crucial factor behind people’s decision to end their lives is not really wealth or poverty…. It’s the extent to which the surrounding culture ascribes responsibility for failure to individuals” rather than to external factors beyond our control. Ideologies of individualism and meritocracy create grossly exaggerated beliefs about our ability to influence events in our favor, and grossly exaggerate the shame and stigma heaped upon us when we cannot do so.

This makes high-profile celebrity suicides seem to us the ultimate conundrum, since such people appear, at least superficially, to have it "all": wealth, power, talent, status, and acclaim. But the celebrity culture that elevates some people beyond the reach of ordinary mortals can also be profoundly isolating, creating illusions of happiness rather than genuine fulfillment. We can never truly know what private griefs and personal feelings of failure and sorrow other people live with. Tending to our emotional needs, in spite of societal pressures and narratives, is critical for suicide prevention and can greatly deepen our care and compassion for ourselves and those around us.

Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. right now. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for help and support.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Map of Philosophy: See All of the Disciplines, Areas & Subdivisions of Philosophy Mapped in a Comprehensive Video

In the introduction to his sweeping History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wastes no time getting to a definition of his subject. “The conceptions of life and the world which we call ‘philosophical,’” he writes in the first sentence, “are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called ‘scientific,’ using the word in its broadest sense. … Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.” (Russell makes a similar argument, in slightly different terms, in the essay “Mysticism and Logic.”)

Although this distinction between broadly “theological” and broadly “scientific” thinking may not map directly onto the modern schism between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy, a comparison still seems highly relevant. Though some continental thinkers may not wish to admit it, their categories and modes of reasoning—or intuiting, reflecting, speculating, etc.—derive from theological thought denuded of its specific religious content or beliefs. Or as philosopher Thomas R. Wells writes at his blog The Philosopher’s Beard, the continental proceeds from a “direct concern with the human condition, its ambition, its reflexivity, its concern with the media as well as the message.”




The analytic, on the other hand, strives for “universal scope, clarity and public accountability…. It tries to systematize knowledge” and approximate scientific methods of inquiry (which also once mixed freely with the theological). Both approaches can move too close to the poles Russell identifies—can move too far away, that is, from philosophy and toward the obscure and purely mystical or the inhumanely, unreflectively rational. Perhaps one way of thinking about the history of philosophy is as a dance between this play of opposites, with each approach offering a corrective to the other’s excesses, sometimes within the same thinker’s body of work.

But before applying such abstractions, we should consider the ways philosophy developed as a discipline distinct from the hard sciences and theology—and from art, psychology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, linguistics, economics, etc. “Once upon a time,” notes the video at the top—a comprehensive “map of philosophy" made by Carneades.org— “Philosophy was anything you can study. Everything in the realm of study was a type of philosophy.” The breaking off of other fields into their own domains happened over the course of several hundred years. Nonetheless, “philosophy still had its fingers in all of those other pies.”

One can think philosophically about anything—philosophy can “put different disciplines on the same playing field to talk to each other.” It is, the video's introduction declares, “the glue that holds all of academia together” (hence, the top academic degree, the Ph.D., or "doctor of philosophy"). For reasons of his own training, the video’s creator, who simply goes by the pseudonym “Carneades," leans more heavily on the analytic side of things, neglecting or only lightly touching on much of the continental thought that flourished in the wake of Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others. (Further up, you can see a video focused on one specific school of moral philosophy—Consequentialism. See more such videos at the Carneades.org YouTube channel.)

Carneades admits his biases and blind spots and welcomes corrections from those better versed in other traditions. To his credit, he includes Native American, African, Latin American, Afro-Caribbean, Polynesian, Japanese, Islamic, Tibetan, and many other global philosophical traditions in his extensive map—traditions that are usually completely ignored or deemed “unphilosophical” in other such surveys. His sensitivity to global thought may have something to do with the fact that he is not based in a Western academic department, but in West Africa, where he does humanitarian work.

See a complete table of contents, with links to specific sections, for the lengthy "Map of Philosophy" just below, and an image of the full map just above (purchase a hard copy here). Carneades' intention to bring “these ideas back to the modern agora from the Ivory Tower” is a noble one. If you agree, and find these videos informative and intellectually stimulating, you can donate to or become a patron of his efforts at the Carneades.org Patreon page.

Table of Contents:

00:00 Introduction
01:44 Logic and Philosophical Methods
02:14 Formal Classical Logic
04:55 Non-Classical Logic
06:35 Informal Logic
08:00 Philosophical Methods
10:20 The History of Philosophy
13:30 Philosophical Traditions Around the World
20:55 Aesthetics
22:35 Political Philosophy
23:34 Social Philosophy
25:00 Moral Theory & Ethics
28:08 Epistemology
30:34 Metaphysics
34:13 Philosophy of Science
37:35 Philosophy of Religion
40:17 Philosophy of Language
41:58 Philosophy of Mind
43:49 Philosophy of Action
44:57 Full Map

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Eminent Philosophers Name the 43 Most Important Philosophy Books Written Between 1950-2000: Wittgenstein, Foucault, Rawls & More

Image by Austrian National Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Faced with the question, “who are the most important philosophers of the 20th century?,” I might find myself compelled to ask in turn, “in respect to what?” Ethics? Political philosophy? Philosophy of language, mind, science, religion, race, gender, sexuality? Phenomenology, Feminism, Critical theory? The domains of philosophy have so multiplied (and some might say siloed), that a number of prominent authors, including eminent philosophy professor Robert Solomon, have written vehement critiques against its entrenchment in academia, with all of the attendant pressures and rewards. Should every philosopher of the past have had to run the gauntlet of doctoral study, teaching, tenure, academic politics and continuous publication, we might never have heard from some of history’s most luminous and original thinkers.

Solomon maintains that “nothing has been more harmful to philosophy than its ‘professionalization,’ which on the one hand has increased the abilities and techniques of its practitioners immensely, but on the other has rendered it an increasingly impersonal and technical discipline, cut off from and forbidding to everyone else.” He championed “the passionate life” (say, of Nietzsche or Camus), over “the dispassionate life of pure reason…. Let me be outrageous and insist that philosophy matters. It is not a self-contained system of problems and puzzles, a self-generating profession of conjectures and refutations.” I am sympathetic to his arguments even as I might object to his wholesale rejection of all academic thought as “sophisticated irrelevancy.” (Solomon himself enjoyed a long career at UCLA and the University of Texas, Austin.)




But if forced to choose the most important philosophers of the late 20th century, I might gravitate toward some of the most passionate thinkers, both inside and outside academia, who grappled with problems of everyday personal, social, and political life and did not shy away from involving themselves in the struggles of ordinary people. This need not entail a lack of rigor. One of the most passionate of 20th century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who worked well outside the university system, also happens to be one of the most difficult and seemingly abstruse. Nonetheless, his thought has radical implications for ordinary life and practice. Perhaps non-specialists will tend, in general, to accept arguments for philosophy’s everyday relevance, accessibility, and “passion.” But what say the specialists?

One philosophy professor, Chen Bo of Peking University, conducted a survey along with Susan Haack of the University of Miami, at the behest of a Chinese publisher seeking important philosophical works for translation. As Leiter Reports reader Tracy Ho notes, the two professors emailed sixteen philosophers in the U.S., England, Australia, Germany, Finland, and Brazil, asking specifically for "ten of the most important and influential philosophical books after 1950." "They received recommendations,” writes Ho, "from twelve philosophers, including: Susan Haack, Donald M. Borchert (Ohio U.), Donald Davidson, Jurgen Habermas, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Peter F. Strawson, Hilary Putnam, and G.H. von Wright." (Ho was unable to identify two other names, typed in Chinese.)

The results, ranked in order of votes, are as follows:

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

2. W. V. Quine, Word and Object

3. Peter F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics

4. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

5. Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast

6. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

7. G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention

8. J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words

9. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

10. M. Dummett, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics

11. Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism

12. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences

13. Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

14. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

15. R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason

16. John R. Searle, Intentionality and The Rediscovery of the Mind

17. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of PhilosophyDescartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry and Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980

18. Karl Popper, Conjecture and Refutations

19. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind

20. Donald Davidson, Essays on Action and Event and Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation

21. John McDowell, Mind and World

22. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained and The Intentional Stance

23. Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action and Between Facts and Norm

24. Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon and Of Grammatology

25. Paul Ricoeur, Le Metaphore Vive and Freedom and Nature

26. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures and Cartesian Linguistics

27. Derek Parfitt, Reasons and Persons

28. Susan Haack, Evidence and Inquiry

29. D. M. Armstrong, Materialist Theory of the Mind and A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility

30. Herbert Hart, The Concept of Law and Punishment and Responsibility

31. Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously and Law’s Empire

As an addendum, Ho adds that “most of the works on the list are analytic philosophy,” therefore Prof. Chen asked Habermas to recommend some additional European thinkers, and received the following: “Axel Honneth, Kampf um Anerkennung (1992), Rainer Forst, Kontexte der Cerechtigkeit (1994) and Herbert Schnadelbach, Kommentor zu Hegels Rechtephilosophie (2001).”

The list is also overwhelmingly male and pretty exclusively white, pointing to another problem with institutionalization that Solomon does not acknowledge: it not only excludes non-specialists but can also exclude those who don't belong to the dominant group (and so, perhaps, excludes the everyday concerns of most of the world's population). But there you have it, a list of the most important, post-1950 works in philosophy according to some of the most eminent living philosophers. What titles, readers, might get your vote, or what might you add to such a list, whether you are a specialist or an ordinary, “passionate” lover of philosophical thought?

via Leiter Reports

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Political Thought of Confucius, Plato, John Locke & Adam Smith Introduced in Animations Narrated by Aidan Turner

Here in the 21st century, now that we've determined the ideal form of human society and implemented it stably all across the world — and of course, you're already laughing. Well over 5,000 years into the history of civilization, we somehow find ourselves less sure of the answers to some of the most basic questions about how to organize ourselves. It couldn't hurt, then, to take six or so minutes to reflect on some of history's most enduring ideas about how we should live together, the subject of this quartet of animated videos from BBC Radio 4 and The Open University's History of Ideas series.

The first two segments illustrate the ideas of two ancient thinkers whose names still come up often today: Confucius from China and Plato from Greece. "The heart of Confucian philosophy is that you understand your place in the universe," says narrator Aidan Turner, best known as Kíli the dwarf in The Hobbit films.




"Ideally, it is within the family that individuals learn how to live well and become good members of the wider community." A series of respect-intensive, obligation-driven, family-like hierarchical relationships structure everything in the Confucian conception of society, quite unlike the one proposed by Plato and explained just above. The author of the Republic, who like Confucius didn't endorse democracy as we think of it today, thought that voters "don't realize that ruling is a skill, just like navigation.

Plato envisioned at the helm of the ship of state "specially trained philosophers: philosopher-kings or philosopher-queens chosen because they were incorruptible and had a deeper knowledge of reality than other people, an idea that only a philosopher could have come up with." But what would a different kind of philosopher — an Enlightenment philosopher such as John Locke, for instance — come up with? Locke, who lived in 17th-century England, proposed a concept called toleration, especially in the religious sense: "He pointed out that those who forced others to recant their beliefs by threatening them with red pokers and thumbscrews could hardly be said to be acting out of Christian charity." And even if the majority succeeds in forcing a member of the minority to change their beliefs, how would they know that individual's beliefs have actually changed?

To the invisible deities of any and all faiths, the Scottish economist-philosopher Adam Smith much preferred what he metaphorically termed the "invisible hand," the mechanism by which "individuals making self-interested decisions can collectively and unwittingly engineer an effective economic system that is in the public interest." Though his and all these previous ideas for the organization of society work perfectly in theory, they work rather less perfectly in practice. Real societies throughout history have muddled through using these and other conceptions of the ideal state in varying combinations, just as our real societies continue to do today. But that doesn't mean we all can't muddle a little better together into the future by attaining a clearer understanding of the political philosophers of the past.

For a deeper look at these questions, we'd recommend watching the 24 lectures in Yale's free course, Introduction to Political Philosophy. It's part of our larger list, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

Related Content:

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Break Down Star Wars as an Epic, Universal Myth

A 12-Hour Eastern Spirituality Playlist: Features Lectures & Readings by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Isherwood, the Dalai Lama & Others

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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