Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

Plato vs Aristotle

We have arrived at the next to the last chapter in our long discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. To briefly recap, the first part of Julian’s book (chapters 1-3) was about “the judge,” i.e. the myth of reason understood as an impartial replacement for human judgment; part II (chapters 4-6), “the guide,” was concerned with the Platonic myth of reason in charge of unruly emotions and desires; part III (chapters 7-9), “the motivator,” discussed a third myth, that reason, by itself, motivates us to action. These last two installments refer to part IV, “the king,” an analysis of the role of reason in politics and society at large.

Julian begins chapter 10 by acknowledging the rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner. From which it would seem to follow that it should be possible to build better societies based on reason. And yet, every time we have tried such an experiment, implementing a radical new view of how things ought to do, it has resulted in abysmal, and more than occasionally bloody, failure. Why?

As in previous sections, it all goes back to Plato (see? There is a point, after all, for the name of this blog…), particularly the Republic, which Baggini describes as “one of the most unworkable, unattractive utopias ever conceived. Plato advocated a society in which a separate Guardian class is raised from childhood and ‘women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians’. Rulers ‘will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects’, ‘mate the best of our men with the best of our women’ and ‘bring up only the offspring of the best’.”

Of course, Plato had a reason for proposing such a radical departure from the way things were done then, since he learned his political lessons from the failure of the Athenian democratic experiment (which, among other things, ended up killing his mentor, Socrates), and the general decline of Athenian power.

I think Julian is right in framing the Republic in terms of what he calls Socrates’ mistake: “Socrates begins by asking Glaucon whether he agrees with the principles that lie behind his exposition. ‘Does practice ever square with theory?’ he demands. ‘Is it not in the nature of things that, whatever people think, practice should come less close to truth than theory?’” For Socrates the problem is “to show what fault it is in the constitutions of existing states that prevents them from being run like ours.”

The mistake, in other words, is to put theory ahead of practice, assuming that whenever things go wrong that’s because the implementation of the theory was insufficiently accurate, not because the theory itself is unworkable. This type of Socratic error has been repeated in all utopias attempted ever since, on whatever side of the political spectrum.

Also, one corollary of the Socratic-Platonic assumption is the idea that there is one universal conception of justice (remember that part of the Republic has the goal of identifying the characteristics of the just state). But there are serious objections to this too, exemplified for instance by a thought experiment proposed by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.

Consider a “story of three children and a flute, all of the children having some claim to the instrument. One says she is the only one able to play it, another that he is the only one with no other toys and the third that she made it. Sen argues that ‘we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.’” I think that’s right: different plausible arguments could be constructed in favor of each of the three kids, without any of them being a knock-down against the others. And this isn’t evidence of some kind of failure of ethics to arrive at “truth,” but rather a good illustration that rational arguments tend to underdetermine the answers to ethical problems.

Julian faults Plato, again, rightly, in my mind, for putting reason on the side of theory, thus automatically shifting the burden of failure to practice. But reason can, and indeed should be, practical as well. As he reminds us, “pragmatic” is considered a bad word in politics precisely because of this Platonic remnant that principle is superior to practice, but “a principle that can’t be implemented is just a bad principle. … Political reasoning cannot be a priori. Experience has to have a more engaged and ongoing role to play. … That way lies the absurdity uttered by Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor: ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish.’”

What, then, is the answer? Conservatism, says Julian! Wait, wait, don’t just throw stones at him (or me), let’s first hear him out. He makes an argument that there is something fundamental on which both conservatives and progressives really ought to agree on, reasonably.

Consider “Burkean conservative philosophy [as] eloquently articulated by Roger Scruton. For Scruton, society is like a living organism, and individuals are not distinct ‘atoms’ of autonomous self-determination, as characterized by liberalism, but parts of a whole which only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing. This means that human life only makes sense, values only have currency and projects only have meaning when understood as part of a social history that extends both before and after our own lives. … Conservatism is therefore ‘an exercise in social ecology’ whose goal is ‘to pass on to future generations — and if possible enhance — the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.’”

Put this way, the basic idea of conservatism, then, is that society is like a delicate ecosystem, and that therefore one should be careful about how to tweak it, and certainly be weary of any radical attempt to tear it down. Baggini proposes that “liberals” (by which he doesn’t mean American-style libertarians, but politically progressive, left-of-the-spectrum individuals) should have no trouble agreeing with this commonsensical precept. The difference is in what tweaks to make, and how much to tweak, keeping in mind that modern conservatives would readily accept the value of what in the recent past appeared as radical reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s vote (though many are still largely, but presumably only temporarily, not on board with equal rights for gays and transgenders).

The idea, then, is that “the process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it.” And guess who was the first to propose just such an approach? None other than Plato’s famous rebellious student, Aristotle:

“He began by examining the political systems currently in existence, seeing their relative strengths and weaknesses. He never made the mistake of thinking about the relative merits of oligarchy, democracy or monarchy in purely abstract terms. … He had a realistic expectation that political philosophy can never be clear-cut and that a certain amount of unclarity and imprecision is inevitable.”

Of course, the point is not that we should accept Aristotle’s specific conclusions, but rather that his approach — in an important sense antithetical to that of Plato — is the way to go. As Baggini puts it, in perfect Aristotelian fashion, “to be as rational as possible means not trying to get more from rationality than is possible. In no domain is this true more than in politics.”

Julian then examines some of the most disastrous recent attempts to establish utopias by wiping out (as opposed to tweaking) previous systems, particularly the communist regimes of the 20th century, all of which quickly degenerated into tyranny and caused the death of hundreds of millions of people. The communist mistake, in a sense, is the same as Plato’s: despite Marx’s alleged attention to historical realities, communists have always put pure theoretical reasoning ahead of practice, attempting to turn history itself into an exact science.

I refer the interested reader to Julian’s discussion of the concept of surplus value and the role it plays in Marxist theories. He acknowledges that surplus value is a real thing, but he rejects the Marxist analysis of the role it plays in society, and therefore the Marxist recipe for how society ought to be changed.

Baggini has a little more sympathy for anarchists, but he charges them with committing the opposite mistake to that of the Platonists and Marxists: ignoring theory altogether in favor of too much emphasis on practice: “Bakunin is clearly advocating something close to what I have been arguing for here. ‘Natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result,’ while ‘abstract reflections’ are ‘always produced by life but never producing it.’ However, his inverted Platonism is as simplistic as the view it replaces. … Bakunin writes as though the truth simply flows from the facts in some unmediated way.”

Sure enough, historically speaking, anarchism — though not responsible for the atrocities of communism (and fascism) — has not really fared particularly well: “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of anarchist cities or communes that have been established long enough to leave a mark on the world, and each lasted for months rather than years.”

I am going to skip Julian’s analysis of yet another case of exaggerated “theoretical” rationality, that of economic theory, and leave you instead with his conclusions regarding political systems: “if anyone proposes a radical new model of how we should organize society then we have good grounds to suspect that the model is grossly and dangerously simplified. … To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.”

117 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

  1. saphsin


    I think we’re pretty close with regards to a number of policy & cultural issues about how to take steps forward in our present day liberal democracy. I think we’re very different in how we analyze society on a more broad spectrum of issues.

    “That may be, but the way actual communist regimes have tried to do things during the 20th century was by using a “beehive” model of human society, which does not work. Too much emphasis on collectivism, too little on individualism. (And yes, I am aware that degree of individualism varies from culture to culture, especially, for instance, US vs Japan, China, with Europe somewhere in the middle.)”

    This carries onto your later comments, I don’t believe in a spectrum where on one side we have individualism and the other side collectivism. I believe there’s not only an overlap, but that in some instances, they’re necessarily reciprocal and reliant on each other. Some anti-capitalists as I’ve said particularly in the anarchist tradition but some Marxists too, made arguments against Capitalist precisely on the basis of individualism. And considering that the Anarchists, and even some prominent Marxists objected to the Bolsheviks before the Soviet Union even formed, I think the Soviet Union charge is particularly unfair.

    And I think the analysis of the Soviet Union focusing on collectivism is just wrong. The Soviet Union was obviously not free and failed to protect individual liberties, but it was also not collectivist, because “the people” didn’t actually control anything; the state did. Serious socialists have always recognized that “equality” enforced by a brutal and repressive state is not just “un-free,” but is also unequal, because there is a huge imbalance of power between the people and the state.

    And again, before the regime even formed, prominent Leftists have predicted this, both during the Bolshevik revolution and even up to 50 years back by Bakunin (quote below), so I’m not simply making excuses in order to cover up a past mistake.

    “There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe betide the mass of ignorant ones!… You can see quite well that behind all the democratic and socialistic phrases and promises of Marx’s program, there is to be found in his State all that constitutes the true despotic and brutal nature of all States.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Coel


    if you’re saying that our present system […] is optimally designed for balancing the interests of the individual & the community, I find that bizarre intuitively

    Most Western countries are at least near a local optimum in the political landscape (in the sense that significant departures from it produce significantly worse results). And it also does pretty well overall for most people and is relatively stable.

    Might there there be a better solution somewhere else in the political landscape? Well I guess so, in principle. But for it to work well it would need to be stable. And that means that, if one found oneself somewhat away from the optimum, the natural direction of travel would then be back towards the optimum. And that means that this other optimum would have to have a relatively large “target area”; and that makes it strange that no human society has ever stumbled across it.

    So, overall, I’m willing to bet that there is no fundamentally better and radically different way of organising society than those that have already been tried and that we already know about.


  3. saphsin

    Thinking about whether we want more individualism or collectivism (of which I doubt the legitimacy of that spectrum) isn’t really a great way to address the arguments of anti-capitalists anyhow. They have very specific arguments about what’s unjust about the nature of the society, and the question they pose is if there’s a way to organize society a more just way that doesn’t stem off the most valuable contributions our modern economic & political system provides us today.

    The arguments of many modern socialists for instance, accuse modern Corporations for being totalitarian institutions, the sector of society in which real power lies (that’s where the decisions are made about what’s produced, how much is produced, what’s consumed, where investment takes place, who has jobs, who controls the resources, and so on and so forth) and the public can’t control those decisions (we can’t effectively vote on the decisions of corporations should lobby the government to prevent closing tax loopholes) So what inevitably happens is human society is extremely skewed to being designed in a way to make rich people happy at the cost of everyone else. Social Democracy mitigates this to some extent, but the same problem remains of a level of this injustice happening, and since the structures of power are intact, the wealthy can use their power to take it back the next generation (which is what what has been happening in Europe)

    “In this way, money not only buys political power, it is political power. Its possession confers godlike capability, and its deprivation creates servitude. With money one can manipulate public taste, ruin one’s enemies, and build, destroy, and conquer.”

    I think creating a society in which a small group of people have the capability to do this is beyond the problem of considering just individualism & collectivism.


  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: I was simply making clear what my view is, not trying to argue for it. I’m not at all surprised that you and I have quite different political instincts and orientations, given our differences on other matters.


  5. brodix


    The overwhelming fact that is that finance and money, as the economic circulation mechanism and medium, are the very definition of a public utility, every bit as much as roads, courts, militaries, etc. In fact, the premise of a central bank is to make responsibility for the stability of the money supply a public responsibility, while the private banking system continues to reap the rewards of managing the circulation of this abstract wealth that holds society and its economic foundation together.
    Necessarily it cannot be left to the whims of the political class to manage, or it is inflated, as many examples throughout history have shown, but we are now at the other end of the spectrum, where private control is being used to concentrate wealth at the top and hollow out the rest of the economy and society, with the resulting “trickle down” economy.
    Debating the nature of government, in this day and age, without taking that into account, is not engaging reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Coel said:

    Most Western countries are at least near a local optimum in the political landscape (in the sense that significant departures from it produce significantly worse results). And it also does pretty well overall for most people and is relatively stable.

    Two words back at you: “Nigel Farange.”

    That was easy.


  7. saphsin


    Exactly, the liberal & conservative political world view puts the individual/freedom/market/private on one side of the spectrum and the collective/public/government on the other side of the spectrum. Leftists completely reject this distinction, for reasons that should look totally obvious if you haven’t had this narrative fed into you.

    If corporations & the wealthy hold the real power in society, they have a distinct structural purpose in society. Leftists have always recognized that concentrated wealth is a form of power, and if state government are institutions who’s unchecked authority are unjust, why should corporations’ authority not also be considered unjust? Why do giving them special privileges confer them the label on the side of “individualism” I don’t think that’s individualism, I think that’s just unchecked power run mad, which was what traditional conservatism was always skeptical of.

    Both liberal progressives & leftists recognize there is a problem with this. Liberal Progressives’ solution is to balance corporate power with checks & balances using the state government, and distribute some of the excess wealth to include more people within the material benefits of the economy. Leftists want to uproot the power structures and create new institutions, saying essentially “why should we keep it the way it is? Don’t try to restrain the exploitative monarchy, overthrow the monarchy and create something new. If corporations are forms of concentrated power structures, they’re inherently unjust forms of authority and should be dismantled, and create a decentralization the power they hold within our society.”

    The implications of individualism & collectivism can be included in this, but it’s not as relevant as many people make it out to be. We don’t talk about the agency of political leaders & politicians and their privileges as a question of individualism, because we recognize that it’s more of whether holding that authority is just in the first place. Leftists are basically saying that despite corporations & the wealthy elite having different structural roles than the government, because they are at the core institutions of concentrated power, they deserve the same standards of judgment of whether they should be allowed to exist.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. sethleon2015


    Just a brief comment in the event you haven’t looked into the writings of Crispin Sartwell. If not I think you would find his work interesting. He is a philosopher aesthetics, but he also writes quite a bit on politics and admires those anarchists you mention that argued from individualism. Dan did a couple diavlogs with him recently.


  9. Robin Herbert

    The point I was making is that sometimes the theory really is good and the problems of implementation don’t negate that.

    If you are a goal keeper your theory is to stop every single ball that comes your way. You know that in practice that is not going to happen but you don’t adopt a new theory of letting a few balls go past you in order to make the theory closer to the practice.

    If a company designs an aeroplane that reliably and robustly in all kinds of weather, but an airline fails to maintain it, overloads it with passengers and uses unqualified pilots so it crashes, then the aircraft company would be right in saying that there is nothing wrong with the design and that the implementation was the problem.

    On the other hand any bad theory, will still be a bad theory no matter how well the implementation goes.

    There was plenty of good theory in the establishment of the USA, from thinkers like Montesquieu and this became the model for other modern democracies. Ideas like the separation of powers often fall short in practice due to things like corruption, cronyism and judicial activism, but the theory is still good.

    So sometimes it is right to put theory ahead of practice.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Robin Herbert

    The problem with the sort of conservatism that Baggini is talking about is that it makes gradualism a rule. And while gradualism is very often the right approach, often it is not.

    I recall when we were talking about repealing the laws against gays in Australia, there were plenty of people who were telling us that we should not upset the delicate social balance that had evolved over the centuries.

    That ‘delicate social balance’ is too often used as a mask for something else.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. SocraticGadfly

    Cousin Arthur: At the same time, Evo Morales seems to be screwing up Bolivia on his own, and, setting aside mild US sanctions by Obama, and more looming by Trump, Nicolas Maduro would be screwing up Venezuela on his own, in all likelihood. And, Maduro actually is repressing people on his own.

    None of this negates things like the facts that we backed a coup against Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. But, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    That said, American leftists aren’t the only leftists to get international affairs wrong. Sartre and Stalin, anybody?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. wtc48

    ” I am by now convinced that a Marxist society (in the strong term of the sense) is inevitable, and an anarchist one approaches the level of oxymoron.”

    Not sure what the strong sense is; I wonder if there’s any way to separate Marxism from the presupposition of historical inevitability (Popper’s main objection to it). Also whether Marx would recognize his own theories after whatever modifications would be involved in adapting them to a more humane (i.e. republican/democratic) realization.


  13. wtc48

    My reaction in 1989 (not necessarily a good one): “Communism is dead; it’s time to reconsider communism.”


  14. wtc48

    I don’t believe Obama was that cynical or disingenuous; I think he pushed for what he could get, considering the opposition. I also think that if Trump came up with an executive order extending Medicare to the whole population, he would guarantee his re-election, (assuming he doesn’t self-destruct in the meantime) because at this stage no-one would dare oppose it from either party.


  15. synred

    So sometimes it is right to put theory ahead of practice.

    Nobody is perfect and the perfect is the enemy of the good enough…


  16. synred

    That said, American leftists aren’t the only leftists to get international affairs wrong.

    That said, most countries would be better off screwing themselves up w/o our aid.

    E.g., trying to get rid of Chavez might have something to do with getting Madura.


  17. synred

    Trump came up with an executive order extending Medicare to the whole population

    Don’t hold your breath…</;_(


  18. saphsin

    Robin Herbert

    Yup I agree, I think many people with radical & ambitious ideas guess the very real and perhaps likely possibility that the ideas they implement are going to turn out differently from what’s expected, that it’ll be short of the ideal. But at least they tried and succeeded in getting a step closer. If you don’t have a utopian vision, how are you going to be the type of person who at least helps create a society a quarter-way closer to it?


  19. saphsin


    Many of the Leftists in America I talk to have had a balanced approach in admitting Maduro’s problems and the distortions of the media on the region. Of course there’s a range of different reactions, problem is that the mainstream narrative misrepresents Venezuela so much that parts of the Left feel the need to go the extra step in defending them.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. synred

    Hi Cousin,

    Here is an example of mistaken leftist. The album ‘State of Arkansas’ by the Almanac Singers (Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger,Lee Hays, etc. — and one of my favorites) contains odd mixture of pro and anti-war songs. It seems it was in being recorded just when Hitler invaded Russia is evident in this interview with Pete.


  21. brodix


    The individual and the collective make a useful political contrast, though it is fairly muddled. Conservatism, as the cultural frame, is the logical collective(think religions), but since the US is composed of immigrants, the essential common denominator we have is as individuals, so it has become the cultural ideal.

    The problem with the state as an entity is that it is assumed to be static, without a clear cut goal, other then the welfare of its members. As such, it becomes more of an ecosystem, than an organism. Leaving businesses as the collective organisms, within the resulting ecosystem of the paternal welfare state. With people as components and resource.

    The result, given human focus on goals, is that accumulation of money has become the “bottom line.” The problem, obviously, is that a healthy, functioning economy can only sustain a very finite amount of money in circulation.

    It functions as a medium of exchange, but we also want to store it as value, but that only works in small amounts, as a medium is dynamic, while a store is static. For example, blood is the medium, while fat is the store, to the body.

    So the problem is how to store all this excess money everyone wants. The rather neat solution is to have the government borrow it back out of the private economy and then spend it is ways which support private investment, but not compete with it, such as welfare and warfare.

    Now in the very unlikely event the government was to threaten to tax excess money out of the economy and not just borrow it, people would quickly start finding other ways to store value.

    Given that most people save for the same general reasons, from housing and healthcare, to children and retirement, we could theoretically find ways to invest in these as communal functions and not just having everyone trying to save for them individually. Which would start us back to that original reciprocity for which money was created to replace.

    It is nice to have a bank account as an individual economic umbilical cord, as it relieves us of having to rely on those frequently unreliable and selfish people we know, but it also relieves us of holding those people to account and dealing with them, whether we want to or not. Resulting in the atomistic culture of isolated individuals we have now.

    Not to mention the enormous power that it confers on the financial system and the large government it helps to finance.

    It would also be very helpful to understand and teach that nature is inherently cyclical and reciprocal, rather than linear and goal oriented, but that would be a topic for the philosophers, not the economists and given their evident cultural conservatism, that doesn’t seem anymore likely than governments threatening to tax excess wealth.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    Saph: Indeed, and if I used the word “leftist” I would be one of those myself. And, I of course don’t know which side is a majority. And, you’re right, sometimes backlash, whiplash and sidelash all come in.


  23. saphsin


    I don’t really know any American Leftists who say they want to take over by imposing a vanguard to serve as dictatorship of the proletariat. In fact, I don’t think most non-Leftists have any clue the societal changes that most “Marxists” and “Anarchist” are actually proposing. They propose institutional changes to our economy that if one didn’t know they were considered anti-capitalist reforms, some of the people commenting here would find them interesting and sensible.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Bunsen Burner

    I am reluctant to go over the same criticism that Robin and Saphsin have more than thoroughly explored, but I think there are a couple of interesting empirical questions that Baggini’s view bring to mind.

    First of all, do we have any persecuted groups in the conservative camp? Are there any historical examples of such groups arguing for there ongoing persecution just so that the social order remains intact? After all, if conservatism is just the ideology of power and privilege then even if it’s not entirely wrong, it’s certainly inadequate.

    Secondly, do we have any example of conservatives accepting that the time for change has come, and without any prompting from any radicals, actually improving the lot of marginalised groups? Again, an ideology that only focuses on the status quo and has no mechanism of improving the plight of people is a fairly bankrupt ideology.

    It’s interesting the number of people who are suspicious of economic doctrines which benefit the powerful but somehow have a blind spot for political viewpoints that also provide ongoing support for entrenched power and privilege.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Bunsen Burner

    After going through the chapter a couple of times I still can’t tell if Baggini has simplified his treatment of Marxism and Anarchism because he knows he is writing for a non academic, politically naive audience, or if he really hasn’t bothered to look into any of it in depth. As Saphsin rightly points out, very little of this thought was about forcefully creating utopias, but was more more an ongoing rational analysis of the current dehumanising conditions of the industrial working class.

    This refusal to ground these historical views in the political realities of the day leads to nonsense conclusions, and stops Baggini from asking the most important question. Why on earth did the established order not leave these poor misguided movements alone to collapse on their own, but instead repressed them with viscous brutality?

    Liked by 1 person

  26. brodix


    For some reason that comment didn’t come with a reply button, so;

    “Just to clarify, philosophers are decidedly not culturally conservative. Economists … don’t know about that.”

    Admittedly it was a dig, but I didn’t say politically conservative, but culturally, as in within the culture of philosophy, it is mostly feedback loops. Witness the title of Massimo’s blog.

    Obviously I have only my own experience to go on, but there doesn’t seem much interest in exploring anything outside the box. The three primary ideas I keep putting forth; One, that we see time backward. Rather than the point of the present moving past to future, which even physics codifies as measures of duration, it is actually an effect of change turning future to past, thus an effect similar to temperature, not space. Two, The Platonism rife in western thought, from monotheism to mathematics, mistakes the ideal for the absolute. Three, that money is the social contract we have commodified, all seem to pass through, like water off a duck.

    I would naively assume the philosophic impulse would be open to taking any new idea and chewing it up for whatever it is worth. That would be the liberal aspect of inquiry.


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