Armchair Philosophy – Plato’s Aristocracy & The Lure of Fascism in Academia

Sapientia potentia est – wisdom is power. Alternatively: scientia potentia est – knowledge is power. Two of many Latin phrases which send chills down my spine.

I’m writing this article because I want to demonstrate how within academia there is a certain lure towards fascist thinking and ideas. Through reading this article, hopefully it will make sense as to why. Universities have at times been the most fierce opposition to authoritarianism, but sometimes they’re also it’s greatest advocates. I can attest to this through my own experience of believing, for a long time, academia should have more power in society and the political arena.

So with that in mind… sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

The modern discourse surrounding fascism is riddled with inconsistencies. We regularly hear conservations and read articles within which fascism is defined as a far-right ideology, and this is an insufficient way of analysing fascist movements. The horseshoe effect is real – you go too far to the left or too far to the right and eventually you end up meeting in the middle. Fascism as an ideology is fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy – the form of democracy in most of Europe and North America currently – as well as free market capitalism. Fascism essentially began as an outwardly progressive worker’s movement, and the term comes from the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and a student of Karl Marx, Giovanni Gentile. 

The Nazis and other fascist movements may have demonised, dehumanised, and murdered countless intellectuals who disagreed with them, but ultimately many highly-intellectual people in the first half of the 20th Century were very much on board with fascist regimes. The Oxford Union Society democratically passed a motion to not support facing off the Nazis in 1933 (see The King and Country Debate), and many academics actively supported and upheld fascist regimes – including here in the UK and across the pond.

There is a lure towards fascism in academia because it essentially enforces total reverence and respect for authority and the state; and universities are partly funded by and are institutions of the state and the establishment. Academics present authoritative voices on quite literally every aspect of human life, and therefore it’s clearly in their interest (if their minds are warped in some way or if they’re simply narcissists) to live under a regime which upholds authority with no dissent or question, maintaining a monopoly on knowledge much like the Catholic Church during the Medieval period. 

The attitude is, “You must agree with me. I’m right because I’m an expert, and I know better than you…” Many academics and graduates (particularly in the humanities) enjoy toying with the idea of academic supremacy in politics, society, and culture, and this is a movement we can see playing out in real time today. This is in spite of even the most distinguished of scholars admitting it’s only possible for their expertise to extend so far.

A good example would be the way they wheeled out Sir Chris Whitty every day during the COVID-19 pandemic to justify authoritarian lockdowns. It wasn’t enough for the democratically elected politicians to simply listen to the advice of scientists, come to their own conclusions, and face the accountability which accompanies elected office. They further ignored other advice which may have prolonged the lives of thousands of Brits – particularly pensioners – as scientists were not all on the same page either. In order to justify their ridiculous policies they had to put a clever man on TV to take advantage of the general public’s utter bewilderment, distracting us by presenting progressively tedious PowerPoint slides. 

The policies enacted were off the back of what some scientists genuinely believed would reduce the impact of the virus – a virus, remember, which was arguably no more deadly than the average winter flu. The vast majority of people can’t comprehend just how many deaths are recorded every single day – spending five minutes listening to a nurse might help them to understand. The NHS goes through a similar crisis every single winter, especially since austerity measures were introduced. Furthermore, in many instances simply dying with COVID-19 was recorded as a COVID death – even if the final blow was a heart attack or a freak motorcycle accident.

It’s clear how this all works. Intelligent people know they are intelligent, and this often causes their heads to swell to an above-average size and to come up with big, special ideas. There are dogmatic educational institutions and ideologies the world over and all throughout history, and something I learnt about at university demonstrates the attitude underpinning the anger, pretentiousness, and egotism of intellectuals who refuse to listen and don’t play well with others. That’s right, we’re back in Ancient Greece with my man Plato. 

Plato believed society should be governed by an elite class of the best-educated and most ‘highly’ skilled, and what I find particularly interesting about Plato’s Aristocracy is how we’ve effectively applied this system here in the UK. We have ancient elite educational institutions, such as Eton, Harrow, Oxbridge, Durham, and St. Andrews – and this is where the hoi polloi send their children to be educated. Being educated at these institutions is a good place to start networking for your future career in politics. Or rather, business, banking, journalism and then politics.

In Plato’s political philosophy, aristocracy is the form of government in which a small, privileged elite, who are considered to be the best and most virtuous members of society, rule over the masses. Plato believed an aristocracy should be led by philosopher-kings, individuals who possess both intellectual and moral virtues, and who are capable of governing with wisdom and justice.

Plato argued aristocracy is the ideal form of government because it places power in the hands of those who are best equipped to use it wisely. He did, however, acknowledge such a system is difficult to achieve in practice, as the rulers must be carefully selected and trained, and there is always the risk that they will become corrupted by power.

Plato’s vision of aristocracy was based on the idea individuals are born with different levels of natural ability and potential, and the role of society is to nurture and develop these abilities. He believed education and training were essential to the formation of a virtuous ruling class, and only those who had been carefully prepared through a rigorous process of intellectual and moral education could be trusted to govern justly and effectively.

Plato’s vision of aristocracy was a highly idealised form of government which placed great emphasis on the moral and intellectual virtues of its rulers. While it has been criticised for being elitist and undemocratic, it remains an influential and thought-provoking model of political philosophy. A far-cry from the reality of our politicians – I doubt Plato had trashing a restaurant with their friends at university, or publicly disparaging entire demographics of their own nation’s population for money, in mind. 

I know for a fact based on my experience, the idea of Philosopher Kings (or queens, I suppose – or shall we go gender neutral with Philosopher Monarchs?) is quite popular in academia. Many people do appear to believe even greater authority should be given to higher educational institutions, despite the lack of evidence for this being a sound and strategic element of political decision-making. This is quite a common point of view, I used to believe this too, and if you’ve not cottoned on yet – this view is extreme and rather terrifying.

Do these people think removing layers of democracy to put the most intelligent people in charge will reduce the amount of corruption in our politics? They need to think again. Do they believe handing over all of our power and individual human sovereignty to a collective of status-seeking and flawed people will allow us more freedom than we already have? I call bullshit on their beliefs. Do they hope society will progress quicker and in more of a linear fashion if we just roll over and trust the powers that be? It’s nice to have hopes and dreams. 

What happened within Government when they took extra powers to deal with the COVID-19 virus? They somehow simultaneously became more corrupt than they already were – with billions of pounds in taxpayer’s contributions siphoned off and wasted to line the pockets of a contingent of Cabinet Minister’s mates and family members. These are highly educated people, let’s not forget. They then got a taste for blood, I mean authoritarian power, and this explains why they’ve restricted protest and dissent, introduced voter ID laws despite negligible voter fraud, and decided the best thing to do about refugees on our shores fleeing famine, torture, persecution, and genocide is to send them to Rwanda… I’ll repeat that for effect… Rwanda. 

It’s not just them either. The Labour MPs by and large have embraced academic theories such as Gender, Queer Theory, and Critical Theory as incontrovertible truths as if they were teenagers on Tumblr. If you disagree with their liberal opinions, which are based on contentious and unresolved academic theories, then you’re a bigot – you’re evil. This also sounds remarkably similar to the attitudes and rhetoric of the Nazis in the 1930s, and demonstrates the cognitive dissonance which lures academics, graduates, and social media users down the road to fascism.

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