2016 was marked by a sharp rise in populist politics and has culminated in the UK vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump in the US. In 2017, the French presidential election race has already been marred by a political scandal involving the right-wing candidate and presidential front-runner, François Fillon. He is under investigation for having allegedly paid his wife and 2 children large sums of money for non-existent jobs.
And there I was thinking that the French presidential election was done and dusted, with François Fillon the outright winner. Great, I thought, rekindling long gone Thatcherite ashes and setting them alight again would still be better than the extreme-right or an incompetent left. But the beautiful Penelope, his wife, rising from the deepest waters of the ocean, like a goddess, took hold of his destiny. Fillon is not yet beaten, but will his spring be as sweet as his triumphant autumn?
Where can I go, I asked myself, and find out how we can fight these recurrent and ongoing scandals? I want to eliminate the corruption that plagues our politics, like woodworms eating up the best wood from the trees of our most beautiful forests. I entered a museum, and went back in time, strolling through the history and legends of our Old Continent. In one of the rooms I came across a small ceramic doll. Her eyes, full of wisdom and light, stared at me. She was standing next to a white bull and, underneath that fragile exterior, I could feel her strength and determination that few could resist. The doll was a princess, and her name, “Europa”. Seduced by Zeus disguised as a white bull, she touched him, attracted by the sweet aroma of the crocuses he was eating. He flew with her to Crete, in the company of sea nymphs and dolphins. They had children, and when he eventually left her, she married the King of Crete, and became queen of the island.
So, it all began in Ancient Greece. Let us go back in time then, and seek the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, Aristotle’s logic and, foremost, Plato’s dreams. Not forgetting Socrates, of course, who brought philosophy back down from the Heavens to the Earth.
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils—nor the human race, as I believe—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.
Plato – The Republic
Philosopher king, you alone can transcend one’s freedom to appease desires, and act in the name of others. Make sure that your country, member of the Union lives only for the Union. It is only through you that the continent we love, Europa’s distant daughter, will become wise, courageous and just. But to reach this wisdom, this courage and this justice, each member of the Union must first find a balance in his own constitution. These diabolical demagogues keep shouting “Give the power back to the people”, without ever specifying what “power” actually means, and who exactly are the “people”. “It’s in the name of democracy”, they add. But, as Plato suggests, an absolute democracy where the personal freedom is unlimited, can quickly turn into tyranny.
If I could bring two philosophers back to life, my choice would be quickly made: Plato and Hannah Arendt. She did not like to be called a philosopher, but her wisdom was such that she has her place amongst them. I’ve already mentioned Arendt’s “banality of the evil”. But what would Plato say to help us, if he were alive today? He would see a social divide whose two components, rich and poor, were so remote from each other, that the wound would have no chance of healing. This divide results, it would seem, from too much freedom. This seems paradoxical, but freedom, so cherished by democracy and developing with such strength, could cause the collapse of the very system that cherishes it.
Well, isn’t it precisely the insatiable appetite of what the democracy does regard as its good which will lead to its loss? – Plato, The Republic
Admittedly, we do not have the tyranny that Plato had described as the result of a broken democracy, but we live more and more like slaves, under the influence of a demon which isolates each individual and, more recently, each state. This individualism begins in the family and crosses the districts, to finish its race in the most remote city which nobody can give a name to. At the level of the state, individualism takes the form of an economic and cultural isolationism, more and more justified by political leaders. Like a man dominating a gigantic animal, the demagogues can convince and make the masses dream, without knowing for certain if their rhetoric is right or even desirable. Sophists of Ancient Greece and demagogues of today, all have the right words to falsify the truth of a world that escapes them.
… after having shared the existence of the animal and having devoted much time to observe it, our man gives the name of wisdom to his experience, he systematizes it to make an art of it and starts to teach it without truly knowing, in these doctrines as in these instinctive behaviours, which is beautiful or ugly, good or bad, just or unjust. – Plato, The Republic
Cities and states can be regarded as ships moving towards a selected destination. The choice remains in the hands of the captain helped by his sailors. Only the captain has the responsibility for the direction in which the ship will navigate, because he, and only he, has necessary knowledge to keep the ship on good course during the voyage. But the sailors want to take his place. They want the captaincy. Every sailor is crafty and violent, ready to kill if need be. For them, navigation is not learned, and the captain, whose gaze is always turned towards the stars, has no value in their eyes.
I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I don’t think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination. – David Cameron, June 2016
Captain of the ship, in wanting to affirm your power, you made your ship stray. You did not know how to look at stars, so essential for navigation. By gazing at the stars, you would have understood that the destiny of your country and the Union go hand in hand and take precedence over your own destiny. True philosophers only observe the stars. Forgetting to look at the ground, they are unable to counter the abuses and foul play of their worst enemies, as Socrates experienced during his trial. As for politicians, they do not know that the stars exist, being too preoccupied with their quest for power. You should have looked at stars, like the philosophers, but also at the ground, like the politicians, in order to see your enemies. You did neither. You looked at yourself and your own destiny, forgetting to observe the sick stars of Europe, and your famished land.
But you will not be wrong by comparing our political leaders with these sailors over whom we have just spoken and those which the sailors treat as useless and dreamers lost in the clouds with those who are true pilots. – Plato, the Republic
We have a choice to make concerning a populist decision of a Member State of the Union. Like Socrates, it is necessary for us to find a way in which life is worth living. Socrates had the choice between exile and death.
But already the time to leave is here, I to die and you to live. Of my fate or yours which is the best? The answer remains uncertain for everyone, except for the divinity. – Plato, The Apology of Socrates
Now it’s our turn. We must choose, and the choice is simple: Union without end, or end of the Union. The answer remains uncertain for all Europe, except for its beautiful princess.