Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 10, 2013

Completing Critias

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 10, 2013

Dissatisfied even disgusted by the political system of his time and place, Plato composed his Republic. This systematic expression of political philosophy is often credited as the source of several American constitutional principles, including the separation of powers currently so prominent.

But Plato was evidently soon dissatisfied even with his own self-styled Politeia (“life as a citizen”). He embarked on a set of three dialogues to amend and clarify his description of an ideal state. The first of these is the Timaeus. The second is the unfinished Critias. The third, Hermocrates, was never written or has been lost.

Timaeus is a personification of Pythagorean science. Less dialogue than monologue the text sets out the ordered, rational, understandable and thereby beautiful character of creation. In particular Timaeus describes how our intellect can engage with necessity to fulfill the potential of creation, even to being co-creators.

While as far as we know the third dialogue was never begun, the character of Hermocrates appears in the first two parts of the planned trilogy and is almost certainly based on the Greek Sicilian statesman and general of the same name who Thucydides quotes at length. Faced with internal discord and the prospect of civil war, Hermocrates was a passionate advocate for pragmatic peace and amicable problem-solving even in the midst of profoundly conflicting interests.

Critias is named for another contemporary of Socrates, a leading conservative politician and intellectual of the crucial period when Athens had been humbled by the consequences of the Peloponesian wars. The philosopher, playwright, and general was a leading member of the tyrannical Thirty (memorialized as “noble men who restrained the hubris of the accursed Athenian Demos a short time.” Xenophon describes Critias as an amoral and brutal man.  Philostratus called him “the most evil of all men.”

In his private letters Plato points to the career of Critias as one of the reasons he avoided active politics. But Critias was also Plato’s second cousin and, however fierce his public persona, Critias is depicted in the Dialogues as a refined and thoughtful man.

The narrative given to Critias — only twelve pages in my translation — envisions a Golden Age nine-thousand years prior when a virtuous people demonstrated an intelligence, courage and resourcefulness so sorely lacking in the present.  “They aimed at the mean between splendor and poverty, dwelling in decent houses where they grew old, themselves and their children’s children, each succeeding generation leaving them to another like itself. ”  It was, according to Critias, “their own commonwealth in righteousness.”

Here is my reading — and attempt to relate to homeland security — reduced to blog-like length:

Timaeus offers our thesis.  The universe consists of being and becoming.  Being is good.  Becoming is problematic, potentially either good or bad.   To embrace the good and avoid the bad we must engage “the thoughts and harmonies of the universe.”  In this way we will, “correct the courses of our head that were corrupted at our birth, and should assimilate the thinking to the thought, renewing our original nature, so that having assimilated them we may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind…”

Critias is our anti-thesis.  The best life is not so exalted.  We are not meant or able to know the way or intention of the universe.  Our place is with our families and neighbors, living well but modestly in accordance with the circumstances into which we have been born.  The tragic temptation according to Critias is “the infection of wicked coveting and pride of power.”

This middle dialogue closes with a dramatic scene.  Disgusted by human pride, the god-of-gods gathers a great cosmic council “at the world’s center overlooking all that has part in becoming, and when he had gathered them there, he said …”

And that’s where Plato leaves us.

I am probably being too Hegelian, but I speculate that in the unread (unwritten?) Hermocrates we might find our synthesis.  In 424 BC the historical Hermocrates addressed the Congress at Gela saying,

Now if some man be strongly conceited to go through with some design of his, be it by right or by violence, let him take heed that he fail not… knowing that many men ere now, hunting after revenge on such as had done them injury, and others trusting, by some strength they have had, to take away another’s right, have instead of being revenged been destroyed, and instead of winning from others, left behind them what they had of their own. For revenge succeeds not according to justice… nor is strength therefore sure because hopeful. It is the instability of fortune that is most predominant in things to come, which, though it be the most deceivable of all things, yet appears to be the most profitable. For whilst every one fear it alike, we proceed against each other, each conceiving the greater care of providence. (Original translation of Thucydides by Thomas Hobbes, 1843, slightly updated by me)

Perhaps we can know the way of the universe.  Perhaps we are meant to be god-like in our knowledge and action.

Or perhaps we are better called to restraint.  Human experience demonstrates the extraordinary risks involved even in well-intended change.

Being and becoming each have their reality.   The aspirational thesis and the skeptical anti-thesis are strength or weakness depending on context; especially depending on the decision at hand.  What is required in the case of either inclination is an exercise of reason that excludes over-confidence or vengeance and honors the “instability of fortune.”

Whether homeland security is narrowly or broadly defined, this seems to me reasonable, even wise.


A Personal Note:  In recent weeks I have considered and sometimes started posts with a, let us say, less expansive purpose than what is outlined above.  There are important issues of leadership (and lack thereof) at DHS, Congressional oversight, the role of counterterrorism compared with other HS missions, the practice of CT at home and abroad, the use and abuse of intelligence capabilities and much more.  I have begun to share absurd stories of real-life bureaucratic encounters.  I have been tempted to share amazing details of readiness, resilience, and their opposite.  For better or (probably) for worse, I have been drawn back again and again to other admittedly abstract concerns.  I worry these choices have too often been self-indulgent and do not fulfill my appropriate role. (Roles were a very big deal for Plato.)  But at the same time, these choices reflect a judgment that wicked problems at the core of homeland security are made even more difficult by our own unthinking banality.  We do not need a special operator worrying over Platonic notions of justice as he approaches low over Tripoli.  But most of us are not often in such a role.  And too often, given our roles, we allow activity traps to distract us from thinking.  Which is not to say that even the most serious thinking would suddenly unveil solutions.  But just a bit more thinking — especially together — might allow us to avoid being ourselves the source of our worst problems.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 10, 2013 @ 9:07 am

Amazing post Phil! Don’t worry be happy! I too often wonder about what was created but lost from Classical Greece!

Comment by George Santayana

October 10, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

I wanted to confirm the provenance of the following:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A fuller context gives the quote even greater relevance for Phil’s post:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

While doing my fact-checking, I found these as well:

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

“The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.”

All by George Santayana.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 10, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

Bill and George: I’m not as confident as Santayana seemed to be regarding the accuracy of historically-informed thinking. But I do share his sense that it can be helpful. At the core of real science is the humility of the null hypothesis. Unfortunately, the popular application of “scientific” thinking tends to neglect the innately tentative methods of science while attempting to claim confidently predictive outcomes. History and philosophy can give our thinking rigor while mostly avoiding any temptation to certainty.

Bill, I am glad you share my curiosity regarding the Greeks. To hear a 2400 year-old-voice speak words so clearly relevant to our day is, at least for me, a grace and blessing.

Comment by Hunter Gardner

October 11, 2013 @ 11:32 am

I really like “unthinking banality”. There’s our principal adversary, much more dangerous than any terrorist I have yet seen.

And agreed, it’s not just thinking, but “thinking together” that is the solution.

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