The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, by Glenn Ellmers (Encounter, 120 pp., $24.99)
Believe it or not, my local indie bookstore was bustling on a recent Saturday night. (Its new wine bar might have played a role.) Even in the age of Amazon, people were browsing the shelves. I think of these customers—and I say this with reverence—as America’s middlebrow masses. Many, if not most, have careers that in no way reward outside reading, and yet they seek to learn.
I was headed to the bookstore partly to browse but also to test a theory: that there would be no section of a shelf devoted to political philosophy. I was right. The store has sections for philosophy, political science, and current affairs, but none for political philosophy. This narrow passage, it seems, is too narrow for its own section. Those who read Claremont Institute senior fellow Glenn Ellmers’s erudite but accessible new book, which makes a case for the discipline’s importance, will lament the oversight.
Political philosophy helped usher in the conservative turn in mid-twentieth-century America. As Claremont’s Charles Kesler explains in The Crisis of the Two Constitutions (2021), the “scholarly counterattack” against modern liberalism in the postwar era was not limited to fields of economics and jurisprudence but also included political philosophy:
Above all, the Progressives’ attempt to replace political philosophy with social science foundered. After World War II, an unanticipated and unsung revival of political philosophy began, associated above all with Leo Strauss, questioning historicism and nihilism in the name of a broadly Socratic understanding of nature and natural right.
For the uninitiated, the above paragraph can seem like a minefield. What exactly is “political philosophy”? For that matter, what is meant by “nature” and “natural right”? Ellmers takes up such questions in The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, explaining recondite philosophical terms, while showing how the ideas they represent, and the figures associated with them, continue to affect our lives.
To streamline and condense his thesis on the relevance of political philosophy to our hyper-polarized present, Ellmers relies on a Leo Strauss essay titled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” According to Strauss, the “first wave” of modernity arrived with figures like Machiavelli and Hobbes, who lowered the lofty goals of political philosophy—virtue and the good life, in the case of the ancients; eternal salvation, in the case of Christianity—to the quotidian sphere of “low but solid” rational self-interest and self-preservation, both of which would be aided by advancements in scientific knowledge. In the “second wave,” which encompassed Jean-Jacques Rousseau and “culminat[ed] in the Prussian state of the 19th century,” rationality was itself understood to be embedded in the historical process, which, argued German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, progressed inexorably. By the third wave of modernity, however, disillusionment with man’s intractable and fallible nature led to the Nietzschean nihilism that casts its pall well into the twentieth century and beyond.
For Ellmers, “today’s intellectual class can offer no rational alternative to postmodern relativism and nihilism.” Instead of using reason to seek justice and cultivate virtue, some of the principal aims of classical philosophy, the modern condition is characterized by Nietzsche’s “will to power” and militant self-fashioning in an otherwise meaningless world. Political philosophy and reason, Ellmers believes, have been further degraded by French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault and the New Left.
Ellmers argues what many conservatives sense but can’t verbalize: that progressive thought carries within it an inherent and insuperable contradiction between “scientific bureaucracy and woke irrationality.” The former, sometimes called the “administrative state,” gave us the Covid lockdowns and unattainable “net zero” climate goals to be applied by transnational fiat. The latter involves such empirically unverifiable concepts as gender fluidity and microaggressions. Both undermine political philosophy and self-government by circumventing the democratic process. There can be no arguing with the diffuse power of unelected bureaucracies, just as there is no place for deliberation about what constitutes rhetorical “violence” within the shelter of a so-called “safe space.”
As Ellmers explains of Foucault’s thinking and the conclusions we can draw from it:
There has to be some kind of substratum or ontological floor to human life, a canvas on which pious opinions or postmodern discourses express themselves and find their footing—however mysterious, in the case of Plato, or absurd, in the case of the postmodernists, this ground may be. In the absence of nature (abolished) and God (murdered) why not power?
For Ellmers, Nietzschean and Foucaultian self-assertion ultimately prevail over the scientism-inflected bureaucratic state. This is because, as the ancients knew but as thinkers on both sides seem to have forgotten, man inherently seeks meaning and purpose in community—that is to say, in politics.
“The contemporary return of tribalism, the reaction against the spiritual emptiness of modern life, is proof that man’s political nature can be suppressed but never destroyed,” Ellmers writes. But instead of indulging in tribalism as an end in itself, as some on both the left and the right would have us do, our “instincts must be elevated by rational thought.” Here’s hoping that Ellmers and his fellow “Claremonsters” do not rest until political philosophy becomes its own section in indie bookstores, and the esoteric musings of dead philosophers the common currency of America’s middlebrow masses.