A deep dive into the challenges of adapting classical philosophy for the modern day, and how the far-right movement has co-opted such ideas to suit their own political ideology.
The rise of the far-right movement is something that, regrettably, we are now very familiar with. What appeared to be a near-extinct movement, confined to WWII history textbooks, is now picking up more speed and popularity. This level of populism hasn't been seen since the 1930s, and perhaps it would have been unthinkable a decade ago for extreme ideas to be so well represented in the mainstream. The main proponents of the far-right have become emboldened by the ideas pervasive in political philosophy, which inevitably gives extreme nationalists a sense that their beliefs are justifiable. But how have these beliefs been influenced by individual interpretations of classical and philosophical texts? Are we actually mistaken in the meaning of these ideologies, and if so, does this require a complete review of the foundational values of modern Western democracies?
The far-right as we know it today has risen to further prominence through angry mouthpieces who are never short of controversial things to say; provided with space to do so by much of the media. One possible explanation for an emerging trend of far-right figures may lay at the hands of a toxic political culture that has been fuelled by “alternative facts” and “fake news”. Putting aside bigotry as a driving force, there are several key ideologies which encourage individuals to associate with the far-right.
One of the ideologies that is most relevant to the far-right is nationalism; this has been a core component in movements such as the central theme of news in the UK for the past three years: Brexit. Long before nationalists used the concept to justify racism and extreme patriotism, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, namely Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke penned works on the social contract. In essence, the social contract theory states there are mutual contractual obligations between the individual and the state whereby the individuals consent to being governed by the state in exchange for protection of their rights and the preservation of social order.
Rousseau's seminal work The Social Contract, first published in French, has been translated into multiple languages. To explain the concept of the social contract to the reader, Rousseau uses the word 'man' to mean 'the human race' with alarming frequency. Female readers who study the social contract, a work that provided the basis of many classical political concepts, would also be alarmed at the constant repetition of male gender pronouns, as if the social contract doesn't apply to 50% of the population. But most womxn can get over the fact that an 18th century philosopher defaulted to using patriarchal language to illustrate his concepts, and I was willing to ignore this grammatical hang-up to understand the most influential political thought of the Enlightenment.
However, the reach of patriarchal language goes beyond male pronouns being used to represent the entirety of the human race. Not everyone who reads classical philosophy is going to meticulously unpack the implication of the gendered language. Many of those on the far-right who read the works of Plato and Socrates are inclined to twist the language into whatever belief they embrace. That's where the linguistic problem lies: not with the language or the work itself, but with the tendency for those on the modern day far-right to misunderstand the entire point of a work and use it to further their agendas.
Friedrich Nietzsche serves as a good example of a thinker whose scholarly work has been distorted by the right wing. As one of four to vote in favour of admitting women to Basel University (a vote which was lost) and having decried misogyny, antisemitism, and nationalism, it seems odd that he'd be elevated by those very much in opposition to such values. Yet many prominent members of the far-right have somehow managed to ignore these facts, choosing instead to manipulate his works to fit their skewed ideas. Subsequently, the legacy of influential thinkers has been hijacked to further these ideologies, giving the appearance that they have some sort of credibility.
A common (and effective) argument for the existence of the far-right movement is that of free-speech. This is an idea that comes in useful for soundbites and simple refutations for people on the far-right, especially when they are defending their expression of hateful ideas. In Plato's The Republic, an essential classical philosophical work which may not come to mind when we think of the extreme right, the argument for democracy is discussed and thought about in detail. For this reason, the far-right becomes emboldened when people seek to deny them the opportunity to voice their opinions. This is because it is difficult to argue against this most basic concept that is a cornerstone of modern democracies.
Nevertheless, modern society has expanded on Plato's most basic conception of free speech. For instance, Article 10(2) of the ECHR (European Convention of Human Rights) specifies that the right to freedom of expression excludes the instances where speech infringes on public safety, health or morals. It quickly becomes apparent that despite explicit reference to classical works by the far-right, the concept of free speech remains limited in practice. Indeed, the ECHR is actively engaged in a process of restraint, that seeks to temper interpretations that continue to be abused by the far-right.
The remaining question is: how far can we go in allowing far-right discourse to become part of this country's narrative? As we have seen in various media outlets in recent years, there is no shortage of opportunities for right-wingers to voice their ideas. The danger is that the mainstream media will fall into the territory of giving enough airtime to the extreme right that the movement itself will become acceptable, as it was in the lead up to WWII. A better understanding of classical philosophy will not go amiss in this current climate, but whether or not this is enough to pacify the extremist movement remains to be seen.
*An earlier version of this article did not feature the line "it seems odd that he'd be elevated by those very much in opposition to such values".