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The Joy of the Knife: On Autoimmune Responses in Politics

(Paul Ehrlich via Wikimedia Commons)

If we look at culture as a superorganism with its own immunological mechanisms, we can recognize modern societies as being profoundly dysregulated, and this gets worse the more modern they get.”

Right before the turn of the 20th century, a German scientist named Paul Ehrlich unwittingly summarized the spirit of an entire age. He did so through no fault of his own. He was not pursuing philosophy; he was not even penning any sort of intellective commentary. Rather, he was conducting science—the dry, Baconian kind.

So, what could Ehrlich have said that was so comprehensive? Two words: horror autotoxicus. In uttering those words, he confessed by way of scientific indirection to a deep-seated longing in the European mind. This was the same longing that gave motive and drive to the whole enlightenment project: the dream of an impervious interiority. Horror autotoxicus expresses a belief in the rationality of nature. It means, in nuce, that bodies are ordered wholes, horrified by self-harm and that they cannot exhibit any hostility to what is properly their own. Ehrlich, who would later receive the Nobel Prize for his work on immunology, did not believe in what is now called autoimmunity. As he put it: “It would be dysteleologic in the highest degree, if under these circumstances self-poisons of the parenchyma—autotoxins—were formed.” Autoimmunity just would not make any sense.

By expressing his unbelief, Ehrlich proved himself an authentic convert to the modern worldview. According to this worldview, the Self has an intrinsic integrity; it is an individuum imbued with property rights. Horror autotoxicus implies a continuation of this self-conception all the way down to the biological and chemical levels of the (human) organism. Even though Ehrlich has now been proven wrong, the debate on the existence of autoimmune diseases—diseases that provoke an organism’s immune response against its own healthy tissue—went on well into the 1960s. It was only quite recently, in the last 50 years or so, that immunologists really started taking autoimmunity seriously. 

Without engaging in pseudoscientific speculation, I would like to suggest that the modern worldview awaits similar disapproval. In a way, such disapproval is already underway and has been underway ever since Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his “misgivings” regarding the modern project. In an uncanny parallel to the discoveries of immunology, Nietzsche re-emphasized the role of ferocity in human organization. In the same way that immunologists found out how the thymus gland plays a crucial role in fending off “foreign invaders,” Nietzsche recentered the human experience on the thūmós, the prideful, combative aspect of the human heart.

Nietzsche’s thymotic fascination is viciously anti-modern. If we follow John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise of Government, the modern liberal state comes about by ridding society of all irrational elements. Rational people can come together to form a social compact whereby they agree to legislatively ban “the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men.” In the liberal state, rational self-preservation is the one and only teleology. Thymotic activity engenders conflict, and so must be avoided. As Francis Fukuyama put it in his 2006 book The End of History and the Last Man: “In a world of thymotic moral selves, they will be constantly disagreeing and arguing and growing angry with one another over a host of questions, large and small. Hence, thymos is, even in its most humble manifestations, the starting point for human conflict.”

The idea of a free society of rational actors is anchored in the belief in horror autotoxicus on a political scale. The Natural Law, which is reason itself, “teaches anyone who takes the trouble to consult it, that because we are all equal and independent, no one ought to harm anyone else.” Liberal rationality professes the hope that a body politic can exist that does not want to eat itself. Such a body is governed by the horror of self-harm and should be incapable of generating autoimmune responses. It is this that Nietzsche challenges. 

Nietzsche considered the very real possibility that humanity’s death drive would resurface if suppressed for too long. More radically put, he took Hegel’s belief in the absolute immanence of the human world (das Geisterreich) to a more extreme conclusion. Hegel argued that human history develops as a progressive self-realization of the human spirit. At the end of history, all that makes humans human will have been obviated. The need to struggle and self-transcend will be gone, and people will finally be satisfied with their lives as they are on earth. In Nietzsche’s view, this final vanishment of transcendence, this total human immanence, will leapfrog over a state of happy comfort to a new atavistic age. This new age, an age of relativism and nihilism, in which there is no longer any higher standard, no Platonic ideal by which men are supposed to organize their lives, will catalyze a maelstrom of anarchies.

We could, of course, easily dismiss this as pessimistic speculation. Yet, perhaps we might better appreciate Nietzsche from an immunological perspective. A healthy immune system defends the organism from pathogens (i.e., viruses, parasites, cancer cells, etc.). This immune system is adaptative. It learns how to respond appropriately and proportionately to different kinds of threats; it is proficient in the art of war. Autoimmunity, the specific immunological dysfunction denied by early immunologists, is what happens when the T cells (particularly the “killer T cells”) produced by the thymus go rogue. While the causes of this might vary, what usually happens is that these cells become dysregulated—dysteleologic, if you will. They no longer accurately distinguish between friend and foe; they become mutinous. 

How is this allowed to happen? Before a T cell reaches maturity, it is called a thymocyte. A thymocyte is a pubescent T cell that still needs to undergo thymopoiesis before it can be “shipped off” to the periphery (“the battlefront”), where it must protect the organism against outside threats. Thymopoiesis involves positive and negative selection processes. Positive selection verifies that the thymocyte is “fit for duty” (i.e., strong enough, actually capable of executing its task), while negative selection weeds out the “bad apples” (i.e., criminal types). In cultural terms, these selection mechanisms were traditionally referred to as (military) education or asceticism more generally. When these selection mechanisms fail—and they can fail when there is a marked deficiency in what are called regulatory T cells (Tregs)—autoimmunity can occur. 

If we look at culture as a superorganism with its own immunological mechanisms, we can recognize modern societies as being profoundly dysregulated, and this gets worse the more modern they get. The globalizing, universalizing (“multicultural”) tendencies evinced by the liberal framework cannot properly distinguish between endogenous and exogenous elements. Secular societies relinquish all regulatory responsibility to the amorphous, willy-nilly opinions of “the people,” who are woefully unprepared for this task. Indeed, we as moderns have completely forgone the notion of an educational mold, except where it concerns “professional training.” With regards to the formation of individual character, there is hardly any standard being applied by which to positively or negatively select. This is because, as Nietzsche understood, the modern world no longer recognizes any such standard. Modernity thrives on the demise of the “true world.” It is relativity all the way down.

The Most Uncanny of All Guests

As a necessary consequence of this thoroughgoing relativism, Nietzsche prophesied the auto-consummation of the modern world. In his last, most nebulous tome called The Will to Power, for instance, we hear the following: “I describe what is coming, what is inevitable: the rise of nihilism…for this ‘music of the future’ all ears are already pricked. The whole of our European culture has long been in an agony of suspense, increasing with each passing decade, as if in anticipation of disaster, like a torrent, restlessly, violently rushing to its end, refusing to reflect, afraid to reflect.” For Nietzsche, nihilism reflected the utter failure “to conceive of higher types.” In light of such failure, theinferior species, the ‘herd’, the ‘masses’, ‘society’, [lose] the habit of humility, and by means of puffery they make cosmic and metaphysical values out of their needs. In this way the whole of existence is vulgarized, for in as much as the masses prevail, they tyrannize over the exceptions, so that these lose faith in themselves and become nihilists.” (Emphasis original.) 

Nihilism presupposes rudderlessness, insecurity, and a sense of the vulgar soaking into every vestige of “reality.” Today, we refer to this phenomenon diminutively as the “meaning crisis,” but that is only an indication that we are still not speaking in earnest—as though all we would need to prop up our trivial lives was a bit more “meaning” here and there—a sure sign that, as Nietzsche put it, everything is still “false, through and through, nothing but ‘words, words, words’, confused, feeble or overwrought.”

Taking the “meaning crisis” seriously means we must attend to what Nietzsche held to be the greatest problem humanity has ever faced: an epochal event from which we are still reeling today, even as we have become numb to its consequences. In The Joyful Wisdom, we read: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers…Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it?” It is here that Nietzsche the diagnostician and Nietzsche the prophet appear in closest proximity, like the two faces of a Janus statue—one looking back across vast swaths of history, the other scoping out a distant future, as of yet totally obscure. 

The crux of the situation has been rendered pithily: “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.” Taken from a commentary on G. K. Chesterton by the Belgian author Émile Cammaerts, this statement could just as well have pertained to the Nietzschean oeuvre. The affliction of being continuously goaded toward just about anything is the defining characteristic of the secular masses. For the exceptional, tasteful few, this “anything” evokes the imagery of the funerary mask: a ponderous procession to the casket and the looming shadow of the great Nothing. The transition from value relativism to nihilism only takes a small step: The rejection of popular whim, of the arbitrary proclivity to anything, soon turns into a wholesale rejection of everything.

Relativism—and nihilism as its consequent—suggests an impossible intimacy between humanity and divinity. Because of this intimacy, the modern world always appears under an undue amount of stress. This is the stress that accompanies culpability; it is the unrelenting anxiety of the guilty man, the same “fear and trembling” that made Raskolnikov more inclined to confess his crimes than sit around, waiting to be found out. Nietzsche’s task as prophet was not to ease our conscience but, rather, to make us “worthy” of the deed—to anoint us as noble inheritors of a momentous criminal record. The greatest folly and greatest shame of the modern man is his tendency to dissimulate, to try and hide his undeniably deviant status in a great coverup and act as though nothing at all is the matter. What is most repugnant about the last man is not his culpability but, instead, his feigned show of innocence.

“Enlightenment” (which evokes, next to luminance, a sense of becoming lighter) is the name we have given to our false sense of optimism. The Enlightenment’s greatest achievement was not, as often claimed, some triumphant return to classical rationality but, rather, a kind of magic trick. What it managed to do was effectively conjure up a deus ex machina—in lieu of the Biblical One. This makeshift God, to which we moderns have promised our worship, is called the State. Since we allowed ourselves, according to Nietzsche, to “wipe away the whole horizon,” the State is the new horizon against which our lives must unfold. Rather than God, it is now the State to which we owe our surrender. Indeed, as the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, it is the State which “over-awes [us] all.” To be sure, Hobbes still referred to the State as a Leviathan, after the Biblical sea monster paraded out by God in the Book of Job. For one such as Hegel, however, it became perfectly adequate to call the State an “actual God.” Or, in even more unequivocal terms: “The March of God in the world, that is what the State is.”

Real people are carefully fused down in the “melting pot” of rational self-interest so that they can be treated as loosely connected particles, which are easily reconfigured and manipulated. 

The modern State has a peculiar, almost paradoxical makeup. On the one hand, its “decisions” are supposed to reflect a volonté générale, a “general will” instituting popular sovereignty. On the other hand, the “consent of the society” reigns precisely for the preservation of the property (i.e., material integrity) of sovereign individuals. It is this chimeric quality of modern statehood that keeps baffling our political discourse. All talk of individualism vis-à-vis collectivism and how they might trade off against one another remains nonsensical so long as we do not understand the nature of the State as a collective of individuals—a collective committed to the individualization of persons. To put it more emphatically: As citizens of modern States, we are (collectively) condemned to the particular freedom that individualism entails, which is by no means the only kind of freedom.

It is for this reason that Nietzsche wrote: “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the State, am the people.’” The State cannot countenance the organic, cultural reality of a people. Authentic cultures, composed of highly contextual, complex, interpersonal bonds, customs, and sacred rituals, will always undermine the needs of a depersonalized techno-bureaucracy. More crucially, the State cannot tolerate the thymotic activity that naturally accrues in its absence: the chaotic brutality of the so-called “state of nature.” As a result, the State must sever any traditional connections that make up a culture, in order to produce atomized rational actors that naturally slot into the matrix of the general will. Real people are carefully fused down in the “melting pot” of rational self-interest so that they can be treated as loosely connected particles, which are easily reconfigured and manipulated. 

Voiding the Social Contract

Just as Ehrlich was wrong to think an organism would not be able to inflict self-harm, so it would be incorrect to think that a State of rational actors is impervious to gross irrationality. In fact, it is precisely the State’s commitment to the fantasy of rational individualism that renders it so vulnerable to autoimmune responses. In contradistinction to the ancients, who believed that humans naturally exhibit a political instinct—that they are effectively “political animals”—modern thinkers like Hobbes and Locke conceived of nature as pre-political and essentially anarchic. According to Hobbes, “so long as man is in the condition of mere nature, which is a condition of war, as private appetite is the measure of good and evil.” Because of this, man’s natural life is in thrall to “continual fear, and [the] danger of violent death.” It is, in other words, qualitatively “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That this state of nature has a lot in common with the hyper-competitive character of market-driven social dynamics will surely not be lost on most readers. As anyone observing even chimp “societies” can report, nature enforces its own kind of sociality. (Here, something like Kipling’s Law of the Jungle springs to mind.) There is no natural situation in which humans will engage in a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself “war of all against all.” Such a torrid atmosphere (or at the very least the mindset that prevails there) is, however, indigenous to the cutthroat world of large, financial enterprises—the world of the bourgeoisie.

In truth, the features of relativism and nihilism have always been mainstays of the worldview of the merchant class, no matter the kind of society it has found itself a part of. As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it: “For the [bourgeoisie], indeed, the state had always been only a well-organized police force,” installed almost exclusively for the sake of protecting private property. The members of the bourgeoisie, a collective of “essentially private persons,” have always had very little intrinsic interest in public affairs. Before the sudden fact of their political enfranchisement, these authentic individualists never experienced much desire to rule—a kind of activity they were not capable of understanding in the first place. What actually happened after the emancipation of the third estate (and the founding of classically liberal states) was the slow transformation of the entire world into a myopic “society of competitors.” The State as such—very different from the mediaeval kingdom, or the ancient polis—must first of all be grasped as an organization shorn of every pretense to the maintenance of genuine culture, finally reduced to nothing more than a “well-organized police force.”

That the modern State is little more than a middle-class fever dream is reflected clearly in its founding myths. Social contract theory as such (from Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes all the way to John Rawls)—the specific body of stories the Enlightenment has told itself about the genesis of human social groupings—projects a shopkeeper’s conception of sociality onto the entire breadth of human relationships. According to this conception, humans will come together not because they have a shared sense of the sacred (or a profound feeling of Zusammengehörigkeit, of being-and-belonging-together in service of a common purpose) but because they each have certain needs that must be met and certain fears they wish to avoid. People will join themselves to others not because they necessarily want to (as we all know: “Hell is other people.”) but simply to further their own designs.

The story of how such an impoverished, contractual sense of “community” leads to its own catastrophic dissolution has been well documented by Arendt in her seminal 1951 work on The Origins of Totalitarianism. According to Arendt, it is in the nature of individuals to have forgone most of what organically binds humans together in synergistic, cooperative efforts. As a consequence, most “relations with…fellow-men inside society take the form of competition.” In all this, the State acts as a regulatory agent, ensuring above all the safety of the competitors as they each pursue their respective careers. We tend to look at this as “meritocracy,” a system in which the agonistic dynamics of the market determine who comes out on top and who is left behind. We often fail to see, however, that this sense of “merit” is subject almost entirely to the vagaries of pure chance—so much so, in fact, that being successful is considered semantically equivalent to being fortunate. A set of effectively random characteristics (e.g., cognitive ability, physical beauty and health, inherited wealth, country of birth, generic serendipity, etc.) determines—in large part—the worth an individual will be attributed by polite society. Indeed, “according to bourgeois standards, those who are completely unlucky and unsuccessful are automatically barred from competition, which is the life of society. Good fortune is identified with honor, and bad luck with shame.”

State-worship, we come to find, equals worship of Self.

So, according to the mechanics of meritocracy, entire swaths of the population will be progressively alienated from society: “The unsuccessful are robbed of the virtue that classical civilization left them; the unfortunate can no longer appeal to Christian charity.” The needs of the social outcasts are no longer being met, nor are their fears assuaged. Unmotivated by a natural sense of duty—which, under social contract theory, does not exist—and left out in the cold by their fellow citizens, these people soon find their reasons for obeying the State vanish into thin air. Once the social contract has been voided, they are no longer under any obligations to hold up their end of the bargain. Or as Arendt puts it: the transformation of the “social outcasts’ organization into a gang of murderers [is] a logical outcome of the bourgeoisie’s [relativistic] moral philosophy.”

Autoimmune responses in modern societies stem from the precarious foundations on which those societies are built. The middle-class attitude that has refashioned reality in its own image—transforming it into a “marketplace of ideas”—specifically fosters characters that have no ultimate allegiance to anything but themselves. State-worship, we come to find, equals worship of Self. Participation in secular society, as well as kindness to others, depends a great deal on circumstance; it comes to those who can afford it. Beneath the sheen of politeness lies the noumenon of the social contract. In the words of Hegel: the “night, the interiority—or—the intimacy of Nature which exists here: [the] pure personal-Ego…That is the night one perceives if one looks a man in the eyes: then one is delving into a night which becomes terrible.”

Totalitarianism as Disease

The rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century has already demonstrated the truth of Nietzsche’s prophecy. Of course, Nietzsche himself could not have foreseen how his conception of the “higher types” would get lumped in with the recluses and common criminals pulled from the dregs of society. Nietzsche’s whole philosophy was set against the vulgarization of the world on account of the appetitive classes. For this, he turned to the Übermensch as a new kind of archetype, a “this-worldly” realization of ultra-aristocracy in the grand style. Instead of the hysterical fanaticism of a Hitler or the clinical, methodical, lab-coat-style of a Himmler, he had idealized a monstrous crossbreed between artist and tyrant: a Machiavellian Leonardo da Vinci—at once effervescent tightrope walker and effortlessly virtuosic, grandmaster tactician. The new man would contain everything in excess. But, above all, he would have to embrace his role as a malignant force unburdened by conscience.

The fact that Nietzsche was so readily appropriated by the Nazi regime may well be attributed to his glorification of the criminal element. The wholesale endorsement of Machiavellianism, as well as Zarathustra’s enthusiasm over the “joy of the knife,” all seem to point in this direction. Indeed, on many occasions throughout his work, Nietzsche appears to encourage the cultivation of (uncultivated, instinctual) brutality. For instance, in Beyond Good and Evil, he writes: “We think that harshness, violence, slavery, danger in the streets and in the heart, concealment, Stoicism, the art of experiment, and devilry of every sort; that everything evil, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and snakelike in humanity serves just as well as its opposite to enhance the species ‘humanity.’” Or, in The Twilight of the Idols, as he puts it: “The criminal type is the type of the strong man amid unfavorable conditions, a strong man made sick.”

The type of criminal Nietzsche probably idolized would in spirit have been much like Rodion Raskolnikov, the reclusive protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: the kind of man who wants to become a Colossus, who dares take justice into his own hands; a vigilante unafraid of the common morals enforced by State law. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s descriptions often vacillated and were, at times, more appropriate to the bloodthirsty killer than the isolate noble soul—more Joker than Batman. This ambivalence might also explain his unlikely affinity with the Left-Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner, whose only work The Ego and its Own (a very poor translation of Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum), holds up natural egoism (that is, absolute individualism) as the only viable and authentic mode of life. It is in the latter’s work that we read: “I decide whether it is the right thing in me; there is no right outside me. If it is right for me, it is right.” Indeed: “Every ego is from birth a criminal to begin with against the people, the state.”

Just as Hobbes and Locke had been the heralds of a secularized, relativistic, middle-class way of life, Nietzsche wanted to become the voice of a new nobility. Instead, however, he was joined to the likes of Stirner, and he became the de facto spokesperson for the Lumpenproletariat—the amorphous mass of people with no particular class affiliation. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, as well as his doctrine concerning the will-to-power, became evangelical to the kind of characters we could call “underground men.” Given this context, the subtitle of Thus Spoke Zarathustra—“A Book for All and None”—has turned out particularly well; for the underground man, first canonized by Dostoevsky in the eponymous novel, is indeed one who stands for plenitude in nothingness.

The underground men compose a structureless glob of people with very little in common, except a shared sense of exclusion. Spurned by the social world—reduced, as it were, to the state of apolitical animals—these men are prepared, at any moment, to lash out mercilessly at the status quo. They think of themselves as effectively outside of the bourgeois compact, inhabiting a “state of nature” in relation to polite society. In immunological terms, they are a host of dysregulated thymocytes, on the verge of autoimmunological autophagy. Startlingly, their numbers do not just include societal “refuse,” the abject losers of the rat race, those people who just got dealt a bad hand by the invisible forces of the market, but also the winners, the cream of the crop—Nietzsche’s so-called “higher types.”

Nothing should come as a greater surprise than the fanatical willingness of “highly cultured people” to join mass movements. While a significant portion of the masses is motivated simply by ressentiment—the seething envy experienced by those who have received the short end of the stick—the mentality of the higher types is more idiosyncratic. It is in the elevated egoism—the eclectic eccentricity in taste and affiliation—of highly cultured people that we encounter a sublimation of the individualism already presupposed by the contractual understanding of liberal sociality. The higher types atomize themselves even more substantially than the appetitive classes in order to distinguish themselves from the latter’s philistinism and general vulgarity. In the end, they become “armed bohemians,” looking not for material elevation, but romanticism.

As a concept, totalitarianism makes sense only in function of these highly cultured zealots. The resentful masses are employed as fuel for the “movement” of an elect few who “[think] in continents and [feel] in centuries.” The paradox of liberalism as a whole is driven to a point of caricature when the totalitarian autoimmune response takes hold of it. As Arendt writes, “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” The undifferentiated mass presupposes the untethered pure ego: the perfected individuation of the Self. 

Locke’s conception of human intelligence as a tabula rasa or “blank slate” is realized only in the sort of human who submits entirely to the masses. And it is the highly differentiated, palimpsestic, bohemian soul that yearns most of all for self-effacement, for wholesale mental erasure—for the ardor and ecstasy of self-sacrifice. The terrible nihilism of the higher types, which Nietzsche so clearly foretold, is, in the final analysis, a religious comportment in the absence of religion. What in immunological terms can be expressed as a failure of regulatory processes (in the absence of regulatory T cells), in cultural terms translates to an inexpressible yearning for authenticity (in the absence of cultural institutions and genuine educators). 

The tragedy of Nietzsche’s misappropriation by the Nazis is not limited to mistakes that were made in terms of interpretation; rather, it is a case of bitter irony that a thinker of culture, of rank and hierarchy (of higher and lower types, of masters and slaves) should furnish the intellectual backbone of a mass movement. In totalitarianism, after all, there are no masters and no slaves: A Führer is as absorbed by the political pleroma as any other committed devotee. (As Adolf Hitler himself put it, “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.”) Everyone is equally in thrall to a Gestalt that is finally revealed: the identity of State and citizen in a monstrous mysticism. The romantic yearner, converted to nihilism, submerges himself in the plenum of the mass movement; he achieves a bastardized version of what the Christians once called kenosis or “self-emptying.” This act of self-erasure is an unio mystica, a union of the mystic’s soul with the secular God—the State. What started out as a sense of loathing vis-à-vis the trappings of polite society, becomes, rather tragically, like the aching need of a neglected child for the elusive love of an absent parent, a parent who is by nature cold, hard-hearted, and aloof. What we have called the auto-consummation or autophagy of the modern world is, in fact, a devotional act of theophagy: the desperate and ecstatic consumption of the Godhead.

Nietzsche would have reviled the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, precisely because they did not deviate from, but rather completed, the false, hypocritical course set by modernity. This much at least we should have gathered from Arendt’s exhaustive retrospective analyses. And yet, for as much as she is lauded as a thinker, often it seems we have still not learned some of the most important lessons she had to teach us: chiefly, that a purely bourgeois conception of life is not sociologically tenable and that as long as we keep ignoring what happened when we became a secular people, autoimmune responses, in whichever shape or form, will remain an open possibility.

At bottom, modernity’s native horror autotoxicus is immunologically naïve. This naivety is not innocent; it has engendered some of the most ill-tempered visions of humanity to date. A dysregulated cultural immune system, an immunological makeup that actively discourages thymotic pedagogy and, thus, fails to perform any meaningful positive or negative character selection is bound to elicit egregious autoimmune responses. We could have learned from the 20th century; instead, the (neo-)liberal paradigm was foolishly continued without any incisive emendation. It is time we reconsider some wiser alternatives.

Revisiting Callipolis

The political vision proffered by Plato in the Republic remains one of the most balanced and ambitious political constructions ever conceived. It is, for all its idealism, also the most immunologically viable. Plato posits a tripartite human soul, composed of a logical aspect, a thymotic aspect, and an appetitive aspect. He projects this human microcosm onto the macrocosm of the polity. The Republic, as well, must be organized according to three different classes. Of the three, two are responsible for guarding the city against the outside and maintaining peace internally. One is the auxiliary class, composed of spirited warriors who actually perform these tasks. The other is the guardian class proper, responsible for ruling the city as a whole. It is the from the guardian class that the infamous philosopher-kings are drawn.

In immunological terms, the guardian rulers will act as regulators, applying wisdom judiciously in determining and adapting the education of the warriors, to ensure they are properly formed. This education is, on the whole, no more than a complex interplay of positive and negative selection processes. As Plato puts it, “physical exercise for bodies, music for the soul.” Physical exercise is there to ensure that the warriors are “up for the task,” while a good musical education (in the broad sense of poetical exposure) is necessary to modulate their character—to perform thymopoiesis. Specifically, the warriors should behave in a manner that is “fearless and unconquerable in the face of anything,” but “they should [also] avoid…being savage both to one another and to other citizens.” Like noble watchdogs or sheepdogs, they should cultivate “a disposition that is simultaneously gentle and unusually spirited.” In other words, they should be able to perform their immunological functions well, while avoiding autoimmune responses.

I argue that our current way of life is inadequate to meet the standards of a healthy immunology. Given the grievous crises modernity has already faced, I believe it is reasonable to say that a malfunctioning immune system is no trivial matter. Even though the notion of the soul has come into disrepute since the advent of modern science, Plato’s conception of good government—at the very least in broad outline—remains the most immunologically convincing. We might be able to revalidate his arguments by reconceiving of the human microcosm as an adaptive immune system rather than a well-ordered soul. Our conclusions regarding the human macrocosm, the body politic, should follow suit.

Michael Weyns is a Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University.

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