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College Protests and the Limits of Virtue

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

That is, virtuous striving now is something that seeks to turn our social paradigm on its head.

It would be redundant to say that the students currently engaging in the pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas (but I repeat myself) campus protests are extremely ignorant. The fact that it started at an Ivy-League school, Columbia University, means absolutely nothing in that context. Education in the United States, including higher education, has been so consistently degraded over the last several decades, especially since the 1990s, that one can safely say that the students in question know nothing of the world. They are also for the most part anti-Semitic and oikophobic, that is, anti-American and anti-Western. But this is so obvious as not to require further comment, and many others have already discussed this. I want to focus, rather, on some more philosophical aspects.

The first thing to point out in this regard is that the students are suffering from what I would call “historical envy.” What that means is that they desire to live at a special historic moment, and they are envious of those who actually did. They, therefore, attempt to create such a moment themselves, no matter how destructive it may be, so as then to live it. This is sometimes referred to as “Selma envy” in an American context, but it is an international and thoroughly human phenomenon. People suffering this malady wish to display their struggle as ostentatiously as possible, and they want nothing more than to straddle history and reach the climax of human endeavor.

Related to this is the idea that universities, as intellectuals in general, consider themselves to be at the vanguard of human knowledge and progress. Intellectualism thus breeds disrespect for established ways of thinking. This can sometimes be a good thing, but it also leads to degrees of outlandishness that are less common in other segments of society. Already Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, has the Spartan king Archidamus II say: “We are wise because we are not so educated as to look down on the laws” (1.84). Similarly, his Cleon of Athens argues that “Intelligent people want to appear wiser than the laws… and thereby often end up overthrowing their cities” (3.37, my translations).

So too the vanity of the urban intellectual, or supposed intellectual, leads him to feel a sense of responsibility for educating the public and transmitting enlightened ideas to his society at large, which makes him more subversive. Once again, illustrating the universality of these observations is the fact that not only Thucydides comments upon it, but, in a different time and different culture, also Hobbes, in his Leviathan: “Nature itself cannot err; and as men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or…excellently foolish.”

This phenomenon, coupled with historical envy, results in the ridiculous anti-American and anti-Semitic behavior one currently finds at American universities. It is not a coincidence that such a thing started at one of our foremost institutions, Columbia, and then spread to less vaunted schools as well: The vanity and outlandishness that supposed intellectuals have means that, the higher up in the intellectual pecking order a university finds itself, the more eagerly it will embrace all the progressive absurdities. My own alma mater, Heidelberg University, is actually my favorite example of this, by dint of its extremeness: In the 1930s, Heidelberg was the most sycophantically Nazi German university and one of the first to dismiss all her Jewish professors, and only three decades later, in the 1960s, she was the most extreme hotbed of communist sympathy. These two periods are not opposites but an expression of the same thing, namely, among other things: intellectual outlandishness and historical envy.

These factors come together in one final observation, which expresses itself in the oikophobia and anti-Semitism we see growing all around us. The students are striving to live up to what they perceive to be virtuous, just behavior. Now, the virtuous ideal in earlier civilizational phases is something that actually exists within the social paradigm of a society. And so when a person strives to be virtuous in a society’s earlier days, this is often fruitful, because that striving is toward a goal that actually exists within, and is embraced by, that society on the whole. That is, the virtuous person strives to be what his own society, what his own social paradigm, considers to be virtuous. But in the declining and decadent phase of a society—and not exclusively in the United States—in which we currently find ourselves, virtuous striving is directed toward an ideal that does not actually exist within the paradigm of that society. Rather, the virtuous ideal is something that had previously not existed at all—such as Nazism—or it is something that had previously existed but that lies outside of the social paradigm, such as communism or, as now, Islam, however poorly understood. And so a lot of virtuous striving now is toward an ideal that is not possible within our social paradigm, which is to say that it is not really virtuous at all. That is, virtuous striving now is something that seeks to turn our social paradigm on its head. Given the impossibility of achieving such an ideal within the society, the purpose of such striving becomes mainly the display of the supposedly virtuous person himself, as opposed to the attempt at actual, possible virtue (even if it is perceived as such). And so displays of virtue in our increasingly decadent and oikophobic times become purely solipsistic. This is leading to a loss of future for our social paradigm, unless of course we can muster enough confidence to believe in that paradigm again and to insist that young students learn it.

So let us insist on our tradition, and let us understand that toward the students in question we should have nothing but contempt and condescension. Such people, who have rejected all tradition and are therefore empty shells without meaning in life, only have as much power and passion as are given to them. And so if university administrators and public authorities showed a strong, united front, not only would the protests wither away overnight, but most protesters themselves would soon forget about their contemptible cause and unrighteous anger.

Benedict Beckeld is a philosopher based in New York City. His most recent book is Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, from Cornell University Press. He can be found on X @BenedictBeckeld

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