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Thucydides, Machiavelli, Simone Weil, The "Global Deep State" and the Illiberal Concept of Might Makes Right : A Reflection
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-04-02 10:59:14
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“Might Makes Right. “Molon Labe” (Come and take it) --King Leonidas

Knowledge is Virtue --Socrates

“The end justifies the means” --Machiavelli

“Knowledge is power”  --Francis Bacon

On March 27, 2017 an article by a US attorney (Raul Manchanda) appeared in Modern Diplomacy titled “President Trump Needs to Either Cancel, Repudiate or Renegotiate the US Debt.” It ends with an exhortation to President Trump to get on and “make America Great Again.”

It is basically a tirade against what is dubbed “the global deep state,” that is to say the Federal Reserve Board which is characterized as “a deal with the devil” that needs to be repudiated and declared null and void, the sooner the better. President Trump, the article asserts, is eminently qualified to do this since in his business career he has carried out six bankruptcy, that is to say, the act of repudiating one’s debts and financial obligations. The reader can of course arrive at his own judgment on the scholarly and legal merits of the piece. But that is not what I wish to discuss, even less litigate, here.

I wish to briefly explore an idea that began gathering great momentum in the 20th century and continues unabated in the 21st: the idea that “might makes right.” It is a basically an anti-liberal, anti-democratic idea beloved by most fascist and leftist dictators around the world, the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, just to mention a few. In prosaic terms it’s the idea of Napoleon that victory goes to those who have the bigger cannon.

That is not to imply that the idea began in modern times. Although it was put into practice with a vengeance in that period of time, it has been around from time immemorial. It was certainly familiar to Thucydides 4 centuries BC, as he recounts it in his Peloponnesian War. Theoretically, within the modern field of political philosophy it can be traced back to Machiavelli’s The Prince in Renaissance Italy.

Simone Weil in her Oppression and Liberty recounts the encounter of the victorious Athenians and the defeated Thebans. The Thebans appeal to Athens’ ideals of liberty and democracy and ask for clemency and a chance to negotiate an honorable and equitable truce. After all, had not Socrates said that knowledge is virtue, that to know the good is to equivalent to doing the good? The Athenians listen attentively and then give their answer which is basically this: in the practical god eat dog world of politics and war, the winners dictate at will and the defeated obey by necessity. The victorious are free to dictate the conditions and the defeated are compelled to accept them. They have no other choice. Moreover, the victorious take what they want and when an appeal to justice is lodged against greed and abuse, the reply is “Molon Labe,” or “come and take it, if you can.” That, you will remember, was the answer of Leonidas to the Persian Satrap at the Thermopiles when asked to lay down his arms.

Put in the mouth of a Leonidas, the phrase sounds courageous, even heroic, but, I dare say,  in such an answer, in all its repugnant monstrosity and disregard for justice and fairness, is the theory of “might makes right,” more than 2000 years ahead of Machiavelli. Weil observes how this seems to be an ineluctable reality of the human condition, especially since not even the Athenians could transcend it, unless that flaw within human nature is mitigated by another universal idea: that all humans are equal in their humanity and dignity. To continue exploring this intriguing theme of power and love, I highly recommend to readers E. Jane Doering’s Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force (Notre Dame University Press, 2010).

To continue this reflection a bit longer: Most bona fide lawyers would probably concur that the law is concerned with justice and fairness and if it is not, it becomes, as St. Augustine observed, an agreement between thieves and villains. So, the obvious philosophical question, never mind the legal, geo-political, or economic ones, is: how does a modern lawyer, after 2000 years of legal history and refinements, arrive at the embracing of the idea of “might makes right” and the concomitant one “I take it by force and you come and get it”? It is ok for one country to grab half of another country and then say to the defeated opponent: come and get it if you can; and in fact I will build a tall wall between us to keep you out, and moreover, you will have to pay for it?

Of course a skillful lawyer, one not terribly interested in justice, only in legality and winning and losing, will immediately resort to precedents that allegedly compelled the grabbing or the repudiation of debt (sometimes called bankruptcy) and therefore made the contract as is null and void to begin with. But there is something that smells unfair when someone adduces that excuse not once, not twice but six times as our president (whom some consider illegitimate) has done in tandem with refusals to pay-up individuals who did work for him, as has been well documented in the press, the so called “enemy of the people.”

So, one begins to suspect that we may dealing not with justice, who wears a veil over her eyes so that she can be blind and treat everybody, rich and poor, powerful and weak, equally, but with the sinister ideas that  “might is right” and “come and get it if you can.” I don’t know, but I keep wondering. I think that the founding fathers of this country must also be wondering and turning in their graves.


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