Thucydides, Machiavelli, Simone Weil, The “Global Deep State” and the Illiberal Concept of Might Makes Right

Might Makes Right” “Molon Labe” (Come and take it)

On March 27, 2017 an article by a US attorney 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. 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 merely explore an idea that began gathering 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.

That is not to imply that the idea began in the 20th century. It was put into practice with a vengeance in that period of time, but it has been around from time immemorial. It was certainly known to Thucydides 4 centuries BC as he recounts it in his Peloponnesian War. Theoretically, within the 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. The Athenians listen attentively and then give their answer which is basically this: in the real world the winners dictate at will and the defeated obey by necessity. The victorious are free to dictate the conditions and the defeated are compelled by necessity to accept them. Moreover, the victorious take what they want and when an appeal to justice is lodged against the abuse, the reply is “Molon Labe,” or “come and take it, if you can.” That, you will remember, was the answer of Leonidas by the Persian Satrap at the Thermopiles to lay down his arms.

Put it the mouth of a Leonidas, it sounds courageous and heroic but, I dare say, there, in that answer with all its repugnant monstrosity is the theory of “might makes right” 2000 years ahead of Machiavelli. Weil observes how this seems to be an ineluctable reality of the human condition, unless mitigated by another idea: that all humans are equal in their humanity and dignity. To continue exploring this theme 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 refinements, arrive at the embracing of the idea of “might is right” and “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 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.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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