An “Unphilosophical Spirit”: Root Causes of American Intellectual Decline

The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.“- Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

For the most part, Americans loath mind-challenging excursions into philosophy. At times, certain other forms of intellectual activity are judged more-or-less tolerable, but only to the extent that they are conducted in pursuit of practical academic certifications or job-related advancements. To be sure, many Americans do remain conspicuously proud of their specific educational accomplishments and associations, but only rarely because of any connections to genuine learning.

               In general, these university-based relationships are valued for presumed personal status and income enhancements.[1]

               Still, in the final analysis, core origins of America’s intellectual decline are best explained by philosophy. Reasoning as an educated European in the late 20th century, German philosopher Karl Jaspers observes succinctly in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971): “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” Though there is nothing tangible about such a spirit – and while the philosopher’s subtle indictment would soar indecipherably over the heads of most Americans – this demeaning spirit has palpable consequences.

               Inter alia, it is anything but benign.

               We should begin at the beginning. What does it really mean for a nation to be “anti-intellectual”? On its face, intellect is “elitist.” Always. At a minimum, intellect seems impractical, contrived, “highfalutin.” Typically, in the United States, from its very beginnings, the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” has been met with opprobrium. In essence, such mention has elicited precious little in the way of curiosity. Instead, it has brought forth variously acrimonious cries of disapproval, an openly belligerent rancor and abundantly witless howls of execration.

               So what (if anything) has changed?[2] Credo quia absurdum, exclaimed the ancient philosopher Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.”

                Significantly, with few discernible exceptions, the United States celebrates pragmatic accomplishments and “common sense.” Don’t bother with abstract or speculative learning, we are instructed early on, especially when any dedicated citizen excursions into literature, philosophy, art and poetry “don’t pay?” This command becomes still more worrisome when the broadest meanings of Jaspers’ “enemy” is uncovered and understood. Far worse than “merely” knowing nothing of truth, the philosopher already understood, is “wanting to know nothing of truth.”

               This distinction is more than a matter of degree. It is vastly meaningful per se.

               There are assorted pertinent details. Truth is exculpatory, always, and a proper answer ought always to be prompt, unhesitant and unambiguous. Accordingly, there are times for every nation when history, science and intellect will deserve an absolute pride of place. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic,[3] our American politics and Realpolitik-driven[4] foreign policies are just “reflection.” Inevitably, they are mere “shadows” of reality, epiphenomenal and misleading.[5]

               In the United States, politics still offers only a deformed reflection of what lies below. This American  politics also reveals a problematic vacancy of “soul.”[6] Sometimes, such wearying vacancies warrant even closer analytic attention than usual. Today, especially after Trump-led efforts at seditious conspiracy and cultivated criminality, we are in one of those dissembling times.

                Donald J. Trump is gone from the White House,[7] but there are compelling reasons to fear his return (directly, or by obeisant surrogates) in 2024. The crudely retrograde and simplifying sentiments that first brought him to presidential power still endure unabated. Now, still lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind necessary for dignified democratic governance, We the people ought not to display incredulity at the unprecedented breadth or depth of our political failures.

               And the next time could be much worse.

Too-many American debilities remain rooted in a presumptive “common sense.” Over the years, it remains difficult too contest, American well-being and political freedom have sprung from variously orchestrated postures of engineered consumption. But in this steeply confusing derivation, our national marching instructions have stayed clear and demeaning:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such planned misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures represent the predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are routinely encouraged. Even more insidious, American success is measured not by any rational criteria of mind,  compassion or “soul,” but dolefully, mechanically, without commendable purpose and without any “collective will.”[8]

There is more, much more. What most energetically animates American politics today is not any valid interest in progress or survival, but steadily-escalating fears of personal insignificance. Though most apparent at the presidential level, such insignificance can be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging,”[9] about not being “wanted at all.”[10]

                For any long-term intellectual renaissance to become viable, an unblemished candor must first be encouraged. Ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and jabbering politicos, We the people are rarely motivated by any elements of real insight or recognizable courage. We are just now learning to understand how badly our Constitution was recently battered by dissembling voices of anti-reason, of assaults by a law-violating head of state who “loved the poorly educated,”[11]  proudly read nothing (nothing at all) and who yearned not to serve his country,[12] but only to receive plaudits (and monetary “donations”) from its self-deceiving citizens.

               Truth is exculpatory. Donald J. Trump abhorred any challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it became a lethal and unforgivable combination.

               At the chaotic end of his incoherent tenure, the former president’s personal defeat was paralleled by near-defeat of the entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the catastrophic events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow the rule of Constitutional order in the United States. The once-unimaginable plan failed not because it lacked criminal intent (mens rea), but because its backers lacked all relevant intellectual and historical understandings. If there hadn’t been such an evident lack, leaders of the American insurrection would have readily understood that an SA-style (Sturmabteilung) para-military force would need augmentation by a more seemingly “respectable” infrastructure of field commanders and organizational bureaucrats.

               There is more. To understand the Trump presidency’s self-induced declensions, we must learn to look beyond “reflections,” beyond transient personalities and beyond the daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously imagined narrative. Even now, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, much of our American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself seriously.[13]

               Quite the contrary.

               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American citizens. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly senseless, in pitiful lockstep toward still impending collective declensions.

                What’s next for America’s increasingly-imperiled Republic? For the moment, whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, We the people have at least restored a basic normalcy to the White House.[14] At the same time, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythms of a vast and uncaring machine.Once again, we witness, each and every day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward, and a day filled with yet another inexplicable inventory of mass shootings.  

               Let us be candid.  Even for those who can “work from home,” the cumulative outlook for happiness is dreary at best.

               “I think therefore I am,” announced Descartes, but what exactly do Americans “think?” Answers should come quickly to mind. But even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties, inane conspiracy theories and the hideously murderous brotherhoods of gratuitous violence.

               As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons, two-thirds of those released will likely return to lives of crime and mayhem. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, those Trump-era sycophants who managed to transform their humiliating personal cowardice into a religion – can look forward to lucrative book contracts and to far-reaching immunity from criminal prosecutions. Ironically, these contract agreements, prima facie, are for manuscripts that they themselves are intellectually unfit to write.

                We the people inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once upon a time we displayed discernible potential to nurture individuals to become more than a “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.”[15] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the United States as a nation animated by industry and “self-reliance,” not moral paralysis, fear and bitter trembling.  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals)[16], but today a declining nation remains grudgingly content with the tiniest of metaphoric “elevations.”

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warns decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man”[17] at the “marketplace,” but that is where a “practical” America discovered Donald J. Trump. What went so badly wrong? Though basically a manipulative confidence man, Trump was seemingly very rich. How then could he possibly not have been both smart and virtuous? Perhaps the best answer lies in Reb Tevye’s clarifying remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

                Previously, many could not understand Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot” or the improbable corollary that an American president could become the witting marionette of his Russian counterpart. Still, truth is exculpatory. The squalid derelictions that Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled nothing less than The Manchurian Candidate on steroids. These sordid derelictions could arise again.

               “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology; neither is it any one political party or another. It is We the People. As we may learn further from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” So we remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves, against our own literal survival, badgered by conspiracy theories and battered by the former US president’s inane policy forfeitures.

                Again, there are relevant specifics. North Korea presents much more of a nuclear threat today than before Trump’s proudly declared “romance” with Kim Jung Un.[18] This potentially existential threat (especially if it should become synergistic when joined with coinciding dangers from Russia and China) was not in  any fashion diminished because Kim and Trump “fell in love” at their Singapore summit. To deal with growing nuclear threats across the world,[19] national leaders will finally need to conceptualize their task as one of “mind over mind,” not just “mind over matter.” Donald Trump’s frequent assertions notwithstanding, world politics is never just about “attitude.”


               There is a conceptual “bottom line” here. In spite of our commonly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are generally shaped not by any exceptional personal or national capacities, but by abysmally rote patterns of imitation and conformance. Busily amusing ourselves into oblivion with illiterate and cheapening entertainments, our endangered American society audibly bristles with childish jingles, chronic hucksterism, crass allusions and potentially fatal equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire: “Isn’t there more to this unhappy country[20] than abjured learning, stomach-turning violence and endlessly manipulated commerce?”

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed  Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[21]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and a pervasive national culture of rancor and self-defilement.

                There are other special difficulties. Only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[22] but these quiet souls remain determinably well hidden, often even from themselves. One can never discover these souls engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement on television or online. Our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among the mass, herd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating and anti-intellectual country, but not while We the people insistently inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-reason.[23]

               Going forward, we must finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and newly virtuous[24] citizenry. In this immense task, basic changes will be needed at the microcosmic level, that is, at the society-shaping level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an “art” (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[25]

               One again, as in earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is suitably acknowledged.

               Looking to history and logic, it would be easy to conclude that the monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies far beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to an irremediable collective surrender. This could be unconscionable. Far better that the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States (1) grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity; and (2) exploit this universal font for national and international survival.

               We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”[26] During the past several years, huge and unhidden efforts have been mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. These often-shallow efforts ignore that the core value of a university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. When young people are asked to calculate the value of such a degree in solely commercial terms, which is the case today, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a serious education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the cumulative benefits of authentic learning.

               The core problem of U.S, decline is less that its people don’t know what is true than that they don’t want to know what is true. Even now, even when the risks of a nuclear war are rising over intersecting crises in the Ukraine and North Korea, America’s citizens remain too easily charmed by their suffocating national politics of gibberish and chicanery. To finally rescue this declining American democracy from a population that insists upon its own collective defilement, We the people will require nurturance by a suitably philosophical spirit. Recalling the philosopher Karl Jaspers,[27] it is a spirit that openly rejects any witting destruction of American education and intellect by always-ubiquitous forces of anti-reason.[28]

               “Seditious conspiracy” is not just a matter of US criminal law and jurisprudence. It describes what happens whenever an “unphilosophical spirit” is allowed to displace core human obligations of intellect and mind. Now looking ahead to a more expressly chaotic world of nuclear proliferation and genocidal threats, such an allowance could no longer be accepted as tolerable. At one time or another, it would prove insufferably lethal.

[1] See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Princeton:

[2] The Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[3] See by this writer at Oxford University Press: Louis René Beres,

[4] For philosophical background of Realpolitik, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order, Lexington Books, 1984; and Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy, Lexington Books, 1983. Regarding this background in law or jurisprudence: “Right is the interest of the stronger,” says Thrasymachus in Bk. I, Sec. 338 of Plato, THE REPUBLIC (B. Jowett tr., 1875).  “Justice is a contract neither to do nor to suffer wrong,” says Glaucon, id., Bk. II, Sec. 359.  See also, Philus in Bk III, Sec. 5 of Cicero, DE REPUBLICA.

[5] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich):

[6] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[7]See by this writer at Yale Global: Louis René Beres,

[8] The origin of this term in modern philosophy lies prominently in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps still more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenerary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[9]The extent to which some young Americans are willing to go to “belong” can be illustrated by certain recent incidents of college students drinking themselves to death as part of a fraternity hazing ritual. Can there be anything more hideously pathetic than a young person who would accept virtually any measure of personal debasement and risk in order to “fit in”?

[10] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[11] Said candidate Donald Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[12] This brings to mind the timeless observation by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[13] “The mass-man,” we may learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[14] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[15] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[16] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Modern Diplomacy:

[17]We can reasonably forgive the apparent sexism of this term, both because of the era in which it was offered and because the seminal European philosopher meant this term to extend to both genders.

[18] See by this writer, Professor Louis René Beres, at e-Global, The University of California:

[19] For accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[20] See:

[21] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to online education, a shift made more necessary and widespread by the Covid-19 disease pandemic, but unsatisfactory nonetheless.

[22] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[23] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[24] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[25] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preferences of Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague. Also, says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” American readers should detect in this last clause the seditious events of January 6, 2021.

[26]Although this present consideration has been offered as a pièce d’occasion, it also has much wider conceptual applications and implications.

[27]Jaspers notes elsewhere, in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971): “The masses have followed the magician again and again. The fraud has been perpetrated by the promise of absolute knowledge…An aura of magical efficacy has been produced.” In present-day United States, the defiling sway of a former presidential “magician” endures, plausibly with grievous long-term consequences.

[28] In a newly published book by Stanley Corngold, The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton (Princeton University Press, 2022), the author states in explanation: “Mann cites the absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the simplification of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life.”  Thomas Mann calls this process “Barbarization.” In some respects, his argument is reminiscent of an earlier work by Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930), especially his chapter on “The Barbarism of Specialization.”

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.