During the colloquium that closed the event ¿Planeta China?, one of the attendees raised the question whether the Western criticisms of the People’s Republic were the result of envy, because they had found a more efficient regime than our democracies. The question reveals an admiration for the dictatorships that many naive people believed eradicated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, it periodically regresses and even has a name: the seduction of Syracuse.
The expression was coined by Mark Lilla and it refers to the attempt to establish a government of philosopher kings in the Syracuse of Dionysius the Younger. Encouraged by an old student of his Academy, Plato moved to the island to see if the tyrant was a different kind of leader, willing to constrict his power to the limits of reason and justice. The experiment was a failure and, although Plato resigned as soon as he realized that his hiring had been a mere image operation, the episode has remained for posterity as the first documented example of the fascination that despots exercise in intellectuals.
The recent history of Europe is full of eminent figures who, unlike Plato, had no objection to serving modern Dionysus. “Their stories are infamous,” writes Lilla: “Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt in Nazi Germany; Georgy Lukács in Hungary; maybe someone else. Many, without taking great risks, adhered to the fascist and communist parties on both sides of the Berlin Wall […]. A surprisingly high number pilgrimed to the new Syracuses: Moscow, Berlin, Hanoi or Havana. As observers, they carefully choreographed their trips […], always with a round-trip ticket”, and explained to us their admiration for collective farms, tractor factories, sugarcane plantations or schools,” although for some reason they never visited prisons. “
As now happens with the propagandists of Maduro’s Venezuela, this type of thinker visits Siracusa especially with his imagination, standing behind the desk of the Complutense, while deploying his “interesting and sometimes brilliant theories” to justify the sufferings of people he will never look in the eye. At what point did it become acceptable to argue that despotism is “something good, even beautiful?”
In his essay, Lilla reviews different explanations. Isaiah Berlin blames the Enlightenment. The philosophes were convinced that social problems, like physics and mathematical ones, had one and only one solution, and their subsequent imitators were dedicated to hammer reality into it. Jacob Telman thinks, on the contrary, that communist or fascist fanaticism has little to do with reason and it is rather the fruit of the conversion of ideology into a new religion.
Raymond Aron, on the other hand, blames the arrogance of the academics, who, during the Dreyfus scandal, abandoned their natural environment (research) to teach their ignorant compatriots how to govern themselves. But Jürgen Habermas warns, with no little foundation, that this could be true in France, but that in Germany the opposite happened: the withdrawal of the academics to their ivory tower facilitated the rise of Hitler.
After this recapitulation, Lilla offers his own thesis and observes that the most striking thing about Dionysus is that he was a philosopher. As Plato teaches, curiosity supposes the overcoming of the animal condition and it is concreted in a desire to “procreate in the beautiful” that leads some to become poets and others to be interested in “the good order of cities and families”. It is a laudable impulse, but one that requires, like all, temperance. “The philosopher,” says Lilla, “knows the madness of love of wisdom, but cannot give away his soul; he always keeps control. “
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many intellectuals throw themselves into the arena “burned by ideas”. “They consider themselves independent, when, actually, they let themselves be led like sheep by their inner demons.” That is what the seduction of Syracuse consists of: in an inertia that drags you behind some ideal.
Resisting that attraction is not easy. The brilliant promises of utopia contrast with the grey spectacle of our imperfect democracies, subject to recurrent crises and incapable of reaching an equilibrium to all. We live in a constant yearning for the “good order of cities and families” and that anxiety makes us vulnerable to the charms of any unscrupulous individual.
What the success of China inspires to its critics it is not envy. It is fear.