A Review of William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, William Ophuls, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012, 256 pp.

Joshua Paetkau

At the heart of every recent political discussion is an increasingly insurmountable problem; the challenge of ecological scarcity. At the heart of the ever-deepening ecological crisis is the uncomfortable reality that the way we live today, the consumptive choices we make and the way we organize ourselves socially and politically, may be denying our grandchildren a future. The fact that consumer/industrial society has so eagerly jumped on the “green” bandwagon makes our situation that much more ridiculous, as though slapping on a few eco-friendly labels could radically alter the destructive consumptive patterns to which we have become accustomed.

William Ophuls confronts this ecological challenge, in Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, with a powerful mixture of ingenuity and wisdom.  Ophuls finds current approaches that seek to minimize ecological degradation unsatisfactory and argues that they address symptoms rather than root causes. He writes:

I start from the radical premise that “sustainability” as usually understood is an oxymoron. Industrial man has used the found wealth of the New World and the stocks of fossil hydrocarbons to create an antiecological Titanic. Making the deck chairs recyclable, feeding the boilers with biofuels, installing hybrid winches and windlasses, and every other effort to “green” the Titanic will ultimately fail. In the end, the ship is doomed by the laws of thermodynamics and by implacable biological and geological limits that are already beginning to bite. (Ophuls, xi)

Ophuls contends that we have largely failed to grapple seriously with this anti-ecological reality because we operate from a political paradigm or philosophy that has abandoned virtue and rejected community.  He goes on to suggest that the modern political paradigm was bound for self-destruction even before signs of ecological scarcity began to emerge. What is needed is a new public philosophy.  For Ophuls this takes the form of a “natural law theory of politics grounded in ecology, physics, and psychology.” (Ibid., x)  Plato’s Revenge provides a basic outline of the form such a philosophy might take. Ophuls endeavours to envision a moral code that would provide sufficient maturity to allow for a rigorous examination of the principles we often take for granted. A moral code based on fundamental biological, physical, and psychological limitations, states Ophuls, reveals the need to cultivate virtue in community rather than focus on material accumulation.

To begin this work requires some understanding of where we are and where we have come from. Civilization, Ophuls argues, was bought at a high price and modernity at a higher one – namely, a process of demoralization:

This demoralization has three aspects- the corruption of morals and mores, the undermining of morale and the spreading of confusion- and has resulted in the loss of almost all sense of honor, duty, and responsibility. (Ophuls 3)

Even more significantly, the rise of rationality at the expense of both reason and tradition has left women and men without the means by which to find their intellectual and spiritual bearings.

This brings us to what is undoubtedly the most dangerous part of Ophuls’ work; the attempt to find a natural law, or to discover from nature how we ought to live. Natural law theory holds a particularly divisive place in the history of thought, yet Ophuls makes a compelling and well researched argument:

Ecology, physics, and psychology – that is, biological nature, physical nature, and human nature – reveal fundamental and eternally valid moral principles on which to reconstitute our polity. (Ibid, 22)

These natural laws challenge many of the preconceptions that form the modern liberal paradigm – the nature of power as an extrinsic domain exercised over some other, for example – and encourage a political form that is deeply grounded in ecology and community. The danger lies in becoming so attached to a certain political ideology that legitimate concerns, grievances, or alternate perspectives are cast aside, or treated condescendingly. In my view Ophuls too rapidly accepts the tenets of Jungian psychology as a way of marginalizing or controlling the dialogue between science and religion.

The use of science to perpetuate forms of control and domination is well known, and while Ophuls recognizes the gravity of this in modernity, he is not always able to avoid the temptation in his own vision. The question of how to envision a spiritually and ecologically wise politics, while avoiding the pitfalls of technocracy or fascism, is not fully answered here. Ophuls has, however, done an admirable job in laying the groundwork upon which such a discussion might be built.

Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and is currently living and working at the A’Rocha Pembina Valley Field Station, Manitoba.  He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church.  He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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2 thoughts on “A Review of William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

  1. Paragraph two, first sentence, and last paragraph, last sentence: the title of the book is Plato’s “Revenge”, not “Cave.

    Paragraph two: reading the second sentence, I fail to see to what or whom the following subordinate clause is intended to apply.
    “Finding current answers to ecological degradation to amount to little more than window-dressing…”. The clause creates an expectation for the reader that remains unsatisfied (unlike my subordinate “reading the second sentence” above).

    Not the most careful review…

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