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Spring 2014 BOOK REVIEWS 115

William Ophuls. Plato s Revenge: Politics in the Age o f Ecology. Cambridge,Mass.:


MIT Press, 2011. xiv, 256 pages.

William Ophuls current work attests to the dictum that most authors have but one
guiding idea throughout their careers. The current book extends to a constructive
framework of Ophuls previous work diagnosing the problems of growth-dependent
political economies, the reality of ecological limits, and the need for ecological
virtues to guide collective action. Again, ecology replacing economics as the mas
ter science is Ophuls goal; Thomas Hobbes is his nemesis; and classical virtues
are his mechanism for political renewal. Platos Revenge focuses on overcoming
social ills by presenting a program aligning society to the normativity of nature.
Ophuls narrates an epic of environmental ethics adroitly combining ecological,
spiritual, political, and philosophical domains with inspiring results, even though
these results remain fraught with philosophical and practical complications.
The book succeeds in assembling various strands of thought to claim the need
for addressing the root causes of irrational human behaviors. It argues that the
virtuous human society must reflect natural principles and patterns of organization,
instead of ignoring them. Ophuls claims a deep ecological approach (even though
he uses other wording) is the only sane ethical and logical response to looming
environmental limits. Instrumental piecemeal greening is dismissed out of hand
as useless and out of synch with natural laws that command humans to curb our
out-of-control appetitive element and subordinate it to our ecological rationality.
Only through substantial restraint can humanity instantiate the moral society that
follows from the ecological order Ophuls identifies.
Ophuls marshals a dizzying array of theories across science and the humanities
to deconstruct the received triumphalist technological progressivism, gracefully
traversing disciplines of knowledge to reveal the emergent order of natural law
to which we can redirect our moral compass. While sometimes feeling a bit thin
in exchange for its breadth, this evidence spans physics, psychology, ecology,
anthropology, education, and politics to create the case for the existence of natu
ral laws and the necessity for human organization to adhere to these basic design
parameters. Ophuls shares his story without pulling punches or niceties, painting a
stark but realistic picture of contemporary life so that readers may accept his bitter
medicine of austerity.
Despite the title, the work has little to do with reinstating Platonic norms, though
it does ascribe to classical virtues and understands natural harmony as ontological
and instructive. The titles mention of revenge seems to follow from the assertion
that given the inevitability of trespassing ecosystemic limits and dealing with
concomitant social chaos, society has no choice but to retool to the ethical com
munity models and values. Human systems can only persist at odds with natural
systems for so long, Ophuls believes, before the pendulum swings back with a
vengeance, forcing humility, simplicity, and a return to first (ecological) principles.
This reorientation to a social order based on natural laws ushers in a politics of
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consciousness, the contours of which are the books project (p. 208). Ophuls
emphasizes that he is not rejecting civilization wholesale, but instead insists that
in the absence of a surviving political tradition adhering to the laws of nature, we
must reinvent it (p. 8).
Reinventing civilization requires structuring it according to the irrationalities of
humans that the architects of Enlightenment thinking believed could be overcome.
Underestimating the needs and resilience of what,borrowing from Carl J ung,Ophuls
calls the 2,000,000-year-old manthat animalistic part of humans which, rather
than repressed, needs to be expressed in a healthy wayhas caused the personal
and collective shadow to plague society (pp. 70, 88). To correct the insanities
resulting from repression, Ophuls offers a therapeia of cultivating particularly
social moral sentiments such as compassion, leading the first of the three main cu
rative chapters focusing also on paideia and politeia that form the crux of Ophuls
politics of consciousness.
Already in Politics in a Time o f Scarcity (San Francisco: Freeman, 1977) Ophuls
expounded on the correlation between psychological and environmental health,
remarking that the ugliness and destruction outside us in our environment mirror
[the] spiritual wasteland within (p. 231). Furthering this idea in his current work,
he argues that corresponding to how therapeia is the internal process of achiev
ing instinctual and emotional sanity f paideia as the next step is about achieving
cognitive and intellectual sanity, a reorientation of the collective beliefs that
govern our goals and values (p. 97). This reorientation is accomplished through a
paideia focused on aesthetic unity, as Gregory Bateson understood it, recasting
our epistemological givens according to an ecological blueprint that governs natural
and social systems alike (p. 98).
Human flourishing then becomes the aim of a proper civic education, and here
as in other places, Ophuls leans heavily on ancient Greek, especially Aristotelian,
conceptions. An education based on developing human potential and instilling
public morals forges and is guided by a natural aristocracy instead of an artificial
meritocracy (p. 99). Rather than perpetuate an illusionary equality that breeds a
gangster elite, Ophuls reasons that an elite is necessary to guide society toward
virtue and maintain a harmonious shared morality through philosophy (for those
capable of it) and myth (for those that require it) (p.100). He explains that Reason
may instruct us in virtue, but this is likely to be effective only for philosophers.
The rest of us need stronger medicine, the medicine of myth and mores (p. 17).
Endorsement of the noble lie and his belief in a necessary elite are some of the
most contentious elements in Ophuls theory, even if he plausibly delineates the
imperative for such a set-up (pp. 118-24).
Only a strong and stable moral code can allow for a healthy politics, a true politeia,
Ophuls concludes. The argument harkens to Thomas Jeffersons agrarian vision of
small-town republicanism, stressing face-to-face political participation and social
mores as motivating ingredients supplanting inept and gangly legal systems (pp.
146-54). Ophuls sees his book as a weapon in the fight to make ecology the master
Spring 2014 BOOK REVIEWS 117

science and Gaia the ruling metaphorto abandon an ignoble lie and embrace a
nobler new fiction that offers the means of long-term survival and the prospect of
a further advance in civilization (p. 135). Only an intensely philosophical vision
of an ecological future, Ophuls avers, built on inner cultivation and communal
interdependence, can wean humanity from our unsustainable relationship to the
natural world.
In this vision, ecological society is incommensurable with the liberal state that
precludes a shared set of positive substantive virtues. The shared values inherent in
sociability is the cohesive force that creates civic order out of the chaos of individual
interests, and it is precisely these shared values of which liberalism is devoid. The
difference between Ophuls state of shared ecological ethics and the ethics of tribal
societies is that a politics of consciousness stemming from ecological virtues is based
ultimately in scientifically verifiable phenomena rather than mere superstition (pp.
126-27). Ophuls insistence on a moral order implicit within the natural world
affirms the design of natural order without worshiping any particular manifestation
(p. 22). The constitution of nature, Ophuls writes, works on design criteria
that constrain but do not determine a plural set of outcomes (p. 151). Following
Christopher Alexanders lead in architecture looking to the natural law dynamics
of physics and evolutionary biology for design patterns, Ophuls proffers political
and social laws conducive to harmonious social arrangements, linking these con
structions with the political engineering proposed by past philosophers.
Bali with electronics encapsulates Ophuls vision of an ecological future (p. 179).
The presence of electronics conveys a move forward rather than retrograde luddite
primitivism, while Balinese culture serves as the substrate for a host of projections
for reinventing westem(ized) societies into ecological civilizations. Ophuls sees
natural law expressed through the fact that the Balinese traditionally live in small
to medium-sized villages, giving them face-to-face civic interactions; they share a
common mythology and religion, granting social cohesion and spiritual guidance;
they take law into their own hands according to their own mores, embodying politi
cal power; they maximize cultural vivacity with few material resources, practicing
what Clifford Geertz called involution'; they exalt beauty and natural aesthetics;
and citizens engage in diverse and rotating vocational engagements according to
a natural aristocracy (pp. 179-81).
The books tension between the ability for scaled-down polities to provide the
soil for fertile democratic participation and the continued need for a philosophical-
political elite is apparent in the fact that Ophuls approaches these two elements of his
theory in non-intersecting places in his work. Another tension is that for ecological
societies on the scale of towns, Ophuls ecotopic polity achieves virtuous behavior
and resource use through shared morality. On larger scales, however, Ophuls defaults
back to more authoritarian models of governance based on Hobbes and Machiavelli
(p. 183), discarding his virtue-ethics-based argument, even though his natural law
argument assumes that great size and complexity produce a debased politics (p.
139). The implications are that larger-scale cities and polities are untenable for the
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same sort of governance as Jeffersonian ward-republics (p.184), but can still be


ecological if ruled by a strong and enlightened sovereign. However, Ophuls fails to
grapple adequately with the consequences that accompany authoritarian large-scale
governance: losing the suite of natural virtues in the absence of the face-to-face
interactions that lead to mutuality and ecological behavior.
This journal published Robert W. Hofferts article The Scarcity of Politics:
Ophuls and Western Political Thought (Environmental Ethics 8, no. 1 [1986]:
5-32) confronting Ophuls flirtation with authoritarianism and Ophuls subsequent
comment on it (Environmental Ethics 8, no. 3 [1986]: 287). Ophuls defense there
that his exploration of the potentially authoritarian implications of an ecological
crisis should be read as a warning and an impetus to further thought and discus
sion, not as a prescription for authoritarian solutions could potentially address
the dilemma of scale in his current book (p. 287). But for a work focusing on pre
scriptions, Ophuls fails to offer a bridge from the contemporary globalized world
of populous states to the self-governing ecological townships he envisions.
Some of Ophuls metaphors occasionally strike one as hackneyed (such as in
voking the Titanic to describe the folly of societys trajectory), and his unending
warnings that unless we quickly and radically change social patterns a calamitous
future awaits become tiring. Yet, on the whole Ophuls is a masterful writer, and his
concluding bibliographic note is worth taking a look at on its own merits, concisely
contextualizing pertinent thinkers in the environmental virtue ethics tradition and
examining their theoretical interactions. Despite the deluge of citations, the vast
scope of interrelated topics, and at times repeating the same argument threads,
the book makes a strong case for natural law in human dynamics and the need to
reorient society toward ecological truths.

Yogi Hendlin*

* Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles, 4289 Bunche Hall, Los
Angeles, CA 90095-1472; email: yhendlin@ucla.edu.
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