Ignorance of History is Not Strength

Simon F. Oliai discusses the rise of populism in contemporary societies and answers questions on his book review, “The Road to Perdition: David Owen on Hubristic Mendacity in Contemporary Populisms,” published in Leadership.

Multicolor squares with posterized pictures of Donald Trump

The rise of Donald Trump to power in the United States was an unexpected shock. It was difficult to believe that a major American political party, however structurally “weak” to echo Jeffrey Sachs, had let itself be dominated by such an unfit and mendacious demagogue. Even more shocking is the fact that, despite the glaring incompetence which marked his chaotic term of office, Trump remains an influential political actor in the United States. Indeed, he is no less than an unrepentant liar who poses a serious threat to American democracy and world peace.

In the same period, I also watched with disbelief the unfolding of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. One which ultimately led to the departure of this quintessentially European country from the European Union. A hitherto fringe nationalist idea on the euro-skeptic right of the British Tory party had suddenly become a rallying cry for “independence” to nearly half of the population of a country that had greatly benefited from its EU membership. It was clear that the success of Trump in the US and that of London’s notoriously buffoonish and dishonest former mayor, Boris Johnson, in the UK had less to do with what they advocated than with how they advocated “it.” I thus had to understand how two such shameless liars had become politically decisive in very different political contexts.

David Owen headshot
Lord David Owen

Lord David Owen (CH) is a former British foreign secretary with whom I had collaborated on a book. In it, David Owen had analyzed the impact of physical illness on important political leaders of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He also theorized the fundamental “sickness” of the powerful which he terms “hubris syndrome.” Powerful decision-makers display hubris when they arrogantly and fatefully ignore the normative limits within which socio-political reality is constituted.

Since classical antiquity, hubris has inflicted irreversible damage on those subjected to its consequences. Hubris is a noticeable change of behavior which continental European philosophy should phenomenologically conceptualize. Despite their obvious dissimilarities, both Trump and Johnson have displayed a similar sort of arrogance with which they uphold their damaging lies. To borrow David Owen’s expression, their common trait is their hubristic mendacity.

I believe this concept shall prove crucial in studying the evolution of advanced contemporary societies. Societies in which truth has lost its erstwhile simple connotation whilst those invested with the authority it once conferred have suffered irreversible loss of influence. As a phenomenologist, I also contend that one must resist the naïve scientism which would reduce this complex phenomenon to neuro-biological factors. I would encourage young researchers to draw upon the rich heritage of European philosophy in interpreting this phenomenon by reconstructing, to echo Merleau-Ponty, its historically complex “flesh.” For only a conceptually sophisticated conception of history could help our contemporary societies avoid the violence that hubristically mendacious “populist” leaders often stoke. Perhaps, that is equally how philosophy of history could illustrate that, to echo Orwell, ignorance of history is not strength.

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Simon Oliai

Simon F. Oliai is a former UNESCO adviser on the worldwide promotion of the humanities, as well as a philosopher of history and former adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy.

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