Habits for Ideological Times

“The one who contends with beasts should take care not to become a beast in turn.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Samuel Kimbriel
Samuel Kimbriel is a political philosopher living in Washington, DC. His central research interest is in how political phenomena relate to more human-scale realities including trust, desire, and meaning. He is the author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation (Oxford University Press, 2014) and directs two initiatives dedicated to helping philosophy play a more robust role in public conversation.

There were certain fleeting moments in the late twentieth century in which one could almost think that the problem of ideological violence had come to an end. The trick only ever worked in elite circles and usually required equal measure of selective attention and strong drink. There was, however, a certain baseline prosperity, stability, and consensus that made the problem feel, for some, a bit less pressing.

We are no longer in such a moment. The relative calm of the post-world-war years has been real, but seems to have resulted more from some effective noise-reduction techniques (more on those below) than from genuine resolution of the problem. As conflict—between city and province, elite and non-elite, woke and anti-woke—seems to have returned, we are confronted anew with the primitive question of ideology that has haunted modern politics from the beginning.

Reflecting in 1794—five years after the start of the French Revolution—a sensitive observer noted that many who had initially supported the Revolution out of compassion for the weak had come to witness its development “with disappointment, grief and horror.” They had become unsure in their distress where to turn, but were not yet willing “to lose the hope that some rational system of freedom, not the ancient tyranny would arise out of that chaos of anarchy and bloodshed.”

Time seems to have made little progress in healing this particular wound. Centuries have passed, but in an important sense, we seem never to have left 1794.

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