Costin Alamariu’s “Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy”: A Review
Rumors that the “obscure reader of Plato” Costin Alamariu is the man behind the wildly popular cult figure and author Bronze Age Pervert has propelled his self-published Yale Ph.D. dissertation thesis to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and made it one of the literary sensations of 2023.
In his introduction, Alamariu recognizes that “I will be accused of having written this book to give intellectual support to the ‘alt-right’ or some other such thing,” and responds by noting that his book “was completed in the spring of 2015 and the core of this book was written long before that, around 2004 or so.” But he also celebrates an international “nascent youth rebellion” that is anti-egalitarian and “attracted in general to knowledge of human nature that was made ‘forbidden’ to them by the educational and moral establishment of our time.” This knowledge specifically is “a revolution in the field of biological sciences,” which has established links between genetic and behavior differences and shown “considerable genetic diversity between historical populations.” In short, anti-egalitarian discoveries in biological science appeal to disaffected right-wing youth by helping them understand and formulate their protests against the “boring, authoritarian, and stupid” character of contemporary Western intellectual life.
For Alamariu “the birth of philosophy” is likewise connected to anti-egalitarian biological sciences, and specifically “selective breeding” or eugenics. Philosophy is born when aristocracy declines yet tries to preserve the aristocratic principle, by appealing to an abstracted, radicalized version of it: the notion of nature.
Alamariu shows that the pre-philosophic notion of nature had everything to do with vitality, “especially with blood… breeding, eugenics, and heredity.” Nature was not mere life but fullness of life, intensity of life. Just as the ideas in Plato’s cave allegory are the most beingful beings, whereas the shadows on the wall of the cave represent a lesser degree of being, for the pre-philosophic aristocrats the man of nature was the most beingful man and everyone else was man only to a lesser extent, shadow-man. Leo Strauss, an important reference point throughout this book, himself observed that philosophy begins with the discovery of nature. But whereas Strauss at most only implied a eugenic dimension to the doctrine of natural right, Alamariu puts it front and center.
The pre-philosophic understanding of nature does not treat it as a concept but as a “manifestation” or “revelation.” The preconditions for this revelation are the weakening of “the totality of custom” or nomos that characterized the earliest societies, and which Alamariu also calls “fundamental democracy.” This weakening of custom is prefigured by the figure of the shaman or magician, or the priest-king, who can manipulate forces and is in some sense above the community. There is a curious parallel here with Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin’s account in Ethnosociology in which the Shaman is viewed as the key figure of the closed ethnic society. For Dugin the philosopher proper only appears after the crisis of the ethnos and the transformation from ethnos to narod/people/Volk, a transformation that occurs through war and conquest, a point that Alamariu also emphasizes.
Alamariu sees the example of “when a native population is conquered and subdued by a foreign elite” as decisive. The total rule of custom can only be sufficiently weakened through a “foreign, top-down imposition” of a new morality, carried into society by a conquering people. This “imposition of an aristocratic caste on top of a sedentary population is a crucial prerequisite for the development of the intellect or of science.” Besides the fact that the aristocratic conquerers can use the native population for the requirements of mere life and labor, leaving themselves free for higher pursuits, the conquering people are also the bearers of new virtues: above all, courage in war and prudence in deliberation — andreia and phronesis. Furthermore, their pastoral origin suggests, for Alamariu, that the conquering aristocrats “would be especially sensitive to the reality of breeding stocks, to the principles of animal husbandry and of the necessity of eugenic measures for the improvement of herd or specimen quality.” Pastoralists are eugenicists with respect to their flocks, and eventually with respect to their populations.
The conquering aristocratic people also introduce an institution that lends itself to breaking with the total rule of custom. The warband or Mannerbund “was mythically associated with shape-shifting, ‘externality,’ the transgression of boundaries between the dead and the living.” Taken together these factors — military and political virtues, an interest in breeding, and the autonomy of the warband — prepare for the birth of philosophy and the end of the domination of custom in the fundamental democracy.
Alamariu reads Pindar to demonstrate the “biological” meaning of nature in the aristocratic sense. He shows that, before its intellectualization, nature always implies “a concrete body, flesh and blood, a biological entity.” “Nature, phusis, phue, refers first of all, and always, and above all, to a concrete material reality, to a biological reality that means very plainly: ‘the body’.” But it is not mere or bare life or simple fact of biological being that matters: “there is a question here of intensity.” The truth (or nature) of a being is manifest in action if it has enough being enough but “most people do not have phusis.” As Strauss asked: “With what right do we then say of a low-class human being that he is nevertheless a human being?”
This question of intensity also underpins wisdom. Commenting on a passage in Pindar, Alamariu writes that “the wise man knows many things by his nature, in his blood or body… Those who have merely learned produce just a lot of chatter.” Wisdom is “an inborn skill” which cannot be taught. The man of nature is “a new type of ruler who unites all the traditional virtues that the aristocracy bred for – andreia, phronesis, and now, in an unprecedented way, sophia – into one man.” After nature erupts through custom, it prepares the ground for a ruler who stands outside of all custom, “the final product of its program of breeding and education.”
Philosophy was not born alone. It has a twin: tyranny. “The philosopher and the tyrant are kindred types: the same type, the same youth, who uniquely becomes a philosopher also may become a tyrant.” This proximity has always been scandalous. Alamariu reminds us of the old charge that philosophers are uncomfortably close to tyrants, and explains what it gets right. To be a philosopher or tyrant one must have the “raw material” (or nature) to break through the rule of custom: “philosophy and tyranny are alternative methods to ‘preserve nature’ or ‘save nature’.”
To support this point, Alarmariu offers an unorthodox interpretation of Plato’s Gorgias. Normally, the work is interpreted in a way that contrasts the “Nietzschean” theses of its protagonist Callices with Socrates’s moralism against tyranny, and support for justice, an interpretation meant to show that Socrates was an opponent of the tyrannical teaching.
Alamariu’s heterodox interpretation proceeds as follows: Plato could not have offered a full-blown criticism of tyranny without undermining philosophy, and he could not offer a defense of philosophy without defending tyranny. The impression of antagonism between these twins is merely exoteric. Both Callicles and Socrates care about the men of nature, the “erromenesteros,” the “better-turned-out,” those of inborn intensity and vigor. But for Callicles, a superior man must do more than philosophize, “even though philosophy is in some sense the ‘original’ activity of such natures.” Philosophy that is not armed with rhetoric and sheltered by tyranny is at the mercy of lower men; “philosophers merely practicing philosophy are thereby committing suicide, and the suicide of philosophy at the hands of the many or of convention is the covering-up of truth, quite literally.” Philosophy as the pursuit of truth requires the manifestation of truth, rather than its suppression, and only the tyranny of philosophy can accomplish that. The philosopher must avoid the fate of the unarmed prophet. And the tyrant, we can add, must not be blind to the truth of his highest aspirations.
Worth emphasizing here is that Alamariu himself does not side with the young nihilist Callicles against the nerd Socrates, or claim that Socratism is a degenerate step back from the truth of Calliclean politics. Rather, he presents Socrates as more Calliclean than Callicles: “Socrates does not therefore challenge, but even radicalizes Callicles’ hostility to nomos.” Socrates is “far more liberated from convention, far wilder, far more prone to consider ‘the way of force’ and of physical violence” than Callicles. Callicles is “naive” compared to Socrates, because Callicles ignores – and Socrates does not – the centrality of the politeia, “which united nomos with physical force and through which nomos becomes actualized.”
Socrates grasped the relationship between philosophy and tyranny more deeply than Callicles. Yet Plato, in presenting their dialogue, masked this truth to reach out to the “better-turned-out” natures to win them over to philosophy. He wanted to conceal the tyrannical dimensions of philosophy “under a political mask” to make philosophy safe in the cities. But he made it too safe. As Strauss noted, Plato’s concealment proved “all too successful”: it led to an oblivion about the truth of nature. This remained the situation until Nietzsche, who “[stripped] away exoteric Platonic rhetoric… to show the identity between tyranny and philosophy” in “an attempt to revitalize philosophy itself.”
Alamariu’s chapter on Nietzsche shows the kinship between Nietzsche and Plato in their agreement that “the aristocratic regime exists as a prerequisite of the philosophical life.” But the chapter also highlights key differences: “In what could be considered a perverse joke, cruelty and pathos of distance replace the two ‘social’ virtues from Plato — temperance and justice.” These Nietzschean virtues provide the context for “a program of breeding and training” intended to produce an aristocratic type like the physically beautiful Athenians who seemed to embody the idea of beauty itself. These well-bred higher types give rise to a high culture, but the homogeneity of the aristocratic regime does not yet let the highest types rise above the aristocratic customs. Only the collapse of the aristocracy lets the “long-pent-up tension… burst free,” liberating a few men of intensity “to take their paths in new and unexpected directions.”
Moral exhortation serves the function of reestablishing public order. But its Christianized version risks forgetting that the true task concerns not morality but nature: “The quasi-Platonic priesthood of medieval Christianity, for all its spiritual profundity, was incompetent when it came to the needful task of caring for the ‘overall development’ of man or the cultivation of human nature — a nature they denied,” writes Alamariu, paraphrasing Nietzsche. “Platonic morality, as interpreted by Christianity, corrupts, stunts, misreads, tames“; Plato, who was concerned with the salvation of nature, prepared the ground for the taming and corrupting of nature by means of a moral mask that rigidified into excessive concern for the salvation of souls. But behind the mask, Nietzsche and Plato agree on the goal.
The defense of philosophy has always run two risks: it can make philosophy too dangerous, or it can make it seem too safe. No one will argue that Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy makes philosophy too safe. Rather, it is a timely reminder that, as Hölderlin put it, where the danger is, there also lies salvation.