Sam Kriss, in a post he calls his “magnum opus” at The Outline, explores the age-old adage, “Don’t stare directly at the sun.” Sure, there are medical reasons not to—but might there also be political ones? Do we have a moral duty to stare directly at the sun, and everything it represents?
Plato famously wanted a totalitarian society run by philosophers, in which ordinary people would live under the firm, rational, condescending guidance of those who had learned to see by the light of the Good. There’s always a kind of authoritarian undercurrent to rationalistic philosophy — take, for instance, Immanuel Kant. In What Is Enlightenment?, he argued that enlightened autocrats such as Frederick the Great of Prussia ought not to restrict the freedom of thought of his subjects, and that “freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.” But this isn’t out of any respect for differences of opinion; instead, Kant takes it as axiomatic that Frederick’s rule is rational and that anyone sensibly using their freedom of thought will inevitably end up supporting it. Reason comes from the sun, and so does the king, and if there’s only one sun, neither can disagree with the other. Kant’s reason allows for only one right answer, and it happens to agree with political power. As he puts it: “Argue as much as you like, and about what you like—but obey!”