Issue #33 July 2020

Micro-Totalitarianism and the Search for a ‘Knowledge of the Whole’

Lyonel Feininger — “Calm at Sea II” — (1927)

In What Is Political Philosophy?, the philosopher Leo Strauss describes an emotion which many of us will probably recognize in ourselves: the longing for what Strauss calls ‘knowledge of the whole’, the longing to find, or even to create, an overarching understanding of the world worthy of our unreserved, wholehearted commitment. Strauss describes this longing as ‘erotic’, in the Platonic rather than the contemporary sense, erotic in that it is a movement of the soul outwards towards an object which seems lovable and desirable. This movement of heart in search of the final truth about the world is, Strauss insists, always the animating force behind the philosopher’s quest; no matter how ‘postmodern’ or ‘anti-foundationalist’ the philosopher may believe him or herself to be, the object of erotic longing, the goal of the quest, is always a representation of the world, a ‘grand narrative’ or ‘meta-narrative’ (Strauss would have hated these terms) to which one can definitively commit oneself.

For Strauss, this longing for knowledge of the whole is in itself the most noble part of the soul. I want to make the case that Strauss’s judgement was flawed, and that the longing for absolute truth is, in Strauss’s terms, not noble but ‘base’ and degrading. I will suggest that liberal regimes and totalitarian regimes, at the level of the political community, have their parallels in the individual soul, and that ‘knowledge of the whole’ at the personal level would be a state closely analogous to totalitarianism. I will suggest that both originate in the same immature attempt to evade reality, that both promise the same alluring mirage of a life free from anxiety, and that both for the same reasons end up piling suffering upon suffering. Finally, I will offer a few modest comments about what the wisest course of action might be when we find ourselves in the grip of the longing for absolute knowledge.

Liberalism and Totalitarianism

In order to make this case, I will first need to set out the approaches to politics which, following R. J. Talmon in his Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, I am calling ‘liberal’ and ‘totalitarian’. Liberalism, as I’m using the word here, sees the political community as an inevitably messy, ramshackle grouping of various different and ever-changing elements; hence it is characterized by a degree of inner conflict and tension, as its constituent parts are only ever partially and imperfectly united as a larger whole. Political life is ‘spontaneous’, in that it does not proceed according to a pre-existing plan. Healthy political communities from this point of view are also characterized by their particular habits and traditions and continuities with their specific pasts, as these are the expressions of the spontaneous life of the community over time; by the same token, liberal societies expect this process of organic change to continue into the future forever. The role of government and the state is to provide and maintain a ‘container’ in which the various elements making up the community can continue to live together without too much conflict, and with a reasonable degree of mutual friendliness and cooperation. In his Two Faces of Liberalism, John Gray calls this attitude ‘modus vivendi liberalism’.

The totalitarian approach, on the other hand, sees the heterogenous inherited political life as inherently problematic, and seeks to replace it with something different and better. As Talmon puts it, at the heart of this totalitarian approach to politics lies “the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics” (p 1). It “postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things” (p 2), and holds this perfect scheme of things “to be immanent in man’s reason and will, to constitute the fullest satisfaction of his true interest, and to be the guarantee of his freedom” (ibid.). Political thinking in this vein looks forward to a future time when “this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life” (ibid.). The purpose of the state, and of all institutions, is to educate (or indoctrinate) the people in the direction of recognizing the one universal and inevitable truth, to put this one truth ever more rigorously into practice, and thus to hasten the happy day when truth reigns supreme, all benighted opposition to it is expunged, and the body politic is perfectly unified in peace and tranquility.

Thus, the totalitarian opposes habit and continuity with the past, and seeks to eliminate all traditional or inherited ways of thinking and doing things, to draw a line under the past and begin again from Year One, as the French Revolutionary Calendar literally did. And as well as ridding itself of the past, it also aspires to cancel the future and attain an ‘end of history’. Whereas in a democratic regime the governing ideas and beliefs are by definition contested, and change of ideology is not only considered tolerable but is built into the system, the totalitarian regime regards itself as being in possession of “sole and exclusive truth”. In principle, therefore, the core doctrines which underpin it today will be the same tomorrow, and the next day, and forever, and any change to its guiding ideas would undermine the claim to knowledge of truth upon which the whole structure rests. (In practice, of course, the ideologies governing totalitarian regimes do change and evolve, sometimes radically.)

I set out these two political approaches not in order to say anything about politics, but because I believe that we can also use them as tools for introspection, for those of us who are prone to search for ‘knowledge of the whole’. When we survey the landscape of our own beliefs, values and motivations as we find them, we probably see something much like the cobbled-together messiness of the liberal political community. As this political community is composed of a multiplicity of disparate and changing elements, often to some degree in conflict with one another, so we hold a multiplicity of disparate views and intentions, which rarely if ever add up to anything like a uniform coherent whole. As the life of the political community is unplanned and spontaneous, so too we see that the life of our own minds is unplanned and spontaneous; when we look closely, we see that we often take up and put aside views or plans with little in the way of rigorous deliberation, and often we misrepresent our actual experience when we say that we choose our ideas and values at all; it would often be more accurate to say that we find ourselves believing in them. As the political community relies on habit and continuity, so our interior lives rely on inner habits and continuities; we hold to certain beliefs and values simply because we are used to holding them, or because we picked them up from our families or our friends or from the general cultural ether, without ever subjecting them to much genuine scrutiny, and without even deliberately flexing the muscles of our free will.

I suggest that when one longs for and seeks a definitive truth to believe in, one is actually longing for and seeking to impose something analogous to a totalitarian regime within one’s own soul; a ‘micro-totalitarianism’, one might say. As the totalitarian wants to replace the profusion of beliefs and values at the social level with the hegemony of a “sole and exclusive truth,” so the truth-seeker wants to replace all of his or her interior profusion with a “sole and exclusive truth”. In Talmon’s words, the truth-seeker shares the totalitarian’s belief that there must be a “preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things,” which will “constitute the fullest satisfaction of his true interest, and … the guarantee of his freedom” (p 2), and he or she is bent on replacing the chaos of the interior life with the absolute coherence and order which will come when the singular truth “reigns supreme over all fields of life”. As the totalitarian wishes to reject all received habits of thought and action, so the truth-seeker wishes to rid him or herself of all beliefs and values which are held merely out of habit, or because they are inherited, and to replace them all with the new, perfectly rational, perfectly self-consistent system of belief and value which he or she hopes to achieve. The totalitarian and the truth-seeker both look for a truth which is final, and which will never need to be abandoned or substantially revised.

Lyonel Feininger — “Bird Cloud” — (1926)

Authoritarianism and the Superego

The individual truth-seeker’s longing for ‘knowledge of the whole’, then, appears to be a longing for a totalitarian regime within the individual soul. The next question which presents itself to us is, why does this longing for ‘inner totalitarianism’ arise? For an answer to this question I turn to Freud, or at least to Freud as he is ‘recovered’ or ‘re-envisioned’ in Mark Edmundson’s The Death of Sigmund Freud. Edmundson has developed a reading of Freud which deliberately declines to concern itself with a great deal of Freud’s thought, including the entire theory of sexuality which occupied much of Freud’s life as a writer. Edmundson is interested rather in the Freud of such later works as Group Psychology and Moses and Monotheism, which explore the psychological grounds of politics and issues of patriarchal authority. Even then, Edmundson tends to disregard Freud’s more extravagant claims and speculations, and distils from the mature Freud’s writings the broad outline of a political critique and a political ethic, which has the merit of being capable of expression in ordinary language, without too much recourse to psychoanalytic jargon.

Central to the understanding of the human soul presented by Edmundson’s Freud is the inevitability of inner tension and anxiety. For Freud, of course, this anxiety has its roots in childhood; it is the unavoidable side-effect of the taming and restraining of the individual’s self-centred grasping for gratification, which has to occur as he or she is socialized into society. As a result of this process, we each have within us an inner voice which stands over us makes ethical demands of us (in Freudian terms, a superego). This voice can at times be harsh and overbearing; it can also be inconsistent, demanding one thing of us in one moment and something quite different in the next; it can be ambivalent, as for example when we feel that something is required of us and forbidden to us at the same time; also, crucially, it can be unconscious, making us feel that something is urgently required of us, but that we cannot be sure exactly what it is.

According to Edmundson’s Freud, the most appropriate, mature, and even noble response to the inner tension and suffering inflicted on us by our superegos is simply to shoulder the burden and bear it, in the knowledge that it is an ineluctable aspect of our humanity, and it is the price we pay for the precious condition of living in civilization rather than barbarism. Temporary relief is available to us in the form of alcohol and other intoxicants, in absorbing distractions from high art to sex to television to petting a cat, in the consuming emotional rush of falling in love, and so on. Edmundson’s Freud seems to regard these moments of respite as relatively benign concessions to our need for occasional, temporary escape from the demands of the superego.

However, there is another, much more damaging and dangerous way in which we can find relief from our own superegos: submitting ourselves to a strong external authority, so that the demands of that authority drown out the internal demands of the superego and take their place. For Edmundson’s Freud, these external authorities are typically either authoritarian political leaders and regimes (Freud worked on these theories in Austria as just over the border Hitler was rising to power) or fundamentalist forms of religion. In both cases, the external authority makes demands which are clear and comprehensible and capable of being satisfied, and to the follower this offers blessed relief from the sometimes obscure, sometimes ambivalent, sometimes insatiable demands of the superego.

A further seductive allure of political or religious authoritarianism is that, being clear in its requirements and absolute in its authority, it is ‘permissive’: it permits us to indulge our primal taste for violence by victimizing those who disbelieve, or whom the belief-system identifies as enemies. These belief-systems typically do not neglect to identify enemies, and we know all too well what the consequences are for these enemies — and eventually for the entire society.

For Edmundson’s Freud, the strategy of substituting an external authoritarian figure or doctrine for one’s own superego is regressive, in that it seeks a reprieve from the responsibilities of adulthood and a return to the childhood situation, in which the powerful external authority of the father provided the ‘law’; this is why God is spoken of as the Father, and why authoritarian leaders and despots take the mantle of ‘father of the nation’. However, Freud goes on, we are ambivalent about the father in this role: while we relish the freedom he grants us from the predations of our own superegos, we are also aware on some level that the truth he offers is over-simplistic, and also that following his law requires us to ‘bracket out’ too much of ourselves. The experience of inner unity he offers us is actually a false experience of a false unity: the superego has been shunted out of consciousness but it has not disappeared. Sidelining the genuine superego costs us effort, and the amount of effort it requires will only increase as time goes on. Eventually, the inner tension caused by ‘repressing’ the superego may come to be more painful than the psychic tension caused by the superego itself, and at that point submission to the authority figure ceases to be a good deal, although it may be a deal we find ourselves trapped in. Authoritarian regimes and fundamentalist religious sects may arise and pass away quickly, or they may persist for many generations, but they will always be unsatisfactory, and will always eventually fail to bring to their subjects the enduring psychic peace they initially promised.

Freud, for Edmundson, was writing, of course, about the psychological roots and mechanism behind the urge towards authoritarian forms of politics and religion. My interest here is in understanding a different psychic urge: the urge to find a definitive understanding of the world. However, as we have seen, this is effectively an urge towards a miniaturized form of totalitarianism, and Freud’s analysis is clearly applicable to the desire for definitive understanding. To spell it out: if we accept the broad outline of the Freudian analysis as set out above, the seeker of definitive understanding is motivated by the desire to overcome the turmoil of a heterogenous and conflicted psyche and a haranguing, unreasonable superego by establishing a metanarrative as an external authority, analogous to the political or religious demagogue, to take the place of his or her own superego. The only significant difference is that the truth-seeker seeks to bring the ‘community’ of his or her own soul, rather than his or her political community, under the sway of the totalitarian authority. The ‘micro-totalitarian’ regime promises temporary relief, as an abstract structure of thought is (at least in principle) reliably explicit where the superego can be opaque, consistent where the superego can be unpredictable, and logical where the superego can be contradictory.1placeholder

This leads us to the conclusion that if the truth-seeker does reach the point of committing him- or herself to a grand narrative, and of elevating that grand narrative to the status of absolute authority, this new interior regime will ultimately be unsatisfactory for the same reasons that investing a demagogue with absolute authority is ultimately unsatisfactory. It will constitute a falsification of the true nature of the psyche, and maintaining this falsehood will require an ever-increasing effort. The strain of this effort may well become unsustainable, and it will certainly cheat the truth-seeker of the tranquility he or she initially found by committing to the grand narrative in the first place.

Lyonel Feininger — “Gelmeroda” — (1936)

Chosen and Gifted

So, the uncomfortable truth is that parts of our souls are liable to be demanding, and troublesome, and incomprehensible to us, and that this is liable to cause us pain, and that if we try to eliminate this pain by bringing our souls under the dominion of a unifying ‘truth’, we are likely to cause ourselves more pain in the end. When the truth-seeker realizes this, it is possible that he or she might lurch towards the other extreme. If Strauss’s ‘knowledge of the whole’ is an impossible goal, and if the pursuit of that goal only leads to more suffering, we might then conclude that we should reject meta-narratives and abstract thought entirely. However, to seek to deliberately purge one’s mind of meta-narratives and abstract thought would clearly be an act of ‘micro-totalitarianism’ in itself, just as oppressive and hubristic as the attempt to bring the entire mind under the sway of a single unifying metanarrative. Furthermore, to believe that there are only two alternatives — on the one hand absolute commitment to a meta-narrative, and on the other hand absolute rejection of all meta-narratives — would be like believing that on the political level the only choices available to us are absolute political authority (i.e. totalitarianism) and absolute rejection of all political authority (i.e. anarchism). Of course, this is a false dichotomy; between the extremes of totalitarianism and anarchism lie the liberalism we have already discussed, and indeed all those forms of political life in which authority is recognized, but is limited, contingent and dispersed rather than singular and absolute. Similarly, on the philosophical level, between the extremes of absolute commitment to a meta-narrative and absolute rejection of all meta-narratives lies a whole territory, in which we can maintain our commitments to meta-narratives, but see those commitments as contingent rather than absolute.

Philosophy offers us various ways in which we can conceive and understand this kind of contingent commitment to meta-narratives. Personally, I would commend Alastair MacIntyre’s notion of ‘traditions of enquiry’, as set out in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). For MacIntyre, when we think and try to understand our place in the world, we can only ever do so in terms of intellectual traditions which precede us (for example, Catholicism, or Marxism, or even liberalism, the tradition which mistakenly believes that it is not a tradition). These pre-existing streams of thought and enquiry provide the matrices in which meaningful thought and enquiry take place, and they are inconceivable outside of these matrices. Importantly, these traditions are understood to be dynamic and subject to endless processes of argument, debate and revision; hence, a Catholic or a Marxist or a liberal today does not believe what Catholics or Marxists or liberals of a century ago believed. It can confidently be assumed that this process of change will continue indefinitely into the future, too, so no right-thinking Marxist, for example, can look at Marxist doctrine as it happens to stand today and hold it to be the one absolute, eternal, unchanging truth. In Strauss’s terms, no-one could look at today’s version of the doctrine and confidently believe it to be ‘knowledge of the whole’.

When we realize that all thought takes place within ‘traditions of enquiry’, and thus has a historical, contingent character, this frees us to go on thinking and making sense of our world, and indeed ‘doing philosophy’, in whatever tradition or traditions we happen to belong to. When knowledge is seen from this perspective, the promise of an absolute unchanging truth that will finally dispel tension and anxiety from the soul is clearly revealed to be a false promise.

And yet, the craving for definitive commitment and final truth continues to arise. This craving, which Strauss regarded as ‘noble’, now looks disordered and unhealthy; however, insight into the disordered, unhealthy nature of the desire does not necessarily dispel the desire, any more than a clear understanding of the unhealthiness of smoking dispels the desire to smoke.

When we find the longing for ‘knowledge of the whole’ rising within us, what should we do? How should we respond? On the strength of what we have observed so far, it might seem that our advice (to ourselves or to someone else in this predicament) should be to stop chasing the ‘one final truth’, to exert the necessary willpower to break the habit of doing so, and to muster up the courage to live with tension and anxiety in the soul. This advice may well be more sensible than the alternative (go and find one final, all-encompassing, definitive truth, and then you will be free of inner strife forever) but I believe that it may still be potentially problematic advice.

· · ·

In his 2004 essay ‘The Case Against Perfection’, the philosopher Michael Sandel proposes a distinction between those aspects of life over which we can exercise choice, and those which are unchosen — or, as Sandel likes to put it, those which are ‘gifted’ to us. This simple distinction can usefully be applied to the matters we are considering here.

In terms of the political life, the totalitarian vision is a vision of a political community in which every feature and every element is deliberately chosen, by deliberate acts of will. Anything ‘gifted’ is suspect because it is likely to be inconsistent with the one guiding truth, and must therefore be interrogated and, very likely, expunged. Through a deliberate, willed programme of change at the political level, tension and the resulting anxiety can be eliminated from the body politic. The liberal vision, by contrast, takes ‘giftedness’ to be the proper nature of the political community; to the liberal, we take the world as it is given to us, conditioned as it is by history and all the other contingencies, and do our best to tend and nurture what is good in it, rather than transforming or replacing it. We also accept a fair degree of tension and anxiety within the body politic as an inevitable part of the ‘gift’.

Again, the intentions of the seeker after definitive truth are analogous to those of the totalitarian. The truth-seeker implicitly believes that his or her own soul is an arena in which deliberate choice can and must be exercised, to an unlimited degree. For this truth-seeker, the mind as it is gifted to us is too conflicted, too opaque and too anxious to be acceptable; however, by a sustained act of will all the conflict and opacity and anxiety can be rooted out, and replaced with a new, deliberately-chosen system which is clear, comprehensible and consistent. The result will be peace, and no more anxiety.

We might be tempted to advise the truth-seeker to renounce the attempt to impose a ‘micro-totalitarian’ regime within his or her own soul, to give up chasing the “sole and exclusive truth” or believing that he or she has found it, and to embrace giftedness in the life of the mind. However, at this point we might usefully turn once again to political philosophy, and consider philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s judgement of the suggestions advanced by the economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom famously made a sustained case against large-scale centralised state planning of societies and economies. Given that Oakeshott was one of the twentieth century’s most uncompromising opponents of the totalitarian tendency in politics, one might have expected him to support Hayek in opposing the top-down imposition on society of grand rational plans by powerful central authorities. However, Oakeshott did not welcome The Road to Serfdom; instead he responded to the effect that a plan to reject all planning is still a plan, and to impose such a plan would still amount to a dangerous and deluded form of social control. Whether or not one agrees with Oakeshott at the level of politics, the analogy to the problem of truth-seeking is clear: the truth-seeker could try to banish the attempt to bring the soul under the control of one unifying idea, but even doing this would amount to an attempt to deliberately impose a regime of our choosing on the organic messiness of the soul. Even trying to expunge thoughts of inner totalitarianism would therefore be in itself an act of inner totalitarianism, and would be likely to follow the same miserable trajectory as any other act of totalitarianism.

If we really wish to heed the advice of Edmundson’s Freud and face our situation as it is, without evasion, we surely have to accept that our situation includes not only the pain-generating superego but also the pain-generating desire for totalizing knowledge. We cannot will this desire away; experience tells us that it reasserts itself again and again, despite our best efforts. Perhaps we should start from the position that all the movements of the soul, even the movement towards micro-totalitarianism itself, must be regarded as gifted. In that case, when we are afflicted with the longing for final truth, there is perhaps nothing wiser we can do than, as the Zen poet Shishin-Goshin puts it, “let the mind be.”

Alex Gooch is a teacher and occasional freelance writer, based in the UK. His particular interests are the nature of philosophy, political philosophy, and East Asian thought.

Works Cited

Edmundson, Mark (2007) The Death of Sigmund Freud, London: Bloomsbury.

Gray, John (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hayek, Friedrich (1944) The Road to Serfdom, London: George Routledge & Sons.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1988) Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Oakeshott, Michael (1991) ‘Rationalism in Politics’, in Oakeshott, Michael, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

Sandel, Michael (2004), ‘The Case Against Perfection’, The Atlantic, April 2004 Issue.

Strauss, Leo (1988) ‘Restatement on Xenophon’, in Strauss, Leo, What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stryk, Lucien, and Takashi Ikemoto (editors and translators) (1981) The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry, London: Penguin.

Talmon, J.L. (1952) The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, London: Mercury Books.


I’m aware that I have used Edmundson’s Freudian theory as the ‘critical tool’ for understanding authoritarianism without offering any defence of this theory against potential objections. In fact, I’ve used Edmundson’ Freud simply because he rings true to my own experience of longing for “knowledge the whole”, especially in the implication that the longing is motivated by a desire to eradicate tension and anxiety and to achieve an experience of harmony and peace. I suspect this Freudian perspective may ring true for the reader too. I should add that the question of whether or not Freud’s original texts warrant Edmundson’s reading of him is not one that concerns me here.


July 2020


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Micro-Totalitarianism and the Search for a ‘Knowledge of the Whole’

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by Timothy Lavenz

America v. Cartesianism: William James’ Philosophy in the Poetry of Stevens and Frost

by Roy Carrillo