"Have you read Plato?” Philosophical literacy and the acceptance of fascism in "Succession"

Curator's Note

A major theme of the HBO drama Succession is the kingmaking power of the show's figurehead, Logan Roy (a facsimile of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch). In the Season 3 episode titled What It Takes (2021), Roy deliberates over which Republican presidential candidate his media network, ATN, will throw its support behind at the upcoming convention. To the surprise of most of his inner circle, he ends up selecting Jeryd Mencken, a white nationalist who likes to namedrop philosophers like Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas in regular conversation. In a more candid bathroom conversation with Roy's son Roman, Mencken adds another name to his list of influences: “H,” or Hitler.  

During the episode, Roy's daughter, Siobhan, initiates an exchange with Mencken in which she expresses disgust at his "red pill" ideology. Mencken responds by asking, "Have you read Plato?"  

"Yeah...?" she responds, incredulously. "Remind me, what happens?" 

Shiv's response is clever. She could be referring to Book VIII of Plato's Republic, in which Socrates describes how a democratic, egalitarian society devolves into tyranny when the disaffected masses elect a dictator to overthrow any remaining elements of the oligarchy:  

And so the probable outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state... Probably, then, tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy—from the height of liberty, I take it, the fiercest extreme of servitude.

Plato sees democracy as a third stage of devolution from the superior systems of timocracy and oligarchy, themselves degenerations from what is, to Plato, the only just system: rule by philosopher kings, or “guardians.” As 20th century philosopher Karl Popper famously argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Plato’s ideal system contains elements of authoritarianism, like a strict division of labor based on biologically-determined factors, that made it attractive to racial demagogues like Hitler2. As Fleming (2012) notes in her analysis of Weimar philosophers’ interest in Greek philosophy: “While it would be inaccurate to argue that all Platonic roads in the 1920s and 30s Germany led to Nazism, the number that did is striking.”

Whether Menckin is attracted to an authoritarian reading of Plato or if his interest in philosophy is merely performative is unclear. Because western philosophy is nearly universally regarded as a valid source of inquiry, it is at least the appearance of philosophical literacy that far-right figures find beneficial in their approach to mass communication. In 2018, David Duke devoted an episode of his radio show to “the accomplishments of our ancestors in Greece and Rome,” including the philosophy of Stoicism. American white supremacist Richard Spencer connected white identity to Greek philosophy and culture in a speech to Texas A&M students in 2016. Following the blueprint of Nazi-era race scientists, publications by the white supremacist National Policy Institute go at length to reinterpret Plato’s categorization of individual Greeks into predetermined roles of greater or lesser nobility as a blueprint for the enforcement of racial hierarchy.  

It probably wasn’t Mencken’s superficial philosophical references that won the approval of Logan Roy; it was his sex appeal. Roy’s decision to back Mencken represents a turn from establishment conservatism to an iconoclastic class of right and far-right leaders who are willing to openly insult even established institutions like Roy’s own ATN. And because Mencken’s conservative opponents might accuse him of throwing out traditional values, philosophical literacy can serve as a sort of public relations armor. The far-right candidate can claim that he appeals to the oldest tradition of all.  

1 Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. 

2 Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge, 2002. 

3 Fleming, Katie. “Heidegger, Jaeger, Plato: The Politics of Humanism.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 19, no. 2, 2012, pp. 82–106. 

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