Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Hans Jonas's Noble 'Heuristics of Fear': Neither the Good Lie nor the Terrible Truth

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Hans Jonas's Noble 'Heuristics of Fear': Neither the Good Lie nor the Terrible Truth

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It is generally accepted that Hans Jonas lays the theoretical foundation for the precautionary principle in his The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (IR), which was originally published in German in 1979 and translated into English in 1984. (1) While he never explicitly speaks of the precautionary principle, his articulation of the "imperative of responsibility" is meant to put us on guard as to the risks that certain technological advances present to future generations and to life on earth as we know it; as such, it acts as a check on unfettered growth and blind innovation. Accordingly, the application of the imperative, principally through the "heuristics of fear," issues in a call for austerity measures in response to the numerous crises that modernity could quite possibly summon forth (IR, 148-149). Yet what this dynamic entails needs to be more carefully deciphered, and thus the task of this essay is to address Jonas's thoughts on the "heuristics of fear" and the "imperative of responsibility" as they pertain to the art of politics and public communication.

To begin with, we must ask, what does Jonas mean by the possible need of "a new Machiavelli" among "the practitioners of political science," "who would, however, have to propound his teaching in strict esotericism"? Would this strict esotericism come in the form of the "dangerous game of mass deception (Plato's 'noble lie')" (IR, 149)? These questions as they pertain to Jonas's Imperative of Responsibility and his thoughts on what he calls "public communication" have yet to be thoroughly considered, which perhaps is due to the brevity and incompleteness of their expression.

Richard Wolin notes how the political chapters of The Imperative of Responsibility remain "entirely neglected," which is where Jonas speaks of a "new Machiavelli" and "Plato's noble lie." He draws our attention to Jonas's thoughts on the possible need of a tyrannical regime, albeit benign, to curtail our deleterious habits that pay no mind to the limits of nature. A remedy for this neglect may require recourse to a noble lie. (2) Vittorio Hosle homes in on the section where Machiavelli and Plato are mentioned, regarding it as a "grandiose blend of Platonism and Machiavellianism" and as "one of the most subtle texts in political philosophy of the last century." (3) In Jonas's criticism of liberal democracy, Pier Paolo Portinaro hears "echoes of Straussian tones (Leo Strauss was after all, let's not forget it, the great authority in American political philosophy after the war)." Portinaro, nonetheless, mentions nothing regarding Jonas's call for a "new Machiavelli" or the use of a noble lie, although perhaps these are implied. He, however, makes a comment suggesting that Plato's relation to the tyrant of Syracuse is in the background of Jonas's thought: "His observations on tyranny seem to retain the ambiguity of Plato's relationship with the tyrant of Syracuse." (4) Lawrence Vogel, also, passes up the chance to mention Jonas's thoughts on the use of deception in an article on Strauss and Jonas, where the topic of esotericism is discussed but only in relation to the former. (5) And lastly, Marianna Gensabella Furnari discusses Jonas's appeal to Plato's noble lie but finds that such an appeal is a "self-contradictory solution" since it makes use of coercion to impose responsibility that should arise from freedom. (6)

Despite these comments and comparisons, the secondary literature on this topic has yet to midwife into being the life that the subject matter bears. Granted, the scholars just mentioned only treat in passing what I intend to treat more fully. Nonetheless, their brief thoughts on the topic lead me to believe that thinking through some of Jonas's ideas in relation to his digression or invocation of a "new Machiavelli" and "Plato's noble lie" would be fruitful for contributing to a broader discussion of Jonas's political thought. …

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