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Review: Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy

Book Review
Stephen Pimentel

The Roots of Philosophy: Review of Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy

For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule. And where the doctrine is different, there — the best is lacking.

Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra


I first encountered Costin Alamariu in print in 2009, when I read his incisive, well-written review of Paul Hollander’s The Only Super Power in The New Criterion. Over the next few years, I came across his writing in a number of publications, mostly online. The last such articles I read were those Palladium published in 2018, one examining the presidential candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the other a study of the early phases of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. My impression of Alamariu at that point was of a knowledgeable, clear-thinking writer with a good grasp of history and international affairs. His bio blurbs stated that he held a doctorate in political science from Yale.

It was around that time that a friend, himself a prominent political writer, asked if I had read Alamariu’s doctoral dissertation (“The Problem of Tyranny and Philosophy in the Thought of Plato and Nietzsche”). I had not, and it seemed at first an odd question. Further conversation revealed that, though it had not been published, the dissertation was being passed among our friends in PDF form and had acquired a reputation “like the rumor of the hidden king.” I’ve since found that such sharing of unpublished manuscripts is not uncommon among friends with an interest in political philosophy. I gladly accepted a copy of the dissertation and read it. I have read it several times since, each time taking notes that have provided starting points for further study in the history and philosophy of ancient Greece. I’ve particularly benefited from his readings of the treatment of “nature” in Pindar’s victory odes, Callicles’ debate with Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, and Nietzsche’s relation to Platonic political philosophy.

The reader is now in a more fortunate position: Alamariu has recently published it in book form (Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, available on Amazon), adding a new preface and substantial introductory essay. The book is a work of great learning and reach, ranging over anthropology and ancient history, that makes radical claims — challenging, sharp, and sometimes startling — about the origin and foundation of political philosophy. It is also work of honesty. There are some authors, very few, who are willing to write without subterfuge. One notes it in Jünger; one sees it starkly in Céline. The book is an examination, inspired by Nietzsche, of the conditions from which philosophy emerged in Greece: the way of life of the Greek aristocracy, originally pastoralist, brought into strong contrast with the patterns of the agricultural people they had conquered, but later decaying under the pressures of life in the polis. Many worthwhile essays could be written on particular aspects of the work. I give here only a brief summary of it and offer some reflections on nomos, which Alamariu presents as directly in contrast with nature.

Where many authors would hedge or soften their claims, Alamariu gives a concise and pointed statement of his core thesis: “I aim to show, among other things, why this question, the problem of breeding, is in many respects identical to philosophy, or at least identical to political philosophy.” He is more than aware of how distant this thesis is from modern sensibilities, to the point of seeming offensive and absurd. His argument that the thesis is nonetheless true centers on the concept of nature, in the sense of the Greek phusis.

Leo Strauss claimed that the discovery of nature constituted the origin of philosophy — and especially political philosophy in so far as reflection on nature gave rise to the notion of natural right. Alamariu starts from this perspective and adds a detailed historical and anthropological account of the early understanding of phusis to which breeding is fundamental. He then argues, with Nietzsche, that philosophy proper emerged amidst the decay of aristocratic regimes as a defensive response.

Alamariu’s emphasis on the biological aspect of nature will be met with disfavor in many circles. Yet modern research into genetics, including behavioral genetics, has only deepened our knowledge of the biological basis and heritability of many traits important to human life. Those most hostile to the recognition of the genetic basis of life continue to advocate a blank slate ideology, not because it is true, but because it is deemed necessary. Their position echoes loudly with Alamariu’s treatment of nomos.

Alamariu begins his account with an anthropological and phenomenological examination of pre-philosophical, tribal societies, from their earliest stages through the emergence of sacred kingship and the city. The concept of nomos is central to his account. Nomos in Greek means law, custom, convention, or way of life. However, Alamariu is concerned not with nomos in the abstract, but with the particular nomos characteristic of these tribal societies, a way of life centered on ancestral customs grounded in the fear of the gods. This is the way of life described in rich detail in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It is ordered above all to the preservation of collective life under adverse conditions, and it permeated all aspects of human life to an extent that moderns would call totalitarian. It was not limited to one level of development but extended from the most primitive tribal societies to the early cities described by Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City.

Alamariu, unlike Strauss, inquires into the preconditions for the discovery of phusis and finds that they are not universal but quite particular. Far from being abstract in origin, the discovery is made by a pastoralist people, first in their concern with animal husbandry, then in their conquest of agricultural peoples and subsequemt observation of human differences. The conquest resulted in a martial, aristocratic ethos of the sort we see reflected later in Homer and related epic literature. These aristocrats were greatly concerned with the inheritance of traits. They had long knowledge of such inheritance in the case of animals from their pastoralist heritage. As a ruling minority, they now had a strong motive to apply this knowledge to themselves to promote particular martial virtues. In both cases, breeding was directed precisely to the preservation and improvement of phusis.

Alamariu continues his anthropological approach in his analysis of the poetry of Pindar, perhaps the greatest of the lyric poets of Greece. He uses Pindar’s poetry as a window into the received values of the archaic Greek aristocracy through an exhaustive study of Pindar’s use of phusis. Although Pindar’s is the first extended usage of phusis in extant literature, he is not introducing a new concept. Rather, he employs a conception of phusis that was already old in his day, as was his treatment of the Greek myths. Alamariu shows that phusis in Pindar always has reference to the body. It often has connotations of bodily beauty and power, traits that are carried in the “blood,” i.e., by inheritance, and can therefore be strengthened across the generations by breeding. Phusis can “hide” so that traits sometimes skip generations. Phusis is not simply a static set of attributes to be discovered; it is an intensity of being that differs in degree and “manifests itself in action if the being in question should have enough phusis.”

Men require breeding to receive the phusis necessary for excellence (arete), which requires training but, fundamentally, cannot be taught. The unteachability of arete is one of the issues at stake in the contrast of phusis and nomos. The later philosophic treatment of the question, as in Plato’s Meno, is an echo of a much older conflict concerning aristocracy. Pindar refers prominently to Chiron the Centaur, the archetypal trainer of heroes, who is wild (agroteros) because the training needed for arete is outside of nomos. One of the heroes trained by Chiron in the wild is Jason, whose myth Pindar recounts in Pythian 4 and whose companions, the Argonauts, represent a recreation of the Indo-European warrior band. Upon his return from Colchis to obtain the golden fleece, Jason overturns “the false king, the suppressor and usurper of nature,” suggesting that, with its emphasis on the warrior band and phusis, the story of Jason represents a more fundamental archetype of the hero than that described by Joseph Campbell.

Phusis will later acquire more abstract meanings with the development of philosophy, through a radicalization of the standard of nature in defense of aristocracy, but for the whole of the classical period the term never loses its concrete, biological meaning. When phusis becomes a central subject of inquiry for Aristotle, for example, plants and animals (including humans) are his chief examples of things that fall under its scope.

Turning to philosophy proper, Alamariu notes the accusations made in antiquity that philosophy was supportive of tyranny. Such accusations were made against Socrates in regard to his student Critias and the Thirty and, later, against Plato in regard to the tyrants of Syracuse. (While in modern usage, “tyranny” means cruel or oppressive rule and so is considered bad by definition, in ancient Greece it originally meant kingship obtained by means other than traditional inheritance and was a morally neutral term.) Alamariu argues that these accusations were warranted. Philosophers instructed ambitious young aristocrats in rhetoric and, more importantly, in the understanding that nomos was mere convention by which they need not be bound. In the wake of the execution of Socrates by the Athenians, Plato drew a veil over philosophy, presenting it as allied with conventional morality so as to defend the few from the many. The concealed truth was that, as with the archaic war bands, philosophy was not a civilizing force, but one that promoted a certain “rewilding.”

To bring out philosophy’s relation to tyranny, Alamariu turns to the conversation between Callicles and Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, in which Callicles argues for tyranny and Socrates ostensibly tries to refute him. Far from a simple opposition of these two figures, however, Plato shows that Callicles and Socrates are both moved by an eros no longer bound by nomos and so are kindred types. (This relation of character between tyranny and philosophy is also explored in the Republic.) Callicles’ first speech (Gorgias 483e-484b) is particularly important. There, Callicles speaks of great men who follow nature, indeed the “law of nature,” and hold this to be definitive of true justice, the “nature of right.” Most men are conditioned from their youths by the “spells and witchcraft” of convention to accept equality, but when a great man arises with “enough nature,” he shakes off the “charms” of convention, including the “laws which are against nature,” becomes a master, and shines with the “right by nature.” Callicles uses Pindaric language throughout the speech and then partially quotes Pindar’s fragment 169, though he does “not know the poem well.” Callicles is particularly interested in the manner in which nomos of convention suppresses the nomos of nature. It is not by physical force or punishments, but rather by speech in the form of myths and lies whose effect is mental enslavement. If a young man of strong character comes to understand how such convention works and how it is contrary to the truth, he has a duty to free himself from it bonds.

On Alamariu’s reading, Socrates’ responses to Callicles’ arguments are weak and inconclusive, and Plato intended as much. The apparent opposition of philosophy and tyranny was an exoteric stance that Plato adopted in the aftermath of Socrates’ execution, but the esoteric truth is that philosophy and tyranny were closely allied. For readers trained in more conventional Plato scholarship, the contention that Plato’s intention in the Gorgias was contrary to the surface meaning of Socrates’ arguments may be challenging; it is worth noting that Strauss and his students read several Platonic dialogues in an analogous manner.

In the last part of the book, Alamariu turns to Nietzsche, who has inspired all that has gone before. Three aspects of Nietzsche’s thought are most relevant: his reading of Plato’s project and its historical background, his assessment of the outcome of that project, and his own project as it relates to Plato. Nietzsche’s reading of Plato begins with the Greek aristocratic regime, which came about for self-defense and self-perpetuation in the face of constant, grave danger. As a result, the regime promoted the Homeric virtues of courage (andreia) and practical wisdom (phronesis), to which it added a certain intolerance and deep respect for hierarchy that Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance.” The aristocratic regime was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for high culture and the philosophic life. The aristocratic ethos had a strong physicality that, as the aristocracy weakened politically, allowed for the distillation or radicalization of the ethos as phusis, which treats the ethos as if it were isolated from any particular historical circumstance. The political weakening of the aristocracy was thus, as an ironic side effect, good for the development of culture, a culture that remained grounded in the body.

After Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the collapse of the regime of the Thirty, the aristocratic ethos went into more acute decline. It was in this setting that Plato undertook his project as an “emergency medical measure” to preserve philosophy against destruction. Plato’s Academy is often described as a “school,” but the modern connotations of that term can be misleading. In Nietzsche’s understanding, the Academy was an institution with distinct esoteric and exoteric functions.

In its esoteric or inner function, Platonic philosophy aimed at nothing less than a return to nature, a return not of historical regression, but of ascent to the higher manifestation of genius. Because the waging of war was integral to the life of the polis, that genius would necessarily have a military dimension. The physical training at the heart of the aristocratic ethos would be continued, and its eros, inspired by beauty, extended into a new form of competition (agon): Socratic dialectics. More fundamentally, the preparation and production of genius would depend on breeding, Plato’s concern for which is shown explicitly in the Kallipolis of the Republic, but also in the regime of the Laws.

The exoteric or outer function of Platonic philosophy was to preserve the polis as a place in which philosophy could survive, withstanding the existential political threat. The chief means employed by Plato was to present the philosopher as a moral sage whose teachings, however abstruse, reinforced conventional morality. Where the aristocracy had used breeding to shape men’s drives, Plato depicted Socrates as using reason to this end, in a way that was characterized by a certain otherworldliness and ascetism.

Nietzsche deems Plato’s exoteric teaching to have been the correct prescription for the Athens of his day and judges Plato’s project to have been largely successful in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Nonetheless, that project eventually failed. Its exoteric teaching submerged the esoteric, and the understanding of nature and the need for breeding was lost. More gravely, a new religion based on revelation, Christianity, gained dominance in the Roman empire. Christianity adopted various elements of the exoteric teaching of Platonism without its esoteric teaching, becoming a “Platonism for the people.” The exoteric teaching was entirely inappropriate for barbarians being initially civilized, leading eventually to the deterioration of European peoples.

Nietzsche sees himself as writing in the wake of the failure of Plato’s project, and his critique is directed at that failure, not at Plato himself. For all his acerbic comments on Socrates and Platonism, his disagreement with Plato is “one of tactics, not of ultimate aims or even general strategy.” Nietzsche’s writing, like Plato’s, has both an esoteric and an exoteric purpose, and his esoteric purpose is the same as Plato’s: the preservation of philosophy — or, perhaps, given the lateness of the day, its resurrection. If their exoteric teachings differ greatly, it is due to differing historical circumstances. Nietzsche should thus be considered not a destroyer but a reformer of Plato’s project.

As this summary shows, Almariu’s treatment of phusis and nomos is central to his work. About phusis, the truth should be plain to all who do not wish to be deceived, and it can be plainly stated. For every living creature, phusis is a biological reality. It varies most markedly between species, but also within species, where we speak of varieties or breeds. Phusis corresponds to the modern biological concept of phenotype. The phenotype is greatly shaped by the genotype, with environmental factors refining its expression. Phusis is intimately bound up with sexual dimorphism, both in the phenotype of an individual creature and in the development of the species over time via sexual selection. Phusis applies as much to humans as to any living creature, and in the same ways.

More challenging is the problem of nomos, both for the ancients and for us. We have already seen that nomos is not a homogeneous concept. Alamariu notes that the early Greek aristocracy had a nomos of its own, one quite different from that of the populace they had conquered, one aligned with and supportive of the development of phusis. The Spartans retained their own variant of the archaic aristocratic nomos down through the classical period, including intense devotion to the gods and religious rituals, which the Spartans saw as not in tension with military preparation, but integral to it.

This fact does not diminish the import of the cultural developments that took place elsewhere in Greece, above all in Athens. Once phusis is distinctly recognized and becomes an object of reflection, one’s understanding of nomos begins to change. One may still have customs and laws, but one will know them as human constructions. Even if one deems them good, the sense in which they “come from the gods” or possess divine authority will at least be subject to questioning, and some of the Sophists certainly pushed this questioning in the direction of skepticism toward all religious nomos. Yet, the same reflection reveals that phusis and nomos cannot be in simple opposition. As noted, there is the aristocratic nomos inherited from the pre-classical period. More fundamentally, there is the “law of nature” of which Callicles speaks.

To think through this problem, we would do well to return to the master and examine the poem that Callicles quotes, though he “does not know it well.” Pindar’s fragment 169 reads as follows:


Nomos, king of all,

of mortals and immortals,

guides them as it justifies the utmost violence

with a powerful hand. I bring as witness

the labors of Heracles,

for he drove Geryon’s cattle

to the Cyclopean portal of Eurystheus,

unasked and without payment.



The first and most obvious thing that stands out is that Pindar, far from rejecting nomos, describes it as “king of all.” Pindar is evidently using nomos in a sense different from that of the polis, one not opposed to phusis. His sense is that of “order,” specifically the primordial order binding on “mortals and immortals” from which more particular norms derive. This is why the poet invokes Heracles, the champion of this order, who by his labors put down the monsters of the Mediterranean world and made it livable for man. This order is established and maintained by “the utmost violence,” even as it “justifies” or makes right that violence. Pindar expands on this theme in Nemean 1, in which he describes how Teiresias, “the outstanding prophet of Zeus the highest,” declared while Heracles was yet an infant that the hero was destined not only to slay men and “lawless monsters” on land and sea, but even to assist the gods in putting down the giants to establish peace under the “sacred law.” The hero wields violence precisely in service to the nomos or divine order that Zeus protects and from which his justice flows.

When Callicles, in turn, speaks of great men who follow the “nomos of nature” and in whom shine the “full light of the just by nature,” he is not expressing an indifference to nomos or justice; he is contesting their character. If justice is the right ordering of relations with oneself and others, we have no guarantee that such an order will coincide with any particular set of received, conventional norms. Callicles is appealing past conventional conceptions of nomos to one grounded in phusis, one that he sees as consistent with the aristocratic conception of Pindar. The last point underscores that a nomos established on phusis would not be arbitrary but rather an order in its own right.

If one accepts, even in broad outline, the account of phusis and nomos related above, the question remains of how it applies in our day. It is a question that has vexed honest men since the French Revolution, though the problem began simmering more than a century earlier. Nietzsche, in writing of the “death of God,” pointed to the chief dimension of the problem, the collapse of the traditional nomos of the West. (Nietzsche’s thought on this topic is complex, but whatever else he was aiming to convey, it surely wasn’t whether a being called “God” is “alive” or “dead.”) To anyone knowledgeable of the relevant history, the fact of this collapse is indisputable, whether one exuberantly rejoices in it, bitterly mourns it, or weaves among the myriad possibilities in between.

A nomos need not be inherited from the distance past; the founding of a new nomos is possible, though only by the greatest of men. Napoleon tried to establish a new nomos, though his effort failed with his regime. When the Bourbons were restored after the defeat of Napoleon, their supporters found to their dismay that the old peg would not hold. Charles Maurras, though an unbeliever, attempted to ally with the old nomos, but it turned on him. The Spanish Falange, nominally embraced but in fact neutralized by Franco, groped for a new nomos. Franco’s regime swiftly failed after his death for many reasons, but his attempt to rely on the old nomos was surely one of them. After all of these failures and a hundred others, the question remains: not whether we shall have a nomos but rather  which nomos? A nomos can be aligned with phusis, but it can never be just phusis. The propensity to live by a richly elaborated nomos is part of the human “extended phenotype,” to use Richard Dawkins’ term. As with all the deepest questions of political philosophy, that of how to achieve a new nomos cannot be answered in isolation — it is intertwined with the problem of the regime as a whole — and we can do no better than to prepare for a new beginning.

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