Plato and Aristotle

November 9, 2016: A Sense of the Inevitable
By Carolyn Porco

This essay first appeared in Scientific American on November 10, 2016.

At this moment, November 9, 2016, I am sick in heart and spirit, bereft of even a shred of optimism.

All the ideals of the enlightenment on which our country was founded, all the principles of reason and open-mindedness that undergird the practice of science, that we so fervently cherish, and to which we can rightfully attribute our progress in improving the welfare of humankind, have been effectively and thoroughly repudiated. The significance of the result of last night's election — that those opposing these beliefs will now either control or greatly influence every branch of the U.S. government — cannot be over-emphasized.

It's a shutout.

In such a moment, it's natural to search the past for lessons. All successful civilizations throughout history have ultimately perished. Further, the evolution of our country's democracy is following an ancient script: The seeds of Trump's philosophical victory can be found in the very multicultural, multi-viewpoint, open-armed inclusiveness of the democratic ideal America has pursued since its beginnings.

In his article in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan finds in Plato's Republic, written 2,400 years ago, the view that a "rainbow-flag polity" is the most inherently unstable, and that "tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy." It does indeed make you wonder if last night wasn't inevitable.

My deepest worry is that this transition really could signal the end of the American republic and the light it tried for 240 years, at least on paper, to shine on all the world.

What it means for the practice of science in this country, the rights of women and minorities, the future of our planet's health, the survival of all the creatures with whom we share the Earth, and for our relationships with other nations, I have no stomach to predict. But it does very much seem right now that the winning faction of the U.S. populace has decided that the Earth really is flat, and that will be the guiding principle for governance from this moment on.

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