Photograph via Wikimedia Commons by Giovanni Dall’Orto.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul raised millions, honed a clear message, inspired an army of volunteers, and finished in the money in Iowa. So as New Hampshire casts its votes today, why does almost no one, perhaps not even Paul himself, think he’s got the slightest chance of being the Republican nominee? Does a campaign like Paul’s have some natural and unsurpassable ceiling of support? Or could building a movement of ideas really be more important to Paul than winning the one office that could make those ideas real?

To unravel this paradox, consider the legacy of another disruptive thinker, movement-leader, and unwavering eccentric: Pythagoras of Samos.

Flourishing around 530 BC, at the dawn of Greece’s golden age, Pythagoras had a sharp mind, a captivating speaking style, and a worldview that struck many as utterly genius, many others as totally insane. For Pythagoras, numbers weren’t merely a useful tool to describe the world; they were the literal substance that composed it. At his core, taught the philosopher, man was the number 250; justice, the number 4; “the opportune time,” 7.

Scratch your head if you like, but Pythagoras’s commitment to the comprehensibility of the universe through mathematics led to startling breakthroughs in astronomy, music theory, and geometry (including his theorem on right triangles which you learned in high school).

Similarly, the substance of Ron Paul’s libertarianism is, for many American voters, an unfamiliar grab-bag: lower taxes and a slashed defense budget, a repeal of drug laws and a total opposition to abortion, a fierce opposition to wars and social programs alike, all soaked in the arcana of federal monetary policy. But what numbers were to Pythagoras, “liberty” is to Ron Paul: the essential, quasi-mystical strand that marries these seemingly incongruous ideas together.

And like Pythagoras, Paul’s campaign has found converts not in spite of its power to unsettle but precisely because of it. At a turbulent historical moment—Pythagoras’ generation of Greeks sparked the revolutions which midwived the first democracies—voters are more ready for the “alternative explanation” that, while jarring, offers a new foundation for their political worldview and a community of fellow-believers along with it. The centrality of liberty as the divining rod of modern conservatism means that Ron Paul’s pitch has, in theory, a very large upside in a frustrated Republican electorate. The organization he has built, and the millions he has raised, are but two proofs of this intuitive appeal.

[T]he fatal weakness of a mass movement is almost always found in this grey area between the charismatic leader and the revolutionary idea…

So what’s the downside of a movement founded on disruptive ideas?

For one thing, the pride and lingo of the “initiated” have a tendency to confuse and repel the uninitiated. What the Egyptian cults of numerology were to a young Pythagoras, the “Austrian school” is to Paul and his tribe. Monetary policy may deserve a greater place in mainstream political debate, but the buzz-phrases of libertarianism—“one-world government,” “we’re all Austrians now”—add, for many, a touch of off-putting otherwordliness to the Paul phenomenon.

The greater hazard, though, for Pythagoras and Ron Paul alike, is the fusion of persona and policy which have accompanied mass movements then and now.

Even after his death, followers of Pythagoras were told to attribute any of their own ideas to the man himself. As a result, the real contributions of this school have become inseparable from gobbledygook legends about friends reincarnated as dogs and devices which scribble letters on the moon: “It’s as Pythagoras taught.”

Similarly, many Iowa voters were surprised to read about the solemn-faced advice in an early-1990’s edition of the Ron Paul Political Report to buy illegal weapons in advance of a racial uprising, “inspired by,” but probably completely without the knowledge of, the man whose name was on the newsletter.

In fact, the fatal weakness of a mass movement is almost always found in this grey area between the charismatic leader and the revolutionary idea. Leaders like Napoleon or Fidel Castro declare themselves to be the idea personified, and become tyrants; humbler protagonists in Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park struggle without a clear leader to crystallize the cause.

Thus, the paradox for leaders who straddle politics and philosophy: too controlling, and ideas suffocate; too laissez-faire, and dubious things get done in your name. In modern politics, the winning calibration of volunteer empowerment and top-down coordination is a rare and fine achievement—witness the campaign that took Barack Hussein Obama to the White House—and the more challenging the ideas, the trickier the dance.

But all this doesn’t explain the seeming indifference of this presidential candidate toward the goal of, you know, winning the presidency.

Ron Paul is no political novice. He’s won twelve elections to the U.S. Congress in what was once a solidly Democratic seat, and from the start proved he could outflank and out-organize his opponents (in an early race, by mobilizing the grateful women whose babies he had delivered).

Yet during his December surge to the top of the Iowa polls, when asked by ABC News whether he saw himself in the Oval Office, the new frontrunner replied: “Not really, but I think it’s a possibility.”

More revealingly, when asked whether he was more interested in rallying a movement to change politics in America than in campaigning for President, he answered, “I don’t know why you have to separate the two.”

Here as well, Pythagoras’ example illustrates that a campaign of disruptive intellectual change and a campaign to govern a real-life place are, in fact, not the same thing.

Leaving his home island of Samos, the philosopher and his converts settled near the town of Croton in the Greek-speaking south of Italy, attracting many new followers but growing ever more secretive and exclusive. Pythagoras was an old hand at constitution-writing and the sect broke into local politics, elevating one of their number, Milo, to high office and organizing a successful campaign against a neighboring town. But as the story goes, many figures in the local establishment, including a powerful aristocrat named Cylon, felt annoyed by, or simply excluded from, the mystical know-it-alls taking control of their city.

Though details are hazy, it appears that after a fierce debate over democratizing Croton’s constitution (the Pythagoreans being a firm “no” vote), a mob led by the jilted Cylon burned down a meeting-hall where the sect was gathered, killing a large number of them, and possibly Pythagoras himself.

Across the region, followers of his school were hunted down and punished, and though Pythagorean ideas bore enormous influence on Plato and the subsequent course of Western thought, the school itself would never reappear. The purist sect had run up against the reality of politics, and politics had won.

But with this denouement, a question emerged that has dogged idea-driven politicians ever since: play politics, compromise, and win, or adhere to the ideal and pay the cost?

Like Ron Paul, who refuses PAC money and rails against Congress’s insiders, Pythagoras stood for the purity of right ideas over political horse-trading: “He compared life to the Olympic Games, where some went to compete for the prize and others went with wares to sell, but the best as spectators; for similarly, in life, some grow up with servile natures, greedy for fame and gain, but the philosopher seeks for truth.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers)

But democracy, unlike philosophy, isn’t just about proving the righteousness of your ideas; it’s about persuading a majority of voters to let you try them. When Ron Paul vacated his House seat in 1984 in favor of a quixotic run for Senate, it was filled by none other than Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. As Plato would later observe in the Republic, “The punishment for being too clever to engage in politics is to be governed by morons.” Spectators at the Olympics, however pure of heart, don’t take home the gold.

This is not to say, even if his campaign ultimately ends in disappointment, that Ron Paul’s legacy in American politics might not be a considerable one. His once-obscure crusade to audit the Federal Reserve has already gained wide bipartisan support and airtime in the mainstream press. As Congressman, he helped prohibit funding for national ID numbers and International Criminal Court jurisdiction over the U.S. military. And, in yet another controversial but possibly prescient move, in June of last year Paul co-sponsored a bill with Barney Frank to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.

Nevertheless, tactical disengagement from the political game can also be a symptom of a more reckless disengagement from dissenting ideas. A firm and consistent belief system is certainly an asset for a national candidate, especially in contradistinction to a political chameleon like Mitt Romney. Against a tidal wave of evidence, however, Paul insists that climate change is “the greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years,” and that “there’s no evidence Iran is working on a weapon.” Voters will be more likely to credit your predictions (on inflation, say), if they can see that your belief system evolves as circumstances and the data demand.

Disruptive leaders, whether philosophers or politicians, are consequential in final estimation only if their insights outweigh their eccentricities. After all, twenty-five centuries after his death by political arson, we still know who taught us to square the hypotenuse.

Discover the classics for yourself:

Prof. Drew Hyland, The Origins of Philosophy: Its Rise in Myth and the Pre-Socratics: The best introduction I’ve found to Pythagoras and his fellow Pre-Socratics, full of wit and imagination, and including full citations of the philosophers themselves.

Diogenes Läertius, The Lives And Opinions Of Eminent Philosophers: Classics prodigy Frederich Nietzsche called this third-century work “the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something.”


Lex Paulson

Lex Paulson is a former Obama campaign organizer and legislative counsel on Capitol Hill. He’s currently pursuing a PhD in classical political philosophy at the Sorbonne.

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