Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: politics (page 1 of 32)

Property and The Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.

More on whether Political Philosophy depends on History

Poetry coming soon. I am very grateful for the questions sent and the readership. In what follows, I’ve tried to keep things real. I’m less interested in being right and more on just saying something, continuing the discussion.

I was asked the following question about the Zuckert/Strauss post:

Could you offer an example so that I can better understand what you mean here? “To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice.” I don’t follow how this is sufficient for undertaking the question of justice.

I’ll admit I have a tendency of speeding through points obvious to me and no one else. This is an excellent question about a point that is none too obvious.

Let’s back up a bit. My larger point is that Strauss is not being entirely honest when he says that experience of a variety of regimes, places, and times is necessary for “questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order.” My own feeling is that “What is justice?” explodes the whole argument. If one has lived in one regime at one time and is treated unjustly, there is a chance one might question the order she lives in and start imagining different things (cf. Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates and a horse). (To clarify, by “required” I mean “necessary” more than “sufficient.”) Is such questioning as rigorous as that of a political philosopher comparing regimes? Probably not.

Justice speaks to something far more important than intellectual rigor, though. It speaks to actually encountering the question. I love Mansfield’s description of Thrasymachus in his A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy. Thrasymachus is angry because he’s been treated unjustly. Socrates is busy talking about how justice is either “helping friends or harming enemies” or “doing no harm.” The realities of power and control, realities Thrasymachus is very sensitive to, are flat-out ignored. In questioning Socrates, then, Thrasymachus does not merely assert himself and address an injustice. He contributes to the development of the question of justice itself. And maybe he is most sensitive to what Socrates trying to teach in the Republic.

“What is justice?” isn’t some question that people ask because they’re wondering about what the best law. They’re also wondering how they ought to be treated, what justice is for them, what justice means. You can get to these questions that might be dismissed as “existential” from wondering why one was treated unjustly and questioning the law or institutions that allowed it to happen.

Ah! But that’s not political philosophy, you say. Political philosophy is the discussion of the best regime! Of getting a standard of good and bad! Any idiot can whine about being treated badly. That doesn’t even add up to a serious complaint about a legal system, much less the question “What is justice?” Moreover, we don’t consider founders of regimes philosophers, so even though any given constitution posits an answer to questions like “What is man” or “What is virtue,” that does not count either. A real political philosopher, aware of the diversity of peoples, places, times, and institutions, takes all of it into account and attempts a comprehensive, systematic answer.

I’ll just say this: the more we insist on this sort of intellectual rigor, the more we’re making political philosophy something very specific: we’re making it exactly what some Straussians say Socratic political philosophy is. And I don’t know that’s a particularly philosophic thing to do. Something about philosophy must speak to our experience directly, not just our arguments.

Granted, this is a problematic answer. I guess I’m throwing the tradition of political philosophy under the bus in favor of sophists and second-rate thinkers. And I’ve been told there’s something about seeing beyond the limits of one’s time at stake in using and defending the tradition. But then again, my question when approaching “Political Philosophy and History” is why anyone should care for either discipline. If Strauss’ essay fails to speak to anyone but Straussians, well.

There’s a second part to the above question:

Also, is it worth noting that the interlocutors are not, strictly speaking, Athenians in book 1 of the Republic? Thrasymachus was from Chalcedon, Cephalus was from Syracuse, as perhaps was his son, Polemarchus.

Again, an awesome question. This time I need to address history and experience, and how much is needed for the inception of political philosophy.

I say nearly none at all. If one can imagine a change to one’s own regime, a change of any sort, one is well on the path to imagining a number of different societies. If one conceives of political philosophy as the quest for the best regime, one can just think through societies one made-up and work from there. Write a book and pretend your characters exist and you can do political philosophy, too.

Strauss’ essay, for its part, gives an answer that goes two ways, neither way obviously helpful to my take on things. Sure, he starts by saying that some knowledge of history was required for political philosophy in the traditional view. This Zuckert rightly identifies as a surface that can at least rhetorically stand on its own. (The radically imaginative act that political philosophy is – well, you’ll know it when you see it.) And he ends by talking about the “history of political philosophy,” the project that will help us see the foundations of ideas our historicist tendencies are covering up. The specific importance of history is to more fully see the implications of the ideas one works with. Only a special imagination could adequately account for reality in speculation; I don’t even know we’d call that imagination “best” as the best ones reintroduce us to wonder and remake the world in fantastic ways. So it does seem history is a very necessary task, especially as we’ve been given a past to make sense of. Ignoring it makes us prey to some terrible demagoguery.

Yeah, political philosophy is still 99.9% imagination. I’m going to be uncompromising on this. I’ll trade off losing the debate about a tradition and rigor and development of the theme of natural right, and work to see philosophers as actual people.

A Preliminary Response to Catherine Zuckert’s analysis of “Political Philosophy and History”

Thanks to Joe Connole, with whom I am co-authoring a larger article on this topic.

Articles discussed in this post:

Leo Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History” in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 56-77.

Catherine Zuckert, “Political Philosophy and History” in Leo Strauss’ Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading What Is Political Philosophy?, ed. Rafael Major. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 43-64.

Let’s just be honest. Leo Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” (1949) is boring. Initially, one might also consider it tendentious. Once upon a time, philosophers discussed and debated the best regime, the “standard of good and bad in politics” (Zuckert 43). But now a specter called “historicism” haunts academic and popular notions of politics. It is more dangerous to political philosophy than “positivism,” which rejects the human things in favor of scientific certitude, as “science is good” is not a proposition all times and places accept (43). Historicism argues that “good and bad vary according to time and place” (43). That relativism threatens to destroy our ability to seriously debate what is good or what is bad, thus making political philosophy impossible.

That does describe the first few pages of Strauss’ essay, which to be fair becomes more detailed and nuanced later. However, if one feels that one’s own approach to serious questions is in danger of being stereotyped, labeled “political philosophy” or “positivism” or “historicism,” I don’t blame you. It’s easy to talk about how we acquiesce to convention, but the truth is that we sometimes struggle to accept things that are both true and conventionally held. Moreover, the belief in progress underlying historicism isn’t some waste of time. For example, we believe in religious freedom, women having rights, and people not being slaves. Not all times have held that, and they should be looked down upon for those failures. “The modern prejudice in favor of progress” is an important one (58).

Still, there are a number of worthwhile questions in Strauss’ essay. They’re just a bit tricky to find, for while the surface of things is the heart of things, that may not strictly be true in this case. Zuckert performs an admirable service in rigorously working with the surface. She breaks his “Political Philosophy and History” into its various sections, identifying six distinct parts. She does her best to elaborate important references Strauss makes but passes over quickly. And she builds context where it is hard for a more casual reader to imagine what exactly is being addressed. In performing these very necessary tasks, a central theme emerges: Strauss turns out to be very subtle about how history relates to philosophy. Claims by serious practitioners of historicism are understood and accounted for in his understanding of political philosophy. See pages 48-49 of Zuckert’s essay, especially the mentions of Skinner and Pocock.

But that debate is far too technical to be of use to most people, including those who are serious about their studies and much more. Again, to restate the above: whatever views people hold, they don’t hold them because they really enjoy being conformists. To be fair to Zuckert and Strauss, they don’t malign anyone in their articles. They are writing with a view to how political philosophy and history relate in terms of academic theories and disciplines. There just happens to be a lot more at stake, implicit in their arguments. Dodging these issues by sticking to the surface and keeping things narrow is problematic, to say the least. The deep concern is how much we believe in progress and what the limits of that are. Ancient and medieval thinkers, including some of the greatest moral and philosophic minds, did not assume progress and had quite a bit to say that’s important. “Historicism” as discussed in the essay is ultimately trivial. The real question is why we are drawn to something like it – or, as I’m leaving open, why we, even now, are not always drawn.

To be sure, Zuckert structures her analysis the way she does because she sees Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” fitting into the volume What Is Political Philosophy? as a whole. This means she has to restate the surface to a large extent so we readers can keep our place in the narrative. This leads, though, to her taking at face value some claims of Strauss that are questionable. In the very first paragraph, Strauss outlines the traditional view of political philosophy and history. They raise distinctly different questions, but “this does not mean that political philosophy is absolutely independent of history.” He continues:

Without the experience of the variety of political institutions and convictions in different countries and at different times, the questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order could never have been raised. And after they have been raised, only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things. (Strauss 56-57)

So we need “experience” of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times to ask about the nature of politics. We need that kind of experience to ask about what is “best” or “just.” These claims are simply not tenable. To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice. From that point, one might find everything about one’s own order questionable. Moreover, books like the Republic don’t treat a number of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times in order to try to understand the nature of politics. It looks like that if one simply exaggerates the features of one’s own regime, one can easily see what principles it advocates at the expense of others. One can use one’s imagination – I know, shocking. To say Socrates or Glaucon couldn’t have conceived of a guardian class without Sparta is preposterous.

Strauss also claims that “only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things.” It’s actually pretty easy to see that some “specific features” are not quite natural. We start disliking them, we see them as ridiculous. We might specifically attack them as unnatural, not caring a whit about history, but feeling ourselves oppressed or arbitrarily treated.

Zuckert, at least for her essay, takes Strauss literally in the above passage. Her comment pushes an unironic, serious reading of it. This is what she has to say about the very sentences critiqued above:

Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, we thus see at the outset of this essay, Strauss does not deny the importance of historical knowledge for the study of political philosophy. He merely, if emphatically, insists that historical and philosophical knowledge are not the same. (Zuckert 45)

However, as far as I can tell, Strauss has put these arguments forth to provoke us. This is the “traditional” – i.e. lazy – view of how political philosophy and history relate. It is only the beginning of Strauss’ argument, which may depend on its esoteric elements more than a coherent surface. Zuckert is well aware of this, but she wants the surface to stand on its own. Unfortunately, if one takes the surface too literally, one can’t do basic things for a text like determine an internal speaker or audience. To be too literal is to intentionally blind oneself. It does seem that Strauss is keen on addressing a certain audience in “Political Philosophy and History,” an audience that is more or less anti-communist, traditionalist, prone to thinking that Plato and Locke have more in common than Plato and Rousseau, or especially Plato and Nietzsche. And right now, I’m thinking he wants to teach that audience that the history of political philosophy, his own project, is a philosophic endeavor solely because of “historicism.” This is quite a radical thesis for someone more traditionally minded. I think Zuckert would concur, but what’s funny is that two different things might be meant by the same conclusion. A lot of people – not Catherine Zuckert – seem to think that you need to know the history of political philosophy well in order to say anything wise or thoughtful about our world. I don’t know about that, and I really don’t want to sign off on anything that would suggest it.

Seth Benardete, “Memorial Speech for Leo Strauss”

Extended comment follows. I realize this is a long text and longer post. My initial thought was to let Benardete speak his remembrance without further comment. This is an important speech for a number of reasons, and it needs to be public, if only for the simple fact it is a tribute. But I realize some of you want to know more about the scholarly things mentioned and not feel overwhelmed by a number of names and concepts. You also want some general grounds for why this tribute matters, not just those that convince the converted. I hold there is a beauty, a nobility, to what is below. And you’re owed at least an attempt at an explanation.

Memorial Speech for Leo Strauss (1974) [from The Archaeology of the Soul, ed. Burger & Davis]
Seth Benardete

Leo Strauss was a philosopher. He hid this fact as much as he showed it by being a transhistorical historian of philosophy. He was more historically accurate than the “historians of ideas” for the sake of recovering the human horizon whose articulation is indispensable for our ascending to the natural horizon. He realized that a special effort had to be made by us in order to attain to the distinction, which is at the heart of philosophy, between those things which are first for us and those things which are first by nature. His was an ascent from the cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave. ‘Archaeology’ was the only path still open to any possible ‘physiology.’ Strauss thus attempted to rediscover in a wholly original way the sense of the Socratic enterprise itself, which had argued on behalf of common sense against the madness of the pre-Socratics only to ground common sense on a basis inaccessible to common sense. Strauss was not the first to attempt such a rediscovery; but he was certainly faced with greater obstacles, of an apparently solid and philosophical sort, than anyone before him. And yet he did hold a peculiar advantage over those thinkers who in the last hundred years or so have acknowledged that the ancients were more than clever children, and that their thought deserved rethinking. He approached the ancients without the blinkers of modern classical scholarship — a sign of this was his rediscovery of Xenophon the philosopher — for he knew that such scholarship had taken from the start the side of the moderns. For him neither Greek poetry nor Greek philosophy was essentially Greek. He was guided throughout by a thought much older than modernity. Averroism saw the political-theological issue as the philosophical issue, since the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god. Political philosophy was therefore the eccentric core of philosophy, and the problem of Socrates the problem of philosophy itself.

In his Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss wrote as follows: ‘Thucydides’ History arouses in the reader a sadness which is never aroused by Machiavelli’s books. In Machiavelli we find comedies, parodies, and satires but nothing reminding of tragedy. One half of humanity remains outside of his thought. There is no tragedy in Machiavelli because he has no sense of the sacredness of “the common”.’ Are the ancients, then, tragic Machiavellians and did Strauss himself keep comedy and tragedy in balance? He wrote, after all, on Aristophanes, not Sophocles. Comedy and tragedy is the political-theological issue in its original double form; but philosophy is their joint cancellation. All of Strauss’ life consisted in his making his way back to that pre-philosophical horizon of comedy and tragedy from which philosophy necessarily begins.

The tribal leader of the poets, at least as the West understands poetry, has always been Homer; but among the philosophers, it is Socrates. Their plain opposition to one another is mediated by Plato. The eternal quarrel between poetry and philosophy thus appears as a riddle, for Plato usurps the ground of imitation in order to condemn imitation. In some sense, Strauss was forever engaged in the explication of this Platonic riddle. His explication proved indeed to be another riddle, for in following up a hint of al-Farabi, he never had to have recourse to the symbolic or the mystical in order to vindicate for reason the seemingly poetic in Plato. Imitation is a form of concealment; it is the most obvious as well as the safest way of practicing esotericism; but political prudence in Plato is only paradigmatic; it is ultimately to be traced to a philosophical prudence that has no counterpart among the moderns. The moderns are like spiders, said Swift, who out of the vilest things spin the most beautiful webs; but the ancients are like bees, who from a natural nectar devise something sweeter still. This optimism, as Nietzsche contemptuously called it, is due according to Plato to the causal nature of the good or the idea of the good; and the good is that which subordinates the beauty and the ugliness, which comedy and tragedy somehow discern, to itself. It is that which connects the apparent order and disorder of things with the true order of things. Plato’s writings are imitations of this double order, for only imitation can re-present the doubleness, the riddle, of this double order.

In Natural Right and History Strauss offered a negative proof of the need to rethink classical political philosophy. He showed that the first wave of modern political philosophy, from Machiavelli to Locke, was nothing but the successive dismantling of the disparate wholeness of the soul until it had lost both its wholeness and all its parts. This showing was an anti-Nietzschean, i.e. an anti-historicist historical psychology. It underlined the fact that the study of the soul was central for Strauss in linking up political philosophy with first philosophy. Plato’s psychology was Strauss’s way to Plato’s ideas, and Strauss’s way was the way of the Republic. No single Platonic dialogue, however, can yield Plato’s teaching about the soul; Strauss put great stress on Socrates’ observation in the Republic that the problem of justice there precludes an exact account of the soul, even though the problem of justice seems to require such an account, inasmuch as the structure of the city is presumably in strict accordance with the structure of the soul. The Republic reveals the tension between the political and the natural relation of thymos and eros. Such a tension needs to be represented or imitated. It is imitated through the action of the Republic that accompanies its argument. One might say, in general, that the action of a Platonic dialogue both explains the inadequacies of the argument and deepens the argument. Strauss was the first, as far as we know, to give a coherent account of this double function. He showed that, how, and why the linking up of logos and psyche, which is dialectics, was of the essence of the Socratic revolution. That there are many types of soul, each irreducible to one another, necessarily follows from this linking up (for virtue is and is not knowledge); and these types or wholes, in turn, both underlie the variety of political regimes and point to an essential character of the ideas which is not accessible to us in any other way. The problem of wholes links the city through the soul with the beings. It might seem, however, from his published writings that the ideas were only of peripheral interest to Strauss; but Strauss has properly warned us against writing. In any case, in a letter to me, in reply to some objection of mine which I no longer can remember, Strauss wrote: “I’m aware of the fact that the wholeness of a part does not preclude a plural: there is barely a moment in my waking life when I do not think of donkeys, dogs, and mules.”


Why does it matter that “Leo Strauss was a philosopher?” What could possibly be good for us in someone else loving wisdom? I know I have mentioned before that the love of wisdom, philosophy, is not the same thing as actually having wisdom. The value of a scholar, someone who primarily thinks through purposely complicated issues, is questionable.

Yet we do recognize something about being a philosopher which sounds higher, at the least. It’s a tremendous compliment when one does not give it to oneself. Of course, any given height could lend itself to grandiose rhetoric. Benardete says Strauss helped recover the “human horizon whose articulation is indispensable for our ascending to the natural horizon.” Not just that his work enables us to see how we actually live in the here and now, but that such an articulation of how we live, in turn, enables an ascent. We can eventually witness a “natural horizon” where one asks “What is man?” and better understands limits, loves, and possibilities with respect to man as a species, humanity as a whole.

One might say anyone can document how people live or ask “What is man?” and give an answer. It’s not that simple; just like common sense, thinking through things carefully is extremely rare. What makes a true philosopher special is that he can do something seemingly everyday, shared by all humans, and do it extraordinarily well. Benardete speaks to this directly:

He realized that a special effort had to be made by us in order to attain to the distinction, which is at the heart of philosophy, between those things which are first for us and those things which are first by nature. His was an ascent from the cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave.

What is first for us we confuse with what is naturally first. This sounds terribly cryptic, but it’s actually basic Aristotle. When we say something has an end or purpose, what we’re saying is that it exists for something. In other words, what is “first” about a car isn’t only that ore was taken from the ground and turned into metal, giving us material to make a car. Just as primary is the end of a car, why the car was even conceived: that it gets one from point A to point B.

The distinction seems simple enough, but it already speaks to at least two ways of approaching life and knowledge. The talk of the “cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave” is about a famous statement of Strauss’. We have lost sight of the cave of Plato’s Republic, which for Strauss is the realm of conventionality, the city/polis. We cannot begin to properly identify where our beliefs lie and knowledge begins, so we are in the cave beneath the cave. Far more political, ideological, and utilitarian than we assume ourselves being, we need to know about the cave itself to remind us of our limits. But if you do recognize it for what it is, you have the ability to see far more about being human than you would initially expect.

Benardete goes on to highlight how an ancient/modern contrast was useful to Strauss in beginning his inquiries. There are a number of reasons to question such a division: the ancient thinkers can’t see what the modern ones do? Things like Xenophon’s “Spartan Constitution” indicate otherwise. The last chapter of that short work almost makes a king sound like the modern executive. The contrast may not be the most accurate way of approaching the past. However, it does mean one does not take differences for granted, and the power of older thinkers gets its due:

Averroism saw the political-theological issue as the philosophical issue, since the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god. Political philosophy was therefore the eccentric core of philosophy, and the problem of Socrates the problem of philosophy itself.

The older debate centered on a specific question. “What is man?” points to the problem of being. Rocks are, animals are, planets are – but who are we? Further, “what is man?” points to the problem of the good. What should we have? What will make us happy? The problem of being and the problem of the good, unfortunately, do not neatly converge. They diverge. “The problem of the human good is grounded in the city.” If you want to know what is good for you, you must take into account what is good for others, what others say is good. “The problem of being [is grounded] in god” only superficially engages what others say about the divine. In the end, we need to know for ourselves what we are capable and not capable of, what we personally find a limit or possibility. Man is between beast and god.

I think the “god” question, in light of the respect for the “being” question, sets up the problem of Socrates. Socrates is an extremely unique individual, even as he is self-sufficient, seeking the nature of things, unconstrained by convention. He is a natural human being, perhaps the natural human being. “Rational animal” applies to him too well.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates asserts that a tragedian can write tragedy and comedy. He is silent on whether a comedian can write tragedy. Tragedy – you could say the facts of failure and death – speaks to the whole of existence more than comedy. Socrates does more than talk about tragedy and comedy. But we can feel that if his life is worthy to be wondered at, then part of the reason must involve figuring out whether his death was tragic or not. In one sense, it is: human reason cannot secure what is most good, to live well always. But human reason is better than the alternative, which is slavery and self-delusion. The Athenians who killed Socrates thought they were good democrats. No one thinks that of them now, and philosophy, what Socrates died for, is considered indispensable. I confess I need to sit and think a lot harder about what Benardete means by “comedy and tragedy is the political-theological issue in its original double form,” but I think I’ve illustrated the “pre-philosophical horizon of comedy and tragedy from which philosophy necessarily begins.” In wondering how to properly characterize life, one finds oneself asking a lot more about it.

Still, philosophers are not the only ones with questions. Well, perhaps it is proper to say not the only ones experimenting with answers. There is an “eternal quarrel between poetry and philosophy,” but in Plato it is a riddle, “for Plato usurps the ground of imitation in order to condemn imitation.” The poets aren’t today’s poets, people who write things no one else reads. The poets of the ancient world make myth; they are Creators. That Plato writes drama should have destroyed philosophy, but if the drama is properly accounted for, it shows us “a philosophical prudence that has no counterpart among the moderns.”  Such a philosophical prudence is tied to the good. Plato famously hinted in the Republic that there is a form of the good which is a cause. This was taken to be no less than God by Christianity. But it is much stranger upon further examination. The good does have a “causal nature,”  which means what is good “subordinates the beauty and the ugliness, which comedy and tragedy somehow discern, to itself.” You get an account of order and disorder from what is good. But is there actually a form or idea of the good, or is the proper cause human being? Don’t we seek what is good, accept answers based on circumstances and changes, and order things relatively? Benardete speaks of “concealment,” “imitation,” and “doubleness.” What he means is that Plato pulled off a neat trick. In making it seem like there was an absolute good, he actually argued for the relativity of what is good – i.e. the need for human reason.

But we are not just creatures that seek “goods.” We got into the quest for “the good” for a reason. “The first wave of modern political philosophy, from Machiavelli to Locke, was nothing but the successive dismantling of the disparate wholeness of the soul until it had lost both its wholeness and all its parts.” In other words, when Plato’s work was abandoned in favor of more effectual texts, which gave us no less than science, commerce, and a republic, there was a trade-off. The problems of being and the good add up a peculiar way. In the most secular sense, they are the soul. One need not believe in life after death or invisible essences that give motion to our bodies to say that we do things to make our lives count for something. Our soul is almost nothing but our body. It refers to our social situation, our being framed by conventionality, and even then not quite. The structure of a given city does not mirror how our souls – or anyone’s soul – is structured, though we identify with aspects of a city so much that we may die for it (thymos – spiritedness, heart). Our desire, our eros, is a complex phenomenon. To label it radically individual does not appreciate what it actually does.

To understand what is going on – at this moment, we are dealing with an issue in reading Plato – one has to look at the drama of a Platonic dialogue. Plato’s imitation, unlike the poets, does not lead to the same flights of fancy. Rather, it goes back to an all-too-human condition, where what someone says can only be understood in light of how he acts or what he wants. Plato, like Socrates, is looking at human beings and their natures.”[T]here are many types of soul, each irreducible to one another:” political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy as it is willing to accept the diversity of mankind even while asking about the best regime.

That political life is a problematic whole, a tension wrought with other tensions, is reflected in Strauss’ statement: “I’m aware of the fact that the wholeness of a part does not preclude a plural: there is barely a moment in my waking life when I do not think of donkeys, dogs, and mules.” As individuals, we are whole parts. We are plural in being singular. That brings us to donkeys, dogs, and mules. Donkeys, with their large ears, hear the initial call. Dogs are the spirited friends of the philosopher. So far, an order. Mules – a hybrid that cannot reproduce itself – do a lot of work with exceptional strength. It sounds strange to call a philosopher a mule, but that is where Benardete leaves us. The singularity of the philosopher is quite an achievement, especially considering he has discovered our own individuality.

All of politics is an attempt to manipulate me. Why should I study it?

Obviously, I cannot convince all of you that political science is worthwhile. Some of you will think that no matter what I say, I’m out to indoctrinate you. And I can’t lie, I do have an agenda. So if people having agendas bothers you, do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and never read anything, watch anything, or talk to anyone. After all, the mindless accusation that everyone is out to manipulate you assumes you are some paragon of innocence who deserves to be treated like an extra special flower by everyone else. It accuses before ever asking whether the accuser has done anything to manipulate others.

Ok. Not a lot of you have left. Great. I think you see that the problem posed is pretty specific. Politics does not pretend; it is openly about power and control. And you’ve got parents and relatives and friends and random people shouting at you about it, telling you that if you don’t think this specific way the world will end. So you react by moving away from politics, seeing your ideals realized another way culturally. Maybe through religion, punk rock, service, sports, etc. To be honest, it’s a weird situation America is in. The polls don’t really adequately describe the lack of interest in civics; they just show we hate Congress. Every time Glenn Beck gets up there and starts yelling about the Founders, I know another student who might have been interested in reading the Federalist decides it isn’t worth it. A high school teacher of mine asked our class one day if we had any interest in being President. 2 or 3 hands shot up. He remarked in his day, in the 70′s (not exactly a time of conservative nostalgia), every hand in the room would have gone up. Not because everyone wanted to be President, but because it was considered an honor worth having and striving for. I’ll bet that anecdote tells more about the current state of U.S. politics than anything else.

So let’s go back a little bit. At some point, Americans more or less believed they had a real hand in their own governance. They didn’t just go through the motions or resign themselves to fear of the other party. To think being President is a good thing shows some belief in the effective power of politics. And it is true, for all the evils that are ascribed to politics, there are many goods that have emerged from it. I don’t think you can say politics alone created racism, but it was a politician who, in proclaiming Emancipation, made it clear that a reunified America would never again tolerate slavery. We just celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela, who promised no retribution on the part of his party after enduring years of second class citizenship and made good on that promise. South Africa isn’t perfect by a long shot – it needs much more competitive elections – but it is primarily white supremacists who falsely insist there is “white genocide” in South Africa. People like Churchill, Jefferson, and Gandhi are remarkable precisely because of their political greatness.

Something about politics, then, can’t just be manipulation. Not if great leaders sacrifice, not if people invest hope and trust in them and receive something – freedom, justice, a better life – for it. Something about the very concept of politics is transformative. And whatever that something is, we’re blind to it.

To make a long story short, we’re blind to it because contemporary approaches to politics are successful. They’re successful because they’re reductive. My prime example: the American Constitution. It’s a pretty successful set of laws, it seems – America’s not exactly weak. So why didn’t people, say, 2000 years ago come up with the idea of a President, a Congress, a Judiciary? Were they too busy riding dinosaurs to work?

The truth is that civilization, if not technology, was relatively advanced in the ancient world. For Aristotle, the city aims “at the authoritative good of all.” This, in the very opening of his Politics, cannot be overthought. First of all, we emphasize individual liberty, typically implying that it is our individual right to not give a damn about others. Here’s Aristotle saying that if you want what is best in life for yourself, it is going to probably involve something social. Your happiness is at stake. “Authoritative” also speaks to what must be agreed to be good: virtues speak louder than vices.

Now the Aristotlean approach is not dogma, despite linking politics with happiness and virtue. Aristotle is a philosopher outlining an inquiry; the Aristotlean polis never existed. The best regime had to be laid out, as only in the best regime can the good citizen be squared with the good man. All of us recognize that there is a distinction between our obligations as a citizen and who we are as simply human. That distinction existed for Aristotle, too, only with the caveat that our political and personal obligations had to reconcile somehow.

The distinction exists for us a more severe way; the political feels almost unnecessary to us. The arrival of Christianity did not do away with pagan thinking about virtue entirely. But it took happiness and set it in the next life, casting doubt on all attempts to rule properly in this life. God is the only judge, the Church His bride. True Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God; true Christians are in the image and likeness of their Maker. The consequence: in the Middle Ages, politics was practically a topic of no importance, though many words were spent on law and virtue. The height of this reasoning is the idea of natural law: the moral law is known through reason. What need is there for deliberative bodies or wise rulers? What need to enforce the law?

When serious thinking about politics reemerged, it did so against both medieval and classical concepts of politics. The medieval concepts had to be overthrown sharply: they were license for the abuses of the Church, warfare between Christian sects, and terrible institutional planning. But pagan thought, since it had been synthesized with the Church, had to go too. Pagan thought did not just limit thinking about politics; inasmuch “Aristotlean physics” is a phrase with currency, it was necessary to attack to have science. The thinking that underlies American Constitutionalism embraces Enlightenment, making all of humanity smarter in ways immediately useful to them. This means an emphasis on scientific progress, which is not strictly the same thing as aiming for happiness or virtue. Education was redefined to be more about utility than character.

In fact, happiness – except in the phrase “pursuit of happiness” – drops out as a necessary end for the citizen. What matters is not so much if we are happy, but we are stable and secure. Machiavelli declared that a Prince is better feared than loved. While he does not mean this to say that we should embrace tyrants that make us all scared, he does mean that our fulfillment in the government we create is not to be had. Government is a necessary evil, devoid of virtue. In Hobbes, who witnessed the religious zeal that drove England into civil war, the primary reason we create government is self-preservation. We cannot trust a “state of nature” where anyone or groups of people could attack anyone. Our individual safety is why we contract to set up a sovereign. It is a far lower concern than happiness or virtue, or conformity with the rational order of God’s Creation. It is a concern centered on fear.

Locke, writing shortly after Hobbes, makes this sort of reasoning palatable to a broader audience. Locke was preached from pulpits in Revolutionary America. Central to Locke is that government respects “life, liberty, and property” – the last famously replaced in the Declaration by “pursuit of happiness.” A government that does not respect these things is violating the rights of man and should be rebelled against.

One can see how more than the right to be safe emerges from property rights. Property really is the key to the Constitution, as well as seeing how much political thinking over the years changed. Neither ancient nor medieval thinking cared much for acquiring property. A virtuous citizenry, for the pagans, would be self-sufficient and diligent in their work. For the medievals, fasting was an obligation. But now, acquisition becomes the heart of things. This is partly because of the need to have useful science and technology, partly also because commerce and trade are less destructive than religious warfare. The big reason, though, comes up in Machiavelli. If a ruler under false pretenses executes one man’s father, that grudge may cause one man – the son – to take up arms. He might get support. He might also decide that his dad was a troublemaker and let it go. But if that ruler takes the father’s property away, the whole neighborhood, anyone with property, is alerted and angry.

Property is a material alarm system which warns everyone if the government is getting tyrannical. For Madison, in Federalist 10, the products of liberty are not just a factional conflict that the sheer size of the United States will never allow to be problem (too many factions, therefore never a majority faction). Our liberty also creates a diversity of properties which are important to us in different ways. This is not Madison being glib; this is the logical consequence of trying to not directly address happiness or virtue. Security, stability, and a view of freedom as what government should not do characterize the American regime. Property rights are integral to all of that. But how exactly does this unite us as a people? Give us moral purpose? It is much easier to say under an ancient view of politics that government is the possibility of collective moral purpose. Lest you think we do not need any such idea – that we can fight for freedom alone – remember that this country tore itself apart less than a hundred years after it was founded over whether slavery was wrong or not.

I don’t think we’re successful in spite of ourselves. For years, we’ve had people willing to look into difficult questions and accept hard answers. To me, the real problem with our deemphasis on studying things like politics or history or literature or philosophy is that, at best, we want to conduct studies to get easy answers. Oh sure, the studies are hard work, the methodology is difficult to defend, the implementation is never quite perfect, and the results do affirm what we’re working with as fundamental concepts. But let’s get real: we want easy answers. We want to know 60% of people will vote one way or another if we tell them something. That reasoning would not have been important 2000 years ago, and is fatal to a republic where our purposes are open. The biggest sacrifices our leaders make involve telling us things we don’t want to hear in order to make sure we have a country 20 years later. At least, those are the sacrifices they made.

On Conservatism, 1/6/14

1. Nowadays, all I want to do is write.

Not read, not think, not analyze, but express myself as if I have a single, immutable truth. I made my New Year’s resolution to be less angry and more confident.

But I’m not sure I should give up my anger. Anger is the sign one feels wronged, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t wronged. Or, to be more accurate: that we weren’t wronged.

2. The realities of class and race play out right in front of my eyes every day. At numerous times, I’ve watched whites get second, third, fourth, fifth chances that minorities will never see. I know they’ll never see them because I saw what happened with other races in the exact same situation. People with no support thrown out at the slightest misstep, as if they had support. And I’ve watched people with money pride themselves on their work – as well they should – but as if the job itself could be had by anyone with a little drive or savvy. As if no one else was combing job listings or begging friends for contacts or trying to self-improve with limited time and resources.

What I’ve realized is that all the inequality, all the anger, turns into a strange political phenomenon. It translates messily into class warfare. There’s always a “them” taking from “us,” but the “them” is confused. It’s almost always a straw man, a hypothetical. Maybe it is corporate overlords or government elites or people of other races or religions. What matters is “our” moral purity: we’re the ones who don’t take. We’re the ones who earn.

Except we do take, all of us. One of the things that has me burning is the exploitation of Christianity to dodge the inconvenient fact we’re all sinners. This happens consistently with extreme prejudice by people who in many cases don’t know the difference between the Trinity and One Direction. What they “know” is what they feel, and they haven’t really paid much attention to knowing or feeling. They want to hear there are rules that if obeyed get them into heaven. They do not care at all if those rules bear a striking resemblance to nostalgia more than morality, if they are using a romanticized portrait of their own past to guide them at best. (The biggest problem with me is that I assume people are attentive.)

I’m lucky in a way. My parents’ faults – God bless them – are very evident. That I’m recognized as having next to no prudence helps me remember that in terms of forming a serious moral judgment, I’m on my own. I had better take everything I have – as much of what’s considered human and divine wisdom as possible – and evaluate seriously. I had better do my best to judge and accept judgment, not avoid it.

3. My more liberal friends who want to reach out to everyone aren’t realizing that snakes are everywhere. Conservatives exaggerate their numbers and point at the wrong people, but the idea that some people will take everything if given a chance is correct. Only: every single snake I know nowadays is a self-proclaimed conservative. Right now I’m dealing with some of the most vicious ones, ones who continually take, never giving back, always asking for more. To even listen to them is to walk into a trap. They think their survival is at stake (it isn’t); they see themselves as different (they aren’t); they could care less how you feel or whether you’re being stolen from because you have (you don’t) and they need to survive anyway (as if trust wasn’t worth having). To listen to them is to implicitly justify the fact that they plan on taking from you. You won’t utter a peep as you’re tired of talking to them.

One major reason why I consider myself politically conservative is that I try to stay away from the illusion that people can be better than killing each other over $5 or a place in line at Pizza Hut. That sort of tragedy will always happen. But what’s happening now is that the worst stereotypes about a culture of dependency are manifest. People have been told they’re frauds, cheats, liars, or simply not worthy before even having the chance to do or get anything. Or they think they deserve everything because by their standard, they earn.

What they’ve lost is any sense of shame. Without shame, you can’t have morality. People have to want to stand for something at some point. If they don’t understand why that’s important, they’ll do anything to anyone else. A friend watched a person take several hundred dollars from another who was making less money than he was. And this isn’t the only thing I’ve seen or heard in the last couple of months. There were the libertarians who failed to distinguish between freedom and addiction; the roommate who muscled his way into another apartment and kicked out another who had graciously taken in him when homeless. There are bad people out there, and words alone will not fight them.

4. We are beyond shame. We’ll tweet hate at the President, Republican or Democrat. We’ll say anything to justify ourselves and at times allow ourselves to be purposely consumed by hysteria. We know if we get hysterical or neurotic we can get what we want. The only question left is why we haven’t eaten each other.

But that’s only a matter of time. In the richest country ever in the history of the planet, food banks have shortages. We have hunger on an increasingly epidemic scale. Get out and work, growls the gentleman whose entire income comes from the federal government. I’m working says the leech taking advantage of everyone else – milking every advantage he has – while using the disguise of work.

To have shame is to have a rough equality. I do not expect that we will ever meet the standard of Plato’s Laws, where the richest citizen only has 7 times what the poorest has. But maybe we should look at the Arab world, where a great tumult broke out. Islam offers many that sense of equality, that sense “we’re in this together,” while elites stay secular and cynical, often exacerbating social divisions to the point of violence. But the shame before the law (sharia) has not set in; rather, the law is used to bully others or used in reverse to ostracize its true adherents. With people far more passionate about the possibility of democracy than in our own country – with people who in many cases overcame greater odds to lead and work for others – they might fail. It isn’t religion that’s the problem (the hardline Islamists kill more Muslims than anyone else), or even the awful legacy of U.S. Cold War policy, where merely proclaiming yourself “anti-communist” got you weapons and dollars. The problem is that the spirit of the law is what we must work toward. The law only matters because of unity. Again, look at – maybe to – the Arab world. We are far more comfortable, far from grudges that go back centuries, but we’re at each others’ throats over nothing. To have shame is to know that you are no better than the people you think must serve you, the ones you claim to hate.

On Aliens


The chrome of spaceship Xpthis 3 gleamed as it fired death rays into every major American city. Screams came from every direction and were played on the ship’s loudspeaker. I scrubbed the floor, fearing for my life – I was an early capture. Up to that point, I didn’t think the aliens had a hierarchy. They presented themselves as a collective will. But then I saw things that marked jealousy, fear, resentment. Aliens with what seemed more menial tasks laughed harder at our agony. For Kothos Prime, though, this was another day’s work. I began to think those numbers he worked with were not calculations about jumping to lightspeed, but rather his hedge fund.

Before I was brutally probed by our alien conquerors, I worked for an ice cream shop. I mainly got the job because my girlfriend told me she’d kick me out of our place if I didn’t get off my ass and work. She wasn’t worried about my not paying bills, though that happened from time to time. A rich uncle of mine died and left me a bunch of money. I was given that money for college, but that condition was only told to me in confidence.

As a wise man once said, “I do what I want.”

[sounds of laser fire, running, hatch being opened. Recording ends for a short time.]

Where was I? Oh yeah, school. Part of me thinks that my uncle wouldn’t have cared that I blew my brains out with weed freshman year. First off, why the fuck is high school everything? The last thing I wanted to see was every bullshit clique replicate itself like mold, and that’s exactly what I saw right away. The preppy ones who were dressed just a little sharper, kept up a little better in class. You knew they were there to get the paper and go right back to Daddy’s firm. Then there were the ones trying to be smart – god they were annoying. They were naive enough to think they’d actually get real opportunities, knowledgeable enough to plunge into enough nonsense to deny the reality. There were jocks, alcoholics, stoners, drama queens and a bunch of others, but I stopped paying attention quickly. My uncle gave me money to make something of myself. When I started seeing the groups most likely to rule the world, I just wanted to vomit.

I’ll tell you a secret. Smoking was the best. fucking. thing. ever. OK, that’s not a secret, but it’s like this. OK. You listening? Good. I know, I’m not talking to you all sharp and stuff anymore, but that’s because I’ve found some kickass alien weed in this lab and I am a lot more chill. I do not feel the pressure of telling you everything.

I got into smoking because I liked blowing the smoke. It sounds so stupid, but there you are, and you can just cloud your vision for just a second – everyone can – and you can see the details and the changes in the smoke itself. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the high is awesome. But what’s really addictive is being yourself, without pressure from all around. You know what I mean? I gotta change locations again, I hear a guard coming.

[recording resumes a short time later]

Okay. I forget where I left off. My point was that I never felt I had real opportunities, just money and drugs. My girlfriend works a lot harder than me, but she’ll never admit that she’s not where she imagined she’d be. Straight A’s and an internship and law school: she’s night manager at Walmart. Our money goes toward her debt.

I’ve worked a number of jobs. I think the retail ones best sum up everything I hate. I’m scared to lose hours, scared to not sell enough, scared that the money I make will barely cover expenses. There’s never any time to think positive things when not busy. I quit my last job at Abercrombie after a good manager who made sure we were treated well and things ran efficiently was reassigned. His labor was too valuable to the company; the store was an afterthought. After him, things went downhill fast. I am really liking the ice cream job, though. I get to bring unsold food home.

I encountered the aliens when walking back from work. My girlfriend had texted me some stuff about how much I suck. I’ve gotten used to the anger, but it distracted me. I didn’t realize I was walking into an area that was more fog than sidewalk.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t foggy out.

The aliens definitely were interested in my physical being and my cell phone. It’s really strange – they didn’t ask any questions about governance or history, nothing about society or culture. They did ask questions about diet and exercise, endurance, how I felt in certain climates. They were interested in emotional responses for sure. It wasn’t hard to see that their psychology is very linear: if an object is put in front of me, that must mean a specific thought or feeling. Honestly, after working retail, it’s hard to see a difference in my treatment.

Hup, time to move.

[recording resumes a long while later]

Something’s up. I’m watching the shuttles with what seem to be raiding parties come back to the mothership, and the aliens are always fighting. There was an argument over what was a stolen coffeemaker.

It’s been weeks. I haven’t thought about my girlfriend or my family at all. My time is spent trying to figure out what I’m seeing. What possesses people to take a bunch of ships and soldiers and go some random direction, raiding what they first see? I mean, who does that?

Okay, fine. Laugh. Yeah, we did a lot of that. This is a bit weirder: there’s no pretense of exploration. I don’t even know that they know what raiding is, either. The ships come back with objects as varied as feathered boas and metal from the Sky Needle. It’s like they’re just doing stuff to look like explorers or an army. I haven’t seen any serious attempt at occupation; their transport ships have held steady.

I’m gonna try to steal away on this shuttle. I haven’t thought about the girlfriend or the family because I’ve been focusing on trying to get to them.

[recording, weeks later]

I guarded this device like my life depended on it. I didn’t want it lost or stolen, I didn’t want anyone thinking I was an alien spy. I haven’t recorded because I got back to my girlfriend and family, and they’re gone now. They had a series of devastating mutinies. It turns out the officers were competing amongst themselves in a sport of sorts, a “who can do the most damage and capture the most stuff” competition. Come to think of it, the marks that they were so ridiculously feudal were always there, most present in the things that initially struck me as democratic. What undid them, it seems, was the arbitrary scoring the commanders engaged in. Nothing was ever good enough. If one commander destroyed a whole city by using a ray to create an environmental effect like an EMP, then another stole every fence from a suburb using only genetically modified ninja cats. The men, apparently, saw this initially as unique and worth having pride in. Eventually, they started running out of things to do – yes, even by these pitifully low standards – and the commanders turned on each other, and the men turned on the commanders.

I don’t know how exactly this thing works. It records, but there’s a little sign that might mean I’m on air. We have a chocolate mocha almond flavor at the shop today. It’s a slow day and I could really use the tips. Thanks in advance if you show, especially if you have my coffeemaker.

Introducing Political Philosophy: Some Straussian Resources

I just saw this page dedicated to Vermeer and wanted to become an art historian on the spot. There’s something marvelous about assembling and organizing information well – it really does empower students and make things easier for teachers and scholars.

Truth be told, I would love to link to resources on Vlastos or Rawls or Pocock or other schools of thought, but I don’t know them well enough. So I’m sticking to Straussian stuff, hoping someone will make a wiki on another site and we can get a collection of primary sources, secondary sources, blurbs and introductory articles going. My goal here is to get started, so I’m not aiming to be comprehensive. I’m actually aiming to be done in a half-hour.

Political Philosophy & Leo Strauss himself

Ancient Philosophy



This isn’t a lot, I know. But I think there’s a virtue to the fact that resources by “names” are rare. A good wiki will start cataloging and reviewing papers and dissertations on topics by lesser known people. Lord knows we need that nowadays – the way academia is, you’d think there were 3 people who are allowed to read books and have opinions on them.

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

On the surface, this is an exceedingly practical text. Xenophon tells us to make sure the horses in service don’t have bad legs, that the men can mount their horses, etc. There is a catch: in Memorabilia III.3, Socrates has an interlocutor who is an elected cavalry commander. Xenophon declares that he knows the presented conversation happened. This is not a claim he makes about many of his chapters. Socrates gives much of the exact same advice written in the first book of On the Cavalry Commander to the interlocutor, who comes off as extremely ignorant. As it stands, I’m developing an argument that Socrates’ practical advice in III.3 is actually about nobility and the soul. I suspect there is less truly about horses in both writings and a lot more about philosophy and human nature, some kind of direct hint about how Socrates educated Xenophon directly.

However, there is an enormous difference between Xenophon in On the Cavalry Commander and Socrates in Memorabilia III.3 that is revealed by the opening. Socrates never mentions gods or piety in giving the commander advice. He focuses on provision, training, motivation and obedience for horses and men alike. But Xenophon opens his treatise such:

The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage (Cavalry Commander 1.1).

Xenophon is not shy about repeatedly mentioning the service the commander owes to the gods. Is Xenophon more pious than Socrates? Hardly – the morality of this passage is extremely questionable. In return for giving the gods control over your thoughts, you get affection, glory and advantage. This is an attempt to bribe the gods. The “thoughts, words and deeds” that matter the most bring success, not justice or living within one’s means (contrast with: Mem. I.1.19). It is worth noting that Xenophon talks about the gods so much in his little treatise that he apologizes for it later (Cav. 9.8).

The full significance of piety in the treatise requires one to see competing claims about divinity. Xenophon is abundantly clear about the cavalry commander’s perspective. The other opinion comes about a roundabout way, as the figure of Socrates is hinted at. Xenophon’s practical advice is never just that. To take perhaps the most important example: it is sensible advice that one who wants a horse’s feet to be stronger will have it stand on large stones outside of the stable (they didn’t have horseshoes), making that horse as a matter of habit get used to the hardness (I.16). Xenophon gives a hint that this advice is central to the plan of his work, as he tells the reader that if he tries this, he will “believe in the rest of my rules.”

This passage reminds of Socrates’ hardened bare feet, one aspect of his disdain for wealth and his own continence (cf. Mem I.2.5). It only reminds, as we can only speculate. Much later in the treatise, Xenophon discusses how a thoroughly superior cavalry unit would come about, one that would make one’s opponents look like amateurs. The cavalry that will almost literally fly in difficult situations and over rough terrain – Xenophon says they will be like “birds to beasts,” the “sound from the lame” – that cavalry is trained and has hardened feet (Cav. 8.2-3). He goes further, saying that equestrian exercises are no work at all, for they are the activities where man comes closest to flight (8.6). If one is still not convinced of the value of cavalry, there is this: through war, states get happiness from the gods; no other competition among men is like it (8.7).

Our speculation is beginning to see the outline of a pattern. Men compete not just to be better than other men. They are trying to make claims over other men, trying to show that what other men could not do they can do. In other words: man is the species that is emphatically not content with being man. (One can argue that the text most Greeks know is Homer. A figure like Achilles cannot simply be ignored when reading Plato and Xenophon.) Xenophon is quietly pushing the idea that a superior warrior is near godlike while overtly pushing a more conventional piety. Not to make a bad pun, but to stay grounded, we have to try not to think about a lot of training making someone look like they can fly. We’re going to have to wonder why someone with rather tough soles would choose to stay in the city. The answer, I think, lies in an allusion near the end of the treatise. The gods, who know all things, give warnings through a variety of means; a commander must do his best to take them seriously (9.9). Socrates had the same warnings (Mem I.1.3). To a degree, to want the power of a god is to deny oneself direct access to divine knowledge. Why would someone truly godlike compete?

Some Scattered Thoughts on Syria and “Realism”

Everything below could be wrong. I’m just musing hawkishly.

As you all know, the loss of life in the Syrian civil war is at least 93,000. The crisis started March 2011 – a little over 2 years. By comparison: the AP counts 110,600 violent deaths in Iraq from 2003-2009.

Dan Drezner thinks U.S. policy in Syria is probably to let Iran and Hezbollah waste assets in a protracted engagement. He considers this a form of “realism” in foreign policy; he cites one Dan Trombly about the “strategic opportunity” this is:

Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.

Drezner is pretty forthright that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here:

Now let’s be clear: to describe this as “morally questionable” would be an understatement. It’s a policy that makes me very uncomfortable… until one considers the alternatives. What it’s not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.

That this has been U.S. policy toward Syria I have no doubt. Forgive me while I vomit. At times I think terms like “realism” or “liberalism” or whatever are covers for the fact that we do awful things to each other and have paper-thin justifications. I don’t even know that this is about justice or saving lives, though, because I’m wondering if the costs of inaction are higher than people realize.

First of all, I need to see clear proof that this disgusting strategy is actually hurting Iran and not strengthening its hand or our other enemies in the region. It seems to me Hezbollah and things like al-Nusra are stronger and more motivated and recruiting. It seems to me this destabilizes more than just our enemies: our allies are victims of everything turning into a Sunni/Shia battle. al-Qaeda and Iran are not just fighting each other in Syria. They’re dragging everyone and their mother into that battle. Hate doesn’t simply kill itself off. It spreads like the plague the more this continues. Are terrorist groups actually getting weaker? Please provide some proof of this.

Second: when you’re the hegemon, your interests are more than you realize and your powers are direct and indirect. I’ll start with the latter. One way in which we prevent future conflicts is simply by outspending the rest of the world combined in our military budget. Similarly, there’s a lot of indirect power exerted in things like this: if the President says there’s a “red line,” and then doesn’t act like that means much, how do our allies and enemies calculate? The incentive to threaten our interests in areas we cannot easily protect grows. Power depends on the perception of power, not just the harder calculations about interests and resources.

And power to some degree does depend on trust, and trust in the larger sense depends on whether we have a vision for a stable world. This is where “the national interest” comes squarely into focus. It is true that Syria is not essential to U.S. interests at the moment. But long term? If people start thinking “hey, the U.S. let 93,000 people die in Syria while the region went to pieces despite having interests in its neighbors Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq,” doesn’t our ability to be a serious broker for peace become compromised? Look, it really helps to remember what “realism” in both its ancient and modern forms is contrasted with: piety, the idea that some quasi-religious bond can unite or moderate nations in good faith. (Interestingly, it does look like, re: classical realism, no less than Thucydides thinks Spartan reverence for the laws could extend to a moderation that would help Athens.) The idea behind realism is that by taking power more seriously than faith, one can get stability and peace.

The U.S. does not get the privilege of being a completely mercenary actor. It’s not a privilege we want. We benefit hugely by being a country other countries appeal to when they have problems.

To be clear: foreign policy seems to me to be a series of tactical considerations. Sometimes you can promote the national interest and your values. Sometimes you have to make do with worse outcomes or unstable allies. There is a lot of nasty stuff that goes on in the name of utility or stability. And I confess, I’m no expert on Syria.

My complaints mainly stem from this thought: our policymakers are paralyzed with fear that Iraq will happen again. Iraq is the worst thing ever, the most terrible thing in the history of terribleness. (btw, drones and wiretapping are awesome). Enough. If you want to talk seriously about policy, you have to learn the lesson, see the costs, and move on and try to apply what you’ve learned. Emphasis on “try.” Right now, we’re running one of the ugliest policies another country could run toward another – and will we promote wholesale butchery through arms sales? – and it isn’t clear whether this makes us or anyone else better. The only thing that’s clear is that it is one less thing we have to do. Except that it isn’t, because Assad has used chemical weapons. If this is “realism,” please inform me what fantasy is.

Also: my money is that we are going to end up intervening in a big way anyway. I need to see some serious thinking not just about interests and opportunities, but also obligations and long term goals for the US.

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