Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: politics (page 1 of 33)

Introduction to the Study of American Government

(Not counting chickens.)

It is impossible to memorize facts about institutions, assess current events, or recount history in the service of learning about government nowadays. This is the country where we live, and what happens presses us, affecting us in ways we do and do not perceive. Right now, a convincing case can be made that we are falling apart one way or another. Maybe alliances between corporations and government, militarized police, a refusal to let market forces do their work, and a lack of faith and values conspire to oppress the many at the expense of the few. But it could also be the case that we’re more racist, sexist, and hostile to minorities and immigrants than ever before. That in some quarters, unspeakable hatred and fear of others persists, poisoning our whole way of life from the inside out. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

All this is to say that if I ask you to explain the powers of the Senate, or research a topic like gun control, or tell you to read a letter of Jefferson’s, I’m in danger of substituting a crude caricature that concerns American politics for the real thing. American life, the life you live, is deeply intertwined with politics. That our partisanship is so revoltingly dogmatic proves that. Liberals and conservatives can’t date each other. Awful, generalized statements that demean humanity, like saying “everyone on food stamps is jobless and commits fraud,” abound. Things that are probably not good policy, such as letting Syria destroy itself and then wondering where ISIS came from, are sanctioned by simplistic sentiments left unchallenged.

That you’re put off by what you see of politics, then, is a good thing. You shouldn’t want to participate when the way issues are framed is infantile. But at the same time, politics is not merely a part of your life. We are reminded daily that it can be a matter of oppression, missed opportunities, survival and death. It is almost unfathomable how anyone could be disinterested in it.

Almost. The thing is, you have ambitions, you have moral concerns. You have things you want to accomplish and be good at. I could say this is fantastic, but that’s redundant. What isn’t redundant is shifting perspective a bit and noting that there is an implicit gratitude for what politics can produce. Some relative stability and the promise of opportunity are motivating you to get more out of life. You want to make music everyone listens to or dominate on the football field. You want friends and lovers and family to be healthy and well. You want finances and a job that help you and those you care about, and maybe even do some good for people you don’t know and don’t necessarily care about. These private concerns are not inimical to politics. Indeed, they’re the blood pumping through the veins of political life. Yet politics in the news seems to have nothing to do with what we love or strive for.

I’ll suggest this, and if it is a worthwhile starting point, we’ll be returning to it. What excites all of us is the prospect of freedom and what can be done with it. The funny thing is how that desire to be genuinely virtuous, to be a good human being, creates a more or less exclusive focus on the individual. It shouldn’t be a problem, as we’re supposed to be living in a system which allows individual freedom to flourish. In a weird way, though, it blinds us to public necessities and responsibilities, and I mean really blinds. We say “not my problem” regarding larger issues, as if we were actually exercising responsibility regarding them. After all, we’re not bringing our lack of information or interest to them.

Plato builds to a similar scenario in the fourth book of his Republic. The ideal city, structured into classes expert in their various practices, is just because each class minds its own business. There is no need for justice in the perfectly just city. The best regime, for Aristotle, is where private virtue and public virtue exactly coincide. But there is no best regime. All political systems involve a tension between the individual and the political order.

To go further, that tension does not necessarily occur because a political order is arbitrary or abstract. The problems exist because many political orders are legitimate in the deepest sense. They do provide goods, they do provide a basis for unity, they do manage conflicts. In other words: they are products of what we want as individuals. We are reflected in them, and like all images, we are distorted in them. It’d be easy to say “well, we should go back to being more simple, more natural,” so as to reduce the possibility anything could be distorted, and forget how alone we would become in doing so.

That you love, that you want satisfaction and happiness, shows the scope of political phenomena is far greater than readily conceived. For example, creeps on internet dating sites who show no restraint with their personal problems are not a private issue that gets easily ignored. They raise the question immediately of what is expected of people, how identity and gender are constructed. They raise the question of right, and how self-expression can be preserved while making sure the law points to the good of all.

They raise the question of us, how “we” comes from “I.” I would be stupid to tell you there are easy answers to this sort of question. Oftentimes in my field, a colleague will receive what he thinks is a burst of enlightenment. He’s realized that society is nothing more than conventional expectation, that all philosophy and wondering about things like “love” and “freedom” are moralistic constructs with no scientific, empirical basis. The humanities and social sciences stem from what we make up, and they’re totally artificial. Our problems are all self-constructed, so any prolonged musing on them is worthless.

He does not realize that it is precisely how complications arise that is the problem, that the complications are worth studying, focus, and reflection. That if an implied answer to all human problems were so easy, everyone would have done it by now. We’re not all the same, and it is frightening how pronouns keep that truth clear and distinct while we can’t.

David Foster Wallace, “McCain’s Promise”

1. $4 bought me a small book by David Foster Wallace about the Republican Presidential primaries in 2000. At one point, McCain was incensed that the Bush campaign did push polling (“Would you vote for McCain if you knew he…”) and stood with some kook accusing McCain of treating his fellow veterans like dirt post-Vietnam. So his team responded with a stunning bit of manufactured drama. A woman stood up during a town hall meeting with McCain and talked about how her son was turned off of politics and didn’t believe in heroes anymore. But then he and his parents noticed that McCain, an actual war hero, was running. The son got excited but then the evil Bush campaign called and said mean things while push polling and now the son was in crisis. McCain teared up a bit and called off the town hall meeting early. The woman made headlines.

DFW, for his part, was incredulous. Politicians and the media treat people like sheep, and it works. Maybe it works because many of us are too cynical to believe politics is anything other than this crap. The diehards, for their part, are looking for anything to say their man is boss. That’s my thought, though. DFW goes a different direction. Here you have a war hero, someone who refused to be let out of the Hanoi Hilton because he didn’t want to violate a Code. Here’s a guy whose whole appeal is that he was willing to die for a principle. Standing up for something so boldly is being as good as your word; it’s an honesty that dictates courage. And here’s the same guy engaging in a petty bit of spin in order to win a few votes.

DFW doesn’t put it this way, but I will: Heroism can’t be sold. It’s funny to say that, given the conventional character of heroism. Aristotle points this out early in the Ethics, in his discussion of Achilles being courageous. Achilles can only think of himself as brave in regards to the expectations of the city. Even self-sacrifice has to be cast in terms of how one could be remembered. One can say that heroism is nothing but selling out of a sort – the only issue is to which cause.

2. Let’s try this again. McCain’s problem, McCain’s promise, for DFW: he is an actual hero. But he wants to be more of a political leader, and thus has to sell that heroism given our current environment. This gets complicated, as leaders are not just believed, as a salesman might be. They are believed in.

There’s something about heroism and leadership that cannot be reduced to gain. DFW talks about the inspiration a leader provides: “A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.”

He’s exactly correct in making such an impassioned statement. But we have been talking so far about the power of conventional expectation. There may be a courage when you don’t know exactly where you stand. The inspiration a leader provides might reflect a more natural phenomenon, one accounted for an entirely different way.

Of course, to talk about the natural is to talk on the one hand about philosophy, on the other about how life is actually lived. On that note, I’ve spent the last few months being whiny, saying dumb things to people, feeling like I’ve been taken for granted, not doing anything to prove I shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s just as natural as philosophy. Man is the rational animal, and it is surprising we forget what is describing what in that formulation.

3. I forget exactly how this came about, but I was thinking recently of Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades was one of the most ambitious and talented people the world has ever known. His goal was to have Athens defeat Syracuse and perhaps Carthage, becoming masters of the Mediterranean. Thucydides relates how he put a coalition together that nearly destroyed Sparta at little or no cost to Athens itself. His hubris was his downfall. During the campaign to capture Syracuse, he was falsely accused of a specific impious deed – in effect, a death sentence. He defected to Sparta, sleeping with the Spartan king’s wife while showing Sparta how to beat Athens. He eventually had to leave there, too. Xenophon depicts Alcibiades using Socratic rhetoric to show Pericles, no slouch as a leader himself, that he knows nothing.

In at least two dialogues, the Symposium and the Alcibiades, Plato shows Socrates trying to moderate Alcibiades. Alcibiades is young and handsome, though, and that subtext is not terribly quiet in the Symposium. He expresses his pain at his playing hard-to-get: Socrates won’t teach him everything he knows despite his advances, and as a consequence, he hasn’t become the person he wants to be yet. Nowadays, I think the question of Socrates teaching nobility reflects on Socrates himself. The question of loving him or learning from him turns into the question of Socrates simply. For Alcibiades, no matter how much he thinks he has a grasp on who Socrates is, there’s another person in there he hasn’t found.

Philosophic eros isn’t only a lust for knowledge. It also involves the philosopher being hard-to-get, seemingly composed of many beings. Golden statues of gods reside within an ugly exterior, Alcibiades says. For all practical purposes, though, the philosopher might as well be mutable. Philosophy is this strange combination of knowledge and self-knowledge where what one learns should better one from the inside out. Not external gain, but an attempted building of the self.

Still, the philosopher finds himself defined more by questions than answers. Exactly how stable a form he has – well, that’s a problem. At best, he’s like a container more than anything else. I don’t know this means that someone who pursues wisdom is unlovable, despite Socrates’ expressed hope in the Lysis for a friend. I do think it means that only the philosopher can appreciate where he stands at a given moment. There is a radical independence at play. The inability of Alcibiades to woo Socrates is Alcibiades’ inability to love Socrates.

4. Going back to heroes and leaders, I’m thinking this. We do live in a world where the best are continually taken for granted, where the most superficial of images draws people by the millions and institutions and even commitments. When DFW worries about authenticity, he is specific about the problem. To have your attention constantly competed for by what is worthless will lead to your not paying attention.

To not take things for granted, to be attentive to one’s life in the deepest sense, is to be open to one’s own mistakes, disappointments, and pain. Young Socrates learned the hard way about his conception of the forms. More importantly, Alcibiades was a pupil that got himself and his teacher in trouble. Athens’ ultimate response to philosophy was an attempt to exterminate it completely. Just as we could describe a philosopher as carefree and happy with his own pursuits, we could also find him drowning in problems.

In a similar fashion, I think the logic with which we started reflecting on heroism and leadership incomplete. We said they inspire because of a certain honesty, their dedicating themselves to a principle beyond themselves. That’s not really what makes them heroes. What makes heroes amazing is that they do what they do in spite of everyone else. We expect them to break, we do neglect them when they don’t. Heroes only inspire some, not all. This isn’t to celebrate hard-headed intransigence. It is to explain why we put our leaders in a position where they must sell themselves to us. We stopped believing not just because of a culture of spin, but because we’re in deep denial about how much things actually cost.

Note on Francis Bacon, “Of Unity in Religion”

Almost hidden in “Of Unity in Religion” is a comment on the conduct of a philosopher, reproduced below. To summarize:  The “rending of God’s church” can be effected by problems which resemble philosophical ones. In essence, such problems are also political, as we are not really told of what their substance consists. Bacon tells us that what is at stake is “great,” but the substance is afflicted by people exercising their cleverness. Too much “subtility” and “obscurity” take an issue upon which a lot depends and make it a contest of pride. The ignorant do not realize how much they agree with each other. Only those with “judgment and understanding” see the larger issue and agreement. God is accepting of opposed ignoramuses, as they intend the same thing; Paul warns that “profane novelties” and “contradictions” abound in falsehood presented as knowledge. Men allow words to govern meaning instead of looking at utility, and this leads Bacon to wonder about two sorts of errors in creating a knowledgeable whole. There is the simple case of “everyone is ignorant,” unable to make proper distinctions. Everything is the same in the dark. There is the more complex case when we admit that things do directly oppose each other. Whatever is truer will cause conflict:

The other is, when the matter of the point controverted, is great, but it is driven to an over-great subtilty, and obscurity; so that it becometh a thing rather ingenious, than substantial. A man that is of judgment and understanding, shall sometimes hear ignorant men differ, and know well within himself, that those which so differ, mean one thing, and yet they themselves would never agree. And if it come so to pass, in that distance of judgment, which is between man and man, shall we not think that God above, that knows the heart, doth not discern that frail men, in some of their contradictions, intend the same thing; and accepteth of both? The nature of such controversies is excellently expressed, by St. Paul, in the warning and precept, that he giveth concerning the same, Devita profanas vocum novitates, et oppositiones falsi nominis scientiae. Men create oppositions, which are not; and put them into new terms, so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning. There be also two false peaces, or unities: the one, when the peace is grounded, but upon an implicit ignorance; for all colors will agree in the dark: the other, when it is pieced up, upon a direct admission of contraries, in fundamental points. For truth and falsehood, in such things, are like the iron and clay, in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image; they may cleave, but they will not incorporate.

At least for me, I see this as about philosophy without reading out “God” and “peace,” which seem to point to religion and politics, respectively. Rather, I start with the general problem: we can and do make important matters more complicated than they should be, so complicated that we confuse people as to what they actually want. The problem, then, is that too many fancy attempts to assert authority over a situation with knowledge simply results in a lack of self-knowledge. This is a lack that is fatal on a popular scale, and yes, the insane partisan divides we see in a number of countries do involve actors who cannot correctly identify their own interests.

But the political problem in Bacon’s thought can’t stay political, for this reason: What age doesn’t have people who are completely caught up in ideological blinders? Bacon himself introduces actors above the fray: “a man of judgment and understanding,” “God,” “St. Paul.” There is someone out there, in any given age, who can see the spirit of his time and judge accordingly what men both need and desire. This sounds mystical, but the word for this kind of knowing is prudence – it’s just being expressed on a slightly bigger scale. What is crucial is that the one exercising prudence is not taken in by false, useless distinctions. In other words, he uses the via negativa in a way less theological, and much more Socratic. However, the philosopher in his prudence does seem to a more active role than Socrates ever did. In at least some cases, he builds from a consensus in society that already exists.

Again, political and religious readings of this passage run into problems. Bacon ends bleakly, for those of us concerned with religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. If a religion has more claim to “truth,” it can only stand the existence of another for so long (“cleave, but.. not incorporate”). In the next paragraph in this essay, he urges Christians to obtain unity in a way consonant with the spirit of charity, never fighting to convert others. As noble as that is, what it has to do with truth is an open question. Whether political peace can ever be founded upon the simple truth is also an open question: we fight for what we believe in, and we fight best when we believe in others. There’s a correspondence between the people in a political community and the opinions which govern that community, and that enables peace. Bacon, strikingly enough, does not speak of this more ancient view of politics but instead spends a lot of time speaking of Christian sentiments promoting factionalism which threatens peace and security.

Socrates’ injunction to “do no harm” is the philosopher’s justice. Obviously, not every philosopher is Socratic or agrees with this view of justice. Bacon’s emphasis on scientific and technological progress, the mastery of nature for the sake of utility, definitely is not harmless in the strict sense. But I am predisposed to think that the “peace” of which Bacon speaks as internal to the philosophic life. Truth and falsehood will not cleave, but they are not all we have to work with. We search for knowledge, and we can try to know our own ignorance. This does not place us beyond falsehood, but one sort of strife can be avoided. At the very least, one can know truly where one stands with respect to others.

How different do YOU feel the United States would be without the Constitution?

Suffice to say I’ll be talking about American Constitutionalism with scouts tomorrow.

The goal, as I see it, is to help them create thoughtful responses to questions like these: What makes a good citizen? Why are the Declaration of Independence and Constitution important? – In other words: Are you, as a good scout, working at being civic minded? -

But what is unstated dominates any potential response. To get to what is unstated, we can start with being a bit skeptical of the motives these kinds of questions assume. Maybe some people want to be the embodiment of patriotism: self-reliant, honorable, loyal. But there could be others who just want the power to be self-reliant and get honors without regard to their own behavior. This isn’t to cast doubt on anyone’s motives or any particular institution. It is to wonder how “What is good for me?” becomes the same in our minds as “How do I serve my country?” Every nation that has ever existed posits the two as more or less the same.

I actually didn’t start by being skeptical of anyone, I should add. I started by asking myself the title of this post and wondering why the heck I would ask such a thing. The question conflates tradition and history, justice conceived at another time, with how I feel now about anything. And before someone says this question is dumb or ill-formed, I’ll go further and say it is perfectly well-formed. It tries to square who one is exactly with the order handed down to one. It almost assumes your human nature is exactly the product of being a part of a country.

Almost.

I think I do want to talk about the Constitution and values tomorrow. I’ll start off with how the Declaration of Independence has grand, powerful rhetoric – “all men are created equal,” have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – and how this can be acid on any given regime. The declaration of natural right, while obviously groundbreaking and moral, lends itself to wanting too perfect justice. The Constitution sidesteps this, continuing the project of the Declaration by focusing on large issues of practical import:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Those issues of practical import veer far away from proclaiming any right to revolution. The ends of forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, and providing for the common defense are all about security in one way or another. Promotion of the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty concern property.

The higher values can disappear, and often do disappear, when we have to get things done. The Constitution is about getting a working government which does not threaten liberty. At this point and only this point, I’ll move into talking about the structure and powers of the various branches. I’ll mention beforehand the “little bill of rights” as an expression of the larger concerns (but not as large as, say, equality). I’ll talk a little bit about the Bill of Rights after some basics about checks and balances and separation of powers. But the main theme should be that we ask some very funny questions about things like citizenship. What we’re assuming and why we assume have to be thought through, especially in this age where people are regularly tuning out appeals to genuine patriotism and informed civic participation.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part III)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I started this close-read because I was curious to see how early modern rhetoric works. People like Francis Bacon are in a time where being a scientist is not like it is today. Accordingly, we saw in the first part Bacon talk about truth, but also hint that skepticism and lies have their utility. Truth looked like integrity, but whether it characterized freedom or aided our self-esteem was another matter. In the second part, we saw a rousing defense of truth. It was good and ought to be loved! It was godly! Again, some doubts about this picture were raised. If truth enables you to say you are better than everyone else, are we really talking about truth?

In the last part of his short essay, Bacon returns to the theme of lying again. Of course, this means that being truthful must be emphasized:

To pass from theological, and philosophical truth, to the truth of civil business; it will be acknowledged, even by those that practise it not, that clear, and round dealing, is the honor of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.

There is theological/philosophical truth, and the truth of “civil business.” What this means exactly Bacon leaves unsaid. What he does say is that everyone, even if they are liars, says straightforward dealing “is the honor of man’s nature.” To mix in falsehoods with truths is like making an alloy. One sacrifices purity for utility.

But Bacon’s demonstration of truth’s purity, as we remarked in part II, is very curious. Either truth is a realm to itself, sounding to a degree like the worst religious fervor has to offer, or truth is part of a divine quest that requires some curious readings of Scripture. Bacon has been pretty clear the way we normally operate is something like this: we have self-knowledge and self-esteem. This is a mixture of truth and untruth. There is also truth in the sense of knowledge strictly, which is about providence and the obtaining of a sovereign good. Though Bacon has been critical of vanity on the surface of his essay, the key passage showing the value of truth – you can survey all the mistakes everyone else makes, while being immune yourself – seems designed to appeal to nothing but vanity.

It would be nice if Bacon just said “truth as useful, as effectual cause, advances humanity more than theological speculation which leads to petty fighting and warfare.” But he can’t say that, and that clues us in to how regimented and dominated by honor previous ages were. What he does say is that lies are most dishonorable. A mixture of lies and truth forms “winding and crooked courses,” “the goings of the serpent.” If one is found “false and perfidious,” one will be covered with shame like nothing else:

For these winding, and crooked courses, are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious.

This seems pretty straightforward, but again, note the emphasis on honor. The problem with lies is that they are dishonorable, making one shameful, like an animal. But even Christ says to be as wise as serpents, and I do wonder if the problem Bacon points at is being “found false and perfidious.” Not that one lies, but one gets caught lying.

In fact, Bacon points to the dignity and power of lying, cutting against his religious rhetoric a few sentences before. To lie is no less than to confront God. Yes, one could read him as saying lying is nothing but hubris and cowardice toward men. But it could also be that those looking to challenge the “truth” in their age have to take on what is most like god while avoiding the rage of the mob:

And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason, why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace, and such an odious charge? Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.

Again, one can read Bacon as dismissing the enterprise of lying, of concealing one’s purpose in order to reveal new modes and orders. But it looks like he has worked with two senses of “truth” throughout this short essay. There is truth in the sense of integrity, which makes his last sentence below stand out. No less than God’s judgment is reserved for our lack of faith. But truth and lies in terms of making something out of oneself (not always the same thing as integrity!) or furthering utility is completely missing from the end:

Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.

Thank you for your time. I’m sure commentary on these essays becomes more dense when one has command of all of them. But I wanted to read one as closely as I could to see what we could find.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part II)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

Last time, we wondered why Bacon titled his essay “Of Truth.” He seemed more concerned with skepticism and lying, and pointed indirectly at the advantages they provide. Again, the larger significance of Francis Bacon’s thought: he is a key transitional figure from ancient/medieval thought to the world as we know it today. Democracy and science are prominent themes, but have to be looked for carefully, as Bacon can be considered subversive for his time.

We resume with a comment of Bacon’s about poetry. Poetry, he claims, was condemned by a Church father as something demonic and filled with error, some kind of wine or false nutrition, as it fills the imagination. But poetry may be filling the imagination because it is nothing but a shadow of a lie. Poetry comes and goes, passing through the mind: it’s a shadow puppet show. The deeper lies sink and settle in the mind, and they cause harm:

One of the fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum doemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in, and settleth in it, that doth the hurt; such as we spake of before.

What lie, which sinks and settles, did we speak of before? Bacon must mean the type that gives us “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would,” i.e. self-esteem. But no one’s self-image is based entirely on truth. We make do with a combination of truth and lies – or more properly speaking, untruths. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t work for honor or for greater goods.

Of course, you object at this point. Isn’t a life that works for honor, a greater good, or the truth one that is fundamentally true? – Oh, you have much to learn. – Bacon will allow you to use the word “truth” in a number of different ways, assuming their uses completely reconcile. According to him, the sorts of lies I am saying we use for self-respect are merely depraved. Truth only judges itself, teaches inquiry into itself and an erotic love of knowledge. Also, believing one has the truth is not just enjoyment, but “the sovereign good of human nature:”

But, howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments, and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

Bacon has taken a key element of ancient thought, that the philosopher has a lust for knowledge, and overemphasized its inhumanity. Granted, Socrates can be accused of neglecting the human things. “What is justice?” leads to the inanity and cruelty of the Republic. Aristophanes and the sophists rightly ask how one so unmindful of money can advise regarding human happiness.

The overemphasis makes itself clear in how truth is a realm unto itself, a realm that sounds suspiciously like a universal, monotheistic religion. The “belief of truth” is the “sovereign good of human nature” and our pleasure? No believer about to massacre infidels or heretics thinks they have a mere opinion. By contrast: the Socratic claim was knowledge of ignorance, which, upon further examination, was something Socrates worked for.

Bacon provides, in accordance with his purposes, a retelling of Scripture. Pursuing truth is no less than godly. God first made “the light of the sense” and ended Creation with “the light of reason.” The work of the sabbath (are you supposed to work on the sabbath?) is “the illumination of his Spirit:”

The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light, upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light, into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light, into the face of his chosen.

This little myth reconciling Christianity and rationality is crazy. The light of God that distinguishes beings from chaos is of a reason and purpose beyond us. It requires revelation to understand. Man in Scripture is not meant to be as rational as he is meant to be obedient. That is plainly obvious. With these problems in mind, what the heck being “chosen” in the sense of having light inspired in one has to do with the sabbath or the Holy Spirit is beyond me. I think Bacon ultimately wants to show rationality of a certain sort Providential, i.e. the progress of the sciences. This would make truth useful to man. But Bacon prior to this passage has truth being its own self-sufficient realm, where believing in it is enjoying it.

So what exactly is happening in this essay? For now, the argument seems to be that the pursuit of truth is a godly task that is good in every way. To have the truth is to have the highest honor possible. Those in ships and in battles are subject to fortune and can be laughed at as idiots. However, you, holding the truth, will have pity and move in charity, as you do not need to condescend to swelling with pride:

The poet, that beautified the sect, that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.

Bacon said truth is its own good, even Providential in aspect. And yet he ends this paragraph with a bit of poetry whereby one who has the truth does better than others. This is not an appeal to the good in itself or to divinity. This is a mere earthly pleasure, usually held by one who is vastly superior to opponents in games of power. Bacon is appealing to some kind of courtier or clergyman or warrior desperate for honor. Instead of adventure, intrigue, or force of arms, go find the truth and put oneself in an unassailable position. He has not yet talked about doing science, but he is definitely preparing the ground for that (cf. New Atlantis, where honor and science and religion go hand-in-hand).

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.”

Comment:

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.

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