Tuesday, 30 April 2019

On the Absence of Dogmatism in Socrates

Marble head of Socrates
Socrates is not an agnostic or a skeptic, but there is not a whiff of dogmatism in him. He is a remarkably tolerant and open-minded thinker. In the dialogues in Plato’s the Republic, he is always willing to hear the other side. He listens to objections, gives others a chance to express their ideas, and often points out that it is important go on learning.

Here’s an excerpt from Allan Bloom's “Interpretive Essay,” in his book The Republic of Plato (Page 331):

"The intellectual voice of the city can become tractable as the city never will. The Republic, a book about a perfect city, is characterized by having perfect interlocutors, that is, men without whom a city could not be founded and who are, at the same time, persuadable, whom argument can convince to adapt to a new kind of world which is contrary to their apparent advantage. Just as one must have almost unbelievable conditions to found the best city in deed, so one must have exceptional interlocutors to found it in speech."

Monday, 29 April 2019

Eric Voegelin on Karl Popper: Rascally, Impertinent, Loutish

Karl Popper
Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were contemptuous of Karl Popper’s work on political theory, The Open Society and Its Enemies. They thought that Popper’s depiction of Plato as a philosopher of totalitarianism was scandalous and a complete fabrication. In the 1950s, Popper was auditioning for an appointment at the University of Chicago, this alarmed Strauss.

In his letter dated April 10, 1950, Strauss writes to Voegelin:
May I ask you [Voegelin] to let me know sometime what you think of Mr. Popper. He gave a lecture here [at the University of Chicago], on the task of social philosophy, that was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out, lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think "rationally," although it passed itself off as "rationalism" -- it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his productions. 
Voegelin replied in just 8 days. In his letter dated April 18, 1950, he writes:
The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances. 
Voegelin lists four major flaws in Popper’s work. The complete letter can be read here. He sums up his argument against Popper with these lines:
Popper’s book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.  
It took Strauss a few months write a reply. He thanked Voegelin for the detailed letter on the problems in Popper’s thesis and also revealed that he had taken the liberty of showing Voegelin’s letter to an in influential colleague “who was thereby encouraged to throw his not inconsiderable influence into the balance against Popper’s probable appointment here [at the University of Chicago]. You thereby helped to prevent a scandal.”

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Allan Bloom on Karl Popper’s Open Society

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
Karl Popper has taught that the city that Socrates and his friends imagine in Plato’s the Republic is a totalitarian monstrosity. He regarded Plato as the philosophical champion of a closed society.

But Allan Bloom’s reading of Plato’s the Republic stands in marked contrast to Popper’s views. In his The Republic of Plato, Bloom presents Plato as an anti-totalitarian philosopher. He doesn't see Plato as an enemy of open society but as a resource for it. Bloom makes one mention of Popper in his Preface to the Second Edition of The Republic of Plato. Here’s an excerpt:
The republic becomes peculiarly attractive and repulsive because no book describes community so precisely and so completely or undertakes so rigorously to turn cold politics into family warmth. In the period just after World War II, no criticism of what Karl Popper called "the open society" was brooked. The open society was understood to be simply unproblematic, having solved the difficulties presented by older thinkers. The progress of science was understood to be strictly paralleled by that of society; individualism seemed no threat to human ties, and mass society no threat to meaningful participation. The softening in this narrow liberal position can be seen in the substitution in common discourse of the less positively charged term technology for science, the pervasive doubt about whether the mastery of nature is a very good idea, and a commonly expressed sentiment of lostness and powerlessness on the part of individual citizens.  
In the days of thoughtless optimism, Plato was considered irrelevant and his criticism was not available to warn us of possible dangers. Now it is recognized that he had all the doubts we have today and that the founding myth of his city treats men and women as literally rooted in its soil. Everybody is sure that Plato knew something about community, but he makes today's comfortable communitarians uncomfortable by insisting that so much individuality must be sacrificed to community. Moreover, they rightly sense that Plato partly parodies the claims and the pretensions of community. The uninvolved Socrates, distrustful of neat solutions, does not appear to be a very reliable ally of movements. Plato, criticized in the recent past for not being a good liberal, is now shunned for not being a wholehearted communitarian. He is, however, back in the game. 
Leo Strauss, under whom Allan Bloom had studied, has dismissed Popper as an incompetent reader of Plato.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

On Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is the story of a group of genetically-engineered children who have been reared at the Hailsham House to serve as organ donors. The purpose of the Hailsham House is to prepare them for their future — by keeping them (their organs) healthy through regular medical checkups, preventing them from smoking cigarettes, and installing in them the methods of self-repression and denial that will keep them steady and dependable from one organ donation to the next.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H., who on the first page announces that she has worked for more than 11 years as a “carer," performing the task of assisting the people who are serving as “donors.” The “donors” are constantly in pain as they are giving up one organ after the other. They have to be kept doped up on drugs to keep them alive for their next donation. Kathy reminiscences the years that she had spent at the Hailsham House with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy. Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel:
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.” I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it. 
Anyway, I’m not making any big claims for myself. I know carers, working now, who are just as good and don’t get half the credit. If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful—about my bedsit, my car, above all, the way I get to pick and choose who I look after. And I’m a Hailsham student—which is enough by itself sometimes to get people’s backs up. Kathy H., they say, she gets to pick and choose, and she always chooses her own kind: people from Hailsham, or one of the other privileged estates. No wonder she has a great record. I’ve heard it said enough, so I’m sure you’ve heard it plenty more, and maybe there’s something in it. But I’m not the first to be allowed to pick and choose, and I doubt if I’ll be the last. And anyway, I’ve done my share of looking after donors brought up in every kind of place. By the time I finish, remember, I’ll have done twelve years of this, and it’s only for the last six they’ve let me choose.  
And why shouldn’t they? Carers aren’t machines. You try and do your best for every donor, but in the end, it wears you down. You don’t have unlimited patience and energy. So when you get a chance to choose, of course, you choose your own kind. That’s natural. There’s no way I could have gone on for as long as I have if I’d stopped feeling for my donors every step of the way. And anyway, if I’d never started choosing, how would I ever have got close again to Ruth and Tommy after all those years?

Friday, 26 April 2019

Allan Bloom’s Interpretation of Plato’s The Republic

In his Interpretive Essay (The Republic of Plato by Allan Bloom; Second Edition; Page 305 to 436), Allan Bloom presents Plato’s the Republic as a guide to the problem of human happiness, and the question of how a human being should live in a city or society. He views Socrates as the founder of political philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from Bloom’s Interpretive Essay:
The Republic shows us why Socrates was accused and why there was good reason to accuse him. Not only does he tell us about the good regime, but we see his effect on the young men he was said to have corrupted. Socrates, in leading them to a justice which is not Athenian, or even Greek, but is rather human, precisely because it is rational, shows the way to the truth about political things and develops the extremely complex relationship of that truth to civil society. These questions are most relevant to modern man, although they are perhaps harder for him to understand than for men of any previous generation. They are relevant to him because he admits his need for "values" and because the progress of publicly useful science now threatens him with destruction; they are harder for him to understand because he has been taught that "values" cannot be established by reason and that science is simply salutary for society. 
For these reasons it behooves us to study the Republic. For it is the first book which brings philosophy "down into the cities"; and we watch in it the foundation of political science, the only discipline which can bring the blessings of reason to the city. We will learn that the establishment of political science cannot be carried out without sacrifice of the dearest convictions and interests of most men; these sacrifices are so great that to many they do not seem worthwhile: one of the most civilized cities which has ever existed thought it better to sacrifice philosophy in the person of Socrates rather than face the alternative he presented. This is why philosophy needs an apology; it is a dangerous and essentially questionable activity. Socrates knew that his interests were not, and could not be, the interests of most men and their cities. We frequently do not see this and assume that his execution was a result of the blind prejudices of the past. Therefore we do not see the true radicalness of the philosophic life. The Republic is the best antidote to our prejudice. The proper starting point for the study of Socratic philosophy is the nonphilosophic orientation of the city within which philosophy must take its place. Hostility to philosophy is the natural condition of man and the city. Socrates, in admitting his guilt, will show what higher concerns pardon him for it. 
I think Bloom offers any interesting way of looking at Socrates and Plato. Bloom begins his Preface to the Second Edition of The Republic of Plato with these words: “When I teach the Republic now, the reactions to it are more urgent and more intense than they were a quarter-century ago when I was working on this translation and this interpretation.”

Thursday, 25 April 2019

On Nationalism

In his essay on philosophical and political thoughts of Karl Riezler, (Chapter 10, “Karl Riezler,” What is Political Philosophy? by Leo Strauss), Leo Strauss makes the following comment on nationalism (Page 238):
While nationalism is as such theoretically unsatisfactory, it may still supply us with the best available framework for understanding the present political situation and for enlightening political action within a world that is dominated for all the foreseeable future by nationalism. Nationalism is certainly superior for these purposes, not only to the constructs of the legalists, but likewise to a certain sociology which is guided by the notions of “society” and “growth.” For that sociology is apt to make us forget two things which the nationalist never forgets. Societies are still, and for the foreseeable future, national or imperial societies, closed off from other societies by unmistakable and formidable frontiers which have been established by wars rather than by other means; and if societies “grow” there is no guarantee whatsoever that they will not take away the light of the sun from others: he who preaches “growth” without thinking of the term of growth, of the peak beyond which there cannot be growth, preaches war. 
Strauss points out on page 237 that “Riezler’s decision in favor of nationalism rested entirely upon experience, on the experience of the power of nationalism in the present and in the past, and the experience of the low character of actual cosmopolitanism.”

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Persecution and the Art of Writing

Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss has an interesting perspective on the influence that persecution and censorship can have on the art of writing. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” (Chapter 2; Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss):

Persecution, then, gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines. That literature is addressed, not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only. It has all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage—that it reaches only the writer's acquaintances. It has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author. But how can a man perform the miracle of speaking in a publication to a minority, while being silent to the majority of his readers? The fact which makes this literature possible can be expressed in the axiom that thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers. Therefore an author who wishes to address only thoughtful men has but to write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book. But, it will be objected, there may be clever men, careful readers, who are not trustworthy, and who, after having found the author out, would denounce him to the authorities. As a matter of fact, this literature would be impossible if the Socratic dictum that virtue is knowledge, and therefore that thoughtful men as such are trustworthy and not cruel, were entirely wrong.

Another axiom, but one which is meaningful only so long as persecution remains within the bounds of legal procedure, is that a careful writer of normal intelligence is more intelligent than the most intelligent censor, as such. For the burden of proof rests with the censor. It is he, or the public prosecutor, who must prove that the author holds or has uttered heterodox views. In order to do so he must show that certain literary deficiencies of the work are not due to chance, but that the author used a given ambiguous expression deliberately, or that he constructed a certain sentence badly on purpose. That is to say, the censor must prove not only that the author is intelligent and a good writer in general, for a man who intentionally blunders in writing must possess the art of writing, but above all that he was on the usual level of his abilities when writing the incriminating words. But how can that be proved, if even Homer nods from time to time? 

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

On The Proliferation of Mass Graphomania

Milan Kundera in 1980
Milan Kundera, in his fascinating novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, talks about the proliferation of mass graphomania in the modern world. Here’s an excerpt (Part 4: “Lost Letters”; Page 106):

Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

1. a high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;

2. an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of isolation of the individual;

3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel. Bibi was absolutely right when she claimed never  to have experiences anything from the outside. It is this absence of content, this void, that powers the motor driving her to write.)

But the effect transmits a kind of flashback to the cause. If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors, and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of “We are all writers!”

The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before it’s too late.

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

Monday, 22 April 2019

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s fascinating novel A Canticle for Leibowitz has profound philosophical and psychological insights, and it offers a bitter description of the ultimate fate of mankind.

The novels opens 600 years after the civilization as we know it has been destroyed in a global thermonuclear war. The few survivors have very little knowledge of the cause of the conflict, or its history. They are not even sure who started it. The worse thing is that they don’t have the knowledge of the scientific advancements that civilization had made before the great war destroyed everything—theirs is a world of candles, horses and mules. There are no computers and all record keeping is through quill pens, and their wars are fought with arrows, knives, and swords.

As the centuries go by, new philosophical, political, and scientific knowledge is discovered—once again there is progress. Eventually thermonuclear weapons are discovered and then there is another great thermonuclear war, and once again all the gains that mankind has made is wiped out. Here’s an excerpt from Page 245 (chapter 25):
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. 
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? 
This time, it will swing us to oblivion, he thought.
However, the novel ends on a bright note. Mankind does not give up after the devastation. Hope rides among the survivors. They once again make an attempt to develop knowledge and improve the condition of life on earth.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

MacIntyre’s Critique of Liberalism

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. In his Prologue titled “After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century,” he offers a critique of liberalism:
My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. 
But in the following paragraph, he notes that his critique of liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on his part for contemporary conservatism. He writes: “That conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. And, where liberalism by permissive legal enactments has tried to use the power of the modem state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactments now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes.”

Saturday, 20 April 2019

On Rewriting the Past

Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten." (Part I; "Lost Letters"; Page 22)
Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting deals with the theme of the Czechoslovakians opposing the communist regime in different ways. He shows that to laugh and to forget are political acts, as the angels and devils are the embodiment of political beings.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Hobbes and Origins of Modernity

Thomas Hobbes
Leo Strauss notes that Thomas Hobbes cannot be ignored with impunity because he is the originator of modernity. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “On the Basis of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,” (Chapter 7; What is Political Philosophy? by Leo Strauss):
Nietzsche, who abhorred the modern ideas, saw very clearly that those ideas are of British origin. The admirer of Schopenhauer thought it equitable to look down with contempt on the British philosophers, in particular on Bacon and on Hobbes. Yet Bacon and Hobbes were the first philosophers of power, and Nietzsche’s own philosophy is philosophy of power. Was not “the will to power” so appealing because its true ancestry was ignored? Only Nietzsche’s successors restored the connection, which he had blurred, between the will to power and technology. But this connection is clearly visible in the origins of that philosophic tradition which Nietzsche continued or competed: the British tradition.  
It has become necessary to study Hobbes as the originator of modernity, i.e., to take his claim seriously. That is to say, if we understand ourselves correctly, we see that our perspective is identical with Hobbes’s perspective. Modern philosophy emerged in express opposition to classical philosophy. Only in the light of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns can modernity be understood. By rediscovering the urgency of this quarrel, we return to the beginnings of modernity. Our perspective becomes identical with that of Hobbes, in so far as his perspective is not limited by his answer, the acceptance of the modern principle, but extends to his question, which is the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.
According to Strauss, Hobbes broke completely with the pre-modern heritage and ushered in a new type of social doctrine: the modern type.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

On Reason

Brand Blanshard begins his book Reason & Analysis with the following perspective on the concept of ‘reason’:

"Unfortunately it means many things. For the philosopher it commonly denotes the faculty and function of grasping necessary connections. The function is seen in its most obvious form in
reasoning, in the deductions, for example, of the logician and the mathematician. This may be taken as the narrowest and nuclear meaning of the term. But there radiate out from it a large number of subsidiary meanings. Reason for many writers shows itself not only in the linkage of propositions, but also in the grasp of single truths, provided these are necessary truths; the insight that two straight lines cannot enclose a space would be as truly an insight of reason as any demonstration in Euclid. Sometimes the meaning of reason and cognate terms is further extended to include reasonings that are less than necessary, such as inferences from past to future. Mr Ayer writes: ‘for us, “being rational" entails being guided in a particular way by past experience’; and Mr. Feigl goes as far as to say: the procedure of induction, therefore, far from being irrational, defines the very essence of rationality.’ Sometimes reason is broadened again to describe the sceptical and reflective turn of mind generally. For Hobhouse it is ‘that which requires proofs for assertions, causes for effects, purposes for action, principles for conduct, or, to put it generally, thinks in terms of grounds and consequences. Reason in the widest sense of all, says Thomas Whittaker, is the relational element in intelligence, in distinction from the element of content, sensational or emotional,' and he points out that both the Greek term [Greek] and the Latin ratio, from which reason has largely drawn its meaning, were sometimes used to denote simply ‘relation or ‘order’."

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Maimonides’ Statement on Political Science

Bas Relief of Maimonides
Leo Strauss has commented extensively on the work of the 13th-century philosopher, Moses Maimonides. He found great inspiration in Maimonides’ book The Guide for the Perplexed.

I recently read Strauss’ 1953 essay, “Maimonides’ Statement on Political Science” (Chapter 6; What is Political Philosophy? by Leo Strauss). In this essay, Strauss is primarily looking at the work in which Maimonides has discussed the subject matter as well as the function of political science, the Treatise on the Art of Logic.

Strauss notes three difficulties in the study of Maimonides’ Treatise: “Maimonides rejects the books of the philosophers on politics proper as useless for “us” “in these times.” Also, he divides politics proper in an unusual manner. And finally, while assigning the study of the virtues to ethics, he assigns the understanding of happiness, not to ethics, the first part of practical philosophy, but to politics proper, the last part of the practical philosophy.”

The important points that Strauss notes in the Treatise are: “Maimonides directs our attention first to the difference between political societies in regard to size. He then directs our attention to the their differences in regard to religion. He finally directs our attention to their differences in regard to the presence or absence of laws. He thus forces us to consider the effects produced upon the character of laws by the change from paganism to revealed religion.”

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Utopianism and The Doctrine of Perfectibility

The idea of transforming the nature of human beings to create a utopia has been in disrepute for a long time now. Gertrude Himmelfarb makes some interesting comments on utopianism in Chapter 9, “History and the Idea of Progress,” of her book The New History and the Old. Here’s an excerpt:
The ideal of a utopia not only belittles any kind of progress that can be achieved short of utopia, making anything less than perfection seem radically evil, but the pursuit of that idea—whether in the form of absolute reason, absolute liberty, absolute virtue, or any combination of these—makes it all too easy to justify the use of absolute power. 
The only kind of utopia that escapes this fatal perversion is a religious one that is avowedly otherworldly. This suggests that it is not utopianism itself that is dangerous; what is dangerous is a utopianism that locates its ultimate ideal, its dream of perfection, in this world. The religious imagination at its best is able to retain the spark of divinity, the transcendent vision of perfection, without seeking to realize it on earth.

Monday, 15 April 2019

On A Philosopher’s World

Leo Strauss believed that a Socratic philosopher rigorously stakes out and maintains a position of detachment from human beings, but his detachment is compatible with his attachment to human beings because philosophy is motivated and continuously renewed by the human experience. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” (Chapter 4; What is Political Philosophy And Other Studies by Leo Strauss):
But if the philosopher is radically detached from human beings as human beings, why does he communicate his knowledge, or his questionings, to others? Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher does not even know the way to the market place, almost constantly in the market place? Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher barely knows whether his neighbor is a human being, so well informed about so many trivial details regarding his neighbors? The philosopher's radical detachment from human beings must then be compatible with an attachment to human beings. While trying to transcend humanity (for wisdom is divine) or while trying to make it his sole business to die and to be dead to all human things, the philosopher cannot help living as a human being who as such cannot be dead to human concerns, although his soul will not be in these concerns. The philosopher cannot devote his life to his own work if other people do not take care of the needs of his body. Philosophy is possible only in a society in which there is "division of labor." The philosopher needs the services of other human beings and has to pay for them with services of his own if he does not want to be reproved as a thief or fraud.
Strauss points out that a philosopher has to go to the marketplace because he needs to fish for potential philosophers with whom he can discuss his ideas. Preaching and discussing philosophy is a philosopher's most basic need.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

On Marxist Historians

Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Marxist history is a continuation of politics by other means. Here’s an excerpt from her book The New History and the Old (Page 88-89):
It is this idea of history more than anything else—more than the specific ideas about class and class struggle, consciousness and culture, mode of production and social relations—that is the common denominator of Marxist history. Marxist historians can be revisionist about almost everything else in the Marxist canon, but they cannot separate politics from history. They cannot abandon, or even hold in abeyance, their political agenda of changing the world while engaged in the historical task of interpreting it.
The Marxist historians are so assured of their thesis that they tend to invoke arguments that they already know to be correct. By the same token, the Marxists avoid invoking arguments and facts that they know to be true because they don't want to undermine the orthodox Marxist doctrine or divert from their polemical agenda.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

On Dandies and Drudges

Photo of Carlyle (1860)
In his novel Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle describes two sects, Dandies and Drudges, the first worshipping money and the trappings of gentlemanliness, and the second slaving to keep barely clothed and fed:
“Such are the two Sects which, at this moment, divide the more unsettled portion of the British People; and agitate that ever-vexed country. To the eye of the political Seer, their mutual relation, pregnant with the elements of discord and hostility, is far from consoling. These two principles of Dandiacal Self-worship or Demon-worship, and Poor–Slavish or Drudgical Earth-worship, or whatever that same Drudgism may be, do as yet indeed manifest themselves under distant and nowise considerable shapes: nevertheless, in their roots and subterranean ramifications, they extend through the entire structure of Society, and work unweariedly in the secret depths of English national Existence; striving to separate and isolate it into two contradictory, uncommunicating masses. 
“In numbers, and even individual strength, the Poor–Slaves or Drudges, it would seem, are hourly increasing. The Dandiacal, again, is by nature no proselytizing Sect; but it boasts of great hereditary resources, and is strong by union; whereas the Drudges, split into parties, have as yet no rallying-point; or at best only co-operate by means of partial secret affiliations. If, indeed, there were to arise a Communion of Drudges, as there is already a Communion of Saints, what strangest effects would follow therefrom! Dandyism as yet affects to look down on Drudgism: but perhaps the hour of trial, when it will be practically seen which ought to look down, and which up, is not so distant. 
“To me it seems probable that the two Sects will one day part England between them; each recruiting itself from the intermediate ranks, till there be none left to enlist on either side. Those Dandiacal Manicheans, with the host of Dandyizing Christians, will form one body: the Drudges, gathering round them whosoever is Drudgical, be he Christian or Infidel Pagan; sweeping up likewise all manner of Utilitarians, Radicals, refractory Pot-wallopers, and so forth, into their general mass, will form another. I could liken Dandyism and Drudgism to two bottomless boiling Whirlpools that had broken out on opposite quarters of the firm land: as yet they appear only disquieted, foolishly bubbling wells, which man’s art might cover in; yet mark them, their diameter is daily widening: they are hollow Cones that boil up from the infinite Deep, over which your firm land is but a thin crust or rind! Thus daily is the intermediate land crumbling in, daily the empire of the two Buchan–Bullers extending; till now there is but a foot-plank, a mere film of Land between them; this too is washed away: and then — we have the true Hell of Waters, and Noah’s Deluge is out-deluged!”
I think Carlyle sounds like Karl Marx in these lines. He is predicting a polarization of classes—concentration of wealth in the hands of the dandies and the pauperization of the drudges.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Natural Right and Teleology

Leo Strauss, in his Introduction to his book Natural Right and History, suggests that a study of teleology in nature is important because the idea of natural right depends on it. Here’s an excerpt:
Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the nonteleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved.
This means that, according to Strauss, there are two options—first, we take a nonteleological view of both natural science and the science of man, and the second is that we become dualists, which means a teleological view of the science of man, and a nonteleological view other natural sciences.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

A Translation of ‘The Upanishads’

I am reading Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the thirteen principal Upanishads, published by Penguin under the title The Upanisads. I have finished the first chapter, which is a translation of the Isa Upanishad. I think this is overall a fine translation—it reads better than the two translations by other scholars that I had read earlier.

Here’s an excerpt from the Roebuck’s Introduction to the book:
The Upanishads are surely among the world’s most influential creative works. Not only did they play a large part in shaping Hinduism as it is today, but the debates that they helped to initiate also influenced, either directly or by reaction, the development of the other South Asian religious traditions, including Buddhism. In the last two centuries they have also begun to influence religious and philosophical thought outside Asian cultural areas. Probably at least half the people in the world have been affected in some way by the ideas of the Upanisads. 
I have always spelled the word as “Upanishads,” but Roebuck is using “Upanisads”.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Firefly Theme Song: The Ballad of Serenity

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me.

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain't comin back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can't take the sky from me.

There's no place, I can be,
Since I've found Serenity.
But you can't take the sky from me.

~ Written by Joss Whedon and performed by Sonny Rhodes

On Ayn Rand’s Clean Shaven Acolytes

I don’t know of any major scholar of Ayn Rand’s objectivist school who is bearded or even has a mustache. Isn’t it strange that from 1958 (when Rand founded objectivism) till today, not a single man with facial hair has gained prominence in objectivism? In her book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jennifer Burns links the anti-facial hair trend in objectivist scholars to Rand’s personal preferences:
Striving to become good Objectivists, Rand’s followers tried to conform to her every dictate, even those that were little more than personal preferences. Rand harbored a dislike of facial hair, and accordingly her followers were all clean shaven. (Chapter 8: “Love is Exception Making”)
Rand’s literature is highly individualistic and yet she founded a philosophical school which thrives on group thinking and does not tolerate any kind of dissent. If Burns is right then the objectivists defer to Rand not only on philosophical issues but even in matters of personal appearance. They can’t think for themselves.

In his book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Chris Matthew Sciabarra suggests that there is a cultural reason behind Rand's dislike for facial hair:
29. On Rand’s attitudes toward facial hair as symptomatic of “a spiritual defect,” see B. Branden 1986, 208. Though one might dismiss Rand’s dislike of facial hair as a matter of personal taste, it is interesting to note that the wearing of the beard had deep significance in Russian cultural history. Modeled after the icons of the saints, the wearing of the beard was a traditional practice of Orthodox religious ritual. When Peter the Great ushered in an era of Westernization, he introduced laws against such Orthodox beards. In 1705 Peter imposed taxes and license fees on those who chose to remain unshaven. The cultural battle between the “beards” and the “non-beards” was a battle between the Orthodox-Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Willis 1977, 686; Wallace 1967, 156, 161. Rand’s preference for a clean-shaven appearance may have reflected her general esteem for the Westernizers. (Page 404, n29)
The irony is that Aristotle, the only philosopher to whom Rand has acknowledged a philosophical debt, supports a thick beard, whereas Immanuel Kant, condemned by Rand as the most evil man in mankind’s history, is clean shaven.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Gnosticism and The Nature of Modernity

Eric Voegelin defines Gnosticism as a type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery over reality—it relies on a claim to gnosis and considers its knowledge not subject to criticism.

In the modern world, Gnosticism takes immanentizing forms as in the case of Marxism. Voegelin notes that while the Gnostics tend to make a claim to special knowledge through intuitions of an intellectual kind, their claims can also take emotional or volitional forms. For instance, an emotional gnostic can make a claim that he has grasped the truth through the feelings of his heart, or a volitional gnostic may assert that his own will in perfectly attuned to the will of God and therefore his insights and wishes are a revelation of God’s will.

Here’s an excerpt from Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics:
The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. This expansion will engage the various human faculties; and, hence, it is possible to distinguish a range of Gnostic varieties according to the faculty which predominates in the operation of getting this grip on God.  Gnosis may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling.  Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. (Page 124) 
According to Voegelin, the gnostic feels a sense of alienation from his present world and pines for a deliverance from it. The deliverance can only come from a transformation of the aspirant or of his world.

Monday, 8 April 2019

On Race and Culture

Thomas Sowell
In Race and Culture: A World View, Thomas Sowell offers a different perspective on ethnic and race related issues. He begins the book by noting that “the history of cultural differences among peoples enables us to understand not only how particular peoples differ but also how cultural patterns in general effect the economic and social advancement of the human race.” He rejects the conventional social science wisdom that environment plays a role in molding peoples minds:
A particular people usually has its own particular set of skills for dealing with the economic and social necessities of life—and also its own particular set of values as to what are the higher and lower purposes of life. These sets of skills and values typically follow them wherever they go. Despite prevailing “social science” approaches which depict people as creatures of their surrounding environment, or as victims of social institutions immediately impinging on them, both emigrants and conquerers have carried their own patterns of skills and behavior—their cultures—to the farthest regions of the planet, in the most radically different societies, and these patterns have often persisted for generations or even centuries.
In the book’s chapters there is an examination of issues such as migration, slavery, economic behavior, intelligence and political participation. Sowell says that the normative consequences of slavery, subjugation and imperialism have not been as negative as what the historians and social scientists have been suggesting. However, his focus in the book is primarily on those aspects of culture which provide the material requirements of life. In the Preface, he defines culture as the “specific skills, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes toward education and entrepreneurship—in short, what economists call ‘human capital”. On the term “race,” he says that it is a biological concept and a social reality, even though genetics is not destiny.

According to Sowell, cultures are not erased by crossing a political border, or even an ocean, nor do they necessarily disappear in later generations which adopt the language, dress, and outward lifestyle of a country. I think, he does not have the answers to all the questions, but this is an interesting book and its ideas need to be examined closely.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Waiting for Godot

In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, endless 'waiting' is projected as a type of action. The opening sequence shows two aging and weary characters, Vladimir and Estragon, at a country road waiting for someone called Godot whose status is not clear. Here’s an exchange between them:

Estragon: Let's go.
Vladimir: We can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.
Estragon: (despairingly). Ah!

At the end of Act I, the appearance of the boy sums up the uncertainties of waiting. The boy has a message from Godot, but the message is meaningless:

Boy: (in a rush). Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow.
Vladimir: Is that all?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: You work for Mr. Godot?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: What do you do?
Boy: I mind the goats, sir.
Vladimir: Is he good to you?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: He doesn't beat you?
Boy: No, sir, not me.
Vladimir: Whom does he beat?
Boy: He beats my brother, sir.
Vladimir: Ah, you have a brother?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: What does he do?
Boy: He minds the sheep, sir.
Vladimir: And why doesn't he beat you?
Boy: I don't know, sir.
Vladimir: He must be fond of you.
Boy: I don't know, sir.

In Act II, Vladimir explicitly boasts, “We have kept our appointment, and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?” From some of the lines that they speak, it seems that Vladimir may have the potential to be a thinker and Estragon could have been a poet, but while they wait for Godot, their energies and passions are ebbing and they are decaying at a physical and psychological level.

But they keep waiting for Godot because it gives them something to do. The waiting brings some kind of a meaning to their life. Till the end of the play, the status of Godot remains uncertain, implying that the identity of Godot is not as important as the act of waiting for him. Perhaps Vladimir and Estragon have imagined Godot so that they may wait for him. In the final lines of the play, they are thinking of hanging themselves but they can’t because they don’t have a rope.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Does Truth Prevail?

Leo Strauss
In his discussion of the connection between historical knowledge and political philosophy, Leo Strauss says:
If, however, we do not worship “success” as such, we cannot maintain that the victorious cause is necessarily the cause of truth. For even if we grant that truth will prevail in the end, we cannot be certain that the end has already come. ~ (What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies by Leo Strauss; Page 61) 
I think this is a good point—history has no beginning or an end and therefore the old cliche that truth will prevail in the end has no meaning.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Leaving the Yellow House

Saul Bellow
An elderly and self-destructive dipsomaniac lives in a yellow house. She is lonely, prone to self-deception, and incapable of talking care of herself. Some of her neighbors tell her that they will care for her if she leaves her house to them. But she does not want to give them the house.

When her condition worsens after an accident, she is forced to look back into her past and examine the key events. She thinks of many people but she is unable to remember anyone to whom she can leave the house. Finally, she decides to leave the house to the only person that she cares for—herself.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that she writes to her lawyer:

“It is too soon! Too soon! Because I do not find it in my heart to care for anyone as I would wish. Being cast off and lonely, and doing no harm where I am. Why should it be? This breaks my heart. In addition to everything else, why must I worry about this, which I must leave? I am tormented out of my mind. Even though by my own fault I have put myself into this position. And I am not ready to give up on this. No, not yet. And so I’ll tell you what, I leave this property, land, house, garden and water rights, to Hattie Simmons Waggoner. Me! I realize this is bad and wrong. It cannot happen. Yet it is the only thing I really wish to do, so may God have mercy on my soul.”

After writing the letter to her lawyer, she goes to bed. Her last thoughts, before she falls asleep: “But I won’t be selfish from the grave. I’ll think again tomorrow.” Saul Bellow’s Leaving the Yellow House is a pessimistic story, but I think most readers can empathize with the protagonist Hattie Simmons Waggoner.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Allan Bloom, Gilbert Ryle, and Plato’s Republic

Allan Bloom
I have found an interesting war of words between Gilbert Ryle and Allan Bloom. Ryle did a nasty review (titled “If Plato Only Knew,” November 6, 1969, NYT) of Bloom’s book The Republic of Plato. On Bloom’s interpretive essay, Ryle says in his review:

“Bloom also provides 130 pages of an “Interpretive (sic) Essay.” This Essay is not a bit satisfactory. It has the outward appearance of a running précis of the Republic, but it constantly slides, without signals, into speculative elucidations, into objections, and into expressions of Bloom’s own sentiments, including some understandably anti-utopian ones. He ought to warn the student that it is not in Plato’s but in Bloom’s mind that “Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we call utopianism…”

Bloom responded to Ryle’s attack with an article titled “Plato,” (April 9, 1970, NYT). Calling Ryle’s review of his book frivolous, Bloom says: “In themselves Ryle’s opinions are beneath consideration, but they do deserve diagnosis as a symptom of a sickness which is corrupting our understanding of old writers and depriving a generation of their liberating influence.”

He goes on to deliver a coup de grace to Ryle’s review with this observation:

“The usual criticism of men of Ryle’s persuasion is that they are dry and unable to deal with important problems. Although this is largely an accurate description, the decisive objection to them is that they lack that very precision on which they pride themselves. They do so because they lack a sufficient motive for care: they do not hope to find the truth in the books they read.”

I am currently reading Bloom’s interpretive essay on Plato’s Republic and I find his perspective quite interesting.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

On The Philosophic Desire, or Eros

The title essay in Leo Strauss’s book What is Political Philosophy: And Other Studies must rank among one of the most important essays on political philosophy. Strauss is not a utopian and his vision of political philosophy is based on an unorthodox understanding of history and culture. In this essay, he displays more classical liberal spirit than the liberals and libertarians who dislike him. There are several quoteworthy passages in the essay, but in this post I will put this one:

“Men are constantly attracted and deluded by two opposite charms: the charm of competence which is engendered by mathematics and everything akin to mathematics, and the charm of humble awe, which is engendered by meditation on the human soul and its experiences. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to succumb to either charm. It is the highest form of the mating of courage and moderation. In spite of its highness or nobility, it could appear as Sisyphean or ugly, when one contrasts its achievement with its goal. Yet it is necessarily accompanied, sustained and elevated by eros. It is graced by nature's grace.” (“What is Political Philosophy?”; Page 40)

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

On Totalitarian Liberalism

Lord Acton
Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville rejected the utopian dreams of the eighteenth century philosophers. They understood that a project for creating heaven on earth will always lead to the creation of a hell. Here’s an excerpt from her Introduction to Essays on Freedom and Power by Lord Acton:

"Acton's political ideas have been compared with those of Burke and Tocqueville. All three were concerned with the practical conditions favoring liberty, and were suspicious of the rationalist frame of mind which desired to impose liberty, as a ready-made set of doctrines, upon a supposedly compliant and reasonable society. They feared men's power more than they trusted men's ideals. They anticipated no miracle of happiness on earth, no "heavenly city" such as the eighteenth century philosophers dreamt of. Instead they distrusted these dreams. For if the heavenly city was a utopian vision, a hell on earth was not, and in the excesses of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, they saw the inevitable judgment on the sin of pride. They appreciated the enormous complexity of society, feared the destructive and despotic temper of impatient reformers, and preferred instead the multiplicity of forces and ideas represented in the existing constitutions—the distinctions of class, the distribution of political power, personal loyalty divided among family, province and nation, the traditions and idiosyncrasies perpetuated by history."

In the next paragraph, Himmelfarb talks about the great problem of “totalitarian liberalism”:

"A phrase has gained currency in recent years, "totalitarian liberalism," to describe the habit liberals have fallen into of calling upon the state to undertake all the reforms they desire—to protect the rights of labor, enforce the rights of suffrage, extend the privilege of education, provide insurance and social relief, prohibit the dissemination of racist doctrines and bigoted opinions—to control, in short, the welfare of society. However urgent each of these reforms is, it is nevertheless true that the tendency to look upon the state as a vast social-work agency has its dangers, for it invests the state with a formidable power, and makes liberty dependent not upon the rights of autonomous groups and corporations but upon the generosity of an omnipotent government."

Monday, 1 April 2019

Leo Strauss On Political Action

Leo Strauss
I am reading What is Political Philosophy: And Other Studies which is a collection of ten essays and sixteen book reviews by Leo Strauss, written between 1943 and 1957. He begins the first chapter, “What is Political Philosophy?” by clarifying all the basic concepts. Here’s his initial discussion of “political action”:

"All political action aims at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change to the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is, then, guided by some thought of better or worse. But thought of better or worse implies thought of the good. The awareness of the good which guides all our actions, has the character of opinion: it is no longer questioned but, on reflection, it proves to be questionable. The very fact that we can question it, directs us towards such a thought of the good as is no longer questionable — towards a thought which is no longer opinion but knowledge. All political action has then in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or the good society. For the good society is the complete political good."

This book is full of quotable lines.