Tuesday, 30 April 2019

On the Absence of Dogmatism in Socrates

Socrates is not an agnostic or 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.”

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.”

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

Leo Strauss notes that Thomas Hobbes cannot be ignored 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.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

On Dandies and Drudges

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.

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

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.

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.
Silence.
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?

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 fine 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

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.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

On Totalitarian Liberalism

Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville rejected the utopian dreams of the eighteenth century French philosophers. They realized that a project for creating heaven on earth can 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."