Sunday, May 01, 2005

Diversity and conformity: What it means to be a Straussian, Part II

As something of an addendum to my last post, on the liberational aspect of Strauss’s teaching (the basis for what I see as Straussian liberalism – or liberal Straussianism, depending on how you look at it), let me quote extensively from Allan Bloom’s "The Democratization of the University" and "The Crisis of Liberal Education" (both essays reprinted in his Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990):

"By liberal education I mean education for freedom, particularly the freedom of the mind, which consists primarily in the awareness of the most important human alternatives. Such an education is largely dedicated to the study of the deepest thinkers of the past, because their works constitute the body of learning which we must preserve in order to remain civilized and because anything new that is serious must be based on, and take account of, them. Without such a study a man’s mind is almost necessarily a prisoner of the horizon of his particular time and place, and in a democracy that means of the most fundamental premises or prejudices of public opinion." (DU)

"In popular discussion today, the goal of almost everything, including the university, is said to be diversity. To the extent that this is not merely a means to avoid discussing what is good, we mean that in a free society many high or noble ways of life must exist for men and women to choose among. But the concentration on diversity as such is self-defeating… The quest can never be for diversity but must be for the truth – the truth about the highest good and the end of life. Diversity will take care of itself, given the various talents and characters of human beings. Never has there been so much talk about diversity and so little difference among persons… We are diverse in [a] quantitative sense, but intelligent observers can call us conformists, for a certain way of life derived from our political and economic system settles itself on most of us. It does so, faute de mieux, because we are ignorant of alternatives or because we are told that all alternatives are equally true or untrue." (CLE)

"[T]he only true diversity comes from difference of principle about the final ends – serious thought and conviction about whether, for example, salvation, wisdom, or glory is best. This we lack, and it is the function of the university to maintain the awareness of these alternatives in their highest forms. We have all the negative conditions of freedom. Our young can think or do almost anything they please. But in order to act differently one must have ideas, and this is what they lack. They have access to all the thought of the past and all of its glorious examples. But they are not taught to take them seriously as living possibilities for themselves…" (CLE)


For all the talk among anti-Straussians (of both left and right) about elitism, the noble lie, and world domination, this is truly what Straussianism is about, the liberation of men and women from the confines of their particular horizons, or orthodoxies, through a revitalized conception of liberal education. In short, it is about liberalism properly understood.

To be sure, not all of us can be Socrates, nor even a shadow of Socrates. Most of us are content to live fairly unexamined lives, permanently confined by myriad orthodoxies that we never even begin to question. In our liberal democracies, we are free to pursue happiness and the good life privately, without much in the way of political interference or guidance, and we generally allow for a variety, a seemingly endless variety, of individual and communal conceptions of happiness and the good life. And that means that most of us will concern ourselves not with philosophizing, that is, with the long, arduous, Socratic task of ascending out of the cave and into the light, but with working for a living, raising families, enjoying the company of loved ones, spending time with friends, pursuing different forms of entertainment, worshipping our respective gods, and all the other aspects of normal, everyday life.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But Bloom is right, I think, to point to a certain conformity of thought that plagues liberal democracy -- even (or especially) in academia, where ideally there should be an appreciation of diversity. So while liberal theorists spend their time thinking about rights and the politics of pluralism within the orthodoxy of liberal democracy, while postmodernists abandon serious thought entirely by playing the reductionist game of deconstruction, and while relativists avoid the pursuit of truth entirely by claiming that everything is equally true (and untrue), Straussians and other serious political theorists – and it seems to me that Straussians generally reach out to and engage non-Straussians in a way that is hardly reciprocal – look to enlightenment beyond the narrow confines of our present horizons and to a fuller, more noble sense of what it means to be a human being.

This is why, to speak anecdotally (as a former teaching assistant), my students over the years found our courses to be so rewarding. At the University of Toronto, my students were generally second- and third-year political science majors, or interested non-majors. They came in with a healthy skepticism of political philosophy – and more generally of what they considered at first to be old books and obsolete ideas. What, after all, is there to learn from Plato and Aristotle, or Machiavelli, or Hobbes and Locke, when we seem to have progressed so far past them that we can no longer even understand them, or at least when they cannot possibly have anything of relevance to teach us? Confined by the reigning orthodoxies of our time, they could not see beyond the horizon, let alone conceive of other, more distant horizons. They thought that they knew the truth, or at least that they knew enough not to bother with the truth, or, more likely, they didn’t even know that they could pursue the truth at all.

This is what I’m getting at: Straussian political philosophy is about asking questions, not providing definitive answers. It is about studying the best that has been thought and said, whether it’s in Plato or Shakespeare or The Simpsons, not for the sake of instituting some Straussian political regime, conservative or otherwise, but for the sake of being truly free. Far from being an elitist pursuit of would-be philosophers, let alone philosopher-kings (and Straussians know that the rule of philosophers is impossible – if our opponents bothered to read our interpretations of Plato’s Republic, they’d know that), political philosophy as Straussians understand it is, in our liberal society, rooted in the liberal education that is available to the very masses we are accused of wanting to control. It is an education that is truly liberating. And I saw it when the young men and women I had the privilege to teach – young people from all over the world and from so many different cultures and backgrounds – were awakened from the perpetual (and conforming) state of slumber that seems to afflict, and paralyze, contemporary liberal democracy, preventing it from ascending to its potential. I saw it the moment they opened Plato’s Republic and began, with Socrates and his own young interlocutors, to ask questions that they didn’t know could even be asked: What is justice? What is the good? What is virtue? What is happiness? What is human nature? What is the best regime? What, ultimately, is the truth, what merely shadows of the truth? There may not be easy answers to these most fundamental of questions about human nature and the human condition, but asking them is the first step towards liberation, towards being truly free as citizens and human beings.

This is not about being "liberal" or "conservative" in current political terms, but about being liberal in the highest and most noble sense of that term. It is about encouraging a truly enlightening education to liberty, education for the sake of liberty. And it is about replacing conformity with a healthy diversity of thought that considers the full range of options open to human beings.

And that, I think, is precisely what liberalism is, or should be, all about.

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