Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A thoughtful reply to my Strauss posts

A fellow blogger, Orthos Logos, has written a thoughtful reply to my two Strauss ("What it means to be a Straussian") posts (here and here). Check out his full reply, as well as his blog generally, but let me quote a few passages here, unedited:

"What really irks people about Strauss, I think, is precisely this simultaneously unpretentious and exquisitely ambitious theme: he forces the question of the truth of our way of life. This is nothing other than the Socratic question, which one way or another most people are trying to avoid -- and often as not for reasons that are understandable (not to say necessary), and which themselves form the subject of political philosophy from Plato on down the line. Like Socrates and Christ, Strauss insists that only truth sets us free, and is reviled by those who would rather shuffle along unthinkingly -- never a small group in any society, and one that in ours includes the vast majority of the 'elite'.

"I strongly agree with Michael's account of the results of a Straussian education. The way I would put it is that Straussianism is defined more than anything else by an awareness of the fundamental issues or alternatives facing man, and the dogged pursuit of the truth thereon, chiefly aided by the art of reading the great books that map out this territory. (In other words, what is most important about Strauss is nothing unique to him at all, but just a recovery of liberal education which has always been what it is.) This is an education that liberates one from the shackles of one's day and age and opens up the realm of possibilities facing man as man. It is a chance, if any chance may be had, to reach for true self-knowledge and knowledge of what is."

Extremely well put -- certainly not mere "ramblings," as he suggests. Orthos Logos and I obviously have our differences, as you'll see when you look at his site, but on this issue we have much in common, and this is clearly a case of the blogosphere allowing different people from different backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives. Sure, it can be a bit crazy out here, what with all the self-importance and extremism, but there are indeed signs of intelligent life to be discovered.

Thanks for the kind words, Orthos Logos. I would be happy to hear what others have to say about Strauss. Keep the comments coming.

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  • Michael,

    Your posts were superb. In all honesty, it has been so long since I studied Strauss in college (30 years) and I was too young to really appreciate it. Your posts reminded me what it is about political philosophy, in general, and Strauss in particular, that was so exciting to an undergraduate.

    In a certain sense, Strauss is elitist because, as you noted, most people do not want to examine their lives and look for the truth. On the other hand, those people who do tend, I think, to adopt a feeling of superiority toward those that do not. I certainly remember that I and my classmates had a certain sense of superiority and that, to some extent, our professors encouraged that feeling. We all used a certain jargon--"just souls" for example in conversation in a way that must have been offputting for others. I remember, for example, being in other classes and hearing students (or professors) expounding on topics based on the latest conventional wisdom or talking to friends outside the Straussian group and, frankly, looking down on their lack of self-knowledge. The conceit of the young, I suppose.

    In a more generic sense, of course, Straussianism is not elitist and it is certainly not conservative. While Straussians believe you start with the ancient philosophers and classic texts, it seems to me that you don't need to go that far to be a Straussian. What you need is a desire and willingness to go beyond the pieties and conventional wisdoms of the day and to seek the truth. This is far from conservative; indeed, it is highly subversive. When I was in school, such subversiveness involved challenging the received conventional wisdom; today, it would be challenging conservative conventional wisdom.

    The "mistake" I believe that Straussians make is in assuming that the only way to examine the society is through an intellectual process involving textual exegesis of the ancients. This would certainly deter many people from attempting the project. I believe that because people have within them the ability to explore themselves and their society. It's simply a matter of examining the premises underlying the conventional wisdom. I think this is what I got most out of Strauss even though I did not necessarily recognize or remember it as such until your discussion. Most people, of course,whether "liberal" or "conservative" choose not to do so and I fear that the emphasis on textual analysis makes many believe that the idea of an examined life is "elitist."

    One point about the tension between politics and philosophy. I think it's a very important distinction. There is a great danger, as Socrates notes,in trying to bring philosophy into the city. Ideas are powerful and, unmediated by experience or practice, can be extremely dangerous. The best examples of this are Marxism and Nazism. This is why, in my opinion, compromise and moderation are so important to a liberal democracy. Many people on both ends of politics believe (as I read on both left and right blogs) that moderation is for "confused" people or people who have no principles. I strongly disagree--I believe people that lack moderation look to have philosophy rule the city, a very dangerous idea. In a liberal democracy, I believe conservatives and liberals need each other and can learn from each other. Unfortunately, that's obviously not what is happening today. (And, fyi, I consider myself to be moderately left of center.)

    I apologize for going on so long. I found this discussion very exciting and I hope you continue.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:30 PM  

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