Thursday, December 31, 2009
As Tom mentioned, I recommended to him the book by Michael (and Catherine) Zuckert about Strauss and the Straussians. I recently attended a conference with Michael Zuckert and finally decided, after years of ignorance about Strauss, to read his book, The Truth about Leo Strauss. His discussion really opened up a new world to me. I was finally able to understand why the different Straussians I read from time to time were making the moves they were. Sudden understanding where bafflement previously prevailed.
For me, the best part of the book was the discussion of the Straussians and in particular the division between East Coast, West Coast, and Midwestern Straussians. The Zuckerts explain Strauss as believing three propositions that are in tension with one another:
- American is good;
- Modernity is bad; and
- American is modern.
The different Straussians schools each modify one of these propositions.
The West Coast Straussians, who seem to worship Harry Jaffa for some reason, believe that America is not modern. The founding was really based on Aristotle, not Locke.
The East Coast Straussians do not believe America is good. Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind is the best known example. Let me say that Zuckert's summary of Bloom's book (which I have not really read) made me detest Bloom.
Finally, the Midwestern Straussians believe that America modernity is good. It is this group, who were led by Martin Diamond until his untimely death, that I like. In this group you can find Darwinian Conservative Larry Arnhart, the folks at Powerline, and Michael Zuckert himself.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Pretty bad, but not as bad as I had thought. If one excludes both defense spending and interest on the debt, then Bush is not in the worst group -- Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Instead, he is in the middle group of Ford and Bush I. The best president is, not surprising, Ronald Reagan, who held non-defense, non-interest spending to a real annual average growth of 1 percent. Interestingly, the other two presidents who fall into the best group are Clinton and Carter. In the case of Clinton, I believe the lion's share of the credit belongs to Republican Congress, since Clinton certainly would have been happy to expand government spending with health care (although some of the credit does belong to Clinton). Carter's case is more puzzling, since he governed with large Democratic congressional majorities.
At the recommendation of my colleague Professor Rappaport, I am reading The Truth About Leo Strauss, a sympathetic exposition of the philosophical and political project of the very influential historian of political philosophy who spent much of his career at the University of Chicago. I've read a couple of chapters and it seems very good so far.
I have mixed feelings about Straussians. They can hardly all be lumped together in fairness, but for convenience's sake I will do so here. On the up side, the set of issues they deal with, and which LS dealt with, are intensely interesting, and you have to give them credit as teachers and scholars for inspiring many to take the fundamental issues of political philosophy seriously. In particular, they are preoccupied with what you might call the problem of modernity, which roughly speaking is the loss of a general belief in morality or a moral structure to the world, their being replaced by relativism about values or maybe something worse. Nietzsche and Heidegger are emblematic of the latter view. I do think the problem of modernity is indeed a problem, and I find the attitude of contemporary economics and social science generally of "problem? What problem?" frustrating in this regard. Especially with such horrors as the health care takeover in the works, I have also become interested in the tendency, let's call it, of democracies to enfold their people in a suffocating blanket of nannyism. This is something Paul Rahe, for example, is trying to think deeply about. Straussians seem to be among those who recognize and are trying to grapple with this, inspired by thinkers such as Tocqueville.
But I think it's unlikely I will find myself much in sympathy with any version of Straussianism in the end. To cut the the chase, I see Strauss as very much influenced by Nietzsche, in the sense that LS ends up preferring the ancient to the modern and in being inegalitarian with respect to the value of persons (which many ancients were of course). I don't view modernity as hopeless and the ancient world was in my view while fascinating also a place of widespread darkness. The great civilizer of the West was Christianity, which planted the seeds of human equality and the rule of law. I'm hopeful that the good parts of enlightenment and Christianity can be saved; I think we know and have discovered a lot the ancients never dreamnt of. To top it off, I don't find Socrates a hugely appealing figure and neither am I a huge fan of Plato. Give me Aristotle any day. Anyway, you can call Strauss a lot of things, but Christian is not really one of them. Even if you throw the religious metaphysics over the side (which I don't suggest doing), Christianity remains I think a deeply appealing world view and one much in need of defending, much more so to me than anything I can find in Plato.
But that said I think Strauss is a valuable interlocutor in the dialog among ancient, modern, post-modern and one hopes other alternatives.
Flaccid words, meaningless words. He talks about aspirations. He talks about rights. He talks about justice in the statement he made.
This isn't about justice. It isn't about a low minimum wage. This isn't about an absence of a public option in health care. This is about freedom. This is a revolution in the streets.
Revolutions happen quickly. There is a moment here in which if the thugs in the street who are shooting in the crowds stop shooting, it's over and the regime will fall. The courage of the demonstrators and their boldness isn't only a demonstration of courage, it is an indication of the shift in the balance of power. The regime is weakening.
This is a hinge of history. Everything in the region will change if the regime is changed. Obama ought to be strong out there in saying: It is an illegitimategovernment. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people in the street.
He talks about diplomacy. He should be urging our Western allies who have relations [with Iran] to cut them off, isolate the regime, to ostracize it. He ought to be going in the U.N. — at every forum — and denouncing it.
This is a moment in history, and he's missing it.