Aesthetic Aristocracy vs. Liberal Democracy

Jeff Taylor (not to be confused with Jeff A. Taylor, or other Jeff Taylors) is one of the most interesting Jeffersonian-minded political scientists/philosophers around. His review of Joel Johnson’s Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature furnishes some evidence to back up my claim. Johnson’s book pits what Taylor calls “the anti-liberal, anti-democratic leanings of Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence” against James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells — a match-up of aesthetic aristocracy vs. liberal democracy (sort of), though I might have wished Johnson were talking about “Jeffersonian republicanism” rather than “liberal democracy” (Taylor would prefer “Jeffersonian democracy,” I think.) Actually, what I favor myself is “liberal aristocracy.” But in any case, Taylor has written a thoughtful review of an intriguing book.

In addition to his Beyond Practical Virtue review, Taylor also has another new article on-line, an interview in which he talks about America’s five-years’ war (and counting) in Iraq. And his 2006 book, Where Did the Party Go?, is well worth a look in its own right.

Postcript: I should have mentioned Taylor’s endorsement of Ron Paul, which Dylan Waco helpfully reminds me about.

After drafting this post, I googled around a bit to see if anyone else had used the phrase “liberal aristocracy,” and in particular whether anyone else associated one figure I had in mind — Jacob Burckhardt — with the phrase. Not in that order, it turns out, but reverse the terms and one of the first things that pops up in a search for “aristocratic liberalism” is … a book about Burckhardt (as well as Mill and Tocqueville). In the American context, the archetype for aristocratic liberalism probably has to be John Randolph of Roanoke.

A Short History of Political Philosophy

I spent last week attending David Gordon’s seminar on political philosophy (from Plato to Rawls, Nozick, and Rothbard) at the Mises Institute. You can hear the lectures on-line here. Not only does Dr. Gordon marvelously integrate material appropriate for both neophytes and those already well-versed in the history of political thought, he also successfully untangles the convoluted questions I would put to him after the talks. Well worth a listen.

Viereck in Print

My essay on Peter Viereck is now out, in the June 18 issue of The American Conservative. It doesn’t thoroughly address the points Will Hay and Daniel Larison (among others) raised a few months back after I blogged on Viereck, but the piece gives some indication of why I find Viereck valuable, despite his flaws.

The magazine’s early July issue will include my review of John Lukacs’s recent book on George Kennan, I believe.  There are a few other things in the pipeline, too, so keep your eyes glued to TAC (which you ought to be doing anyway, of course!).

Straussian Anti-Federalism?

Georgetown government professor Patrick Deneen was one of the speaker’s at last weekend’s “Liberty, Community, and Place in the American Tradition” shindig in Charlottesville.  He made a very interesting case, drawing on Leo Strauss, for what he called America’s “alternative” tradition, of which the Anti-Federalists were the prophets.  Deneen has a blog and has posted the first segment of his remarks here. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the portion that cites the Anti-Federalists.)  Though I disagree with a great deal in the talk, it’s interesting enough to be worth flagging up for attention.

The Strauss Story

Steven Smith, who himself has recently published on Leo Strauss, reviews two new biographies of the “skeptical friend of democracy.” Here’s a bite:

Central to Strauss’s understanding of the Medieval Enlightenment [of Farabi and Maimonides] was the claim that revelation is the medium of the moral and political life of the community. No community, not even the modern liberal state, can entirely escape theology. Philosophy must therefore pay its respects to religion by concealing its deepest and most disturbing truths by adopting a rhetoric of piety and obedience to the law. The model of this kind of “noble rhetoric” can be found in Plato. It was in Farabi’s interpretation of Plato that Strauss first discovered the famous doctrine of the “double truth” to which he gave expression in his famous 1941 essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing.”

Like every reader of Strauss, Mr. Tanguay wants to know whether Strauss’s recovery of esoteric writing was intended purely as a historical insight or whether he incorporated the techniques of Plato and Farabi into his own writing. “Why did Strauss,” Tanguagy asks, “who lived all his life in democratic regimes where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, feel the need to employ an art of writing that is justified in part by fear of persecution?”

Strauss did not live in fear of persecution; he was not a paranoid. But his adoption of this “Farabian” rhetoric was his way of protecting his adopted homeland from the skepticism that is the mark of all true philosophy. Strauss’s use of a rhetoric of discretion was his way of showing respect for democracy.

Dubya Immanentizes the Eschaton

Gene Callahan consults Eric Voegelin for insight into the Bush administration and its ideological supporters:

Since the Gnostic is, like the Blues Brothers, “on a mission from God,” like Jake and Elwood he is not constrained by the moral rules that apply to the non-elect. Voegelin says, “Types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect.” The ongoing train wreck that Iraqi society has become was the predictable and often predicted result of the US-British invasion of the country. But the promoters of the disaster accept no guilt for their role in bringing about the present, horrible situation, because in their dream world they intended a quite different outcome. “No one,” they protest, “could have foreseen the actual course of events,” while ignoring the fact that many people did foresee it, at least in its broad outlines.

Today, at last, the force of reality is beginning to compel them to acknowledge that their grand adventure in Iraq has gone terribly astray. But many neocons are still not willing to concede that therefore launching the war was a mistake. A popular dodge is to ask their critics, “So, you’d prefer it if Hussein was still in power, still oppressing the Iraqi people?”

Well, if I could have magically ended Hussein’s tyranny in a way that wouldn’t have made life even worse for those I sought to help, I would have done so. Unfortunately, as the past three years demonstrate, it was quite possible to depose him in a way that makes the average Iraqi nostalgic for “the good old days” of Saddam’s reign of despicable but limited violence. Traditional western morality rejects the notion that an actor’s “good intentions” alone are enough to absolve him from blame for the consequences of his actions, insisting that he also has an obligation to prudently consider the probable effects of the options he is contemplating. But in the Gnostic dream world, it is morally irrelevant if the “beneficiaries” of your assistance wind up significantly and predictably in worse shape than they would have been had you simply left them alone. What matters is that in your dream everything was scheduled to come out fine, and you are righteous solely based on your admirable intentions.

Read on.

I’m Voegelin-deficient, by the way, having read none of his major works.  I oughta remedy that in the next year or so.

Invasion of the Hermeneuticians

A classic from Murray Rothbard (who also takes a well-deserved shot at economists /econometricians invading other fields):

In recent years, economists have invaded other intellectual disciplines and, in the dubious name of “science,” have employed staggeringly oversimplified assumptions in order to make sweeping and provocative conclusions about fields they know very little about. This is a modern form of “economic imperialism” in the realm of the intellect. Almost always, the bias of this economic imperialism has been quantitative and implicitly Benthamite, in which poetry and pushpin are reduced to a single level, and which amply justifies the gibe of Oscar Wilde about cynics, that they [economists] know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The results of this economic imperialism have been particularly ludicrous in the fields of sex, the family, and education.

So why then does the present author, not a Benthamite, now have the temerity to tackle a field as arcane, abstruse, metaphysical, and seemingly unrelated to economics as hermeneutics? Here my plea is the always legitimate one of self-defense. Discipline after discipline, from literature to political theory to philosophy to history, have been invaded by an arrogant band of hermeneuticians, and now even economics is under assault. Hence, this article is in the nature of a counterattack.

[Read the whole thing here.]

Strauss the Skeptic

There’s an excellent, thought-provoking essay on Leo Strauss and Straussians in the new (Sumer 2006) issue of Modern Age by Richard Sherlock of Utah State University. He’s sympathetic to Strauss in some respects and particularly values Strauss’s close readings of ancient texts. But ultimately he finds the project of Strauss and the Straussians sterile:

At bottom Strauss appears to be a skeptic on the most fundamental question of all: Can either philosophy or theology ground either wisdom or virtue? It is not that Strauss did not do all he could have done. It is rather that, on his own terms, such a grounding of natural right seems not to be possible. This is why in his masterwork [Natural Right and History — D.M.] the language of natural right is so fervent and pervasive while the pay-off is so meager. On the question at hand the project appears as rhetorical, not philosophic. In Natural Right and History Strauss argues that classical natural right is superior to modern natural rights, but he nowhere shows how classic natural right is anything more than rhetoric.

Nowhere does Strauss provide solutions to, or show how Plato or Aristotle provided solutions to, fundamental epistemological problems found in Plato’s own work. Nowhere does he engage Aristotle’s metaphysics or biology in search of natural right, in the way that Aristotle himself might have done. Nowhere does he seriosuly engage the nature of the physical cosmos. On his own view, philosophy must aspire to and thus assume a comprehensive account of the whole. But to invoke the whole–a cosmos–immediately raises the question of the grounds on which we can assume that whole to be intelligible. Such a move, of course, leads to classic natural theology, which Strauss studiously ignores.

… One strenuous critic of Strauss [Myles Burnyeat — D.M.] has attacked him as being a “sphinx without a secret.” I think that this is a limited and unsatisfactory response to Strauss and to Straussianism. In general, the secret of Strauss’s teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its sight?

… [O]ne searches Strauss’s corpus and that of leading Straussians in vain for any serious encounter with Christian theologians, or for that matter with the real theologians of Islam like al-Ghazali. Straussians express their partiality for the ancients over the moderns as a preference for the high over the low. When confronted with the very highest, however–the claims of Christianity–they turn back on the road to Athens without any serious argument to justify their turn.

Of course, as Sherlock himself argues earlier, even that “road to Athens” is only followed as a rhetorical strategy.

There are several pro-Strauss books by Straussians out recently, by the way, including Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy by Thomas Pangle and Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. The latter appears to cover Strauss’s leading students and proponents particularly well. I’m looking forward to reading both one of these days when I have a bit of time on my hands. In the fullness of time, I’ll write up something at length about them and about Strauss generally.

Three Kinds of Pro-Life

Time, as always, is short, but I thought I would post a few quick additional thoughts on John Derbyshire's review of Ramesh Ponnuru's book The Party of Death. I suggested before that Derbyshire was at least partly right in his criticisms. His analysis of the "frigid and pitiless dogma" applies very well to at least one broad type of pro-lifer — but applies hardly at all to two other kinds.

In my experience there are three main types of right-to-lifer, one of which is wholly admirable, one of which I find utterly reprehensible, and one of which I respect but believe to be fundamentally mistaken about the nature of political order. The admirable sort are those who volunteer their time (and often money) for crisis pregnancy centers. For them, being pro-life is not just about politics — though they do vote — but above all about directly helping mothers and children. These people do not seek out a great deal of publicity and are easily overshadowed by the noisier, more political, less self-sacrificing types. Derbyshire seems to be completely unaware that they exist. At least, his article gives no indication that he knows of them.

The second type I cannot stand. They are the strictly political, partisan "pro-lifers" who rail against anyone who dissents from their ideology, which holds that abortion, stem cells, and euthanasia (broadly defined) are the pro-life issues and that they must be fought primarily through government action. I italicize that definite article in the preceding sentence because, again judging from experience and observation, this type tends not to apply a very strict ethic of life to questions of war and peace, nor do they think very much about capital punishment, beyond whatever thinking is needed to come up with justifications for their political position.

They have always seemed to me to be motivated more by partisan animosity than by love of innocent life, as their disregard for the collateral damage caused by the foreign policy of the Republicans they vote for demonstrates. "Disregard" is actually wrong — they typically love war, because they love state power. A good cause serves as a good pretext for the exercise of political force — carried out by men in uniform, of course — whether the cause is saving innocent life in utero or freeing peoples from oppressive governments. (Though they're always clamoring for more oppressive government at home, aren't they? You don't find any civil libertarians in this category. But again, righteousness, real or imagined, is largely a means to power for them.)

Derbyshire's criticisms apply to category 2 quite well, though I have never seen in this group any "theologians, monks … grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms." The ones of whom I know are office holders, office seekers, journalists, think tankers, public intellectuals, etc. Far from being theologians or monks, many of the Christians in this category, though they talk about religion in generic terms, seem very uncomfortable admitting that their Christianity has anything to do with their beliefs about life and death. (Overt sectarian commitments can pose problems for those seeking secular power and esteem, after all.) The other two classes tend to be forthright and unembarrassed about it.

The third category is the most interesting. They're the people for whom saving lives trumps the political process. Brent Bozell — not the Media Research Center head, but his father, William F. Buckley's late brother-in-law — is a good example. Many are deeply religious and reject the secular foundations of the United States, which they see as inherently corrupt and leading more or less directly to abortion on demand (as well as euthanasia). Practically speaking, they believe in civil disobedience and some approve of sabotaging abortion facilities. There is a serious and radical critique of modernity and liberalism (in the largest sense) behind the view of life and death issues that these people have. They cannot be accused of "gaseous sentimentality" or "political correctness." I'm sympathetic to much of their critique, but I don't come to precisely their conclusions — for reasons I will have to outline later.

These are archetypes — individuals might be a mixture of two or more, and there are other, more exotic types as well (for example, liberals who are pro-life for liberal reasons, such as Nat Hentoff; "pro-life" murderers, an oxymoronic type, are something else again). By far the noisiest and most media-prominent of anti-abortionists are group 2, though, and Derbyshire's criticisms of "RTL" fit them reasonably well.

Architect of the Old Right

That's Ralph Adams Cram, and I don't mean that he designed the Old Right — he was literally an architect, who happened to be on the Old Right. Alan Wall had a very good article on him on LRC a week or so back; check it out.

Cram was a late but seminal influence of Albert Jay Nock. Cram's essay "Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings" crystallized Nock's growing pessimism about humanity; Cram's thesis was that most people do not behave like human beings because most people are not human beings, not in a spiritual or psychological sense. At one point, Nock, Mencken, and Paul Palmer — at the time the editor of The American Mercury, later editor of Reader's Digest — discussed the prospect of publishing a book consisting of a series of letters between Nock, Mencken, and/or Cram. The idea never got off the ground: Mencken thought that he and Nock would have much too much in common to make for an interesting exchange of correspondence, and Cram was too old (by then, the late '30s or early '40s, he was in his 70s).

Nock and Palmer went some way with the project by themselves, though the results were never published. I've seen some of those letters, and while they tell us relatively little about Nock that wasn't already known (his correspondence with other acquaintances in the early '40s is more revealing, particularly for his thoughts on FDR, Stalin, and the British — he had a pretty black view of all three), Palmer's side is interesting for the light it throws on the emerging Cold War mindset. Mencken, Nock, and most of the old right were steadfast in supporting Communists' civil liberties; they were not proto-McCarthyites, despite what some liberal intellectual historians seem to think. Palmer, however, was: he argued that the gravest danger Communists posed within the U.S. was the risk that they would precipitate a popular and governmental backlash that would harm Americans' civil liberties generally; in order to forestall that outcome, he was willing to pre-emptively circumscribe the Reds' rights.

Palmer remains an obscure figure. Cram, however, has been the subject of a two-volume biography that I'm going to have to take a look at whenever I can, though it's been heavily criticized for its author's fashionable preoccupation with Cram's sex life. In the meantime, it's good to see him getting a little bit of appreciative coverage in Wall's LRC piece.