Skip to comments.The Philosopher of Neoconservatives
Posted on 05/11/2003 6:43:44 AM PDT by A. PoleEdited on 04/13/2004 2:09:46 AM PDT by Jim Robinson. [history]
The late Leo Strauss has emerged as the thinker of the moment in Washington, but his ideas remain mysterious. Was he an ardent opponent of tyranny, or an apologist for the abuse of power?
ODD AS THIS MAY SOUND, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush's Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss's work and trace his disciples' affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon.
(Excerpt) Read more at boston.com ...
LOL, So this is what it looks like when the democratic party implodes.
Strauss has never said that "those who are fit rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior" (one of Drury's quotes). He never supported the idea of power politics or the mere usefulness of religion in civic life. He has never supported the idea of "perpetual war." He was never an enemy of liberal democracy.
Strauss was a political philosopher who focused on reviving the study of other political philsophers in a serious way. He was a friend of liberal democracy, although his support of it did not extend to flattery. His book "Natural Right and History" was a broadside attack on historicism and relativism. Granted, he had misgivings about the modern political project, especially concerning the non-teleological aspects of modern science. He thought that ancient political philosophy was superior to modern political philosophy. However this may be, Shadia Drury and the Boston Globe are completely out of their league in accurately describing anything he's written.
However, I will say that if the the editors at the Boston Globe are interested in people reading Strauss with "Straussian eyes," the first thing to do is to buy the books and read them. Let the author speak for himself. Don't focus on his life or what other people have said about him. In order to read Strauss with "Straussian eyes," let Strauss speak for himself.
As someone who's read Strauss for a very long time, I have to say that I'm pleased that he's finally getting some attention. Liberals, after endlessly repeating the "neo-con" label, have no decided to discredit the source, the father of neo-conservatism. They have identified the ideological enemy of liberalism and are using everything they've got to bring the Straussians to heel before more damage is done.
The good news is that if Shadia Drury and Seymour Hersh are the best they can dig up, it will take them three thousand years to undermine Leo Strauss and the Chicago School.
Strauss wouldn't have agreed with this approach. He actually believed in truth.
Karl Schmitt should not be flippantly dissmissed. Same way you could dismiss Heidegger and Jung for example.
Even if one can disagree with their ideas, still they provide an important alternative approaches and points of reference. They should not be reduced to the Nazism, same way as many left-leaning thinkers should not be reduced to Commies.
And the democrats arn't run by a small ruling class of power hungry rich, union boss thugs, and academic marxists? Who says they aren't? They sure as Hell don't stand for the individual.
The part that confuses me is who was going to kill Strauss if he didn't talk in code? If the author is going to say he followed the lead of the ancient philosophers, shouldn't he attempt to show that he faced the same threats that they did, which would cause him to adopt the same approach?
He would be denied tenure and black-listed by the publishers in the name of political correctness? This would be a form of death for a political thinker.
Not really. There are different types of "elites". Publishers and university administrators are not necesarily elites by Strauss definition. At least no more that Athenian judges who sentenced Socrates.
One thing that has always annoyed me about Rosen is his inability to see the Democrats for who they are.
Plato, Strauss, And Political Philosophy: An Interview with Stanley Rosen
Stanley Rosen is Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He has lectured and held visiting professorships in many of the leading universities of North America and Europe. Professor Rosen is the author of thirteen books, including Platos Symposium (1969; 2nd ed. 1987), Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay (1969), G.W.F. Hegel: An Introduction to the Science of Wisdom (1974), Platos Sophist (1983), The Limits of Analysis (1985), Hermeneutics and Politics (1987), The Ancient and the Modern: Rethinking Modernity (1989), Platos Statesman (1995), The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsches Zarathustra (1995), and Metaphysics of Ordinary Language (1999). His books have been translated into French, Italian, Catalan, and Japanese. He wrote his dissertation under the supervision of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago.
This is an edited version of an interview that has already been published in China
BAI: Can you explain how Leo Strauss and his students read Platos dialogues?
ROSEN: Well, firstly, the approach to the Platonic dialogues has changed over the course of history. For example, in Neo-Platonist times, interpreters of the dialogues took the dramatic form very seriously. And they read very complicated views into what would look to, say, the members of the contemporary analytical tradition like extremely trivial and secondary stylistic characteristics. Secondly, there was a tradition of taking seriously the dramatic form of the dialogue. It began in Germany in the 18th century with people like Schleiermacher. And that tradition extends through the 19th century, and you see it in scholars like Friedländer and in philosophical interpreters like Gadamer. And we now know, of course, that Heidegger in his lectures on the Sophist took the details of the dialogue very seriously. So, that has to be said in order for us to understand that the apparent heterodoxy or eccentricity of Leo Strauss approach to the Platonic dialogues is such a heterodoxy only with respect to the kind of positivist and analytical approach to Plato. That is true especially, or was true about ten years ago in the Anglo-Saxon world and secondarily, in Scandinavia as well as, to some extent, in Germany. So, the so-called un-orthodoxy, or Strauss approach, in taking ones bearings by the dramatic nature of the dialogue, is a heterodoxy only with respect to the kind of positivist philological approach on the one hand, and the analytical approach on the other. One could say that the analytical approach to Plato is heterodox vis-à-vis the whole tradition in that it ignored the dramatic structure. Final point, within the last ten years, even the analysts have began talking about the dramatic form of the dialogue as though they discovered this. More directly, the Strauss approach is characterized by a fine attention to the dramatic structure, the personae, all the details in the dialogues because they were plays, and also by very close analyses. Now, Strauss interpretation has the tendency to give you the impression that Plato had complicated views that are concealed by the exoteric surface, and from penetrating the exoteric surface, one may find the esoteric teaching. Thats actually a slight exaggeration of what Strauss really did. Nevertheless, there is a difference between me and Straussians on this point. Whereas I dont doubt that one has to interpret the dialogues carefully, I dont assume that Im going to find a coherent and a secret teaching hidden underneath the text. The purpose of the text is to stimulate the reader to think, and it does that by being an intricate construction with many implications, some of which are indeterminate in the sense that you cant be sure of what Plato meant and what Socrates meant, but they are intended to make you, the interpreter, do your thinking for yourself. Now, Strauss wouldnt disagree, but he and his school tend to give the impression that there is a doctrine, worked-out and concealed beneath the surface. In this generalized view of the Straussian position, the surface teaching is directed towards the many, to people who are not genuine philosophers, that is, they are not the very individuals who can think for themselves. It is meant to be helpful to these people, not harmful. The exoteric teaching so to speak expresses the truth in a manner that is accessible to non-philosophers, or it replaces the dangerous truth with a healthy myth. But the deeper teaching, which can be discerned or perceived only by the genuinely philosophical reader, is concealed underneath that surface. I think that it would be better to emphasize that the dialogue has as its primary function the task of stimulating the reader to think for himself, not to find the teaching worked-out for him.
BAI: You are against the idea that there is some sort of fixed structure of the Platonic dialogues?
ROSEN: Thats right. There is no doubt that there are some other opinions hidden beneath the surface opinions. But how do you know when you come to the end?
BAI: Do you think that Strauss had that kind of fixed picture of the Platonic dialogues?
ROSEN: For Strauss, there were three levels of the text: the surface; the intermediate depth, which I think he did think is worked out; and the third and deepest level, which is a whole series of open or finally unresolvable problems. Strauss tended to emphasize the first and the second. I wouldnt say he didnt mention the third, whereas I concentrate on the third.
BAI: Now, lets focus on the Republic. There are many apparent discrepancies in this dialogue. Traditionally, they are explained away by claiming that this dialogue is written in different periods of Platos life. Do you agree with this
ROSEN: No, no. The attempt to interpret the Platonic dialogues on the hypothesis that he had a historical development is gratuitous, in other words, there is no proof for it, it is a completely arbitrary assumption, which is typical of late modern historicism. Its perfectly reasonable to say that a thinker must have changed his mind at some point as he grew older. I have nothing against that. But when you read dialogues, you cannot assume that the difference between, lets say, something that Socrates said in the Philebus and something that he said in the Phaedrus can be explained by the fact that Plato was older when he wrote the Philebus than when he wrote the Phaedrus. You have to start with the assumption that whatever Socrates said in the Philebus has to be interpreted on the basis of the context of the Philebus. Only after you understood the Philebus in its own terms, then the Phaedrus in its own terms, can you ask how they relate to one another. And a much more reasonable hypothesis than the one that says that Plato wrote these two dialogues at different times in his life is to say that Plato has different purposes in writing these two dialogues, right? Thats I think the only sensible way to start. If all this fails to put you on a reasonable path, then you can say "well, I dont understand why there are differences, maybe Plato has changed his mind." But the dialogues are written so carefully that they allow us to understand them like Shakespeares plays or any great work of art; they allow us to understand them as integral units, as unities. Sometime it doesnt work, but very frequently it does. So, whether Plato has changed his mind or not, I really dont know, and neither does anybody else. What I know is that the evidence of the dialogues, that is, the dialogue-form itself, provides individual criteria and sufficient detail for determining, or arriving at a reasonable guess at, why Socrates said something in a particular context. If he said something else in a different dialogue, thats a different context. You have to tell whom he is talking to, under what circumstances, and what points he wishes to make. You see? Thats somehow typical for the so-called Straussian approach, and I accept that.
BAI: Are there discrepancies between different books of the Republic?
ROSEN: First of all, I really dont know what discrepancies you are referring to. I read that book many times, and I dont think there are any discrepancies. I mean, there is a difference in the flow, the pace, the character of the discussion from Book 1 to Book 2 and the following. That is very simply explained by the fact that Book 1 is a kind of curtain raiser, its the first scene of the first act, and the whole character of the discussion shifts after Thrasymachus has been refuted, and Glaucon and Adeimantus begin their demands that Socrates look more closely at the claim that the just and virtuous life is always superior to the unjust and non-virtuous life. So thats what I would say. If you can give a coherent interpretation of the Republic, which shows that Book 1 is essential to the rest of the text, thats a sufficient sign that you have understood the text better than those who claim that Book 1 is not connected to the rest of the work. Furthermore, in my own interpretations, I have shown that in a way the whole subsequent development of the argument in the Republic is prefigured in the beginning of the book. So, in other words, I think that on these questions, you can make general methodological comments about what is reasonable, and what is not reasonable, but the only way in which these comments become persuasive is by actually studying the dialogues, actually reading them carefully. The whole apparatus of the modern analytical, positivist, orthodox philological approach to Plato is itself the expression of a particular part of our tradition and of theoretical presuppositions. For example, it must be said that philologists tend not to be interested in philosophy, but in grammatical details. It also must be said that analytical philosophers tend to be interested in arguments, in whether they are valid and their explanations are plausible, and by plausible they mean plausible on empirical standard, and so on. So, its naïve to say that only Straussians have ideological foundations to their approach to Plato: everybody does. We dont know anything about Platos private thoughts: all we have are his dialogues. So, we have to examine them as carefully as possible.
BAI: So, in short, you dont think there are any serious discrepancies within the Republic.
ROSEN: If there are any discrepancies, they can be explained on the basis of some dramatic detail. For example, Socrates might say something in Book 7 that is different from what he said in Book 1 because the circumstances are changed. You have to understand that this is a living conversation. Very often in our conversations, some of which may last for many hours, we sometimes said one thing in one part of the conversation, and something else in another part. A conversation is not a serious logical argument that has been produced by a computer programmer. What we say is a function of a variety of circumstances. Our conversational intentions shift with events. The dialogue-form is perfectly suited to reproduce this essential feature of living speech. This is why it is so misleading to read Platonic dialogues as though they were academic or scientific treatises.
BAI: Could changes over the course of the Republic indicate some sort of dialectical movement?
ROSEN: Certainly they could. Also, Socrates often uses bad or invalid arguments, and rhetorical devices in order to persuade the people he is talking to. You see, scholars make the assumption that, since the Republic is a philosophical dialogue, and since the philosophers always tell the truth, it must be the case that whatever is stated in a Platonic dialogue by the main speaker is stated as though it were being constructed as a serious argument in a seminar room in a university, and so for specialists. I think this is ridiculous. We are talking about a dialogue taking place in central Athens with young boys, right? Actually, the Republic is taking place in the Piraeus. But the point is the same. Its a discussion by an older man with young, excited people of various degrees of intelligence and experience; and the conversation, even though it is often about very abstract and serious matters, has to be understood exactly as though it were a conversation between an older man and young boys of this sort in downtown Shanghai or New York. In this case we would not be constantly checking the argument for its validity. We could do that, but we also have to ask for the rhetoric of the question. Why did the senior man alter the way in which he talks in this part of the dialogue from the one in which he talks in the previous part. Its naive to assume that everything is homogeneous in conversations, right? And one must never forget Socrates own statements about philosophical rhetoric in the Phaedrus: we must accommodate what we say to the intelligence of the audience or the partner in our discussion.
BAI: Anyway, lets focus on the central topic of the Republic, the just city Socrates constructed with other people. So, according to the traditional reading, the Republic suggests some sort of communism or oppressive regime. Whats your reading?
ROSEN: I accept the following view from Leo Strauss on that particular point. And the view is this: the political function of the Republic is to show that the perfect solution to human political problems is impossible, and it shows that by asking that we think through completely, what fundamental steps would be necessary in order to have a perfectly just regime. Now, one such assumption is that the wise must rule. I mean, obviously a perfect regime is one in which everything is done perfectly. Everything can only be done perfectly if the city is managed by the most intelligent and most competent people. Unfortunately, extremely intelligent people are very few in number. Most people are not so intelligent: they are average or lower. Consequently if you want to have a perfect society, we have to have the city run by the few perfect people. The perfect people have to have a perfect education, hence they have to spend twenty years studying. Furthermore, the rulers of the city, since they are smarter than anybody else, cannot possibly tell the truth to everyone. So they have to use lies, which are called noble, or medicinal, right? And they know the truth about certain things, but they have to lie to the people. For example, they have to tell them that they were fashioned by gods in a big cave underneath the city. Now, obviously, they know that thats not true, but they are persuading people of this, who are willing to believe it, to strengthen their ties to the place of the city, the sacred soil, and also to keep their place in the structured society. In other words, to continue, if you want to found a perfect city, the people have to be doing what they are best suited for. And this means that people must be divided into classes. The man with the aptitude to be a farmer is in the farming class; the man with the aptitude to be a soldier is in the soldiers class; the man with the aptitude to be a ruler is in the ruling class. And if you are taught that you are made the way you are by the gods, then that tends to intensify your satisfaction with what you are doing. Furthermore, in a perfect city, the ruler must have a strong police force, who are willing and able to carry out the orders of the ruler. In other words, they should be ready to sacrifice their own self-interest for the good of the city because they represent the army, the police; if they are not completely patriotic, then they can use their arms for personal power. So they must be given a way of life, which takes away everything private. So they have no money, no wives, no children. but they are not allowed to have their own family. Their family is the city, right? All right, now, look, every one of these things I just said follows from the principle that the perfect city has to be built in the best possible way, and that can only be done by the wisest people. And you find, by thinking this through, that the consequences of attempting to have a perfectly just city are terrible. Or let us say that such men have no desire to govern it. The philosopher has no desire to rule: he wants to study. If you think through what is necessary to have a just city, you will end up with the city which is unjust in the sense that it doesnt take into its account the deepest desires of its citizens. So, from that standpoint, the Republic is a political satire. People dont think really hard enough about what it means to have a utopia.
BAI: Are there any textual supports to this kind of reading
ROSEN: No, no! You have to read it. You have to read it. I mean, what clues are there in a play by Shakespeare as to which statements are jokes, or intended ironically, or represent the views of the author? In other words, it would be rather stupid if Plato wrote in a footnote: "By the way, this is a satire. Dont take the surface intention to express my deeper ideas. I really have in mind the following five points." You have to think everything through for yourself. But of course, the text supplies you with the evidence. It is the text that you must explain. And a part of that explanation is to show those points at which Plato leaves it to the reader to carry the line of thought farther, and sometimes in a different direction from that taken by Socrates under such-and-such circumstances. To mention only one point: often we have to ask what Socrates would have said about something to a different audience. Strauss naturally can show evidence in the text to support his reading as I can. For example, one can raise questions about the possibility of the city, one can ask the question whether its just to the philosopher to make him to rule, and so on. You know, there are all kinds of details of this sort. Killing everybody over the age of ten, right? I mean, that sounds like Pol Pot. Does Plato say in the text: "thats obviously terrible." No, of course not. You have to ask yourself whether thats a reasonable thing to do in order to establish just city. So, its really quite mistaken to ask for specific statements. I mean, there are no specific statements in Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel, or in Don Quixote, that say: "this is a joke." You know, there are no specific statements that reveal the implied meaning. Plato assumes that his books would be read by intelligent people. As to those who are not so discerning, the exoteric teaching will suffice for them, and it will do them no harm.
BAI: Then, if one major aim of the Republic is to show the intelligent people that Utopia is not possible, and if one of the major tasks of the Republic, according to Leo Strauss, is to cure the disease of the idealists, how about democracy? I mean, is this book in support of democracy?
ROSEN: No. Its not a book in support of anything other than being smart. You could say that the Republic gives us some reasons for being democrats rather than monarchists, or something like that. But it would be a rather difficult argument to make. I mean, the Republic itself, all the appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, is not about this or that political regime, but what are the full implications of attempting to be completely rational about politics. You could say that this book is a kind of attack on the Enlightenment. If thats too difficult to see, if I might have to fill in many steps there to make that clear, lets go back to your question. In what sense could we say that the Republic is a defense of democracy? I mean, certainly one could say, well, its a defense of the equality of man and woman, right? Thats true, Socrates argument depends at crucial points upon what we call today "womens liberation." But the principle of the rule of the wise is not a democratic principle, and there is no point in pretending that it is. To the contrary, democracy claims that citizens should be freely elected on the basis of qualifications that satisfy the electorate, not on the basis of who is best qualified. Now, no doubt candidates in an election claim to have more knowledge and experience. But fools are also elected, and it doesnt violate the democratic principle. I think myself that the only thing, the main thing that the Republic has to teach the democrats is that not even democracy can function unless competent people are in charge. Does that raise a risk of a shift from democracy, through democracy to oligarchy? Of course, but is there a perfect democracy anywhere in the world? You know damn well that China is not a democracy. I am not saying this because I am an enemy of China. I would say that if China were a perfect democracy, that would be a stupid country. And obviously it is not. Democracy means the rule of the mob, the demos. You have to have educated, cultivated, and decent people governing a democracy. Thats a kind of corollary of Platos Republic.
BAI: So, the picture is that, on the one hand, the perfect just city, the city ruled by the wise, is impossible; on the other hand, even in a democratic regime, the wise should rule
ROSEN: This is fine. In other words, be as smart as possible. If I said to you: "you must be smart," you wouldnt reply: "Well, look, perfect wisdom is impossible. Therefore, I want to live in the dumbest society." That doesnt make any sense, right? If the perfectly just society is not possible, we should try to live in the second best way, the third best, or the fourth best. We always want people who know what they are doing to be governing. Of course we dont want them to be tyrants, we dont want them to have too much power to steal from the treasury, to take away our women, to sell our sons to slave mines. We dont want any of these, neither do we wish to be governed by ignorant, superstitious peasants. If you want a perfect city, it must be governed perfectly. The perfect governor is the one who knows who should do what and when. Such a man must have knowledge of the human soul, human actions, and what the world is like. Plato calls them philosophers. Therefore, you must have philosophers as kings, by which he means rulers.
BAI: So, somehow, the idea of the philosopher-king is a serious political proposal?
ROSEN: Its a serious political proposal as a model. You want philosophers to be kings, not physicists, not mathematicians, not economists, but philosophers in the Platonic sense of the term. You want them to be kings. If its impossible to have that, then we at least want intelligent people with good practical common sense, who are compromised, but nevertheless, much better than completely ignorant people. The question of the status of the virtues in Plato is very difficult. Plato finally holds that virtue is knowledge, which means that the only genuine virtue is wisdom. And that means, as he says in the Republic that temperance, justice, and other virtues are demotic virtues, vulgar virtues, and the true virtue is knowledge, in other words, wisdom, sophia. The true virtue is wisdom. The situation is quite different in Aristotle, where you have ethical virtue. In Plato, justice is based upon knowing what belongs to each person; ultimately for him knowledge is accessible to the wise man. So, Confucius emphasis upon nobility and virtue is probably somewhat more Aristotelian than Platonist. Aristotle is much more sensible than Plato.
BAI: By the way, also according to Plato, virtue can not be taught.
ROSEN: Yes. So its a paradox. Virtue is not technical expertise and cannot be taught. However knowledge should be taught. So its a different kind of knowledge.
BAI: It is said that Aristotle reads Platonic dialogues in a way similar to the analytical readings. How would you respond?
ROSEN: First of all, I dont think I would say Aristotle reads in this way. On the contrary, he reads it in a rather mysterious way because, for example, when he talks about the Republic, he leaves out all the discussion of the Ideas. So one could say this, Aristotle respected Platos wish to keep his thoughts concealed. I think it would be very strange for Aristotle, because he did not live today, to say: "Well, my teacher went to great efforts to conceal his views. But I will tell everything in an exclusive interview." In other words, politicians nowadays in America go on television to announce the secrets of their employers. Aristotle kept quiet. He said just what he needed to say in order to make criticisms about the practical details of Platos political views. Also, Aristotles entire philosophy is in a way a revision of his teacher Platos public teachings (whether in the dialogues or by instruction at the Academy). And the Metaphysics in particular is a very detailed criticism, revision, perhaps even a refutation, of the so-called Platonic doctrine of Ideas.
BAI: I just want to make a clarification here. Generally, we say there are some theories or doctrines in the Platonic dialogues. This is somehow what Strauss or you might be arguing against.
ROSEN: No, I never said there are no doctrines in Platos dialogues. Of course, the dialogues are full of doctrines. The question is what they are worth, why they were propounded, how seriously Plato believed them and so on. Of course there are doctrines in the Platonic dialogues.
BAI: Then some critics may say, according to Aristotle there are many serious doctrines in the Platonic dialogues, then how do you
ROSEN: First of all, I wouldnt say Aristotle said there are many serious doctrines. He talks about political arrangements in the Republic. He describes them exactly as Socrates articulates them and he criticizes them, and I think his criticisms are very sensible. The question of his treatment of Platonic Ideas is much more complicated. There I would say to you the following: No great philosopher that I am familiar with has ever done justice to his great teacher. The same could be said of Hegels critique of Kant, Heideggers critique of Husserl, Derridas critique of Heidegger and so on. All major thinkers, all people of the highest standing, the first thing they want to do is to destroy their teachers. Aristotle is very respectful towards Plato, but he always presents Platos view in such a way as to make it implausible, or indefensible, in his own, Aristotelian terms, which makes it possible for him to establish how superior his own doctrines are to those of Plato. I can understand that. I think one has to be a fool to take what Aristotle says as an accurate portrayal of what Plato thought rather than as an accurate portrayal of what Aristotle thought. I think this is a big mistake, a mistake that is made by many people. They approach Plato from Aristotle. That just cant be done. What if I wrote a book on Kant based on Hegel, on Hegels portrayal of Kant? You have to know the original texts. So thats an easy objection to dispose of. Much of what Aristotle says about Platos doctrines of Ideas has been disputed by other Plato scholars, some claim that its a total distortion of what Plato says. Harold Cherniss, for example, a great Plato scholar of the earlier generation, is ruthless to Aristotle. He also shows that the very same objections Aristotle poses to Plato apply to the Aristotelian doctrine of Eidos. I am not commenting on that. I am just calling to your attention that it would be very imprudent to orient ones interpretation of Plato by a reading of Aristotle. Its hard enough to understand what Aristotle was talking about so we cant take that for granted. So, I dont see this as a difficulty. By the way, Heidegger is one of those who say that we must approach Plato by way of Aristotle.
BAI: Another possible objection to your reading is this: some one may say that the orthodox reading of Plato has been held for over 2000 years. How can 2000 years reading be wrong?
ROSEN: Very easily. For 2000 years people believed in the Bible. Today we dont. How does that happen? No, arguments of that sort, I think, carry no power whatsoever. First of all, there is no unanimity in the tradition of reading Plato. I told you that what passed for orthodoxy is no longer orthodox. The same analysts who made fun of Leo Strauss and me and his other students, today are copying us, but with no acknowledgment. They are copying the Straussian methods, but not as well. Leo Strauss is a much more careful reader and a more imaginative reader, and I certainly am as well. You get these inferior, inferior versions of the same methods they criticized ten years ago. This thesis of a long, orthodox tradition, thats nonsense. It doesnt exist. Even if it did, it would show nothing. Orthodoxy is always wrong. Always.
BAI: Were there any great philosophers of the past who followed this way of reading?
ROSEN: No, I mean, most great philosophers dont waste their time in this kind of detailed interpretation of the Platonic dialogues as Strauss and his students have done. So, I dont think I can point to many commentaries. Neo-Platonists, people like Porphyry wrote interpretations, which sometimes we would call mythical, you know, taking very, very seriously all of this literary, rhetorical, and allegorical aspects of the dialogues. Some of the Renaissance Platonists like Ficino also read Plato in this way. The medieval Arabs and Jews, of course, all read Plato in this way. Strauss was also influenced by people like Al Farabi in the Arabian tradition, and Maimonides in the Jewish tradition. No, the practices of studying Platos dialogues carefully, after the Neo-Platonist period, and to a certain extent the Jewish-Arabian period in the middle ages, in the whole modern period disappeared until the 18th century when people started commenting on the Platonic dialogues. And the character of the interpretations is influenced by the dominant philosophical presuppositions of the school to which the interpreter belongs. The 18th century tradition, and in particular that of the 19th century, is in the main a tradition of philology as a science; it reflects theoretical presuppositions of the Enlightenment. So, I cant give you a list of books written by thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes and Kant; they had other fish to fry. Philological Plato scholarship is largely the product of the 18th and 19th centuries.
BAI: I think one possible difficulty with a Straussian reading is that the Classical Greek era is regarded as the childhood of philosophy. How could a child, Plato, be so tricky and complicated?
ROSEN: The proof is only to interpret the dialogue. In other words, it is surely naïve to say that since the Greeks lived long ago, they couldnt be interesting. Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides all lived long ago. These men are fascinating to the contemporary reader. First of all, Hegel himself spent much of his time reading and commenting on Greek philosophy. The assumption that you are referring to is actually a prejudice of the Enlightenment, namely, a prejudice that holds that progress of philosophy comes as philosophy is replaced by science. And since obviously our knowledge of science today is infinitely greater than any scientific knowledge that Plato and Aristotle had at their disposal, they couldnt have been as clever as we are. Thats foolishness, because philosophy is not the same as science. We have to read it for ourselves to see whether one can make a case for it. We cannot do this that as long as we are paralyzed by superstitious veneration of science and the Enlightenment.
BAI: Then, do you think your reading is the true reading of the Platonic dialogues?
ROSEN: As I told you in the beginning in the interview, there is no such thing as the true reading of the Platonic dialogues because dialogues are not like a secret message encoded. In other words, I think that my approach to the Platonic dialogue is the correct approach, but its a correct approach precisely because it is open to complex and alternative interpretations. I myself might today write totally, not totally, but quite different books about the Symposium than one I wrote many years ago. I am not a true believer, so I dont believe that my interpretation is the true interpretation, and I couldnt believe that because I dont think that thats Platos conception of philosophy. Now, does that mean there are no views, no doctrines, no opinions, no beliefs in Plato? Of course not, there are many such things. But they are open to interrogation.
BAI: Then, whats the difference between your view and the hermeneutic reading of a dialogue?
ROSEN: I dont know what hermeneutic view you are referring to. In other words, the extreme postmodernist hermeneutic would say its not possible to have any objective or valid understanding of the Platonic dialogue. Im not saying that. What I am saying is that the question is open. I certainly dont mean that it is unintelligible to us what the Greeks were saying or why Socrates is in a market place rather than in a private home, or whats the difference between a dialogue that takes place at night and one that takes place in the daytime I dont think there is any ambiguity there, and there is no historical problem. One can understand those symbols. When I say that the interpretation is open, I meant with respect to the foundations, the fundamental questions: are there Ideas? What is their nature if there are any? That is the kind of questions that is always impossible to answer completely. But the difficulty lies in the nature of things, not in our historical or subjective perspective. Those are questions on which one can argue forever. There just arent any true answers to those questions, but that doesnt mean the questions are meaningless. They are problems that are coeval with the human race. There is no progress in philosophy as there is in aeronautical engineering.
BAI: Then, are you suggesting through this complicated reading of the Platonic dialogue, that somehow, the history of philosophy is a falling away from Plato? You are critical of Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel because they somehow missed the important
ROSEN: To a certain extent, I would say that there is something in Plato which is missing in everyone else. But on the other hand, I dont believe that the history of philosophy is a degradation or deterioration. Its been an attempt to render more determinate, and more specific, and therefore to make progress, even in articulating the questions that are sketched in the Platonic way. I think myself that the way in which we explain this is to say that the Platonic dialogues invent philosophy, they show how philosophy originates, and they give us an experience, like exercising in the gymnasium with weights. If we exercise with the Platonic dialogues, we know how difficult philosophy is and what it is like. And the various subsequent books by philosophers are all their attempts to wrestle with the questions that are contained in their most universal and most human form in the Platonic dialogues. Dont hold me to every word in that answer, but speaking spontaneously, there has been deterioration in the extraordinary subtlety and unity of Platos vision of the totality of human life. There has been that deterioration. Of course there has been progress in logic, there has been progress in philosophy of science as science itself is progressing. There has been progress in various technical modalities of reasoning. But you pay a price for that progress. This is the same situation that obtains in the history of modern capitalism: the more sophisticated become the means of production, the more the workers become the extensions of their tools, or their production process, and the more they are brutalized by this, and so on, and so forth. I mean, there are lots of parallels one can draw up. There is no such thing as unmitigated progress, as pure progress. There is no such thing as pure progress. Life is such that you pay a price for every advance. An extraordinary nature of the Platonic dialogues is that they give rise to the infinity of the interpretations without dissolving the unity of the quest, namely philosophy, without dissolving the clarity of the questions. So, its not the questions that are multiplied to infinity; its our perceptions of the questions, and our answers to the questions. Is that better?
BAI: Of course. Finally, are there any differences between how Strauss and the Straussians read the dialogues and your approach? Some critics say that Strauss neglects the arguments, and only pays attention to the part fitting for his interpretation.
ROSEN: You mean that Strauss is said to neglect arguments. Strauss would reply that there are no arguments in the Platonic dialogues. They are conversations. I mean, Socrates asks a question, and you give an answer. Thats not an argument. Now, thats an extreme view. I understand that there are some arguments, but there are many fewer arguments than people claim there are. First of all, there is a lot of speech-making in the form "do you think such and so," and "wouldnt you say that this is the case." Those are rhetorical questions. Let me put it in this way. Whatever Strauss may do, when I write a book about the Platonic dialogue, if there are arguments in the text, then I consider them. But I consider these arguments in the context of my commentary on the dialogue, not as though they existed in a vacuum, or as in a course on logic, where you can write problems on a blackboard, in absolute abstraction from everything else in the world. Thats not the nature of the Platonic dialogue. Now look, I spent five years in the study of mathematical logic, and I once knew more about logic than most of the Plato scholars in America. I wouldnt say all, because some of them are perhaps professional logicians. And my own study took place 25 years ago. But I have some training in the subject and try to keep up with it. Most Plato scholars know little if anything about logic. They talk quite a bit about arguments in Platos dialogues. Well, fine, you have to have an argument in the sense of a topic of discussion or disagreement, so that dialectical progress, or even political progress, can be made. Secondly, in a dialogue, exactly as in a play by Shakespeare, to repeat my earlier point, you have to see the argument in the context that it is made. Here is my favorite example: in Shakespeares Richard III, Richard says: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." Now suppose that I wrote an essay, called, say, "Shakespeares political philosophy," and in it I argue that according to Shakespeare, horses are more important than kingdoms. That would be stupid, right? Now, thats the level at which most people study arguments in Platos dialogues. I am not stupid, and I dont make that mistake.
BAI: Strauss didnt pay much attention to the details of the arguments of dialogue, but you
ROSEN: I do much more than Strauss does, thats certainly true. I deal with the details of different dialogues. Strauss didnt write about the Sophist, he did give a great seminar on the Statesman, but he never published it. I pay more attention to the so-called metaphysical problems, and Strauss was more concrete and was more interested in politics. Thats a difference between us. I have a more metaphysical mind; Im more interested in theoretical questions. Strauss is interested in them, but is much better in concrete details. I developed different kinds of considerations. I really think its fair to say that my interpretations are much more exhaustive than Strauss, more detailed, even on the dramatic stuff. That doesnt mean that they are necessarily better, but one can certainly say that they are more detailed. Strauss is a great man and a great teacher. Always remember that. But nevertheless, I prefer my interpretations to his. But that doesnt mean I disagree with him; I just think that mine are richer. He may think they are more exaggerated. Everybody prefers his own work; thats natural.
BAI: Now for a question arising from the Republic. In the Republic, philosophers are forced to rule. Can philosophers really be forced?
ROSEN: Can you force a philosopher to rule? I suppose you can if you put a gun at him, and say: "Either you rule or you will be shot." And watch him all the time to make sure he is ruling. But there is no way to force him to rule philosophically. You can force the man to rule, but you cant force the man to rule philosophically. I would say this: if a philosopher were forced to rule, he would rule philosophically simply by virtue of his innate superiority, not because somebody had a gun at him. The question you want to ask me is not whether a philosopher can be forced to rule, but would anybody force the philosopher to rule? In other words, the citizens would not force the philosopher to rule. That was so silly about the so-called orthodox interpretation. I mean, Plato says philosophers will rule only if they are forced to do so. But who is going to force them? Where in history have philosophers been forced to rule by non-philosophers? To the contrary, philosophers are regarded as fools, and no one would force them to rule. There may be rulers who were theoretically inclined and wrote treatises of one kind or another, but no one forced them to rule. They took over power on their own. I mean, I dont know Mao but he thought himself to be a philosopher. Fine, but nobody forced him to rule. He took power by his own efforts. Can philosophers be forced to rule? The answer is that I can imagine circumstances under which philosophers must rule even if they do not want to do so.
BAI: Then, what is the basis for the philosopher in the Platonic sense to concern himself with society and other human affairs? I think the background information is this: According to Confucianists, who view themselves as some sort of philosophers, the elite are supposed to be concerned with public affairs. These are inseparable. Then, a specific difficulty for Plato is this: how can his philosophers be concerned with human affairs?
ROSEN: I have to answer this on the basis of my own understanding of Plato. I would say that if the human race is in danger of destruction, and can be rescued only by the philosopher, and the philosopher is asked to rule, then he cant refuse. Thats simply decency as well as self-interest. Sure, that philosopher has no desire to rule. Aristotle approaches the whole problem from a totally different perspective. Under no circumstances are philosophers involved in politics. Aristotle points out that politics is the domain of practical intelligence. And practical intelligence includes the traditional virtues, which are basically political virtues; so, they are not merely private ethical virtues. Aristotle says that we need a man with ethical virtue to rule. He doesnt have to be a philosopher at all. Thats a much more sensible approach. But Plato is not intending to be sensible: Plato is making an extreme case; namely, if you want a just city, and you are really going to be consistent about it, and keeping the argument through the end, what price do you have to pay, what steps must you take? One such step is the philosopher-king. Aristotle has no such program; his program is quite different. Let me say this: his conception of politics is quite different from Platos, and the way he is dealing with political problem is quite different. Theoretical knowledge is not necessary. Practical knowledge is necessary. Thats a much more relaxed approach to politics. Confucianism, from all I know about it, is much more like Aristotle in this. When Plato talks about philosophers, he means the most perfect human beings. He describes the philosophical nature in the Republic. They are the people with perfect intelligence, wonderful memory, excellent character the best in every single way. In short, there are no such people, which is another way to show that its not possible to have such a city, its not a serious political program. One might say, once in a while, you have such a person. Of course Plato wouldnt do that. He is not talking about turning over the city to a bunch of professors; he is talking about perfect human beings.
BAI: What about contemporary philosophers who are interested in logic, or semantics, or the like
ROSEN: That for Plato is not philosophy. What does he mean? He means by philosophy the love of wisdom; wisdom, that means totality of life, right? Its a unity of theory and practice. Thats what he means by a philosopher, the most perfect people. You might want to say: "there are no such people." I am not going to argue against that point right now. But it has nothing to do with making professors-kings. Can you imagine that Plato says that human problems will not be solved until professors are kings and kings are professors?
BAI: If the problem of the elite is one of your primary concerns, and you are not against liberal democracy, how can you reconcile elitism and liberal democracy?
ROSEN: Well, you know, the word "elitism" is so ambiguous today because its a political and ideological term. I never use it. If you ask me if I prefer to be governed by intelligent people than by stupid people, my answer is "yes," provided that intelligence includes good character. Is that "elitism"? Then I am an elitist. Only a moron would prefer to be governed by fools. Do I mean that a small number of people are superior to other people in the court of law, or that they should be treated with special deference politically? No, I dont mean that; of course not. You know I am a liberal democrat in the sense that of all the countries I have seen, Americas about as good as any and better than most. And I never lived in a non-democratic regime. Ive never lived in a non-democratic country. But I have no desire to do so because it is certainly my conviction that given the circumstances of life today, democracy is the best form of the government that is practically available to us. I would never devote my effort to attempt to establish an aristocracy because it wouldnt work. I dont believe in revolutionary transformation of society. I dont think that one can transform a society into a utopia by a revolution. Of course, if an existing government is tyrannical, it may be necessary to revolt against that regime; this is plain from the example of Hitler. But to transform an imperfect and even decadent regime into a paradise simply by overthrowing the old guard and replacing it with extremely harsh measures designed to transform and purify the existing situation, is, I think, impossible. I think these things have to evolve in such a way that the entire population is involved, not all on the same level, but nevertheless all are involved. So, thats the first part in my reply to your question. Secondly, universities are not governments. Would you like to be taught by a fool? No, you would like to be taught by the best possible teacher. So, under most circumstances in life, we want people who are competent rather than incompetent; we want people who are of good character rather than people who are of bad character; people who are intelligent rather than people who are stupid. If thats elitism, then I am an elitist. Is that incompatible with democracy? No, because democracy will not function without competent leaders. These people can come from the humblest political and social backgrounds: they can be peasants.
BAI: Then, what is the proper way to fulfill the political call or task of the superior people?
ROSEN: By teaching. Teaching is a political function.
BAI: Does Strauss hold the same view on this subject?
ROSEN: Yes, I doubt that Strauss has a different view. He was training students. Some of them went into the government, and others are teaching other students. You can only have an effect in that way. Occasionally, I daydream about how nice it would be to be the tyrant of the entire country. But thats a daydream. People like me are not interested in governing. Under certain extreme circumstances, if power were offered to me, and I was told: "Do it, or we are going to be destroyed," of course I would. But I would resign as quickly as possible.
BAI: But there are some Straussians who are actively involved in real political affairs.
ROSEN: They are mainly political scientists; they are not philosophers. They might think of themselves as philosophers, but they are almost all political scientists, specialists in American politics or constitutional law. They did actually get involved in politics but all of them are advisors; none of them has run for office. They are councilors.
BAI: But do you think that their way of being involved in politics is the proper way
ROSEN: Not for me, because I am actually a philosopher. They are not. They are clerks, at a very high level. But I dont want to say that its absolutely the case that I forbid philosophers to be engaged in politics. If they want to, let em do it. But I think that its necessary for philosophers to teach.
BAI: Why should Socrates talk to his inferiors? Why do you teach undergraduates?
ROSEN: Because I want to make sure that I am as smart as I think I am. In other words, only by teaching other people, and making clear to them what I am thinking, do I know that I understand what I am talking about. Thats why I teach.
BAI: Do you think that this is also Socrates concern when he is talking to other people?
ROSEN: Yes, dont forget that Socrates is presented as talking to people in the dialogues to whom in real life he probably never spoke. But forget about the Platonic dialogues, the principle is that we have to talk to people because thats the only way in which we can find out who we are. If I am staying at home, and just thinking how wonderful I am, or that I know the truth, I may not know it, or I may be crazy. I have to at least have friends to talk to. So, I think thats very important.
BAI: What are your general criticisms of liberalism?
ROSEN: You know, liberalism means people who are in support of freedom. And I am in favor of freedom, so I have no criticisms of liberalism in that sense of the word. Liberalism in the U.S. today refers to a collection of attitudes, many of which I think are quite silly. For example, liberalism can mean excessive tolerance towards alternative viewpoints, failure to rank-order, the incapacity to distinguish the high and low, the noble and base. I am opposed to that. And I dont think thats liberal in the genuine sense of the term. But it is what is called liberalism, right? I am opposed to not holding people responsible for their actions. Does that mean that anyone who steals a loaf of bread should be shot? No, of course not. You have to use your brains. But I am not in favor of excessive permissiveness; I am not in favor of the kind of ostensible objectivity towards politics that destroys patriotism by saying: "Well, no country is better than another" or "We are worse than the others." So, I suppose that I share most of Nietzsches criticisms of liberalism. Does that mean that I am a tyrant or monarchist? Of course not. That means that I have a different conception of freedom than what is advocated today.
BAI: Although you make these criticisms of liberal democracy, you are still in favor of it. How so?
ROSEN: Because if we set up an aristocracy, the wrong people would rule. If we instituted an aristocracy, the correct people would not be in charge of things. I prefer a system with much greater chance that my view will be tolerated and respected.
BAI: In other words, philosophers will be tolerated
ROSEN: Thats right. Philosophers do better in democracies. In tyrannies they can exist only by going underground, by being completely silent. I enjoy talking, so I prefer living in a democracy. Democracy is a terrible regime, but its the best available. Thats good enough for me. The last thing I want to have is a cadre of technicians taking care of the country.
BAI: Then, do you suggest any cure for the problems you just mentioned?
ROSEN: No, no. I dont suggest any cure. What I do suggest is that we all do the best we can, struggle mightily with our problems in as intelligent and decent way as we can. Do I think that we are heading toward the solution? Absolutely not. I mean, history is cyclical, you know, there are just these random movements. That doesnt mean we shouldnt do anything, you know. Maybe we can make things locally better. But there is no Utopian solution. Thats what Plato is telling us.
BAI: And somehow, you are suggesting here that we have no guarantee that even by our great effort, those bad things in liberal democracy can be improved definitely?
ROSEN: No guarantee, no. Let me put it in this way. There is always a chance that things are going to be improved. Sometime they do improve. For example, I have become professionally well-known. I mean, if I stayed home, and said, "Ah well, no point in doing things," I would have no reputation, and so no opportunity to make an influence on bright peoples minds. So, I have some small effect. I dont want to exaggerate. I have students.
BAI: But some Straussians seem to have some comprehensive political projects
ROSEN: I dont think so. I dont think that they have more comprehensive projects than Marxists, or Monarchists, or liberal democrats. If you want say that they have projects, you might say that they want a kind of more conservative democracy in the republic, not Platos Republic. Straussians who served in the government were generally working for reasonable policies. They were very interested in containing communism. Strauss hates communism, like many Germans. The Nazis used to justify themselves in that way: they had to save the world from communism. Strauss is not a Nazi. But he regarded communism as a much greater danger; you know, Strauss was Jewish, and he hated Nazis, but he regarded communism as the main danger in the last century, and I think that he was in at least one sense correct. I mean that communism came much closer to taking over the world than National Socialism. The Nazis were insane, but Marxists were just fanatical. I mean, the principle of Marxism is very benevolent: everybody will prosper, everybody will be given justice. Thats not what Nazism teaches. So, no wonder communism had a better run for its money. Communism failed because they took Plato literally. So naturally, they had to kill all the people over the age often. Thats where they went wrong.
BAI: What do you think is the future of human society?
ROSEN: I have no idea.
BAI: So, you dont believe that things
ROSEN: Get better all the time? Absolutely not. I mean, brain surgery is improving, but not politics. Take a look at the world leaders in this generation, compare them with the leaders of 30 years ago. I even dont know the name of the man who is taking charge of China now. How can you compare him to Mao? How can you compare whoever is the President of France now to General de Gaulle? How can you compare President Clinton to Roosevelt? How can you compare Tony Blair to Winston Churchill? Now, we need only look back 30 or 40 years or so, in comparison with which you see already the recent decline of world leaders. I think that the West is in a kind of decline, as a matter of fact. I think that China is in decline, I mean, you are turning into America, is that not so? All I know is what I see on television: big businesses, factories, Disneyland, McDonald, making money, everybody is prosperous. Well, in 50 years, there will be no communism here. You dont have to shoot everybody. You tell all these very brave and wonderful people, who are being shot and being put in prison, "Relax, study nuclear physics. Because in 50 years its going to be like New York." Maybe thats an exaggeration. Those old men who are 90 years old and clinging to power, they may be Marxists. But whatever they are, they will be dead in a few years. Then you are going to have businessmen taking over. And inevitably, they will bring corruption, you know, favoritism But you want to watch out for it, so that you dont turn into Indonesia. But I dont think its going to happen.
BAI: Then, even in terms of society, you dont think there is a guarantee for progress?
ROSEN: No, I cant really say. I dont have any apocalyptic views on this matter.
BAI: So, though there is progress in some aspects there is deterioration in others. You wouldnt say that we can compare progress in brain surgery to deterioration in some other areas.
ROSEN: I wouldnt say that, although I must say I am very pleased. I just had a surgical procedure two weeks ago. I mean I wouldve been dead horribly if there had been no such procedure and had my problem not been discovered by the appropriate examination. In any case, is that progress? Oh, yes, it is. But it doesnt improve how I personally live. No, there is no connection.
BAI: So, for you, there is no way to calculate how much we gain, and how much we lose.
ROSEN: I cant do it. You see certain things are worse, and certain things are better. But in general, no. Things have changed. Thats clear. Some were for the worse. And the dangers in science and technology are bigger just as the advances are bigger. Do you fear being murdered by some nut who may put some poison into the water system? What are you going to do about it? Sit around and worry about it? Or take steps to prevent it from happening?
BAI: Let me conclude by asking you about the Enlightenment.
ROSEN: I am also basically in favor of the Enlightenment. Did you know that? You look surprised. I mean, if the Enlightenment means that we have to try our best to progress scientifically, and morally, and to improve things. Of course I am in favor of it. If it means that more people can live longer, happier, and more comfortable lives, of course I am in favor of it. Do I believe that there is a necessary connection between scientific progress and morality? No, I just told you that. Do I think that the Enlightenment is correct in the very dominant position it gives to mathematics as a paradigm of reason? No, I dont. Do I believe that the modification of the high standard of virtue of biblical and classical traditions has led to superior morality? No, I dont believe in that. Do I believe that the Enlightenment is directly responsible for liberalism in the bad sense of the word? Yes, I do believe that. So, I have nuanced positions about the Enlightenment. Then, if you ask what is my final assessment, my final assessment is that we have no choice but to defend the Enlightenment, in a modified form. We should try our best to improve things, and we certainly dont wish to return to the dark ages, or to authoritarian societies. What would you have me do? Destroy physics? How could we do that? In my essay, "A Modest Proposal to Rethink the Enlightenment," I point out there that its impossible to go back. Even if it were desirable. There is no way to overturn the Enlightenment without destroying ourselves completely, we cannot undo the influence of science and technology and civilization. How can we do it? I mean, wed have to burn all subversive books, and shoot everyone who is capable of rewriting these books. Ultimately, if we couldnt take any chances, wed better shoot everybody. Otherwise, somebody will come along, you know, whod re-invent the wheel. No, I am not a big critic of the Enlightenment. I am a sensible critic of the Enlightenment. Not the only one. It certainly doesnt follow from this that we should go back to go back to Ancient Greece.
BAI: For me, your position is that we should both warn against some sort of exaggerated ideals of the Enlightenment, such as that by mass education, we can have some sort of Utopia, that kind of ideology, and we should also warn against nihilism or postmodernism.
ROSEN: Yes. I think that nihilism is a consequence of the substitution of science for prudence. Because science is incapable of evaluating anything, including science. People say: "Science is wonderful," but science is incapable of saying "science is wonderful." Thats rhetoric by the scientific standard, and therefore is unreasonable. So, you must not receive the impression that I am one of the reactionary opponents to the Enlightenment. Thats false. I am not that at all. I am a liberal democrat and a man of the people. I understand very, very well that in a way the modern enterprise is nobler than the ancient enterprise because the modern enterprise dares to take the chance of freeing people, and making them comfortable, whereas the Ancients say "No, its impossible. We have to pay this penalty. We prefer to have a few cultivated people." So, the modern position is much nobler, it may be impossible, but so what? Isnt it a principle of the classics that the good is good even if it lasts a short time? So, if we are to destroy ourselves by our attempt to set ourselves free, maybe the period during which weve lived free is intrinsically so valuable that it makes up for the shortness. Would you want to live for 5,000 years like the ancient Egyptians, safe from political change but dying of hook-worm at the age of 30, to say nothing of other horrors of daily life? No. Dont think of me as an enemy of the Enlightenment, please. Think of me as a sane man who therefore sees the dangers and weaknesses of the Enlightenment. There is no necessary connection between being reasonable and being happy. In other words, the illusion is created by a lot of people, including the Straussians, to the effect that the Greeks are all happy, and we moderns are all miserable. Thats nonsense. Platos view of human life is not that optimistic. In my book Hermeneutics as Politics, I argued that postmodernism is a kind of logical consequence of Enlightenment. Too much light leads to total darkness. In other words, the Enlightenment leads to the identification of reason with mathematics and physics, which means everything else is irrational, in which case there are no rules and no laws and we can say anything we want to, and thats what the postmodernists do. Science shows us that reality is matter in motion. Then human life is an illusion, which means that subjectivity is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, and so on and so forth. Yes, in that sense, its very clear that exaggerated Enlightenment ironically leads to chaos. I am not in favor of exaggerated Enlightenment. So that has to be factored into my position. Its a complicated, nuanced position with respect to the Enlightenment. I neither approve nor disapprove of it one hundred percent. I am much too fussy to approve of anything one hundred percent. There are two exaggerations of the Enlightenment: one, the positivist, scientific exaggeration; two, postmodernism, whose representatives dont think of themselves as Enlightenment people, but they are. Its just that the light was so bright that they couldnt see anything.
BAI: What about Strauss political philosophy?
ROSEN: You mean his actual political views? I think he was misunderstood in America. I think that he was himself a liberal. He was a liberal democrat. He supported democracy. Winston Churchill was his great hero. He inculcated in his disciples, too, frequently a kind of exaggerated, rhetorical, amateurish, I dont know how to put it, appreciation for aristocratic societies, a Burkean conservatism, the Greek polis. But basically, Strauss was a moderate, liberal. Just like me. He was just not understood in this country. People think of him as a Fascist, a Racist. Its false. He was an anti-Communist, anti-Marxist. He is a classical liberal. He would certainly be called a conservative today. I prefer to say that, whatever his political views may have been, what Strauss cared about was philosophy, and he wanted a political society in which philosophy was possible. In a society which is called liberalism today, philosophy is not possible. Either you have machine man, you know, people who are doing nothing but constructing technical artifacts, or you have these postmodernist gasbags. On the other hand, I want to correct myself immediately. Of course philosophy is possible today. I mean things are so chaotic, even I can exist. Its just that if you look at the establishment, its not very good. Its rather poor. But thats to be expected, in democracy, you have low standards of taste. Conniving people who desire power are in every society. In our society, the ideologues and sophists are in the public view. They are the same people who make vulgar interpretations of things to be in favor of the fashions of the day. They exist in every country. Its not surprising that we have them here.
BAI: Are there any general differences between your political philosophy and Strauss?
ROSEN: I dont know. Probably. I think I am more liberal than Strauss is. I tend to support the Democratic Party for example, I mean, talking about concrete political things. The Republicans are sometimes right, but the current state of their leadership is very low, very low. For example, I believe in morality, but I think their version of morality is like fundamentalism. Morality as the evangelical interpretation of the Bible. I think their economic thinking is often quite cruel. Fifty years ago, Strauss persuaded me that Communism was a big danger, and that relativism, and subjectivism is a big danger. I still believe that. But on concrete political issues, I am often to the left of Strauss. You cant equate conservatism with capitalism. Conservatism originally meant that the state controlled everything. The current view that as long as you have free markets everything will be wonderful, is absurd. You must have governmental supervision of pharmaceuticals, toys, safety belts, right? I think thats crazy. Youve got to have governmental supervision of things. Im sure Strauss would agree with that, but I dont know to what degree. He was a Republican in his day. He supported Nixon. He was not at all critical of Joe MacCarthy. I know that for a fact. I didnt share Strauss views at all. Thats what I meant when I said I was more liberal. I was more to the left than Strauss. Strauss was quite conservative. But he saw his conservatism as true liberalism. It was not that he wanted to institute an aristocracy. He was very concerned about the Communist menace. In general, I am to the left of Strauss, as those words are used today, but not very far. I am much more frank than the Straussians. They would regard me as imprudent and running the risk of corrupting the multitude by talking about difficult questions in public.
ODD AS THIS MAY SOUND, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Martin Heidegger, Sartre and their postmodernist descendants . Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) a controversial philosopher influenced Marcuse, Hannah Arhrendt and other post moderns. Although generally unknown to the wider population,Heidegger has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the liberal European imagination and politics now ascendant in the UN and EU.
|"...antidemocratic sentiment was not merely an ephermeral trend, but a defining feature of 20th-century French political culture"|
Recent scholarship and reading Richard Wolin and Habermas reveals that Heidegger was an unapolgetic Nazi and psuedo messianic philosopher whose influence has been underestimated as having gained huge influence in French and German philosophical thought. This philosophy has in turn influenced US liberal elites.
This article is suspect as being yet another idiots guide or interpretation of Post Modern Philosophy.
Thank you. I read a review in ISI's Political Science Reviewer. Very good.
Yes, I noticed. Nothing like the elite code of a journalist.
Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism makes available in English Lowith's major writings concerning the origins of cultural breakdown in Europe that paved the way for the Third Reich.
Including incisive discussions of Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, a noted legal theorist of the same period who also supported the Third Reich, Heidegger and European Nihilism helps to illuminate the allure of Nazism for scholars committed to revolutionary nihilism. Lowith's landmark essay on European nihilism is also included in its entirety here, along with two never-before-published letters from Heidegger to Lowith. In a work of impressive historical depth, Lowith traces the abandonment of higher European ideals in favor of a fatal flirtation with nihilism. These essays explore the enthronement of man above God, a trend that had begun to appear in European thought by the mid-nineteenth century in the works of Nietzsche and Marx and one that informed the nihilist philosophies of Heidegger and other theorists of the early twentieth century. An introduction by editor Richard Wolin provides lucid commentary, placing the three essays gathered here in a broad historical context, along with suggestions for further reading. This seminal work of intellectual history sheds light on the fascist impulses of nihilism in the first half of the twentieth century, but also offers unique perspective on the intellectual malaise of today.
"a trend that had begun to appear in European thought by the mid-nineteenth century in the works of Nietzsche and Marx"
What the author should have done is gone to Husserl. (If there aren't there popular opinions about that fellow, they may be out of luck!)
I've been reading his "Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay" for months now. :)
Yes, in the sense that one could be critical of the regime of the useful--just in case the perceived moral conception of evil is in actuality not the logical opposite of the useful!
Exactly my take on the article as well. As I said elsewhere, it was long on innuendo, but short on actual facts about what Strauss actually believed.
Imagine the same investigative journalism taking a look at the progressives...Hell, imagine this kind of investigative journalism from a mainstream source just once focusing on the Clinton administration...
You can start with this Straussian site
LaRouche is clearly no expert on anything. Indeed, he's irrational or insane. Drury also goes overboard, too. We're told that democracy means tolerance, but the attitude of contemporary North American democrats toward critics of their ideology seems to be, "If your're not with us you're against us -- and a Nazi to boot." The earlier, not unreasonable belief that representative government needed responsible elites to guide it seems to have been expelled from democratic ideology and anathematized.
But where there's a real sense that a scholar regards himself and his students as part of a chosen group with privileged insights into reality that may serve as a warrant for worldly influence, it's inevitable that hostility and mistrust will arise. In some way Strauss communicated this elite consciousness to his students and some took it to heart. Drury and others assume that they will never be such an elite themselves and consequently bitterly reject and condemn Leo Strauss. While a thinker may have nothing of the totalitarian about him, the idea of secret teachings does provoke outsiders. And in the long run, it does pose dangers.
Strauss was presented as an opponent of Machiavelli, Heidegger and Schmitt. But lately there has been some debate about this. Strauss's own idea of hidden meanings and his students' riffs on that idea must bear some of the blame. Opposition can take many forms. One may find someone brilliant but disagree with their conclusions. One may agree with the diagnosis but reject the proposed treatment. One may accept the basic analysis but oppose the interests that make use of the philosophy. Or one may regard the philosophy as correct, but dangerous and worthy of suppression. Just what was the nature of Strauss's hostility to those thinkers?
It was always pretty clear that Strauss abhorred Locke. But his much respected student Harry Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians take Strauss for a supporter or admirer of Lockeanism. Go figure.
Richard Wolin's book is important, I think, because it shows the link between Heidegger's political affiliation with the Nazi Party and his Fundamental Ontology. The same is true for Habermas and Safranski.
There's no doubt that Heidegger was instrumental in the establishment of postmodernism. Liberals, of course, love to throw around the Nazi canard, but they've done everything in their power to separate Heidegger's Nazism from his philosophy. The same is true for others as well, and one need only think of their defense of Paul De Man when it was uncovered that he wrote pro-Nazi articles in his native Belgium before he became one of the heroes of deconstructive Critical Theory.
Does it invite both ways? An argument always picks up the thread in part.
BTW, thanks for your links. The Claremont Institute is doing good work too.
What is Straussian Political Philosophy? --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Some distinguishing aspects of a Straussian approach to political philosophy:
(1) A return to treating old books seriously, reading them slowly and with an effort to understand them as their authors did, rather than as History does.
(2) A recognition of the political nature of philosophy, that most philosophers who wrote did so wrote with a political purpose.
(3) A recognition that the greatest thinkers often wrote with both exoteric and esoteric teachings, either out of fear of persecution or a general desire to present their most important teachings to those most receptive to them. This leads to an attempt to discern the esoteric teachings of the great philosophers from the clues they left in thier writings for careful readers to find.
(4) A recognition of the dangers that historicism, relativism, eclecticism, scientism, and nihilism pose to philosophy and to Western culture generally, and an effort to steer philosophy away from these devastating influences through a return to the seminal texts of Western thought.
(5) Careful attention paid to the dialogue throughout the development of Western culture between its two points of departure: Athens and Jerusalem. The recognition that Reason and Revelation, originating from these two points respectively, are the two distinct sources of knowledge in the Western tradition, and can be used neither to support nor refute the other, since neither claims to be based on the other's terms.
(6) A constant examination of the most drastic of philosophic distinctions: that between the Ancients and the Moderns. An attempt to better understand philosophers of every age in relation to this distinction, and to learn everything that we as moderns can learn about ourselves by studying both eras....
If this is what Straussian philosophy is, it seems quite empty.
Given what Strauss lived through in the twentieth century, do you have to ask? He did see two world wars and the rise of Nazism in Germany. The Russian Revolution and the Cold War also occured during his lifetime. A thinker arriving in mid-century America from Europe would naturally be grateful for freedom, but also have some suspicion about the degree of tolerance that was really allowed here. Many an emigre was troubled by the political conflicts of the 1940s and 1950s here in the US. And it appears that for Straussians the fate of Socrates is always contemporary and always a threat to real thinkers.
The ambivalence in Strauss and his followers may have much to do with the contrast between the disillusioned, pessimistic European and the modestly hopeful emigrant who wanted to believe in his new country. And a common fate of the emigre was to see his intellectual world destroyed on his own continent, and threatened by commercialism and industrialization in the New World. Strauss wasn't hostile to America, but something of that ambivalence remained. More than anything else though, the comments of the Straussians themselves about their teacher and teaching fuel the controversy. Promoting the idea of an inner, esoteric teaching was a marvellous way to keep Strauss forever alive, but it has made many mistrust him.
Some of this ambivalence has to do with Socrates. Philosophy is to be valued. It is of the highest importance, yet it may be destructive of society. And some ambivalence doubtless relates to Germany in the interwar period: to the position of the thinker between those who can't rise to assert anything definitively and defend it and those who unquestioningly pursue a single goat regardless of its consequences or other considerations. Rather than viewing Strauss as the problem or the solution, he looks like another instance of the dilemmas human beings face in times of conflict.
LOL, Strauss with a Pilgrim hat!
There's stuff there for the psychologists, but their preocuppation with texts would place the blame of ambilance directly with the procedure of the zetesis, a search for truth. This is a search which involves duplicity, a two-sidedness with possible subversions and derailment. But it is also free to orient against the a closure: the closure of that search obviates the motion of the argument and denies further criticism. Straussians present criticism as can be possible. Cartesians with their critical epistemology become the impatient rulers who fix their principle as unquestioned determinacy. Libertarians think everything called conservative are their offspring. They ought to be psychoanalyzed. But such a closure can only be done by collapsing the polarity that exists in a search where the object of that search remains distended from the seeker. It is no wonder that Plato understood love as a dance between two.
The elucidates Voegelin's criticism of Locke. Natural right on Locke's reckoning is subsumed by desire on the part of the seeker. Likewise Strauss's beef with Schmitt: the Constitution is based on something beyond itself.
No, Strauss was a philosopher, a lover oftruth. Not a politician, an Alcibiades who used truth to catch unwitting young disciples.
This is an astonishing article. From start to finish. First, is the authors hangup with neoconservatives, I presume with the warning that by supporting Bush in the Iraqi war, I am falling in with a nefarious crowd of people who are potentially duping all of us. Since, I still dont know what a neo-conservative is other than a Republic who has incurred the wrath of Pat Buchanan, I am confused. I seriously doubt that there are 10 people in positions of power in Washington who have heard of Leo Strauss. I am further struck in all of this by the notion that these leftists are trying to insinuate that Strauss and Straussians are anti-democratic they the followers of Carl Marx and Bill Clinton of all people.
One of Allan Bloom's students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is just absurd. Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe.''
In this one neat little statement, this author manages to put words that were not uttered in the mouths of a host of people, discrediting all of them, without us having a clue what any of them actually said or believed. Allan Blooms The Closing of the American Mind is one of the great books of the 20th century. His argument is that American leftism has its origins in the misinterpretation of a German philosophic tradition that no of the adherents actually understood. Far from telling anyone what Plato said, what Bloom says is that everyone should go and read Plato for himself. In fact, his subtitle is From Socrates Apology to Heidiggers Rektorratsrede. Blooms immediate problem is to understand how philosophers went from the intellectual position that of Socrates who died rather than to submit to tyranny to Heidigger who threw the weight of his office and prestige behind the Nazis. It is very hard, based on this book, to understand Bloom as a cryptofascist, or anything other than one who exhorts individuals to do their own thinking, their own interpretation, and have the courage to stand up to the fascists of the left who dominate American campuses and what passes for the American thought.
As such, Bloom is a real problem for the left, because he exposes the American lefts philosophical barrenness. Having assumed the mantel of an intellectual and philosophical elite, they show none of the habits of philosophers thorugh the ages. As such, I suppose it is or was a vital problem for the left to discredit Bloom and Strauss. But they are both dead,
One of the most striking and jarring of Platos texts is the Republic, which leads us step by seductive step on the road from democracy to tyranny. Given that this reductio ad absurdum is a standard technique of the Dialogs to demonstrate to individuals how little we really know, in fact, I find it hard to believe that Plato himself endorses the position that is reached in the Republic.
"However, I will say that if the the editors at the Boston Globe are interested in people reading Strauss with "Straussian eyes," the first thing to do is to buy the books and read them. Let the author speak for himself. Don't focus on his life or what other people have said about him. In order to read Strauss with "Straussian eyes," let Strauss speak for himself."
I kept thinking the same....when reading the article.
Thanks for saying...what I was thinking.