Wednesday, November 5, 2008

From Slavery to the White House

From Slavery to the White House:
What Barack Obama's Victory Says About America and the Legacy of the Founders

by Brian Tubbs

Yesterday, the American people resoundingly elected Barack Obama, an African American, to the presidency of the United States. The tears of joy seen on the faces of African Americans was worthy of all our celebration. Indeed, the issues of the presidential campaign aside, the election of Barack Obama is a huge symbolic step forward in our quest to end racism in America.

Barack Obama himself couched his victory speech in the ideals of the nation's founding. Last night, he told cheering throngs:

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

The Stain of Segregation and Slavery

Just forty years prior to Obama's victory speech, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled by an assassin's bullet, and the United States (particularly in the South) was embroiled in a highly divisive battle over segregation.

A century before that, the nation was ravaged by civil war -- a conflict that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans and maimed in body or spirit tens of thousands more. Slavery and race relations were at the heart of that conflict.

And less than a century before that, our Founding Fathers (meeting in Philadelphia) hammered out a compromise that reduced black citizen status to 3/5ths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation and protected the dreadful slave trade for 20 more years. While most of the men at the Constitutional Convention were no fans of slavery, the compromise was necessary, they felt, to achieve a new form of government and keep the United States the United States.

While I am no fan of those who routinely bash America for all its faults, let's agree that the legacy of slavery and segregation are stains on America's honor. To lift ourselves from that past is indeed worthy of celebration.

What about the Founders?

Like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama generally speaks approvingly of the Founding Fathers. While he acknowledges the sins of our nation's past, he does not - at least in public rherotic - lay the blame for those sins at the Founders' doorstep. For this, I am grateful.

I personally do not participate with those who denigrate our Founders. Yes, there were some Founders (though not many) who engaged in personally abhorrent practices in relation to slavery and some (even fewer) who publicly championed it.

For the most part, the Founders recognized the inconsistency between slavery and the American cause. A majority understood that a nation which condoned slavery was not truly dedicated to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

George Mason said that slavery made "petty tyrants of us all" and James Madison criticized slavery for being based on the "mere distinction of color." Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence (modified to appease the Deep South) condemned the slave trade (and blamed it on King George III). Quasi-abolitionist Ben Franklin wrote approvingly of "a disposition to abolish slavery [which] prevails in North America."

Many acted on their anti-slavery convictions by starting or joining abolitionist societies, including Constitution signer Robert Livingston, who wrote:

“I would most ardently wish to become a member of it [the abolitionist society in New York] and... I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity... May the great and the equal Father of the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

Even some who owned slaves spoke out against it, including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote famously: "Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just, and His justice cannot sleep forever." What would Jefferson say today?

Looking Ahead

The American Creation blog is about (well) the American Creation. And, so, I'm keeping my posting here focused on the issues of race and America's founding. I hope no one will object, as I believe yesterday's historic election is worthy of some acknowledgment on this blog.

That said, if you'll permit me a quick personal aside (one unrelated to American Creation)....I want to make clear to my readers that there are issues in which I strongly (yes, passionately) disagree with Barack Obama. It remains to be seen how Obama will govern or proceed on those issues.

However, I want to also make clear that he is my incoming President, and will (from this day forward) be in my prayers. And, for this historic election, he deserves our congratulations and all our prayers.

I also want to close with a controversial speculation. While we can't know (for sure) how our Founders would feel about yesterday, I believe that - if they have been able or had been able to observe the history of the US (and how it's played out over the last 220 plus years), they would be PLEASED that the color barrier has been breached with the highest office of the land.

Some will probably disagree with that statement, believing that the Founders were hopelessly racist or anachronistic. I think this is (once again) very superficial and shallow. The Founders were men (and women) within their time, but they were also men who could and did think and look ahead. Given the benefit of observing America through its history and struggles, I think most would have come to the conclusion that slavery and segregation were wrong -- and that racial equality was a worthy goal for our people. In this respect, they too would have shed a few tears of joy at last night's historic election.

43 comments:

Pinky said...

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I think that, if the Founders had continued and were alive today, they would have taken an attitude much like yours, Brian. Nice post.
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Life, like everything else, DOES evolve.
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Brad Hart said...

Well said, Brian. As for the founders agreeing/disagreeing with a Black man being president, I think that Thomas Jefferson said it best when he wrote, "the earth belongs to the living and not the dead." Whether or not they would agree with what has happened is secondary to the fact that IT HAS HAPPENED!!! What a remarkable event in the history of the nation...the world!

Very well said, Brian.

Anonymous said...

I think that to say "Wow, what a remarkable event in our history to have a black man as President" is a racist statement. And I think it is important to call out the people who are saying things like that because odds are, they voted for Obama and the only reason was because he was black and they wanted to make history. In my opinion, the Founders wouldn't be impressed with Obama at all. I think that most of his policies would have terrified our overwhelmingly conservative Founders. They wouldn't have been so blinded by his wagging tongue and dramatic charisma, they would have seen him for what he is - a socialist through and through. News flash people - Electing a black man for President doesn't make America great. Anyone who is "proud of their country for the first time in their adult life" is nothing more than a bigot and is simply perpetuating the myth that success depends on race instead of hard work. Besides, shouldn't a man be judged by the content of his character than by the color of his skin? I heard that somewhere...

Brad Hart said...

Anonymous:

Our founders were conservative? Are you kiding me?

Pinky said...

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But, Brad, Anonymous is a person of character. You MUST humble yourself in such a presence.
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Brian Tubbs said...

Anonymous, I didn't vote for Obama. But I can still recognize a milestone, and it IS a milestone.

I agree with your reference to Michele Obama's "For the first time, I'm proud of my country." I was very disappointed in that too. But....the election is over. The voters have spoken. It's time to move forward.

Brad Hart said...

Amen, Brian! This is a HUGE milestone, even if anonymous hypocrites want to accuse us of being racists for making mention of it.

Anonymous said...

Brad: Yes, they were VERY conservative by today's standards.
And you all can call it a milestone if you like, but us colorblind individuals just see it as another election. It's only significant because a socialist was elected rather than a true (red, white, and) blue capitalist. And it's unfortunate that history won't remember it that way. Oh yes, racism is still alive and well in this country. It's too profitable for the Democrats for them to allow it to disappear. Nov. 4th, 2008 - sad day for America.

Brad Hart said...

Whatever, Anon. Anyone that can't put his/her real name to their comments cannot be taken seriously.

And no. The founders were not a bunch of Ruch Limbaugh, Sean Hannity conservatives. Put the bong away!

Pinky said...

"a true (red, white, and) blue capitalist".
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Ho ho ho!
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Brian Tubbs said...

Whether the Founders were "conservative" depends on what one means by "conservative." Definitions are a tricky thing.

Were they capitalists? In most cases, yes. In Alexander Hamilton's case, absolutely yes. And our nation is built largely on Hamiltonian economics.

It remains to be seen whether Obama and the Democratic Congress will take us toward socialism. For my own part, I'm willing to pray for him and hope for the best. It's time to end the election rhetoric and come together as Americans behind our new President. That doesn't mean we have to support or agree with everything he does or stands for, but we at least need to show respect for our democratic system of government. He won. Let's move forward.

Pinky said...

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Brian writes, "It's time to end the election rhetoric and come together as Americans behind our new President. ... Let's move forward."
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Good idea.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course, Barack Obama is not the descendant of American slaves. Many Founders wished the eventual end of slavery, but most were still racist or at least racialist. Even the "good" ones. [Specifically Jefferson, BTW. See Notes on State of Virginia.]

Anonymous has a bit of point that we may be reading too much history into the color of Barack Obama's skin. I cannot connect his election very well to the Founding era, but more to the abolitionist movement that followed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Jefferson's comments -- especially when he brings up orangutans -- in Notes are certainly cringe worthy. Though, I should note, explaining away the "racialism" or racism of the FFs or Lincoln, as the Claremont Institute loves to do, is dangerous to their social conservative worldview. Distinguish between the "ideals" and "compromises" with those ideals. Put into "historical context" the race/slavery issue. You could do the same thing -- explain away -- their more conservative views on sexual issues as well.

I think the East Coast Straussians understand this and this is why they insist we must *not* view man as a creature with unalienable rights to liberty, equality and the right to pursue happiness. Because that necessarily leads to a modern sense of lax morality. Strict constitutionalism without natural rights, however, avoids that undesirable outcome.

Pinky said...

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[Not viewing "man as a creature with unalienable rights to liberty] necessarily leads to a modern sense of lax morality."
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I think I used to believe that what you seem to be saying here was true. And, maybe it is in some sense. But, the taking away of such liberty can lead to terrible tyranny in a blind sided view of what's good and what's not good.
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I think our system of government which moves change so slowly is a good idea. Maybe you're also saying that?
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This is an area that cries for understanding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I won't answer for or defend "Straussians" of either coast, except to say the "idealists" of the west are closer to neo-cons than the more hard-minded of the east, who are more grounded in the ancient Greek---may we say "pagan"---tradition. [Mansfield's hero is Achilles. Jaffa's is Lincoln.]

The Free Soil Party, and indeed Lincoln himself originally, represented the conunundrum you describe, of "strict constitutionalism without natural rights," how to go about dismantling slavery without dismantling the constitution.

It of course proved to be impossible, and all sides came to see that the question could only be resolved by a great civil war. The "natural rights" abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison had been right all along. They saw the equality of all men as ordained by God, and the law, the constitution, was in conflict with that principle. What to do? Read Romans 13, and shrug your shoulders?

Now, although not "biblical," according to Christian philosophy, such a war could be justified, which is why "biblical" begins to lose its relevance to me in discussion of these things. Flatly, there is much more to Christianity than the just Bible, reason being chiefly among them.

As we poke through America's history on this, we find that "Enlightened" types could be abolitionists and still be racialists: opposition to slavery was by no means synonymous with a belief in the equality of all men.

Which is why I planted this little humbug into the Obama-Founding nexus. Sorry for the buzzkill, folks, really. I'm glad we have a black president, although I wish I believed in his politics.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Personally I'm a libertarian and believe governments should embrace the idea of an unalienable right to political liberty where governments functions are limited to protecting individuals from harm, forcing parties to compensate others for intentional or negligent harms, enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, setting up infrastructure and a military and the like.

Such massive amounts of liberty may lead to more things folks find unpalatable like drug use, but it will also, in my opinion, lead to more flourishing of private socially and religiously conservative communities and creativity and entrepreneurship in general.

All of this also is entirely justifiable according to the Golden Rule: I'll leave you and yours alone because I want to you leave me and mine alone. Further original notions of religious liberty were redicated on such a presupposition. Religious liberty meant orthodox Christians would permit other folks to worship false gods and otherwise openly preach soul damning heresies and was justified because such orthodox Christians (like the Baptists) knew what it was like being on the receiving end of religious dissidence backed up by a coercive state. This is also, btw, where my interest in the history of religion in Western Civilization dovetails with my personal political libertarianism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"I'm glad we have a black president, although I wish I believed in his politics."

Heh. Ultimately I feel the same way. I guess both of us will be praying for an Obama conversion to our side.

More practically I'm hoping that republicans take Congress in 2010. When Clinton presided over a Republican Congress we had budget surpluses. The glory days -- I pray they return.

Pinky said...

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I guess I see a twinge of "absolutism" in both you guys.
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Is that what qualifies either of you as a Straussian?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

What marks a "Straussian" is the skill and habit of reading texts carefully.

Pinky said...

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Or maybe being a little too esoteric?
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Jonathan Rowe said...

I certainly don't consider myself a "Straussian" but "Straussian influenced." In particular, I follow much (but certainly not all) of the analysis of, among others, Michael Zuckert and Thomas Pangle on the American Founding. Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns and Leo Strauss himself have also notably influenced my analysis as have Harry Jaffa, Thomas West and the West Coast Gang. Still, I would never take Strauss' or any of their conclusions as "Word."

Pinky said...

Other than the fact you missed a few of the names, I think we're all quite well marked by Straussian thought.
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Philosophy is like that--it influences the way people think.
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Pinky said...

This appears to take the thread off topic; but, it seems to me I find myself in the predicament of an observer watching those blind men who were explaining an elephant.
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Maybe someone would offer an explanation of what they mean by the word, Straussian?
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I was thinking it has something to do with a philosophy that favors power for those that believe they know what is best for everyone and in which the ends justify the means for exercising that power
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Brian Tubbs said...

Good idea, Pinky. But probably better suited for its own posting and thread. Maybe a Straussian expert could oblige and kick off a Straussian 101 discussion and debate.

Pinky said...

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Maybe so, Brian.
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Tom seems to be an expert on the subject.
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How about it, Tom?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ugh. I was trying to avoid the work as I'm lazy by constitution. But here goes---

Strauss likes Plato. The idea that the worthiest should run things goes back to him---the "Guardians" of Plato's Republic---and is no more controversial than JFK saying he was bringing in "the best and the brightest." See also Jefferson's letter to Adams on "aristocracy," which is similarly Platonic.

Not a surprise that the "neo-cons" would be attracted to classes on Plato rather than the usual university Hegel-Marx-Rawls nexus, not to mention "postmodernism." That's about as deep as it went.

It is true that Strauss opposes modernism and postmodernism---classical philosophy, the ancient Greeks---believed in truth, not "relative" or "subjective" truth. If that's "absolutism," then so be it. The idea that truth is truth has a creditable history of thousands of years.

Aside from endorsing Nixon over McGovern in 1972, Strauss had little to say about current events at any time. It's widely believed his true hero was FDR. It's also true that after the weak Weimar Republic failed to stand up for the Jews and stand up against the rise of Hitler, Strauss was skeptical of the guts of democratic/parliamentary/congressional systems, and who can blame him? [Strauss, as a Jew, was forced to flee Hitler.]

So yes, he felt that strong leaders were the ones to stand up to tyrants. FDR.

Strauss' book On Tyranny is most apropos of the current time. It begins with a full reprint of Xenophon's Hiero, where the philosopher tries to instruct the tyrant on justice. Next comes Strauss' explication.

Most interesting is that On Tyranny includes the correspondence between Strauss and his friend Alexandre Kojève. Kojève was the philosophical father of the modern European Union, and envisioned the coming of a utopian Universal Homogeneous State, which very much resembles the EU and, I fear, The United States of Obama.

Strauss opposes the UHS on the grounds that excellence [the ideal], or the pursuit of it, will be destroyed, and mediocrity---homogeneity, the "easily achievable mean"---will become the new ideal. I do recommend On Tyranny as well as familiarizing ourselves with Kojève. Kojève is by no means anything but a good man, and it's thought that Strauss believed Kojève would get his UHS someday, that classical philosophy would one day be swamped by relativism and utilitarianism.

Steven Lenzer and William Kristol explain Strauss further in their well-regarded essay, What was Leo Strauss Up To? I'll be happy to discuss my understanding of Strauss further, but not with anyone who hasn't put the time in to read this essay. OK?

Strauss is very deep, or at least subtle, and his ideas aren't easily translated into current issues, like invading Iraq. [I think he would have been against, as in one place he mocks "making the world safe for democracy].

The "Straussians lie" slander is a misunderstanding of why John Locke published his Two Treatises on Government anonymously: simply, because philosophy is dangerous to the prevailing order, and why Athens gave Socrates the hemlock. As we know, Algernon Sidney got the rope.

The philosopher does not desire to rule, BTW, which blows the charges of a "neo-con/Straussian Conspiracy" kerblooey. He wishes to spend his time on philosophy. He gives political advice to ensure domestic tranquility to do it in. Power is not his end.

I hope this will do for now.

Pinky said...

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I'll read it.

Brian Tubbs said...

Good overview, Tom.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Brian. I let Phil play Lucy in that Charlie Brown-and-the-football sort of way. Seventy times seven and all that, as he alternately respects me and, well, you've seen the rest for yourself.

Is this wise? Is this Christian? I've never been able to puzzle this one out. I think of Mt 21:28. Lk 15:3, mebbe. Mark 4.

Let me know your thoughts, not now certainly, but at the proper time.

Pinky said...

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"I let Phil play Lucy in that Charlie Brown-and-the-football sort of way."
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ho ho ho
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What are we going to do today, Tom?
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Uh, Brain?
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Pinky said...

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So, it appears Kristol starts out saying that Strauss wants to engage great thinkers like Plato and Machiavelli as though they are his contemporaries--or something close to that.
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Can you expand on that?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, keep in mind I'm no "expert" on Strauss, only [charitably] well-acquainted. My purpose was to untether Strauss the philosopher from the calumny that he's the Machiavelli of the neo-cons. This is a stupid statement made by partisan people who don't understand him.

To "dialogue" with the great thinkers is to read their words for yourself, and "understand them as they understood themselves," particularly in their time and place, and the danger the state posed to their work [to their lives!] if they spoke plainly. Algernon Sidney spoke plainly and he was hanged for his efforts. Locke spoke more subtly and left no "smoking guns" that could be turned on him. He died in bed.

Strauss doesn't close doors, he opens doors and jams them permanently open. From an essay I'll link below:

The philosophic life, according to Strauss, is fundamentally zetetic, a quest for an understanding of the fundamental problems. But Strauss warns us that to resolve those problems by coming to a determinate solution is necessarily to collapse into dogmatism. The search for wisdom can never become wisdom but only dogmatism...

Strauss himself: "Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problems. Therefore the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the "subjective certainty" of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution."

And so, just as there are many interpretations of Plato and Locke, so must there be for Strauss. Take nobody's interpretation of him as the definitive one, just as we do with George Washington's religion or a zillion other things around here. Read them for yourself.

I sent the essay below to a Strauss buddy---far more versed in him than I---and asked him what he thought. It's crap, he said, he doesn't understand Strauss.

I send it along to you anyway, but take care to disbelieve some or all of it. There's no replacement for thinking for yourself. And there's no replacement for reading Strauss for yourself, as Lenzner and Kristol say at the beginning of their essay. This is Strauss' greatest contribution to the study of philosophers, to reject all the "traditional" interpretations and try to put yourself directly into their shoes by reading them carefully. They wrote carefully, very carefully.

http://www.mun.ca/animus/1999vol4/roberts4.htm

Pinky said...

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We're discussing the Kristol paper. Adding others to it and going off on other tangents only discombobulates our purpose here.
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Sticking to the paper, Kristol's first point has to do with the idea that Strauss has developed a new king of writing which is related to conversations among certain philosophical thinkers beginning with the Greeks.
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Am I wrong?

Pinky said...

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ERATA

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"...that Strauss has developed a new king of writing ... should have read, "...that Strauss has developed a new KIND of writing ... (Correction emphasized)

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, he didn't develop it, he "re-discovered" what had been going on for thousands of years. I already explained it vis-a-vis Sidney and Locke.

Sorry, Phil, I'm done for now, as I think Strauss' relevance to this blog has been covered. The rest is philosophy and fits into some other blog. I'm not interested in defending Strauss; I have my own disagreements with him, but even those who don't like him grudgingly admit his method is of great value. I've shared enough to be helpful, left some breadcrumbs; the rest will be up to you. Cheers.

Pinky said...

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I think I have a pretty good handle on Strauss. I thought, maybe, you could add something for me.
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Alas and alack....

Tom Van Dyke said...

To quote Sean Connery, what do you want me to do, Phil? Stick a broom up my ass so I can sweep up on my way out?

You have a handle on Strauss? How? From an article or three and a comments section? Sure, Lucy, whatever you say. Peace, I'm out.

Pinky said...

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I first came to be interested in Strauss in May of 2003. And have sought out additional information since then with quite a bit of continued interest.
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While Strauss sez he rediscovered his way of writing, he most certainly developed his skills and techniques. No one can read his work or study his teachings without building a great respect for his abilities. For crying out loud, he is--almost single handed --responsible for the creation of so much of what is popular in politics today.
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But, in so far as Strauss and the Founding Era is concerned, the student must remain objective in gaining his or her understandings. What Strauss promoted during his life time had been around for thousands of years.
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I believe the Kristol paper that Tom claimed he wanted to discuss is full of information that can be used to draw comparisons with America's creation.
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But, I am happy to let the subject drift away for now as I am sure it will surface again.
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Were you planning on sweeping up the bread crumbs you left behind, Tom?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

The trail of bread crumbs remains in cyberink, forever and ever, or until the internet crashes in an atomic war.

Perhaps some discriminating pigeon will come along someday and follow it to the motherlode.

Strauss had some small influence on the world today, mostly how we talk about things, not necessarily the rise and crash of the neo-cons. He does have great value in examining the Founding, as we use his technique of reading closely and carefully around here when we peruse the source documents of the Founding.

So too, Strauss was grounded in classical Greek philosophy---as the Founders were---but so few are today, including historians and even modern philosophy professors. No wonder they've made such a hash of it.

And although Strauss himself wrote little about the Founding, his method is invaluable in trying to figure out what those Founder guys were thinking those hundreds of years ago, and that's his greatest value, to borrow his tools, not to look to him as some sort of oracle.

You're welcome, Phil.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And for the record, Phil, I didn't write that I wanted to discuss the Lenzner-Kristol paper. I wrote that I didn't want to discuss Leo Strauss with anyone who hadn't read it. I had hoped to move beyond it as its only a primer. I'm sure you appreciate the irony that Strauss recommends we read carefully. Form meets function, or in this case, we prove his point because it didn't.

Pinky said...

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Didn't you take your meds yesterday, Tom?
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Remember what the doctor said.
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:<)

Pinky said...

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Here's a book I've been reading from since 2003 when I was first introduced to Strauss.

In it, we get the idea that Strauss sees himself as focused on the Civic Art and in opposition or in deference to Humanists and Scientists who remove themselves from the subject of their study. Strauss claims it is important to "learn to Speak the language of the citizen and statesman."
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His teaching\s have much to do with our attitudes regarding the ideas of relativism.
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