Monday, May 2, 2016

Sully is Back

Check it out here. I'm not posting this because of the political points he's trying to score (that's why you won't see them excerpted); rather for Dr. Sullivan's understanding of Plato. A taste:
As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment. ...
Now, this is a particular understanding of Plato. It's Sullivan saying what Plato means. Sullivan, of course studied Plato in graduate school with Harvey Mansfield (at Harvard) and what Sullivan writes above is an understanding that comes from that -- the Straussian -- school. As in, this is what Plato was really (esoterically) trying to get at.

Such a reading is quite contentious. It may be correct. But it's not without its controversy. From an article in the Boston Globe:
Thomas Fleming, editor of the ... journal Chronicles [notes]:''Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don't appear to hold to. 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.''
I'm feeling the "Plato was an American-style democrat" notion in Sullivan's piece. Here is one place where Sullivan I think gets Plato and America partially wrong:
Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.
The second sentence is accurate. The first sentence needs to be unpacked. Did the Founding Fathers read Plato?  Sure. But it's almost certainly not the case that they understood him the way Sullivan and the Straussians do. We could substitute "Plato" for "Hobbes." As in "[p]art of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Hobbes." 

The Founding Fathers tended to cite both Plato and Hobbes negatively. They cited Locke positively; they cited a great deal of Ancient Roman Stoic types positively. And even though the Ancient Greek influence on the American Founding was not nearly as evident as the Ancient Roman influence, they tended to cite Aristotle positively.

The Straussians have notably posited that Locke's teachings were esoterically Hobbesian. So if Hobbes influenced the American Founding it was because his teachings were smuggled in by Locke. 

Likewise if Plato had any kind of influence on the American Founding it was because some other ancient philosopher whom they respected -- i.e., Aristotle, Socrates -- smuggled Plato's message in as well.


Tom Van Dyke said...

But fashion and authority apart, and bringing [him] to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities, and what remains?

That's Jefferson on Plato*, but it could be any serious person on Sullivan. ;-)


Tom Van Dyke said...

Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

FTR, Sullivan's arg rests on a complete misreading of Plato. >sigh<

"It [democracy] is probably the fairest of the regimes (kalliste¯ haute to¯n politeio¯n).
. . . Just like a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues, this regime,
decorated with all dispositions, would also look the fairest (kalliste¯ an phainoito)
and many perhaps . . ., like boys and women looking at many-colored
things, would judge this to be the fairest regime
(kalliste¯n an polloi krineian).”
(Republic, 557c)

"This passage combines a vivid, memorable image of the diversity characteristic of democratic life with an elegant summary of the harshest criticism of democracy voiced in all the dialogues of Plato.

It suggests the
seductive powers of democracy and the manner in which democracy dulls
people’s powers of discrimination
—two of the features of democracy that
Plato presents as precipitating a transformation into tyranny. The passage
does not celebrate diversity but acts principally as a warning: the variety
characteristic of democracy is charming and delightful to the point of
reducing the judgment of many to something akin to that of children and

CK MacLeod said...

I don't believe that's an accurate reading. The particular passages may include the harshest direct attacks on democracy in Plato's work, but the whole of the Republic amounts implicitly to an attack on democracy as well as on other known forms of government. The ills that the utopian exercise is meant to address, and the rationale for them, are implicitly highly anti-democratic or anti-democratist. The same can be said for the dialogues in general, especially the four concerning the trial and death of Socrates. Otherwise, Sullivan might have done better to refer, somewhat in Strauss's manner in fact, to the whole of the Classics, thereby taking in Aristotle as well as the Roman thinkers.

CK MacLeod said...

(error: shoulda said something like "the rationale for the measures recommended" in the third sentence)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice to hear from you, CK.

Otherwise, Sullivan might have done better to refer, somewhat in Strauss's manner in fact, to the whole of the Classics, thereby taking in Aristotle as well as the Roman thinkers.

The tactic was to hijack Plato for homosexuality, and so he perverts the original sense of "many-colored cloak decorated in all hues" to an endorsement rather than a childish illusion.

see also

Plato condemns homosexual intercourse in both the "Laws" and the "Republic." The "Laws" (Book VIII) rejects homosexual intercourse because it can render men unfit for marriage and because it is contrary to nature and a shameless indulgence.

The "Laws" recommends that homosexuality, like adultery, fornication and the use of prostitutes, not be engaged in; that if it is engaged in, it be kept private or closeted, and that if it is discovered, it be punished by deprivation of civil rights, a severe penalty. In effect, the "Laws" recommends criminalization.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Glad to see you comment here. I meant to contact you to see if we closed the loop on Strauss and atheism (I can't remember if we did in the comments section of the other blog).

I'm a critic of people who don't quote things properly for the sake of history; so I am sensitive if I myself may be making that error.

The problem with the Straussians is that we have their exoteric texts from which to quote; and the "esoteric" messages (which may go much further) where they tried to leave as little as possible a public record of.

One of the utterances attributed to Strauss was "philosophers are paid to be atheists." The late Paul Varnell told me of this over a decade ago, that he was told by a Straussian who witnessed Strauss say this.

The other quotation in question was "no true philosopher can believe in God."

If you put those words into a search engine, it sources back to me (you notified me of this). And I admit I erred in putting the word "true" in there.

The actual quote is "no philosopher can believe in God;" it came from Allan Bloom's best friend Saul Bellow, in the context of discussing matters "off the record" where Bellow was quoting Bloom's sentiment.

Straussians spread their esoteric understanding of texts "off the record," in private, orally, with their close trusted friends.

What follows is my reading of "Ravelstein," with a syllogism: 1. In that roman a clef, Strauss is named "Davar" (Hebrew for Word); 2. Bloom faithfully followed Strauss on these matters; therefore, 3. Bloom is echoing Strauss with these kinds of off the record private statements.

This also assumes Saul Bellow's account of the story is honest and accurate, which I believe it is.

Tom Van Dyke said...

One of the utterances attributed to Strauss was "philosophers are paid to be atheists."

FTR, before you make it all ominous and cabalistic, that's not peculiar to Leo Strauss.

Tom Van Dyke said...

excellent on Strauss, I know Rob Howse a bit

CK MacLeod said...

Sorry I didn't get back to you on this earlier, JR - although what I mainly have to say is that I think we handled the question about as well as we're going to handle it on that other thread. My main point is that a remark about philosophers isn't the same thing as a philosophical remark, and that considering it philosophically is different from considering it in terms of, say, intellectual history. Strauss took a certain position on philosophy v revelation or Athens v Jerusalem, and it's a position both on the practice of philosophy and on the essence of philosophy or of the truth. The two positions within the one position are intimately connected and even mutually defining, but they are not the same: What philosophers are "paid" to do, or what the accepted uses of the role of "philosopher" are, and what philosophy is or should be, or what we could confidently state about what philosophy is or what is philosophy, might be very different things. As for what a philosopher can believe, Strauss's position on the essence of philosophy amounts to a belief that it is a practice in denial of belief. A true philosopher cannot believe in God, and cannot believe in the absence of God, because a true philosopher questions all belief and so in effect questions belief itself. So, except for the sake of making a kind of sociological point or a point about common speech - in which the vagueness of the god concept is overlooked, as though everyone somehow knows what everyone else means by the word "God" - he might as well have said, "No philosopher believes," and left it there: "Belief in God" would be a redundancy, properly speaking: The problem is a willingness to accept revelation at all as authoritative or possibly authoritative, as prior to and determinative for its own interpretations, which, to the extent they are philosophically serious interpretations, interpretations which philosophy would be capable of taking seriously, would be interrogations at least admitting the possibility of doubt, offered in the mode and from the standpoint of possible falsification, which for the true believer is unacceptable: blasphemy, poisoning the minds of the young, and so on.

CK MacLeod said...

If I get a chance, I may try to re-write the above comment at my own site, where I can perhaps do a better job of saying what I mean to say or less of what I don't mean to say... and re-consider it as seems warranted... etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As for what a philosopher can believe, Strauss's position on the essence of philosophy amounts to a belief that it is a practice in denial of belief. A true philosopher cannot believe in God, and cannot believe in the absence of God, because a true philosopher questions all belief and so in effect questions belief itself

Strauss does not question belief--or revelation. It is outside the philosopher's competence. If revelation is true, philosophy is unnecessary.

As a Thomist, I disagree with Strauss on this, as does Tom West [below]. But even in Strauss' view, Athens is not in opposition to Jerusalem, even if they are irreconcilable.

I propose to assess Aquinas’s understanding of natural law by way of a response to what has become one of the most influential critiques of Aquinas in the past century, that of Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History. Strauss argues that Thomas Aquinas’s natural law doctrine is not based on nature and reason, but instead expresses a concealed dogmatism that presents doctrines drawn from revelation as if they were insights of reason. Further, according to Strauss, Aquinas supposedly transformed a moderate and flexible classic natural right teaching into an inflexible doctrine of natural law, a set of dogmatic rules which imposed imprudent constraints on sensible statesmanship. Aquinas made these errors, Strauss implies, because he confused reason with revelation.

Contrary to Strauss, I will argue that Aquinas’s doctrine of natural law is in fact a deliberate adaptation of the teaching of classical natural right to fit the circumstances of medieval Christendom, and that Aquinas fully understands the difference between reason and revelation as guides to human conduct. I also argue that Aquinas de-emphasizes or conceals some of the more radical implications of that difference for perfectly good reasons, namely, because of the limits imposed on Aquinas by the bulk of his very dogmatic readership. I will conclude by explaining why the defects of twentieth-century Thomism probably led Strauss quite reasonably to exaggerate his differences with Aquinas by painting a picture of him that was in fact closer to neo-Thomism than to Aquinas himself. If I am right, Strauss would probably have agreed with much of my argument against him.

Jonathan Rowe said...

CK: Thanks for clarifying and let us know if you do the post.

CK MacLeod said...

TVD: It doesn't matter what Strauss did or didn't do. The question is what philosophy does or is, and neither the question nor the answer can be stated adequately, without taking one or the other position. So, I could have written a bit more carefully that "philosophy questions all statements of belief" instead of "philosophy questions belief," but to put the matter in the former way already begins to differentiate between statements of belief and actual or possible belief, so is more favorable to a certain philosophical position contrary to the demands of certain believers, who at some point must hold that the meaning of revelation is somehow intrinsic to revelation, that it is something other than a mere interpretation or statement like other statements - that recitation of the creed matters, sometimes even that recitation of the creed in the original language is the only true recitation of the creed, that the words are totems or talismans, not the forms of mere expressions or postulates or ideas. Likewise, I could have written, more carefully, that philosophy was not "denial" of belief but beyond or outside of belief, or, as you put it, that revelation is beyond the competence of the philosopher. Strauss acknowledges this view and accepts it on behalf of revelation (quite explicitly in his notes on the politico-religious problem), but the implications end up being the same, or it turns out to be a distinction without a difference or at least without a final difference. To practice philosophy seriously, or one might say "faithfully," is to engage in a practice without dependence on revelation, but the proponents of revelation must consider such practice self-falsifying: a search for the truth when the truth, as revealed, is already available, and it is incumbent upon all of us to begin and remain with that fact, with all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our souls - or, as Strauss liked to say, as "the one thing needful." So one might demand it be recognized as "denial," or one might refuse to define it that way, but to choose one or the other definition will tend to put one in one or another camp about the very status of statements about belief, definitions of blasphemy or requirements of faith, and so on.

Now, I don't happen to agree with Strauss here. I side more with Hegel, Spinoza, Cohen, Peirce, and others as to an ideal "harmonization" of philosophy and religion, which Strauss declared impossible without one becoming the "queen," the other the "handmaid." See the headnote here: If you're of a mind, I attempt a further explication in the rest of the post, but I'll caution you with Cohen's words: "Out of the misty sea of myth, questions emerge; chaos arises… Only gradually can all these meanings of the uniqueness of being be developed."

Tom Van Dyke said...

"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other."
James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, 1804

It's not all the complicated, esp in the eyes of the Founders, our purpose here. [Wilson signed the Declaration, was one of the top 3 Framers of the Constitution and also served on the Supreme Court.]

As for reconciling reason and revelation, that goes back to at least Aquinas, obviating mention of later figures like Hegel. Neither does revelation [the Bible] cover every contingency in life; moral reasoning is still necessary.

CK MacLeod said...

Disagreement over the proper harmonization of reason and revelation or the response to the difficulty is exactly as old as civilization or reason and revelation themselves. The problem, properly understood, is perhaps the central political-religious as well as philosophical, so political-philosophical, problem. It appears in the Garden of Eden, the trial of Socrates, the crucifixion of Christ, the debate between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, the composition of the Constitution of the United States of America, and every possible administration, or resistance to same, of modern mass liberal democratic orders. It is a constant feature of political discussion and of any attempt to understand "policy" in relation to morality or higher purposes. You'll no more succeed in "obviating mention of later figures like Hegel," than you'll succeed in settling the matter, or even describing it satisfactorily, in a combox.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, it will not be settled here or anywhere else. Ever. This was actually Leo Strauss's wisdom, that Athens and Jerusalem will never be reconciled, and indeed the tension between them is likely the best feature of the theologico-political problem.

Leo Strauss's greatest gift was wisdom, not truth: the only undisputable truth is that Jerusalem and Athens will and must remain in conflict.

What I don't believe he ever said was why, and thx for this discussion, CK.

It occurs to me as a result of this discussion that the reason is that nobody can speak for Jerusalem OR Athens.

[Except the Pope, FTR, who claims to speak for Jerusalem, which is why Strauss gave Rome a wide berth, I think. There is not even a Jewish authority who claims to speak for Jerusalem, nor come to think of it, a Muslim authority who claims to speak for Mecca, which also claims Jerusalem.]

{Interesting. The Vatican remains sui generis. This is worth further consideration. Thanks again.}