Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Kagan on Straussianism

Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, has a fascinating article in the Weekly Standard called I am Not a Straussian. Jon Rowe cited it at Positive Liberty and I had to read it. It’s quite amusing to read, but I think he has a serious point to make about how much of what passes for learned academic criticism of the neo-conservative movement relies upon shallow analysis and guilt by association. I’ve read a thousand articles, or so it seems, that equate neo-conservatism with Straussianism and Kagan is correct to point out that the two terms are not synonomous. I particularly like this passage:

But that’s not the reason I never became a Straussian. It was because my father explained to me, as well as to Bloom, of course, that Bloom did not understand Plato. This may seem a bit outrageous to many people today, given Bloom’s reputation. But I still think my father was right, and at the time I had no doubt that he was right. My father was and is a great arguer, and as a boy I was inclined to believe that he was right about practically everything. So to me, the Kagan-Bloom debates always looked like a complete wipe-out.

As best I can recall, their biggest point of contention was whether Plato was just kidding in The Republic. Bloom said he was just kidding. I later learned that this idea – that the greatest thinkers in history never mean what they say and are always kidding – is a core principle of Straussianism. My friend, the late Al Bernstein, also taught history at Cornell. He used to tell the story about how one day some students of his, coming directly from one of Bloom’s classes, reported that Bloom insisted Plato did not mean what he said in The Republic. To which Bernstein replied: “Ah, Professor Bloom wants you to think that’s what he believes. What he really believes is that Plato did mean what he said.”

I’m fascinated by the Straussians, at least partially because I’m not entirely certain that they’re wrong about some things. I think their historical analysis and reading of the great thinkers is pure balderdash; I’m not so sure their prescription that society needs religion and simple moral precepts in order to function is entirely false. I’m not really convinced by it either. I should declare myself agnostic on the question. But I do think that it’s important to not use the term too broadly, as it is for the term “neo-con”, which has become little more than a vague epithet used by the pedestrian left in the same way that the pedestrian right uses the word “liberal” – it doesn’t mean anything other than “them”.

Comments

  1. #1 John Farrell
    January 31, 2006

    I think their historical analysis and reading of the great thinkers is pure balderdash; I’m not so sure their prescription that society needs religion and simple moral precepts in order to function is entirely false. I’m not really convinced by it either. I should declare myself agnostic on the question.

    This is a great point. Is it your experience that among agnostics and atheists this is a question/issue that…well, gets people worked up? Meaning, atheists who think religion is utterly not needed–and those who think it is?

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    John Farrell wrote:

    Is it your experience that among agnostics and atheists this is a question/issue that…well, gets people worked up? Meaning, atheists who think religion is utterly not needed–and those who think it is?

    I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve never really discussed the issue much with anyone. I happen to think that religion provides many useful things to society, regardless of the truth or falsity of the religion (and please don’t respond to this by laying out all the bad things that come from religion – I am fully aware of them and write about them often. The fact that religion also has bad results does not change my argument in the slightest). Religion provides a sense of community, a gathering place for people, recognition of important rituals during our lives (marriage, funerals, etc), and yes, for many people, a basic sense of right and wrong. While I certainly agree that one need not be religious in order to have a solid morality (after all, I’m not religious and I am a strong moral objectivist), I’m not entirely convinced that this is true for society as a whole. I’m not entirely convinced otherwise either, which I know is a lot of weasel words. I’m just not sure that the truth is on this one.

  3. #3 IndianCowboy
    January 31, 2006

    Ed, I find your comment extremely refreshing in light of the extreme polemic that many atheists/agnostics (even ones on this site) deliver against religion. I’m an agnostic myself, but having roots in a highly religious part of rural India, and living in the highly religious West Texas most of my life, happen to think that as you said religion *can* have a strong role in fostering community spirit and a sense of morality.

    There’s a passage from the Upanishads that COMPLETELY escapes me at the moment, but the rough gist of it is that to be moral and good some need to believe in a personal god, some just need the structure of religion, and some don’t need any of it.

  4. #4 Ginger Yellow
    January 31, 2006

    ” I’m not so sure their prescription that society needs religion and simple moral precepts in order to function is entirely false. I’m not really convinced by it either.”

    What about their prescription that “the little people” need religion and simple moral precepts but the neocons themselves don’t? Admittedly I haven’t read much primary neocon material, but I’ve read a fair bit about Strauss and his acolytes. I’ve never been able to figure out how we’re supposed to decide who gets initiated into the higher knowledge. I’ve also never figured why the pious masses wouldn’t rise up against their irreligious, power crazed puppet masters after a while.

  5. #5 John Farrell
    January 31, 2006

    Ed, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t disagree with any of it.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Ginger Yellow wrote:

    What about their prescription that “the little people” need religion and simple moral precepts but the neocons themselves don’t?

    I certainly wouldn’t put it that way even if I was sure I agreed with the basic point. But I’m not sure they’re wrong to argue that most people put no thought at all into moral reasoning, they just do what they were taught to do according to a simple set of rules. In fact, I have no doubt that this is true. Most people put as little thought into moral reasoning as they do into any other type of reasoning, I’m sure. How would they behave without that simple list of rules? I have no idea. I’ve seen how people behave when they think they have anonymity – that is, when they think they are isolated from the consequences of their behavior – and it’s not pretty. Spend an hour in an internet chatroom and you’ll see what I mean.

  7. #7 oolong
    January 31, 2006

    Ed,

    I’m curious — if not religion, what do you base your moral objectivism on?

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    oolong wrote:

    I’m curious — if not religion, what do you base your moral objectivism on?

    On the use of reason and the necessities of life as a human being.

  9. #9 Craig Pennington
    January 31, 2006
    What about their prescription that “the little people” need religion and simple moral precepts but the neocons themselves don’t?

    I certainly wouldn’t put it that way even if I was sure I agreed with the basic point.

    I think he is talking about that modern democratic “fallacy” (to the Straussians) that there are not different kinds of truths for different kinds of people.

    Most people put as little thought into moral reasoning as they do into any other type of reasoning, I’m sure. How would they behave without that simple list of rules? I have no idea. I’ve seen how people behave when they think they have anonymity – that is, when they think they are isolated from the consequences of their behavior – and it’s not pretty.

    I don’t disagree with that. Of course, a person who behaves differently when they think they are anonymous does not believe in (WLOG) an omniscient god who metes out justice. Such people are only controlled (when not anonymous) by social factors. Doubts regarding the authority of easy-answer rules, when questioning that authority is socially discouraged, lead to the “situational” practice of those rules. The problem, IMO, is the brittle nature of command authority. And the Straussians would have us believe that the solution is to protect the rabble from dangerous truths, rather than to promote an authority that is flexible enough to withstand doubts.

  10. #10 Tanooki Joe
    January 31, 2006

    I’ve never been comfortable with the Straussian logic. Considering that one of the most common (and exasperating) canards against atheists is “atheists just think their better/smarter than everyone else”, and you’ve criticized people like Dawkins for actually fulfilling such stereotypes, believing that some/most people need religion to be moral sort of makes that sort of reasoning inevitable. For if most people need a religious moral code to actually be moral, then the corollary that the moral atheist is an inherently superior person is hard to avoid.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    January 31, 2006

    Tanooki Joe wrote:

    I’ve never been comfortable with the Straussian logic.

    I’m not either. I’m just not so sure that they’re entirely wrong.

    Considering that one of the most common (and exasperating) canards against atheists is “atheists just think their better/smarter than everyone else”, and you’ve criticized people like Dawkins for actually fulfilling such stereotypes, believing that some/most people need religion to be moral sort of makes that sort of reasoning inevitable.

    I think perhaps you misunderstand my position on that issue. I don’t have any problem with the idea of someone thinking they are smarter than someone else, for the obvious reason that some people are smarter than some other people. Indeed, I think I’m smarter than many people and I don’t pretend to hide that opinion. My objection to Dawkins’ position is that I don’t think that whether one believes in God or not is a measurement of whether one is smarter. I simply know too many stupid atheists and too many brilliant theists to believe that.

    I also have no problem with someone believing that they are a better, more ethical person than someone else, again for the obvious reason that some people are better and more ethical than others. And yes, I think the person who makes the right ethical choice simply because it’s the right thing to do deserves more admiration than one who does it because he thinks he’s being watched or because he seeks a reward for that choice.

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