To the Editors:
Harry Neumann has a problem. And his concerns should be the concerns of all thinking men aware of the crisis of our age. While Thomas Pangle and Harry Jaffa squabble over the bones of “Leo Strauss’s legacy,” Neumann’s recent essays treat a genuine political problem of the greatest significance. Since no response to the problem of Harry Neumann’s nihilism appears forthcoming, I will briefly treat this vexing issue myself.
Let me be clear at the outset, I am no expert on what Neumann has written to date. However, I do know that like a good gothic thriller, his essays chill me to the bone. Even more significant than the dread which permeates Neumann’s work, is the likelihood that Nietzsche’s nihilism, as popularized by Neumann, is moving from its birthplace in the Old World, and now seeking a foothold in the New. Hence, it is not so much Neumann’s writings that give me pause, but their alluring attraction on our polity, in however popularized a form. This, and not the moral indignation of cantankerous sophists, is the true crisis of our age, a crisis that colors the works of both Strauss and Neumann. What? Could Strauss’s legacy be Neumann’s nihilism?
Neumann’s position is clearly stated in “Political Philosophy or Nihilist Science? Education’s Only Serious Question” (Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa). I need only detail his more crucial points here. All previous approaches to knowledge or wisdom are radically defective. Only the nihilist scientist’s perspective of ultimate reality is correct. All other views are interpretations, mere political propaganda, utilized by men wittingly or unwittingly to bolster their specific cause. Political philosophy (the term Neumann uses as a catch-all phrase for these various interpretations) fosters a spirit of hatred and revenge, perpetuating an endless cycle of political violence in the tenacious defense of one’s own interpretation of reality. Ultimate reality is nihilistic; it is nothing but random, meaningless experiences. Neumann’s preferred word for a true nihilist insight of the world is phantasmagoria.
Despite attempting a rehashed version of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Neumann’s perspective is nevertheless unique among his living philosophic compatriots. Why then has he been greeted with resounding silence in these circles, with regard to the stark dichotomy between political philosophy and nihilist science that he proposes? Is Neumann the black sheep of the Straussian family? Perhaps better to compare him to the deranged family member who is hurried upstairs when company comes. And yet, from time to time, he embarrassingly escapes, most recently in the Jaffa Festschrift, and in “Liberal Education” (The Claremont Review of Books, Summer 1985).
Take, for example, the recently published Natural Right and Political Right (edited by Thomas Silver and Peter Schramm, Carolina Academic Press, 1984). In his article written for that collection, sandwiched in between shining examples of the political philosophy which Neumann has called “jackass worship” is the piece mentioned above on nihilist science. In this essay we are told that Straussians, including the man the volume is dedicated to, Harry Jaffa, are still engaged in the futile venture of trying to rescue political philosophy from the nihilism at its core. While these pseudo-scientists struggle to comprehend the dialogue between ancients and moderns or philosophy and politics, they neglect the only thing worthy of serious consideration. The vital question is the choice between nihilism or political philosophy. This question, it must be admitted, is one not even seriously considered by the Straussians, at least not in public at any rate.
Apart from whether Neumann’s perspective is in any sense “correct” (he argues that the will to prove nihilism’s “Tightness” is a lack of integrity), it is nevertheless a dangerous posture to assume in public. In his essay on Max Beckmann (Do nihilists always grimace like stormtroopers?), Neumann asserts that only nihilist science deserves to be taught to the young—that any other quest for wisdom is defective or intellectually dishonest. In an age where our polity is seriously challenged by forces threatening to tear it apart, nihilism’s “nothing-is-forbidden, all-is-permitted” doctrine seems almost perverse. But as educators, Neumann suggests, we have a duty to seek out this holiest, indeed only, truth. In all fairness to Neumann, his colleagues have a tremendously oversimplified view of the monster nihilism, finding it in places like impressionist paintings, B movies, etc. This oversimplification of a complex issue is the other extreme of Neumann’s indignation over his colleague’s simpering answer to his student’s request for genuine knowledge.
But is nihilist science genuine knowledge? If so, ought this wisdom to be disseminated publicly? These are the real issues. Ultimately, Neumann’s claims regarding nihilist science are as groundless as those of the pseudo-sciences that he indicts; particularly Thomism and Christianity. In other words, Neumann’s arguments, as tantalizing a description as they may seem to our sometimes despondent culture, are simply assertions. We might just as well assume that Christian Science’s Weltanschauung is an accurate representation of reality, as opposed to nihilistic science, for all the demonstrative proof we have of either.
Besides all this—and perhaps this was Strauss’s reason for his inability to reject revelation in the face of nihilism’s claims—Christianity allows room for hope. Even were we to accept Neumann’s nihilism in our heart of hearts, it is hardly a doctrine on which to base a political society.
Since all selection of principles to live by is presumably random anyway, then why not choose Winston Churchill’s option? In 1948, in Norway, Churchill said:
The flame of Christian ethics is still our best guide. Its animation and accomplishment is a practical necessity, both spiritually and materially. . . . The accomplishments of Christian ethics in our daily life is the final and greatest word which has ever been said. Only on this basis can we reconcile the rights of the individual with the demands of a society in a manner which alone can bring happiness and peace to humanity.
We must never allow room for that public despair which is so fatal to the existence of a political community. Such despair is at the heart of nihilism. After all, Churchill had seen nihilism’s abyss and rejected it. To him it was a peculiar secularized hell. The difference with Neumann’s nihilistic hell is that he inverts the old Christian notion. Rather than try to avoid the nihilist’s hell, one longs for its maw, and an existence of superfluity.
Neumann must be addressed. It is no use pretending that his ideas and their grounding in the reflections of his forefathers are not there; the potency of his ideas is far greater than the mere reveries he claims they are. Nihilism is knocking on the door of America. And once America’s proud spirit is extinguished, that last best hope of mankind, what remains?
– Paul A. Basinski
Graduate Assistant, Political Science
State University of New York, Buffalo
Harry Neumann’s Response
“Nihilism: Objections and Answers”
Since around 1980 I have defended nihilism in various publications. Here I want to state and answer objections by Basinski and others. First (I), nihilism’s meaning is given; then (II), the objections and my answers.
Nihilism means that nothing—and only nothing!—has an identity or nature, a being not subject to radical change at any moment. No natural or divine support exists to reinforce the common-sense faith that anything is more than nothing. Nothing is more than what it experiences or what is experienced about it. Nothing is more than empty experiences (thoughts, perceptions, feelings, etc.), impressions as Hume called them.
Nihilism is not solipsism nor does it make man the measure of all things. The nihilist “self” or “man” which experiences its “world” is itself no more than empty impressions. It too is nothing.
Objection: If nihilism is true, is it not itself another empty impression?
Objection: Is it not contradictory to say that nihilism is both true and yet nothing more than an arbitrary impression, a mere prejudice?
Objection: Does not this prove it false?
Answer: No. Any faith in anything’s being something rather than nothing, any desire to live rather than die, is self-contradictory. The self that it contradicts—anything’s true self!—is reality’s nothingness. Life in all its manifestations is, and must be, self-contradictory. Refusal to acknowledge its self-contradictory character is at the heart of all mankind’s self-delusions or prejudices, especially of all moral-political passions (“values”). Bigotry is unavoidable for men (or beasts) determined to be something, rather than nothing!
Objection: Why are empty experiences nothing? However arbitrary or meaningless they are, must there not be something or someone to experience them?
Answer: No. The faith that this or anything else must be so is itself nothing but another empty experience. This includes faith in any distinctions, including those between truth and falsity, right and wrong, arbitrary and non-arbitrary, freedom and slavery.
Objection: Then the claim that everything is nothing is itself nothing? The claim that everything is arbitrary impressions itself is arbitrary?
Answer: Yes—as well as any claim or desire to be or to do anything.
Objection: Does not your claim that nihilism is true require a nonarbitrary distinction between truth and falsity?
Answer: No. The gist of your objections implies that genuine communication and community is possible. It implies that the “we” who communicate and “things” communicated—including this exchange!—are more than nothing. In reality they are meaningless impressions, dreams whose dreamers are themselves dreams.
Objection: Why communicate then?
Answer: There is as little nonarbitrary reason to communicate as to do anything. All striving to do or be anything arises from a nihilist will to overpower nihilism, the will of nothing to be more than nothing. Like everything else that will is nothing.
Objection: What about science? philosophy? liberal education? moral excellence? civilization itself?
Answer: Genuinely liberal education liberates from the uplifting propaganda (“consciousness raising”) which makes those things, or anything else, appear to be more than empty impressions. That propaganda is a travesty of genuine education or science. The main goal of any truly academic philosopher should be to oppose the always-powerful, pseudo-academic forces spreading this propaganda.
Objection: Is your opposition to this propaganda, as you call it, more than nothing?
Objection: Then why oppose one nothing to another?
Answer: There is no more reason to do this than to do anything else. Any effort to be or do anything is self-contradictatory. In this universal aimlessness, “I” will to make “myself” and my “students” as aware as possible of the truth about “themselves” and their “world” or “worlds.” This always unwelcome confrontation seems to me to be the goal of any academic institution worthy of the name. I realize that this confrontation, genuine self-knowledge, is not immune to life’s basic nothingness. Yet it is preferable to the cowardly effort of pseudo-academics to bury themselves in established “disciplines” or “methodologies” and thus avoid confronting the harsh truth about themselves and their world.
Objection: Can anything be really preferable in a nihilist world?
Answer: No—nor more true or more real.
Objection: That means that any savage aware of reality’s void is, solely by virtue of this awareness, as scientific—as knowledgeable about reality—as an Aristotle, a Newton, or an Einstein?
Answer: Yes, even more knowledgeable if that savage realized, as they evidently did not, the impossibility of genuine communication—especially of scientific findings.
Objection: Is there no nonarbitrary reason for condemning a Gorbachev, a Hitler, or a Khomeini? Do such monsters really know as much about science or education as a Socrates or an Einstein?
Answer: No nonarbitrary reason exists for anything. Nobody’s moral-political passions (“values”) are more than empty prejudices. Strongly political or moral men use all available force and propaganda to discredit opposing prejudices (“values”). Life is a war of conflicting bigotries. Nothing is more bigoted—and thus more effective politically and morally—than the claim to want to be free of bigotry! The desire to obtain impartial, impersonal findings is either self-delusion or moral-political propaganda.
Objection: All this makes sense only if reality is nihilist. Perhaps it is, but why are you so sure? Why not be an agnostic instead of an atheist?
Answer: You touch the crucial point. Here the paths of men part. Either you believe (1) that nothing, including yourself, is more than what is experienced about it or (2) that things, including yourself, exist in themselves apart from what is experienced about them. To me, it is obvious that there are only experiences or impressions but no “things” or “beings” apart from experience. So far as I can see, neither side can “disprove” the other to the other’s satisfaction. Their conflict concerns what constitutes the first principle, the basic premise, of any proof about anything.
Objection: What is obvious to you denies common sense and is, as such, crazy.
Answer: Common sense and craziness, like anything else, are nothing but empty impressions. Your faith in their being more does not make it so.
Objection: Nor does your insistence on reducing them to nothing make it so! Don’t you freely admit that your insistence on that (or on anything else) is mere bigotry?
Objection: Even if nihilism is true, is it not wiser politically to publicly maintain a Christian condemnation of it?
Answer: Why Christianity? Like nihilism, Christianity and liberalism invite the same devaluation of political commitment in favor of private salvation however that salvation (happiness, “self-expression”) is interpreted. Both Christians and liberals experience themselves primarily as private individuals, not as patriotic citizens prepared to fight their enemies at home (civil war) and abroad. How can one hate the Russians and Chinese as enemies, if one sees them as children of the same god or as individuals endowed with the same rights as one’s self to life and liberty? Then one’s main concern is to have dialogues or business dealings or summit conferences or joint prayer to enlighten them about our common humanity—anything to avoid the harsh political decision to hate them as enemies! This encourages the popular Christian-liberal distinction between Russia’s leaders, who may be our enemies, and the Russian people who are, or ought to be, free individuals like ourselves and with whom we therefore have no quarrel.
Unlike Americans who are educated—that is, indoctrinated—to accept such distinctions as gospel truth, the Russians view them as effective propaganda ploys in their on-going war with America. Contrast the magnitude of American Christian-liberal protest against our wars in Vietnam or Central America with the lack of any effective Russian opposition to their wars in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1969), Poland and Afghanistan. Unless Afghans accept Russian rule, the Russians place no value on sharing a common humanity with them! For Russian policy is political, not Christian or liberal. Christian-liberal policies may bring victory in heaven or in wars against poverty. Insofar as anything is predictable in a nihilist world, they surely will bring political-that is, military-disaster.
In reality’s void, all choices are arbitrary. I choose to encourage political, rather than Christian-liberal, decisions by Americans. They should be educated to realize that their political enemies at home and abroad cannot be their private friends. If Russia is to be defeated, Americans must be taught to think politically, not privately.
The heart of politics is not prudent or pious calculation of private interest. Prudence is only a means to political ends. The heart of politics or morality is clear in General Spears’s description of the spirit informing Clemenceau’s life and death (Assignment to Catastrophe, Vol. II, p. 238). When the French forces were awaiting Ludendorff’s attack in 1918, they had left a large zone in front of their main line garrisoned by a few troops with orders to stand and die (in order to trick the Germans into believing that this was the main French force). Clemenceau visited the doomed troops.
He spoke to them in his gruff way, not minimizing the sacrifice being asked of them. Their fate would have been his had he had his way, and the men knew it. They said nothing but presented him with a bouquet of such wild flowers as grow on the parapets of trenches. . . . Clemenceau, who was the toughest, the hardest and perhaps the most cruel man I have ever met, who had but one love, France, sobbed. . . . When he died, that faded posy was found in his desk with the instruction that when he was buried standing, as was his wish, it should be placed over his heart.
– Department of Philosophy
A Reply to Harry Neumann
Neumann is a radical historicist. Unlike Nietzsche, he appears unconcerned with destroying “the protective atmosphere within which life or culture or action is alone possible” (Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 26).
Life or the truth, never both, said Nietzsche. Neumann asserts that he has chosen the truth—let life be damned. However, as his reply suggests, his deliberate acceptance and promotion of nihilism as a doctrine is itself a political activity, albeit one he chooses to couch in terms like arbitrary, meaningless, etc. By betraying his original purposeless or nihilistic intent, Neumann demonstrates how we all choose life, so long as the will to live is in us. Sadly, Neumann’s half-hearted nihilism cannot lead to a better or more moral existence. It leads to a plane where acts like shoving elderly women down stairs (as his teacher Schopenhauer did) or butchering innocent lives by the millions (his “bigoted” pseudo-nihilist Nazis), cannot be distinguished from one another.
Finally, Neumann’s assumption is incorrect that Christianity’s global piety devalues public commitment, making it less able to defend itself from aggression. As Clemenceau sent untold numbers to their death in 1918, so another pugnacious fighter, himself a Christian, was responsible for the deaths of thousands in World War II. But rather than suggest such slaughter was meaningless politics, Winston Churchill chose the protecting atmosphere that makes death in battle glorious, and shelters political society from the storm that half-hearted nihilists like Neumann might wish on it.
Churchill had a will to survive and never surrender, but reconciled this spiritedness with Christian compassion. It was this combination of piety and martial valor that informed Britain’s efforts in that island’s darkest hour. Churchill agreed, Nazism must be crushed, but: “I will not say without mercy, because God forbid we should ever part company with that—but at any rate with zeal and not altogether without relish” (Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour, p. 50). (One last note. The volume of Spears that Neumann cites is, in fact, dedicated to Winston Churchill.)
Harry Neumann’s Rejoinder
No man can avoid nihilism or be a half-hearted nihilist. Everything (including all moral-political dreams) is nothing but empty impressions. Our only difference is Basinski’s need, shared by most Christian-liberal academics, to hide his nihilist nakedness behind “the protective atmosphere” of humanitarian fig leaves. I prefer Kierkegaard’s frank admission that Christian faith in salvation from reality’s nothingness is a desperate leap into the impossible! In any case, the need for those fig leaves is as arbitrary as anything else. Liberal education is the always-repellent effort at liberation from that need. Intellectual honesty is as unwelcome and probably as impossible as Kierkegaard’s faith.
Life is a war of conflicting faiths or prejudices. Its inherent bigotry is compounded by the illusion that one’s political or academic cause really promotes “a better or more moral existence.” Such claims are either self-delusion or propaganda.
If one subtracts Basinski’s need for those fig leaves, we are not so opposed. Like my nihilism, his Christianity or liberalism devalues American resolve to win the war against Russia (like most professors, Basinski never mentions that war) Churchill noted (The Gathering Storm, p. 321) that Chamberlain’s Christian abhorrence of war encouraged Great Britain’s decay into the mini-Britain of appeasement and Munich: “It is baffling to reflect that what men call honor does not correspond always to Christian ethics.”
For Christians or liberals, war is honorable only when it does not hamper personal salvation (contrast Matthew 16:26 with Psalm 137) or when it is a war to end all wars. To paraphrase Machiavelli: However patriotic they may seem, they actually love their souls (or selves) more than their fatherland (consider Rousseau’s Social Contract, IV:8, “On Civil Religion” and Nietzsche’s Antichrist, 57-62). Patriotic nihilists, on the other hand, are permeated by the realization that nothing in heaven or on earth except their own desperate resolve sustains their patriotism. It was in tribute to this resolve that Clemenceau’s heart was covered with that faded bouquet, not with a Christian cross or a humanitarian manifesto.
Natural Right and America’s Future
To the Editors:
In the March 22, 1985, issue of National Review, Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College published an article entitled “Is Conservatism Un-American?” Kesler pointed out that many otherwise patriotic conservatives hold a low opinion of the principles on which the United States was founded. This is especially true, Kesler showed, among what is probably the most serious group of conservative intellectuals today, the students of the late Leo Strauss and those influenced by them, such as Irving Kristol and George Will.
One of Strauss’s most highly reputed students, Joseph Cropsey, associated himself with this disparaging view of America ten years ago in his “The United States as Regime and the Sources of the American Way of Life” (delivered at the American Political Science Association meeting in 1975 and printed in his Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics, University of Chicago Press, 1977). Since then a number of Chicago students, most notably Thomas Pangle, have come forth with morally similar accounts of America’s principles.
Now from a new generation of Chicago Ph.D.s, Gregory Smith joins the chorus, although it may be, and I hope, that he did not quite intend to do so. The occasion was his review of Four Texts on Socrates, translated by Grace West and myself, in the last issue of The Claremont Review of Books (Summer 1985). This review was actually a discussion of “the crisis of the West,” taking the first few pages of my Introduction to Four Texts as its point of departure.
My response to Smith, then, is also directed toward those more prominent intellectuals mentioned above, insofar as their understanding is shared by Smith. And I think, on the main questions, his views generally reflect theirs.
Smith argues that the crisis of our time lies in the collapse of all ancient traditions. He sympathetically recounts the arguments of Nietzsche and Heidegger that Socratic rationalism is somehow responsible for this collapse (although in his brief remarks on Leo Strauss, Smith wavers). Accordingly, Smith rejects my suggestion (in Four Texts, pp.9-12) that a return to Socratic political philosophy may help us find our way out of the current crisis.
Perhaps the most abstract aspect of Smith’s very abstract account is its silence on America and the Soviet Union. Where does Smith think he lives? He complains that I lack the citizen’s perspective, but he writes as though he were a citizen of “the West”—not the actual political community of the United States. Thus his discussion of the crisis of our age attempts to go to its theoretical root, but he neglects its most obvious practical manifestation: the enormous growth of Soviet power and the threat of a homogeneous world state run by ideological thugs. A Marxist state, hostile in its root principle to the very idea of eternity, would seek out and attempt to snuff out the last vestiges of philosophy, man’s reasoning quest for transcendent truth.
If it is true (and I for one think it is obvious) that America is the strongest and healthiest country in the West today—probably its last best hope—then some attention ought to be paid to how America is to be kept strong. It will not do to pass it by disdainfully, like Nietzsche and other romantics, complaining (by implication) that America’s principles foster the passion for gain “to the point of blinding intoxication.” Our commercialism was the price willingly paid by the Founders to establish a free country whose people would not be beholden to tyrant priests or haughty aristocrats. And our country does foster honorable virtues. From the beginning young men have generously dared to fight and die for their native land, most recently in the Vietnam War, so shamefully lost by our self-doubting politicians. In Federalist No. 57, Madison spoke of “the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America-a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.” That spirit is not yet dead in the American people, whatever may be the case with our intellectual and political elites.
Given the basic decency of America, should not the crisis of our time be addressed most immediately by a commitment to defend America against her foreign enemies and to revive within its citizens and rulers a dedication to the principles that made her great? Foremost among those principles are the truths of the Declaration of Independence, “the father of all moral principle” in us (Abraham Lincoln), based on the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And these natural laws, in turn, are discoveries of political philosophy.
Smith’s attack on my account of Socrates amounts to an attack on the idea of natural law and natural right—the ultimate basis of the American regime, according to the Declaration and the Framers of the Constitution. Socrates originated political philosophy by bringing philosophy down from the heavens and forcing it to inquire about right and wrong in the households and cities of men. Socratic political philosophy tries to discover standards of right which are true everywhere and always and which enable us to know what the good society is. The aim is to guide political life by genuine standards of right, replacing the false standards of unjust tradition or of willful despotism. Thus America’s Founders thought they were getting rid of the baneful remnants of feudalism and establishing a just society on a truly rational basis.
But Smith doubts that political life can be based on any transcendent “guiding star” discovered by reason. Instead, “the political community must take its bearings ‘internally’ if it is to remain political.” It needs “ancient traditions” that belong to it alone, not Socratic, nature—grounded right whose authority comes from philosophic reason rather than from tradition, and which transcends all particular communities. Socratic natural right, Smith implies, is dangerous or ineffectual insofar as it points to the philosophic life of inquiry as the highest end of the community, since that life lies completely beyond the ken of the ordinary citizen.
But is the philosophic life completely trans-political? Here again Smith betrays his abstract stance. Plato’s unforgettable portrayal of the life of reason in the person of Socrates is accessible to any intelligent reader. Cicero’s Roman repetition of Plato’s project confirms that the philosophic life can be an object of reverence and aspiration for the most patriotic citizens and statesmen. Closer to our own time we have Churchill’s frequently repeated sentiments of respect for the life of the mind and Lincoln’s Virgil-like encomium to the philosophic farmer in his Wisconsin State Fair address of 1859.
It is true, as Smith says, that the crisis of our time lies in the collapse of ancient traditions. But this is not precise enough. The traditions of the West are especially those of reason and revelation. “Men have forgotten God” (see Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton address, National Review, July 22, 1983) in our time in two senses: The God we know through Biblical revelation is disbelieved no less than nature’s God discovered by philosophy. Few educated men today would endorse John Quincy Adams’s beautiful gloss on the Declaration of Independence: “All this, is by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon men, preceding all institutions of human society and government.”
Our problem, then, is not that Socratic philosophy has destroyed pre-philosophic traditions, as Smith, following Nietzsche, seems to say. It is that the very idea of political philosophy has come to be discredited by positivism and by the historicism of such men as Nietzsche and Heidegger. If the survival of the West depends on the revival of America, then it also depends on the recovery of the natural-right basis of our political community. This means not only natural right in the narrowly Lockean sense, but especially that classical natural right stemming from Socrates which points to a government that represents all the people (not just the rich, the poor, the wellborn, or the intellectuals) and governs under law with a view to justice and the general good.
Gregory Smith and some other students of Strauss’s work run the risk of that “self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism” (The City and Man, p. 1) which Strauss fought against as long as he lived. While the Soviet Union continues the most tremendous arms build-up in recorded history, Smith celebrates the intellectual “joy and exhilaration” of our age in which all ancient traditions are crumbling. While he casually rejects the American traditions of Christianity and natural right—probably the last vital traditions of the West—he speculates idly about how the political community can generate a new authoritative convention from within and about the need to unleash on the world a new political order frankly based on the passion for honor and glory. How such a regime would extricate us from the relativistic and destructive self-indulgence of our time he fails to say.
Of course nature, sooner or later, always exacts her just punishment against those who fail to follow her guidance. America’s conservative and liberal discredited, if they continue to be successful, will eventually be squashed by the victorious Soviet empire. Unfortunately, the Soviet steamroller will also crush the rest of us as it rolls over them. I fear this will happen long before Smith and his friends’ deceitful dream of a New Nobility ever takes root.
– Thomas G. West
University of Dallas
Natural Right and the Future
I must confess that I had heard rumors that a rift among Straussians had developed, although I had been unclear as to precisely where the lines of battle were being drawn. Hence I must thank Thomas West, in his rejoinder to my “Socrates and Political Philosophy,” for having tried to show me my place within this debate and thereby help me understand the import of those arguments I have made, “without quite noticing it.” However, I must also confess that I do not think that taking sides on this internecine squabble within a school of philosophy involves us in one of the more pressing moral or intellectual issues of our day. Nonetheless, lurking somewhere in this “confrontation” is the question of whether we have a genuine commitment to political philosophy, and thereby philosophy as well, as an end in itself, and whether we can differentiate it from mere propaganda and ideology. In short, can we tell the difference between philosophy and politics, a distinction, I might add, that was at the heart of Leo Strauss’s recovery of political philosophy. Furthermore, that we preserve the possibility of that which is highest and best in man, his nobility and openness to the truth, is what is at issue in our time. These are issues of some considerable importance.
It is because of these more substantial issues that it seems necessary to respond to West’s remarks. It would appear that West has heeded the advice of Nietzsche, via a quote of Stendhal, that one should always enter society via a duel. Having had one thrust upon me, we both being noble and honorable men, I assume the choice of weapons is mine. However, I have had difficulty deciding which would be more appropriate, rapiers or sledge-hammers, so perhaps a judicious alternation of the two is in order. In that vein, I must observe that when West got through hammering me, I no longer recognized myself in the resulting caricature. He was so intent upon taking a shot at what he saw as certain undesirable Straussians that his sights lined up on a straw man.
My response has been complicated by the fact that West’s reply arrived a week before our remarks had to go to the publisher, and then he made several late changes after my first draft was completed. Those changes removed arguments that I think brought his position into sharper focus. Therefore, I will continue to respond to a few of those earlier remarks as well as to the final draft. I do not think this is unfair, since in each case the issues I will discuss remain implicit in what is said here. Also, before beginning, I must observe that, given the occasion, West’s remarks about Professors Joseph Cropsey and Thomas Pangle seem somewhat gratuitous. I respect both of them immensely, but since I cannot know if they endorse anything I have said or will say it should be stressed that in what follows I speak only for myself.
West accuses me of abstractness, blindness to the eternal, and indifference to the tradition of natural right and its defense, to say nothing of impugning my patriotism and morals as well as my knowledge of geography. First, I would remind West that it was I who proposed “nature” as a standard for judging political life. And in doing so I observed that it was more applicable to the horizon of practice than holding up philosophy or, more to the point, some facsimile of philosophy as a standard. This is especially true in our time, a time in which politics has become ideological precisely because it is already all too infected with public manifestations of philosophy. And I was explicit that the “great-souled” man, one of the peaks of Aristotelian natural right, was an example of what I had in mind, and I assume that the “great-souled” man is not dissimilar to Plato’s “spirited man.” In short, I proposed a recovery of one of the important ideas that was at the core of the Western Natural Right Tradition. West is, however, curiously silent about Aristotle, and Plato for that matter, attributing my remarks about nobility to Nietzsche instead. This is indeed curious in light of the explicit reference that I made. West seems instead to dub Socrates as the father of the Natural Right Tradition. The sense in which this is true would have to be elaborated. Although, for example, Strauss did say that Socrates was the father of political philosophy, it is not clear that political philosophy is identical to natural right. I cannot pursue that issue now, but I would remind West that what Socrates, as opposed to the more moderate Plato, was primarily famous for was being a spokesman for that radical questioning of one’s own in the quest for what is best, whether it is one’s own or not. The reason for this was that he believed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Those who had undertaken this regimen of examination were clearly higher and more noble. Hence Socrates concluded that there was a hierarchy of human types. This is perhaps what makes him a natural right theorist, but it is also what makes him less
than useful to West.
West asserts that what is needed in our time is “the recovery of the natural right basis of our regime.” He asserts that this is to be found not merely in Locke, but in Socrates as well. West would have us believe that one can accomplish an amalgamation of the Lockean modern natural right tradition with Socratic questioning. I fail to see how, especially since that modern natural right tradition rejects the existence of a natural hierarchy of spiritual types in favor of a regime based on the consent of equals. Be this as it may, I take it that no one would doubt that Aristotle is firmly within the original natural right tradition and that the moral peaks of his practical teaching, the great-souled man and the man of practical wisdom, have been written out of the universe of Hobbes and Locke; hence, no serious theoretical synthesis of Hobbes, Locke, and Aristotle is possible. I suspect this is equally true in regard to Socrates, but at least we have a reason for West’s silence on Aristotle. I am inclined to conclude, therefore, that what West really intends is that we primarily defend as our own that natural right teaching that emanates from Hobbes and Locke, the modern natural right position. But it was Leo Strauss who taught that it was this modern version of natural right that caused the crisis of natural right, and led necessarily to historicism as a corrective for the problems it introduced. Hence it is this modern version of natural right that gave birth to that understanding which rejects the existence of natural right altogether. So I cannot help but ask, who is the clearer proponent of the natural right tradition, and thereby its best defender?
Furthermore, the Socrates that West praises is the same Socrates who put philosophy forward as the best way of life, despite the old saw that he brought philosophy down from the heavens. That “lowering of the sights” did not make Socrates a patriot or a citizen in West’s sense. What was at issue was only the beginning point for philosophy; the opinions of men about things, versus the attempt to grasp the whole in one leap in the mode of Parmenides and Heraclitus. What Socratic philosophy does, in the examples we have from the Platonic dialogues, is ruthlessly question all received opinion in favor of the truth that transcends that opinion. Yet in the name of Socrates, West derides as “self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism” my substantially more temperate celebration of the intellectual “joy and exhilaration” of thought as an end in itself. Who is the better Socratic?
I began my remarks by conjoining the observation that it is intellectually exhilarating that in our time all of the important questions were again open and available to us, with the observation that this was necessarily linked with our moral and political confusion, our practical crisis. By doing so I intended to stress that politics and philosophy are not the same, and that their interests are not entirely identical. I presume it is from Strauss that I learned that this observation was at the heart of the classical natural right tradition. I also intended to make the equally general observation that without taking cognizance of this fact no lasting solution to the crisis of our time will be available. A politics that destroys one of the highest possibilities of man is not decent. A philosophy that is indifferent to the moral and political crisis all around it is not wise. I certainly never expected as a result of these general and rather formal remarks to be accused of being an opponent of America and of the natural right tradition.
I would remind West that every intellectual issue we discuss is not an immediate excuse for a diatribe about Soviet-American relations. Furthermore, that the United States is confronted by the Soviet Union is not the necessary practical ramification of the crisis of our times as West asserts. All great nations have enemies. And as Leo Strauss observed, the United States and the West could go down to defeat without proving that they were in the grips of a moral and intellectual crisis. The crisis of our time is that we have become confused as to what we should stand for, and we are in danger of losing sight of what is worth fighting for.
Further, while accusing me of being a romantic, West waxes poetic in the praise of “the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America.” In his previous draft, in a phrase which I think gets to the heart of what West has on his mind, he claims that I would realize that this spirit still exists, and that America already has all the virtues it needs, if only I would come and visit the “provinces” where he resides. But I have reason to believe that West’s neighbors are either urbanites or suburbanites, and his students primarily children of the middle or upper-middle class the same as mine, and that they are every bit as caught up in the ethic of the “yuppie” as are my neighbors and the students I have had in Chicago and Philadelphia. And in that unrepentant materialism, I find no cause for delight, and no reason to wax poetic. Which of us is really the romantic?
Perhaps what is really at issue is that, following Aristotle, West believes that while one must take note of the ideal that human beings can attain, he must also temper that understanding according to the situation. I quite agree. But I do not think that West properly grasps the situation that confronts us. This situation requires more than the justification of the moral status quo that West seems to be the spokesman for. It is precisely now that we must help our citizens recall a higher vision of the moral and spiritual peaks in order to temper their reigning intoxication. And we must reground the spiritedness and moral tenacity that seem, despite a certain momentary revival, to be so tenuous.
From where I stand, our country as a whole, indeed our entire planet, is and will continue to become more secular, cosmopolitan, and urbanized. Whatever provinces that remain in twenty years will be as dominated by the effects of an ever-increasing standard of living; an increasing amount of leisure time without ends to pursue; the cosmopolitanizing influences of the national news media, television, and movies; and national, indeed international, fashions and fads as are those who presently live in our cities. In deciding what prescription is required if we are to even maintain what spiritual health we have, we must be aware, in a way West does not demonstrate that he is, of the unprecedented features of the real world in which we are living. West is correct: what is primarily at issue is, in fact, which one of us knows what country he is really living in.
West seems intent upon keeping from us the news that “God is dead.” Unfortunately, the word has leaked out. Only in a serious confrontation with what is implied in that phrase—i.e., that belief in the eternal and transcendent has been shattered—can we expect a moral revival. Precisely because we must confront the stultification of the spirit that universal Soviet Marxism would imply, we must generate the spiritedness and moral strength that will allow the United States to represent something spiritually higher, and not merely something physically more comfortable. A simple praise of intoxication with comfortable self-preservation, and that is what I see America preeminently committed to at this juncture, is not the ground from which moral tenacity and spiritedness are born. If we do not stir the hearts and minds of our most noble young spirits, if we lose their commitment and spiritual energy, the defense of America will become impossible. In modern fashion, West seems willing to build his defenses in a low but sturdy valley; I prefer to build my fortifications on higher ground. And on that higher ground spirited conviction and moral and political tenacity will have to grow out of an investigation of root phenomena, not the rather crude patriotism and ambiguous espousal of natural right that West proposes.
What virtue there is that still remains in the fabric of American life is a residue of the past, of a social, economic, intellectual, and moral world that has substantially collapsed and will not be reborn. Those residual virtues that Tocqueville advised us to defend at all cost have become but vague shadows. We must find a new ground for them, not take their existence for granted. Those virtues which West seems to value most in American life, at the very least which I value most, are slipping away from us, and without a serious spiritual revival drawn from serious philosophical roots, they will not survive the onslaught of the technological age which is destined to remain with us for an extended period, in intensified form. And without a regeneration of those virtues that sustain American political life, our regime will continue its slide into a privatized self-indulgence that will generate no moral tenacity whatsoever in the face of the Soviet Union. It is sheer moral myopia not to realize that moral and spiritual life in the modern world needs a new foundation. In a blind patriotic commitment to the status quo, everything worth loving and cherishing in America will crumble, perhaps in our lifetime. West’s tunnel vision that sees the entire crisis of our time in the Soviet-American confrontation, which, needless to say, must be taken seriously, will never confront the true root causes of our crisis. All of us cannot be publicists and bully-pulpit patriots. It is valuable that some of us turn our gaze toward matters which on the surface do not seem to West to address important questions, but nonetheless help illuminate the root causes of our contemporary lostness and confusion. To have our patriotism, religious beliefs, morals, and intellects questioned for following that higher patriotism is a just cause for considerable resentment and indignation.
With this said, let me elaborate upon what I admit was a potentially confusing locution. In my initial remarks, I said that politics must take its standards “internally.” By that phrase, I did not intend to imply the impossibility of transcendence nor of any openness to eternity. I intended only to stress that man must cease to take his political standards from “externally” imposed theoretical projects for the transformation of the human condition. My intention was to argue that internal to political life itself one can find standards of the noble and base, the higher and the lower, and that these standards represent a surer guide than those external projects that promise the amelioration of the human condition. The failure to recognize the difference between politics and philosophy is precisely what makes the philosophers prone to “will” their own projects for humanity. And West’s espousal of grounding the city in light of the standard of philosophy, is separated from this modern approach by only the finest of lines. In this vein, let me agree with West that nature “always exacts her just punishment against those who fail to follow her guidance.” But let me remind West that nature and the Soviet Union are two different things; indeed nature does not need the Soviet Union to get its revenge. It will revenge itself against those who refuse to be open to that noble striving in man that finds manifestation in both philosophy and the “great-souled” or “spirited” man. And nature will revenge itself, through internal moral collapse, against those regimes blind or hostile to that noble longing. If this observation is “self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism,” then it is a romanticism I share with Aristotle and Plato, and that is company I am more than happy to keep.
Hence, as a practical matter, in the interim, I find no better place to begin than to manumit those natural spiritual longings of which I have spoken, and again recognize the natural hierarchy among spiritual types that was at the core of the original natural right tradition. To me, this is far more concrete than the continued truncation, suppression, and attempted transformation of the full range of human possibilities which lies at the heart of the modern natural right tradition’s attempt to transform existence on the basis of a philosopher’s idea, which led to the even more violent projects for human transformation that followed. Who is more abstract, who is more concrete?
It is through liberating, albeit not without tutelage, the natural hierarchy of human strivings, rather than in suppressing them, that the natural perspective of the city will be allowed to come to light. In other words, in our time, our task is the at least partial recovery of political man, not another justification of economic man, for in deciding which side of the eternal political equation to stress, we must always look to the major vice of the time, and in our time that is the increasingly untempered pursuit of gain, conjoined with an almost unlimited commitment to the technological domination of nature. I have no desire whatsoever to overthrow our commercial republic, but without a new ground for the virtues it needs to survive, it will self-destruct.
Within the perspective of a more natural city, philosophy will be able to take care of itself. Unlike West, I agree with what I take to be the conclusion of both Plato and Aristotle, that it is in the city ruled by the naturally best, the noble, that philosophy is most esteemed, not in the one ruled by rustics and provincials, nor for that matter in the one ruled by the materialistic and self-indulgent. It is also in this city that the true religious pathos can come to light, that pathos that is so radically foreign to the modern tradition of Natural Right—e.g., it is as foreign to Locke as any other philosopher I can think of, and that observation includes especially Nietzsche. It is through recapturing, to some degree, this city of which I have spoken so briefly and I admit vaguely, that a genuine openness to eternity can again become a living possibility, not in the one I hear West praising.
– Gregory B. Smith
University of Pennsylvania