Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Leave it to the historians

Usually I object when appeals are made to History as if it were some modern substitute for Divine Providence -- though "the dustbin of history" has a nice ring to it. However, I heartily echo Mark Steyn when he says " Who screwed up worst should have been left to the historians, which means when the war is over." He is of course speaking of the war on terror, and the current fascination (9/11 commission, etc.) with pointing fingeres. Lots of good zingers in this article as ever with Steyn:


But the real clincher is this:

"somehow the entire landscape of U.S. politics has tilted so that a nation supposedly at war is spending most of its time looking through the rear window sniping about what was said and done in 2002, 2001, 2000, like the falling calendar leaves in a Hollywood flashback. . . . By way of comparison, in 1940, when Neville Chamberlain resigned as Britain's prime minister, his successor Winston Churchill asked him to stay on as leader of the Conservative Party and to remain in the Cabinet. Chamberlain did so, serving loyally under Churchill until cancer forced him from office. . . . The point is even Chamberlain wasn't Chamberlain when he died: Posterity had yet to chisel him the one-word epitaph "Appeaser." And neither side of the appeasement debate thought it worth spending the 1940s arguing about the 1930s: There were other priorities."

Who, today, is focusing on the problems we will confront in the future, perhaps the immediate future? Who, for instance, in asking "Where are the WMD?", rather than saying this as a rhetorical partisan snipe, actually means what any sane person should mean: given that we know Saddam had WMD, and given that they are either a) destroyed God knows how or when, or b) still around and in the possession of God knows whom -- which one is it? The first would be reason to rejoice, not to blame anyone (since if Saddam had destroyed them he sure kept that a secret). The second should be very, very alarming, and only means in retrospect we should have gone in sooner and with less warning. But who is talking about this?

I for one am hearing otherwise sensible people say they're going to vote for Kerry because they fear Bush is incompetent. When I ask what they mean it turns out Bush is less than perfect. No kidding. How is Kerry going to improve things? No answer forthcoming. Nitpicking has replaced genuine thought among far too sizable a crowd. Unless one truly believes that greater deference to slimy bureaucrats and dictators' human rights councils is going to solve the problem of global jihad (and this, though insane, would be refreshing to hear at least insofar as it would address the issues!) then what the heck are we so dazed about?

To shirk my own advice for a moment, I have to wonder sometimes whether the listless state of the electorate that permits such waffling during times of crisis is not somewhat attributable to Bush, since were he a rousing leader under these conditions windbags like Kerry would have no chance of emerging at all. But perhaps the dynamics are such that a) few people are politically conscious enough to have a clue what Kerry is, b) when they see this they will run away screaming. That is my current prayer, anyhow.

But it truly amazes me how inoculated people can be from the threats that face us as a country. Most people I talk to have any priority you can imagine other than doing what it takes to secure our liberties for longer than five minutes into the future. Will it really take another 9/11 to knock some sense into us? Not only would that be horrific in itself, it probably would not knock *sense into us, but raging anger. This is no time to fall back asleep . . . .

Monday, July 26, 2004

Comedians of the Future

Hello netizens! Sorry to be silent so long, I am not yet a full-time blogger and that's just the way it is for now. At least I am sparing you my half-distracted thoughts until such time as I delude myself that I have somethig better to say.

For now I recommend once more the beautiful and good David Warren, who weighs in with another brilliant piece:


There are a number of wonderful observations here, surrounding complaints about Arnold Schwartzenegger's latest remarks. A lot of pertinent and humorous thoughts about the principals and the state of manhood in general, but the best reflection of all was this:

"The trend in political life, especially on social questions over the last few years, has been towards prescriptions and policies that would be too easily mocked, if mockery were allowed. The livid, frothing, hysterical response to the person who makes a joke, or the person who laughs at it, is a necessary means of advancing causes that are, frankly, insane."

This goes back to Aristophanes, who reveals that certain political ideals (such as equality) if taken to their "logical" conclusions, are mad. Plato seems to have one-upped him by declaring that to be true of politics in general. However, one must certainly agree that today we are being far too generous in supplying material to the comedians of the future.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Man is a Mean between Monkey and Milksop

I heartily recommend a couple pieces on the loss of masculine virtue:



My own two cents: manliness or spiritedness presupposes a moral order, something to fight for as the second author mentions towards the end. The passion w/o the higher purpose is "barbaric" and the lack of purpose justifies the squeamishness of "wimps". Instead of a moral order we have a blind focus on equality (hence androgeny, among other symptoms), and equality taken to this extreme is anti-order; hence the results should not be surprising. Only the monkeys still have chests, except, apparently, in Texas.

No wonder our gliberal elite hates the president so . . . .

Monday, July 19, 2004

The Future of Civilization

As usual David Warren has an intelligent (if less than happy) take on things, in this case the state of civilization:


The upshot:

[quote]The central accomplishment of modernity was making high culture available to people of almost all degrees. Its central risk was the abandonment of the elitism that sustained high culture . . . And what we are now experiencing, in post-modernity, is the peasants' revenge; . . . a universal degradation of standards that has fitfully progressed through much more than a century -- the dying away, at every level of society, of the ability to sustain high culture, and with it, the ability to fight ignorance. With that loss comes the loss of freedom, not for some, but for all.[/quote]

As Allan Bloom argued in The Closing of the American Mind, our principled openness to everything is our closedness to the possibility of truth and greatness. This argument goes back to Tocqueville ([url]http://tinyurl.com/4kdwr[/url/, [url]http://tinyurl.com/6rc6d[/url]) and is of particular interest to me. Tocqueville's "solution" was multi-faceted but involved a certain "retreat" on the cultural front and preservation of learning among a very few: [url]http://tinyurl.com/5ntjk[/url]. Is this best, or must we seek a general solution?

Leo-Cons After All?


A very interesting article by Thomas West purporting to give a critique of the neoconservatism of William Kristol and Robert Kagan from the perspective of Leo Strauss and the American Founding. One thing that's really interesting about this is the way West blends these last two positions. Strauss, with Plato (and considering nuances by Aristotle and Thucydides), held that foreign policy should involve "ruthless selfishness for an elevated end: the noble and good life of the citizens." Such "ruthlessness" would be limited in its application, since the good city has relatively few needs and the good citizen is disposed to be lawful or just even in relation to other cities. But clearly Plato at any rate thought the foundations of the city (if nothing else) had to rest in what would appear to the good citizen to be injustice: hence the need for a "noble lie" about one's relation to the territory one inhabits.

On the issue of Iraq and American imperialism, which West wants to flesh out here, it's vital to see that expansionism for its own sake is neither compatible with a good citizenry nor productive of the kind of stability which is the immediate purpose of a "natural right" (ruthlessly elevated) foreign policy. Thus in the final analysis, West thinks, there is generally no difference between the demands of this classical view and the modern, natural law view according to which " There is . . . no right of one nation to conquer or interfere in the affairs of any other nation, except to the extent required for self-preservation." " The natural law obligates a nation to respect 'the rights of humanity' in other nations", but Socrates preferred to do something like this anyhow. So "the [American] founders' anti-imperialist [natural law] conception of foreign policy remains fully comprehensible and defensible in terms of Strauss's account of classical political philosophy."

West brings these points to bear against the neo-cons. The natural law "obligates a nation's government to secure the lives, liberties, and estates of its own citizens. It does not authorize government to sacrifice its own citizens for the sake of other nations' citizens." It is therefore as indifferent to the plight of other nations per se as the classical view. In response to Kristol and Kagan's call to fight monsters overseas, West replies that "Strauss and the classics, together with John Quincy Adams, would admit that there always will be many monsters abroad in the world, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts' content. It is not the obligation of one nation to solve other nations' problems, no matter how heartbreaking. For the founders, that would be to violate the fundamental terms of the social compact. For Strauss and the classics, that would be a distraction from the highest purpose of politics, self-improvement through the right domestic policy."

Two things about this critique leave me skeptical. First, West does not end up distancing himself very far from K&K, when it comes to practical imperatives. Rather than calling for democracy in Iraq, West urges us to "help Iraqis to set up a government which is likely to have at least some stability and decency, and which is unlikely to turn against America in the near future." Is that so much less than the neo-cons want? I have reasons to doubt this. At least when it comes to Irving Kristol, Bill's dad, the neo-cons are clear that modern liberal democracy is a relative, not an absolute standard. It is the best available regime here and now, not the best ever. It is to be promoted for the sake of fostering that kind of framework for virtue or excellence (natural right) that is viable today -- if I understand them correctly. Therefore it seems a little less pie-in-the-sky than many of its critics believe. I'm not sure if West's formulation of what is in our interests is that far off from what K&K are saying, or at least what they should say to be self-consistent.

There's also a place where West's argument seems a bit thin. Why does natural law limit itself to the interests of one's own city? West admits that even the classical view holds that citizens (as opposed -- and opposed more in principle than in practice -- to Socrates) will look at foreign affairs in terms of law or justice. If they are bound to be disappointed, fine. If neo-cons do not see this, why would they reject the UN? Its raison d'etre is the idea that law can be institutionalized internationally. All the thinkers invoked here would see this for the pipe dream that it is. But if the classics hold that a) virtue or excellence is the primary goal of politics, and b) the good citizen is concerned about the justice of foreign affairs, then does it not follow that it is problematic for American foreign policy "to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts' content, as Americans stand by and watch", as K&K say?

This would depend on what it means to be a good citizen in America, seen in light of what it means to be a good citizen (and good man) period. Here one would have to unpack West's conflation of natural right with natural law, and of Lockean natural law with natural law simply (going back, in robust theoretical form, to Aquinas). This is a tall order and I have neither the time nor the capacity at present to sort this out. I can only give a description of a vague impression currently floating in my mind.

My impression is that the Lockean or modern strand of "natural law" theory that is such a heavy influence on the American regime is also based on a sort of "natural right" but not one directed at human excellence; rather one directed at self-preservation and the liberation of desire. This is reflected in an ambiguity in West's presentation of the Founders -- is their primary interest "the rights of humanity" or "the lives, liberties, and estates of [their] own citizens"? The former seems to be in service to the latter. But this means that justice is invoked mainly as a way of preserving the natural individuality, selfishness, and acquisitiveness of man. Interesting, though, that the more successful forms of modernity would have to cloak themselves in a much more noble-sounding formulation!

One thing West does not mention about classical natural right is that its highest manifestation -- Socrates -- is anything but the natural man presupposed by Lockean natural law. He (Socrates) is a paradox and a half, and is puzzling in many respects, including in this one: while being "ruthlessly selfish" as West puts it, his "selfish" concern is to understand the whole and its organizing principle, the good. In doing so he fulfills himself, but he fulfills himself precisely by overcoming (and totally despising) his individuality and being absorbed in what is beyond his fleeting particularity. In other words among other things he transcends self-preservation (which is not to say that he does not bother to preserve himself).

I could go on, but the upshot of my understanding of these things, rough as it is, is that the Socratic influence (classical political thought) can dispense with neither side of the paradox. Socratically influenced citizenship can neither be about some Kantian categorical imperative to act justly throughout the world regardless of our interests, nor can it rest satisfied with one's own preservation and private virtue abstracted from one's relationship to all other human beings. Granted, in a world defined by the polis (the city understood as for the most part being politically, socially, religiously, economically, etc. independent) it is easily possible to have an expansive soul without being concerned for what is happening half way around the world. But after Christianity no successful moral view has based itself on anything so narrow as one city or even nation (those that tried include fascist Italy and Nazi Germany . . . . ). America least of all, since it is rooted not only (way back) in certain strains of Christianity, but also in "the rights of humanity".

Given all this, consider once more the neo-cons, who with their "hard" Wilsonianism seem to hold that good American citizens, who believe in "the rights of humanity", should want to promote those rights whenever and in whatever way it is feasible. Is this not simply an attempt to find some expansive account of citizenship here and now, however limited and difficult that may be? If so, would such a thing be better or worse than West's principle, help yourself and do no harm to others?

The latter sounds to me a bit more like the philosopher than the citizen. Is is just possible, I think, that the neo-cons are being more classical here and West is being more modern or "progressive", inasmuch as the former are asking what it would mean to cultivate virtue or greatness here and now, which does not necessarily result in strictly philosophic political positions (or total agreement with our Founders), while West seems friendlier to the union of philosophy and politics, including its precondition of making politics less grand and more selfish so as to better secure the end of self-preservation.

Of course, this opens up many cans of worms. And this is enough fishing for one morning. I will continue this later if worthy thoughts arise.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Ficton/Non-Fiction Fixation

My friend Phil has a good defense of nonfiction.
Near the end he says, "But what are the correct lines between fiction and non-fiction? Or, is the error in looking at the differences of these two, and not considering the broader issues?"
I like this suggestion; it reminds me of a particular connection across genres and eras that really tickles my fancy.  In my off-hours reading last year I found a thread in Xenophon's Memorabilia that shed some light on an issue arising in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (with ramifications far beyond).
(I am not the first to draw a connection between these two authors; the great political philosopher Leo Strauss remarked their similarity in writing styles, and Allan Bloom develops this point in his essay on P&P.  The key to both of them is irony and its uses, as you'll soon see.)
The issue in P&P concerns Mr Bennet, the paterfamilias whose wit graces the first chapter of the novel, and many that follow.  Mr Bennet has five daughters and a wife, all of whom, by his own admission, are fools, excepting the eldest daughter Elizabeth.  She shares his native intelligence and insight into human character.  Mr Bennet mainly displays these qualities by mocking his family with barely disguised irony; Elizabeth on the other hand is more kindly when she can be, though she endures the vices of others more easily by being able to laugh at them.
Elizabeth's greater concern for the affairs of the world is understandable, since she and her sisters stand to inherent practically nothing and must all be married off, but her family has little standing in society.  The central concern of the novel is the romance that develops between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, one of England's richest and most respected bachelors, whose marriage proposal she turns down because he had insulted her family.  As events instruct her (especially her sister eloping with a coxcomb) she begins to realize the validity of Darcy's complaints, and she reflects on the limitations of her family, including Mr Bennet.
Her specific criticism of him is revealing.  Mr Bennet fancies himself something of a philosopher; his greatest wish is for the peace and quiet of his study; his chief pleasure is to share in mockery of others' follies with his only sensible daughter.  He revels in his own sanity vs. others' insanity.  At a key point when his disciplinary action might have averted disaster, Elizabeth asks him to exert his authority.  He makes a certain point in justification of his inaction: his daughters are foolish by nature and he can do nothing in response but note this and make light of it.
Disaster follows, and Elizabeth sees just how much wiser she was.  She sees her father's fundamental mistake: by mocking his wife, however genuinely foolish she may be, he undermined her authority and gave a free reign to his foolish daughters, thereby making the entire family (including his wise daughter) vulnerable to scandal.  His discipline could not make the girls wise, but it might have served the common good of them all.  In the end, he becomes very emotional at the apparent loss of the foolish child and his inability to do anything about it.  It turns out he is not so philosophically detached after all, but the pretense of philosophy has led him astray.
Here's where Xenophon comes in.  How does a real philosopher treat his family?  By reputation Socrates was not much of a father -- he earned no money, spent all his time with strangers and their children, and if his friends had not paid his rent who knows what would have become of his wife and kids.  There is very little in the Memorabilia about his family, confirming this overall view.  But there is one chapter on the subject which is very instructive.
Socrates' son Lamprocles was angry with his mother for being harsh and shaming him.  Socrates confronts him on this and re-establishes the authority of the mother.  I won't repeat all the arguments (this is Book II Chapter 2) but suffice to say Socrates does not defend Xanthippe's character per se.  Rather, he goes over all the sacrifices parents make for children and the good intentions L's mom has for him.  He makes L feel like an ingrate for not appreciating the favors and returning them with obedience.  Right away we see the gulf between Soc and Mr Bennet.
What of Soc's reputed indifference to his family (which might have given Mr Bennet a self-justification of his own behavior)?  I think an answer is suggested by what at first appears to be a minor detail.  Soc makes his case to L in part with the image of a ship -- he asks his son whether the decisive thing in finding a "shipmate" is not the friendliness or hostility of the person, and his son says yes, "good intent" is the most important thing when traversing the seas.
N.B. this is *not Socrates' opinion!  In the first chapter of the work, Xenophon tells us that Soc was fond of saying that the decisive criterion for choosing a shipmate was judging whether he is "someone who understands or does not understand how to pilot".  This is paralleled by a number of other statements.  Knowledge, and not good intent, is the central issue for Soc.
If we look back at where Soc instructs his son, this comes in a section (Book 2) about how Soc dealt with his friends and family; the far larger part is about his friends.  Socrates spent his time seeking knowledge and this brought him together with others who in one way or another fit into this plan of action.  As he says in the introductory chapter, he sought to know the "human things" -- piety vs. impiety, noble vs. shameful, just vs. unjust, moderation vs. madness, courage vs. cowardice, polis, politician (statesman), rule, skilled rulership, etc.  Knowledge of these things, he thought, makes a noble and good man; ignorance of them makes for a slave.  So he spent his time conversing about them to escape slavery and achieve freedom in the human things.
For this, as Xenophon reminds us from the get-go, he was put to death by the city.  Athens executed him for not believing in the things it believed in -- the gods, for instance -- and for corrupting the youth.  The city is not engaged in seeking the truth about the human things, but it does depend on a certain understanding of those things; its chief concern is not one's knowledge of them but one's adherence to the accepted version of the story -- i.e., one's friendliness or "good intent" to the city as such.  By looking beyond the city Socrates raises suspicions about his loyalty to it; and this is entirely understandable seeing as how he considered passive acceptance of the city's ways to be slavery (or, to paraphrase Soc in Plato's Apology, "I would rather die than live as you do, less-than-men!").  (This is the meaning of: "The unexamined life is not livable for a human being.")
Before advising his son to apply the friendliness litmus test -- the standard of the city -- as opposed to the knowledge litmus test -- the standard of the philosopher -- Soc asks L, "Do you think you should serve anyone else?"  L responds, "By Zeus, for my part, I think one should".  The advice suits the recipient.  Socrates is aware of a vast gulf between himself and the city -- i.e., the majority of mankind -- including his own family.  Rather than attempting to pave over this natural fissure, he finesses it with irony.  This is Xenophon's defense of Soc against Athens -- not that he was innocent of despising its views regarding the most important subjects, but that he was careful to avoid harming the city and its youth -- even his own son (who of course was also a citizen and therefore not just his own son) -- by calling attention inappropriately to this contempt.  This is something that escaped Mr Bennet with his head in the clouds -- to his own detriment.
Is this a cynical view of things?  Someone I recently met in Portland would certainly say so -- but she is postmodern, so who is she to point fingers?  ;)
I see it as deeply moral, but in a way that has often been overlooked in our simplistic and ideological age.  Compare St. Augustine's discussion of human ends.  For him, the only true object of our enjoyment -- of loving something for its own sake -- is God.  All else, including other human beings, is to be used.  Not abused, of course, used.  That is, dealt with while maintaining awareness that its (or their) goodness is from and for God, not from itself or for itself.  Looking at the world this way does not entail neglecting ourselves or others, since we are all children of God.  It does involve a certain backing away from the reflexive attachment we have to things and the moral superficiality with which we regard them as good because they are merely thought or seem to be so.
It is standard fare today among the high-minded to look for "moral absolutes" in all the wrong places; to regard human beings as "ends in themselves" and other such curious constructions, which have infiltrated even theological points of view.  In my view this is an artificial and unhealthy "morality" which ignores the fundamental issues and sometimes makes it a sin even to ask the fundamental questions.  As different as are Xenophon, St. Augustine, and Jane Austen in crucial ways, each of them knew better than to think it was so simple.  Each of them saw that the good does not come without a cost and that a certain awareness of the limits of life goes a long way both towards preserving the highest things, and towards managing the less elevated things in prudent fashion.
So yes, I think issues are the way to go!  And fiction can deliver them as well as (and sometimes better than) anything.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Remedial Legislation

Feelin' a bit woozy, folks, after a hard slog on a peer-reviewed publication. Back at it again tomorrow! It will never stop 'till I've footnoted my way to tenure, or get hit by a bus. $10 to whoever guesses right.

I'm prepping something to delight, one I hope will knock your Socrateses off . . . but it requires thought so now's not the time.

Meanwhile, see what our Solons have done (or not done)! A cheerful thought, that: knowing that for all of life's struggles you can always look to our elected tutors to get the simplest "social math" (1 man + 1 woman [assuming consent, right will, etc.] = nice job kids, now go make some babies!) all wrong. I had this down when I was 5, give or take a few years.

Let's hear nothing about judicial tyranny for a while. Last time I noticed the Supreme Court did not command an army or collect trillions of dollars in taxes. These little dilemmas (if anything can be called a dilemma that presupposes previous insanity) would be gone tomorrow given an ounce of political will; and that would not be hard to come by given a hint of public concern. I'm afraid it takes a brain-dead people to have leaders this dim witted. Tocqueville had it down pat.

But don't think I'm gloomy, far from it! Let's see what the next election brings . . . . .

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

O Canada!

I love David Warren. For those of you who don't know him, he's the best thing (next to Mark Steyn) that ever happened to Canada -- though they don't know it. Since I did some time up there (no offense to Canadians, many of whom I love; but, as Warren himself says, Canada is a country where "There is one party to the right . . . there are three to the left, and a fourth, the Green one, now sprouting from the same compost") I had to learn fast who the kindred spirits were. This one was worth taking with me back to the mother country. Thank God he is on the net, though his site could be updated more frequently.

Lately he is weighing in on developments in Iraq, which I think are getting much more interesting now that sovereignty ("nominal", you might say; but for human beings nomos is hardly insignificant) has returned to that land. I highly recommend the following:


(Note: my browser does not function in conjunction with the little feature that normally allows one to embed hyperlinks -- so pardon my stone age tactics.)


If you are interested in Canadian politics (which almost takes the ridiculous to the point where it merges again with the sublime) check out his occasional pieces on that.

Here, for example:


he notes that there may be a vacuum on the right: "In this election, as in the last one, almost every publicly-declared pro-life candidate, regardless of party, won re-election." Very interesting.

Moreover, "If you tell people clearly and repeatedly the true reasons for long waiting lists in Canadian hospitals, they will listen -- because they are waiting in line. The news that Canada's "one-tiered" system exists no where else but Cuba will get through." You see why I love him.

Occasionally, he takes up the really hard topics no one else dares even mention: such as the tyranny of lettuce, or dust jackets:




Sunday, July 11, 2004

Good morning bloggers! Sorry to be such a stranger but it was not in my last fortune cookie that I would be elevated to this rank (blatherer to the world) so suddenly! Nothing in life had ever prepared me for this. Furthermore I am inept in the ways of hyperlinking and even working these funny little online simulacra of word processors. In fact I will be importing text from outside henceforth after having an hour-long composition eaten by the cruel indifference of ones and zeroes.

My good friend Phil(http://umbraecanarum.blogspot.com/) has shamed me into putting something up here until inspiration cometh. (Don't think for a moment I blame you net-denizens for ignoring my first post -- what other fate did its pale pathos invite?) Phil has kindly introduced me to your world and I need to explain myself properly, but I'm a busy fellow. Trying to crank out publications on Tocqueville and Descartes, if you are curious. My specialty is questions about God and human nature -- not that I am averse to discussing things people are interested in, mind you! Frankly I have always been what they call a "geek" although that is strange since I prefer the breast meat. But "parts is parts" I guess.

Let me leave you with a line from a poem that amused me in my adolescence -- am I reverting or what?

John Keats (1795-1821)

Give me women, wine, and snuff
Until I cry out "hold, enough!"
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection:
For, bless my beard, they aye shall be
My beloved Trinity.

I have since progressed, but if he could indulge, so may I!

I bid you adieu and a good day too!!

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Welcome one and all . . . .

Hello! You may be wondering who I am. So am I. I thought maybe you could help me with that. I have not decided what the purpose of a blog is, if anyone could fill me in I would be much obliged. I was brought here by a friend and now find myself on stage without any lines to recite. How awkward! Anyhow I have no idea who hangs out in these cyberspaces, or who might happen to stumble into my humble yet virtual abode. Whoever you are, Godspeed!
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