Thursday, November 17, 2005

Drury on the Straussians and the Proper Metaphor for the Nihlisitic "Truth":

Shadia Drury is a Strauss expert and a leftist "debunker" of the Straussians. While she knows quite a bit about them, her assertions, unfortunately are tainted with bias and thus leave me with the impression of "spin."

This interview of hers is interesting, informative, but also deserves some perspective. First, I can't at all agree with the following assertion of hers:

The ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty.

The Truth, according to Strauss and his East Coast followers is nihilism, and everything about them is that such a Truth is the furthest thing from a "pearl." Drury herself contradicts her assertion when she states:

There are indeed three types of men [according to the Straussians]: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives.

The Truth is not a Pearl, but rather is, or at least often is, harsh and something that most ordinary persons cannot handle unadulterated, because it can be so unpleasant. The wise philosopher receives intense pleasure from discovering the Truth even if what he discovers is horrifying.

The underlying point of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was that nihilism had trickled down to the masses, but it wasn't real nihilism, it was nihilism without the abyss or nihilism American style. It had all the fun of relativity of the Truth and freedom from objective traditional morality, but none of the horrific implications.

Bloom simply wanted people to understand the implications of nihilism, i.e., the abyss. And if they were "capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling" as Drury puts it, then they could be true philosophers. But Bloom's point was that the overwhelming majority of people -- even the overwhemling majority of his brilliant Ivy League students -- couldn't do this. So Bloom's exercise was to force his students and others to confront certain reductios of nihilism. And he discovered almost none of them were honest enough or willing to accept the logical conclusions of nihilism. For instance, Bloom writes:

If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, "If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?," they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. p. 26.

In other words true cultural relativism means that the natives get to burn the widow, and the British objecting is simply imposing our Western values which are no more objectively true or false, good or evil, on the non-Western nation.

Or here Bloom uses the writer Celine to serve as a nihilism reductio:

The one writer who does not appeal at all to Americans -- who offers nothing for our Marxist, Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, or structuralist circles to mangle, who provides no poses, sentimentalities or bromides that appeal to our young -- is Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who best expresses how life looks to a man facing up to what we believe or don't believe. He is a far more talented artist and penetrating observer than the much more popular Mann or Camus. Robinson, the hero he admires in Journey to the End of the Night, is an utterly selfish liar, cheat, murderer for pay. Why does Ferdinand admire him? Partly for his honesty, but mostly because he allows himself to be shot and killed by his girlfriend rather than tell her he loves her. He believes in something, which Ferdinand is unable to do. American students are repelled, horrified by this novel, and turn away from it in disgust. If it could be force-fed to them, it might motivate them to reconsider, to regard it as urgent to think through their premises, to make their implicit nihilism explicit and examine it seriously. p. 239.

More importantly the Straussians genuinely believed that keeping nihilism confined to the wise few was better for society, in a sort of utilitarian sense (though they weren't utilitarians). It was, I sincerely believe, out of genuine concern for society. This is important: While they believe that Nietzsche and Heidegger were correct as to the ultimate nihilistic nature of reality, such a "Truth" could not be used to found political orders. And indeed, such a Truth gaining wider public acceptance made Weimar Germany more receptive to Nazism. The following passage of Closing (written unfortunately in very abstruse prose -- no doubt, purposefully abstruse) is perhaps the most profound passage in the book, and gives the proper metaphor for the Truth. The Truth is not like a pearl, but rather like a dangerous fire, and philosophers must be the keepers of this secret flame:

I shall not comment on the Nazi period of the now de-Nazified Heidegger, other than to remark that the ever more open recognition that he was the most interesting thinker of our century, formerly chastely displaced in admiration for his various proxies, gives evidence that we are playing with fire. p. 154

On the same page, Bloom writes: "Once one plunges into the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy, or socialism will be found on the other side. At the very best, self-determination is indeterminate."


Gothamimage said...

Pretty interesting summary - I think Bloom, from what I read in his book, carried too much of his personality into his philosophy and commentary. Just because his students responded to him in a certain way when he posed questions, does not mean they would respond that way to a different professor. In many way, his reactions in his book are emotional reactions to anecdotes - so that's the kind of soft thinking he is quick to spot elsewhere.

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