Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truth Will Set You Free?

Not according to the Straussians. Instead of blithely dismissing their notion, I think it deserves to be taken seriously. Contra Shadia Drury, the (mainly East Coast) Straussians didn't believe that the truth was a pearl too precious for the swine masses, but rather likened the truth to a dangerous fire, one to which only philosophers could secretly tend. And the truth, in many respects, far from being beautiful, at times is horrifically unpleasant. Only philosophers, whose love of discovering truth outweighs the horror that truth often brings, could really handle the truth. This is one reason why as atheists and nihilists themselves, they despised the left-wing modern philosophers who brought relativism, and hence nihilism to the masses because they didn't bring the entire picture; to make the truth of relativism go down easier, they fed the masses nihilism without the abyss. So the Straussians tend to focus disproportionately on the abyss and its horrific implications to "scare" most folks away from that truth. Those who understand the implications of the abyss and can gaze into it without flinching, they are the true philosophers, fit for membership in their club, with its "esoteric secrets."

Okay, that's my understanding of Straussianism in one paragraph. This should help explain why they were not always up front about their atheism. Strauss no doubt was a fervent atheist; but as far as I know, he never publicly so admitted. And Allan Bloom, in his 382 page book, The Closing of the American Mind, doesn't admit his atheism/nihilism until page 278. And even then, he does so very cautiously. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's roman a clef/biography of Bloom, he has Bloom stating "no true philosopher can believe in God." No doubt this is what Bloom, and Strauss (whom Bellow names "Davarr" -- Hebrew for "Word") believed. But, to avoid misunderstanding them, this is what they privately believed, and thought that only a small select few in a healthy society should know.

Here is one paleoconservative's reaction, one who believes in both God and a transcendent moral order, to Bloom's "letting the cat out of the bag" on page 278.

I don't know that I've retained much of the main part of the book, except for the stunning realization, at p. 278 (a page number engraved in my memory), where Bloom lets on that he does not really believe in the traditional American democracy and culture that he has been defending for the last 200 pages. He says instead that such common and traditional beliefs are merely the "gods of the city," social myths which intellectuals such as Bloom pretend to believe in in order to secure a safe and comfortable existence for themselves.

Again, instead of scoffing at such a notion, let's turn to page 278 (277 to be exact) and see why Bloom believes as he does:

[Philosophers] observed that the most powerful passion of most men is fear of death. Very few men are capable of coming to terms with their own extinction. It is not so much stupidity that closes men to philosophy but love of their own, particularly love of their own lives, but also love of their own children and their own cities. It is the hardest task of all to face the lack of cosmic support for what we care about. Socrates, therefore, defines the task of philosophy as "learning how to die."..."As are the generation of leaves, so are the generations of men," -- a somber lesson that is only compensated for by the intense pleasure accompanying insight. Without that pleasure, which so few have, it would be intolerable. The philosopher, to the extent that he really only enjoys thinking and loves the true, cannot be disabused. He cherishes no illusion that can crumble. If he is comic, at least he is absolutely immune to tragedy. Nonphilosophic men love the truth only as long as it does not conflict with what they cherish -- self, family, country, fame, love. When it does conflict, they hate the truth and regard as a monster the man who does not care for these noble things, who proves they are ephemeral and treats them as such. The gods are the guarantors of the unity of nature and convention dear to most men, which philosophy can only dissolve. The enmity between science and mankind at large is, therefore, not an accident.

-- pp. 277-78. One of the most profound passages in Closing where Bloom sort of comes out as a "closet atheist/nihilist," while explaining why philosophers must remain in the closet.

Saul Bellow's account of Bloom in Ravelstein is interesting because it further shows how a philosopher who really doesn't believe in the truth of the city gods lives his life. Though he publicly defended "family values," Bloom was a pleasure seeking gay man, who saw nothing wrong with living his life the way he did. Bellow also reports when Bloom was dying he faced death without hope and without fear which is exactly how a true philosopher is supposed to. Bellow apparently didn't buy Bloom's argument. He made in clear in Ravelstein that he believed in God (though in an unorthodox manner). And suspected that many atheist philosophers in their closets believed in God as well, but just "talked tough."

Now the scoffing may begin.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Jon. That's what I get out of the whole Strauss deal, too, altho there is much else of worth.

The strange part is that living in the 20th century, they thought the fact that God is dead and life is meaningless was still any great secret that needed to be guarded from the masses. That the pursuit of

Having leafed through the odious Shadia Drury's "expose" of Straussianism, I found one strong point, that your Bloom quote touches on and even acknowledges:
that the philosopher values the true over the noble. She, as a proper thymotic liberal, opines that she doesn't value a life without nobility. I, as a somewhat less but still thymotic conservative, agree with the sentiment.

(Neither do I particularly value my life if all there is to it is the nihilism of philosophical truth. Ship me off to Talos IV.)

Norm said...

I resolve the potential conflict between valuing truth vs. valuing nobility by equating the valuing of truth as the highest nobility. All other nobilities are a subset of that, and thus the only noble truths are those which are, first and foremost, steeped in the valuing of truth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I like the sound of that, Norm, but Strauss poses a special problem---if the only truth is that there is no god and the only meaning comes from wallowing around in that truth (i.e., philosophizing), then nobility has no meaning at all.