Friday, April 24, 2009

Allan Bloom on YouTube, the Straussians & the Founding & Stuff:

I've read a lot of Allan Bloom. Until recently I had never heard his voice. Then some audio files were uploaded to the Internet. Now this.

Bloom was not particularly handsome by conventional standards. But his odd looks, combined with his odd way of speaking and his brilliance have captivated many brilliant minds, American or otherwise.

The thing I dislike the most about the "Straussians," is the "cult" that surrounds them. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's Roman à clef about Bloom, Leo Strauss is named "Davarr" which is Hebrew for "Word." That speaks for itself. There is likewise a cult that surrounds such thinkers as Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and many others. The irony is Rand, Strauss, Rothbard all presented themselves as philosophers of some sort. And forming a "cult" around figures as such inevitably leads to the philosophic error of "appeal to authority." Unless of course, we conclude that one or more of those figures were flawless in their thinking. I'm not even a Christian and I understand that can't be right. So don't be afraid to call any thinker, no matter HOW much you may appreciate their overall work, full of shit, at times. That's the way of the true philosopher. But make sure you have good reason for doing so or else prepare to have your head handed to you on a plate.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of hubbub written about "the Straussians." I didn't support the Kristol-Wolfowitz American foreign policy project and many Straussians argue that Strauss (perhaps Bloom) would not have either. I'll simply assert that, like a lot of academic theoreticians, they make for better professors of political philosophy than policy wonks.

But without question, the Straussians have done ground breaking scholarly work on the American Founding, especially as it relates to religion.

One profound insight they uncover is how Locke's central teachings of "state of nature," "social contract and rights" are a "modern teaching." Indeed Hobbes formulated this teaching. And Locke sold it to Christendom, precisely by dressing up such ideas in Christian and classical natural law like language. But in dressing up the language of "state of nature/social contract and rights" with Christian and classical natural law speak, Locke in a sense, (perhaps) synthesized a more modern, subversive notion of "rights" with Christian and classical sources, thereby moderating the concept of "rights." But make no mistake, state of nature, social contract and rights, even the notion of God given "natural rights," are nowhere to be found in the Bible, and not part of the classical understanding of "natural law" either.

Here are some choice quotations from Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind":

When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. (pp. 141-2).


[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. (p. 165).

Now, Bloom is more known for his observance of how the language of German nihilism/relativism infiltrated American parlance. Terms like "values," "worldview," "charisma" are by their nature relativistic. Once conservative Christians start talking about how they have a different "worldview," they've lost the battle. The postmodern language of "value relativism" superseded the modern language of natural rights as much as the modern language of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau superseded the language of classical and biblical politics.

The Straussians have their problems with the modernism of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, but will take their politics -- liberal democracy -- warts and all, over postmodern politics. This is what Leo Strauss' famous quotation -- "the moderns 'built on low but solid ground'" -- refers to. But as secret atheists and nihilists themselves, they believe the postmoderns truly understand the ultimate nature of reality (that there is no God, the natural law is a fiction, and that rights are not grounded in nature) but misunderstand the horrifying implications thereof (the abyss). Postmodernism, precisely because it is built not on rational principles, but the arbitrary irrational positing of relative values (i.e., "might makes right") could just as easily lead to Nazi Germany as it could democratic socialism or the American Founding. In other words, the truth, far from setting us free, horrifies.

And to horrify the Straussians who at times display contempt for popular culture, I've found the this Straussian understanding of Nietzsche almost perfectly captured in a comic book -- a graphic novel -- "Watchmen," recently turned into a movie.

As the mad vigilante superhero Rorschach put it after executing by burning alive, instead of turning over to lawful authorities, a child murderer who fed the dead child to pet German Shepards that Rorschach just killed:

Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.

Bloom also tackled modern psychiatry as something that was based on relativistic German philosophy, but strangely enough was used to make Americans "feel good," when properly understood, such philosophy should do the very opposite. And here is how Rorschach made his do-good, feel-good, prison psychiatrist feel. Here is the doctor’s reaction to his interaction with the relativistic, nihilistic, value-positing patient who managed to construct a harsh world of black and white, good and evil out of the abyss:

I sat on the bed. I looked at the Rorschach blot. I tried to pretend it looked like a spreading tree, shadows pooled beneath it, but it didn’t. It looked more like a dead cat I once found, the fat, glistening grubs writhing blinding, squirming over each other, frantically tunneling away from the light. But even that is avoiding the real horror. The horror is this: in the end it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.

Perhaps, I've said too much. I'll stop here.

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