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Comments by Wade McKenzie

On “…lost the habit

Thanks for your reply. I'd completely forgotten about Filmer's Patriarcha, against which Locke's first treatise is directed--that supplies a "thinker" for the English Restoration. But my concentration on the technical question of "which Restoration" was indeed misplaced. Surely what matters for the sake of grappling with the sentence in question is just the idea of "restoration" itself. Correlative to that mistaken emphasis was my neglect of the surrounding passage in which the sentence is placed.

We might amplify the comparison of the ancients to the early moderns a bit and say that the idea which mediates between the ancient binary "Socrates/sophists" and the early modern binary "restorationists/revolutionists" is the conflict between democracy and its alternative. Granted that Strauss seemingly casts doubt on the aptness of the analogy, the question remains whether he is dubious of the analogy in whole or only in part--or even at all, seeing that the concluding paragraph of the essay "On the Euthydemus" embeds a certain paradox: it categorically denies the idea of a "mortal enmity" between philosophy and sophism and, in the very next sentence, reaffirms the notion so forcefully as can be.

The theme of Socrates as a representative of anti-democratism--and thus having a conceptual connection to the early modern monarchists--is too well-attested to be easily refuted. I.F Stone's book on Socrates is a perfect example, and I'm aware of an instance where the trope can be found in the Straussian literature: namely, Allan Bloom's essay "The Political Philosopher in Democratic Society: The Socratic View". (I'm not suggesting you read that essay, but for reference' sake it can be found in the anthology The Roots of Political Philosophy.) Strauss himself strongly endorses that prong of the aforesaid analogy in the final sentence of his essay. Left open is the prospect of skepticism regarding firstly the alleged affinity of ancient sophists and early modern democratists, and secondly the idea that to align Socrates and the early modern reactionaries is to preclude the further possibility of relating Socrates to the modern radicals. The several depictions of Socrates by Rousseau, Hamann, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Strauss demonstrate the capaciousness of the Socratic persona.

What's arresting about Strauss's essay "On the Euthydemus" is not so much his contention that Socrates was more friendly disposed to the sophists than we are "inclined" to believe, as that he is friendly disposed to the sophists in view in that dialogue--the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodoros. For they are sophists of the very worst sort, the end of whose instruction is to teach their pupils how to win any argument whatever by having recourse to the most outrageous of means. Their methods are so absurd, trampling underfoot every canon of logic and fairness, that their speeches invariably possess a farcical quality. Yet straightway after Strauss makes reference to "the thinkers who prepared the French Revolution or took its side", he says: "In the Euthydemus Socrates takes the side of the two brothers..."

Might Strauss's essay conceivably reflect a burlesque aspect of the dialogue? Does he rhetorically parallel the brothers and the French Revolution in order to ridicule the latter? And by aligning Socrates with the brothers in that parallelism is he somehow implying that Socratism itself had a paradoxical share in "preparing"--or taking the side of--the French Revolution? (The Socrates of Rousseau's first discourse and the Socrates of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, each in their own way, are I think compatible with that conjecture.)

Strauss continues: "Socrates was not the mortal enemy of the sophists nor were the sophists the mortal enemies of Socrates." In the next and concluding sentence, however, he invokes the customary figure of the sophist as the enemy of philosophy (and given the context, the enmity is assuredly mortal): "According to Socrates, the greatest enemy of philosophy, the greatest sophist, is the political multitude, i.e. the enactor of the Athenian laws." The paradox is perhaps resolved by understanding "the greatest enemy of philosophy, the greatest sophist" as the deployment of the sophist trope in a wholly figurative sense, regardless of the historical sophists themselves. And the gratuitous reference to "the enactor of the Athenian laws" brings to sight, if not quite to sound, the democratic regime of Athens. It is left to the reader to draw the momentous conclusion that democracy--the regime whereby "the people" rule--is philosophy's greatest enemy "[a]ccording to Socrates", according to Strauss.


Speaking of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, may I request your help in interpreting a puzzling sentence therein? It is the first sentence of the last paragraph of the essay "On the Euthydemus":

We are still too much inclined to see the conflict between Socrates and "the sophists" in the light of the conflict between the thinkers of the Restoration and the thinkers who prepared the French Revolution or took its side.

As to "the thinkers who prepared the French Revolution or took its side", that would presumably include Rousseau and the philosophes and even Tom Paine--that much is clear to me. However, when I hear "the Restoration" I intuitively think of the restoration of the Stuarts in the aftermath of Cromwell--in which case I'm not at all certain who "the thinkers" affiliated therewith would be--but there is also "the Restoration" of the Bourbons in the aftermath of Napoleon, and if that were "the Restoration" in view then I suppose the affiliated thinkers would include de Maistre u.s.w., and possibly even Burke.

What's your take--which "restoration" and its "thinkers" are we talking about? And what's it all got to do with Socrates and the sophists?


CKM: I think it would be a singular misfortune--to himself and his audience--if a thinker and writer possessed of such substantive and stylistic gifts as you are were to have "lost the habit" for good, and so it goes without saying--...

I was hoping we'd continue the brief exchange we began last year. When last we met, we were debating the merits of a piece by one Mr. Spencer who fervently asserted that left of center parties had an opportunity to reap bountiful electoral harvests if only they would nominate candidates of an especially "progressive", not to say Bolshevik, stripe. Since then, some events transpired that have a bearing on that thesis.

In the case of the UK parliamentary election, Labour attempted to carry forward Spencer's proposal with admirable fidelity and suffered a humiliating defeat, while the triumphant Conservatives were led--as Joe Biden remarked at the time--by a veritable clone of Donald Trump. Here in the USA, in the Democratic Party primaries, we saw Bernie Sanders fail to reduplicate the momentum of his 2016 run, and Elizabeth Warren's candidacy was an embarrassing flop.

Having said that, the corona virus crisis surely changes everything and I can't help but think that the enormous economic dislocations that will almost certainly result suddenly favor the Democrats and even perhaps their most "progressive" current. It's a case study in the power of chance in human affairs. And while I sincerely pray for our country to be delivered from the ill effects of this ordeal, I fear that it brings us perilously close to the brink of one mode of national bankruptcy or another...

I've read a number of interesting books in the domain of political philosophy recently, mostly in the "Straussian" vein--including a couple of books by Leo Strauss himself: namely, Liberalism Ancient and Modern and Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. At my age, I find that reading Strauss constitutes the peak of my pleasure in reading. Only the Bible and poetry rival it. I've even begun to imagine that I've transferred my philosophical fealty such as it is from "existentialism" broadly construed (a school of thought ultimately rooted in Hamann, I guess) to Straussianism, the attempt to recuperate the viability of classical perspectives (especially the virtue of sophrosune)--and as a corollary, to assist in the revitalization of theological perspectives as the necessary competitors of philosophy against which philosophy attains self-definition...

How 'bout you--read anything interesting lately?

Well, just thought I'd chime in...

On “Keith Spencer: …data shows that a centrist Democrat would be a losing candidate –

Can't say I cared much either, but Spencer's text was such a blatant piece of propaganda that I felt the appropriate response was ridicule. He doesn't really "describe" an "electorate bifurcated along class lines, etc." but rather supposes it--allegedly on the basis of Piketty's authoritative masterpiece of a report--and, of course, that supposition happily affirms his pre-existing commitment to what can adequately be summarized as Trotskyism. It's a joke.

On the other hand, one can't help but wonder if this isn't an early outrider in the genre of crafting a narrative to be deployed in the event the Democrats lose the 2020 election. In this instance, the author would be proposing that said narrative take the form that the explanation for the loss ought to be that the Democratic nominee was insufficiently Trotskyist. Again, 'tis silly stuff.


"The Republican Party has earned a reputation as the anti-science, anti-fact party"

One third of the way in to Mr. Spencer's first sentence--and we know immediately we're reading a piece of the utmost sobriety...

Spencer's piece is essentially an argument from authority--in this case, the authority of "data", indeed "hard data", and even (breathtakingly) "mounds of data"; helpfully compiled for us by that superstar of contemporary data-driven social "science", Thomas Piketty. Though it's wisely, if not perhaps widely, understood that contemporary data-driven social "science" is an enterprise of unimpressive stature, Spencer's affection for it is--shall we say--affecting.

So, Spencer’s point--on the authority of Piketty’s "mounds of data"--is that, if the Democrats will only nominate a candidate of Trotskyite persuasion, then he/she/zhe will obtain a sweeping victory. Speaking as one whose socialism tends to the "false consciousness" Straßerite variety, I hope they’ll do so. Let’s conduct the experiment and see if Piketty’s right...

I shan't belabor further my annoyance with Spencer's drivel, except to address en passant the only curiosity that emerged as I read it--namely, the strange phenomenon of apparently bona fide and old-time socialism in the state of Oklahoma. Well, what can one say--except that the denizens of Oklahoma haven't exactly earned a reputation for wisdom of a political or any other kind, now have they?

On “Eli Zaretsky: Trump’s Charisma – LRB Blog

"Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking."

I think the naivety of supposing that anyone--anyone at all--can at this juncture bring to pass "a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking" almost goes without saying--let alone that anyone in the current slate of Democratic candidates could perform such an Archimedean task. The sort of comprehensive transformation of "America’s way of thinking" that Mr. Zaretsky advocates presupposes a unitary something that is "America". "America" is irremediably divided against itself--ever-increasingly by rival ethnic and racial blocs, though no division surpasses that between the white bohemian bourgeoisie and the white working class.

"Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion."

Here the author evinces the flaw that vexes most contemporary political commentary; namely, the casual assumption that one's own political/ethno-racial faction is "America" simpliciter--in this case, the "progressive" white and Jewish bohemian bourgeoisie whose "self-respect" is so closely "linked to social justice and inclusion". But "social justice and inclusion" are euphemisms of a factional political ideology that, though widely influential among America's ruling elite, is mostly detested outside the confines of said elite and its bobo fellow travelers.

I'll give Zaretsky some credit. Despite his predictable anti-Trump stance, his piece does represent a stab at relatively sober political analysis. I think the contention that "...Trump’s ‘insecurity’, his unending struggle with those who question his legitimacy, is integral to his charisma" is a valuable insight. One wonders, however, if his recourse to Freudianism doesn't fatally undermine his argument. For example, Zaretsky is quite clear that both Donald Trump and Barack Obama are "charismatic" figures--in fact, he asserts that Obama is possessed of an even greater charisma than Trump. Thus his analysis cum critique of Trump on the line of Weberian "charisma" must apply equally well to Obama. Mark the following passage:

"Freud showed in his book on mass psychology that in democratic societies the charismatic bond may rest on an appeal to frustrated or unfulfilled narcissism. The followers idealise the leader as they once – in childhood – idealised themselves. Etc."

Overlooking the dubious character of Freudian psychology, this is obviously intended to be a criticism of Trump-as-political-phenomenon; but mutatis mutandis it must be true of Obama and his supporters as well. Zaretsky tries to overcome this contradiction by suggesting that some charismatic leaders--presumably including Obama--appeal to their supporters' good sides while other charismatic leaders--like Trump--appeal to their supporters' bad sides, but that badly begs the question and ultimately reduces Zaretsky's piece to a factional rhetorical exercise.

The real issue here is that whereas Trump is possessed of a genuine "charisma"--for good or ill--Obama was just another establishmentarian pol. His veneer of charisma had everything to do with the fact that American whites are programmed to feign receptivity toward blacks, and in Obama--as Joe Biden so gamely put it--they had finally found a "clean and articulate" black to lionize. Obama went on to govern, not as a charismatic leader of course, but rather as a "pragmatic manager"--as Zaretsky admits. The choice before the U.S. electorate in 2020 won't be between rival visions of charismatic leadership. It will feature instead a charismatic and disruptive figure--Donald Trump--and a yet to be determined uncharismatic Democrat who will seek to continue, and perhaps intensify, a long-established mode of governance. Electorates in democracies throughout the world (see, for example, the recent election in India) are more and more disaffected by the latter prospect.

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