Comments on …lost the habit by Wade McKenzie

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...