Families as islands of illiberalism

Families are much closer to autocracies than to liberal democracies. Parents have incredible control over the lives and activities of their children.

Some families may aspire to a more liberal constitution, but even there the reality will only allow for so much freedom, especially when children are in their younger years. Allowing a judicious dose of freedom whenever possible can certainly be a good and commendable thing, but such freedom must always have limits, imposed by the parents, and even valid uses of freedom may sometimes necessitate attempts at persuading the children to use their freedom more wisely or beneficially.

To whatever extent a family will be a dictatorship, it can be either a benevolent dictatorship or a tyranny. The former will seek the good of the governed, and the good of the whole family. The latter will use its power selfishly, trying to maximize benefits (or more likely, minimize inconveniences) to the rulers.

Even the most liberal of states will in this way be absolutely filled with illiberal activity, of a (generally) positive sort. An honest defender of liberalism will admit this fact without concern, though someone too consumed by ideology could try to downplay this obvious truth.

The family is the most natural and appropriate place for such illiberal government. The level of government that is furthest removed from the family or the individual is the place where it is least suitable.

And yet, this does not mean that any level of government should shirk its duty, should try to pass the buck to lower levels. It is inappropriate for a higher level of government to try to micromanage the activities of individual citizens, as a parent might have to micromanage the activities of an infant. However, where the higher levels can make changes that benefit all citizens, it is appropriate for them to do so, rather than hoping that lower levels will pick up their slack.

In some ways, modern politics is the worst of both worlds. The politicians are as self-interested as any tyrant, and the state is permissive of immoral and destructive behaviours in the name of freedom. I think it would be possible to keep many of the strengths of liberal democracy without needing to hold onto these worst qualities.

The path to aristocracy

The word “aristocracy” has been corrupted so that it often seems to mean something like, powerful families who don’t have to work, who radiate arrogance and spend their time at fancy parties, saying and doing things they shouldn’t and yet getting away with it. I think that’s the sort of image that comes to mind for us today. That’s certainly not the only way the word has been used though, and the way it was used in the past served as a placeholder for an idea that’s important for us to consider.

If we begin with the classical sense of aristocracy, I think we’ll find that we all pretty much desire aristocratic government, and our disagreements are only really about how we get from here to there. If that’s so, then thinking about aristocracy is an important task.

Literally, aristocracy is the “rule of the best”. It boils down to making sure that the most powerful positions of leadership are filled by the people who are best equipped (with intellectual, moral, and practical capacities) to make wise decisions on behalf of the political community. More easily said than done, of course!

The reason why I say that this is ultimately what we all want in politics comes down to two considerations: there have to be positions of political leadership in a political community, and we really don’t want those positions to be occupied by people who might make bad decisions, if there are better people available to do the job.

The difficulty is in discovering how to ensure that it is really the best who rise to the top. We all think of ourselves as the best and everyone else as worse, but we can’t all be correct about that. Any test for the job could be cheated on, or could be “gamed,” and more fundamentally, any test could be challenged, since it’s being designed and administered and adjudicated by those who are less than best. And if the choice of leader is too open, too flexible, then the community will be undermined by division and factions.

So we all have our favoured ways of making sure the selection process is most likely to choose those who are the best, or nearly the best. In the past it might have been the greatest warrior, or the person from the most distinguished family. Today it is more likely to be the person who is best known, most liked or most approved. We give our approval today to those who seem most wise — that is, to those whose stated opinions align most closely with our own, ceteris paribus.

Clearly, choosing leaders for wisdom by rewarding them for thinking most similarly to the mob is going to be a problematic undertaking, but it points nonetheless to the fact that the political system we should want is indeed the political system that we all do want, even if the question of how to bring it about remains as perplexing and unresolved as ever.

What’s the opposite of toxic masculinity?

It’s easy to see why many people today are fed up with old-fashioned views of masculinity. But I don’t think that means we can or should give up on it.

I agree with both sides of the argument. I agree with those who say there is not, in principle, any reason why traditional masculinity should be a bad thing. I also agree with those who observe that it’s hard to find examples in real life of unapologetic masculinity that doesn’t come bundled together with lots of undesirable qualities. I think we should be honest about that.

During Covid, for instance, there has been a shameful level of overlap (in my experience) between people who want to affirm a more traditional view of masculinity and people who feel a need to be obstinately, belligerently ignorant and selfish about the pandemic. And in this case I don’t think it’s a matter of confounding variables — I strongly believe there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship. Many such men were frightened of being made to appear unmanly by acting even minimally scientifically literate and minimally law-abiding or respectful, as incredible as that may seem.

Because of this sort of thing, it seems to me that we normally encounter two primary versions of masculinity (or perhaps I should say one and a half) instantiated in real life. There are those on the one hand who think manliness isn’t a bad thing, and yet who are also willing to bite the bullet and accept whatever conspiracy theories and unhealthy habits are supposedly necessary to prove that you’re one of the manly ones. And then there are those on the other extreme who think that manliness is unredeemable, that it must be thrown out root and branch, replaced with a sheer absence of any sort of standards or stereotypes. Those are the two ditches in which we’re all falling and getting stuck.

It does grieve me somewhat that those are the two dominant options available to the social imagination of our moment. It can be hard to fight those sorts of powerful societal currents in seeking to pursue a life of wisdom and virtue. Each side has its half of the truth, but each also stands as a significant obstacle to the attainment of what is (in my estimation) the whole truth.

What’s the whole truth, then? The whole truth is that manliness, as traditionally conceived, does not have to be opposed to wisdom or knowledge or truth or virtue or compassion. It is entirely compatible with all those things, and is even their protector — or it can be, when properly formed. Manliness is strength in the service of virtue. Manliness is not identical with cowardice, with being scared of others judging you unmanly; such is the very opposite of a true and just and virtuous manliness, which is willing to bear pains and insults for the sake of defending what is good. Manliness is available to the uneducated, but it is not identical with acting as if ignorant. Manliness is willing to cause offence when it must, but does not idolize offensiveness. Manliness accepts the necessity of violence and suffering in some situations, but it never trivializes them. Manliness is perfected by thoughtfulness and gentleness and grace, by justice and moderation, not by fragile defensiveness or sneering sarcasm or impotent rage.

Manliness is not going away anytime soon, and it is certainly in need of rescue in our day. It has been co-opted and corrupted almost beyond recognition. I hope many will stand to face the challenge that confronts us.

Progress as merely inevitable

I’ve thought many times that speech about progress assumes that society can get better, that we know what better is, and that history guides us in that direction if we don’t fight it. And I think progress can assume those things sometimes, but it just occurred to me that maybe there’s a more basic version.

Progress might just start out by assuming the impossibility of moving backwards; someone like Chesterton represents the conservative/romantic/classicist approach when he says something about how actually you literally can turn a clock back, and when the clock is wrong that’s the only sensible thing to do. The progressive instead holds the really plausible view that who we are now precludes us from living entirely like people of past ages. We can’t forget, unlearn, rehabilitate to that degree, not as individuals and certainly not as societies.

Given that we can’t go backward, attempts to do so are misguided, pointless, and possibly dangerous. Thus regression is bad, not because progress is good but because anything else is impossible. If we try to do what’s impossible, we only harm ourselves and those around us. Better to limit ourselves to seeking to act within the realm of the possible.

That makes a lot of sense to me. It leaves me wondering though, about how often movement forward has been influenced by or even stimulated by failed attempts to return to a past glory. Maybe there’s room for a progressive case for regressive thinking.

And even without such a case, there are cracks. There are people like Chesterton who don’t agree that return is impossible.

Maybe others are agnostic about the possibility of return, but also lack faith the beneficence of the tendency of history and so feel it’s worth it to attempt a return.

Maybe others think that a return is positively impossible but still think that fighting for a return is preferable to passively accepting the direction things are headed.

What do people really want?

A friend responded to my previous post (https://johnottens.ca/?p=3528) and asked me to say more about the Plato-Aristotle distinction I made at the end.

It’s helpful for me to be forced to unpack my mental shorthand, since what underlies it is often something that I once thought was really important, but which I haven’t bothered to think about nearly enough since then.

I think that what’s assumed in Plato’s account of the sufficiency of education is that all people really desire, not to be selfish and to be as unjust as they can get away with being, but to be just — that deep down, what we all want most is to live in accordance with justice. In this view, when I observe people seeming to be acting unjustly or immorally it must be because they have a flawed knowledge of what justice really is (or else it might be that I as the observer have a flawed understanding of justice, or really, probably both).

Understanding the human person (and by extension, the self) in this way is incredibly beautiful, ennobling, peaceful.

Imagine seeing thugs like Putin, or any people who have mistreated us, not as merely bad people doing bad things, but as people who are really trying their best to do what’s right, under all the layers of misunderstanding and self-deception. In the end it may not change how we act toward them (especially in the short term, when they are in the act of doing harm to others), but it will hugely change the way we think of them, and probably also the way we speak about them and to them. (In all honesty, I think in this way far too infrequently, and on reflection it is indeed because of my own misunderstanding of justice — I feel that I would somehow be letting them off the hook by thinking of them in this way, even though of course how I think about them affects me far more than it will ever affect them.)

And then taking that a step further, and relating to oneself in that way, profoundly changes the experience of moral life. Rather than reproaching oneself for not trying hard enough, or seeking by casuistry to justify our bad actions as really-not-that-bad or as unfortunately necessary, we can recognize our failings as real failings, as always genuinely well-intentioned, and as revealing unaddressed misunderstandings about what is actually good for us and good for those around us.

(Another theme that frequently comes up in writers who think along these lines is that what is best for us always is what’s best for the people around us, and what’s best for the people around us really is what’s best for us. If I have to choose between being just and being wealthy, I will do immeasurably more good for my community as a good poor person than I will as a wealthy person contributing to the economy. If I have to choose between eating my meal or giving it to someone starving, I will benefit my moral health by feeding the hungry, and I will be able to recognize that preserving my moral wellbeing is immeasurably more important than serving my physical wellbeing.)

This vantage point allows us to live the moral life more lightly, to address our failings with more hope and determination and clear-eyed insight, and to accept the judgements of others against us more graciously and gratefully. It’s an easy change to make, with immediate and far-reaching benefits, but for whatever reason it’s a hard shift to maintain. There’s a constant temptation to switch back to seeing the world (and the self) through the filter of good people and bad people. But whenever I encounter people who do succeed in seeing the world in this way, to any extent, I am always impressed by them, and I find I always trust them and want to be closer to them.

Moral Goodness Requires Education

There’s a very old notion, according to which education is a necessity for moral goodness. This assertion may strike us as shocking, outrageous, reprehensible — but probably only because we fail to slow down and think about what this assertion actually says, and what it might really mean.

Objection 1: “But I know plenty of people without much education who are the best sort of people, morally unimpeachable, entirely admirable.”

Objection 2: “But I’ve met plenty of people with a decade of graduate school under their belt who are absolutely insufferable, immature, untrustworthy, unvirtuous.”

In response to the first objection, I’d say we need to avoid using too restricted a sense of the word “education.” An education may include schools and classes and grades and diplomas, but it will never be restricted to those things, and even for those of us with (all too) many years of formal education, probably almost all of our moral learning and insight happened outside of (and perhaps in spite of) the formal coursework we had to undergo. It may well be that these supposedly uneducated people whose lives shine with virtue are in fact far better educated, in the ways that matter, than lots of folks who can write PhD after their name.

And this leads nicely to my response to the second objection, which is that we must also avoid adopting too expansive a definition of the word “education” for our assertion about moral goodness. Obviously no one would reasonably conclude that it means that education of any sort will lead us to virtue. If you spent a decade in banditry school you would not expect to emerge with an enlarged moral sensibility (though for all I know you might well leave that school with a better grasp of moral realities than will a person who spends a decade studying psychology or theology or philosophy or medicine in our system). Thus, it is not education as such that improves a person, but only the right kind of education.

And what sort of education would that be, which will succeed in leading us to moral excellence? Well, it’s at this point that the specific details become somewhat debatable. The statement, as we can now see, is all but tautological. Spelled out more explicitly, our assertion really means that moral goodness requires the sort of education that is requisite to moral goodness. What sort of education is this, exactly, in its purest form? Is it discipleship to a holy person? Is it communal, military-style training? Is it classroom instruction in history, in philosophical theorizing, in the social sciences, in literature and poetry and rhetoric? It may be any or none of these, or some combination, or the correct answer may even change relative to the society and the individual person. Still, trying to find the answer, and pursue whatever education seems best, is perhaps the most important task in a human life.

One last point, here: I think it is basically unavoidable to conclude on this account that education is necessary for moral goodness. What will remain uncertain at this point is whether it is also sufficient for moral goodness. There are compelling arguments to be made both for and against the sufficiency of education for moral goodness. My own mental shorthand is to think of this as the Platonic alternative and the Aristotelian alternative. For Aristotle, it seems, you can have a perfect grasp of all parts of right and wrong and still choose to act immorally. For Plato, on the other hand, if you seem to be perfectly educated in good and evil and yet choose the evil thing, then this simply shows that there is some aspect of your education that has been neglected or insufficiently absorbed, because it is impossible to think vice more desirable than virtue if they are correctly understood. Aristotle’s account feels more true to experience, I think it’s safe to say, but I’ve found it at least beneficial to think and act as if Plato is correct. I recommend it as a worthwhile exercise. I’m not entirely convinced, by the way, that Plato and Aristotle are entirely opposed or incompatible or impossible to harmonize on this point.

I don’t care if we agree

Agreement is a good goal. It’s hardly the highest, though, and often it can be a problematic goal to hold too tightly, depending on how the other person (or people) might approach the conversation.

The other person might use the goal of agreement as a tool for winning an argument. Agreement might be held hostage. They may be ready to agree only if their current view is proven wrong according to the highest imaginable standards of proof; if they can’t be shown that their view is absolutely, incontrovertibly self-contradictory on every possible interpretation, then they will see themselves as winners. Likewise, they will be persuaded of a new view only if it is proven inescapably, obviously true according to the strictest conceivable standards of evidence, failing which they will again see themselves as the victor and their conversation partner as the stubbornly irrational holdout. This is not a rare or exceptional occurrence; this is the norm for conversations, often even among very intelligent or highly educated people.

Much better to follow Aristotle. We should wish to agree with the truth first of all, and would prefer to agree with our friends but accept that it will not always happen. What might this approach actually look like in practice?

If I am ignorant on a topic and my conversation partner is particularly knowledgeable about it then I will aim for agreement at least insofar as that can help me remedy my ignorance.

If I am knowledgeable on a topic and my conversation partner is ignorant about it, then I will desire agreement insofar as my conversation partner is congenial to and hungry for being instructed.

If we are both ignorant, we should not worry at all about agreement, but should instead desire to become knowledgeable, if that is possible and if (or when) circumstances allow.

If we are both knowledgeable but disagree on some point, then we may hope to learn from one another, but beyond that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about reaching complete agreement.

If my happiness is contingent on whether another person agrees with me, or on whether I agree with another, then I have made myself the servant of the other person’s whims, over which I have no control. Instead, I should seek to agree with myself, to satisfy my own (reasonable, intelligent) standards of evidence, and to learn from others what they can teach me, and beyond that, only to be glad for whatever knowledge or wisdom I have been fortunate enough to attain.

Slow the bleeding

Have you ever felt like a habit is useless because it doesn’t seem to be helping make progress? If anything, perhaps do things seem to be getting worse in spite of the habit?

I was reflecting recently that even in such a situation, it’s possible that the habit could still be a good and valuable one to preserve. That’s not the only possibility; we should always be trying to improve or replace deficient habits. Still, this possibility should remain at the back of our mind. It may help us make sense of some problems which are otherwise obstinately insensible and frustrating.

It’s possible that a good habit can slow our decline, for minimal effort, until it is possible to devote more time to it. In the long run, such a habit may more than repay the time devoted to it, even though in the moment all it seems to be doing is losing ground.

When I finished my fourth semester of biblical Hebrew, our professor told us that if we could read a single verse of Hebrew every day, we would preserve our Hebrew at that same level. If we could read two verses a day, we would continually grow and improve at the language with hardly any effort.

We all left that lecture, I am sure, with high spirits and the best of intentions. I promptly (along with, I suspect, most of the others) completely stopped reading Hebrew for several months. By the time I tried to return to it, I was already feeling terribly rusty, and the effort to get back to competence was frustratingly taxing.

What if I had instead chosen a middle path? What if I would have tried to read a few words of Hebrew every day, or a verse of Hebrew only once a week? In that case, I probably would have gotten worse at Hebrew, but certainly more slowly than if I were doing no Hebrew at all. And I’m sure you can see where this is going — once the inspiration hit me to review and bring my Hebrew back up to full strength, several months later, the distance I’d have to climb would not have been nearly so dispiriting.

Sometimes a habit doesn’t even have to be moving us in the right direction. Sometimes it’s enough even if all it’s doing is slowing down the descent toward mediocrity, for the time being.

Liberal Education and Disinformation

Strangely (at least to me), I’ve noticed that many of those I know who have some semblance of a liberal education, are the same people who are more likely to be influenced by recent nutty conspiracy theories.

My instinct would generally be to expect that liberal education should preserve us from disinformation, rather than making us vulnerable to it. However, there may be some factors that make my instinct wrong.

There are a few reasons I can think of for why the liberally educated may be more open to conspiratorial thinking. One might just be that a liberal education strengthens a person to be able to entertain seriously the sorts of claims that to most other people would seem ludicrous. Just because a thing is ridiculed does not make it wrong; indeed, very often in history it is precisely those who are doing the ridiculing who are in the wrong, who are missing something unfamiliar and true and vitally important.

And what could be more ridiculous than a conspiracy theory? Liberally educated people might seem then to be ideally situated to evaluate sympathetically the sorts of conspiracy theories that would be simply dismissed out of hand by many other smug educated people. This is in principle not a bad thing, although experience shows that it also represents a real danger.

Part of the problem as well might just be a profound lack of familiarity with scientific method and good study design among those with a background in liberal education. In debates within the liberal arts, there may be two or more competing views, each with merits, each with arguments and counterarguments, and the point isn’t so much to say which is right but to explore the arguments for all sides and decide which seems most compelling or defensible. To which historical figure or community is the prodigal son intended to correspond? We will never know for sure, though we can rehearse and improve on the arguments for various candidates. Our training makes us liable to think that science works similarly. We gravitate to a view of science often associated (rightly or wrongly) with Kuhn, according to which science isn’t necessarily getting better, exactly, but is passing from one dominant paradigm to another to another, thus revealing power relationships more than any independent realities about the world. Such a view of science is not entirely wrong, but it is far from the entire truth. Some liberally educated people will have a decent grasp of how science actually works and ought to work and the ways in which it can go wrong, but again, experience has suggested recently that people with such broad interests and understanding are too rare among the liberally educated.

There’s also a confounding factor to keep in mind. The people who are more likely to be exposed to or interested in liberal education seem to come from the same communities that are more likely to accept disinformation (eg faith communities). The two things aren’t directly related, perhaps, but may rather coincide because of a shared cause.

Does all of this suggest that liberal education may have outlived its usefulness? I hesitate to go that far, but I do wonder if the present circumstances should incline us to search out ways to make liberal education more robust for our era, better suited to the realities that face us in our day. I believe that a liberal education continues to serve a vital purpose in our world. We must recognize, however, that it cannot live up to its promise, and may even undercut its good work, if it does not pass on to its students the tools necessary to think well about the world as it presents itself to us in our day.

The Experience of Reading Natural Right and History

I had never read Strauss’s book Natural Right and History (henceforth NRH) from beginning to end until just recently. In the past I tried reading it in its entirety and always got too bogged down early on for one reason or another, and ended up instead just jumping around to the parts that were of greatest interest to me.

I don’t know if that’s a common experience, but assuming that I’m not completely singular in this, I am tempted into the dubious position of disagreeing with the great Harvey Mansfield. I’ve heard Mansfield say in a couple of interviews that he recommends NRH as a good starting point for people interested in learning about Strauss, and I can see why he says so; I’ve realized that the book holds a central place in the work of Strauss, and maybe even in the entire history of thinking about the topic of natural right. Still, I myself believe there are friendlier entry points for beginning to read Strauss, so when asked this is still not my own recommendation for a first book of Strauss for a person to read. My own advice is actually to begin with On Tyranny.

Nonetheless, I’ve come to realize that the person who wants to claim any sort of understanding of Strauss really must, must read NRH, probably multiple times. The book clears up many misunderstandings of Strauss, misunderstandings often propagated not only by Strauss’s enemies, but also by many of his enthusiastic admirers. Not only that, but the book clarifies much about the history and the theory of political and ethical thought. I’ve read many of the books he references in his footnotes — Plato’s dialogues, Xenophon, Aristotle’s ethical and political treatises, Cicero, Aquinas, for instance. Yet, the way he knits them together into a single, seamless, sensible tapestry is astonishing to see. I’ve never had a glimpse of that vista of understanding before. It is up there among the most important things I’ve ever read, and may indeed be one of the most important things a person could read, in my own estimation.

I felt that it would be worthwhile to trace out my own experience of reading through the whole book for the first time, for the sake especially of the person who has never read it in full and doesn’t know what the commotion is all about. I certainly can’t hope to distill all the lessons of the book into a few paragraphs, but to try to do justice to the experience of reading seems a worthy goal in itself. It is an amazing, unparalleled experience.

Let me start with the book’s introduction. The introduction seems to make some astonishing promises to the reader. It sets up expectations that appear impossible for Strauss to fulfill (although, we will see, the book does an improbably good job of proving such skepticism wrong). We must, and Strauss will help us, find our way out of the moral morass of modern thought about justice, not so much through extending any part of the modern project, but rather by showing how the Socratics found a path to knowledge of natural right, a path that already at the beginning substantially encompassed and anticipated and answered the implicit and explicit rebuttals of modern developments. The reader begins, then, with a sense of wonder at the scale of this venture, and also a measure of doubt that Strauss, or anyone, could accomplish what Strauss has set out to do. There may be a suspicion, or a fear, that Strauss’s stated goal may not be his real goal, that his exoteric aim is unattainable through no fault of his own and must conceal some esoteric purpose for the writing, not because he has signalled any such thing but only because that scheme would allow him to escape the trap he has apparently set for himself and still emerge relatively blameless from the encounter.

Chapter one embarks into the mind of the historicist, one of the two modern intellectual enemies that Strauss tells us he has set out to undo in this book. This first chapter is very light on footnotes. The enemy is largely a faceless enemy. Who is the historicist? It’s hard to say, Strauss tells us. There’s still work to be done in writing the history of the emergence of historicism, and that is not Strauss’s business here. Or so he suggests. He proposes to lay out not so much the history of the movement, but rather the intellectual structure of the thing, its philosophical starting point and its logical development. In a way, he asks us to take on faith that he is correct in his ability to recognize historicism in the form it has reached in his day, and in his ability to trace its conclusions backward through its justifications to its genesis. For the reader who is willing to grant him this much, the chapter does feel quite illuminating. The historicism he describes is something recognizable as an intellectual force even today, more than half a century after he wrote, and the account he offers of how it presents itself and defends itself is sympathetic and careful, even as he tries to point out some of its implications and natural outgrowths that will seem untenable, problematic, contradictory, or unsupportable.

Chapter two seems to me like the most difficult, and perhaps (if I may say) the most poorly-written part of the entire book. Strauss attempts to address a contemporary version of positivism as exemplified in Max Weber. The footnotes here are abundant with references to the works of Max Weber. The very end of the chapter returns to Strauss’s lucid, grand account of the relation of big ideas and their tensions and developments. Much of the chapter, however, descends into the fine details of Weber’s arguments and his mode of expressing himself, jumping back and forth somewhat erratically between summary and sympathetic elaboration and impassioned denunciations. Strauss has some important points to make, I think, but it almost feels like the writing of the chapter was rushed. He is straining to show the problems with Weber’s account, from the inside, without needing to appeal to premises that are alien to Weber’s own thought and thus too easily batted aside as irrelevant to Weber’s conclusions, but he is for this reason forced to speak in ways that do not come easily to him and is constantly seeming to second-guess himself and correct how he articulates his objections. There are many obvious and familiar objections he could have made to Weber, but he did not allow himself to take the easy way out, and so the reader is brought along on a difficult and sometimes tedious journey. Perhaps on future readings of this chapter its interior coherence will be clearer to me, but in any case it is not an easy read, and the reader might come away from it with a sense of confusion and uncertainty.

Still, at this point in the book we have a clear sense of the magnitude of the task facing the defender of classical natural right doctrine, perhaps made even more acute by the sort of floundering that takes place in attempting to say what exactly is wrong with Weber’s account of human knowledge. More than this, the reader has begun to hunger for the classical account of natural right, to wish that the classical account could give an answer, could lead us to a view of justice that transcends modern objections, even if it now looks more than ever dubious that such a thing could exist or could succeed. And that is when we enter the third and fourth chapters of the book, the central chapters. I will treat them as a unity, since they clearly belong together and depend on one another. (Incidentally — these chapters helped make clear to me that the way I had previously treated this book, jumping around to the interesting parts, is precisely the wrong way to read it. Strauss will often argue persuasively for a conclusion of classical political thought, before showing a few pages later why that conclusion was recognized by the ancients themselves to be incomplete or inadequate in itself, which propels him into the next stage of the argument. This is a book that must be seen as a whole to be seen at all.)

Chapters three and four are Strauss at his very best. They are an exhilarating, exciting, masterful journey from the human world before philosophy, through philosophy’s first inroads, to the triumph of Socratic political doctrine. The chapters are heavy with footnotes, and each footnote documents multiple classical sources for each of the steps of the argument. For the person who has read widely in the classics, there will be nothing unfamiliar in any of its individual parts, but those parts are pieced together here with an unbelievable fluency, each point leading to the next with a nearly irresistible inevitability, all of classical political thought seemingly swallowed up into this careful march from the first hints of philosophy to its fulfillment in Socratic thought. The steps are numerous, but the reader is pulled willingly along. I could hardly put the book down while reading through these chapters. By the end of chapter four, it is hard to doubt that Strauss has already accomplished the impossible task he set for himself at the beginning of the book, to make Socrates’ insights speak to us in language that is true to the classics and also comprehensible and compelling to the modern reader. Yet Strauss is not yet finished, and the reader is glad.

Having given us our present moment in the first two chapters, and the ancient past in the subsequent two chapters, Strauss will now bridge the gap to describe the road by which we were led from the latter to the former. After an exceedingly brief comment on Thomism at the end of chapter four, chapter five presents itself at first glance as a chapter about John Locke, though we soon learn that a treatment about the significance of Locke for modern political philosophy must begin with a discussion of Hobbes, of his own importance for the history of political thought and in particular his importance for the philosophical achievements of Locke. At this point NRH is no less insightful than in its third and fourth chapters, and yet it has lost some momentum. I no longer had the same headlong sense of being unable to put the book down. We feel a little as though we’re merely tying up loose ends now, having already accomplished the most important task by thinking through the Socratic project under Strauss’s guidance.

What I’ll say about chapters five and six is that they do offer us the confidence that we have seen clearly how it was possible to move from Socrates and his followers to the historicists and Weber by a long and slow process. In Hobbes already the seeds of those later developments are visible with Strauss’s guidance. The section on Locke, somewhat surprisingly to me, is where Strauss gives the greatest attention to his characteristic themes of esoteric writing and the tense incompatibility of biblical faith and philosophical inquiry. Rousseau and Burke represent noble attempts to overcome modern political philosophy but in ways that only lead us closer, in the final accounting, to historicism and nihilism.

There is certainly much that remains unsaid in this book. Strauss is constantly making comparisons and drawing connections between the philosophical eras that he discusses, and yet still the reader will have to expend some effort to fill out those connections and contrasts, and to see the other ones of which Strauss was surely aware but which he did not get around to explaining here. Furthermore, even within individual chapters, Strauss begins many thoughts and leaves them incomplete as he transitions to the next point. I have a strong sense that there are important implications that need to be drawn out that he never came back around to state explicitly himself; I have this feeling especially in connection with chapter four. Still, even without having yet filled in any of the blanks that Strauss left, I am certain that the knowledge explicitly imparted in this book is some of the most intelligent and important that can be learned. This book is the skeleton for which all of Strauss’s other work supplies the flesh. It lays out, I am tempted to think, all (or almost all) of the most important political problems and their alternatives that have been encountered by the great minds of our history. It’s a book I plan to read many more times, and to study with all the care I am capable of.