Leo Strauss and Manliness

It seems like a majority of the self-professed Straussians out there in the world are conservatives of one sort or another, whether the neocons of a previous generation, the Reaganite tea-partiers of the Obama days, or the more conspiratorial ethno-nationalist right-wingers of the present moment. There are fierce intra-Straussian divisions, no doubt, but again, the majority of them seem to take up space somewhere to the right of the ideological centre.

Perhaps it’s not unrelated that they also often seem to hold in common a conviction about the importance of retaining, or promoting, or rescuing the virtue of manliness. Mansfield’s Manliness book might typify this tendency.

I’m in the process of reading through all of Strauss’s published work and taking pretty careful notes as I go. I’d estimate that I’m currently about halfway to my goal (it turns out to be quite a substantial project!). As I’ve been reading, it occasionally strikes me how there is a strange lack of alignment between the master and the students on this subject.

The elephant in the room is that Strauss himself hardly seems to be of the type of manly specimen that Straussians often lionize. Intellectually imposing he may have been, but in other respects he doesn’t particularly come across as what you’d call a hard or manly man, when you look at pictures, listen to his lectures, or hear his acquaintances tell about him. Something similar might be said about other prominent Straussians like Bloom or even Mansfield himself (whom Strauss apparently used to call “rabbit”).

There are a few spots in Strauss’s writing that seem to bear on the question of manliness (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find more in, say, his Hobbes or Machiavelli books, which I haven’t yet read). In only one place that I can think of does he speak specifically and substantially about manliness, and in that place he has a markedly dim view of it. I refer to his chapter on Thucydides in The City and Man. He says there that manliness was exalted during the days of civil war, displacing higher virtues, and bringing about a dark season for the Greeks in question.

Two other places in Strauss, probably thematically linked, also suggest themselves to me. Strauss speaks of Plato’s treatment of thumos, and elsewhere of the supposed “nihilism” of the German youth before Hitler came to power. He is approving of Plato’s political insight into the place of spiritedness, and he shows a similar level of insight and sympathy himself in diagnosing the martial passions of his German peers and the inadequate response of their educators. I will need to go back and reread these texts at some point to refresh my memory on the subtler details, but the bottom line seems to me to have been not so much that we need to inspire people to a spirited martial manliness. Rather, we need to be able to recognize it for what it is, and channel it in ways that are productive, or at least in ways that are less destructive and unwise, which perhaps a Plato can accomplish more effectively than contemporary social scientific thinking.

The most charitable way to characterize this difference between Strauss and Straussians is to focus on the change of context. If we assume that his school has inherited Strauss’s spirit and sensibilities (an assumption that is at once probably both safe and dangerous to make), then the change of message could be explained by the political needs of a new generation. Do they feel we are now especially in need of the virtues of civil war? They might sometimes speak in this way, but I am unconvinced that this is the heart of it. Is it more that there is a disquieting conflict on the horizon between a simmering build-up of suppressed martial sentiments on the one hand, and on the other an academic and ideological incomprehension of the role of spiritedness in social and political communities? I can think of no better or more charitable explanation for the discrepancy.

Virtue and knowledge

Socrates famously links virtue with knowledge.

The example he offers which has stuck in my memory, though I don’t hear others use it, is the deep-sea diver (or whatever the ancient equivalent would have been). An expert, experienced diver takes a risk every time he makes a serious trip into the depths. An ignorant, inexperienced diver who attempts anything but the most basic maneuver might have little chance of resurfacing. For Socrates, the former is the virtuous one, and the later vicious, even though in one sense we might say that the latter was facing a greater fear and so giving evidence of a greater courage.

There’s a strand of moral sensibility today that students of philosophy often associate with Kant, which suggests that the most praiseworthy moral deeds are the ones for which the doer receives no reward. If you do a good thing that costs you nothing and risks nothing, then it’s better than doing a bad thing but otherwise it’s not worth much.

I was thinking about this in relation to self defence recently.

If you ever need to defend yourself or a loved one, being proficient in self defence will in one sense make it easier, less risky, more likely to succeed. Of course, such things can always be dangerous, and no matter how you prepare, courage will always be required.

In that one sense, the unprepared person may be more courageous for doing the same thing. There’s some kind of truth in that view, I think.

But given the choice, it’s better to do it with preparation, I think, and choosing to face such situations unprepared is in no way superior, and in many ways worse.

The Possible Enemy

The possible enemy can be a wonderful motivator.

We’ve all been disliked on occasion, gossiped about, sabotaged, targeted. What if, someday, a person took a real dislike to me? What if that person decided to take me down a peg, to get me out of the way? Or if not me then perhaps someone I care about?

It’s not impossible. And that possibility can inspire us to strive to be better than we would otherwise be. I don’t know why it’s so powerful, but something about the way we’re wired makes this a worthwhile thing to dwell on.

I often think of Socrates urging Alcibiades that if he wants to be a good politician, he must aim to be superior not only to his peers but to the very best Athenian politicians of his day, of any day, better than the best politicians in all the Greek speaking world, better even than the pharaoh in Egypt and the great king in Persia.

I find something inspiring in trying to compete against people who will probably never even know I exist, knowing that someday they could know me and that I’d love to surprise them with what I am able to do.

I think that deep down, this is at least a big part of why I began to care about philosophy and politics and economics, and health and fitness, and so many of the other things I care about. I’m competing against people who don’t know me, just in case I might someday be in a competition of some sort with them or with someone like them.

As I’ve said, I’m aware that this doesn’t totally make sense, probably. But it’s true about how many people think, I suspect, and it really does push a person to be better.

Philosophy, friendship, and ideology

It’s been interesting to watch how I’ve lost the will to discuss philosophical or theoretical or intellectual topics with certain acquaintances over the years.

The first batch of conversation partners flamed out, I suppose, late in the Obama/Harper years. The other main grouping went up in smoke “late” in the Trump/Trudeau years (if, as I hope, Trudeau doesn’t remain in power too much longer and Trump doesn’t get back into the White House). The first group was made up of very unreasonable, angry young progressives, and the second of very unreasonable, angry young right-wingers.

I don’t claim that I was indefatigably blameless or perfect in all these interactions, though in my defence it can be difficult to know quite what the right thing is to do when seeking to have an intelligent conversation with someone whose brain has been thoroughly corrupted by prepackaged ideologies. But my purpose here isn’t to assign blame, but rather to consider the after-effects of these conflicts, as I’ve experienced them.

I think that a truly philosophical friendship, a friendship that facilitates genuine shared inquiry into philosophical questions, requires a deep trust. It’s a trust that attributes to the other person a particular sort of virtue, trusting that the person will be willing to question assumptions, especially the sorts of assumptions that the questioners would have personal reasons of one sort or another to accept unquestioningly. It is a kind of lighthearted, hungry intellectual freedom that underlies these partnerships.

That sort of virtue exists. The people who exhibit that virtue are out there. Long chats with them can be a delight. But you never know how deep the virtue really goes in a person, I find, until it’s actually tested.

The average person, without that special something that makes the soul inclined toward philosophical questions, will react to many sorts of questions with defensiveness, horror, fear, uncertainty, disbelief, anger, disgust, contempt, no matter the apparent motives for asking, and that is an entirely natural and suitable way to respond.

Someone who wants to think through the assumptions underpinning our view of the world will learn relatively young to avoid broaching these questions with such people, as it can only cause pain to both sides. By the same token, such a person learns to rejoice when encountering another inquisitive mind that can bracket dogmatisms for the purpose of exploration. This can grow into the sort of friendship that allows for strong differences and disagreements without ever really deteriorating into ugly emotions.

But such friendships seem to be fragile things in one way, depending in the end on a trust that is strong and yet breakable. Philosophical virtue, it appears, can reach its limits and revert back into vice, especially under the influence of a potent dose of dogmatic ideology. I don’t think ideology is bad as such, but it does seem it can have an anti-philosophic effect on precisely the sorts of minds that may be most drawn to inquire into it.

It’s relatively rare to find the delightful people I’ve described and to establish such bonds of trust, and it is a deep misfortune to lose that aspect of the friendship. There’s a friend of mine who broke with me in this way over a decade ago, and while we still enjoy one another’s company, there’s a guardedness now that for the moment at least seems permanently insurmountable.

My instinct at present seems to be to put some friendships on life-support during social moments of ideological fervour and agitation; I communicate less, try to stay more superficial, with the hope of returning to normal when the social crisis has run its course. I’ve learned I’m happier not knowing how deep the virtue runs in a given person. Those trusted few are too precious to lose, even if it means having to remain somewhat ignorant about the extent of a friend’s trustworthiness, in a way. I realize that this probably sounds like a bit of a grim piece of calculus, and I agree. I don’t claim to have found the right way to approach these things, but this is what I’ve managed to arrive at so far.

Leftist utilitarianism and right-wing deontology

I think that, while it’s not possible to draw hard, exclusive lines here, progressive sensibilities evince a gravitational pull toward utilitarianism and conservative instincts gravitate toward deontology. (Both sides can care about virtue, and for both, I’ll conjecture, it will be connected to the larger frameworks I’m talking about in this post.)

I’m not saying there are no people on the left who care about moral rules; clearly, many do. But it is possible to be a perfectly legitimate leftist who thinks all moral rules can be justifiably trampled in the quest for utopia.

The leftist wants good things for all, with the smallest number possible excluded (preferably none at all), and to have the benefits as widely distributed as possible without an advantaged, hoarding class taking too much of what could be shared.

Some people on the right sincerely work toward a similar future, but it is possible to be a genuine conservative who doesn’t particularly care about child labourers, or slavery, or needless deaths or disability, etc., so long as the superior people at least (whether that’s the capitalists or the warriors or the philosophers etc) are doing the things they are obligated to do.

Often you’ll hear people on the right arguing against the left as if they were utilitarians: “Well actually though, if you really did care about all those people doing well, then you should be focused on economic liberty / law and order / entrepreneurial spirit / virtue / etc., and I can prove it.” But in that case, the blessings that stretch out to fill the ends of the earth are the effect of doing the right things, and therefore are the proof of their rightness. The greatest good of the greatest number isn’t the goal, it’s, at best, one of the byproducts of working at the correct goal.

One of the biggest differences between right and left, in theory, tends to be the attitude toward hierarchy. The left wants to flatten the hierarchy out as much as possible, and the right is at least indifferent (or often enthusiastic) about one hierarchy or another rising up within a population. There are a few different ways we could relate that difference to the two moral approaches I outlined above, and I’m not sure which one is the main reason, but I definitely think they are related.

How do you adjudicate between the two sides, as if we had a neutral moral standard to use? And, if you wished to fuse the two into a single whole, as is my first impulse, we are left with the question of which one will be the graft and which will be the host. Difficult conundrums.

Do they disagree?

Would you like to be disliked by as many people as possible? This sentence is a good start, I’ve found:

“I agree with the things you’re saying positively, but I don’t want to deny all the things you’re denying.”

You’d think, very reasonably, that saying this to everyone would in fact be a great way to get along with everyone, to be supremely likeable. If you’re cynical, you might even assume that’s the one reason a person would ever want to say something like this.

But let me tell you, it’s not true. It turns out, in my experience, that people care less about whether you agree with them, than about whether you disagree with their enemies. Isn’t that a fascinating thing?

Let’s take a really obvious example. Say to some people who are politically progressive, “I agree with all the things you’re saying, except that I think conservatives have a lot of wise and worthwhile points too.” Which half of the sentence do you think they’ll grab hold of? Say to conservatives, “All the things you’re saying are true, but the goals of the progressives are legitimate and important too.” Will they walk away feeling like they have a new friend and ally, or a strange new kind of enemy?

Here’s what I’ve found to be a responsible way to begin thinking about a theoretical question: if some very intelligent people have believed a thing, or if a very large number of people have believed a thing, then it’s probably true, or at least largely true. (Note that this applies only to theoretical propositions, not necessarily to practical, factual, or historical propositions.)

This starting point runs aground as soon as we notice that one of the most common kinds of beliefs people have are beliefs that another group of people with different beliefs is stupid and flat-out wrong. We can’t accept that kind of belief into our approach without getting entangled in all sorts of contradictions from the start. So let’s just eliminate those beliefs from consideration, then: all positive, substantive beliefs are likely to be true (or largely true).

This is an amazing approach. Take it for a drive. If what you care about is truth, then this is like a shortcut to being open to learning from everyone who has something to teach. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If what you care about is being liked by anyone, though, then it’s best to put this idea out of your mind, and try to forget you ever heard it.

Free time

A lot of my reflections in recent years have grown out of questions about how best to use free time.

Most of us are well aware of how busy we are, and rightly so; if we aren’t independently wealthy from a young age, then the majority of us spend a large part of our day in education or work or both, and apart from a brief period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, most of us are kept busy too with family life or with the romances that can precede family life.

The majority of us, though, also have more free time than we tend to realize. It usually fills itself up without our needing to make any effort, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have it, or that we can’t make decisions about how to use it.

Some of the less good (but not necessarily strictly bad) ways to use free time might include reading fiction and scrolling on social media (two of my minor vices), watching tv shows and movies, and superficial socializing. None of these are evil, and they can all have their place, but there’s an opportunity cost. All of the things we would legitimately describe as real vices fall here too, and of course they are not nearly so harmless.

Many of the good things we want to pursue would also fit here as well. Want to get to the gym or get more exercise? For the vast majority of us, that will take up some free time. Planning for and grocery shopping for and prepping and cooking healthy food, likewise. Learning languages, studying worthwhile topics, learning new skills. Making wise financial decisions. Investing time in family and close friendships. Trying to improve the world in whatever ways are available to us.

While there are lots of leftist concerns and proposals that I think are valid (as I’ve written about here previously), efforts to use free time well seem to me to be a more right-wing preoccupation, thanks to the emphasis on individual responsibility.

Admittedly, such efforts are often in practice misguided, but the effort still counts for something, is at least the necessary if not the sufficient condition for self-improvement. It can be good to accept ourselves as we are, and it is reasonable to ask what forces outside ourselves have led to the bad outcomes we suffer, but too heavy a focus on those factors takes away from the opportunities that really do exist to escape our circumstances and improve our lot.

We can’t always change things for ourselves, but we can always try, and if we try we will often find at least some measure of success. Given that, it is important to try to find not just good ways to spend our free time but the best ways to spend it for the goals we set ourselves. Over time we can improve not only ourselves but also the measures we take for self-improvement.

If that’s the project, as I’ve tried to make it for myself, then over time, it’s hard to doubt that life can only get better.

Hammering out consensus with the foe

There’s a small group of friends that I’ve been having intellectual discussions with, usually on a daily or weekly basis, since I was eighteen.

I really disagree with them on some things that are really important to me. They’re a bit older than I am, and during their educations they decided to see if they could be good Christians while embracing a radical, unrelenting rejection of the sort of classical philosophical heritage that has long underpinned Christian thought.

They think they’ve found a good way to achieve that goal, and while it’s taken me a long time to be able to say this, I agree that they’ve found something workable. They also think what they’ve found is superior to the more classical alternative, and of course on that point I still have to disagree.

We’ve been able to continue conversing mainly, I think, because of our shared faith. We have something we all care about that anchors us together, a shared set of presuppositions we can appeal to and agree on as needed. Without that, there’s no way we could have kept the closeness that we have managed, even though at times our patience with one another has grown quite thin.

They never convinced me of their side, and I never convinced them of mine. We both saw ourselves as the underdog; I always felt like they represented the politically ascendant, oppressive opinions of the contemporary humanities, and they in turn saw me as representative of the ancient, hegemonic dogmatism of past ages of intolerance.

But I am unbelievably grateful for the long, often painful process that has been my friendship with this group. They generally aren’t my closest friends, but they have shaped me in one of the ways that it is hardest to be shaped. They have helped me expand my thinking, and escape some of my mental limitations.

I think of this when I hear some intelligent right-wing ideologue making snide comments about a strawman version of an opposing argument. When you don’t understand the people you’re disagreeing with, you are not only unpersuasive, but really, ridiculous. The best way to beat an intellectual opponent is to understand thoroughly, to steal the best ideas, and then to critique accurately. I’m not perfect at it by any means, but I’m grateful that I’m less bad than I otherwise would have been without these companions.

Virtue and Luck

The virtuous person is the happy person. But we can’t say that without having to think about the role of luck.

A more virtuous person is a luckier person, first off. This is not because of karma or even providence exactly, but because the cumulative effects of your actions push in a good direction and dispose your situation to be better in all sorts of ways.

But even if good things happen to you more often as a good person, that doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people, as everyone has always known. On occasion, the worst things happen to perfectly good people.

And vice versa. Even if an immoral person will generally speaking end up meeting with bad luck more often, there are many examples of bad people who ended up getting very fortunate in one way or another.

The simplest and classic way of dealing with this problem is to look at what happens after death, at final judgement or reincarnation, where the scales are balanced.

There’s a long tradition, though, of limiting the scope of our musings and saying, is it still worthwhile to be virtuous, from the standpoint of happiness in the present life alone, if all our effort can be cancelled out by a single bad roll of the cosmic dice?

And the answer is yes. Good luck and bad can befall the virtuous and the vicious alike. The good person who suffers a great misfortune will admittedly not be as happy as if the bad thing never happened. However: the virtuous person who suffers evils will be the happiest it is possible to be while suffering what could happen to anyone. Conversely, the bad person who enjoys a stroke of good luck will be the most unhappy it is possible to be while enjoying what could have happened for anyone.

It just makes sense. The most important thing you can do for your happiness, no matter what is coming, is to pursue virtue ceaselessly.

Eating for exercise

I spend a lot of time thinking about, and experimenting with, food.

Not to make it taste good. If I have you over to my place and I’m in charge of making food I’ll probably be panicking a little.

But I’m very interested in figuring out how to make the healthiest food I can while keeping it from becoming too unpalatable (so I guess that’s sort of like thinking about how to make it taste good). I love to find ways to make a food that is packed with healthy nutrients and is palatable enough that I can eat it regularly, and I’m constantly trying different ways of getting to that goal.

The reason why I first started doing this (and in large part why I continue to do it) is because in my late teens and early twenties I became quite obese, and ever since, I have been trying to find my way back to a healthier weight. I have tried many many things, and researched and learned a lot. On the weight goal I’ve made a lot of progress and even, in more successful seasons, probably walk down the street and pass as “normal” weight or body composition, but I’m still a long way off from the more ideal weight range I continue to shoot for. My hope now is that in a few years when my children are older, I might be able to find more time to spend exercising, which could help get me further along toward my goals.

And that brings me to my reason for writing today. I don’t get to exercise nearly as much as I’d love to today, but I do still fit it in when I can, and lately I’ve been reflecting with some amazement on how different it feels to exercise now than it used to. I used to get real chest pain from just a little bit of running around, so that I couldn’t imagine exercise without it. I can remember that feeling even as a teenager in gym class. I assumed that’s what exercise felt like for everyone because I’d never really known exercise as anything different.

And losing weight, by itself, didn’t really change that for me very much. I enjoyed lifting weights during much of my weight loss journey because of how minimally aerobic fitness entered into it. But I can remember having lost a lot of weight and wanting to improve my running and still hitting up against the same wall, the same chest pain.

Now, I can go for a long, easy run, for a couple hours, in a way I never could before, and I feel not just decent or okay but amazing while I do it. I really think it comes in large part from the latest change in the way I eat. About four years ago I switched to a way of eating that has worked really well for me. I’m not trying to tell anyone else how to eat here but simply wanted to take a moment to feel grateful for what has worked for me, and to share in case anyone else is interested.

Basically, the rule of thumb I’ve adopted (inspired mainly by a book I’ve mentioned here before, How Not to Die by Michael Greger), is to increase fibre and decrease saturated fat intake. If a food isn’t contributing to your fibre intake, then eat less of it (eg processed foods like refined flour or refined starch or refined sugar or oil, or animal products). If a food is contributing to your saturated fat intake, then eat less of it (eg coconut oil or palm oil or most animal products). At the other end of the spectrum, the healthiest things to eat are berries, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, and legumes, so I try to eat more of those—although there are plenty of other perfectly healthy things to eat beyond these four as well, of course.

It’s hard for me to express how much more effortless exercise has gotten for me since I started eating that way. Thinking about it makes me feel grateful and astonished, both at once.