After Vesuvius: A Response to Decius


Politically, I must congratulate Decius on his victory. Philosophically, I must thank Decius for his irony. In his graceful reply to me, he dissimulated his own superiority for the sake of his inferior. He took the time to educate one lesser in wisdom, a mere student, a weaker writer, and a foreigner at that. Evidently his love for his own does not hinder his attachment to a particular type of human being (see On Tyranny, 200-201).

Decius grasped my intention. Those who had the patience for my overly long essay knew that it had two parts. In the first, I restated Decius’s argument in the terms of classical political philosophy. These were terms I believe his critics had failed to grasp, terms that highlighted the gap between Decius and his critics. The second was a claim that Decius needed to develop his position further with respect to his post-constitutional prediction. Decius accepted that he needed to say more about the post-constitutional situation, and situated himself against three possible options I described but to which did not definitively commit myself—or Decius. That led to an ambiguity in my essay, which Decius artfully identified:

Beyond that, I’m going to skip his praise and our agreements—which are numerous—and get right to the disagreements. Or apparent disagreements. Because I am not so sure that Pinkoski and I disagree as much as he thinks we do.

I shall give away my secret. I speak to Decius from within the Straussian approach to political philosophy. It is from the Straussian approach to political philosophy that we must consider these apparent disagreements.

In light of Decius’s victory, why philosophize about the post-constitutional prediction? Surely now that Trump has won, the republic is saved? Yet that was never Decius’s argument. Indeed, Decius displayed great daring in thinking about the post-constitutional possibility. With Vesuvius, it has been put off, so he can celebrate. However, the next four years will intensify ferocious quarrels over the meaning and direction of conservatism. There could even be catastrophic defeats: the historian knows well that after Vesuvius comes the Caudine Forks. The spectre of post-constitutionalism still haunts us.

What persists is the need to think comprehensively—to do political philosophy.

Decius has provided helpful clarifications attending to two places where our “apparent disagreements” are actually agreements. His clarification on the relevance of character was meant to stand against my claim that Decius does “not think the character of the candidates has any decisive bearing on practical reasoning.” We have no disagreement: when I said “decisive,” I meant that Decius finds the “most important” issue here, with the characters of the candidates as it is, which in the last analysis directs prudence, is the issue of the common good or best regime. Decius better expresses what I was trying to say. The second attends to my shock over Decius’s insinuation that Strauss would support Trump. Decius offers a splendid moderation of that insinuation. It should give pause to my hypothetical Canadian academic publishing Leo Strauss and the Politics of the American Alt-Right. Straussians are safe, at least for the near future.

A Disagreement over Esotericism?

A great danger of an esoteric writer is that his reticence can be confused with ignorance: of being a sphinx without a secret, as British academics would say. Philosophically, the cost of misinterpreted reticence will simply be that one appears to an audience as less insightful than one really is. This is no great loss for philosophy, as that audience probably lacked the disposition for philosophy. Yet in terms of political philosophy, reticence leaves one vulnerable to abuse on behalf of the unwise who want to appear wise. The unwise can cite these tracts, claim to speak comprehensively about political things and use it to gain power. The charge of Socrates corrupting the youth, after all, implicates whether the youth do politically irresponsible things. The way to beat that charge is to emphasize one’s piety. In our times, that is the piety of anti-authoritarianism—Adorno really is influential.

The kind of critical essays that Decius cites are reason enough for pious reticence (and pious ire). When the critic is so zealous to prosecute on any, shall we say, trumped-up charge of political irresponsibility, one must not give evidence against oneself. What is gained through this strategy, however, can be lost in that it forces philosophy to make concessions to a given worldview. As long as one is still deferential to that worldview, it allows that worldview to direct what is considered politically responsible or irresponsible. Philosophy is left in the hands of impoverished men subscribing to a decaying worldview: “the world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.”

We do not have to follow the Nietzschean strategy of radical, intransigent probity to recognize that some probity may help steer away from genuine political irresponsibility. To be clear, my intention is never to impute ignorance to Decius. My intention was and is to draw him out of his reticence. For now, he can maintain his reticence until the chords of Non nobis and Te Deum are sung. But after that shall be when eagles dare.

A Disagreement about Political Philosophy?

In reply to my suggestion that Decius had not adequately considered the superiority of the philosophic life to the political life, and my playful invocation of East Coast Straussianism, Decius replied that I was slipping into the dogmatism of definitively deciding the question in favour of philosophy—something Strauss never did. Decius’s subsequent analysis is helpful for showing why philosophy should be concerned with resisting tyranny. I would add to it. Strauss’s reply to Kojève focuses on how the universal and homogenous state is an existential threat to philosophy. From the tyrant of the universal and homogenous state, there is no state to flee unto. “The coming of the universal and homogenous state will be the end of philosophy on earth” (On Tyranny, 211). In these times, that sentence should keep Decius’s ‘East Coast Straussian’ up at night. Do they know who the real enemy is?

Nevertheless, the Straussian who tries to choose philosophy over the sect of East Coast Straussianism can say: Strauss makes his conclusion against tyranny from the point of view of philosophy. Decius and I agree that philosophy must be concerned with political things, rejecting any account of philosophy that places the philosophic life beyond good and evil.

One of our few genuine disagreements may be over whether, for Strauss, this concern for political things arises through a heightened awareness of the nature of the philosophic life; or through a synthesis between the philosophic life and political life that arises from being unable to settle definitively the question as to which life is superior. But setting that debate aside, the morality of Decius’s philosopher and the my philosopher are for the most part the same. In the post-constitutional situation, however, it matters what moral principles we identify as the most urgent to act upon. We need moral clarity for prudence in the time of historical confusion that follows November 8, 2016.

Moreover, this moral clarity for prudence arises from trans-political moral principles. In a post-constitutional situation, where we are considering the merits of Caesarism, I wrote: “Decius would have to concede that there are some moral principles which transcend politics, which are of greater import for guiding action than the best regime (c.f. Natural Right and History, 144-45). Yet is this not what the moral conservatives have argued all along?’ Decius agreed, replying: ‘Touché! But this is again a question of circumstance.”

Decius raises fine questions and counsels (I shall have to read Agricola with that question in mind), but Decius missed addressing my reference to Strauss and moral conservatives. In the cited passage, Strauss links the diminishment of the importance of the best regime to the rise of Biblical faith. With Biblical faith, moral principles are raised to a higher dignity than the best regime. In fact as long as one can pursue the moral principles of the Decalogue, it makes no difference in what kind of regime one lives.

From within the Straussian approach, the strongest possible case for the position of moral conservatives proceeds from the position of Biblical faith. Moral conservatives may diminish the question of the best regime, yes, but they have a clear hierarchy of virtues that justifies doing so. Consider Decius’s last question: “If Saguntum falls in a forest, but no one gets out alive, does it make a sound?”

As Bishop Berkeley might say: God hears the sound! That guarantees the sound’s existence. On the basis of Biblical faith, God is always a witness to those who sacrifice their lives for truth. Here, ‘fighting forlornly for a forlorn cause’ is noble and superior, whether other human beings notice it or not. Martyrs need no additional justification. The anonymous whiskey priest who is quietly executed by the anti-clerical Mexican state is just as much a saint as Thomas More, whose trial and execution was a very public affair.

Decius does not talk about God, as a writer for First Things complained some time ago. The issue is that those who appeal to God, those who appeal to revelation, have an answer to the question of what trans-political principles guide action in the absence of an applicable answer to the question of the best regime. They have a clear, applicable stance toward the problem of natural right. Does Decius? There are two ways in which his argument appears inferior to the theological argument.

Is Antiquity Applicable to Biblical modernity?

Besides Decius’s references to Star Wars, he only uses ancient examples to guide prudence. But from the point of view of the moral conservative, are Decius’s examples even relevant? Making our strongest possible case for the moral conservative, the moral conservative could offer this kind of critique of Decius. Let us conjecture a young scholar, who also questions whether the ancient and modern situation is the same.

Since there are essential differences between modern society and the society envisaged by the classics, the classical teaching cannot be immediately applicable to modern society, but has to made applicable to it, that is, must be modernized or distorted.”

This calls into doubt the authority of the classical view. Looking for a reason for the loss of authority of the classical view, this young scholar concludes: “it is especially due to the influence of the Bible that the classical view became questionable, even for many of its adherents.”

Based on the conclusion of this young scholar, the moral conservative would conclude in turn that Decius’s version of Straussianism does not provide applicable counsels for prudence in the modern situation. Decius reveals the poverty of a secular conservatism unduly focused on the ancients.

Have I ventured outside of the Straussian approach to criticize Decius? Am I quoting some young Voegelinian? Not so: as Decius probably recognizes, my young scholar here is none other than Leo Strauss (In Social Research 13, September 1946, 333, 338). (He also probably recognizes that I am brazenly stealing from Nathan Tarcov’s “On a Certain Critique of Straussianism,” but I hope he shall forgive me).

The point here is that for the Straussian approach, the Biblical view has a prima facie advantage in post-Enlightenment modernity. This places anyone who wants to demonstrate the relevance of classical political philosophy in, shall we say, a theologico-political predicament. Moreover, as I noted in my first essay, the post-constitutional situation is exactly the point where the classics appear not to be able to guide action, because the question of the best regime is no longer realizable. So the advantage seems to belong to Biblical faith. How would Decius demonstrate the applicability of the classics over the moral conservative and Biblical faith?

The Problem of Natural Right

Biblical faith provides a second advantage: clarity of teaching on the content of natural right. Its most articulate form, Thomism, argues that the principles of natural right are universally valid and immutable. They are exceptionless moral norms. Thomism, as Strauss says, is “free from hesitations and ambiguities” (Natural Right and History, 163). Moral principles suffer no exception: identify what they are, then act upon them. Thomism gives clarity for prudence.

Nevertheless one might ask whether clarity comes at the expense of philosophy. One can intimate that this stance is too rigid for philosophic reasons, as Strauss does. Strauss strongly criticizes Thomistic natural right for its exceptionless moral norms. In Strauss’s view, one can conjecture certain situations where the exception to the rule may actually serve the common good.

The danger with affirming the exception, as Strauss recognizes, is that it calls into question any universally valid and immutable principles of natural right. Natural right seems completely changeable. Hence it appears to be not natural but conventional. The denial of immutable principles of natural right appears to be the denial of natural right. By criticizing Thomism too strongly, we are left with an account of classical natural right that is so weak it seems the same as relativism. In our modern age, we could go further, and say it is becomes indistinguishable from historicism. An advantage to Biblical faith is that its account of natural right can never be mistaken for historicism.

Let us suppose, however, that we are striving not to provide a rational justification for Biblical faith, but for classical natural right. How would Decius’s justification of natural right avoid relativism or historicism?

Fundamental Alternatives, May 1940-style

This brings me back to my concluding metaphor. My speakers, for those who looked them up, are Philippe Pétain and Charles de Gaulle. Although we now write off Pétain as just another fascist supporting Hitler, and anyone who tries to qualify Pétainisme as doing the same, that was not always the view. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt, hardly a fascist supporting Hitler, categorically preferred Pétain, and the whole Vichy regime, to de Gaulle.

In the summer of 1940 the choice between Pétain and de Gaulle is by no means clear. In fact, the balance is against de Gaulle. The advantages are in the court of Pétain: peace and the immediate cessation of violence; the working institutions of the state being run by venerated national figure; a respect for conservative traditions; a chance to counter the aggressive secularism of the Third Republic; in short, to use Decius’s vocabulary, the possibility of preserving the ‘most glorious literary, artistic, architectural and economic achievements’ of France.

Without a state, De Gaulle’s desire to keep alive the flame of the French resistance seems ridiculous. The only thing that justifies his desire is a moral principle that transcends the apparatus of the state itself. A choice for de Gaulle may be a choice for the noble, but it is also a choice for madness. How many divisions do you command, Mon Général? Moreover, Mon Général, in setting yourself outside and against the working institutions of the French state, are you not guilty of the Caesarism you purport to condemn?

Hence the majority of the French people are not to be denounced outright for their decision to side with Pétain in the summer of 1940. Nevertheless, those who join de Gaulle display great prudential foresight, because they could identify what their post-constitutional situation demanded: de Gaulle’s form of Caesarism. Singing Te Deum in Notre-Dame de Paris, posterity vindicates de Gaulle (c.f. Natural Right and History, 161). After 2016, an education in prudence must teach us how to choose De Gaulle over Pétain.

My metaphor had three purposes: first, and most superficially, it was to see if Decius would say, “after 2016 all is lost, I shall retire from politics and tell others they are silly for fighting on.” I doubted this to be the case: but if it were, Pétain versus de Gaulle serves to remind what happens when someone declares a fight is totally lost.

It also addresses those who argue that one can only rebuild the trans-political principles from some sub-political space. Decius does not write about it, but let us call this a version of the “Benedict Option.” I distinguish it from Decius’s “Tatooine Option,” which is solely about survival. As I see it, the Benedict Option presupposes a liberal political order that is at least indifferent to it. When that political order becomes illiberal and hostile the Benedict Option cannot endure, because the sub-political space faces destruction: it is eventually met with the “Alderaan Solution.” In the present time, I do not critique those who argue for a Benedict Option. I only argue that in a worsening post-constitutional situation, the line blurs between defeatists and collaborators. Those who advocate the Benedict Option are advising the resistance to throw down their weapons—which is the same “advice” the resistance hears from Berlin.

Second, my metaphor concedes that in a post-constitutional situation, the choice is between different forms of Caesarism guided by the right articulation of trans-political principles. Careful readers will notice that, in exhorting the importance of trans-political principles, I invoked Simone Weil rather than the more famous Jacques Maritain. My reason? Their different stances toward de Gaulle.

Third, and most philosophically, it was to spur Decius to specify the principles by which, in a post-constitutional situation, one could choose the path of De Gaulle and resist the temptation of Pétain. I believe that requires a full engagement with the problem of natural right.

Without a clear statement of the problem of natural right, there is nothing to stand against historicism. Even a conservative who speaks highly of tradition, custom, and civilisation, like Decius, must face this test: if he provides no immutable principle of justice, he cannot face down historicism. This is, I take it, Strauss’s point in the last section of Natural Right and History, where Strauss examines Edmund Burke. One might at first praise Burke for a revival of classical natural right that seems to critique an excessive theoretical abstraction in trans-political principles. Yet by criticizing theory, Burke breaks from the classics (Natural Right and History, 311).

Burkean conservatism thus intensifies the weakness of classical natural right noted above, and is no genuine opposition to historicism. It takes its standard of justification by rejecting theory in the name of historical practice. It thereby displays contempt for theoretical permanencies.

Although it may scandalize some readers, I add that a wholly Burkean conservatism can only be genuine conservatism as long as it speaks from a constitutional situation, and as long as it presupposes healthy historical practices. In the event of a collapse, Burkean conservatism is thrown into the storm of history. It remains genuine conservatism as long as the side winning is already conservative. As soon as it is on the losing side of history, as soon as the practices it holds so dear become corrupted, then Burkean conservatives start writing “the conservative case for…” articles that Decius mentions. Burkean conservatism becomes indistinguishable from historicism; and since progressivism is a kind of historicism, and Pétainisme is a kind of historicism, Burkean conservatism becomes indistinguishable from progressivism and Pétainisme.

Because the issue here is between two stances conservatism could take toward the problem of natural right, a post-constitutional situation can paralyse even a “true conservative” between Gaullisme and Pétainisme. The only way out, I submit, is the non-historicist justification of natural right. And it seems that for the Straussian approach, this proceeds by justifying trans-political principles of classical natural right in the face of the challenge of Biblical faith. Avoiding the Burkean trap, how would Decius provide that justification?

Someone may object that I am demanding too much about the nature of whole from Decius, who was primarily speaking with fierce urgency about how Americans should vote in 2016, and attending to basic confusions about his argument. But to paraphrase Leo Strauss, I declare: a man who writes in this country at this time on Strauss and classical political philosophy bears more than the ordinary responsibility that is borne by every writer. Decius has done much already, yet I urge him to assume fully the mantle of that responsibility, and fulfill his duties to Strauss, to classical political philosophy, and to his country at this time.

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3 responses to “After Vesuvius: A Response to Decius”

  1. Pinkoski makes a valid point that Burkean conservatism can, in some situations, devolve into the wish to conserve what may be a corrupt status quo. (Arguably the current iteration of National Review is an example of this)

    On the other hand “natural right” is no panacea either. I believe the people propounding the doctrine of natural right have the best of intentions, but the trouble with natural right is … who decides what our natural rights are? We’ve seen in our own time with the libertarians a sect of people who insist that there is a natural right to engage in everything from drug use to extramarital sex to homosexual marriage and various other things which would have utterly flabbergasted Aquinas, Locke, Jefferson, or the other thinkers who were proponents of the belief in natural right and natural law.

    At the end of the day the critical question in every polity is – “Who decides?” That’s the case whether we call ourselves Burkean conservatives or natural rights bearing Christians or even atheist progressives. In America the answer to that question is supposed to be “The people”. Traditionally the people were both religious and believers in natural rights, so they could be conservative as well and the whole system of thought held together.

  2. Clarity at the expense of philosophy? No where in this essay. Yet its clear the difference between Oxford and say NYU , is sorta like the difference between Parliamentary government and our own. Its all moot anyway , now as Trump said , the real work begins.

    • Yes. It’s hard to see much point in this, and the comparison to Vichy France is not at all effective. Who exactly is Germany in this analogy?