It’s so much easier to be in opposition. Since the electionis mirabilis, I’ve received a lot of entreaties to say something. Anything! These have come mostly from well-wishers looking for guidance. Tell Trump what to do next! Does anyone actually think I’ve told him what to do up to now? Or that he would listen to me if I told him what to do next? Or that he even knows I exist?
In any case, I don’t need to tell Trump what to do. I supported him in part because it seemed (and still seems) that he already knows what he wants to do, most of which I broadly support. He isn’t always the greatest at explaining his program to intellectuals—though he explained it well enough to 62 million Americans. Still, even though I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t give a damn either way, I took it upon myself (in a moment of Sisyphean idiocy) to explain him to the intellectuals.
That effort has mostly consisted in a series of polemical horse-whippings. Now that Trump has won and conservative opposition has proved less effective than the Maginot Line, I just can’t rouse myself to whip them anymore. Why destroy a prostrate Paris? Paris is beautiful. Not that the conservative movement these days is much to brag about. But the Beaux Arts apartment block at 1789 (!) Massachusetts Avenue sure is! The feeling will no doubt pass, especially as the conservatives regroup and start being hubristically obtuse and stupid again. Obtuse and stupid I can tolerate, but the hubris brings out the poisoned keyboard. But for now, all I can muster is “meh.”
A Worthy Interlocutor
Yet still I am asked to write. It is therefore a pleasure to have Nathan Pinkoski as an interlocutor. I enjoy his flattery, as I presume he enjoyed mine. Or maybe he is better than I in that regard; I hope so. I will nonetheless flatter him a bit more because he is, thus far, the best of my critics to have emerged, and perhaps the best I could have asked for. If this all sounds too treacly for some readers, I make an additional warning: this is another one for the geeks.
Pinkoski congratulates me—more than once—on “[my] victory.” But of course I won nothing. Had I been on the ballot, running on Trump’s (or any) platform, I would have lost in a worse-than-Goldwater blowout. I would be so bad as a candidate that I might even have lost Wyoming. Or been out-polled by Evan McMullin. I think it is also over-generous, and not supported by evidence, to suggest that my writing made any material difference in the outcome. But once again I appreciate the flattery.
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
I am not sure that this is a disagreement because I am quite sure that I did not argue for “a synthesis between the philosophic life and political life.” I am well aware of Strauss’s insistence that, in the final analysis, the two ways of life are at odds and incommensurable. I do not find, or at least have not yet found, a sound reason to reject Strauss’s analysis. I stated but one reason that philosophy must concern itself with politics. I thought I was clear that there are others. But sticking for the moment with the one I did discuss, while philosophy can make a strong case that the philosophic life is higher than the political, it’s indisputably true that while philosophy is dependent on the city, the reverse is not the case. A philosopher then must wonder in what sense a dependent being can be ultimately superior to that upon which it depends, which does not in turn depend on it.
The Eccentric Core
Beyond this there is the issue of “the eccentric core”—in Seth Benardete’s enigmatic phrase. I will not claim to understand Benardete. Even Strauss (I have been told) confessed that he found it difficult to understand Benardete. But I will quote Benardete anyway because this thought is also worth pondering: “the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god”; hence “political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy.” There is no suggestion here of a synthesis, but rather of a necessity: the necessity for philosophy to concern itself with politics, not merely for self-protection, but precisely as a means to achieve its own highest end.
Pinkoski cites my frequent use of ancient examples as a covert signifier that I am approaching the problem of our time through a purely classical, secular lens. That was not my intent. I chose ancient examples simply because they seem the most apt to our situation. The “petty republics” of the Renaissance hold fewer lessons for us, I think, than the grander ones of the ancient world. In any case, I certainly did not mean to deny that our situation differs in fundamental respects from that of antiquity, or that one of those differences is the presence of Biblical faith in the post-pagan West. Certainly, we cannot “go back” nor do the classics offer us “recipes” for today’s use.
Nonetheless, I believe that the cycle of regimes has not been repealed—not by modern philosophy (which explicitly tried to do so) nor by Biblical faith, which does not seem to address the question at all. Rather, as a few of Pinkoski’s comments suggest, Biblical faith would seem to be indifferent to the cycle of regimes, except insofar as it holds that life on earth will culminate in a final state; but that state has nothing to do with the rise and fall individual regimes or even broader political trends, which are man-driven. Render unto Caesar. (Although, I should mention, so as not to be accused of being ignorant, that I am aware of Augustine’s argument that the Roman conquest of the ancient world was ordained by Providence so as to facilitate and even make possible the spread of Christianity.)
Thus, even the faithful must contend with the possibility of secular political failure, as well as the impact that secular politics can have on the practice of faith. I am sure I don’t need to point out that the secular left has been for some time hell-bent on restricting the free exercise of conscience in the name of “non-discrimination,” “anti-bigotry” and the like. The faithful qua faithful may always find refuge in the soul no matter how bad political conditions get. And martyrdom can be admirable when there is no other option. But is it wise—or required by faith—to choose martyrdom for its own sake? Shall we decline to oppose trends that may, if left unchecked, make martyrdom necessary?
Not a Synthesizer
I fear Pinkoski will once again accuse me of being a synthesizer. But I am not here arguing for the ultimate commensurability of faith and reason. I am rather saying that it’s reasonable to believe that the natural world created by God reflects the moral order of His revelation. And that rational investigation of that moral order confirms, or at least strongly supports, this conjecture.
Therefore, it is not a question of “demonstrating the applicability of the classics over the moral conservative and Biblical faith.” It is rather to show that despite their fundamental disagreement at the highest level (over the status of authority), there is ample agreement on the content of morality and the ends of politics. Although there is one sense in which Pinkoski’s posited either/or is probably true: the Bible—especially the New Testament—does not offer much guidance on the institutions or conduct of politics. These are left to secular authority to figure out and enact. Here we have no choice but to have recourse to political philosophy—ancient and modern alike. We of course have recourse to Biblical morality, but in choosing how to promote and enforce that morality—how to create the conditions in which it may thrive—we are mostly on our own. The one exception might be Jews who wish to go back to the time of Judges. There must be at least one somewhere. However, even the most devoutly Orthodox Israelis of whom I am aware accept the essential legitimacy of the secular Israeli state. That is to say, they follow the way of all Jews since the Roman conquest, in separating the faith from the state. There is no Jewish longing for the equivalent of a Caliphate. Gentiles of course have no recourse to Judges and must, of necessity, render unto Caesar. Therefore, for Christian and Jew alike, the political problem looms no matter what one’s view of Biblical faith.
Pinkoski further asks: how would my justification of natural right avoid relativism or historicism? In preparation for this question, he fairly summarizes Strauss’s critique of Aquinas (and by extension of natural law) but he misses or at least does not call out the main point. “In Strauss’s view, one can conjecture certain situations where the exception to the rule may actually serve the common good.” Yes, exactly. And the answer is right there: “common good.” Which is itself a subspecies of the good.
I could not say to what extent Republic VI is exoteric. An East-Coaster would say (or at least think, and perhaps hint): all of it. I am not so sure. At any rate, it seems to me that if we are to talk about morality at all, then there must be a good, whether or not there is a literal, Platonic eidos of the good. The good is, if not fully and finally knowable, definitely investigable, and progress in knowledge is possible. That there is a good—including a human good, and a common good—also seems in accord with common sense and ordinary observation. Remember that political philosophy originates from both. The intellectual and civilizational ills that Pinkoski identifies seem to me fundamentally at odds with basic common sense and would amount to the absurdity that we could not tell the difference between the health of soul in (say) a Strauss or Washington versus a mafia don or a drug addict. We don’t need the Gorgias to see the difference immediately, though perhaps we do to understand that difference at the deepest level. Relativism, in other words, is no less obviously or palpably false than it turns out to be, on investigation, also theoretically and philosophically false.
Never a Justification for Tyranny
Later, Pinkoski claims that if there is “no immutable principle of justice,” we “cannot face down historicism.” The following correction may seem semantic; I think not, but if others know better, I welcome counter-correction. Must there be an immutable principle of justice? Some action or actions that are always good and others that are always bad? It seems to me that there is never any justification for tyranny (as opposed to Caesarism) but beyond that, an adventurous mind can dream up extreme—and extremely improbable—scenarios in which extreme measures are justified.
Natural right is, alas, changeable (Nicomachean Ethics, 1134b30). But the good is eternal. Thus if we substitute “the good” for Pinkoski’s “justice” I think we have solved his problem and avoided his snares.
However, what manifests itself as good—whether thing or action—changes with circumstance. Chemotherapy—a.k.a., radiation poisoning—is good for a cancer patient but very bad for anyone else. We can know this because we can identify health as a goal, and we can say—based on common sense and reasoned investigation—that health is good. In much the same way, we can identify what makes for a healthy soul, based on both common sense and reasoned investigation into the good. Similarly, we can identify ordinary “rules” or guidelines that are both true and good nearly all the time, but that break down in extreme situations. No just man would kill another except in the extreme situation of warfare or self-defense. The law does its best to identify every possible situation in which killing may be justified, and does so reasonably well, but even the most sagacious legislator may not anticipate every possible circumstance. This is an essential limit inherent in the nature of law. The same problem becomes much more complicated at the level of statecraft. A nation may be forced to do terrible things to survive that it would never consider, much less countenance, in peace and that its wisest statesmen would recoil from ever giving the imprimatur of law.
In this vein, Pinkoski asks me to “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 may shock him with this answer, but I honestly do not see how one could choose De Gaulle in such a situation. Is not the very meaning of “post-constitutional” that the path of De Gaulle is, for the time being, foreclosed?
But then it seems to me that we have to back up and recognize that the analogy is inapt. The choice in 1940 was not between accepting or resisting Caesarism. It was between accepting or resisting foreign conquest. Whether to resist the former is much more likely to be a fraught and open question than whether to fight the latter. Against a foreign invader, Saguntum looms as a heroic act even if no immortal glory results (and even if God’s attention is elsewhere) because resistance is nobler than slavery.
Can we make the same case about civilizational continuity under a native Caesar? Is forlorn opposition here as prudent, noble, or necessary? Is accommodation quite as base? Pinkoski quotes me referring to “the most glorious literary, artistic, architectural and economic achievements” of Rome but transfers this thought to France in 1940. But there is a difference between the continuity of Roman-ness, of Roman civilization, under the Roman Caesar and subjugation by foreign barbarians. I said in my last that there are some regimes in which no just man could possibly participate. It should not be difficult to guess one or two I had in mind.
Pinkoski implies, but does not quite say, that the path of Pétain is never acceptable. I am prepared to accept that, though I’d prefer to debate it thoroughly before I do. But I repeat, and hope that I have shown to his satisfaction, that acquiescence to Caesarism (should it come to that) is not the same thing.
Down from the Mountaintop
But let us climb down from this mountaintop. I shall close with clarifications on my stance on what to do now, in response to Pinkoski’s implied questions.
Had the election of 2016 gone the other way, I believe I would have fought on. Certainly against the idiot conservatives, because I enjoy that and because any renewal will only come to be on the basis of truth. Conservatism’s errors must be understood, shucked off and replaced. I might have—and I anticipate that I would have—considered “all lost” for the American Constitutional order as it, until recently, existed. But mankind goes on. As will, one hopes, the West.
It would have been (and in a way still is) a difficult matter to decide: to what extent should I dedicate my energies (such as they are) to addressing the here and now versus “what comes next”? I think in my case, I would have favored the latter. Someone has to think about that, few others seem inclined to, and many of those who do seem irresponsible (to put it politely).
But given the victory, I think that, for now, the discussion of what comes next can wait. I will still think about it, and I may write about it, but not in public—not yet. The task is to help Trump’s program succeed. It has a chance to save us and it should be given that chance, and all our effort to help it work. The challenge before Trump is large. The forces arrayed against him are powerful and vast. His own aptitude for governing is yet unknown. I do not rule out the possibility that he can succeed, but I do believe it is foolish to expect success, just as it is prudent to work toward success.