DISCLAIMER: Nearly everything I say in this essay I have already said at least once and, in most cases, more than once. At the same time, some points that might have borne repeating—such as why I think theoretical topics like this matter—I intend to skip. They’re all covered in the last one and, anyway, Paul Gottfried, to whom I am mostly responding, didn’t question the relevance of the subject matter. Those of you annoyed by repetition, uninterested in theoretical matters, or who just want MAGA red meat, do all of us a favor and don’t read this.
Professor Gottfried begins his response to me by noting, again, that he and I (and, I know from experience, many of his friends and my friends) agree almost totally on the pathologies of the present regime. (For instance, I find zero to disagree with him here.) Yet we continue to disagree on the fundamental basis for a sound political order. I can’t tell if Professor Gottfried is saying that I label him as part of the “new Right.” For the record, I don’t. I think of him as firmly among the “old Right.” That is no comment on his age; from all I can tell, he is quite spry at 80. It’s simply that this is how I understand him to understand himself, and it is a Straussian dictum to make the utmost effort to understand a thinker exactly as he understands himself.
Gottfried says that, in posing my dilemma, I have set a trap, that the alternative I posed amounts to false dichotomy between natural right or nihilism. I suppose I can see how one might get that impression, though this was not my intent. Here I will expand on an earlier point.
The alternatives under discussion are the fundamental alternatives or possibilities regarding human reality or, to be more precise, the alternative possible accounts or explanations and codes for how man should live and why he should live that way. By “explanations” I mean “cosmologies” and metaphysics, comprehensive accounts of the structure, workings and meaning of the universe and man’s place in it. By ‘’codes” I mean either authoritative laws or natural guidelines that inform man of what he should and should not do.
My education, reading, and reflection have led me to conclude that there are a limited number of such fundamental alternatives. If I had to list them, I would say they boil down to the following: a revealed account, a poetic account, a traditional account, a philosophic or natural account, a historicist account, and a “willed” account. I should clarify that I mean specifically the underlying ontology or metaphysic, not the public presentation. That is to say, philosophy can sometimes appear in the guise of poetry or history, but what is decisive here is what it self-understands to be its ultimate grounding.
The poetic and traditional accounts turn out to be, on examination, the same thing; for how else is tradition conveyed except through tales, whether oral or written? Now, it is the assertion of some Straussians that the revealed and poetic accounts are also, in the final analysis, the same. I do not hold to this view, nor do members of my particular subsect. There is something distinctively different, and greater, about revelation—especially in its Biblical form—that cannot be subsumed under the headings of either “poetry” or “tradition.” I shall have more to say about this below.
It is important to understand that none of the above alternate accounts, save one, self-understands as “nihilistic.” They all, rather, understand themselves as being based on and in possession of the truth. For this reason, the fundamental alternative is not reducible to natural right or nihilism. Or, it would be only if we aggregated all of the non-nihilist accounts together and set them against nihilism—which is, on one level, reasonable to do. In this respect, as in many others, I agree with the decidedly non-“West Coast” Straussian Michael Millerman that, in their rejection of nihilism, “Jerusalem” or revelation and “Athens” or philosophy make common cause against corrosive late modernity. But this commonality must not blind us to the profound differences between reason and revelation or their status as genuine alternatives to one another.
“Save one” refers, of course, to the aforementioned “willed” account, or more specifically to Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s thought is complicated and I am far from an expert. Yet I will venture to say the following which, if far from exhaustive, is also (I hope) far from misleading. Nietzsche is, and is not, a nihilist. He is, in the sense that he rejects the entirety of the present (his present, which is also, more or less, our present) intellectual-political order. He believes philosophy or reasoned investigation has revealed the ontological falsity of all poetic/traditional accounts. Philosophy has uncovered the underlying truth that there is no truth, no “gods” or “ideas” or standards that genuinely exist and tell us how we should live.
Nietzsche is not a nihilist—or to say it better doesn’t want to be—because he believes this uncovering was and remains a disaster for man; it destroyed the possibility of the good life for all but a tiny minority, i.e., philosophers. (Nietzsche agrees with the classical philosophers that philosophy cannot serve as the basis of the good life for the vast majority of men; he disagrees with their assertion, however, that philosophy is reconcilable or compatible with—can even be supportive of—the good life for most men.) The problem becomes clear when one asks on what basis Nietzsche judges the exposure of the truth of nihilism to be a disaster.
The very truth of nihilism precludes, in Nietzsche’s own self-understanding, nature as that basis. Yet Nietzsche repeatedly contrasts higher and lower; he praises life, strength, greatness, and distinction; and he excoriates self-satisfied, appetitive conformity. According to the classics, these objections are reasonable, defensible, even true opinions. But unlike Nietzsche, the classics base their judgment on nature. Nietzsche’s replacement for nature is will, specifically the will to power, and even more specifically the “eternal return,” the eternal recurrence of all past, present, and future events, which the “superman” wills by affirming, or affirms by willing.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, it doesn’t to me either. That’s not to say it is necessarily nonsensical. Nietzsche died asserting that no one had understood him. Decades later, Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger alike questioned whether anyone yet had. Even if it is true that still no one has, that doesn’t make Nietzsche wrong. Nietzsche claimed that the eternal return came to him during a walk in the Alps, as a kind of vision or flash of inspiration. Perhaps the idea is, as such, beyond mere reasoned understanding?
Be that as it may, the point for our purposes is twofold. First, Nietzsche is so far from an easygoing nihilist that, rather than simply accepting the implications of the truth of nihilism, he instead grasps for (or wills into being?) an unevident, even implausible, alternative. This more than suggests that Nietzsche—who is a much deeper thinker than the many easygoing nihilists who (wittingly or not) follow him—grasps something fundamental that they don’t: namely, it’s not enough simply to assert that the higher things really are higher, or better, than the lower; the distinction between higher and lower itself requires a basis of support in order to be real and believable.
Second, Nietzsche’s genuine profundity notwithstanding (there is no better analyst of late modernity) the very implausibility—not to say incomprehensibility—of his teaching renders it wholly incapable (at least, absent the superman, on whom his whole project depends) of supporting decent human life, including all the higher things he praises. Worse, experience has shown that his teaching’s very mysteriousness, combined with its radicalism and bombastic rhetoric, makes it ripe for misinterpretation and abuse in the real world. It would be wrong, and foolish, to deprive oneself of Nietzsche’s profundity because the Nazis invoked him, but it’s also wrong to absolve Nietzsche of any responsibility for the misuse to which his rhetoric has been put. No tyrant ever cited Aristotle as an inspiration.
A Comprehensive Revelation
The most fundamental alternative to natural right or a philosophic metaphysics, of course, is a comprehensive revelation, to which it would be rational to submit precisely because it presents knowledge—not opinion or plausibility, but certainty. A comprehensive revelation leaves no question unanswered; or, to be more precise, refuses to answer only those questions that man cannot understand, or whose answers it is not proper for him to know. Why some of those answers are not proper for him to know is another question that revelation refuses to answer on the ground of propriety.
While, as noted, revelation is not simply equivalent to poetry or tradition (or poetic tradition), these sources of guidance do have the following in common: they simply command, and demand, man’s assent. But a few rare men will not assent. They “look under the hood” so to speak in search of what’s really going on, which they refuse to accept, based on authority alone, as identical to the authoritative account. They ask: is that account true?
Before this investigation is mounted, in a pre-philosophic age—and for some time thereafter, before philosophy as it were “corrupts” society—the traditional or Biblical or poetic account is sincerely believed. The connection between the divine and the law is unquestioned. The gods or God are the source of the law, and the laws are unhesitatingly obeyed.
But once the veil has been lifted—once the philosophic critique has been made public, once the people cease to believe that Zeus is really up there throwing lightning bolts—then some other basis for the validity of the laws and the truth of their justice must be found; or, alternatively, even the pretense of a basis must simply be abandoned.
The problem is compounded in a supposed age of rationality. When and where the dominant or authoritative or “official” explanation or account of man’s being, of his privileges and obligations (or his rights and duties), is alleged to be based entirely on reasoned investigation—not necessarily incompatible with but necessarily not needing support from revelation—then a rational account is not only necessary. It must also be simple and compelling enough to be widely believed (if not necessarily widely understood). Moreover, scientific “progress” and its technological fruit render traditional-poetic accounts incredible: in an age of satellite meteorology, no one believes that Zeus is throwing thunderbolts.
I am not the first to observe that nihilism—and atheism for that matter—do not come naturally to man. Man yearns to believe in something. Indeed, he will believe in something, come what may. This is the meaning of that famous, perhaps apocryphal, Chesterton observation that a man who ceases to believe in God does not then believe in nothing; he will believe anything. The vacuum, once created, not only must but will be filled.
This is why what the people actually believe can never be a matter of indifference to those working for a decent politics, and especially not to those who seek to inform a decent politics. This is true on at least two levels. First, for a society or political community to have any level of cohesion—for it to exist at all, at least for any length of time—there must be a broad consensus among the population about fundamentals. The ancients and moderns agree that these fundamentals must include opinions about right and wrong, their basis, and the basis of political legitimacy. The ancients argue that the agreement must also include opinions about the gods, cosmology, and theology. The moderns counter that comity is possible even with disagreements about such matters, so long as there is fundamental agreement about the basis of justice and right; and perhaps more to the point, that disagreements about religion must be allowed—must be removed from and placed outside or above politics altogether—because the shattered religious unity of the ancient city cannot be restored absent a complete collapse of modernity, the end of Christianity, and a restoration of the connection between civil and religious law.
The other reason why what the people believe matters is more prosaic: a society whose fundamental sacrament is, say, child sacrifice (or substitute any other reprehensible practice) is not a good society. It may be unified; it may be pious; it may even be “successful” in the sense of prosperous and long-lived (as, for instance, Carthage was), but it cannot be called decent, good, or just. The widespread revulsion against such practices (at least by those who don’t practice them!) is but one piece of evidence for the existence of natural right. (I might add that, during the Punic Wars, Roman senators firmed up the animosity of the Roman people toward Carthage by spreading it around that the Carthaginians engaged in child sacrifice, thus adding a moral justification to what was otherwise a more or less standard-issue great power conflict. For many centuries this charge was dismissed as Roman propaganda, but archeologists later found evidence that the Roman claim was true.)
Tradition–Conscious Breaks and Innovation
The fundamental agreement that bound together the United States, until recently, was belief in the equal natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the conviction that all just government requires the consent of the governed. Most—all?—paleoconservatives will immediately say that I am wrong, that the glue which used to hold America together was the “Anglo-American tradition.” This is all well-trod ground at this point. I disagree with the paleos less than they think, or are willing to admit; but I still disagree, in two fundamental ways, which I have already explained but will here briefly restate. First, all traditions have a beginning, which beginning cannot be traditional because tradition presupposes a rejection of innovation whereas part of the definition of innovation is beginning. The “Anglo-American tradition” had to come from somewhere. In particular, the “American” part must somehow be different from the “Anglo” part in order for the compound qualifier to have any meaning at all. In fact, the “Anglo-American tradition” emerged in response, and partly in opposition to, the “Anglo tradition.”
Those who point to the various strands of continuity are not wrong, but they overlook, deny, or give short shrift to the discontinuity—the conscious breaks with then-existing tradition—which were decisive in fueling the American Revolution. These innovations were all invoked and justified in the name, and on the basis, of natural right. The founders very specifically, one might say vehemently, rejected with abhorrence monarchy, titles of nobility, and hereditary offices—surely parts of the “Anglo,” but not the “American,” tradition. The latter two are expressly prohibited in the Constitution. Ironically, the various Anti-Federalists to whom many on the old and new Right look to as principled opponents of what would morph into our present federal behemoth (and therefore as inspirations or guides for a better future) were far more adamant in their rejection of these Old World trappings than the Federalists.
Second, yet another point which cannot be repeated enough, is that just as all traditions begin as innovations, many innovations become traditions. The “Anglo-American tradition” emphatically includes a belief in natural rights and the requirement for government by consent, both knowable by human reason without recourse to, but not incompatible with, revelation.
To revise a point I made above, there really are only three fundamental alternatives: revelation, nihilism, or natural right. Of the original five, tradition cannot stand on its own, while historicism turns out to be just a sub-species of natural right, and an inferior one.
I have done my best to show how and why the willed account, despite its philosophical profundity, will not do. I may add here the following consideration: As Nietzsche himself makes clear, the value or utility of his proposed solution depends decisively on the superman’s new mythos being believed. Not merely welcomed as positive or accepted as necessary, but believed. How is that belief to be established? How are men’s minds to be made receptive?
Calamity is one way. The judicious application of force by a real or self-proclaimed prophet is another. In most cases, the two go together: the prophet needs, benefits from, and/or takes advantage of an “occasion” (Machiavelli, Prince 6). The point, as Machiavelli and Nietzsche would readily admit, is that absent genuine belief, the project is a joke, a LARP.
Tradition as the basis for a moral order is affected by this same problem. To repeat a point from last time, no actual tradition self-understands as mere tradition. It is true that one feature of the pre-philosophic world is the identification of the good with the ancestral. But there is always a connection to the divine, some assertion that “our tradition” is “the truth” or at the very least “true-for-us.” (We may leave aside for present purposes the problematic or self-contradictory character of the latter assertion.) It is thus hard to think of a tradition that does not have recourse to God, however understood, in some way. For myself, I can’t think of one.
It seems to me that what the neo-traditionalists want is tradition without any underlying metaphysic—tradition without God. Not that they are all hostile to God (though some of them clearly are). But if they believed they could base their preferred solution to the problem of late modernity on God, they would or could just say so.
Tradition without a metaphysic, without God, without genuine belief, is not viable as the basis for social and political order. It is especially not viable in an age of reason (or rationalism) and science, which is what our age purports to be. The revelations of Judaism and Islam offer complete packages, but ones that are viable for but a few in the West. Christianity, to be viable, requires a rational supplement to govern politics. The two available today—historicism and natural right(s)—turn out on reflection to be one because the former is rationally implausible, incompatible with Christianity, and pernicious in its practical effects.
Revelation remains available for individual souls (or, in certain respects, even collective ones), but not as the basis for political legitimacy. The only comprehensive revealed accounts, with a complete metaphysic and law codes, are Judaism and Islam. Professor Gottfried is Jewish; yet I do not understand him to be advocating a return to ancient orthodoxy in the comprehensive political sense, which is impossible in modern circumstances and would, in any case, be a viable solution only for the Jewish people themselves. Most of the dissident Right, to say the least, is not Jewish.
Some LARPiness about “white sharia” aside, neither is the dissident Right appreciably Islamic nor likely to convert en masse. Even LARPier is certain quarters’ preoccupation with paganism, as if that were an available solution. Nothing against paganism per se (although it is not hard to identify serious faults) or against the many rewards to be had from studying the Greek, Roman, or Norse myths. And, hey, if you believe those gods really exist, who am I to tell you they don’t? If you want to worship them in the prescribed way—well, have you actually read the texts that explain how the rituals and sacrifices are to be performed? Are you really up to all that? If you are, fine with me (though it may not be fine with your local authorities, for whom I cannot speak). Most important: do you really think you can build a mass movement around a return to paganism and make that the basis for your new, post-liberal, post-modern political order? I find the prospect laughable—but in spite or perhaps because of that, I would be the first to congratulate you if you pulled it off.
That leaves Christianity, which—as noted in the earlier essay—makes religion primarily a matter of faith, severs the connection between the divine and the law, and separates civil from religious authority. Christianity does offer a metaphysic, but not a political solution or civic code. In medieval thought, natural law supplies the basis for that code. In the modern world, natural law is first reinterpreted as natural rights (plural) and later discarded in favor of historicism.
The Rational Metaphysic
I would argue that in the final analysis, Christianity is incompatible with historicism. Historicism does hold that Christianity was an essential step in the historical process, but stops well short of asserting (or even accepting the possibility) that Christianity is simply true—i.e., it replaces the Christian metaphysic with a rationalistic one of its own. Natural right(s), by contrast, is entirely consistent with Christian theology and its metaphysic.
This is but one reason why I prefer natural right(s) to historicism. The others are that I believe natural right(s) theory is much more likely to be true, and I am certain that historicism is the philosophical root of the present neoliberal oligarchy (even if most of its leading lights don’t realize that). This is before we even come to the fact, however unfortunate, that most of the West is now post-Christian and will not accept any but a rationalistic account of the basis of morality, the good, and political order.
For all these reasons, I assert (controversially, no doubt) that in the modern context—which is to say, at the present time and for the foreseeable future—there is no viable alternative to a rational account of the basis of justice, or at least a “rationalistic” one. Even if one doubts the alleged rationality of our time and dismisses it as merely asserted and not proved—indeed, if one rejects the very possibility of a reason-based political-moral order—that doesn’t change the underlying problem. The authoritative metaphysic of our time self-understands and presents itself to man as rational, as “scientific.” Man, or at least Western man, will therefore in his present dispensation not accept a metaphysic that does not at least purport to be rational. Those who pine backward for tradition-minus-reason dismiss this problem and some, I would say, do not even acknowledge it.
The time may come again when a large number of men are ready and willing, even eager, to believe a non-rational metaphysic. That time may even be near. But it is not now. To repeat a point I made last time, it will require a calamity or disruption of very great scale, coupled with or causing the complete discrediting of the presently accepted weltanschauung.
In the meantime, we must make do with something. I haven’t yet heard anything to shake my conviction, however necessarily tentative (because, absent certain knowledge, all conclusions must be tentative, and certain knowledge is likely not available for many philosophic questions), in favor of natural right over the available alternatives. Everyone else, of course, is free to draw a different conclusion. Contrary to the consistent accusation made against me from Left and Right alike, I make no pretense to being in possession of some final truth. I claim only to have thought these matters over for a long time, weighed the various arguments, presented those which seem to me to be the strongest, and tried to show the weaknesses or pitfalls of the others. A certain amount of humility or diffidence is required when considering matters so weighty and, ultimately, unresolvable by human reason.
But we must also be careful that this diffidence does not give way to indifference or even relativism. I have noticed a tendency among the online Right to disdain any concern about “relativism” on the ground that this was a conservative bugaboo in the 1980s and ’90s, and hence Boomer, whereas the Left today is highly moralistic and anything but relativist. The latter claim is true, but does not obviate the danger of sliding into relativism.
Indeed, many on the new Right tend to place those of us who argue for natural right in an impossible position. If we stick to our belief that natural right is more plausible than the alternatives, we are labeled rigid fanatics—and also (of course) neocons, leftists, and however much we may publicly argue the contrary, partisans of open borders, forever war, trade giveaways, etc. If we admit the inability of the human mind to resolve, fully and finally, the highest philosophical questions, then we are said to be conceding defeat, acknowledging that our position is but one among many, no better or worse than any other—and hence not superior to the tradition-minus-metaphysics position offered by the new Right at its most incoherent. Nor do those making this accusation seem to realize that they slip into the very relativism they otherwise claim to disdain and deny.
Both of the following can be true at the same time: 1) the contemporary Left is not relativistic but has a deeply held vision of the good; 2) relativistic thinking is a danger to be avoided by anyone who opposes the Left. As the old saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing. It is my contention that in order to win the war on the ground, the Right must also—and first, or at least concurrently—win the war of ideas. We would be best positioned to win by opposing the Left’s false and pernicious account of the (alleged) good with a true and salutary account of the good that accords with nature. We cannot do that if every appeal to nature is savaged as “universalist,” “neocon,” and the like.
To repeat another point that bears almost infinite repetition: it is comical to the point of exasperating to read, over and over, people who claim to be standing up for “the historic American nation,” the “European diaspora,” “the West,” and even “the white race” reject with vehemence a philosophy which is that population’s unique contribution to human thought, discovered or advanced by no other peoples (but widely copied around the world) and which is a core (if not the core) reason for Western Civilization’s astonishing success on two continents, the Antipodes, and wherever it has been introduced. Claiming to love the West while hating and denying the very things that make it unique and uniquely successful is something I will never understand. The radical Left, which simply identifies the Western canon with “whiteness” and savages both, in this respect makes more sense than the anti-nature online Right, which attempts to dispense with the former while exalting the latter.
It will be said (it always is) that what is being opposed is not Western philosophy but my incorrect interpretation of it. That may be; I make no claim to authority. But for this objection to be correct, I would have to be wrong that (for instance) Socrates posits the possibility of a justice that transcends all traditional or poetical accounts; that Plato constructs a regime that is the best simply, if not practicable for all peoples in any circumstance; that Aristotle elaborates a constellation of moral and intellectual virtues which he claims are the measure of (any) man, and further, goes so far as to identify the highest way of life for man simply; that Aquinas presents a theory of natural law, the tenets and dictates of which cover all aspects of human behavior; that Locke formulates a theory of rights and duties to secure man’s natural liberties and promote just government in the post-Reformation modern world. I also make no claim to being a great scholar, but proving that all these writers (and others) do not argue what I am here claiming they argue would be, to say the least, an uphill battle. One might try to find a way around that with the claim that, OK, maybe those writers said something like that, but they were just writers; their ideas had no impact on history. I believe this is just as steep a hill to climb.
Implicit Acceptance of Some Natural Standard
I must now make clear—perhaps should have said long before—that I apply none of the above to Gottfried, whom I do not interpret as being in any way anti-West. Nor do I believe he self-understands as a nihilist, or as anything even close. I do think, however, that tradition not moored to some underlying metaphysic in the end is reducible to nihilism, however much the adherents to that position may deny that or wish it were not so. I also believe that those who point to tradition as the sole or highest moral standard and yet honestly do not believe they are nihilists implicitly presuppose some natural standard that undergirds their tradition.
Put it this way. No ancient Athenian dutifully performing the sacrifices believed himself to be a nihilist; Cephalus was not a nihilist. But he also believed that those gods to whom he sacrificed really existed; that the promised rewards and punishments were certain to happen; that tales about the gods and their deeds were not poetic fables but accurate accounts of real events. These beliefs, and not the mere act of following or even revering tradition as such, are what made them non-nihilists.
In a sense, anyone who looks up to a standard higher than himself, which he acknowledges could not have been made by the hand of man, is not a nihilist. But the question of what undergirds that higher thing still looms. I readily admit this question does not loom for the believer, the ordinary man who cherishes his tradition and follows its dictates. He doesn’t think about his tradition’s underlying metaphysic at all—but that’s because he takes it for granted as truth.
The problem arises once philosophy enters the scene and makes the results of its inquiry public. At first, most will simply be immune to philosophy’s message; no amount of rational critique can shake their faith. Some will laugh at philosophy’s airy speculations. Others will become angry at its apparent heresies. A few will be charmed, even bewitched.
Unfortunately for society, those most likely to succumb to philosophy’s charms are and will always be elites, and especially their children. Outnumbered though they always are, elites also always and everywhere have outsized power to set society’s tone and direction, to create and maintain its “narrative.” Once philosophy or reason or “science” or some perversion thereof captures elite minds, the deterioration of the traditional narrative is all but inevitable. This is one of the chief messages of Aristophanes’ Clouds.
That’s the main reason why the metaphysic underlying any account of the social order—whether traditional, revealed, or rational—matters. If it isn’t logically coherent, someone will notice, think through a critique, and spread that critique among elites, eventually undermining the entire society. Even if these (real or pseudo-) philosophers posit a replacement—even one they believe to be a salutary replacement—the undermining will still happen, with no certainty whatsoever that the (allegedly) salutary replacement will gain acceptance. The ancient philosophers understood this, which is why they tried to limit the damage that philosophy could cause to society.
I Prefer It
Gottfried does not restate my main contention exactly correctly. I do not believe that to reject natural right is necessarily to succumb to nihilism. Certainly, one need not necessarily believe in modern natural rights, plural, in order not to be a nihilist. If that were true, we would be in the absurd position having to declare every philosopher before Hobbes a nihilist. I certainly don’t believe anything that stupid.
As noted, revelation offers the most fundamental (and, in the final analysis, perhaps only real) alternative, and sincere believers are not nihilists. I do maintain, however, that once revelation—or even a poetic account of pagan gods—is stripped of its underlying metaphysic and devolves into mere tradition without a supporting ontology (e.g., the truth of divine creation of the natural order), it logically becomes inherently nihilistic. At that point, one is merely asserting that “this is mine” or “I prefer it.”
It both does, and does not, matter that those who make such a profession are not self-consciously nihilistic. It does, in the sense that people who are not self-consciously nihilistic tend to behave themselves: make good citizens, spouses, parents, colleagues, etc. But they do so, one might say, in spite of themselves—in spite of the lack of a firm, consistent belief in some coherent reason to be good and not to be bad. For they don’t know that they lack such a coherent reason. Indeed, to the contrary, they believe they have such a reason.
The problem arises when they come to believe the opposite, i.e., when elite dismissal and destruction of such reason becomes too prevalent any longer to be dismissed or ignored. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, and we have been here for some time. And this explains why the fact that most people are not self-consciously nihilistic will not save us.
To repeat another point for the Nth time (and another which apparently cannot be repeated enough), any account of the good, of moral standards—any code of behavior—must have an underlying metaphysic that is actually believed in order for it to “work,” to have lasting value, to command men’s allegiance over the long term. Our elites, for going on a century-and-a-half now, have leveled one fusillade after another at all such accounts—whether religious, rational, or traditional. The results have been, first, total elite abandonment of and hostility to such accounts and, second (inevitably), weakening allegiance to them among the people. It is not a coincidence that religious observance is at all-time lows throughout the West after this long period of destruction. (The other main cause, I once again repeat, is the amazing success of modern science and technology, which make Biblical or poetic accounts of nature seem incredible and which replace God as sources of earthly consolation.)
Even those who stubbornly “cling” (to borrow Barack Obama’s term) to their faith face the problem that the entire surrounding society—and more important, its basis—are directly at odds with the tenets of their faith. This contradiction can be papered over for a while, but not, I think, forever. One of the main causes of the present crisis, I believe, is that the bill is finally coming due.
All this said: believe whatever you want. I’m not trying to lay down some authoritative code. Anyone who can believe in something other than natural right or revelation and find that a sufficient basis for acting well has my hearty congratulations. That’s great! I do find it inconsistent on the highest theoretical level, but if you don’t—fabulous! Eggheads don’t run the world, and this particular egghead might be wrong.
I do worry, however, that the inherent contradiction which I believe I have identified has introduced an unsustainable tension into Western intellectual, theological, and political life, which has finally reached the breaking point. This, to be clear, is far from the fault of those who believe in tradition; indeed, it happened despite and against them. But it happened, and I don’t see any possible way that an appeal back to tradition, minus the underlying theology or metaphysic, is going to get us out of the present morass.
Universal Moral Norms
Professor Gottfried goes back over ground that I had already covered last time, viz., the distinctions between natural right, natural law, and natural rights. I agree with most of what he says on this score. I do think, however, that he slights the differences between ancient natural right (singular) and modern natural rights (plural) that I was at pains to draw out last time. But I won’t restate all that, as I don’t know what else I would say or how I would say it differently. I will, however, reiterate the most important point: that natural rights are the specific form that natural right must take (or, at any rate, did take) in the new circumstances of the post-Reformation world. I may be wrong about that, but I did not read Professor Gottfried as disputing the point.
Gottfried does say that the American founders based their political philosophy on a whole range of sources, including Scripture, classical philosophy, and history, in addition to modern natural rights theory. This, of course, is true. But the essential point here is twofold. First, the American founders thought that all these elements were fully compatible with, even complementary of, one another. Second, they believed natural rights to be the indispensable basis for political right in a non-sectarian Christian society. The basis for worldly legitimacy and justice could not be Christianity because that faith gives no specific political guidelines beyond the directive to accede to the reigning civil authority. Unlike Judaism and most of the ancient pagan cities, the Christian God provides no code of laws; the original Covenant is fulfilled and transformed. In a post-Reformation world, in a country in which adherents of many Christian sects (and Jews) live side by side, that basis had to be both compatible with the basic tenets of Scripture while favoring no particular sect. Modern natural right(s) fits these bills.
It might amuse (or appall) Professor Gottfried to hear that his contention that the American founders relied in more or less equal measure on ancient and modern thought was a key argument of Harry Jaffa—one for which Jaffa was mercilessly mocked by those whom he was the first to term the “Eastern Straussians,” for whom America is nothing but modern political philosophy written up into a constitution. In this respect, Gottfried and Jaffa make common cause against certain reductivists who can’t or won’t see America as a real country but insist it is merely John Locke set to music. Gottfried’s gut reaction may be to take that as an insult, but I mean it as a compliment.
Gottfried says that “It is also entirely possible to accept the reality of universal moral norms without embracing natural right theory.” I confess, I don’t see how. More to the point, I don’t see how these two concepts differ. That there are “universal moral norms” is all but the definition of “natural right theory.” I qualify that only because of a point elaborated at length last time, viz., that natural right is “changeable.”
In what way is it “changeable”? To put this as simply as possible, different circumstances may require entirely different courses of action—actions that may, at a glance, appear to be diametrically contradictory. Gottfried is not a fan of Leo Strauss (although he cites him favorably in his article) and so may chafe at the following quote, but I find I cannot do better:
The variability of the demands of that justice which men can practice was recognized not only by Aristotle but by Plato as well. Both avoided the Scylla of “absolutism” and the Charybdis of “relativism” by holding a view which one may venture to express as follows: There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action … [W]hen deciding what ought to be done, i.e., when deciding what ought to be done by this individual (or this individual group) here and now, one has to consider not only which of the various competing objectives is higher in rank but also which is most urgent in the circumstances. What is most urgent is legitimately preferred to that which is less urgent, and the most urgent is in many cases lower in rank than the less urgent. But one cannot make a universal rule that urgency is a higher consideration than rank. For it is our duty to make the highest activity, as much as we can, the most urgent or the most needful thing. And the maximum of effort which can be expected necessarily varies from individual to individual. The only universally valid standard is the hierarchy of ends. This standard is sufficient for passing judgment on the level of nobility of individuals and groups and of actions and institutions. But it is insufficient for guiding our actions. [Natural Right and History, p. 162]
The changeability of natural right may even require not just different courses of action but entirely different rules of conduct. We today insist, rightly, that the natural right to free speech is based on the metaphysical freedom of the human mind, and also indispensable in a republic in which public deliberation moves voters, and voters exercise sovereignty. In the ancient polis, however, this right was not only not recognized but would have been, rightly, rejected with abhorrence. The ancient polis was defined by its unanimity, among other things, (or, as another of my teachers, Harry Neumann, put it, its “stultifying conformity”). That conformity cannot be dismissed as mere bullying; it was a matter of life and death.
Disagreement meant division, which meant civil war or weakness that opened the city to foreign conquest (and conquest in the ancient world meant the slaughter of all adult males and the sale of women and children into slavery). The ancient city stood or fell, lived or died, by a unity which required a high degree of agreement among its citizens about its gods, its laws, its morals, and the fundamental basis of all three. Questioning these—and, worse, encouraging others to question them—was tantamount to societal suicide. There is no “principle” of natural right—or any form of right—which the political community is duty-bound to adopt and hold to headlong unto its own destruction.
This said, the ancient philosophers (although they alone among the ancients) did believe in the metaphysical freedom of the human mind. But they did not believe that this entailed a “right” to say or argue anything, to anyone, in any context. This is but one way that classical rationalism differs from the Enlightenment, which I have noticed that the new Right hates with an intense passion. And maybe the Enlightenment deserves that hatred. But the new Right (again, here I exempt Professor Gottfried) elides the Enlightenment with reason simply, and in their ignorant hatred of Strauss, refuse to see what Strauss elucidates, viz., that there is a fundamental difference between classical and modern rationalism, or between ancient philosophy and the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment asserts that man can understand everything. Even if he hasn’t yet figured everything out, everything is at least in principle within his mind’s reach. The classics by contrast conclude (at least tentatively) that there are things the human mind simply cannot and will never be able to grasp. (Needless to say, this is one of the conclusions that classical philosophy shares with Biblical revelation.) Second, one may say that the whole premise of the Enlightenment is that it is possible and even desirable to place society on a rational basis, to debunk all alleged myths and replace them with allegedly reasoned explanations. The classics deny that this is possible or desirable. They do not deny that there is a rational basis for a sound political order; they deny rather that the people at large are capable of acting well solely on a rational basis. Ironically, the anti-classical and proto-Enlightenment thinker Niccolò Machiavelli expresses this thought as clearly as anyone ever has: “a prudent individual knows many goods that do not have in themselves evident reasons with which one can persuade others” (Discourses I 11).
This may seem to doom the rational, rights-based philosophy I advocate. And it may well. In its defense, I can say only that the American founders didn’t see things that way. They never for a moment doubted the indispensability of religion, especially in a republic, and deliberately framed their philosophic arguments to be not merely compatible with but supportive of religion. Should their solution turn out to be unworkable over the long term, well, all I can say is that we’ve got even bigger problems than those thus far indicated in this article.
At any rate, in support of his contention that it is “possible to accept the reality of universal moral norms without embracing natural right theory,” Gottfried cites Michel Villey. I admit, I haven’t read much of Villey. But from what I have read, he seems to me to be defending the idea, if not of natural rights, then at least of natural law, which is a species of natural right. For example, Villey asserts, contra the anti-naturalists, that justice and right do, indeed, have a basis in a natural order that man did not and could not create.
If Gottfried, then, agrees with Villey, who in the decisive respect holds the same position that I do, then I no longer know what Gottfried and I disagree about. Unless it is that natural right provides “a conceptual bridge to the ‘human rights’ industry that Anton and I both reject as a leftist trick.” Certainly, it’s true that natural rights have been coopted by the Left and used against us. But is that natural rights’ fault? Or is it our fault for allowing it to happen? You could make the same slippery slope argument about almost any aspect of our beloved West, including its traditions, which have either been coopted against us or smashed to spite us. In this sense, then, tradition failed no less than natural rights. Are we to jettison tradition as well?
More to the point, the fundamental question here is whether or not natural rights are true, and Gottfried gives many indications that he thinks they are (albeit also insufficient, on their own, for maintaining a stable political order, a point I would not deny). Certainly it is possible for true ideas to have dire real-world consequences; natural right, after all, is “dynamite.” If that is what happened in this case, then so much the worse for us.
But perhaps there is no such thing as an idea, however true, without its peculiar danger or downside in the human realm. Maybe there is no doctrine free of all practical pitfalls that can sustain human life indefinitely, incorruptible and impervious to all challenges. If that is true, then the question that should come after “Is natural right true?” is “What else have we got?” I think I’ve been through that sufficiently. A return to faith, if that faith is Christianity, does not dispense with the requirement at least for natural law. A return to Judaism—that is, pre-Roman, political Judaism—is possible only for the Jews, and likely not even for them. (The Israelis, notably, have not taken that path, even if a small minority of them would like to try.) New gods might do the trick, but their introduction would seem to require a cataclysm.
So we’re back where we started.
The Z-Man Cometh Again
What prompted Professor Gottfried’s response to me was not anything I said to or about him. My original article was prompted by the categorical assertion, from the blogger Z-Man, that “natural rights do not exist.”
Z-Man rather laughably called my response an “unprovoked attack.” Really? In the piece I responded to, Z-Man denigrates me by name 11 times. Nor was this Z-Man’s first attack on me; he also took his shots here, here, here, and here. Did he think he should somehow forever be immune to a response?
I also dispute the notion that my response constituted an “attack.” I went out of my way to praise the Z-Man, say that I learn things from his blog, and say that he and his followers are entirely right to despise the present regime and wish to see it replaced. This is an “attack”? The whole point of my piece was to show, or try to show, the philosophic basis for natural right, the reasons why it is more plausible than the alternatives, reasons why it is the soundest basis for what we all want, the insufficiency of the alternatives, and the integral nature of natural right to the very American tradition for which Z-Man claims to speak.
For all that consideration, Z-Man dismissed my (I thought) patient explanation as a “foam-flecked rant.” I leave it to others to form their own assessment of the tenor of my remarks. In my careful attempt not to return Z-Man’s petty insults in kind, I searched for an appropriate word and settled on “unsatisfying.” This rather mild term was the harshest word I had for him in my whole piece. The online Right tends to think highly of “manliness,” but becoming unhinged by a word as gentle as that suggests other qualities. Anyway, the insults didn’t stop there—Z-Man has subsequently attacked me in no fewer than seven (!) posts in less than three weeks—or really eight, since this sorry performance, which doesn’t mention me by name, is clearly intended as a passive aggressive attack on me via my teachers.
I am tempted to go through this trainwreck line by line, and if the Z-Man wants to try a fresh round of insults, he might just succeed in goading me to do it. I suspect he won’t, however, because the one post in which he claims to have directly responded to my analysis of natural rights, he has hidden behind a paywall. I don’t know what to call that maneuver, exactly, but it’s certainly not a show of confidence or strength.
I will, however, briefly demonstrate the vapidity of Z-Man’s “analysis” with the following. Here is his second paragraph:
That last sentence provides a clue as to why this mediocre philosopher and historian is a figure who looms large of [sic.] contemporary politics. Serious students of philosophy take exception to calling Strauss a philosopher. Historians dismiss him outright. Students of Greek philosophy roll their eyes when they [sic.] the man’s name. Even his followers will spend hours debating how to properly label the man. Despite this lack of distinction, Leo Strauss is an important figure in our politics.
Leo Strauss was “mediocre.” Really? A man who could read, speak, and write Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, French, Italian, and English? And published in three of those languages? A man who wrote 15 books and countless articles and lectures? A man who trained the most influential two or three generations of political scientists and philosophic academics of the 20th century? A man who founded one of the first wholly new philosophic schools in some 400 years? A man who wrote or presented comprehensive interpretations of Thucydides, Socrates, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Lucretius. al-Farabi, Maimonides, Marsilius of Padua, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Vico, Grotius, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and so many others. Mediocre? How many of these has Z-Man even read? How many has he even heard of?
Well Beneath Lame
It gets worse—much worse, actually, but I will confine myself to the following. About these “serious students of philosophy,” “historians,” and “students of Greek philosophy” who allegedly “roll their eyes” at Strauss’ name, Z-Man names no names. He instead appeals to Gottfried, obviously unaware that Gottfried’s critical assessment nonetheless respectfully demonstrates real engagement with what Strauss actually said. (Needless to say, I disagree with Gottfried’s conclusions.) There can be little doubt that Z-Man has not only read no Strauss, but hasn’t even read Gottfried’s book, a fact which he unwisely attempts to cover over with a link to a review by one Kenneth B. McIntyre. The review is awful, but that’s not the point here. As the link clearly demonstrates, every one of the Z-Man’s insults—“mediocre,” “dismissed by historians” etc.—is cut and pasted from this review. Read it for yourself.
This is well beneath lame. I long ago became accustomed to the Internet phenomenon I call “belligerent ignorance”: the less you know about something, the louder you thunder from the mountaintop and the more frantically you wave your sword. In this case, the noise is a squeak and the sword is a yardstick with a twig stapled on as a crossguard. Even the Z-Man’s most devoted followers should be embarrassed for him.
I could go on about the equally idiotic things Z-Man says about my own teacher, Harry Jaffa. And maybe I will—again, if he wants to keep this going. But for now, I will leave it at observing that nothing deserves the moniker “foam-flecked rant” like this vapid, contentless attack, which was clearly written out of a combination of ignorance, embarrassment, shame, spite, envy, and malice.
To those who will complain that I am being too hard on the Z-Man—well, I tried kindness, I tried gentle correction, I even tried flattery. The Z-Man, in response, has only flecked more foam. I am sorry if, in exposing his ignorance, I have embarrassed him. But justified embarrassment can be the first step toward salutary humility, and then real learning. And, anyway, there is an easy solution: don’t write about things you don’t know and haven’t learned. Just as I don’t write about street crime in Baltimore, maybe he shouldn’t write about political philosophy.
But, to return to the core issue under dispute, Z-Man invokes the authority of Professor Gottfried in support of the contention that “natural rights do not exist,” apparently unaware that, in his response to me, Gottfried acknowledges that A) they do exist and B) were indeed foundational to America. (Gottfried and I continue to disagree on just how foundational—although perhaps not as much as Gottfried seems to think.)
Now, of course I believe people should be free to hold any opinion they wish; and in a modern liberal regime, as discussed above, they should be free to express those opinions. Yet I can’t help but notice the (non-Socratic) irony of someone using that freedom to claim that “natural rights do not exist,” since the freedom to express that opinion is recognized and protected only in a polity based on natural rights and rejected with abhorrence in every other type of society.
But let us pass over this and several other contradictions and incongruities. I found that claim—“natural rights do not exist”—astonishing not merely in its boldness but in the categorical, no-question-about-it way in which it was expressed. Here is a fundamental claim that the greatest minds of the West have been arguing over for nearly 500 years (and, if we want to take a broader view and include natural right, for 2,500), that is a fundamental pillar of our philosophic tradition, and that is (or used to be and is supposed to be) literally the basis of our American political system, summarily dismissed as fake by an anonymous blogger.
Now, unlike Jordan Peterson, I have nothing against anonymity per se. I’ve practiced it myself. The quality of the argument ought to matter more than the name on the byline. Yet I do think anonymity carries dangers; and one is that, under its cover, anonymous scribes are likely to lose all humility and circumspection and be much bolder than they should be; for instance, saying things like “natural rights do not exist.” This is almost tantamount to asserting that “God does not exist,” and has about the same cognitive value. How could you possibly know that? Especially when so many who are so much wiser than we are have come to the opposite conclusion?
This latter point will of course be dismissed as “arguing from authority.” Well, what is boldly asserting that “natural rights do not exist,” without any attempt at a proof, except setting oneself up as an authority? If it comes to that—choosing between authorities—and the available choices are John Locke and the American Founders on the one hand, and the Z-Man on the other . . . well, I know who I choose.
Again, the Argument in Brief
I know how the rest of the argument goes like the proverbial back of my hand. Having stated my case repeatedly on this website—plus here, plus in Chapter 2 of this book—I will not here repeat it all. But, in brief:
First it will be asserted that the founders did not talk about natural rights. Once it is demonstrated that they did, the ground will shift to the claim that only a few fringe types mentioned it. Jefferson’s name will then be invoked, and since Jefferson cannot be dismissed as fringe, that business in the Declaration about natural rights will be dismissed as a throwaway line.
When it is pointed out that identical language is in virtually all of the Revolutionary state constitutions, those passages will be shunted aside as lawyerly products of specialists with narrow fields of vision, unrepresentative of the American population.
Then when it is shown that virtually everyone in Revolutionary America—statesmen, soldiers, preachers, essayists, legislators, farmers, merchants, ordinary citizens, anyone who ever wrote a letter—talked about natural rights, it will be asserted that they talked about a lot of other things too: religion, tradition, common law, etc. This point is at least true, but sidesteps the main question, which is: What did the founders consider the fundamental bedrock of their new regime?
Quote after quote demonstrates that they thought it was natural right(s). The quotes being inconvenient, yet undeniable, it will next be asserted that the speakers didn’t really mean any of them, or they meant something entirely different than what the words plainly say. This one is harder to disprove; or to be more precise, easier to stubbornly maintain, because what does “mean” mean anyway? How can you prove whether or not somebody really meant something? The argument usually goes several rounds like this, with the anti-natural-rights crowd sounding more and more like leftist postmodernists asserting the mutability of meaning, the insurmountable imprecision of all language, and the paramount importance of “context.”
In this respect John C. Calhoun and others were much more intellectually honest: they never denied that the founders said or meant what they plainly said; they asserted that the founders were wrong. The modern deniers have a problem with crossing that bridge since they wish to speak in the name of America and Americans, and they intuit that it is hard to do so while denigrating the founders. So they tie themselves in knots attempting to venerate the founders, while dismissing the founders’ beliefs, at the same time denying their dismissal.
In this, and in many other respects, I respect that ur-anon known as “Bronze Age Pervert” far more than any of his petty imitators. “BAP” is not, as the kids say, fake and ghey. He knows where his positions and presuppositions logically and necessarily lead, and he follows them to the end. He knows that a replacement for the present order requires the uprooting of small-l liberal modernity root and branch—and America with it. There is no saving America by appeal to the “Anglo-American tradition” or mere rejection of the founding and its principles. They are all bound together and must go. He understands—though he is coy or playful about expressing it—that new gods are needed, and that those gods will only arise from great calamity and cruelty, imposed by men of “monstrous will,” or, as he calls them, “pirates on the edge of the world.” Say what you will, this is a—the—real alternative. Everything else runs into one of the dead ends we’ve already considered.
What seems to have outraged, if not the Z-Man, then several others the most was my proposal toward the end of my last piece that, after the end of the United States, if any of us are still alive, we simply not live together. Why this should have caused such outrage is puzzling. Their absolute seething hatred for me and the ideas I expressed could not be clearer. Why would any of you want me around? Do you get excited, like the Left, at the thought of ruling me punitively—punishing me for my perceived errors?
What Separate Countries Are For
At any rate, you’re all secessionists. So why shouldn’t we secede from one another, should the opportunity arise? There is no one in the world you hate more than Abraham Lincoln (with those who admire him being close seconds). Why would you want any Lincolnites around? Granted that will limit the appeal of your . . . movement or whatever it is, since a majority of Americans still admire Abe, but if you want ideological purity on that (or any other) score, it’s no skin off my nose. You leave me in peace and I will do the same for you.
I don’t know how well you’re going to do. It seems to me that “You have no rights” is not a winning message guaranteed to attract tens of millions of Americans to your cause. It seems to me also that you haven’t solved the problem of elaborating a coherent theory of justice that can bind your people together, much less a believable underlying metaphysic or else an actually believed prophetic-theological account. Nor, it seems to me, have you concluded to which tradition you are going to return, and how many actual people you can get to agree that this tradition and not that one, is the right one, or even interpret any tradition in the same way. It seems to me also that, for all your focus on race or ethnicity as the basis of your new polity, you haven’t thought through who is to belong and who isn’t. Is it to be only one particular ethnicity?
But then which one? How will you find a sufficient number of purebloods and concentrate them in the same place? Or will you allow mutts and half-breeds? On what basis? How will you solve the problem that, even in a population that is entirely of European descent (assuming you can achieve that), there will be people of mixed ancestry? The American founders solved that by combining what you deride as “civic nationalism” with the creation of a new American identity, which is unworkable without that CivNat glue to hold it together. Otherwise, there is no way for a Scot to be fellow citizens with a German, with a mixed Anglo-Huguenot, with a . . . and so on down the line.
Then, when it comes to hated ideologies, what are you going to do about heretics, people who stubbornly cling to the old Western and American ideas? Persecute them? Subjugate them? Expel them? If the latter, those people have to have somewhere to go, so doesn’t that argue for a separation into (at least) two non-leftist states after the collapse: one that adheres to your strict ethno-ideological requirements (whatever they might turn out to be), and another that looks more like what I have outlined? (Here they will smirk and say that any state based on any conception of natural right is not “non-leftist” but is in fact leftist. I dispute that, but, again, fundamental differences like this are what separate countries are for.
Or do they want to imperialize people who disagree with them? If so, what exactly is their problem with the present regime and the way they and other dissidents are treated by it? Also, in a state that exalts secessionism as a high (the highest?) principle, how are you going to prevent infinite fracturing over every disagreement? I suppose if you are to be “consistent,” you would have to adopt the Murray Rothbard position that secession logically stops only with the individual—and so each man is sovereign. How are you going to make that work?
But it’s none of my business. Do what you want. If it works for you, great.
In my most recent book, I told the story of asking a Southern conservative whether, with the militant Left coming for both our throats, we could for the time being put aside fratricide over the events of the mid-19th century and turn our attentions against our common enemy and then get back to killing one another over Lincoln after we win. He said no, it was much more important for him to kill me over Lincoln right now.
I am grateful that not everyone who shares his broader views feels the same way. Professor Gottfried stands out as one who enjoys the give and take of theoretical disagreement without losing sight of the greater threat and, indeed, while remaining on friendly terms. I could say the same about many new friends at Chronicles, The American Conservative, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and other paleoconservative institutions. They have blessedly proved to be more the rule than the exception.
But the exceptions are out there, and it’s clear, as I said in my last piece, that they hate me, my friends, our institutions and our ideas infinitely more than they hate the Left. Indeed, they hate us with such intensity because they equate us with the worst of the woke Left. Leo Strauss, Harry V. Jaffa, Ibram X. Kendi: to the warrior-anon, there is no difference. Except perhaps that, in their view, since we pretend to be on the Right, we are far worse demons than open enemies like Kendi et al. In this, they remind me of the New Left, which at the height of its fame trained all its fire on liberals and Democrats and all but ignored conservatives and Republicans. I know what the New Left was trying to accomplish. What is the goal of this New Right? Destruction, and then—what? And for whom?
I repeat the supreme irony that, while claiming to stand for the West (or the European diaspora, or the white race), the very ideas they so despise were not merely explicated by those same people (and only by those people) but proved to be foundational to their success. This is raising cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face to the level of civilizational suicide.
I may lament this, but I realize there is nothing I can do about it; or rather, what can be done has already been done. Those remaining are like the fabled Japanese infantrymen dug into their fortifications on some South Pacific Island, waiting to shoot U.S. Marines in 1970.
The Marines aren’t coming. I certainly am not coming. There’s nothing more we can say to one another. Despite our common enemies, common diagnosis of the present regime, and common dangers from that regime, the theoretical gulf is too great to cross. Or, to be clear, it is for you. I’ve made plain over and over my willingness to look past theoretical differences—without, to be clear, abandoning my position—for the sake of the more immediate struggle. But if it’s of paramount importance to you to kill me over Lincoln right now, you can try.
Goodbye and good luck. You’re going to need it.