There is perhaps no more flummoxing question for the intellectual Right than the cause of the evident and dramatic decline of the political and private mores of Americans.
Or, better, there would be no more flummoxing question for the intellectual Right were such intellectuals to consider an explanation other than the one most familiar (and flattering) to them: intellectual failure in the universities.
The Claremont Colleges, specifically Claremont McKenna College and Scripps College, long ago offered a course called Socrates or Nihilism. Taught by Professor Harry Jaffa—a socratic—and Professor Harry Neumann—a nihilist.
The course, structured as a dialogue between the Harrys, had as its theme there are only two ways to view the world: as a socratic, on the one hand, and as a nihilist, on the other.
To both Jaffa and Neumann, socratic meant that the central question for man is whether he is acting as a good man or a bad man. While a socratic may be skeptical as to what he knows about the answer to this question, a socratic does not doubt the objective purposefulness of the inquiry. The unexamined life is not worth living.
Nihilism, for Neumann at least, meant that the truth, like Poe’s Purloined Letter, is hiding in plain sight. There is no permanent, non-arbitrary good to make the question of good or bad meaningful. Life, examined or unexamined, is not worth living, because there is no measure by which to judge its value.
In between these perspectives lie a garden variety’s worth of soft nihilisms, mostly modern liberal political theories, which, if taken to their logical conclusion dissolve the meaning of not just right and wrong but even fundamental experiences such as causation and time.
Each Harry’s intention was to discredit these intermediate views. Jaffa derided them as perverse and illustrated their perversion by exposing them to arguments rooted in the central issues of the American regime, liberty and equality, and their negation, slavery.
Neumann derided them as delusional and intellectually weak. The advocates of these views he deemed at best ignorant of the portent of their own doctrines and at worst deceivers, with the former camp being both more numerous and more contemptible for their lack of intelligence.
If Archie Bunker and the Meathead each had an 180 IQ, their cantankerous debates of “All In The Family” would have been much like the three-hour seminars on Socrates or nihilism led by the two Harrys.
Jaffa, ever pugilistic, argued stridently in favor of private morality as essential for republican government. By 1990 his views were already far out of step with then au currant opinion on campus about sexual morality.
Jaffa was asked once, by a student upset with his opinions on private morality—opinions clearly at odds with the private conduct of the student—how he could call himself socratic when his inflexible moral views appeared hostile to Socrates’ skeptical wisdom that he only knew that he knew nothing. Jaffa shot back that where the prevailing opinion is moral relativism, a defense of stern private morality is questioning the opinions of the city.
He was right. Neumann’s silence indicated concurrence.
There are limits to Jaffa’s view and method. First, there is a tension between reason and revelation, meaning the argument as to whether wisdom is revealed or knowable by unaided human reason cannot be adequately resolved. Rationalism has no final defense to religious critiques and at the same time religious wisdom is undermined by rationalism. Second, vulgar opinion on morality is a distant cousin to the 180 IQ Jaffa versus Neumann contest of wits and erudition. We live, as does nearly everyone today, in popular regimes in which the vulgar not only have a decisive voice but also where the elites are, having largely been elevated by the vulgar, vulgar themselves.
Socrates or nihilism may be too high-minded an approach for a regime dependent on vulgar opinion. Rational investigation of nihilism, or its soft versions Marxism and post-modern progressivism, may be misguided. Book clubs devoted to close misreadings of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida and other indigestible philosophy may not do anything to improve our practical political position, which depends on vulgar opinions.
We ought to ask whether the question is not Socrates or nihilism but sorcery or nihilism. Are we compelled by our times to understand sorcery, their sorcery and our own?