Monday, December 2, 2013

An Old Man & The Laws (1-3)

Leo Strauss

(from Beverly Hills Stories)

1.

- What's wrong?
- I've been fighting with a bad mood. Maybe caused by reading Plato's 'The Laws', the long dialog he wrote in his old age in which an old man specifies humorlessly the best practical form of government for a new colony. It is about 700 pages Plato seems to kept himself continuously in a bad mood to write.
- Tell me about it.
- Unlike the city Plato imagines in 'The Republic', this one would not have property held in common. It would be overtly religious, with four classes unequal in property ownership, and would have a fixed number of lots for a fixed number of citizens. Only one male descendent could inherit the lot, and if no male born and surviving one would have to be adopted.
- Like primogenitor in feudal times.
- Yes. It is a property arrangement meant to be stable, and unlike in 'The Republic', to respect individual desires in private life, at least the life of private ownership of property. Private feelings for other people however are not respected in the arrangement, as even if you were lucky enough to be a citizen - slaves and merchants were not - only one of your male children could become a citizen, and your female children would have to marry a citizen to acquire the privileges of citizenship.
- I think I like our society better.
- Well, the idea expressed that only one aspect of private life - property - would be respected in the political arrangements is fascinating to encounter in our times, because it is exactly the nature of our present political arrangements. Rules of property are legislated to be un-challengeable and citizens taught to consider it sacrelige to change them. For example, it is out of the question to consider application of anarchist rules of property (no one may be employed by another, no possession of property without use). On the other hand, no regular arrangements are made to respect personal relations of friendship or love. Like in our present society, if economic conditions demand then your own children are left to be propertyless, with this unquestionably assumed to be fair and right.
- Not by everyone.
- By those it is accepted by the arrangement is religiously maintained: the religious element is the sense of property relations being unquestionable, as if dictated by god as a certain and permanent form of justice. 
- I know you. Displaying your bad mood is the beginning of a talk. Maybe it was the same for Plato, his thousand page bad mood. Am I right? I'm right.
- Though an old man himself when he wrote 'The Laws', and writing mostly words voiced by a humorless old man, Plato was not lapsing into senility*.  He was practicing what the philosopher Leo Strauss called esoteric writing, apparently saying one thing but meaning another: expressing the unsuitability of a society based only on religion and property by showing how that building would look when rigorously executed: joyless and fundamentally unjust. Hiding his secret message in plain sight, conceivably even laughing at the thoroughgoing boldness of his own trick, Plato goes to the extreme of having his old man propose the very dialog of dull words we are reading as a model of how citizens should speak with each other.

2.

- Still see the Guru of Beverly Hills?
- Every day.
- Did he ever pay you for the things he stole?
- He keeps putting it off with excuses. During the week he promises everyone he knows money payable only when he gets it on the coming Wednesday. When the money arrives they make their demands and clean him out. From Thursday until he gets his next installment he has nothing, no money  for his coke and cigarettes and he borrows money, often from his prior beneficiaries, which money he repays on Wednesday, but only if demand is made.
- Why does he do it?
- He constructs a family through money relations, ties established by promising and owing money. Everyone has to stick around to get their money from him. He feels he has a home.
- He has a lot of people who want their money, borrowed and promised.
- Imagine him like the old man in Plato's 'The Laws', constructing a society that incorporates a few religious principles. The relgious principles are not applicable to all. The Guru has a flexible attitude to who is considered a home, with respect to property relations. He permits himself to steal from those who object to his homemaking generosity.
- Like you.
- And his mother. As long as we object to the religious principle that underlies the property relation that founds his home colony, we are not entitled to property, just as in 'The Laws' non citizens, even some of the family of citizens, are not.
- You don't find that strange?
- Here is a quote from Leo Strauss:
The genuine refutation of orthodoxy would require the proof that the world and human life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of a mysterious God; it would require at least the success of the philosophical system: man has to show himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of his life; the merely given must be replaced by the world created by man theoretically and practically.
The religious principles that get attached to property rights are rules reasoned about, are not what Strauss called "revelation". Revelation is literally what is revealed: not seen at the moment, but comes to be seen through some action and the passage of time. Revelation assumes something is lacking - what is going to be revealed - and assumes that something has to be done to get it. The religion that gets attached to property relations is fixed in the form of rules, and goes nowhere.
- I suppose the Guru is always talking about God, what God wants, etc.
- He is.
- Why can't the religous rules give property rights to everyone? Under, as in your example, the anarchist rules?
- Could be because there is not enough property, but we know that is not true. The real reason is that strangers are not loved.
- Why not?
- Because in such societies no one is going anywhere.
- Where should they go?
- Where something will be revealed. Where a stranger's nature will be revealed.
- You said you're talking of our society too. We go places. We learn new things about the world every day.
- And what did Leo Strauss say? We may be on our way to becoming the master of the world with our knowledge and technology, but are we masters of our own lives? Do we know the laws of how we come to love, know, think?
- Neuro-biologists are working out laws relating our thoughts and feelings to brain states.
- But remember: revelation is the experience of something lacking brought into being. That cannot be expressed by a law relating something we have now and can describe to something else we don't have now but can anticipate and give even now an exact description of, feeling to brain state or brain state to feeling.
- We can predict "revelation", maybe, but not describe what it is.
- Yes.
- How does this relate to strangers and property?
- To think it reasonable to share property with a stranger, you have to be persuaded that a stranger can come to be a home for you.
- Men and women fall in love, get married, have children. Falling in love is a revelation.
- Yes. But old men don't expect to fall in love. They don't want to leave home. Scientific knowledge, technical knowledge, doesn't lead to revelation because it doesn't supply the personal lack.
- Why not?
- Because you don't make a home with general rules. You make a home with people.
- Why is that different?
- Making a home with people takes you out of the world.
- Why?
- Because laws about the world do not speak to why you want to have revelations in the first place.
- But they are revelations?
- Yes. But as I said, not of a kind that teach you why you should have revelations, why you should get out of the world of things related to each other by laws.
- The revelations between people teach that revelation in itself is good. Is that important?
- Couldn't be more important. A society only of science cannot explain why we do science.
- We do it because our genes program us to want to do it. For evolutionary advantage.
- Things described by laws related by laws to things described by laws. Explanation without revelation, because it doesn't explain revelation, shows a failure of scientific explanation to account for life. The most that can be said without an account of revelation is that we want what we want because of historical conditions.
- And making a home with people, having revelations about people teaches us? What?
- That it is the fundamental good.
- What? Revelation itself? Not love?
- Not love. Revelation itself. If everything has its lawful cause no thing has any certain value. Without revelation, all we know is we must protect our homes first. We know only enough to want to protect our ability to do what we do. We love because evolution wants us to. Evolution also wants us to kill when required. All we know is that we are something doing something, and what we are has to be protected by giving ourselves a society and a home. Religion teaches love is also our good, but without understanding those we love, that is, without the revelation of understanding - and that means understanding of revelation - we make religious rules limiting rights to property to those chosen few who are already loved, and of those, only those we have room enough for in our homes.**

3.

- So, I guess you read about it, there's this psychopath over in Irvine, at the University Of California, where he is a professor of neuro-science. He was doing brain scans of psychopaths and since people his whole life were telling him he was a psychopath he did one of himself, and guess what?
- The psychopath has the brain waves of a psychopath.
- You got it. But no problem, he says, he knows he doesn't love anyone, doesn't have the proper feelings for his family, but a good upbringing has taught him the rules and allowed him to be relatively secure. Pyschopaths have to be both without sympathy and insecure to really get violent. In any case, the professor says, there's nothing wrong with violence, everything is context, in war it is fine.
- Love is a lifestyle choice. Like wearing brown shoes instead of black. Murder too.
- When it is a recognized profession, when you murder those outside the protection of property rights. Within the circle of protection, no one, not only self-certified sympathy-less psychopaths, can say why they should be protected against each other. Religious education enforces their unquestioned obedience to the rules.
- But people like your Guru of Beverly Hills make up their own rules, draw people into the circle, throw them out.
- He didn't have the luck of the professor to be born into security and a clear path in life. The Guru brings people in and out because, he says, no one can really help anyone. We are all guilty, he says, so no one is guilty. When one does harm, we all suffer. When one does good, we all benefit. The arbitrary circle of property rights has its own mystique. He makes an exception for those passing money back and forth with him continuously on a daily basis. They can be helped, are helped immediately by security of the deep tie between them. His best friend at the moment is the woman his mother calls 'The Whore Of Burton Way', a 50 year old divorced Orthodox Beverly Hills Jew dressed in a peasant outfit who, the story goes, through her violent craziness had her children taken away from her. She wanders around to all the Jewish aid organizations begging money "for her children", she says, children who live with their millionaire father, himself the director of a Jewish aid organization.
- What does she spend the money on?
- The stock market, restaurants, who knows.
- Do you know how they met?
- I'm guilty of making the introduction. One night around midnight I stopped by the market to see if the Guru was hanging around in the parking lot as usual. I spotted this woman in a peasant outfit going up to one man after another asking if he was married, would he marry her, was he Jewish and if he wasn't would he agree to raise their children as Jewish...
- Was she joking?
- The men she followed out to their cars thought so, or that she was crazy. When The Guru came out of the market with his bottle of Coke she had zeroed in on me, and I was telling her she had the wrong man, I had no money, but this guy newly arrived, he was perfect for her, an Orthodox Jew like her and a psychopath like her.
- You said that? Wasn't she angry?
- What's there to get angry about? Psychopaths are the living gods of modern times.
- And then?
- And then they started seeing each other every day, talking about getting married, where they would live, etc
- Seriously?
- Seriously, of course not. They're two psychopaths. The Guru is already married, though years ago he threw away his wife and moved in with his mother. When his fiance found out he was living on an allowance and had no access to the family millions she eliminated him from consideration as husband but kept up daily contact with him so she could squeeze a few hundred dollars out of him every week.
- "For her children".

More about Leo Strauss: Street Politics
More about money and psychopaths: Capitalism & Compulsion, and
The People We Like To Call Evil

Critics of  'The Laws' are sensible of a want of point in the dialogue and a general inferiority in the ideas, plan, manners, and style. They miss the poetical flow, the dramatic verisimilitude, the life and variety of the characters, the dialectic subtlety, the Attic purity, the luminous order, the exquisite urbanity; instead of which they find tautology, obscurity, self-sufficiency, sermonizing, rhetorical declamation, pedantry, egotism, uncouth forms of sentences, and peculiarities in the use of words and idioms. They are unable to discover any unity in the patched, irregular structure. The speculative element both in government and education is superseded by a narrow economical or religious vein. The grace and cheerfulness of Athenian life have disappeared; and a spirit of moroseness and religious intolerance has taken their place. The charm of youth is no longer there; the mannerism of age makes itself unpleasantly felt. The connection is often imperfect; and there is a want of arrangement, exhibited especially in the enumeration of the laws towards the end of the work. The Laws are full of flaws and repetitions. The Greek is in places very ungrammatical and intractable. A cynical levity is displayed in some passages, and a tone of disappointment and lamentation over human things in others. The critics seem also to observe in them bad imitations of thoughts which are better expressed in Plato's other writings. (Benjamin Jowett)

** The Future Of Evil

(See: The Care And Feeding Of Zombies And Vampires)