Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Street Politics

At the cafe the canvasser for human rights organizations, hearing from me that I don't think what he is doing is very useful, tells me, when I say he doesn't have time to get into a serious discussion on the subject while he is working, that he does have time and wants to talk. So we talk.

He gets right to the point: am I a Straussian? In fact I could say I am, I say surpised that people on the street seem to be jumping on my train of thought.

- So you believe only an elite cadre of philosophers are competent to run a democracy?

- That is the usual misinterpretation. You know Strauss' theory of esoteric writing? That philosophers deliberately hid and confused their meaning to prevent the misuse of their ideas? Have you read Strauss?

- Only a little.

- Well this is very interesting. If Strauss was right, and Plato, Aristotle, Farabi, Maimonides were trying to prevent the misuse of their ideas, obviously they failed. You for example completely misunderstand Strauss.

- How is that?

- Interpreting The Republic, Strauss argued that all political organizations, with or without a philosopher directing them, would be destructive. This because social roles deform human nature, social life rewards the worse in human nature, along with giving the oportunity to bring out the best. Social life is a necessary evil. In the sense that philosophy looks for the best, the beautiful, the true, social life as something made cannot be its object, because social life is ugly, involves continual dishonesty, and interferes with the best life, which is that of the philosopher.

- A kind of cynicism.

- Not really. The philosopher takes seriously his words and life with other people. He believes social life in general is a sort of improvised tool, to be managed practically with sight on protecting the human nature of both the directors and the directed, leaders and the lead. Philosophers don't do this job, at least not in their specific role as philosophers, seekers of wisdom, of general truths about life. The philosopher's life protects human nature, and his only social role is making the best ruler of society possible. The philosopher himself does not need to rule.

- Why have I not heard this before? I have a degree in political science.

- Why is it secret? Despite the fact that Plato, Farabi, and Strauss himself more or less openly declared they were keeping secrets and making use of deliberate misdirections?

I think the game of secrecy was not to protect their writing from social misuse, which all of them knew was inevitable. The game was part and parcel with their wish to communicate, not merely lay down words.

When I talk to you here, speaking openly, without secrets or riddles, I know very well I am not getting through to you. Am I? Do you understand me so far? Be honest.

- I have to read Strauss again.

- To understand these ideas you would need, as I understand Plato and his followers, would need to re-organize your own experience, reflect on your own conclusions as you have drawn them from your own attempts to understand. Direct statement, even dialog like we are having, doesn't do this for you. We learn only when we see our own lives differently, when struggling with demanding ideas we make them our own.

The philosophers are not leaders of society, and don't believe that is their job, so their words are not meant to provide the rules for the best societies. They speak in a way calculated to provide the best people for that society. What the ignorant say will be misused by politicians, what the philosophers say will be misused by politicians. That is the point: politics is a place of incompetence and misrepresentation, it is not the philosopher's home town.

This is what you need to know if you want to understand Strauss. But don't take it from me!