Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fourth Edition of "Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker"

I have finished writing the fourth edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker, which will be published by Waveland Press.  I do not yet have the production schedule.  But I assume that the book should be published sometime late this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the Prologue and the Table of Contents.  You can see that it incorporates a lot of material from this blog.


Prologue

In this fourth edition, I have changed and added material throughout the book. I have added new chapters on Adam Smith, Leo Strauss, and Steven Pinker.

I have written this book both for students, who might be studying the history of political philosophy for the first time, and for scholarly experts in political philosophy, who might find something here to stimulate (if not provoke) them.

I hope that both novices and initiates can benefit from the way this book combines four major features: (1) a reliance on disputed questions, (2) an emphasis on primary texts, (3) references to issues in American political history, and (4) a multidisciplinary approach to political philosophy.

(1) To stimulate readers to think for themselves, I raise a series of enduring political questions, and I leave the readers free to work out their own answers. As much as possible, I avoid imposing my own point of view.

(2) Because there is no good substitute for reading the original works of political philosophy, I tie my questions to specific texts. This book is only supplementary to reading the primary sources. The best use of this book is to read it while reading some of the primary texts.

(3) Because it is important for students to see how the study of political philosophy can illuminate their political experience, I indicate how the questions raised by political philosophers clarify issues in American politics. In particular, I draw out some of the philosophic implications of the Declaration of Independence.

(4) Political philosophers make empirical claims about human nature, human culture, and political history.  To assess those empirical claims, I argue in this book, we need to draw from relevant knowledge gained from all of the intellectual disciplines in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  So, for example, in my surveys of disputed political questions, I bring up pertinent ideas from anthropology, biology, economics, history, psychology, and theology.   Political philosophy is best studied as part of a multidisciplinary liberal education that aims for a comprehensive science of nature and of human beings as part of nature.



Table of Contents

Introduction: From the Declaration of Independence to Political Philosophy

1        Political Knowledge and Political Power:  Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Republic

 1. What is the political lesson of the trial of Socrates? 

 2. How far is a citizen obligated to obey the laws? 

 3.  In defining justice, how do we move from opinions to knowledge? 

 4. Is justice the interest of the stronger? 

 5. Is justice the fulfillment of natural needs? 

 6. Is justice conventional rather than natural? 

 7. Is the rule of philosopher-kings meant to be a realistic political goal? 

 8. Why does Socratic statesmanship require a “noble lie”? 

 9. Is there any justification in nature for the hierarchical ordering of the city and soul into three parts? 

 10. Must a good political order depend on a cosmic order of divine law? 

2        Political Science as the Study of Regimes: Aristotle’s Politics

 1. Is the best regime good enough? 

 2. Does political life fulfill a natural human end? 

 3. Are human beings the only animals with the capacity for symbolic speech?

 4. How do selfishness and aggression influence political life? 

 5. Does Aristotle show the prejudices of his culture in his views of slaves and women? 

 6. Does Aristotle’s understanding of citizenship illuminate modern democratic politics? 

 7. Does Aristotle’s regime suppress individual liberty?    

 8. Can we settle the conflict between oligarchic and democratic views of justice? 

 9. How does the Aristotelian leader handle a regime that is less than the best? 

10. Why does Aristotle teach tyrants how to preserve their regimes? 

3        The Political Realism of Christian Theology:
Augustine’s City of God

 1. Was Augustine the first political realist? 

 2. Does Christian faith perfect our reasoning about politics? 

 3. Is nature apart from God a reliable standard for politics? 

 4. Must earthly political rule always be unjust? 

 5. Must Christians be Machiavellians? 

4          Natural Law: Thomas Aquinas’s “Treatise on Law”

 1. What is natural law?

 2. Is law the command of the sovereign backed by threat? 

 3. How do human beings discover natural law?  

 4. Does the fact-value distinction refute the idea of natural law? 

 5. Is law the joint product of nature, custom, and stipulation? 

 6. Does cultural diversity contradict the idea of natural law? 

 7. Must we legislate morality? 

   8. Is Thomistic political thought compatible with liberal democracy? 

   9. Does the application of natural law to sexual conduct, abortion, and marriage threaten individual liberty? 

  10. Can government rightly promote our pursuit of the complete happiness that comes only with eternal life in Heaven? 

5        Power Politics: Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses

 1.  Is Machiavelli evil? 

 2. What is Machiavellian virtue? 

 3.  In politics, does the end justify the means? 

 4. Does political order require “cruelty well used”? 

   5. Are democratic leaders just as selfish as dictators in their pursuit of power? 

 6.  Does Machiavelli elevate political power over political wisdom? 

6        Liberal Rationalism: Descartes’s Discourse on Method

 1. Can the scientific method of Descartes lead us to a free and rational society?

 2. Is Cartesian reason unreasonable? 

 3. Does Cartesian science promote nihilistic tyranny? 

 4. Does Cartesian science promote technocratic tyranny? 

 5. If machines can think, do they have rights? 

7        Individual Rights and Absolute Government: Hobbes’s Leviathan and behemoth

 1. Are human beings too selfish to be naturally political animals? 

 2. Can selfish human beings create political order by consenting to a social contract? 

 3. Why should we obey an absolute government? 

 4. Can only an absolute government protect individual liberty? 

 5. Does the right to revolution subvert good government? 

   6. Is anarchy better than a predatory government? 

 7.  Is the founding of political authority on rational selfishness too idealistic? 

 8.  Is the American government a Hobbesian Leviathan? 

   9.  Is the interpretation of the Bible and the Koran a political question? 

 10.  Does the English Civil War show how political history can be a natural laboratory for testing political philosophy? 

8        Classical Liberalism: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and letter concerning toleration

 1. Are human beings entitled to equal liberty as being the workmanship of their Creator? 

 2. Are human beings entitled to equal liberty s members of the same human species who claim self-ownership? 

  3.  Are human beings equal and free in the state of nature? 

  4.  Are all human beings entitled to equal liberty in acquiring property? 

 5. Can liberal government combine individual freedom with political authority? 

 6. Can Lockean government secure the consent of the governed? 

 7. By what right does the majority rule? 

   8.  Does the protection of minorities require a minority veto in a consensus democracy? 

 9. Can the rule of law and the separation of powers secure individual rights? 

10.  Must the executive have the prerogative powers of a dictator? 

11.  Does the right to revolution mean that might makes right?

12. Should women have equal rights? 

13.  Are there good arguments for religious toleration and the separation of church and state?

14.  Is a society of atheists possible?

9        Participatory Democracy:  Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses and Social Contract

 1. Does popular enlightenment subvert political freedom?

 2. Were human beings naturally good as solitary animals in the state of nature?

 3. Has the evolution of civilization deprived us of our natural freedom and happiness? 

 4. Does participatory democracy promote or threaten individual liberty?

 5. Does a participatory democracy require a godlike founder? 

 6. Is representative democracy disguised slavery? 

 7. Does democracy need a civil religion? 

 8. Is a true democracy impossible?

 

10      MORALS AND MARKETS IN THE COMMERCIAL SOCIETY:  SMITH’S THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS AND WEALTH OF  NATIONS 

1.  Is Smithian moral sentimentalism rooted in selfishness, vanity, conformism, and emotivism?

2.  Do evolutionary science and experimental game theory confirm Smith’s moral theory? 

3.  Does religion make people moral?

4.  Do markets degrade morals?

5.  In the commercial society, does commerce take the place of virtue?

6.  Does the commercial society promote the bourgeois virtues?

7.  Is Smith a man of the left, or even a proto-Marxist, in supporting distributive justice for the poor?

8.  Does the system of natural liberty require private property anarchism?

9.  Does the recent history of economic and financial crises show the failure of Smithian free-market thinking?

11      History and the Modern State:  Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Philosophy of History

 1. Does history have an ultimate meaning? 

 2.  Is every political philosopher “a child of his time?” 

 3. What is freedom? 

 4. Can the modern state unite individual rights and political duties? 

 5. Does war preserve the health of the state?

 6. Is the United States a state?

 7. Have we reached the end of history?

12      Socialism: Marx’s Communist Manifesto

 1. Do economic interests determine history? 

 2. Must capitalists exploit their workers? 

 3. Does capitalism prevent workers from finding joy in their work? 

   4. Does capitalism inevitably create an unjust inequality, with wealth concentrated in the hands of the richest 1 percent of the capitalists?

 5. Would socialism emancipate human beings?

 6. Can a socialist economy work? 

 7. Can we have Marx without Stalin? 

 8. Can socialism be democratic?  24

 9.  Can social democracy combine the best features of capitalism and socialism? 

            10.  Do we need a new communism? 

            11.  Is socialist anarchism more liberating than Marxist communism?  

13      The Death of God and the Will to Power: Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; Human, All Too Human; Thus Spoke Zarathustra; and Beyond Good and Evil

 1. Do we need the mythic illusions of music and drama to conceal the meaningless chaos of the world? 

 2. Can a free-spirited science of Darwinian evolution give us “humble truths”? 

 3. Can human beings live without transcendent longings?  

 4. Is a free-spirited science compatible with modern liberal democracy? 

 5. Who is Zarathustra? 

   6.  Can life be explained as will to power and eternal return? 

   7.  Is Nietzsche too pious? 

 8.  Does going “beyond good and evil” lead us to a new nobility or a new barbarism? 

   9.  Is Nietzsche’s Darwinian aristocratic liberalism superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism? 

 

14      RELATIVISM AND NATURAL RIGHT IN THE CRISIS OF  LIBERALISM:  STRAUSS’S PERSECUTION AND THE ART OF WRITING AND NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY

1.  Is esoteric writing necessary to protect philosophy and politics from mutual harm?

2.  Can philosophers refute modern relativism and nihilism by proving the truth of natural right?

3.  Can modern biology support the natural teleology required for natural right? 

4.  Is the unnatural character of slavery an example of natural right that can be defended against historicist and positivist relativism?

5.  Is the philosophic life of the few naturally superior to the moral, religious, and political lives of the many?

6.  Does Lockean natural right teach hedonistic relativism, in which “life is the joyless quest for joy”?

7.  Was Strauss a Jewish Nazi?

8.  Does liberalism allow for human excellence and the philosophic life through liberal education?

15      the social justice of equal liberty: Rawls’s A Theory of Justice

 1. Are the principles of justice those we would choose under impartial conditions of fairness?

 2. Should we force the more fortunate people of our society to help those less fortunate?

 3.  Does justice require socialist equality?

 4. Does justice require capitalist liberty?

 5. Should we seek equality of opportunity but not equality of result, even when this allows a cognitive elite to become the ruling class? 

   6.  Is an instinctive moral grammar of justice part of our evolved human nature? 

 7.  Does a liberal conception of justice require the coercive enforcement of a liberal way of life as the best life for human beings?

 

16       THE CLASSICAL LIBERALISM OF DECLINING VIOLENCE:   PINKER’S THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

   1. Were prehistoric human foragers ignoble savages with a naturally     evolved propensity for war?

   2.  Does history show declining violence?

   3.  Does religious ideology promote violence?

   4.  Is capitalist ideology more likely to promote violence than is communist ideology?

   5.  Does the liberal peace require a world of flat souls without manly virtues?

   6.  Can declining violence arise from a genetic evolution towards the bourgeois virtues through survival of the richest?

   7.  Are the more intelligent people classical liberals?

   

Appendix:  The Declaration of Independence

Index

 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Nietzschean Nihilism, Natural Right, and Liberal Education

The failure to solve what Leo Strauss identified as the problem of natural right led Strauss and his students to embrace Nietzsche's value-positing nihilism.  This led to a Nietzschean view of liberal education as promoting the life of artist-philosophers who create new values as an expression of their will to power. 

This Straussian turn to Nietzschean nihilism was clearly intimated, although never openly affirmed, in Strauss's writings published near the end of his life and after his death.  This was also seen in Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.  And although William Deresiewicz does not fully understand what he is doing, he expresses this Nietzschean view of liberal education in his book Excellent Sheep.

The alternative to this Nietzschean turn is to solve the problem of natural right by showing how Darwinian science can confirm natural right as rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature.  This Darwinian natural right would support a Darwinian liberal education that would integrate all of the intellectual disciplines of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities into a comprehensive science of nature and of human nature as part of that natural whole.

According to Strauss in Natural Right and History, the problem of natural right is that natural right requires a teleological conception of nature that seems to have been refuted by modern natural science.  Neither in Natural Right and History nor in any other writing did Strauss explain how to solve that problem. 

In 1970, only three years before his death, Strauss wrote a new Preface to Natural Right and History, which included this sentence: "Nothing that I have learned has shaken my inclination to prefer 'natural right,' especially in its classic form, to the reigning relativism, positivist or historicist."  Thus, writing like Max Weber, Strauss put the term natural right within quotation marks, and he indicated that his affirmation of classic natural right was nothing more than his personal preference.

In 1973, the year of Strauss's death, Interpretation published his "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil," which suggested his fundamental agreement with Nietzsche.  Near the end of his life, Strauss left instructions for the publication of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, with his article on Nietzsche as the central chapter.

In 1987, Bloom's Closing of the American Mind became an international best-seller, and thus the best-selling Straussian book of all time.  Most readers saw Bloom's apparent criticism of the relativism in America's elite universities and his apparent defense of Socratic liberal education as directed to the pursuit of truth.  But some readers (Harry Jaffa, for example) also saw in the book a dramatic conflict over whether Bloom's heroic model for liberal education was to be Socrates or Nietzsche.  Some readers also noticed that Bloom's interpretation of Nietzsche followed closely what Strauss had written in his essay on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil

Socrates and Nietzsche are the two thinkers that Bloom mentions more often than anyone else.  He sets them in opposition to one another.  And he never clearly states any disagreement with Nietzsche, while suggesting that Nietzsche might have been correct in his criticisms of Socrates (51, 60, 79-80, 143, 145, 160, 163, 194-98, 204, 207-208, 268, 270, 277, 310-11).  Much of Bloom's book is designed to show us what he calls "the extraordinary thought and philosophical greatness" of not only Nietzsche but also Heidegger and the other German nihilists (239).

Nietzsche makes his first appearance in Bloom's book in a passage explaining why Bloom began to doubt the Great Books approach to liberal education as founded on the model of Socrates.  Bloom describes the "enchanting prospect" provided by American students when he first began teaching in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He quotes from something he wrote in 1965 about how the good students in the elite universities were open to liberal education, and how "these students are a kind of democratic version of an aristocracy" (49).  And thus Bloom echoed Strauss's hope that a Great Books liberal education could "found an aristocracy within democratic mass society" ("What Is Liberal Democracy?", 5).  In 1965, Bloom saw in his students "a spiritual yearning, a powerful tension which made the university atmosphere electric."  Later, however, he began to suspect that Nietzsche was right about how a liberal democratic culture brings a decadence that deprives the human soul of any transcendent longings:
"But the students who have succeeded that generation of the late fifties and early sixties, when the culture leeches, professional and amateur, began their great spiritual bleeding, have induced me to wonder whether my conviction--the old Great Books conviction--was correct.  That conviction was that nature is the only thing that counts in education, that the human desire to know is permanent, that all it really needs is the proper nourishment, and that education is merely putting the feast on the table.  At the very least, it is clear to me now that nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man's art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness.  At worst, I fear that spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul's boiling blood is taking place, a fear that Nietzsche thought justified and made the center of all his thought.  He argued that the spirit's bow was being unbent and risked being permanently unstrung.  Its activity, he believed, comes from culture, and the decay of culture meant not only the decay of man in this culture but the decay of man simply.  This is the crisis he tried to face resolutely: the very existence of man as man, as a noble being, depended on him and on men like him--so he thought.  He may not have been right, but his case looks stronger all the time. . . . The soil is ever thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain the taller growths." (51)
So Bloom doubts the Great Books appeal to nature and the permanent natural desire to know.  He fears the cultural flattening of the human soul that was at the center of all Nietzsche's thought, and he understands Nietzsche's concern that the creation of a new nobility would require philosophic creators like himself.  Without openly embracing Nietzsche's position, Bloom points in that direction: "He may not have been right, but his case looks stronger all the time."  Originally, Bloom wanted the title of his book to be Souls Without Longing, and his book is all about the Nietzschean lament that liberal democratic culture has created people with flat souls, and that the creation of a new nobility requires creating a new culture of noble values.

"The longing for the beyond has been attenuated," Bloom declares (61).  By contrast, Bloom describes the spiritually deep lives of his uneducated grandparents, whose lives were rooted in their simple faith in the Bible, which differed from the life of the next generation:
"I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning.  When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clich├ęs, superficialties, the material of satire.  I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by.  I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things.  Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside.  The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished." (60)
Notice that the Bible is identified here not as a divine revelation of truth but as only one of many "revelations" or "epics" without which "there is nothing to see out there."  As Jaffa observed, "to say that without books there is nothing to see is nihilism" ("Humanizing Certitudes and Impoverishing Doubts," 117).  But then, as Jaffa noticed, Bloom contradicts this nihilism by referring to "natural vision" and "the real nature of things," a contradiction that runs throughout Bloom's book. 

Moreover, Bloom's account of the power of the Bible in creating a spiritually rich culture among common people echoes Nietzsche's account of how "reverence for the Bible" has until recently shaped "more relative nobility of taste and tactful reverence" among less educated people than among "the newspaper-reading demi-monde of the spirit, the educated" (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 263).

Many readers of Bloom's book assumed that his criticism of relativism was part of a defense of traditional morality.  But some readers noticed that this was not true.  Bloom declared: "It is not the immorality of relativism that I find appalling.  What is astounding and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept such relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives" (239).  Notice that the immorality of relativism is not appalling to Bloom.  Rather, what Bloom finds disgusting is America's "easygoing" relativism, or "nihilism, American style" (139), as opposed to the anguished relativism of Nietzsche.  "Nietzsche replaces easygoing or self-satisfied atheism with agonized atheism, suffering its human consequences" (196).
"Stripping away the illusions about values was required, so Nietzsche thought, by our situation, to disenchant all misleading hopes of comfort or consolation, thereby to fill the new creators with awe and the awareness that everything depends on them.  Nihilism is a dangerous but necessary and a possibly salutary stage in human history.  In it man faces his true situation.  It can break him, reduce him to despair and spiritual or bodily suicide.  But it can hearten him to a reconstruction of a world of meaning.  Nietzsche's works are a glorious exhibition of the soul of a man who might, if anybody can, be called creative.  They constitute the profoundest statement about creativity, by a man who had a burning need to understand it." (198)
In understanding philosophy not as the will to truth but as the will to power, as the artistic creation of values through creating culture, Nietzsche must overturn the Socratic understanding of philosophy as the quest to know the truth about nature.
"Nietzsche's psychology concerns the impulse toward God, for in that impulse the self arrays and displays all its powers; and his influence brought a new burst of religious interest, if not religion, to the intellectual world.  God is myth, Nietzsche taught.  Myths are made by poets.  This is just what Plato says in the Republic and for him it is equivalent to a declaration of war between philosophy and poetry.  The aim of philosophy is to substitute truth for myth (which by its very definition is falsehood, a fact too often forgotten in our post-Nietzschean fascination with myth).  Since myths are thee first and give men their first opinions, philosophy means a critical destruction of myth in favor of truth for the sake of freedom and living naturally.  Socrates, as depicted in the Platonic dialogues, questioning and confuting the received opinions, is the model of the philosophic life; and his death at the hands of his countrymen for not believing in their myths epitomizes the risks of philosophy.  Nietzsche drew precisely the opposite conclusion from the same facts about myth.  There is no nature and no such freedom.  The philosopher must do the contrary of what Socrates did.  So Nietzsche is the first philosopher ever to have attacked Socrates, because Socrates' life is not the model life, but a coruupt and monstrous one lacking in all nobility.  The tragic life, which Socrates defused and purged, is the serious life.  The new philosopher is the ally of the poets and their savior, or philosophy is itself the highest kind of poetry.  Philosophy in the old mode demythologizes and demystifies.  It has no sense of the sacred; and by disenchanting the world and uprooting man, it leads into the void.  The revelation that philosophy finds nothingness at the end of its quest informs the new philosopher that mythmaking must be his central concern in order to make a world." (208)
But even as Bloom sets up this conflict between Socrates and Nietzsche, he also hints that they might have been in fundamental agreement about philosophy as a creative art.  He identifies Socrates as "the complementary man" (268).  This unusual expression is Nietzsche's term in Beyond Good and Evil (section 207) for the value-creating philosopherUnlike the "objective spirit" of a scholar, who is only a mirror of reality and who "does not command," the true philosopher is a "complementary man," who is "the Caesarian cultivator and power-man of culture."  (If Strauss thought Socrates was actually a Nietzschean philosopher, that would explain why he put his essay on Nietzsche at the center of his Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.)

Like Nietzsche, Deresiewicz sets up an opposition between scientific objectivity and discovery, on the one hand, and artistic subjectivity and creativity, on the other.  Liberal education, he argues, should be on the side of art rather than science, because humanistic knowledge is not about the objective observation of external reality but about the subjective experience of internal reality, of "what reality feels like" (159).  For the liberal arts, Deresiewicz insists, the question is not "Is it true?" but "Is it true for me?" (160).  As with Nietzsche, knowledge in liberal education for Deresiewicz is not a matter of discovery and the will to truth but interpretation and the will to power.  Also like Nietzsche, Deresiewicz sees this artistic creation of meaning and purpose as a substitute for traditional religion--"aestheticism, the religion of art" (156).

Deresiewicz does not reflect on the nihilistic implications of assuming that human life has no objective goods discoverable by the human mind but only subjective values created by the human will.  Objective human goods would require some conception of natural right as rooted in natural teleology.

Bloom points to the possibility of a natural teleology of human biological nature, but his Nietzschean nihilism denies that possibility.  For example, he writes: "I mean by teleology nothing but the evident, everyday observation and sense of purposiveness, which may be only illusory, but which ordinarily guides human life, the kind everyone sees in the reproductive process" (110).  So even as he recognizes the evident teleology of human biology, he cannot fully affirm it, because it "may be only illusory."  This happens often in his book (112-116, 126, 130, 143, 133, 166, 181, 207-208, 270-71, 300, 356-358).

Bloom recognizes that the Socratic question of how one should live is a question of how human beings fit into the natural universe.  To think through that question would require a unification of the intellectual disciplines in the modern university--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--into a comprehensive science of nature.  He identifies "sociobiology" as one attempt to do that, but he does not develop that thought (369).

Like Strauss, Bloom's interpretation of Nietzsche concentrates on the early and late writings of Nietzsche; and thus Strauss and Bloom ignore Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian science in Human, All Too Human, where Nietzsche suggests how the problem of natural right could be solved by a Darwinian science of evolved human nature that would allow for the immanent teleology of natural human desires.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts herehere, here, here, here, here., here, and here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Liberal Education in a Liberal Democracy: The Philosophic Few? The Cognitive Elite? The Excellent Sheep?

In the summer of 2008, The American Scholar published an essay by William Deresiewicz entitled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education."  He stated his main point in one sentence: "Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers."

Deresiewicz had had an elite education as an undergraduate at Columbia University and a graduate student at Yale University.  He taught English literature at Yale for ten years.  But then he decided that he was part of an educational system that was no longer providing a truly liberal education devoted to thinking about the big questions of life--questions about the meaning and purpose of life.  Instead of this, he saw that education in the elite schools--like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford--had become a purely vocational and technical education to prepare students to enter high-paying and high-status jobs. 

To gain entrance to such elite education, students had been working hard since elementary school to build their resumes, to achieve high GPAs, and to score high enough on the SAT exam to be admitted into the most prestigious schools.  But once they got to those schools, they often could not explain why they were there, except to say that they were building the credentials necessary for careers that would give them the wealth and power of an upper class life.  These students were smart and successful, but also empty and anxious.  Many of these students would find no personal satisfaction in the careers they would enter.  As one student told Deresiewicz, these students had become "excellent sheep."

So Deresiewicz began to wonder whether these students would have been happier--better able to live a meaningful, purposeful life--if they had not had an elite education, but instead had attended some small liberal arts college or public university, where they might have sought a liberal education in which thinking and learning are pursued for their own sake rather than as a means for career advancement.  They might have learned how to find a job doing something they enjoyed doing, a job that would give them a comfortable living but perhaps not great wealth or status.  They might have become inquisitive thinkers rather than excellent sheep.

Deresiewicz's essay gained lots of attention.  He was invited to lecture at many schools--including the elite schools--where he provoked debate over his bleak assessment of American higher education.

Recently, he has elaborated his essay into a book--Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014).  This book reminds me of Allan Bloom's famous book--The Closing of the American Mind--first published in 1987, which is also an attack on American higher education for failing to provide the liberal education that would sustain democracy and elevate the souls of students.  In fact, Deresiewicz quotes from Bloom more often than anyone else.  Deresiewicz does not indicate, however, that Bloom's ideas are mostly borrowed from his teacher--Leo Strauss--and that Bloom's account of liberal education is particularly indebted to Strauss's writing on liberal education from the early 1960s. 

Comparing these writings of Strauss, Bloom, and Deresiewicz is instructive for thinking about the role of liberal education in liberal democracy, and particularly for thinking about whether liberal democracy can cultivate human excellence through liberal education, or whether liberal democracy must fail to provide the mental culture necessary for liberal education.

On June 6, 1959, Strauss delivered "What Is Liberal Education?" as an address at the tenth annual graduation exercise of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago.  The Basic Program had been founded in 1946 by President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler as a Great Books program for adults in the extension division of the University of Chicago.  Like St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, the Basic Program was (and still is) organized around a list of Great Books.  Bloom was a teacher in the Basic Program when Strauss gave his speech, so Bloom was probably in the audience. 

I was a teacher in the Basic Program from 1974 to 1978.  The courses are non-credit, and they do not earn any professional degree.  The students in the Basic Program are older people, with an average age of around 50-55, who want to study the Great Books for the intellectual pleasure of doing it.  They bring to the classroom their experience as mature adults who have had successful careers, and many of whom have raised their children.

Strauss began his lecture by explaining the connection of liberal education to the reading of the Great Books.  "Liberal education is education in culture or toward culture," he observed, and culture is the cultivation of the mind, which requires teachers.  The teachers are themselves pupils; but ultimately there must be teachers who are not pupils, teachers who can teach themselves, and these are the great minds.  The greatest minds are so extremely rare that we are not likely to ever meet one.  "It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one's time."  Consequently, most pupils have access to the greatest minds only through reading the Great Books that the great minds have left behind.  Liberal education must then consist in studying carefully these Great Books.  In this study, the more experienced pupils help the less experienced pupils (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 3).

"Education in the highest sense is philosophy," Strauss declared, but "we cannot be philosophers," and therefore we cannot acquire philosophic education.  We can only acquire liberal education, in which we are compelled to read the greatest books written by the great minds.  In doing this, "the mediator between us and the greatest minds" is Socrates, who never wrote books, but he did read books.  "We cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize" by listening to the conversation between the great minds that we can generate by studying the Great Books (LAM, 6-7).

"It was once said," Strauss observed, that democracy is the regime in which all or most adults are men of virtue and wisdom who have developed their minds to a high degree, so that a democratic society is "the rational society" and a universal aristocracy.  In such a democracy, all citizens would have a liberal education.  But notice that in saying "it was once said," Strauss does not say this himself.  Far from being a universal aristocracy, modern democracy is actually a "mass culture," which is "a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual and moral effort whatsoever and at a very low monetary price."

In such a society, liberal education cannot be the education of a universal aristocracy.  Strauss explained:
"Liberal education is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture. . . . Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.  Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society.  Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear of human greatness." (LAM, 5)
After the publication of this lecture, Strauss was asked by The Fund for Adult Education to prepare another essay on "Liberal Education and Responsibility" that would explain what he meant in the preceding passage about liberal education being the effort "to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society."

In this essay, Strauss claimed that according to classical philosophy, there must be a conflict between the city as a cave and philosophy as the life of those few who can ascend out of the cave to see the light of the sun.  There must then be a radical separation between the education of philosophers and the education of nonphilosophers.  The philosopher is capable of a philosophic education.  Among the nonphilosophers, gentlemen need a liberal education, and the people need a religious education.  "The pursuits becoming the gentleman are said to be politics and philosophy."  Liberal education is "a preparation for philosophy," and philosophy transcends gentlemanship (LAM, 13).  Since philosophers cannot rule the city directly, the next best form of rule is the rule of the gentlemen, which is "only a reflection of the rule of the philosophers, who are understood to be the men best by nature and best by education" (LAM, 14).

There is a fundamental conflict between the philosophers and the nonphilosophers, because they aim at different ends.
"The philosopher as philosopher is responsible to the city only to the extent that by doing his own work, by his own well-being, he contributes to the well-being of the city: philosophy has necessarily a humanizing or civilizing effect.  The city needs philosophy, but only mediately or indirectly, not to say in a diluted form.  Plato has presented this state of things by comparing the city to a cave from which only a rough and steep ascent leads to the light of the sun: the city as city is more closed to philosophy than open to it." (LAM, 15)
Similar to this ancient conception of the mixed regime is the modern republicanism manifest in The Federalist Papers.  "In the best case, Hamilton's republic will be ruled by the men of the learned professions.  This reminds one of the rule of the philosophers, but only reminds one of it.  Will the men of the learned professions at least be men of liberal education?  It is probable that the men of the learned professions will chiefly be lawyers" (LAM, 17).

But while classical philosophy saw society as closed to philosophy, Strauss explained, modern philosophy sought to open society to philosophy, which required a new kind of liberal education.
"Just as liberal education in its original sense was supported by classical philosophy, so the new education derives its support, if not its being, from modern philosophy.  According to classical philosophy, the end of the philosophers is radically different from the end or ends actually pursued by the nonphilosophers.  Modern philosophy comes into being when the end of philosophy is identified with the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men.  More precisely, philosophy is now asserted to be essentially subservient to the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men. . . . In this respect, the modern conception of philosophy is fundamentally democratic.  The end of philosophy is now no longer what one may call disinterested contemplation of the eternal, but the relief of man's estate. . . . Philosophy or science was no longer an end in itself, but in the service of human power, or a power to be used for making human life longer, healthier, and more abundant." (LAM, 19-20) 
Originally, in the seventeenth century, this modern project of Enlightenment was executed by "the philosopher-scientist" working through "enlightened princes."  (Here Strauss was implicitly referring to Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.)  But since then, Strauss indicated, philosophy and science have been separated, so that philosophers do not need to be scientists, and scientists do not need to be philosophers.  Science has become supreme in its authority, although it no longer has any essential connection to wisdom.

Finally, Strauss offered his general assessment of liberal education today:
"What then are the prospects for liberal education within mass democracy?  What are the prospects for the liberally educated to become again a power in democracy?  We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.  While we are not permitted to remain silent on the dangers to which democracy exposes itself as well as human excellence, we cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence.  No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone. . . . We are indeed compelled to be specialists, but we can try to specialize in the most weighty matters or, to speak more simply and more nobly, in the one thing needful.  As matters stand, we can expect more immediate help from the humanities rightly understood than from the sciences, from the spirit of perceptivity and delicacy than from the spirit of geometry.  If I am not mistaken, this is the reason why liberal education is now becoming almost synonymous with the reading in common of the Great Books.  No better beginning could have been made." (LAM, 24)
Reading Strauss's essays on liberal education brings to mind at least five questions that also come up in the reading of Bloom and Deresiewicz.

The first question is whether liberal democracy really can promote human excellence, including philosophy, through liberal education.  In response to those critics of Strauss who have identified him as an enemy of liberal democracy, perhaps even a fascist, his defenders have quoted the third sentence in the passage above: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy."  Strauss's defenders can argue that while recognizing the problems with liberal democracy, Strauss could also recognize that liberal democratic freedom gives freedom to the human excellence that can be cultivated through liberal education. 

William Altman has responded by questioning the sincerity of Strauss's "Golden Sentence" here.  After all, Strauss says "we" not "I" in this sentence, in contrast to the first three paragraphs of "Liberal Education and Responsibility," in which Strauss uses the words "I" and "my" 29 times.  But, still, we might note that when Strauss says that democratic freedom includes the freedom for choosing human excellence, he is repeating a thought that he has seen in Book 8 of Plato's Republic, where democracy is identified as the only bad regime that allows freedom to choose the philosophic life.  And this is the Platonic teaching that Altman stresses as the Platonic opening to liberal democracy.

In asking whether liberal education can cultivate human excellence, we must wonder what kinds of intellectual and moral excellences it might cultivate.  Can liberal education cultivate the intellectual virtues of wisdom?  Or does liberal education in a liberal commercial society tend to promote analytical and technical forms of intelligence rather than the intelligence of the wise man?  Can liberal education cultivate the moral virtues of good character?  Or does the skepticism and relativism of modern liberal education tend to weaken moral character?

Strauss insisted on a strict separation of intellectual virtue and moral virtue, and he declared that the intellectual life of philosophy was "transmoral," which suggests that he might have seen liberal education as aiming at intellectual but not moral excellence.

The second question is whether the Enlightenment project of modern philosophy has succeeded.  Has modern liberal democracy succeeded in creating an open society in which there is no longer a conflict between philosophy and society?  If so, does that mean that classical philosophy has been refuted?  Or has the openness of the liberal society created a relativistic conception of truth and value that denies the capacity for reason grasping the true and the good, and thus denies the possibility of philosophy and the philosophic life?

The third question is whether the classical philosophers, as interpreted by Strauss, were correct in seeing the philosophic life as the "disinterested contemplation of the eternal," and if so, whether such a life can be achieved through liberal education today.  Some of Strauss's critics have questioned whether his account of philosophy as a purely contemplative activity is adequate.  After all, Socrates and other classical philosophers engaged in discussions of practical or moral topics concerning how human beings ought to live.

Moreover, Strauss is confusing in what he says about the connection between philosophy and liberal education.  On the one hand, he separates philosophic education from liberal education.  On the other hand, he says that liberal education is "a preparation for philosophy."  He insists on a strict division between philosophers and nonphilosophers.  True philosophers teach themselves, and so they don't need liberal education.  Those engaged in liberal education, including Strauss himself, cannot be philosophers.  And yet, Strauss declares: "we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize."  So does this mean that those who show their love of philosophy in liberal education are somehow in between the philosophers and the nonphilosophers?

The fourth question is whether natural science is part of liberal education.  If philosophy means "quest for the truth about the most weighty matters or for the comprehensive truth or for the truth about the whole or for the science of the whole" (13), then surely philosophy and liberal education must include natural science.  And, indeed, Strauss indicates that for the classical philosophers and for the early modern philosophers, philosophy and science were united.  But now philosophy and science are generally considered as separated, because philosophy belongs to the humanities.  And Strauss suggests that liberal education today must draw more from the humanities than the sciences.  One can see this in the Basic Program's list of Great Books, which is devoted mostly to literature and philosophy, although it does include some selections from Euclid's Elements, Newton's Principia, and Darwin's Origin of Species.

The fifth question is whether Socrates is the true model of philosophy for liberal education and "the mediator between us and the greatest minds."  Strauss, Bloom, and Deresiewicz all point to Socrates as the model for liberal education, particularly in the image of Socrates ascending out of the cave.  But Bloom is impressed by Nietzsche's attack on the Socratic conception of philosophy in proposing a new conception of the philosopher as an artistic and religious creator of new values, which shows the will to power rather than the will to truth.  Similarly, Deresiewicz insists that modern liberal education is best rooted in "aestheticism, the religion of art," in which human meaning and value and purpose arise as artful creations of the human spirit.  So who's the true hero for liberal education today--Socrates or Nietzsche?

To be continued . . .