By contrast, according to Strauss, the modern philosophers have generally believed that this conflict between philosophy and politics could be resolved in a society with popular enlightenment, so that in a rational society, there could be complete freedom of thought and speech. To achieve this, the traditional social order based on false moral, religious, and political opinions would have to be overthrown. Esoteric writing would have to be practiced as part of the intellectual conspiracy for overthrowing traditional social orders. But once the revolution was successful, esoteric writing would no longer be needed. And, indeed, as Arthur Melzer has shown, esoteric writing did seem to disappear sometime around 1800, because by then the modern scientific enlightenment had succeeded in those largely liberal or open societies where complete freedom of thought and speech was no longer perceived as a threat to social order.
Strauss generally seemed to embrace premodern philosophy as superior to modern philosophy. If that is so, then the apparent success of modern scientific enlightenment in achieving such liberal or open societies would seem to refute Strauss, because this would seem to indicate that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing that no society could be fully open to the philosophic or scientific life of inquiry into the truth.
One dramatic indication of the success of the scientific enlightenment is the Flynn effect. Political scientist James Flynn has pointed to the remarkable fact that over a century of IQ testing shows that average IQ scores have been increasing at the rate of 3 points every 10 years, which means an increase of two standard deviations every 30 years. That suggests that compared with Americans today, most Americans at the beginning of the 20th century were mentally retarded!
Moreover, the increases in IQ scores have been almost exclusively in the two subtests that most require abstract reasoning--Similarities and Matrices. The average scores for the subtests of Information, Arithmetic, and Vocabulary have not changed very much. Here's an example from the Matrices section of an IQ test:
An example of a question from the Similarities section would be "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" If you correctly answer, "Both are mammals," Flynn says, you are thinking abstractly, and you are thus thinking like a scientist in classifying organisms by their type. If you had said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits," you have been thinking concretely and practically. According to Flynn, the rising IQ scores for Matrices and Similarities over the past century show that people have learned to think more abstractly and theoretically rather than concretely and practically. That is to say, the Scientific Enlightenment has succeeded in teaching more people to think like scientists.
To show how the thinking of people in modern societies has changed from the thinking of people in traditional societies, Flynn points to the research of the psychologist Alexander Luria in studying the reasoning abilities of Russian peasants in the early 20th century:
"The illiterate Russian peasants Luria studied were not willing to take the hypothetical seriously. He said, 'Imagine that bears come from where there is always snow and imagine that if bears come from where there is always snow, they are white. What color would the bears be at the North Pole?' and they would respond something like, 'I've only seen brown bears. If an old man came from the North Pole and told me I might believe him.' They were not interested in the hypothetical, or abstract categories. They were grounded in concrete reality. 'There are no camels in Germany. B is in Germany. Are there camels there?' They said, 'Well, it's big enough, there ought to be camels. Or maybe it's too small to have camels.' We have wonderful data from the Raven's Progressive Matrices tests from 1950 and 2010 showing that the Raven's games are entirely correlated with freeing your mind of the concrete reference of the symbols in order to take the relationship between the symbols more seriously."
What Flynn sees here is that in the societies shaped by modern scientific rationalism, people are being taught to view the world through "scientific spectacles," and thus they are leaving the prescientific world of traditional societies. Moreover, in becoming better in their abstract reasoning, people in scientifically enlightened societies are also becoming better in their moral reasoning.
Flynn tells the story of how he and his brother tried to persuade their Irish father to give up his traditional prejudices about black people. They asked him: "What if you woke up one morning and discovered your skin had turned black? Would that make you any less of a human being?" He responded: "Now, that's the stupidest thing you've ever said. Who ever heard of a man's skin turning black overnight?" An uneducated man like their father was not inclined to think abstractly or hypothetically, and thus he was not open to being persuaded by abstract moral reasoning.
There is evidence that rising IQ is producing moral enlightenment. So that there is a moral Flynn effect. People with high IQ are less likely to commit violent crimes, more likely to be cooperative with others, and more inclined to adopt the tolerant values of an Enlightenment philosophy that stresses reason and individualism rather than traditional prejudices.
The evidence and argumentation supporting this idea of a moral Flynn effect was first stated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker's reasoning has recently been elaborated in Michael Shermer's new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015). The idea of the "moral arc" is taken from a line in Martin Luther King's famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 at the end of the march from Selma: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Does this apparent success of the modern Scientific Enlightenment refute Strauss in his premodern belief that an enlightened or rational society is impossible?
Melzer seems to deny this. He denies that Strauss practiced esoteric writing, because there was no longer a conflict between philosophy and society, and so Strauss saw no need to try to overturn the modern liberal enlightenment, which is to say that he accepted the success of the modern liberal project as the refutation of the premodern belief that the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life could never be overcome in an open liberal society.
If this is what Melzer is implying, then he's identifying Strauss as a Midwest Straussian (in the terminology of Catherine and Michael Zuckert), who believed that modernity is good, and the premodern philosophers have been proven wrong.