Sunday, August 06, 2017

West on the American Founding (5): The Philosophic Life in America

As West indicates, his Straussian colleagues will object to his claim that the American founders wanted government to promote the virtues by arguing that they did not promote the highest virtues, which are the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life (298-306).

In "Ethics and Politics: The American Way," Diamond anticipates this Straussian objection.  He answers with one sentence: "Finally, and with a brevity disproportionate  to importance, one should also note gratefully that the American political order, with its heterogeneous and fluctuating majorities and with its principle of liberty, supplies a not inhospitable home to the love of learning" (363).  He offers no elaboration or evidence to support this.

West concedes that when the founders spoke about public education, they saw it as directed towards "useful" knowledge (such as science that could improve agriculture and manufacturing) and the formation of good citizens and statesmen; and they said nothing about the possibility of public education that would lead those of superior intellect to live a philosophic life.  They certainly did not recommend anything like what Plato's Socrates proposed in The Republic for the public education of philosophers.

And yet some of the founders did occasionally express respect for the life of the mind.  In particular, West quotes remarks by George Washington, John Adams, James Wilson, and Benjamin Franklin that suggest that a life of intellectual inquiry might be one of the highest human goods. 

At the Constitutional Convention in 1987, it is reported in Madison's notes that Wilson remarked: "he could not agree that property was the sole or the primary object of government and society.  The cultivation and improvement of the human mind was the most noble object" (July 13).  This statement is somewhat vague, however.  And West quotes Thomas Pangle's observation that Wilson's statement "betrays no awareness of any possible tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life, and bespeaks no classical notion of the superiority of the former to the latter."  Here Pangle expresses the distinctively Straussian claim about "the ultimate superiority of the contemplative life to that of the citizen or statesman, and the gulf between the two ways of life" (West, 306).  And in pointing to the "tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life," Pangle brings up the famous Straussian teaching about the irresolvable conflict between philosophy and politics, which makes esoteric writing necessary to protect philosophers from persecution and to protect politics from subversion by philosophy.

This Straussian view of the philosophic life suggests three questions about the American founders.  Did they see the natural goodness of philosophizing?  Did they see that a life of philosophizing is naturally superior to any other life?  Did they see that the conflict between philosophy and politics makes the liberal freedom of speech and thought for philosophers impossible or dangerous? 

I would answer yes to the first question, but no to the second and third questions.  West clearly answers yes to the first question, and he also answers yes, although not so clearly, to the second and third questions.

Of all the founders, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson show most clearly a love of philosophical thought and conversation.  West thinks that Kevin Slack, in an article in American Political Thought (Spring 2013), has made a good case for seeing Franklin as a philosopher.  In some previous posts (here and here), I have agreed with Steven Smith, in his book Modernity and Its Discontents, that Franklin's promotion of philosophic clubs for conversation and debate and his scientific research in natural philosophy show that he was an "American Socrates" living "a life uniquely devoted to the pleasures of the mind."  But then I criticize Smith for ignoring this in the rest of his book, where he embraces the Straussian scorn for the bourgeois life as flat and boring in failing to aspire to the higher human excellences, and thus ignoring how the bourgeois virtues of Franklin include the highest moral and intellectual virtues.  I have indicated in a previous post (here) how Deirdre McCloskey tries to present Franklin's bourgeois virtues as encompassing all of the traditional moral and intellectual virtues.

As West indicates, Adams as a young man identified Xenophon as his favorite author.  Adams also reported that he had read all of Plato's dialogues, reading them in English, Latin, and French translations and then checking the Greek for important passages.  He was a careful and thoughtful reader of many other philosophers. 

West quotes from a letter that Adams wrote to his wife in 1780: "It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires.  The useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country. . . . I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics, and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." 

West observes: "Adams emphasizes the cultivation of useful studies for the sake of ultimately transcending the whole dimension of the practical for the sake of contemplating that which is beautiful but useless" (305).

Well, perhaps, but isn't there also a tone of irony as Adams moves down his list--from politics to philosophy to tapestry and porcelain?

One of the clearest manifestations of intellectual intensity in the discussion of the deepest philosophic questions is in the letters between Adams and Jefferson, particularly in the last 14 years of their lives before they both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 

The correspondence of Adams and Jefferson is conveniently available at the Founders Online website of the National Archives.  Lester Cappon edited the complete correspondence between Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, published by the University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

There had been no correspondence between Adams and Jefferson between 1801 and 1812, although there was some correspondence between Abigail Adams and Jefferson in 1804.  Of course, Adams and Jefferson had become vehement political adversaries in the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, their mutual friend, began in 1809 trying to bring a reconciliation between these former friends.  In 1811, Adams told someone "I always loved Jefferson, and still love him."  Finally, in January of 1812, their correspondence resumed.  Adams remarked: "You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other" (July 15, 1813).

Jefferson began by recalling all the trials during the Revolution and Founding period, when "we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government."  He wrote: "politics, of which I have taken final leave I think little of them, & say less.  I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus & Thucydides, for Newton & Euclid; and I find myself much happier" (January 21, 1812).  Adams responded: "you and I are weary of Politicks" (February 10, 1812).

And while they do discuss politics a great deal in their letters, most of their discussion is about the books they are reading and the philosophical and theological questions raised by those books.  For example, they agree in rejecting Platonic metaphysics and theology as well as the corruption of Christianity by Platonic ideas.  Jefferson hopes "to prepare this euthanasia for Platonic Christianity, and its restoration to the primitive simplicity of its founder" (October 13, 1813).  After a serious reading of Plato's Republic, Jefferson asserts that "the doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them" (April 5, 1814).  Adams agrees that Platonic Christianity, which is Catholic Christianity, has prevailed for 1500 years.  It must finally die, but it might take centuries for this to happen (July 16, 1814).

Jefferson and Adams agree that "the human understanding is a revelation from its maker" (October 13, 1813), and therefore human beings should rely on their own natural reasoning about religion rather than submitting to the authority of those priests and kings who claim to have received some miraculous revelation from God.  Adams declares: "The question before the human race is, Whether the God of nature shall govern the World by his own laws, or Whether Priests and Kings shall rule it by fictitious Miracles? Or, in other Words, whether Authority is originally in the People?  or whether it has descended for 1800 years in a succession of Popes and Bishops" (June 20, 1815).

For Jefferson an originally materialist Christianity has been corrupted by the influence of Platonic dualist metaphysics--separating Matter and Spirit--that created a spiritualist Christianity.  Jefferson thought that primitive Christianity was purely materialist in believing that both man and God were purely corporeal, and that even immortality required a resurrection of bodies, so that there was no immortality of the soul separated from body (August 15, 1820).  (John Colman has written a good article on this that has been published in American Political Thought, summer 2017.)

Adams thought there was no utility in reviving the controversy between the Spiritualists, who thought that mind shows the action of spirit upon matter, and the Materialists, who thought that matter alone exists, because the relation between Spirit and Matter is a riddle that is forever beyond human understanding (May 26, 1817).  Jefferson, however, thought that it was reasonable to think that only Matter exists, and that thought arises as an activity or conformation of matter.  He admitted that this puzzle was ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind.  But "I confess I should, with Mr. Locke, prefer swallowing one incomprehensibility rather than two.  It requires one effort only to admit the single incomprehensibility of matter endowed with thought: and two to believe, 1st. that of an existence called Spirit, of which we have neither evidence nor idea, and then 2ndly. how that spirit which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion" (March 14, 1820).

Jefferson thought he had found scientific proof for materialism in 1825, when he read a paper by Jean Pierre Flourens--Recherches experimentales sur les proprieties et les fonctions du systeme nerveux dans les animaux vertebres (Experimental Researches on the Properties and the Functions of the Nervous System in Vertebrate Animals).  Flourens was one of the founders of experimental brain science.  By surgically cutting out parts of the brain in living rabbits and pigeons, and then observing their effects on motor activity, sensitivity, and behavior, he showed that different parts of the brain had different functions.  By removing the cerebral hemispheres, all perception and judgment were lost.  By removing the cerebellum, the animal lost motor coordination.  Removing the brainstem caused death. 

Over the past two centuries, ever more precise experiments of this sort has demonstrated the modular structure of the brain with localized functions.  As I have argued in some previous posts (here, here, and here)., this suggests how we can explain the mind through the emergent evolution of the brain.

Jefferson explained to Adams: "Flourens proves that the cerebrum is the thinking organ, and that life and health may continue, and the animal be entirely without thought, if deprived of that organ.  I wish to see what the spirtualists will say to this.  Whether, in this state, the soul remains in the body deprived of its essence of thought, or whether it leaves it as in death and where it goes?" (January 8, 1825).

Adams was not convinced: "As to the decision of your Author, though I wish to see the Book, I look upon it as a mere game at push-pin Incision knives will never discover the distinction between matter and spirit, or whether there is any or not, that there is an active principle of power in the Universe is apparent--but in what substance that active principle of power resides, is past our investigation, the faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the Universe, let us do our duty which is to do as we would be done by, and that one would think, could not be difficult, if we honestly aim at it" (January 22, 1825).

Regardless of which side we might take in this debate, we can see here two of the most prominent of the American founders engaged in a friendly discussion of one of the deepest questions in philosophy, which manifests their love of the life of the mind.

But even if this shows that Adams and Jefferson recognized intellectual inquiry to be a human good, it doesn't necessarily show that they thought this was the highest good, and that the philosophic life should be ranked as naturally the best life for human beings.  After all, they had devoted most of their lives to politics and the pursuit of political glory.  They were moved by the love of fame, which, Hamilton said in The Federalist, is "the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  After he was defeated by Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, Adams fell into deep depression, and he wrote many letters to Benjamin Rush complaining that Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton had robbed him of the glory that was rightfully his.  (Douglass Adair's "Fame and the Founding Fathers" studied this pervasive love of political fame among the founders.)

For the Straussians, the philosophic life is the only naturally highest good--summum bonum--for human beings.  But, remarkably, as I have argued in some previous posts (here, here, and here), Strauss and the Straussians have never offered any rational proof for this claim.  They often point to Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as presenting the arguments for why the philosophic life is naturally higher than the moral or political life.  But they never acknowledge the remarkable implausibility and strangeness of those arguments.  In fact, those arguments are so strange and so contradictory to what Aristotle says elsewhere in the Ethics, that one might suspect that Aristotle is being ironical.

Rather than there being a single dominant summum bonum for all beings, Aristotle in his books on friendship in the Ethics suggests an inclusive end conception of the human good: there might be diverse generic human goods that are rightly ranked in different ways for different individuals with different propensities and talents.  As I have noted in a previous post (here), West has seen this idea in Locke: in the natural pursuit of happiness, there is a summum bonum, but it differs for each individual, so that there is no single summum bonum for all human beings.

We could say, then, that the founders rightly saw that intellectual understanding is naturally desirable for human beings, and thus is one of the generic goods of life.  But only a few people, like Socrates, will have the natural propensities and talents that incline them to rank intellectual understanding above all the other naturally desirable goods of life.  Those like the founders will rank the human goods differently, with political glory at the top, although they can also show a love of intellectual inquiry, as did Adams and Jefferson, in their private lives and when they are retired from political life.

We must still wonder whether the founders would agree with Pangle and other Straussians about the "tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life," so that all societies must persecute philosophers who speak and write openly about what they believe to be true, and philosophers must learn to speak and write esoterically to conceal what they really think to avoid persecution.  West seems to say that the founders would agree with this, but what he says about this is somewhat ambiguous and confusing.

He suggests that the founders would have agreed with what Strauss wrote in "Persecution and the Art of Writing" about the "limits of Enlightenment" (198-201).  West says that "some of the founders (and perhaps all the preeminent ones) accept the view, attributed by Leo Strauss to premodern philosophers, 'that the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of the few'" (201).  Strauss also said that those premodern philosophers who believed this thought that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times" (Strauss, 34).  Strauss seemed to endorse this premodern view.

"Most founders," West believes, "were aware of the limits of popular enlightenment."  West speaks of "some" or "most" of the founders as rejecting the modern conception of popular enlightenment, because some of them--particularly Jefferson--"did at times express strong hopes for a more general diffusion of knowledge" (198).

In their correspondence, Jefferson and Adams agreed that the 18th century "certainly witnessed the sciences and arts, manners and morals, advanced to a higher degree than the world had ever seen," and that "the arts and sciences . . . advanced gradually thro' all the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, softening and correcting the manners and morals of man," and "to the great honor of science and the arts, . . . their natural effect is, by illuminating public opinion, to erect it into a Censor, before which the most exalted tremble for their future, as well as present fame" (Jefferson to Adams, January 11, 1816).  So it seems that both Jefferson and Adams embraced the modern idea of popular enlightenment.

West indicates that most of the founders rejected what Strauss described in the following passage of "Persecution and the Art of Writing" as the view of "modern philosophers":
"They believed that suppression of free inquiry, and of publication of the results of free inquiry, was accidental, an outcome of the faulty construction of the body politic, and that the kingdom of general darkness could be replaced by the republic of universal light.  They looked forward to a time when, as a result of the progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be possible, or--to exaggerate for purposes of clarification--to a time when no one would suffer any harm from any truth" (Strauss 34).
West is silent, however, about Strauss's observation at the beginning of his essay that since the middle of the 19th century, many countries "have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of public discussion" (Strauss, 22).  This contradicts Strauss's premodern view that such practically complete freedom of speech is "impossible or undesirable."  Or is Strauss suggesting that while the success of modern liberal freedom of speech shows that it is possible, it is still undesirable?  If Strauss thought a modern liberal open society was undesirable, should we infer that he taught esoterically the need to overturn liberal societies like America and replace them with illiberal societies?  Since Strauss himself fled from the illiberal society of Nazi Germany and settled in a liberal America where he could live and teach the philosophic life without persecution, does that show that Strauss recognized the superiority of the modern liberal social order to any illiberal social order?  If so, was Strauss a Midwest Straussian?

West says that the founders would agree with James Kent's claim that freedom of speech in America includes "free and decent discussions on any religious opinion," which is illustrated by the free circulation in America of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, published in 1796, which was a scholarly critique of the Bible (209). But if so, does this show that the founders did not agree with the premodern view that practically complete freedom of speech was "impossible or undesirable"?

Arthur Melzer's book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing helps us to think through these questions as they arise in the study of the history of esoteric writing.  In my series of posts on this (here, here, here, and here), I have suggested that Melzer's book points to a contradiction in Strauss's account of esoteric writing.  On the one hand, Strauss seems to agree with the pre-modern view that esoteric writing is necessary and desirable because of the natural conflict between the philosophic life of the few and the moral, religious, or political life of the many.  On the other hand, Strauss seems to agree with the modern view that in a liberal or open society, there is no natural conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life, and therefore esoteric writing is unnecessary and undesirable.

I see a similar contradiction in West's account of the founders understanding of popular enlightenment.  On the one hand, he indicates that the founders--or at least most of them--agreed with what Strauss identified as the premodern view that the natural and necessary conflict between philosophy and politics makes complete freedom of speech and thought impossible or undesirable.  On the other hand, West indicates that the founders wanted to protect "free and decent discussions" on any subject, and that many of the founders showed a love of philosophy.

If West is claiming that the founders were on the side of the modern liberal philosophers in striving for a complete freedom of speech and thought that includes the freedom to live the philosophic life, and if West is at least implicitly claiming that this has proven to be both possible and desirable, then he is following the path of Martin Diamond in arguing for Midwest Straussianism.

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