Some years ago, I admitted that I had never read anything by Ayn Rand. Since then, I have read selections, but I have yet to tackle a major work. However, I did watch the first two parts of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy. Although the films had an indie film budget and less than spectacular production values, I enjoyed them. Having never read the book, I could not judge textual fidelity, but I did enjoy the brutal portrayal of leftist malice and stupidity. The American Left gets to indulge in the worst human tendencies toward cruelty every day; the society belongs to it, and it dominates the organs of culture. Hence, we must tolerate a constant stream of film, television, and journalistic material that depicts whites, conservatives, Christians, and the combination of the three in the most revolting way. Rightwingers do not have many opportunities for such pleasure—but, judaeae gratias, Atlas Shrugged provides it in abundance. The story depicts the hypocrisy, inanity, cowardice, parasitism, and idiocy of the Left in a delightfully decadent way! Indeed, as I watched the films, I almost (but not quite) felt ashamed in enjoying the spectacle, suspecting that the depiction might not be fair. “The real ones are bad—but are they that bad?” I just do not like thinking of my fellow men in such a low way. Yet, reality asserts itself and reminds me that, yes, they are that bad—indeed, worse than artifice conjures.
As few weeks ago, I read an unbelievable article by Lynn Shepherd in The Huffington Post: “If JK Rowling Cares about Writing, She Should Stop Doing It.” Shepherd’s main point is that Rowling has enjoyed much success as a children’s literature writer with the Harry Potter series and now her name recognition is leading to success in her ventures into adult fiction. As such, she is crowding out lesser known writers. So, Shepherd reasons, Rowling should mind her place and stop taking up bookshelf real estate.
As I read Shepherd’s opinions, I immediately thought of the regulators in Ayn Rand’s tale. I also reflected how, notwithstanding how much I want to give the enemy the benefit of the doubt, he always justifies my initial misgivings in the end. Leftists refuse to be outdone by their opponents’ mockery of them.
Later, I read the following post by John C. Wright, “The Orcs and the Books,” where Wright describes the same experience—only a thousand times better:
. . . Second, some readers might wonder why a loyal Catholic zealot like myself has such affection for a adulterous heretic like Ayn Rand, the Apostle of the Sin of Pride. Our philosophies are opposite. I say that the greatest evil in the world is to turn away from that self-sacrificing love which is like God and which is God. She says the greatest evil in the world is to live for another or to allow another to live for you.
Well, despite all differences, here is why I like her: Every time I am tempting to think the bizarre and grotesque portrayals of the collectivist villains in her novels are exaggerations, or are simplistic, or are unrealistic, real life sharply checks me.
Every time I think that the jeering gargoyles she portrays in her books could not possibly exist in real life, a Gothic rainspout shakes itself awake and speaks.
There is a scene in ATLAS SHRUGGED where no-talent writers conspire with no-talent businessmen and no-talent political hacks to pass a law forbidding any change in the production of new books or artistic products.
For a moment, the goons are puzzled as to how such a law would be played out, but the no-talent writers are relieved to hear that under this plan, their old books would be ceaselessly reprinted, and offered in bookstores, and the bookstores will be punished at law if they fail to sale the exact same number of books next year and ever after as this year. The obvious impossibility of this is not a defect in the plan, but the point. The laws are made so that everyone will be in violation of one part or another.
Under the fair-share law, successful authors have to share their success with unsuccessful authors, and the talented be punished, and the lazy be rewarded.
The argument made above that successful writers should bow gracefully aside to allow unsuccessful writers a fair share of the market is so economically illiterate, so childish, so vile, so shocking to the mind of any honest man, that it acts in part like camouflage. Upon hearing the orcs talking in their orc-talk about ruining the writing field, making the writing field worse, driving good books away and shoving bad books into their shelf space in the name of fair play, and, in short, talking about heaping the writing field high with warm filth and stinking ordure, flies and rivulets and urine, the sane people react with a blankness of mind akin to shutting one’s eyes at too great a shock. We cannot believe the orcs are serious. We assume they cannot mean that.
You want J.K. Rowlings, the most celebrated writer of our age, to write LESS? The mind reels, we think the orcs do not mean it, we do nothing to shut them down or shut them up, and then the orcs carry out their program, while we scratch our heads, puzzled that no one told us that this was exactly what they meant all along.
But it is what they mean. . . .
“Every time I think that the jeering gargoyles she portrays in her books could not possibly exist in real life, a Gothic rainspout shakes itself awake and speaks.” How marvelous! And apt to the situation!
I often notice that others in the traditionalist realms of the internet have had the same insight or made the same point on a given topic. For a recent example, I read George Michalopulos’ observations about the Winter Olympics a few days after I posted “Sochi Sour” and found quite similar arguments. We posted the entries on the same day, and yet we independently came to the same conclusions. When I find such cases, I wonder for a moment if perhaps we are suffering from a hive mind, but I do not think so. Rather, we dissenters witness the madness of the world on a daily basis and, being sane, call lunacy its proper name. The real shock is why more people do not have the same response.
Concerning Shepherd’s argument about Rowling, I find it abhorrent and shamelessly self-serving. If we want the world to become better, then why would we ask someone who makes it better by creating works of value to stop such production? Why would one wish to deprive the world of more treasure? It is wicked! Shepherd admits that she has never read any of Rowling’s books, but she questions the literary value of Rowling’s adult works based on others’ criticism. So, maybe Shepherd’s position could be defended as simply sensible aversion to hype. Yet, that hype developed from millions of readers’ experiences with her books rather than a suave media blitz, and the reputation has held up well over the last seventeen years. It is not a passing fad. Of course, a million Brits could be (and frequently are) wrong, but it is niggardly of Shepherd to refuse to grant Rowling her laurels of talent—especially when she refuses to read the author whom she judges so. Shepherd’s position is not that Rowling writes worthless drivel. In Shepherd’s own words, “when it comes to the adult market [Rowling has] had [her] turn.”
I think of Nietzsche’s reflections on Raphael in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, “That a Raphael had to die at the age of thirty-six, for example, is offensive to morality: such a being ought never to die” (page 48, tr. Preuss). Consider what mankind lost at Raphael’s young death. Think of what such a man could have done with another forty years. Only demons rejoice at such facts. I am not equating Harry Potter with the Italian Renaissance, but the principle applies regardless. We should rejoice at the enrichment of the world. Only the servants of hell want to make the cosmos worse rather than better. And Shepherd desires such perversity from egoism . . . how satanically fitting. It is ironic that Ayn Rand, the preacher of selfishness, should be the one who delights in the excellence of others while the “altruistic” Left allows egoism to blight the world.
Andy Nowicki published an indictment of bourgeois Republican ninnies’ sensibilities last month on Alternative Right: “Sex and Violence Traditionalism.” In short, Nowicki reprimands American Christians who find “family friendly” books and films the only acceptable art and entertainment. While criticizing the Christian review site Plugged-In, he notes that “their habitual tendency is to equate sanitization with sanctification and G-rated-ness with holiness.” Of course, there is a need for family friendly gatekeepers because parents who expose their children to popular culture need trusted and accessible information about the content of books, albums, movies, and shows. Yet, adults are more than parents, and culture is more than the Veggie Tales, however positive such cucurbitaceae morality plays may be. Nowicki offers Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, and holy writ as devastating counterexamples to the nauseating, saccharine tendencies of contemporary Protestant megachurch aesthetics.
The American Conservative featured an essay by Andrew Bacevich a few months ago that offers good political advice: “Counterculture Conservatism: The right needs less Ayn Rand, more Flannery O’Connor.” Bacevich’s argues that conservatives must incrementally transform the culture back into one that understands and respects conservative principles. Leftist agitators radically changed American culture over the last few generations by taking over the media, the academy, N.G.O.s and foundations, and the goverment. We must fight them on all fronts; political power won in random elections will not suffice. I think that Bacevich is obviously right, and the short-sighted focus on this or that election misunderstands the cultural change that undergirds electoral politics. A radical change in America made the Obama presidency possible. The country as it currently is would be incapable of electing someone like Coolidge or even Reagan. Our little platoons must fight many battles to change the direction of our culture war.
I appreciate Bacevich’s general characterization of American conservatives:
As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap. Please note this does not signify opposition to all change—no standing athwart history, yelling Stop—but fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true.
Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything. This is particularly the case when that Big Idea entails launching some armed crusade abroad. Conservatives respect received wisdom. The passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed. George Washington was no dope.
In private life and public policy alike, there exists a particular category of truths that grown-ups and grown-up governments will respectfully acknowledge. For conservatives this amounts to mere common sense. Actions have consequences. Privileges entail responsibility. There is no free lunch. At day’s end, accounts must balance. Sooner or later, the piper will be paid. Only the foolhardy or the willfully reckless will attempt to evade these fundamental axioms.
Conservatives take human relationships seriously and know that they require nurturing. In community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence. But community does not emerge spontaneously. Conservatives understand that the most basic community, the little platoon of family, is under unrelenting assault, from both left and right. Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered—if also alienated—individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof. One more thing: conservatives don’t confuse intimacy with sex.
All of that said, conservatives also believe in Original Sin, by whatever name. They know, therefore, that the human species is inherently ornery and perverse. Hence, the imperative to train and educate young people in the norms governing civilized behavior. Hence, too, the need to maintain appropriate mechanisms to restrain and correct the wayward who resist that training or who through their own misconduct prove themselves uneducable.
Conversely, conservatives are wary of concentrated power in whatever form. The evil effects of Original Sin are nowhere more evident than in Washington, on Wall Street, or in the executive suites of major institutions, sadly including churches and universities. So conservatives reject the argument that correlates centralization with efficiency and effectiveness. In whatever realm, they favor the local over the distant. Furthermore, although conservatives are not levelers, they believe that a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth—property held in private hands—offers the surest safeguard against Leviathan. A conservative’s America is a nation consisting of freeholders, not of plutocrats and proletarians.
Finally, conservatives love and cherish their country. But they do not confuse country with state. They know that America is not its military, nor any of the innumerable three-lettered agencies comprising the bloated national-security apparatus. America is amber waves of grain, not SEAL Team Six.
One of the occasional, non-political features on Auster’s View from the Right is synchronicity, where Auster and his readers relate the quirky coincidences that befall us throughout our lives. A few weeks ago, Kristor commented on one of these posts, “Can’t get away from that synchronicity (or, God has a mischievous sense of humor),” and he was characteristically Kristoresque. In other words, he wrote something worth repeating:
No one should fret about the fact that material causation cannot explain much of what happens in our lives. In fact, it is a grotesque error to expect such a thing from material causation. After all, material causation cannot explain material causation. Indeed, there is no possible material cause of material causation. I can’t think of a more succinct way to express the Aristotelian argument for a First, and Unmoved, Mover (or, ipso facto, to indicate the epistemological limits on the domain of merely scientific inquiry).
If there is no utterly transcendent First Mover, then there is just no motion, at all—no change of any kind, nor any being. Likewise, if there be no utterly transcendent Order, then there is just no order at whatsoever. If on the other hand there is such a Mover, and such an Order, then nothing that happens—nothing whatsoever, no matter how trivial—can fail to be connected in every respect to that Mover, and thereby wholly ordered to that Order. Nor, being wholly ordered to the source of all Order, may anything that exists fail to be part of a comprehensive and coherent ordering toward all other things. As Whitehead said, “each atom is a system of all things.” Furthermore, those multifarious connections between things, being all orderly, must at least in principle all be intelligible to any rational observer. So that, in principle, investigating anything carefully enough may provide us an opportunity to discover everything that can be discovered. This is one of the reasons poetry is useful—poems help us attend to significations we usually neglect to notice. That’s how poetry can engender apprehensions of sublimity. And, love is like poetry. Love a thing or a person well enough and properly, and in the object of your charity you may discover all that there is to be known.
Thus synchronicity is pervasive in what exists—this is just another way of saying, “things happen together, and we live in a coherent world”—and Hannon is quite right that whether we notice it depends upon how well we are paying attention to the connections and mutual significations among the disparate elements of our experience, by which that coherence is obtained, in every moment, and from each moment to its successors.
Kristor’s offers a provocative insight about poetry. It is an old idea that the poet sees the divine in some way. Kristor suggests that the poet truly sees nature, though perhaps with a divine perspective.
I occasionally read Dennis Mangan’s blog, which has a humorous subtitle—Adventures in Reaction. Like John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and other “human biodiversity” enthusiasts, Mangan offers many interesting ideas that are appropriately dismissive of the reigning idiotic idols of the tribe. However, like Derbyshire, Sailer, and friends, sometimes Mangan wanders into uncharted territory where his overconfidence in contemporary natural science leads him to say bizarre things. Last week, for instance, Mangan posted “The Biological Basis of Music,” which he ends thus:
Music has long been considered something of a conundrum in philosophy and psychology, but the main result of this and other studies seem obvious in retrospect. How could music not have a biological or evolutionary basis?
Schopenhauer, one of the best philosophical theorists on the arts, thought that music was the highest and greatest art, since it is “about” nothing, but at least in its higher forms is pure abstraction. However, he lived before the age of Mendel and Darwin, and though he anticipated some of their findings, for instance in assertions of the heritability of character and the clash of will in nature, all his theorizing was just that: theorizing. He had little science on which to base his ideas.
Much the same could be said about many other philosophers in the past, e.g. John Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa, which surely made a lot of sense at the time but which we know now to be completely wrong. Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.
Studies like this show that the revolution in our knowledge of the biological basis of human culture and psychology is only beginning.
Leaving aside the other comments, let us just consider “Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.” What can this mean? I am no Kantian, but it appears to me that Kant’s distinction between what can be known through examining the structure and nature of reason itself and what can be known from experience is an appropriate and fundamental distinction. Increased knowledge of human biology cannot add to or alter that distinction. As we come to understand human evolution and the development of our cognitive faculties better, we might be able to grasp why and how human beings came to be aware of such distinctions, as we might be able to learn why and how human beings became rational beings, but the distinction itself is not attributable to evolution or biology. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is like the principles of mathematics. The relationships between numbers and geometric figures did not evolve. Our biological evolution did not produce them. Rather, we evolved to be able to know them. Our biology developed so that we became animals capable of mathematical reasoning. Reason itself cannot be reduced to biology; reason just is. I think that it is telling that Mangan did not write that Newton’s Principia Mathematica was uninformed by our superior biological knowledge after Darwin, Watson, and Crick. Why not?
I am a great admirer and supporter of natural philosophy, but natural philosophers—“scientists”—have appropriate objects for their work. When natural philosophers attempt to reduce larger spheres of knowledge such as underlying metaphysics or prior considerations of epistemology to the limits of their discipline, they speak folly. Husserl noted that modern intellectuals tend to reduce all other disciplines to their own. The enthusiasts of mechanistic science frequently err in this way. When postmodern literature professors reduce other disciplines to their “narrative speak,” it is idiotic but not that surprising. Consider the rigor and standards of their discipline, where truth itself has been rejected as a matter of principle. Yet, when rational natural philosophers make the same mistakes, I find it tragic. For these folks should know better.
I hope that Christians, West and East, are having a productive Lent. I know that several people refrain from the internet during the fast to spend more time in prayer, study, and charitible activities. I am not among them, but I wish them well. I have found that when I am “stranded” from the web while on trips or during projects, it is quite refreshing. In my normal life in East Coast exile, though, I find the net quite useful in maintaining sanity. In the film, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, asks a student why we read. The student responds—with his father’s wisdom—that we read to know that we are not alone. Lewis repeats the line later in the movie, and it is the sort of line that one remembers. I find it truthful. Though the internet is not a substitute for good books or personal conversation, it is a way to encounter other human minds—some quite excellent in insight and in wit.
Rather à propos, on the Serbian Church’s web page, I found a short essay by J.A. McGuckin, “The Notion of The Beautiful in Ancient Greek Thought and its Christian Patristic Transfiguration.” After summarily discussing how the Christian theological and philosophical tradition interpreted and transformed the Socratic notion of the beautiful, McGuckin suggests that this forsaken synthesis serve as medicine for Western civilization’s current malady:
The one reconciliation possible for a society that is in danger of losing even the distant memories of its religious civilisation, at a time when its preferred religions have turned solipsistic, and its schools of political, philosophical, and artistic thought have elevated short-term self interest to new heights, is no less than the return to a renewed sense of the Beautiful. It is, in the Christian reinterpretation of the Greek notion of kalokagaqon, the ideal synthesis of a religious, mystical, and moral transcendental. It is, if the Church can still act decisively enough to be the intellectual midwife and interpreter, the one concept and experience that can still be remembered well enough by a generally ‘paganised’ society to serve as the basis for a new pro-paideusis of what civilisation and human aspirations to ascent are all about. If the Church can find the wit, and the voices in the present generation who will be up to the task as were the farseeing saints, founders and teachers in the past, ( who dealt with an equally ambiguous and decadent society ), then this pro-paideusis will be no less than a re-evangelisation of the western world which has already declined far from its once high standards of civilisation, and now urgently needs catechising about the very nature of the simplest truths - what constitutes Beauty ; and where lies the reconciliation of Aesthetics and Justice - central ideas constitutive to a civilisation that even a few decades ago might have been thought to be hardly capable of being forgotten in so short a time and so widespread a fashion.
It delights me to find contemporary scholars who acknowledge the complementarity of Platonism with the gospel. It is no surprise that Plato has served as the paedagogue who has led many thoughtful people to Christ for two millennia. From men on the Areopagus who heard Paul’s sermon to Augustine to Lewis to many people whom I know, that beautiful transcendent vision has led philosophical minds to meet the God of Abraham as the God known by λόγος.
On Leitourgeia, I read a quote from architect Andrew Gould about church architecture that I found quite on target:
We don’t want to have a stage set, we don’t want to have a building that superficially looks like an Orthodox church, because that’s a stage set, that’s sort of what Baroque architecture is. That’s sort of trying to use plaster and ornament to give a theatrical impression of the Beatific Vision. But Orthodoxy’s not about that, Orthodoxy’s about building something absolutely solid, and permanent and honest that conveys the real ethos of the eternal Kingdom of God.
I then visited Gould’s architectural site, New World Byzantine, and it brought me great joy. We are, even in this age of ugliness, still capable of constructing fitting monuments for the faith. The soul stifling spirit of the present age makes one lose hope and think that we are only in a state of decay. Yet, here in the States and throughout the world, there is a resurgence of artists who value beauty, order, and the aesthetic tradition before the age of shocking originalism. The Intercollegiate Review had an interesting piece a few years ago by Noah Waldman, “On the Meaning of the Classical Movement in Architecture.” It gives me a reason to hope that the return to beauty is not simply a preoccupation of Christian artists but that the West in general is waking from its nightmare. Last year, I wrote about the architecture of Thomas Aquinas College in California in “Overcoming the Cult of the Ugly,” where even Novus Ordo folks have returned to the tradition of sacred and beautiful space. More recently, I attended liturgy in the newest church in Rome, Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It was a traditional and well situated temple. I believe that Christian architects are more comfortable now returning to the models of the past for inspiration instead of feeling like they need to ape rootless contemporary styles. Mencken remarked that Americans have a libido for the ugly, but perhaps enough people have been thoroughly satiated by the modern trough to know that they hunger for purer, wholesome food. I am not holding my breath, but I do wait for a modern renaissance. It must come, right?
There is a wonderful thread currently on View from the Right, “Can an atheist believe in the good?” I addressed the question somewhat two Decembers ago in “Being Good for Goodness’ Sake,” but Auster approaches the question a bit differently:
So what I’m suggesting is that a truly atheist position is not possible. Because the atheist is a human being, he cannot help but experience the good and be attracted to the good, even if the good he believes in is a limited form of the good, such as “life is good.” But the fact that he believes in this good already takes him outside pure materiality, to the transcendent, the transcendent being defined as that which cannot be reduced to an immediate object of experience, yet is nevertheless real. And this non-material, transcendent good is part of a hierarchy of non-material, transcendent goods, the culmination of which is God.
The atheist may deny the existence of God. But he cannot deny his own nature as a being who loves the good, even if it’s a limited form of the good, such as simply loving his own life. And that love places him on a continuum of ever greater and larger goods which are ultimately inseparable from God, even if he personally denies that God exists.
So, to boil my argument down to the briefest, most radical form, the fact that the atheist experiences life as good proves that God exists. Even the limited good that he experiences could not exist unless it were on a continuum with, and thus a part of, a larger good, and ultimately that larger good is God.
I have long argued that self identifying atheists were not truly atheists but rather pantheists or some species of closeted pagans who deified nature or some aspect of it. To acknowledge order—to recognize truth—is to admit the transcendent. I have always thought about this in terms of our knowing the world. Auster shows that our desire for the good reveals the same point. Our intellect and our desire indicate the ordered hierarchy of being, and by knowing and by desiring (and valuing), we necessarily reject nihilism. The inconsistent may cling to a bastard theory in mere words disconnected from intelligible meaning, but they are breathing contradictions.
Auster’s frequent commentator Kristor weighs in with characteristic insight and beauty about the precious gift of being:
Every part of the world, every rock and mote of dust, is, just is, an instance of joy, and of pulseless longing. And this enjoyment, this pleasure in mere existence, is so incredibly vast, that the super-added pleasures of beer or wealth or success are like a thin veneer upon its glorious weighty depth. We experience more joy than do rocks, more complex and interesting pleasures; but only by a little. For to be at all is to have been created by God, and is also in some degree to worship and adore him, and to enjoy him (even if one is unconscious that one is doing so).
I may have noted this before, but I wish that Kristor had his own blog; it is such a joy to read his comments. It gladdens me to know that he exists. He has to be a Platonist. I do not know if he would call himself such, but his writing betrays the synoptic vision and the erotic soul of one of the disciples.
I recommend the thread; it even includes a bit of poetry. Again, I think of the best of the Greeks who used both logos and mythos in the pursuit of the truth.
For most of Western philosophy’s history, the learned considered Plato’s Timaeus to be his most important work. It is clear that the Republic figured prominently, as well. Consider its influence on Cicero with his De Re Publica. However, it was not until recently that the Republic passed the Timaeus in its received importance. I wonder why.
Along with most contemporaries, I share the view that the Republic is one of the finest, most well written, and profoundest works ever created. It is a landmark piece in the history of philosophy for most of its disciplines. Earlier this week, I linked to the web site of Dr. John Mark Reynolds from Biola University. In its list of recommended books, his site has the following:
The two years spent with this book and Al Geier were the most academically productive of my life. Since then, I have come to find almost every truth needed in the pages of this book, saving only the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I do not find such to be hyperbole. Granted, the Timaeus is brilliant, but it does not appear superior to the Republic. Why should our age’s estimation differ so from that of the past?
The Timaeus is basically a work on physics and metaphysics. It concerns the nature and order of creation. While the Republic touches on these topics, its concern is more worldly in its focus on man. I suspect that the nobler object of the Timaeus rendered it more esteemed than the Republic for the medieval world. Moreover, the central themes of the Republic became so accepted in the intellectual framework and world view of the Christian world that the dialogue perhaps did not seem as valuable. I am not sure. Yet, with the coming of modernity and with the peculiar experience of the modern democratic West that has entered into a state of decay, the Republic has come to present us with a formidable challenge to modern assumptions. For me, at least, it is a light in the darkness. In our postmodern, nominalist world, I might add that the darkness comprehendeth it not.
There were individual philosophical thinkers and teachers who helped to make the Republic better known. Leo Strauss and his intellectual progeny rehabilitated the Platonic political tradition. I wonder if we could detect a similar phenomenon among the Aristotelians. Like the Straussians with the Republic, the Laws, and the social and civic concerns of the dialogues, have the neo-Thomists reinvigorated the study of Aristotle’s Politics? I can imagine that similar political reflections in reaction to modernity would have led to a renewed interest in premodern thinking about man and his place in community.
If you have never read the Republic and if you have philosophical tendencies, I highly recommend reading it and rereading it. Like most of Plato’s works, it is a dialogue, not a treatise. The work invites you to participate in the discussions of Socrates and his interlocutors. Do not assume that the flow of the conversation is all that the dialogue suggests. For there are many roads not taken because of the interlocutors’ answers and choices. For example, it is up to you to think about why the “healthy city” is not as discussed as the feverish city. Furthermore, read carefully. The Straussians get a lot of grief from many folks in “the profession of philosophy,” but their recommendations of how one approaches Plato’s texts make excellent advice. Approach the works of great thinkers as a student willing to learn—a critical and questioning student, but one willing to invest much time and thinking to understand and to wrestle with the text. Having read the Republic several times, I realize with each new reading major insights that I never before saw. Yet, I am aware of how many bright people in academic philosophical fields fail to read the text. I read their articles and books and wonder how they can write what they write when the text so clearly contradicts their interpretation of it. I suspect that they just have not read it carefully. People project rather than listen. They do this in discussion and they do it in their reading. Perhaps, we should call such a hermeneutic of obstinate ignorance. Do not read that way. Rather, open your mind and enter into the dialogue. You will learn much.
Both the Communists and the National Socialists understood the importance of art. Frequently, one hears the art of their societies derisively dismissed as “propaganda,” though I wonder what art would not be considered propaganda if one were to think consistently. Should we not apply the term to our avant garde Euripidean social critics? When a regime enlists artists to craft according to its vision, it is only doing artificially what artists have always done in all societies naturally—namely, incarnating the values of society in their works. Obviously, the powerful have frequently conscripted the creative classes to put themselves in a good light. Pharaohs, Roman emperors, medieval bishops, narcissistic merchants, and nouveau riche industrialists have patronized beauty with ulterior concerns of political propaganda—or at least of vanity. Nonetheless, the artists themselves still worked their crafts, and they did so for beauty as for the money that earned them their bread. As I wrote in “Disney the Corrupter of Youth?”, it is inaccurate to reduce art to one dimension of its being.
I do not wish to praise the good taste of fascists. Soviet Realism, Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale di Roma, and Albert Speer’s Great Hall leave me uneasy in the same way as almost all modern art. It is cold, inhuman, and, my soul cries out inexplicably, false. I do not know exactly how to defend the charge of falseness, but I find it to be the most appropriate word.
However, the Soviets made the most beautiful subway system in the world, and the Nazi’s had sharp Hugo Boss uniforms. Moreover, both the Soviet Union and the Third Reich had an impressive share of great artists—perhaps despite rather than because of their social systems. For the Soviet regime had its artistic explosion early on, while its society had still been formatively nourished during the old order, and the Nazis were too shortlived to cultivate a society based on their vision.
For an example of Soviet art, consider the film October: Ten Days That Shook the World by Sergei Eisenstein with music by Dmitri Shostakovich. You may watch a clip of the film here:
For the National Socialists, one has to mention Leni Riefenstahl. It is a testament to Hitler’s foolishness and vice that he could have destroyed his adopted country and all of Europe with the incredible talent and resources that even a defeated postwar Weimar Germany had. What a misuse of a nation!
Anyway, Riefenstahl was brilliant. You may watch her Olympia, a documentary about the Berlin Olympic Games in A.D. 1936. (Warning: there is some old fashioned Aryan nudity in the prologue.)
“Fest der Völker”
“Fest der Schönheit”
Of course, the propaganda element implies that just as the modern games are the successor to the ancient games, so the Germans are the heirs of classical Greece.
It is ironic how, for all their rebellion against decadence and the Last Man, the National Socialists sealed Europe’s declining and wretchedly emasculated fate. Even the Nazi’s love of good things poisoned Europe, making the Europeans ashamed of themselves because of the taint of association. Besides the monuments of the Ottomans’ conquest, every minaret in Europe owes its foundation to Hitler—the father of so many genocides.