I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe. With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt.
“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem
Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings. Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following: “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10). That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5). Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:
Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city. This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense. There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)
Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges. Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention]. There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).
The more I learn of the Inklings’ outlook on Modernity, the more I come to love them. I know I’ve written about Lewis’s The Abolition of Man previously in this space, and I should read them (and write) about them far more often. What is most impressive and accurate to me about the approach that is as clear in the most esoteric and unknown Inkling works as it is in the Tolkein inspired movies, is the profound sense that some humanity has been lost in Modernity. Modernity (which is a word thrown around too often but also not often enough) as a phenomenon in itself is glossed over too often and too quickly, especially by “international Relations” scholars, a category to which I belong. (n.b. The proximate cause of this is a dreadfully famous essay by Martin Wight. I’ve discussed the ultimate cause in a post on Descartes, Hobbes, Schmitt, and Strauss). I suspect because Tolkein, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams wrote novels, or poetry, or literary criticism, and because the art of rhetoric had already been unjustly discredited and its study fallen into disuse that Political Science neglected the commentary on politics, society, technology, economics, &c. that is so clearly running through everything they’ve written. What has my attention at the moment is Barfield’s essay “The Coming Trauma of Materialism.” A quote:
“Materialism” in my title means, not any materialist philosophy … but the mental habit of taking for granted, for all practical purposes and most theoretical ones, that the human psyche is intrinsically “alienated” from nature in the manner indicated, a habit so inveterate as to have entered into the meanings of a great many common words and thus to have become accepted as common sense itself. Materialism in this sense is not, for instance, incompatible with deep religious conviction. The habit is one which owes a good deal to a certain secondary consequence of Cartesianism that is not often recalled or alluded to.”
Again, I’ll remind about the previous post on the makros anrhopos vs. the retreat into consciousness. The retreat does not take for granted the intrinsic alienation of psyche and physics. To thwart my own confusion, materialism is compatible with deep religious conviction because of the transformation of common sense. Modernity and its sciences take a leap of faith. What Barfield says two paragraphs later about Darwinism is simply magisterial, and speaks directly to something that I can only describe as an “Enlightenment of Biology.” Even in this small passage above we see the basis of a grammatology and a post-modernity, but a post-modernity that first returns to the past before progressing. No small feat, and still ignored. Whatever. I still have papers to mark and a dissertation to write.
Flipping through old notebooks – if an old notebook of my own counts as a “book” with which I can “discoure” – and I found the following rumination on Sovereignty and Security:
Sovereignty vs Security
These are, fundamentally, the same concept. They have the same “essence” i.e. the right to life, and all that right implies.
To speak of a trade-off or balance between securitas and libertas is to make an error. More security does not mean less freedom. Rather, the logic of modernity implies that more security must mean, or bring about, more freedom. Precisely: because this security satisfies and upholds my right to life. So, security – as the desire to have more than one needs – becomes the desire for life itself.
Therefore, we have an asymptotic (?) relationship between liberty and security, not a trade-off.
Sovereignty is the institution that upholds rights. Security is the activity that does the upholding. They are essentially the same.
p.s. The Logic of inside/outside is made possible by the noetic heterogeneity of the best/ideal/just regime.
p.p.s. “Security” is a vision of the good society, therefore posing the question of the good as such. cf. Thoughts on Machiavelli, p.268.
Well then. My past self has given my present self something to think about.
It strikes me that I own, have read, and will read, a number of books with the word “Mind” in the title. To wit, a list:
The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt
The Political Mind, George Lakoff
The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin
The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla
The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom
The Phenomenology of
Spirit Mind, G.W.F. Hegel
What should be added? I’m sure I’ve missed some notorious titles.
Insofar as my ongoing interest in the moral consciousness conforms to a “plot”, it thickens. I love Plato’s Symposium, which I know is rather cliche. I came across this remark from Allan Bloom’s famous “Ladder of Love” essay:
The study of the soul had become such a part of Catholic Christianity that its destruction in the name of something like consciousness seemed a necessity. But the Christian teaching was about a specific version of the soul characterized by separability from the body and immortality, great miracles that defied common sense and reason. (p.195)
Okay, so classical political philosophy is about the soul and nomos, while modern political philosophy is about the moral consciousness. Hmm….
At some point, I don’t quite remember when, I began to hold the work of William James in high esteem. My first impression of him, an impression which has yet to disappear, is that he begs us to recall a time when liberal education truly meant the freedom of the mind. He was a philosopher who could speak to psychologists, and a psychologist who could speak to philosophers. This outlook, such as it is a bird’s eye view of the human condition, is worth retrieving. Before his volumes in the Library of America came into my possession I spent many hours at the indispensable William James cybrary. I sometimes wonder – aside from the fantastic amount of talent that arrived in America after the World War Two – who, if any, are the American philosophers that might rank higher than James, especially given the scope of his expertise? A small quote from The Moral Equivalent of War:
History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.
Those wars were purely piratical. Pride, gold, women, slaves excitement were their only motives. In the Peloponesian war, for example, the Athenians ask the inhabitants of Melos (the island where the “Venus de Milo” was found), hitherto neutral, to own their lordship. The envoys meet, and hold a debate which Thucydides gives in full, and which, for sweet reasonableness of form, would have satisfied Matthew Arnold. “The powerful exact what they can,” said the Athenians, “and the weak grant what they must.” When the Meleans say that sooner than be slaves they will appeal to the gods, the Athenians reply, “Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.” Well, the Meleans still refused, and their town was taken. “The Athenians,” Thucydides quietly says, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.
Let us not forget about John Dewey…
In 1927 Carl Schmitt published the first edition of his famous essay The Concept of the Political. Heinrich Meier has done the world of scholarship a service in his study of the “hidden dialogue” between Schmitt and Leo Strauss that presents itself between the second edition of Begriff (1932) and the third (1933) after the publication of Strauss’s review in 1932. Schmitt responded to a friend that Strauss’s review “cut through him a barre’s length” or some such thing. No matter what one thinks of Strauss or Schmitt it is clear that Schmitt’s reputation has the most to gain from this hidden association.
My concern though is the equally subtle and hidden dialogue between the first and second edition of Schmitt’s Begriff. In 1929 Hans Morgenthau wrote a dissertation on Schmitt’s book, where he argues that Schmitt’s is wrong to say that politics is to be understood as a domain but is instead to be understood as an intensity. The vista this opens up in Schmitt’s theory is the ability to explain civil war: any relationship between any two groups has the potential of becoming political, of becoming a battle for the good of friends and the death of enemies. Morgenthau asserts in 1978 that Schmitt printed Morgenthau’s ideas “without lifting the veil of anonymity from the author” – Bill Scheuerman is fantastic on this particular episode in Weimar intellectual history. What I find most fascinating is that the valorization of this violence in Schmitt’s political theory, and the return to the violence of Hobbes’s State of Nature — not as a negative standard but as the essence of politics — all of which is possible with the movement of Morgenthau’s critique from domains to instensity, is precisely the ground upon which Strauss builds his critique of Schmitt. Therefore, the dialogue “between the lines” of the “hidden dialogue” is between Strauss and Morgenthau. Compare the new first chapter and acknowledgments in Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, second edition. At any rate, the good people at Palgrave have released a translation of Morgenthau’s 1933 French monograph, “The Concept of the Political”. I look forward to reading this. The translators note for the benefit of the great unwashed that Morgenthau is writing explicitly with Schmitt in mind, as well as Hans Kelsen’s legal positivism (a framework that is also criticized for its inability to distinguish tyranny from healthy regimes). Where does one find this criticism? In Strauss’s Natural Right and History, naturally (first chapter, footnote 2). Hans Kelsen is a name that deserves more currency – Constellations has done us all a favour. As always, books we refuse read have already been critiqued and ideas rethought by authors we ignore. No doubt, five years from now graduate students will discover Kelsen’s nomostatics the way Columbus discovered America: already populated, full of life. But as we’re approaching the 100th anniversary of J.J. Ruedorffer’s Grundzüge der Weltpolitik in der Gegenwart, where is Kurt Riezler’s day in the sun?
In Carl Schmitt’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Schmitt makes a handful of comparison’s between Hobbes’s political theory, and Descartes on the mechanization of man, or the interpretation of man as a machine. This is possible, of course, because in Les Passions de l’Ame Descartes articulates the division between body and soul. At any rate, the decisive difference in how one can interpret the relationship between Descartes and Hobbes seems to be this. One can side with Schmitt and believe that Hobbes took the mechanization of man from Descartes and constructed the “huge man” (makros anthropos), if one likes. But this comparison of Hobbes and Descartes in the mechanization and “hugeness” of man in the form of the state is contrasted by Strauss’s interpretation of this relationship, where Hobbes follows Descartes’ “retreat into consciousness” for the sake of dismissing Descartes’ refutation of the Deus Deceptor in order to refute it on human bases alone (i.e. in the coming into contact with the world, pragmata). So, either they are similar because the make man big, or they are similar because they reduce him to his ineluctable conscience. The latter, not the former, allows for the full horizon of modern philosophy to reveal itself. This horizon is also fully aware of its theologico-political presuppositions, or the account of miracles that opposes the premodern account of the same. Now the “Account of the Chariot” begs to be read as a critique of miracles, or at least as being fully aware that it is contemporaneously an account and a critique of mystery. Schmitt turns to sovereignty; Strauss turns to conscience, to synderesis/syneidesis.
Modern Politics & Its Presuppositions
Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality & Essay on the Origin of Languages
Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View
Derrida, Of Grammatology
Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology
A gentle reminder for my future self. Compare Machiavelli’s Epistle Dedicatory in il Principe with Thucydides’ Possession for Everlasting, 1.22, or his famous statement on methodology. Machiavelli’s Prince lacks superfluous ornaments; Thucydides’ History, avoiding the story telling of patris, will “perhaps seem less enjoyable for listening.”