The most important book published in political philosophy in years is Arthur M. Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. It first of all establishes, beyond all reasonable doubt, that philosophers (and poets, and other writers) routinely deployed “a double doctrine.” One was “exoteric” or “external” and “public.” The other was “esoteric” or “internal” and “secret.” The intention of the French philosophes—or enlightening, publicizing philosophers— was that the truth about these two contradictory doctrines become public knowledge. They turned esotericism into an exoteric or public doctrine. And Melzer, a professor of political science at Michigan State University,…
The thoughtful and meticulous analysis by our friend Joseph Knippenberg got me thinking about civic engagement. Well, that’s not quite true. I was already thinking about it while trying get a book done on the technocratic threat to higher education (which is greater than the politically correct threat to higher education, although the two are not unrelated).
There is an expert-driven trend in higher education–facilitated by foundations, the American Political Science Association, professors of political science and professors of education–to transform the teaching of political science through civic engagement. The literature on this is full of jargon and otherwise depressingly low in its cognitive pay grade. The consensus seems to be the need for a third way of studying politics. One approach, allegedly rigorously scientific, is the nonpartisan detachment of the behaviorist. Another is the textual approach of political philosophers, who talk about what Plato said Socrates said while hanging out in the marketplace but never actually take students to such a public forum. The third way is for students to learn through actually participating in political life.
It seems like everyone–but especially conservatives–is talking about Peter Thiel these days. One sees his name all over. The traditionalist conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has made the venture capitalist and PayPal cofounder this year’s speaker defending Western civilization. I met Peter (and sat cozily beside him for two days) at a theology conference sponsored by First Things, where he shared his quite singular interpretation of Genesis. Last December, I went to a Straussian conference on Burke and Strauss, funded, of course, by Peter Thiel.
I (and 60,00 or so others) recently got an email from Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, who began by saying that he often disagrees with Thiel; he thinks his praise of the innovative benefits of monopolies, for instance, applies “only in the narrowest cases.” Still, “right or wrong, or somewhere in between,” Peter’s writing is always “interesting,” and he is “one of our more important public intellectuals.” Thiel’s big claim, that “the collapse of technological progress over the last 40 years is the root of our cultural, political, and economic malaise,” is worth arguing about.
You know, it really is.
Jim Parsons was pretty apologetic the other day, upon winning his fourth Emmy for playing Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. “There’s no accounting for taste,” he said, acknowledging that the other nominees in his category, actors from sophisticated shows on premium channels (such as William C. Macy on Shameless), were much more accomplished performers.
Undoubtedly true. Yet despite its mediocre acting and laugh track, in some ways, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory soars as a show about science. On it, scientists are portrayed and ranked as human types. Their real claims for knowledge and excellence are examined and largely vindicated. They all err in thinking their scientific knowledge more comprehensive than it really is, but they perform real work that genuinely contributes to scientific and technological progress. And the main characters, even Sheldon, seem to be good people full of personal and relational promise. They aren’t frauds like politicians and priests, lightweight windbags like humanists, or manipulative tyrants obsessing about how to gain rational control over their fellow human beings.
A plausible interpretation of America and the world at the moment is that the imperatives of the 21st century global marketplace are so powerful they trump anything religious and political leaders say or do.
Techno-economic change does not, to be sure, trump anything and everything that nature might do. We recently had the near-miss of the stormy sun disrupting our electric grid and plunging us into the 18th century, and experts think there’s a 12 percent that could still actually happen over the next decade. That’s a lot more scary, if you think about it, than the possible long-term effects on the climate of anthropogenic global warming, although I’ll admit there’s an inconvenient truth or two there, too.
There’s also, of course, the disturbingly successful indifference of Putin and ISIS to the market, and the maybe more disturbing agility by which the Chinese manage to be both authoritarian nationalists and techno-cagey capitalists.
My general view on the Supreme Court is that it should do less. That nouveau libertarian George Will criticized the Court for resorting to “judicial minimalism” to achieve unanimity. But I, for one, find the Chief Justice’s emphasis on achieving modest but sustainable results refreshing. Judicial minimalism is generally better than the other extreme more characteristic of our time—judicial maximalism.
In some ways, my view is the opposite of that of the outstanding libertarian constitutional scholar Randy Barnett. Randy wants to combine the spirit of Lochner with the spirit of Roe to achieve a kind of consistent judicial activism based on the presumption of liberty on both the economic and the personal autonomy fronts. I doubt there’s a constitutional warrant for either kind of activism. As far as I can tell, our Framers made judicial review legal, but they also thought that in order for it to be safe, it would have to be rare.
“Mike” (the name he has on his website) Bloomberg’s commencement speech at Harvard is quite a work of art. It criticizes liberal dogmatism on elite campuses and conservative dogmatism in our legislatures. In both dogmatic cases, the cause is fearful intolerance of diversity. In both cases, the cause is a lack of confidence in the truth of one’s own opinion. Bloomberg reminded the audience of what John Stuart Mill wrote on On Liberty, of “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth” that’s “produced by its collision with error.”
Anyone who takes higher education seriously attends to the words of legendary teachers. They are likely to be undisciplined, witty, and unfashionable; about great books; ironic about the careerism of their colleagues, students, and administrative bosses; self-indulgent; and insistently erotic, without being creepy.
Libertarian futurists such as Tyler Cowen and Brink Lindsey sometimes write as if the point of all our remarkable techno-progress—the victory of capitalism in the form of the creative power of “human capital”—is some combination of the emancipatory hippie spirit of the 1960s with the liberty in the service of individual productivity of Reagan’s 1980s. Cowen says “the light at end of the tunnel” is the coming of a world in which we will have plenty of everything, and all the time in the world to play enjoyable games. Lindsey writes that Karl Marx’s view of communism was wrong in only one respect: In order to live in a world of bohemian enjoyment, we’ll need to remain productive.
Marriage and parenting may be disappearing in large parts of sophisticated Europe and Japan, but not so much among our high achievers. It’s true that our elitists don’t think that marriage is required for sexual enjoyment or even to validate romantic love. They’re accepting of same-sex marriage to avoid being judgmental or hateful. Marriage equality is part of “multicultural diversity.” And so it’s an issue about which it’s no longer possible for decent people to have diverse opinions.
Our meritocracy based on productivity embraces diverse lifestyles, and nobody believes that women were born to be anything but free and equal individuals just like men. And so parenthood and marriage have to be freely chosen, allegedly part of that mysterious power that one has to define one’s personal identity. Except when it comes to the responsible imperatives of personal productivity, the talk of our successful sophisticates often seems stuck in the Sixties. But not so much their behavior.