Posted: September 3, 2010
Tea Party vs. Grand Old Party
William Voegeli's essay on "The Meaning of the Tea Party" is the best analysis out there to date (Spring 2010). But although he does a superb job explaining the dissatisfaction with President Obama's empty promises, he might have said more about the part Republican leaders, including George W. Bush, Dennis Hastert, and Bill Frist, played in the Tea Party's creation. Over the past decade, neither party could be trusted to restrain government overreach and reassert constitutional limits. Unlike the Bush Republicans and the Obama Democrats, the Tea Party stands for limited government.
William Voegeli replies:
Mr. Franklin pays a generous compliment, and makes an important point: the Tea Party fuse detonated after November 2008, when Democrats took charge of everything, but only after burning while Republicans held sway at one or both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
I think the fuse was lit even earlier than Franklin does, with the recriminations and drift that beset Republicans in the years following the astounding 1994 election. Conservatives had hoped that the first Republican House majority since 1954, led by vocal critics of Big Government, would finally take long strides toward the goal Ronald Reagan announced in 1981, to "curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment." Like Reagan, however, all the Gingrich Republicans wound up curbing was the growth rate of the federal government. The moment of maximum conservative despair came in the final days of fiscal year 2005, which saw $2.47 trillion in federal government outlays, when Tom DeLay asserted that there was nothing further left to cut because "after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it down pretty good."
Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) agrees with Mr. Franklin that one Tea Party motive is the belief that Republicans "walked away from the principles and practices of limited government and fiscal responsibility." If the entire corrective for that dereliction consists of Republicans rediscovering the courage of their convictions, then the challenge before the Tea Party won't be easy but will be simple.
If the meager results of the Gingrich revolution and President Bush's compassionate conservatism have causes beyond a lack of nerve, however, then limited government fundamentalism will prove to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the Tea Party to succeed in reshaping American politics. There are reasons to believe this latter account of how the GOP lost its way after 1994. Republicans found then, as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, that Americans are opposed to Big Government, but only at a high level of abstraction. Translating those generalities into specific program cuts that are popular, or even tolerated, is the hard part. A recent New York Times poll found that 76% of all respondents expressed agreement with the idea that "the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs." The clearest indication of how difficult it will be to accomplish what Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush could or would not is that even among the 18% in the survey who identify as Tea Party supporters, 62% believe Social Security and Medicare are examples of the government spending money beneficially.
On what basis can conservatives keep hope alive? Here are two reasons, which don't guarantee elusive victories against Big Government, but suggest the pursuit is not doomed: 1) The emergence of Republican leaders like Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey who treat fiscal restraint not as one of the things they would like to accomplish, but as The Thing they are determined to accomplish. Their political successes are even more important than their policy accomplishments. Daniels and Christie speak as adults to adults when discussing taxes and spending with their constituents, and there is abundant evidence that those constituents respond favorably to politicians who acquit themselves with that kind of respect and candor. 2) Federal budget deficits, of unprecedented size and duration, have concentrated the public's mind. (I discuss them elsewhere in this issue.) America as a whole faces non-negotiable fiscal limits like the ones that have come to dominate politics in cash-strapped states. Even as Daniels and Christie did not let their states' fiscal crises go to waste, national politicians can propose and effect measures that preserve federal solvency with spending reductions that, in Mr. Franklin's words, "restrain government overreach and reassert constitutional limits."
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You can't win in this scholarly game. In his review of my book, Empire of Liberty ("Processed History," Spring 2010), Richard Samuelson says that "society and culture are in the driver's seat; politics is along for the ride." All other critics of the book have accused me of the opposite: of emphasizing politics and political ideas at the expense of society and culture, saying, as Mark Noll did, that I make political ideology "the driving force...for explaining social change."
Despite Samuelson's garbled prose, where the sentences don't always follow logically one upon the other, I get where he is coming from. He believes that history, as he says, is "the study of great statesmanship" and "philosophy teaching by example," and I don't. He seems to think that if our current political leaders read Plutarch's Lives or the papers of Alexander Hamilton or James Madison they would know better what to do. I wish it were that easy.
He's right in claiming that I am confident that I and other historians of the period understand things better than people living in that period did. Not that we know certain intimate details of their lives: what Washington said to Martha on arising in the morning, or what Madison said to Dolley on their wedding night—these sorts of details we will never know. But we do know much more than they did about the big things because we know how they turned out. It's called historical perspective, and Samuelson mocks it.
He also mocks my use of the term "the historical process," not realizing that the term is a shorthand for the actions of millions of people that created consequences that few of them intended or even foresaw. Does Samuelson believe that when we today use the term "markets" we are referring to the actions of just a few shrewd speculators in New York and London? There are people who do believe that, but they are not very knowledgeable about the world or the historical process.
I don't deny the founders' greatness: they created ideals and institutions by which we still govern ourselves; but they were not superhuman. They didn't know their future any more than we know ours. They lived with many illusions. But lest we become arrogant and condescending toward them, we should acknowledge that we too live with illusions, only we don't know what they are. History in fact is a record of exploded illusions. The only lesson it teaches is humility.
Gordon S. Wood
Richard Samuelson replies:
Wood does not complain that I misunderstand or mischaracterize his book, but suggests that we disagree about the nature of history. That's a fair reading, up to a point. I do not believe history is only "the study of great statesmanship" or that it is "philosophy teaching by example." I only say that Gordon Wood does not practice that kind of history, and that he thinks it wrongheaded. His letter confirms this.
The key question between us might have to do with humility. At the end of his letter, Wood writes that "history in fact is a record of exploded illusions. The only lesson it teaches is humility." One wishes he applied that lesson to the study of history.
Wood begins from the premise that "historians of the period understand things better than people living in that period did." No one would deny that is true in some respects. As he notes, we know "how things turned out." Yet there are many important ways in which it is not true. Do we really understand Jefferson's politics better than Madison did? The most thoughtful of the founders were not, as Wood claims in his book, surprised to find that democratic republicanism could be a threat to liberty. Lord Bolingbroke, whom the founders read closely noted that "absolute monarchy is tyranny; but absolute democracy is tyranny and anarchy both." Wood's belief that we always know more than our subjects leads him to exaggerate their ignorance and our knowledge. (The historical record is also rather less complete than he allows. The early U.S. Senate, for example, was closed to the public, and historians have often relied on the notes of Pennsylvania senator—and dyspeptic crank—William Maclay for insight.)
Wood claims he doesn't "deny the founders' greatness" because they "created ideals and institutions by which we still govern ourselves." Insofar as he follows his stated historical method it is power wielded effectively, and not wisdom or goodness, that made them great. Power or influence is all the historian can measure.
According to Wood, the "historical process" is simply the term we use to describe the aggregation of all decisions human beings make, just as the "market" is the term for the aggregation of all decisions made in the economy. The job of the historian, then, is to describe the general flow of history over time, or as I wrote in my review, "American history is about the movement of prevailing opinion in America to one standard deviation." Empire of Liberty is an excellent work of social and cultural history, but great statesmen often are more historically aware than Wood allows. Wood's approach to history makes it difficult to distinguish between a wise man and a fool, or, for that matter, a statesman from a skilled ward pol.
Wood, as I noted in my review, also ascribes deeper meaning to the "historical process," as when he writes that Americans were no longer "on the periphery of the historical process," instead they were "suddenly cast into its center." It's the Whig theory of history without the idea of Progress (except in the study of history, I suppose. Wood leaves no room for the possibility that pre-modern historians might have known truths about the past that modern historians don't). He cannot take seriously those either in the past or today who disagree with that premise.
Professor Wood doesn't seem to realize that his method is less disinterested than he presumes. He takes ideology to be a neutral concept. But ideology was a new idea in the period about which he writes, and one that was very much in dispute. Jefferson endorsed it; Adams rejected it. Ideology is connected with the idea that language is constitutive of thought. The historical corollary to that idea is the belief that ideas, by their nature, belong to certain ages.
From Wood's perspective, the ideas that all men are created equal and thatgovernments are instituted among men to secure certain unalienable rights are not truths, as the founders understood them, but artifacts of the 18th-century mind. But is the belief that ideas, by their nature, belong to certain ages itself an historically contingent idea? Since the founding era, Americans have argued over precisely this point. It is difficult to give an adequate account of American thought or of American politics when one is a partisan in the intellectual battles of the 18th century.
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A Lincolnian Tocqueville
Daniel Mahoney's otherwise insightful review of Craitu and Jennings's Tocqueville on America after 1840 fails to make his case that Tocqueville made "essentially Lincolnian judgments" about slavery ("A Friend of America and Liberty," Spring 2010). The Frenchman's argument cannot be essentially Lincolnian without reference to the Declaration of Independence.
Mahoney maintains that for prudential reasons Tocqueville suppresses the importance of America's founding document. A focus on the Declaration might have been misunderstood by a France divided over "‘abstract' appeals to the ‘rights of man.'" Though plausible, the fact that Mahoney doesn't find any support in the Craitu and Jennings volume that Tocqueville ever acknowledged the importance of the Declaration confirms one's suspicion that he was blind to rather than canny about America's natural-rights basis.
It is no surprise, then, that Democracy in America's greatest weakness concerns the Civil War. Events did not bear out Tocqueville's prediction of a war fought between races. Instead, in Lincoln's graphic terms, it was a case of "our white men cutting one another's throats" over the issue of slavery. Tocqueville did not anticipate Lincoln's race—transcending pathway from equal natural rights to common citizenship, because he did not start from natural rights to begin with. Tocqueville's equality is an amoral historical force, not a moral first principle. For him the Gettysburg Address would be a bit of democratic poetry, not the authoritative statement of what it means to be an American.
As Mahoney writes, Democracy in America is required reading for serious students of America, providing "an unusually discerning account of American institutions and mores and...a penetrating description of the effects—all the effects—of modernity's unrelenting ‘democratic revolution.'" But for all that, without understanding natural rights and government's proper limits, Tocqueville's understanding of slavery, race, liberty, and equality cannot be Lincolnian or even fundamentally about America.
Daniel J. Mahoney replies:
My friend Ken Masugi not only refuses to accept Tocqueville's self-description as "half Yankee" but insinuates that there is something vaguely anti—or at least un—American about this great friend of liberty. He is convinced that Tocqueville is a historicist who bows before the impersonal authority of History and who denies the affirmation of natural justice at the heart of the American proposition. But Tocqueville's hatred for slavery, so abundantly on display in Tocqueville on America After 1840, was rooted precisely in an appeal to natural justice and in a recognition of the moral truth of equality—"of the similarity of man and the equal right to freedom"—that he believed Jesus Christ was indispensable in revealing to mankind (see Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part 1, Chapter 3). And as Tocqueville's remarkable correspondence with Arthur de Gobineau suggests, there was no more eloquent, discerning critic of the "scientific" or rather pseudo-scientific justifications for slavery or racism.
The great "democratic revolution"—the "equalization of conditions" and the abolition of the hierarchies or inequalities of the European old regime—was indeed a sociological fact for Tocqueville. He pleaded with the "aristocratic" party of his generation to place their talents at the service of educating and moderating democracy rather than promoting a destructive and ultimately impossible return to the past. But as Raymond Aron has pointed out, "in the history of sociology, Tocqueville remains closest to classical philosophy, as interpreted by Prof. Leo Strauss." The French statesman and political thinker never took his bearing from History since the "fatal circle" of democratic equality could as easily culminate in servitude and barbarism as liberty and enlightenment (see the final paragraphs of Volume II of Democracy in America). He despised Hegel and saw that his seemingly conservative doctrine could just as readily give support to perverse materialist and socialist currents (see his July 22, 1854, letter to Francisque de Corcelle). Tocqueville finally judged human things by standards of justice and nobility that had nothing to do with an "amoral historical force." He highlighted the tension between democratic justice and the greatness inherent in the human soul without allowing History to be the final arbiter of that conflict.
One last comment. Masugi is hesitant to acknowledge the "Lincolnian" features or rather affinities of Tocqueville's reflections on America in the years immediately leading up to the Civil War. Masugi goes further in stating that Tocqueville could not appreciate or do justice to the Gettysburg Address. But in his beautiful appeal to the American people that appeared in the anti-slavery tract Liberty Bell, Tocqueville went beyond an eloquent, anguished critique of "man's degradation by man." He stated his great hope that he would live "to see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all the same inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth." He is speaking in his own idiom, to be sure. But I do not see how Masugi can claim that Tocqueville could not anticipate "Lincoln'srace-transcending pathway from equal natural rights to common citizenship." That was one possibility that Tocqueville earnestly hoped for and anticipated in his sole public intervention in the American debates about slavery and Union after 1854.
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Ayn Rand's Legacy
As an Objectivist, I've long become accustomed to the sneering ad hominem that is virtually inevitable whenever conservatives discuss Ayn Rand. I was very pleased to find the contrary in Charles Murray's fine review ("Who Is Ayn Rand?" Spring 2010). Although I disagree with some of his comments and characterizations, his review was level-headed, honest, and fair, and for that I am grateful.
Charles Murray's informative review of the recent biographies of Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller was a pleasure to read. Its balanced assessment of Rand will infuriate orthodox Objectivists-and perhaps a few conservatives, too.
My own interest in Rand, which dates back to the early 1960s when I attended lectures at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City, has focused primarily on her little-known theory of art, which neither biographer addresses.
Murray errs when he speaks of "Objectivist aesthetics" that rejected Bach and Mozart. Rand disliked Beethoven, Shakespeare, and others, too, but these were purely personal opinions and not part of the Objectivist philosophy.
New York, NY
Charles Murray tells us to ignore the sum of Ayn Rand's integrated thought (which he never does get right) in favor of a few selective aspects that meet his approval. The existence of the Ayn Rand Society-an affiliate of the American Philosophical Association-suggests some worthy originality in her system-building.
Instead, Murray relies on two "biographers" who don't even care to understand their subject's philosophy of Objectivism on its own terms. In order to show us that Rand was "delusional," he relies on dubious details about her personal life repeated by proven liars, including disparaging claims flatly contradicted by people who were there.
Ayn Rand is not taken seriously by any significant philosophy, economics, or literature department in any institution of higher education. And with good reason: she was a sad lightweight in all three areas. Charismatic she may have been; a deep thinker she was not.
That she trumpeted man's achievements hardly warrants a pedestal anywhere. To this day she is an alternative read for youngsters too intellectually challenged by Locke or Nietzsche, and her fictional characters are cartoons.
No wonder she faked the reality of much of her life.
Jackson Heights, NY
Charles Murray replies:
To Messrs. Sandefur and Torres, my thanks for their kind words. Regarding Mr. Torres's distinction between Objectivist aesthetics and Rand's personal views, I was under the impression that Rand's personal views were pretty much coincident with Objectivist theory. But his letter has the tone of someone who knows what he's talking about, so I accept his correction.
Mr. King is right about academia's opinion of Rand as a lightweight. Nevertheless, no one continues to sell hundreds of thousands of books annually for half a century, and influence countless lives, without having said something important that others haven't said as well. The last half of my essay was an attempt to describe that something. Perhaps if I were smart enough to understand Locke and Nietzsche, I would have done a better job of it.
Regarding Mr. Aviatik's unhappinesses, I can only say that I took my brief description of the premises of Objectivism directly from the Ayn Rand Institute website, and that the evidence for her self-delusions is extensive, from multiple sources, and meticulously documented in both biographies.
* * *
Rescuing the Right?
I am very much obliged to Steven Hayward for his friendly notice of my book We Are Doomed in his essay "Reading up on the Right" (Winter 2009/2010). Because he asked me a question in that essay, I'll give him an answer.
The question was: "Without the conservative movement of the past 50 years, how much worse would things be?" My short answer is: not much.
For a long answer I'll attempt an empirical enquiry, using the Trendline Test that Charles Murray described in his 1997 book, What It Means to Be a Libertarian (whose last section, I note in passing, begins with a subsection headed "Gloom and Hope").
In Murray's book the Trendline Test works thus. You plot a graph-a trendline-for some social or economic variable, covering as many years as you can. For illustration, Murray uses highway fatalities per vehicle miles traveled, 1925-93. Then, just by scrutinizing the graph, you try to spot where government intervened to change the variable. Surprisingly often, you can't; and when you can, the government intervention usually causes the trendline to move in the "wrong" direction.
Murray is making a case for libertarianism, of course, but the Trendline Test has wider applicability. For example, let's ask a question closely related to the one Hayward asked me: taking the trendline for total (federal, state, and local) government spending across the last 50 years, is it possible to spot any effects from the most active phases of the conservative movement?
Chris Chantrill has compiled a handy selection of such graphs on usgovernmentspending.com/charts. For total government spending as a proportion of GDP, the broad picture is:
- A fairly steady upward creep from 1960 to 1991, averaging 0.27% per annum.
- A steep decline from 1991 to 2000, averaging 0.52% per annum.
- An upward climb, averaging 0.57% again from 2000 to 2008."
- Liftoff! from 2008 onwards.
- The 32% level of 1978-9 America (prop. James Earl Carter) has not been seen since. The 2010 figure is 44.5%.
If, given only this data, one were asked to infer correctly periods of conservative ascendancy, I submit that even the most capable data analyst would be stumped.
There is of course much more to be said. True, the USSR no longer exists; but that the American conservative movement caused, or even much accelerated, its demise, has not been proven to my satisfaction. Empires have their own life cycles. The "cultural Marxism" of our academies, media, and leftist political class is anyway far more of a threat to our liberty than the Red Army ever was, and it waxes stronger by the hour.
The Supreme Court had four firm liberals in 1960; it has four today. Would it have five, or six, if Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr., had not walked the earth? Who can say? I can say that I see few surviving traces of the conservative revolutions in our public life this past half century-Thatcher's, Reagan's, Gingrich's. What I see across the Western world is fiscal suicide, political arrogance, economic humiliation, cultural dissolution, military self-neutering, and ethnic disaggregation, and I see them more plainly with every day that passes.
If the conservative movement has been a brake on any of these dire trends, it has been a Prius brake on a Mack truck.
I am very gratified that Steven Hayward chose to use words like "superb" for my book The Conservative Century, especially in an essay featuring the works of George H. Nash, Patrick Allitt, and Sam Tanenhaus. He defines the broad parameters of my work quite well and I have no issue with what he says in general about the book's argument.
But he does miss the wider point of my discussion of the Old Right. I argue that the pre-World War II Right was elitist and hostile to mass democracy. The sense of a Nockian remnant defending Western civilization from the challenges of Bolshevism, Progressivism, and modern liberalism, made the intellectuals featured in my book incapable of recognizing-and organizing against-the political threats of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. The quirky architect Ralph Adams Cram took this farther than most when he argued that the masses were no further along the evolutionary chain than Neolithic Man. It was hard to win votes when such arguments passed for conservative rhetoric in the Depression era.
Not until after World War II, with the emergence of the Cold War and the exposure of liberal acquiescence to Stalinism in the 1930s, did conservatives come to see virtue in the people, and make the effort to organize them into the building blocks of the conservative political ascendency. William F. Buckley's famous aphorism that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by Harvard's 2,000 faculty members is not a bon mot that could have been made by any pre-1930s "Rightist" intellectual.
Gregory L. Schneider
I applaud Steve Hayward for mentioning Herbert Hoover as a cautionary figure for conservatives. Hoover best exemplifies how the rhetoric of limited government and American individualism can be used for unconservative ends when unmoored from constitutionalism.
Hoover was the original compassionate conservative, at least when race relations are put to the side. He made his name in national politics through humanitarian relief, first in occupied Belgium during World War I and then after the Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Hoover¹s humanitarian efforts were wildly popular, but they had no clear constitutional basis. He was the
first major politician to recognize that expanding the scope of federal government involvement in disaster, and even the definition of disaster, was a sure means to reach the national public through direct aid and the bonds of sympathy. He used disaster relief as a catapult to the presidency.
Hoover's career is all the more bracing when mentioned in the same essay as a review of Gregory Schneider's excellent book, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution. Schneider finds that conservatives did not learn until after World War II that they must "plunge into politics" in order to seek electoral majorities through a more populist appeal. The agrarian Old Right may be too idiosyncratic to offer a model for conservatives today. Yet Hoover, a conservative of the same era, shows the temptations of a modern, technical, populist, and yet peculiarly limited-government conservatism for ambitious politicians who operate outside constitutional limits.
Patrick S. Roberts
Steven F. Hayward replies:
It is tempting to respond to John Derbyshire's fiscal cliometrics with the trendlines for gun ownership and ammunition purchases, the defense of which has been a narrow but vigorous conservative purpose for a long time, culminating now in the spread of concealed carry laws. Is there another country that comes close, or that gave up its right of armed self-defense against the government with any kind of fight? More broadly, although I share Derb's preference for measurable data, his mention of judges moves to a field where data is hard to adduce; but can he name another democracy where there is any controversy comparable to ours about the judiciary and constitutional construction? Maybe the variable on both of these counts is not the conservative movement, but American exceptionalism-but then, the defense of American exceptionalism today tends to be increasingly a conservative project.
I note in the close of The Age of Reagan exactly the same lamentable facts as Derb about the failure of the Reagan Revolution to stop the growth of government (which has generated complaints about my book from some Reagan triumphalists), but even these numbers wilt before a one-word response: Europe. We've always been far below European public spending levels, and even Barack Obama's prodigious efforts are not yet taking us to European levels. Maybe the conservative movement does not deserve the credit for this; on the other hand, it is hard to see what would have stopped liberals from matching the post-war European ratchet. It took the Left 60 years to get to the point of Obamacare. Has there ever been a phenomenon like the Tea Parties in any of the European social democracies?
Derb's doughty pessimism really does go too far, though. He writes that "I can say that I see few surviving traces of the conservative revolutions in our public life." I would hope that even dour Derb would count cutting marginal tax rates from 70% to under 40% among the "few surviving traces" of conservative revolutions, but that was a very big one. And is it really true that "fiscal suicide" and "economic humiliation" are universal in the Western nations? The examples of dramatic reversals in New Zealand, Canada (of all places), and Ireland (before the crash) should suggest that fiscal ruin and economic suicide are not inexorable. Here at home, even New Jersey is showing signs of fiscal self-discipline in an extreme situation. But above all, Derbyshire's prescription that conservatives should go back to tending their private gardens would return us to where we were in the 1930s-a movement with no political force at all.
Which brings me to the point Gregory Schneider raises. I should like to have said more about Schneider's book; in particular, I should have been more clear or forceful about my criticism of pre-war conservatives. It is not Schneider's account that I find defective-it's not-but that anti-democratic detachment, which Schneider rightly notes here made "the [conservative] intellectuals featured in my book incapable of recognizing-and organizing against-the political threats of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt." How very different was this outlook and engagement from the founders, whose conservatism we rightly celebrate, but who were above all deeply political men. The prewar conservatives' anti-political attitudes were a grave defect, a dereliction from the duty and necessity to defend freedom, that we are still trying to overcome. It represents political conservatism's "lost generation," which left us, as Patrick Roberts notes in his letter, with only Herbert Hoover, who wasn't good enough.
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In his review of Emmanuel Faye's new book on Martin Heidegger ("Nazi or Philosopher?" Spring 2010), Steven B. Smith exaggerates the repugnance of Heidegger's response to Herbert Marcuse's complaint that although a philosopher "can be mistaken in politics," he cannot make a "mistake" about "a regime that killed millions of Jews simply because they were Jews." According to Smith, in replying Heidegger not only refused to apologize, he proceeded "to reaffirm the correctness of his decisions" and to suggest that Marcuse should have mentioned that millions of "East Germans" had been murdered. In fact, in his letter Heidegger conceded that Marcuse had offered "serious legitimate charges" about the Holocaust and other matters, including terror and tyranny. Although he was certainly evasive in his reply, he neither stated nor implied that Marcuse should have mentioned the East Germans instead of the Jews. He simply insisted that what was done to the Jews could also characterize what the Soviet Union had done to the Germans. I in no way wish to defend Heidegger against Marcuse's criticisms-Nazi anti-Semitism was shockingly explicit, extreme, and pervasive-but there is no need to inflate his transgressions.
Santa Clara University
Santa Clara, CA
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Mark Blitz has kind words to say at the beginning and end of his review of Catherine Zuckert's award-winning book, Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues ("How to Read Plato," Spring 2010). But it is what appears in the middle that matters, and the central part of his review is an attack on two of Zuckert's interpretive principles: that Plato's dialogues should be read in light of the order of their dramatic dates and that the contrast between Socrates and Plato's other philosophic figures (such as Parmenides or Timaeus) is crucial to understanding the dialogues.
Although Blitz does not mention it, both principles can be traced to Plato's Phaedo in which Socrates recounts his intellectual autobiography, emphasizing his dissatisfaction with alternative philosophies and philosophers, and the development of his own unique way of philosophizing as a response. Zuckert's original and impressive argument is all the more convincing because of her fidelity to Plato, and her ability to incorporate other approaches-such as Blitz's emphasis on narrated and performed dialogues-with her own. That may not make it the "best" way to read Plato, but surely it weighs in its favor.
Zuckert is well aware of Blitz's objection that determining the dramatic dates of some dialogues is difficult, if not impossible. She argues that Plato's contrary indications are likely intentional and should inform a reading of the dialogues (e.g., the Menexenus). Although Zuckert is quite careful in dating the dialogues, particularly those which are disputed, this difficulty is far less significant than Blitz makes it out to be, because her intention is not to date each conversation-the dialogues are literary, not historical-but to categorize the dialogues into five broad periods, corresponding to five stages of Socrates' philosophical career.
This career is shaped largely by Socrates' encounters with alternative philosophical views, presented by Plato's other philosophers. This is why Zuckert emphasizes-Blitz claims she "overstates"-the difference among the philosophical views represented in the dialogues. I suspect that much of Blitz's hostility to Zuckert's book stems from her argument that the Platonic philosophers do not say, in effect, the same thing. Rather than summarize her argument, Blitz simply repeats the conventional-at least the conventional Straussian-opinion that Socrates, the Athenian Stranger, and the Eleatic Stranger have a similar conception of politics. As the copious footnotes in her discussions of the Republic, Statesmen, and Lawsmake clear, Zuckert is well aware of this argument and any fair reader must acknowledge that she presents a persuasive account of the differences between them that ably challenges the usual reading.
According to Zuckert, Plato presents Socratic philosophy's limitations and shortcomings, which are made explicit in the critiques made by the other philosophers. Yet Plato himself expresses a clear preference for Socrates precisely because of his recognition that philosophy is always a quest for rather than the possession of wisdom, and because of his turn from the study of the heavens to the study of human things.
Kevin M. Cherry
University of Richmond
Mark Blitz tells us that Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers attempts to provide "a comprehensive account of Plato's 35 dialogues" without ever suggesting that she had any argument to make that required an account of them as a whole. As it happens, she offers a detailed, comprehensive, and marvelously sustained interpretation of Plato's political philosophy, the problems which it comprehends, and the character and limits of the solutions he ventures. In order to accomplish this, Zuckert provides an account of his manner of writing, beginning with the puzzle of the dialogue form. She focuses on the strange fact that Socrates is Plato's most prominent spokesman in these philosophic dramas, and uses the occasions where he is not to understand Plato's indications of Socratic philosophy's limits and fundamental merits. In tracing the drama of Socrates' life in Plato, Zuckert attempts to discern the dramatic order of the dialogues. She gathers evidence external and internal to the dialogues in order to supply what Plato's audience might have known about the dramatic details of each dialogue.
Blitz implies that the two "principles" according to which she organizes her study come out of nowhere, and that the book's main purpose is to date precisely when Socrates spoke to each of the characters in Plato's dialogues and how he is different from the other interlocutors. Blitz presents these as Zuckert's "principles" when they are really means to an end, namely, attempting to understand the philosophic problems to which Socrates and Plato responded. One would never know from Blitz's review that Zuckert's book carefully weighs the alternatives or that her consideration of the problem of Platonic writing is a thoughtful engagement with and serious response to Leo Strauss. Her book deserved more than a gloss in the pages of the CRB.
Alexander S. Duff
Mark Blitz replies:
I am sorry that my review of Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers was not as unreserved in its praise as Kevin Cherry and Alexander Duff would have wished. Nonetheless, I meant both my praise and my criticism seriously, and see nothing in theirassertions to cause me to change my mind.I invite the reader to study Plato's dialogues, andto examine for himself what they teach.
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I am greatly indebted to the editors of CRB for choosing an exceptionally well-informed and thoughtful scholar to review my books Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift, and I am exceedingly grateful to Diana Schaub for her generosity and accuracy in treating what I wrote ("The Spirit of the Laws," Spring 2010). I am especially glad that she highlighted by way of criticism one of the issues with regard to which my treatment of Montesquieu is distinctive and likely to be controversial-my discussion of the political psychology fostered by the English form of government. In my opinion, this issue deserves careful attention.
Montesquieu distinguished (2.11.6) between "political liberty in relation to the constitution," which arises from the separation of powers and eventuates in a reliable rule of law, and "political liberty in relation to the citizen" or "that tranquillity of mind (esprit) which comes from the opinion that each has of his security" (2.11.6). He noted that it is possible to have either species of liberty without the other (2.12.1). That the English possessed "political liberty in relation to the constitution" was the point of Montesquieu's discussion of their constitution (2.11.6). This much was obvious. But did they possess "political liberty in relation to the citizen?" Were they confident that they were secure? Were they tranquil in spirit? Given Montesquieu's contention that "mores, manners, and received examples can cause" the latter species of liberty "to be born" (2.12.1), it seemed appropriate that I consult the second longest chapter in The Spirit of Laws, where he examined the manner in which England's "laws can contribute to forming" her "mores, manners, and character" (3.19.27)-and there I was brought up short: for, in this chapter, Montesquieu described a people apt to succumb to uneasiness and anxiety (inquiétude) even in the absence of a "certain object" able to give focus to their fears.
Professor Schaub is right to emphasize that, in England, inquiétude helps produce a "self-correcting motion that keeps the system in equilibrium." Without what she calls "the perpetual jostling of parties," there would, indeed, be in England no "political liberty in relation to the constitution." She is also correct in asserting that, "vis-à-vis one another," in England, "citizens feel secure." But this is insufficient, for the English are prone to an "inquiétude" incompatible with "tranquillity of mind" even when there is no one in particular to fear. Unprompted by genuine peril or even by false alarm, Montesquieu's Englishman "fears the escape of a good" that he "feels," that he "hardly knows," and that "can be hidden from us," and this "fear always magnifies objects" and renders him "uneasy (inquiet) in his situation" and inclined to "believe" that he is "in danger even in those moments when" he is "most secure." Later in the same chapter, Montesquieu depicts the English as a miserable lot. To their leading men, he attributes an "emptiness of spirit." In England, he tells us, the women scarcely live among men, and the men in turn are prone to debauchery and inclined to abandon themselves to their own humor. "The majority of those who possess intelligence and wit (esprit)" are, he concludes, "tormented by that very esprit: in the disdain or disgust" that they feel with regard "to all things," they are "unhappy with so many reasons not to be so" (3.19.27).
There are a great many scholars-especially in France, but also among students of French history and politics in England, America, and elsewhere-who take these passages as a clear indication that Montesquieu preferred monarchy to the English form of government. Who in his right mind, they ask, would not prefer joie de vivre to inquiétude, disdain, and disgust? I believe, nonetheless, that they are wrong, and I tried to show in my book that Montesquieu's muted critique of the French polity and his forecast of its demise are-when closely examined-far more devastating than anything that he has to say about England. This does not mean, however, that he harbored no serious misgivings with regard to the latter.
What strikes me about Montesquieu's mature work is his astonishing serenity, his ability to weigh impartially the relative advantages and disadvantages associated with each form of government, and his inclination to intimate a preference for the best option available without ever succumbing to the temptation to lose perspective and become its partisan. No one has ever thought Montesquieu a friend to despotism, but, in his own day, he was read in different circles variously-as an unabashed admirer of classical republicanism, as a devotee of modern monarchy, and also as a partisan of the English form of government. These interpretive propensities are all still very much alive today. To treat him as a partisan of any of these forms of government is, however-at least in my opinion-to deny ourselves the full depths of his wisdom.
Paul A. Rahe
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Wilfred M. McClay's "The Sources of American Renewal" (Spring 2010) should have acknowledged that an earlier version was presented as part of Regent University's 2010 Ronald Reagan Symposium on "The Future of American Culture."
Fred Siegel's review of William Voegeli's Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State ("Insatiable Liberalism," Spring 2010) should have noted that Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College and a contributing editor of City Journal.