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The Relevance of Philosophy to Political Change

3,526 words

Translations: French, Polish

The title of this essay is somewhat misleading, since I am going to argue that philosophy is relevant to all human endeavors, not just politics.[1] Philosophy is not just metapolitical, but meta-everything.[2] But I know you are interested in political change, so that was my hook to get you reading. Furthermore, I will argue that philosophy is more than just relevant to life, but of paramount importance.

Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, and wisdom is necessary for success in every realm of life, including politics. Wisdom, I will argue, is unconditionally good. You can never be too wise. All the other goods we pursue, however, are good for us only on the condition that they are used wisely. Thus we need to pursue wisdom as well, so that all of our other pursuits add up to a good life, which is what all of us ultimately want.

The Quest for the Good Life

The first premise of my argument is: “All human beings are pursuing the good life, as we see it.”

When people are given choices, they choose the option that seems better to them at the time. Even if they have to choose between evils, they choose what appears at the time to be the lesser of two evils. This preference for the apparent good throughout the course of one’s life is what I mean by “pursuing the good life as we see it.”

The phrase “as we see it” is important, because it indicates that my premise is first and foremost a psychological claim about the choice of apparent goods. We choose what seems best to us at the time, even if we later learn that we were calamitously mistaken.

The use of the phrase “as we see it” does not, however, imply that all goods are subjective, i.e., that are no objective goods.

A subjective good is something that is good because we want it. An objective good is something that is good in and of itself. It is, therefore, something that we should want, whether we want it or not.

A common synonym for the claim that values are subjective is relativism. A common synonym for the idea of objective values is absolutism. No objectivist or absolutist seriously argues that all goods are objective or absolute. But there are subjectivists who maintain that all goods are subjective or relative. 

Against Relativism

There is a simple argument for the existence of objective goods, hence the falsehood of complete subjectivism. All human beings are pursuing the good life as we see it. Yet most people are not happy with their lives. Moral subjectivism or relativism cannot explain this fact.

The moral relativist basically claims that the good life is whatever we define it to be. But if I get to define the good life for myself, I have no excuse for not having a good life. Moral relativism is basically the view that, in the game of life, we get to make up the rules as we go along. But if you get to make up the rules, you have no excuse if you do not win. Even if you suffer terrible misfortune, the relativist would claim that it is within your power simply to define it as good.

So why, if we are all pursuing the good life as we see it, are so many of us unhappy with our lives? The best explanation is that there are objective conditions for a good life, and many of us do not meet them.

There are two basic ways that we can fail to meet these conditions. First, there are factors that are outside of our control, which I will call fortune, good or ill. Second, there are factors that are in our control, such as our thoughts and actions. Even the most intrepid pursuit of the good life will fail if we lack good fortune or if we think or act wrongly.

Another term that is often used as a synonym for the good life is “happiness.” There are two senses of happiness: subjective and objective. Subjective happiness is a feeling, namely feeling well. Objective happiness is a state of being, namely being well or wellbeing. The good life can be identified with happiness in the sense of wellbeing. And, ideally, wellbeing should be crowned with happiness in the subjective sense.

Everybody would rather feel happy than unhappy. But subjective happiness is not the highest good. Sometimes people have better things to do with their lives. Life often forces us to choose between subjective happiness and greater goods. Some people, for instance, choose duty over happiness. They would rather be noble than feel good. But in such cases, one can say that people are sacrificing subjective happiness to objective wellbeing.

Conditional vs. Unconditional Goods

The second premise of my argument is a distinction between conditional and unconditional goods:

Conditional goods are those things that are good under some conditions and bad under other conditions.

Unconditional goods are those things that are good under any condition, goods that can never become detrimental.

Conditional goods can become bad due to circumstances, e.g., the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong degree, or the wrong priority or balance in relation to other goods. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. But you can never have too much of an unconditional good. They are good regardless of time, place, degree, and other circumstances.

The Components of a Good Life

To enjoy a good life, we must gain and keep the particular goods that are components of a good life. These components include, from the most basic to the more rarefied:

  • food
  • water
  • shelter
  • exercise
  • sleep
  • security
  • health, physical and mental
  • beauty
  • material goods
  • family
  • friends
  • sex
  • entertainment
  • self-respect
  • the respect of one’s peers
  • achievement
  • knowledge
  • intelligence

Are these goods conditional or unconditional? I wish to argue that they are all conditional, because it is possible to imagine situations in which they can become bad. One can have too much water, too much food, too much exercise, too much rest, too much sex, too much entertainment, etc. One can be too rich and too good-looking.

Can one be too healthy? Perhaps not, as physical and spiritual health are core components of wellbeing. But one can, at least, be too concerned with one’s health, to the point that one neglects other goods.

One can surely have too much self-esteem; one can be too popular; one can be too focused on achievement. One can also know too damn much or be too damn smart for one’s own good.

Even though the components of a good life can sometimes be bad, the good life itself is always and unconditionally good. The great problem of the good life, therefore, is how to create an unconditional good out of conditional goods, how to pursue the unconditional good by conditionally good means.

There are no circumstances under which we would not want to live a good life. But not every life is a good life. Life as such is not unconditionally good. Only a good life is. Thus if a particular life is not worth continuing, ending it is not a rejection of the value of the good life but rather an affirmation of it. The good life, in short, can also include a good death.

Getting the Components of a Good Life

There are two basic sources of the components of a good life: fortune and work. Fortune is capricious and unfair. Some people are born healthy, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Some are born to wealth and privilege. Some have happy, loving families. Some are born in civilized, peaceful, prosperous societies. The rest fall along every gradation to the opposite extremes. Work is one of the ways that we try to correct the inequities of fortune.

Both fortune and work are themselves conditional goods. One can be too lucky, since misfortune is one of the ways we build strength and character—although if one is really lucky, one’s weakness will never be tested. And one can work too much or give work too much importance in one’s life.

The Question of Use

Work and fortune are the two ways that we come to possess goods. But to live well, it is not enough merely to possess goods. We also have to use them. And since conditional goods can also turn bad, it is not enough merely to use them. We have to use them well; we have to make right use of all things.

Wisdom is the ability to make right use of all things. The opposite of wisdom is folly, a penchant for making bad use of all things.

Without wisdom, none of the things we possess are necessarily good for us. Fortune showers gifts upon some people: health, beauty, status, wealth, etc. But if one lacks wisdom, the greater the gifts, the greater one’s potential for disaster. A classic example is Diana, Princess of Wales, who had every advantage of fortune, yet she still failed to lead a good life, largely because she made foolish choices. Great gifts combined with great folly lead to terrible consequences. In fact, foolish people are better off with fewer gifts, since they have fewer ways of harming themselves and others.

With wisdom, however, you can live a good and happy life, even if fortune deals you few advantages and many disadvantages. Fate deals us all a hand. Some get good cards and some get bad ones. But people who play good hands foolishly can end up losing, while people who play bad hands wisely can win. Thus wisdom is a great equalizer. Wisdom allows us to push back against bad fortune and create our own good luck.

Conditional goods contribute to a good life only if they are used wisely. Without wisdom, none of the conditional goods accrued by good fortune or hard work will necessarily add up to a happy life. Wisdom is the sine qua non of a good life—the essential condition without which it cannot exist.

Thus wisdom, like the good life itself, is an unconditional good. There are no conditions under which one is better off being foolish than wise. One can be too rich, smart, or beautiful for one’s own good. But one can never be too wise for one’s own good. Wisdom is aligned unswervingly with the good life. It never strays from the good, and because it never loses sight of the good, it can direct all other things toward the good. Thus wisdom is the most important component of the good life, second in importance only to the good life itself.

If we are serious about the good life, then the pursuit of wisdom, namely philosophy, should be our first and foremost concern, prior even to the pursuit of conditional goods. For the more goods we accumulate without the wisdom to use them, the greater the danger to our wellbeing.

Is Wisdom Always Necessary for the Good Life?

I have argued that wisdom is necessary for the good life. But is it always necessary? Is it at least possible that a person who is indifferent to wisdom, even a complete fool, might still lead a good life? The world is filled with happy-go-lucky people who give no thought to tomorrow; people who trust in the kindness of strangers, God, or Mother Nature; people whose retirement plans consist of winning the lottery; stoners who think “it’s all good,” etc.

It is at least conceivable that some of these people really could luck out. Not only could fortune deal them certain gifts, but it could do so at the right time, in the right place, and in the right degree, so they are never challenged to make right use of anything. This lucky streak could, moreover, continue their whole lives long. It is, of course, not very likely.

Enjoying the good life through sheer luck could be called a fool’s paradise. But only a fool would count on it. The beginning of wisdom is to decide not to depend on luck but instead to create some of one’s own. (Even Forrest Gump did not depend entirely on good luck. He also had the good sense to listen to what his momma said.)

Is Wisdom Sufficient for the Good Life?

The idea that wisdom alone is sufficient for a good life is equivalent to the claim that the good life depends entirely on things that we can control, thus we can lead good lives without the goods of fortune, indeed in the midst of the greatest misfortune. The Roman Stoics Seneca and Epictetus argued that wisdom is sufficient for the good life, thus the wise man is immune to misfortune.

Although this in not the place to argue the point, I believe the Stoic view is appealing but false. I follow Aristotle, who claims that the good life requires more than just virtue. It also requires external goods, which we must obtain through fortune and work. External goods, however, are not entirely under our control. Thus the good life is not immune to misfortune.

If forced to choose between external goods and the goods of the soul, we should always choose the goods of the soul. But then we are no longer talking about the good life but merely the least bad life. Socrates argued that a righteous man who was persecuted, condemned, and martyred by society is better off than a corrupt man who enjoys all the gifts of good fortune. But that is not the same thing as saying that a virtuous man on the rack is living a good life.

Theoretical vs. Practical Wisdom

The kind of wisdom I am discussing is usually called moral or practical wisdom, as distinguished from theoretical wisdom.

Philosophy is often divided into five fields: metaphysics, which deals with being and man’s place in the cosmos, including such topics as the existence of a God or gods and the freedom and immortality of the soul; epistemology, which deals with knowledge and truth; aesthetics, which deals with the beautiful; ethics or moral philosophy, which deals with the good life; and political philosophy, which deals with the good life together. Moral and political philosophy cannot really be separated, since man is a social animal, thus the good life is pursued in society, and it must be pursued collectively as well as individually.

Metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics are the theoretical branches of philosophy. Their discoveries are not, in themselves, practical, but they are certainly relevant to practical philosophy.

For instance, metaphysical debates about whether the soul is mortal or immortal, whether a God or gods exist, whether we are free or determined, etc. all have implications for moral philosophy.

Epistemological debates on faith and reason, reason and sense experience, science and common sense, etc. all have practical implications. Every serious inquiry, moreover, uses the tools of logic.

Even aesthetics has practical implications. Aesthetics deals with beauty as such, not just art, and beauty often serves as a guide to determining what is real, true, and good. Furthermore, the appreciation of beauty, which can be systematically cultivated, is one of the components of the good life.

Thus even if practical wisdom is our primary concern, theoretical wisdom is not merely theoretical.

Does theoretical wisdom have to be subordinated to practical wisdom? To answer this, we have to ask if theoretical wisdom is unconditionally good. Are metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic speculation good under every condition? I would argue that they are not. Even true theories can be bad if pursued in excess or without regard to context and consequences. Thus theoretical wisdom must be guided by practical wisdom, even as practical wisdom is informed by theoretical wisdom.

But this does not imply that all theoretical activity must be bent toward producing practical effects. Beautiful and useless things—pursued as ends in themselves—are part of every good life, whether they are games, hobbies, adventures, exploration, aesthetic experience, scientific investigation, or metaphysical speculation.

Not everything that is consistent with the good life has to produce good effects. Indeed, some things that we pursue as ends in themselves are actual components of the good life, which is also an end in itself. Thus they do not need to produce good effects to contribute to the good life; they have a closer relationship to the good life than cause and effect, because they are already parts of the good life.

Practical Wisdom vs. Practical Knowledge

Theory is about understanding the world. Practice is about changing it. What is the difference, then, between practical wisdom and practical knowledge, such as arts and technical skills?

Both practical knowledge and practical wisdom are about changing the world. Both cannot be reduced to statements of fact or abstract principles and rules. Both involve the perception of unique, concrete, changing situations and insight into the applicability of facts and abstract principles to concrete circumstances.

The crucial difference is that practical knowledge is morally neutral, thus it can be used for good or evil ends, whereas practical wisdom is always directed at the good and is thus intrinsically moral.

For example, surgeons make the best torturers, because the same skills that can relieve pain can also be used to inflict it. The difference between a surgeon and a torturer is not, therefore, a matter of knowledge but of ethics, of moral wisdom which insures that right use is made of knowledge. (A profession is a combination of a body of morally neutral theoretical and practical knowledge with a supervening ethical code that applies that knowledge to good ends.)


I have argued that all human beings are pursuing the good life, which is unconditionally good. But the main components of the good life are good for us only on the condition that they are used wisely. Thus wisdom is the most important component of the good life, because without it, all the gifts of fortune and the products of our hard work can turn against us and become sources of misery rather than wellbeing. Wisdom, however, is unconditionally good, just like the good life itself, so it will never turn on you.

Philosophy, which is the pursuit of wisdom, is the most important activity for anyone who is serious about the good life. Philosophy is the only discipline that aims at attaining unconditionally good things: wisdom and the good life itself.

Keep this in mind when you are weighing your options: Philosophy first—or biology? Philosophy—or a trip to the gym? Philosophy—or television? Philosophy—or overtime at work?

In each case, philosophy should come first, because knowledge of biology, fitness, relaxation, and money are all good things, but they are not unconditionally good things. And they can actually be as treacherous as rattlesnakes unless you are able to use them wisely.

If philosophy is of paramount importance for all of life, then a fortiori it is of paramount importance for political change as well. Metapolitics is not entirely a matter of philosophy, but the core metapolitical questions about morality, destiny, and political institutions are philosophical.

Thus if you are serious about pursuing the good life not just for yourself, but for our people as a whole, wisdom is an unconditional good, and philosophy is an indispensable study.

Where to Start

This essay is based on the first lecture (conducted as a Socratic discussion) that I would give in undergraduate Introduction to Philosophy classes. I had a whole course of study mapped out to follow it. But where should my readers start? The answer is with Socrates.

The central argument of this essay comes from Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus, Socrates accepts the challenge of persuading the dumbest jock in the gym, Clinias, of the importance of studying philosophy (278d–282d). If the argument worked on Clinias, then surely it has worked on you.

Note on Further Reading

There is no substitute for reading Plato’s dialogues and other Socratic writings, but just as one needs swimming lessons before jumping in the deep end, so one needs some basic background before studying Socrates. I would recommend beginning with A. E. Taylor’s Socrates: The Man and His Thought (1933), the work of an honest, unpretentious, old school English philosopher. For a more subtle but still highly accessible discussion of Socrates, see Leo Strauss’s lecture course “The Problem of Socrates: Five Lectures,” in Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Strauss, of course, is a treacherous figure with his own agenda, so use him wisely, i.e., as a point of departure, and don’t get lost in his intellectual labyrinth.


1. The most recent previous incarnation of this essay was a talk in Seattle on October 14, 2012. I wish to thank everyone who was present for a stimulating discussion. The original incarnation was the opening lecture of undergraduate Introduction to Philosophy classes that I taught in the 1990s.

2. Philosophy is an important part of metapolitics, but it is not the whole of metapolitics, which encompasses other intellectual disciplines as well as the media for their propagation and the communities that they engender.



  1. D. McCulloch
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    It’s encouraging to see this. In this age of raging scientism many people who ought to know better believe that if a thing isn’t science, it isn’t knowledge. Instead, all the really interesting questions are philosophical. Scientists themselves are often the last ones to recognize when they’ve left science and its characteristic method of controlled experiment behind, and begun to philosophize, usually doing so poorly. The problem is too narrow an education, and the consequent thought that because everyone philosophizes, everyone must do it equally well.

    The truth is that a well rounded education must include a solid grounding in philosophy. I’m often a bit suspicious of the Darwinian-Nietzschean-atheist wing of the new right in that the temptation to materialist reductionism is very strong for them for obvious reasons, and it is of course very poor metaphysics to go there, materialism being the worst and only self-refuting metaphysics. But it takes some time laboring in the field, and some personal honesty to realize that.

    I agree that Plato is the place to start – I was surprised by the Strauss reference though. When I first arrived at university I immediately fell in with the philosophy crowd, and a young man who was to become a close friend strongly recommended that I read the Gorgias – strictly for fun since it wasn’t required for Intro Phil. I did, and had no trouble with it. Most of these works in translation have worthwhile introductions allowing one mostly to dispense with secondary interpreters like Strauss, who mostly get it wrong anyway.

  2. Jaego
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Maybe. But Christianity says no, evil isn’t just ignorance since one can know the truth and still refuse it. I believe Existentialists go with this as well. But why? Christianity says that Evil is a great mystery, a disease of the will and ultimately the soul. Of course Socrates might respond by saying that such a person didn’t Really know the good in the first place, but perhaps only conventionally, mouthing the words or going through the motions. But the Devil is said to be the Greatest Theologian – He merely chooses to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven much like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man.

    I was looking at the Ethics the other day: Aristotle doesn’t get modesty at all. He thinks it’s some kind of weakness or something. To use the language of Plato: just as bodies are not beautiful but merely partake of beauty – individuals are not moral or strong or whatever, they merely partake of these. They don’t “own” any virtue and to the extent they think they do, they become insufferable and even begin to lose virtue in general. A Christian gives credit where credit is due: beyond himself. That keeps the flow sweet and strong.

    I think Socrates may be right in some ultimate sense. But in terms of people’s growth towards the Light, Christianity explains the twists, turns, and wrong directions better. In other words, it understand people better. Persons are not levels of being. Plotinus is said to have misunderstood Christianity on this very issue – not helped by the fact that Christians refused to debate the Pagan Philosophers. The levels of being are the stairs, but pesons have to climb it – or not.

    • SD
      Posted December 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      “But in terms of people’s growth towards the Light, Christianity explains the twists, turns, and wrong directions better. In other words, it understand people better.”

      Please elaborate.

      • Jaego
        Posted December 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Because it understand Sin and Evil better than most. In my experience, most people aren’ts simply “ignorant” but are in fact refusing to know or awaken. One can go too far in this direction, certainly: most people aren’t consciously evil. As one savant once said (forget who or the exact quotation), Hypocrisy is tribute vice makes to virtue.

        Of course, the Platonics aren’t around to defend themselves. We have their basic texts, the skeleton not the body, much less a living tradition. They may well have known far more about all this than Plato wrote about.

  3. Posted December 27, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    If I might, I would suggest the work used in the Introduction to Philosophy class I took, as referenced in your interview with moi (reprinted in my new book, The Homo and the Negro, Counter Currents, 2012), namely Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Several editions are available, including a “50th anniversary edition” with an intro by Roger Scruton; it and most of the others have the original English intro by T. S. Eliot. While the first essay is valuable in itself, for these purposes the second, The Philosophical Act [Was heisst Philosophieren?] is a splendid introduction to Socrates, Plato, and, oddly enough for a Catholic philosopher, Heidegger, via a discussion of the Symposium, or rather, the framing story, showing why people want to hear as much as they can about this Socrates chap.

  4. Posted December 27, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Also, it would appear that the Taylor book is the same as a 1931 UK edition that is available free at

  5. Corey
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    If you could do an essay on the problem of evil sometime, I’d be eternally grateful. My own life experiences and study have led me to Neo-Platonism (and Gnosticism). But each seem to miss the mark in showing us how to live the good life in the face of evil. And yes, I do think the world is structurally evil. It’s baked into the cake, so to speak.

    Anyway, since my school loans are all paid off and I’m living the good life (materially at least), I’m just angling for a free lecture

  6. Bryan Sylvian
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “Philosophy first—or biology?”

    Greg: Do you agree with EO Wilson who thinks that the following three questions are better answered by biology than philosophy in 2012?

    Where do we come from?

    What are we?

    Where are we going?

    “Moreover we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The query itself is a reputation killer. It has becomg a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. Most of the history of philosphy consists of failed models of the mind.”

    The Social Conquest of Earth
    by Edward O. Wilson

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted December 27, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      False alternative. Philosophy + biology answers all of those questions better than philosophy alone (which can and should pay attention to the discoveries of science, as did Aristotle) or biology alone (which tends to bootleg in unexamined metaphysical premises). But philosophy is the master discourse, because it secures its own foundations, thus it is rightfully the senior partner. This is true regardless of the fact that the philosophy department at Harvard and most other major US universities is out of the Big Questions business.

      • Jaego
        Posted December 27, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the Mantra of Modernism: all Philosophical Problems are just unsolved Scientific problems – despite the differences in goal and method. The Ancients conflated the two – but at least the bias was on the higher end. Now the quest is purely reductionist. Incredible hubris since Science has nothing to say about meaning, nor can it given its methods and goal. Pop Science Personalities want to become a Priesthood.

        Didn’t Aristotle deduce the number of woman’s teeth – incorrectly? Instead of just having his wife open her mouth and counting them?

  7. m
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    To state that Strauss is a “treacherous figure” with “his own” agenda, without explaining what is meant, does not seem to me to be a very wise statement in the context of an essay meant as a discussion toward the search for wisdom. However, today, it seems to be the case that whether one is on the political left or the right, it is impossible to mention his name without some sort of caveat, since the name itself has become politically charged to the point of being ridiculous. This is strange, and certainly an irony, considering that Strauss, as far as I know, was never a “clerk” for any regime, as was, to cite an example, his sometimes acquaintance, Carl Schmitt.

    Some say that Strauss was subversive of the Western ideal. It depends on where in history one places this “ideal.” Was it subversive for him to bring up Machiavelli and Hobbes in relation to classical political philosophy? Was it subversive for him to critique the modern social science movement?

    One can have an idea of how subversive was his teaching from his lectures on Plato’s Symposium. Strauss (in response to a question on Platonic “values”):

    “May I take issue with the term “value” that you [the questioner] used? This is not translatable in Plato, and is a misleading term. You mean the good, the noble, and the just things. There is really no clarity in [the modern term] “value.” I think it is a bad word. We can, of course, speak of [economic value], which is a legitimate use of the word. But to come back to your question and forget what some might call the semantic side of the question, I would say this: …Plato always insists that in order to understand any human phenomenon you must look at the highest and most complete manifestation of it. Contrary to the tendency of the the social sciences today which looks to the poorest manifestations—the narrowest which can easily be be reproduced for questionnaire situations…Plato calls it, in language which is somewhat metaphoric, but at least as intelligible as the value terminology, the begetting, the generation in the souls of men. In other words, mere procreation will not produce the values of society. The question is, then, the begetting of notions which are noble and just in the souls of men. Very well, Plato says, if you want to study that, let us look at it on the highest level. On the highest level it does not take place by parents as parents. Parents may not be the best (but they might be). On the highest level it is done by the highest form of educators. By educators you must not think of Columbia Teachers College. What Plato has in mind is the greatest poets. In other words, he has in mind, to speak of the Anglo-Saxon countries, the highest form of begetter—Shakespeare.”

    Some say that the neoconservative “agenda” was Strauss’ own, but this is not clear at all, and there are grounds for doubting that he would have ever supported what is now generally known as such. In the same essay Strauss writes:

    “But what of love of one’s own [here he is referencing Aristophanes’ speech]? The love of one’s own leads to the polis. It leads first to the family, but the family cannot exist without the polis. The political society is, of course, always a closed society [this, is likely a veiled reference to Popper’s book]. By closed society I mean one which does not include the human race. The universal society would be, strictly speaking, the community of all human beings. The polis is never that. The polis is always some men’s own, even if there are 170 million. The human race is by nature sempiternal, at least as said here [that is, in Diotima’s speech on generation through heterosexual love]; the polis is not sempiternal, it cannot be sempiternal but it wishes to be, and it is, therefore, in need of gods. These gods, as the guardians of the polis, are primarily the guardians of right. They are the avenging gods. The union of the beautiful gods and the avenging gods, which appear directly in mythical presentation, has its common root in eros, but in two different manifestations—the love of one’s own on the one hand, and the love of the beautiful, on the other.”

    In this passage one can easily understand that Strauss is arguing, along with Plato, for the “closed” political society, certainly a non neoconservative notion.

    What of his politics? Strauss was a Zionist, but understood that this was “politically questionable.” He appreciated Churchill, and upon the Englishman’s death said a few paragraphs about him in class. He was an anti-communist, but was one from conviction, and did not turn from an initial Trotskyist position in spite of what is alleged about some of his students. In one episode of intra-collegiate intrigue he came out against an appointment of Karl Popper to the New School (1950) due to what he thought of as Popper’s lack of intellectual worth [a view also shared by Eric Voegelin]. But, as far as I know, he never used his academic position to shill for any specific contemporary political agenda, something that sets him apart from today’s university crowd.

    Be that as it may, most of the people I’ve run into who make outrageous claims about Strauss seem to have not read him very closely, if much at all, but are probably reciting something they once heard someone else say, or something they read somewhere else. The actual sources paint a different tune. The most impressive criticism I’ve read about a specific Strauss work was Michael Oakeshott’s discussion, found in his Hobbes on Civil Association, which at one point critiques the former’s The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: It’s Basis and Genesis.

  8. rhondda
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Dr Johnson.
    A number of years ago when the Dali Lama came to Vancouver, a reporter asked him what he thought about all these westerners getting into Buddhism. I expected him to say it was good, but he didn’t . He said in a very quiet voice ” I think they should look to their own traditions.” I realized then that he was right, but my reading was really hodgepodge.
    Today I know what he meant.

  9. Dominion
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    I do believe this goes on the top 5 most important essays on this site.

    On your first principles:

    I want to just determine what exactly it is you mean by “good”. This has always been a central problem with mine in reading and classes I’ve done on moral philosophy. What is meant by “good” is never defined, or if it is (say, in utilitarian terms) then it is a given that, once a definition is applied, one has a duty of some kind to be “good”. One can use the euthyphro argument as an example of the conundrums this question leads to. If God does something because it is good, then the question still exists of how some abstract code can be binding upon us. If something is good because God does it, then in the end we still seem to be bound by some Will, which even if Divine has a sense of arbitrariness to it. I would say that the Traditional (or, if you like, Platonic) answer is the best one: something is good insofar as it reflects or approaches the Divine essence and form, and enables us to become aware of it and like it.

    It took me a long time to be satisfied with that answer, because is still seems a bit arbitrary. But in the end, that’s simply because of the inherent arbitrariness of the word; we have become more obsessed with the word “good” and finding a meaning for it than with what the word Traditionally meant.

    But the question still comes up: why should we want to be like the Supreme Reality and attain knowledge of it? Well, yes, fulfillment and enlightenment aside, what binds any man to follow this path? I don’t think anything does. Certainly there are consequences: disorder in mind, spirit and eventually society. But then, what is it to the Absolute if man should cause these effects? The Absolute is eternal and even the disordered man is, despite all, still inescapably a manifestation of it, even if mentally and spiritually he is blind to this. In the end, the man seeking to discover his True Self and become aware and awake to the higher order must simply say “I will it, I will do it.” This seems to be where Nietzsche and Guenon, the Overman and the Initiate, or perhaps Mark Dyal and John Morgan/James O’Meara can find the beginnings of philosophical reconciliation.

    It’s this strange arbitrariness that I’ve always found one eventually comes to at the end. Why do X? Because it’s part of the good life. Why live the good life? Because one becomes awake to higher realities. Why would I do that? Because I can find enlightenment and true peace. Why…? Like the mother answering the child who keeps pestering her, there’s a point at which the answer seems like it has to be “because I said so.” That’s where moral philosophy seems to differ from metaphysics, which deals in absolute truths, or epistemology, which deals in ways of thinking; the last answer lies in Will. Will which can be informed by impulse and passion, instinct and depravity, or knowledge and discipline, which may even in the end be free or predetermined…but it is Will nonetheless.

    Where does that apply to politics? Well, that’s where things get tricky. If our actions, higher Order and personal fulfillment aside, are in the end down to Will, then perhaps we’ll need to hear out Jack Donovan in the light of Tradition too. It may be possible to bring many into the fold: turn those with intellect into Brahmins, turn those running on anger and pain into Kshatriya with an inner peace, bring back the Merchant and the Worker with a sense of duty, aesthetic, craft, and fulfillment which brings true liberty. But to keep the social order honest, quite apart from Noble Lies, it must be remembered that this order continues existing because those who will that it should reflect the higher metaphysical Reality have made it so and will maintain it. Therein lies the stark moral reality of “those who know”.

    I must find a shorter way to explain that line of thought. Hopefully we’ll see more of these lectures.

  10. Verlis
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed this essay but I don’t think the subjectivist or relativist can be dismissed so easily. Rather than relativism basically being the claim that the good life is whatever we define it to be, it’s more fair to say the basic position of the relativist is that there is no way (certainly no simple or obvious way) to determine which definition of the good life is objectively best. The relativist notes that the differences among various definitions of the good life appear to reduce to the subjective preferences of the people making the case for them. The relativist may err in rushing to conclude that therefore no objective definition is possible, but his reasons for so concluding often seem irresistibly compelling.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Your form of relativism merely restates the problem that moral philosophy begins with. It certainly does not prove that moral philosophy cannot get anywhere, that it cannot (or has not) discovered moral truths.

      • Verlis
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        It’s not ‘my’ form of relativism; it’s just relativism as I have encountered it.

        It certainly does not prove that moral philosophy cannot get anywhere, that it cannot (or has not) discovered moral truths.

        Well, thank goodness for that. I don’t think of myself as a relativist, even though I often find myself arguing like one. Relativism is the morality of the shirker. I like to believe that there are objective moral facts and do what I can to encourage others to take the same view.

        So why, if we are all pursuing the good life as we see it, are so many of us unhappy with our lives? The best explanation is that there are objective conditions for a good life, and many of us do not meet them.

        This is most useful. I’m surprised that I have never seen it framed this way before.

        On another matter now, I think you’re wrong that one can (“surely”) have too much self-esteem, at least not according to self-esteem as described in the pioneering work of Nathaniel Branden — which has little in common with the hippy dippy self-esteem movement. Very briefly, one can think of self-esteem as a component of mental health. Self-esteem may compete with other components of mental health for attention but it cannot compete for ‘territory.’ In this sense, one cannot have too much self-esteem any more than one can have too much mental health in toto. Are there any conditions in which too much mental health may be a burden? If a communist regime came to power and decided to punish those who ‘have it too good’ it could, but resort to scenarios like this seems like cheating.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

          Surely one can have more self-esteem than is merited by facts, which would be too much self-esteem. Blacks, as a rule, have too much self-esteem. Black women are, for instance, the fattest women on the planet and also have the most positive body images. In Branden’s terms, self-esteem is a combination of one’s feeling of moral worth and competence to deal with reality. But surely can over-estimate oneself on both fronts.

  11. Verlis
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    As might be expected of a former Randian, Branden’s definition of self-esteem is closely tied to an accurate assessment and acceptance of the facts of reality. (‘Consciousness’ [i.e. of reality] and ‘Self-acceptance’ [of the facts of reality as they relate to one] are indeed the first two of his ‘Six Pillars of Self-esteem’.) Branden would probably characterize as pseudo self-esteem a self-esteem that derived from a wildly unrealistic self-image, and most certainly so in the case that such self-esteem attempted to perpetuate itself by denying a more accurate assessment of the facts of reality if such assessment were brought to one’s attention.

  12. SD
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    “The moral relativist basically claims that the good life is whatever we define it to be. But if I get to define the good life for myself, I have no excuse for not having a good life.”

    This is also the claim of the self-help guru. It’s like a Jedi mind-trick. Doesn’t work so well on people who believe in objective truth.

    Christianity’s understanding of human nature is a marketing trick. 1) We’re all born sinners and 2) all sins are equal before God and 3) the only solution is to join the Christ cult. They sell you a problem then sell you the cure. It’s marketing. How do we achieve goodness? Socrates claims there are no easy answers. Christians claim the easy answer is the only one possible.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      1. Tony Robbins and the other self-help gurus make a lot of money telling people that they can simply reinvent themselves as “winners” by the standards of today’s society. It is pure subjectivism as applied to the self. But the self is as objective a phenomenon as the moon and the stars, and it can change only in accordance with its nature not against it.

      2. The Christian claim that man is capable of rejecting the good as such is, I think, merely a failure of imagination and an inability to engage in criticism of one’s own beliefs. Hence when people reject the “good” as Christianity defines it because they think there is something better, the Christian merely interprets it as a black perversity of the will, because he cannot allow himself to imagine that his opponent might have good reasons and that there is something better than the good as he presents it. It is a phenomenon akin to the Jewish claim that people hate them for their virtues, the American claim that people hate us for our freedom, and Ayn Rand’s notion that envy is hatred of the good for being the good. I am skeptical of the idea that people act merely out of malice to destroy. Even a vandal who engages in petty acts of destruction is, in some sense, pursuing a feel of autonomy and agency, which is a positive good.

      • Verlis
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

        The central message of the self-help movement is that change is possible, that an individual can become more than he is today. Unfortunately, a combination of personal ignorance and marketing expediency too often transforms this simple message into a claim that one can do literally anything at all. Such grandiose overstatements understandably rouse the inner cynic in us. The result is that we not only dismiss the grandiose claim, we ignore everything else that self-helpers attempt to teach us. That is a mistake because self-helpers many times have very worthwhile ideas on how to produce change.

        Consider what Tony Robbins says are the key differences between people in the life outcomes that they produce. The differences are the result of different distinctions drawn in the three areas of: (1) What to focus on; (2) What things mean; and (3) What actions to take. I’m sure Robbins would like to claim that one only need to begin making the same distinctions in these areas as a successful person does in order to achieve the same level of success oneself. This of course ignores differences in the kind of innate qualities and abilities that the hereditarian school teaches are often decisive. But just because not every person can produce the same outcomes as any other person does not mean that there is no value in understanding the ways that distinctions made in these three areas greatly impact on the kinds of outcomes that are produced.

        And there is much else in the same vein among self-helper offerings. With respect to achieving political change, surely one is more likely to produce that change if one is convinced that producing it is possible rather than if one is convinced that it’s all pointless, that sociobiology determines everything, that our lives are no more than the Punch and Judy shows of our genes.

      • Jaego
        Posted December 29, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Only petty vandalism? If someone enjoys destroying things, they’ll enjoy destroying valuable things even more if they know the difference. And what is more precious than human beings? And such a man is driven to ecstasy by the prospect of destroying innocence and goodness. I mean who cares about a whore who is corrupted already? But a young White virgin who attends private school and loves her family and her studies – a very different feeling is engendered.

        No, this is Christianity contribution to the Great Tradition. The East underestimates evil by far. Christianity has it right: rebellion is front and center. Some rebel by not flushing the toilet, others by overthrowing the West. We are beset by countless gifted people who delight in corrupting our entire Culture. Of course they think they are just championing things like autonomy and freedom. Tearing down things is so much fun! A roller coaster that will hit the ground very hard indeed. And once it hits, ask these same people about “freedom”.

        Maybe rebellion wasn’t always so important in human psychology. Maybe it is a specific component of extreme degeneracy. It’s hard to imagine we could have gotten so far if people were always or naturally like they are now.

    • Jaego
      Posted December 29, 2012 at 12:36 am | Permalink

      Real Christianity isn’t easy and doesn’t claim easy answers. I know what you are talking about though. I read a great article by a prison chaplain. He gradually learned that many of his flock were selling drugs, raping other prisoners, assaulting people etc. Their Christianity was just a cheap emotional high that meant nothing. At best, perhaps some slight compensation for their on going criminality.

      Real Christianity demands real change or repentance.

  13. T
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for all you work Mr Johnson

    This is one of the best things Ive seen. 4 parts.
    I think youll like it. 1080p

  14. SD
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    “Maybe rebellion wasn’t always so important in human psychology. Maybe it is a specific component of extreme degeneracy. It’s hard to imagine we could have gotten so far if people were always or naturally like they are now.”

    Have you read “The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit” by E. Michael Jones? It’s a fascinating book written from a Christian perspective. Very long, though.

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