The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Monday, June 25, 2007


Being a big fan of Karl Popper, I was pretty excited about the interview on Plato's Republic and its co-option by American conservatives of the sort who are pretty much running everything. Although Cambridge philosophy professor Simon Blackburn takes a swipe at my man Karl Popper, he also seems to share some of the same opinions, primarily the idea of.... well, I'll just excerpt a previous post of mine:

Acceptance of [Freudian or Adlerian psychoanalysis, Marxism, or other theories that claimed to be scientific] had, he observed, "the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were opened, you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still 'un-analysed' and crying out for treatment. . . . A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation-- which revealed the class bias of the paper-- and especially of course in what the paper did not say.

This is what always bothered me about conservative friends growing up, although I wasn't able to define it myself. The tendency to shift one's views from objective consideration of empirical evidence to a plane of pure faith. Generally speaking, the most partisan conservatives I've known have also been the most intensely religious and/or wealthiest people I've known. And the horror of hearing them talk politics is the realization that they are following the same line of non-inquiry as creationists. "You have mountains of evidence, and I have none. You're sadly delusional, and I'm conservative/wealthy/religious/Caucasian and therefore must be right." There's not much you can do when your interlocutor is ready, willing, and able to ignore reality. But back to the interview, which I highly recommend. Along with Popper's Open Society, of course.

Over the years, "The Republic" has been invoked to justify everything from authoritarian elitism to liberalism, but during the 20th century, neoconservative godfather Leo Strauss reinterpreted it to his own political philosophy, with its controversial assertion that it's OK for the enlightened elite to tell "noble lies" in the service of the Good. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz actually took courses on Plato from Strauss at the University of Chicago; other neoconservative hawks with Straussian genes include Richard Perle, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and current ambassador to the U.N.; and Bill Kristol, neocon pundit and co-founder of the Weekly Standard. . . .

[Blackburn:] Another reading of him, which is I think even worse, is due to the American political theorist Leo Strauss, who saw him as in some sense endorsing the idea that it's a dog-eat-dog world. This was kind of a covert message, Strauss thought, of [Plato's] text. Strauss thought that this covert message or esoteric message was supposed to be perceived only by a number of people of special illumination, amongst which he included himself, of course. And that was the ideology that eventually became American neoconservatism, the view that the servants of the state are entitled to do anything -- to lie, to manipulate, to foment war, to destabilize neighboring states, to disguise their actions under a hypocritical cloak of goodness. So it's an extreme example of realpolitik, which I think is just a 180 degree misreading of what Plato is about. But it just shows that you can put down the clearest words on the page and it will be read saying the opposite.

I think that [Strauss's reading] is very perverse. You have to ignore what seems to me the very obvious thrust of ["The Republic"]. The book is largely given over to Socrates, and Socrates was largely arguing against the kind of things that Strauss represents. So you have to really pick up little bits and corners and say, "Ah, that's where Plato's speaking in his own voice or that's the message he wants us to take away." I always find that kind of reading very perverse.