The “Classics:” Who Cares?
May 14, 2012
An interesting phenomenon: Those who claim to care most about the “classics,” those often called “the neo-cons,” who allegedly have been influenced by the likes of Leo Strauss and his students, rarely, if ever, use the language of the classics such as Plato and Aristotle. What do I mean by this? Well, Plato/Socrates and Aristotle did not use terms like “realist” or “idealist,” “liberal” or “conservative,” “socialist” or “capitalist,” but rather used terms like “democrat” or “oligarch.” And not only did they use this language but they thought that this language got to the heart of the human condition, which was a political condition.
The most basic, the most important, the most illuminating facts about human beings were political because the political was the most important “variable” of the human condition. Hence, they viewed the world as characterized by political contests. For Aristotle, these contests are most commonly between democrats and oligarchs, not as, say, economic contests, that is, contests between those advocating “socialism” and those advocating “capitalism.” If the classics were correct, then viewing the world through such categories as “socialism” versus “capitalism” or even “liberals” versus “conservatives” distorts what I like to call “real reality.” And not only does such language distort but it also may be said to hide what is really going on; it hides the real contests. Such language turns political contests into, say, economic contests, thereby potentially and perhaps even deliberately blurring the fact that at bottom such language allows the oligarchs to rule. But they rule not as “oligarchs;” rather, they rule as “economists,” as “realistic capitalists” and not as “idealistic socialists.” And, similarly, some rule as “policy experts,” whether that expertise is economic, militaristic, religious, or educational, thereby blurring further the most basic forms of rule, e.g., monarchic, aristocratic, democratic, or oligarchic. It is as if those who make policy, political policy, do not have any politics in the classic sense at all!
As a side note, perhaps it was this that led Leo Strauss, a Jew, to reject his early leanings toward Zionism and to assert, eventually, that Zionism was not and could not be a solution to or resolution of “the Jewish situation.” Analogously, this would be like saying that neither “socialism” nor “capitalism” represent or could represent a solution to or a resolution of “the human condition” because such a solution or resolution must be political, that is, insofar as this is possible at all. Such solutions or resolutions must deal with democrats and oligarchs and not, say, with Jews and non-Jews or with socialists and capitalists. Insofar as solutions or resolutions are not political just so far are they not viable. Or to put this differently, “trickle down economics” will never, can never satisfy democrats or the democratic longings that characterize human beings at all times and in all places, just as what is called “socialism” will never, can never satisfy oligarchs or the oligarchic longings common to human beings at all times and in all places.
Every so often, perhaps, the truth of the classic view is visible, even in our modern, that is, non-classic, world. Thus, today in the United States [and elsewhere] there is an anger that is palpable and it will not be allayed by the talk of the economists. That is, the economists – most – tell us that a “bailout” was necessary to get us out of our current quagmire but, still, people are angry. Are they, the people, engaged in what my mother use to call “cutting off your nose to spite your face?” Perhaps. But more likely they are infuriated by policies that reward those who are responsible for our current situation, policies that will make these oligarchs even richer than they already are. This is offensive, highly offensive, to democratic sensibilities, to those longings for democracy that are inherent in human beings even in our thoroughly modern world. And it is these longings, I would argue, that make those called “the Austrian economists” appealing today. It is not their economics but rather the political implications of their economics that makes them appealing today.
But to return to the beginning here, why is it that those who claim to take the classics seriously do not use the language the classics used? Why is it, for example, that they are willing to look at the world through a prism of “a clash of civilizations,” that is, through a prism that sees the world as divided between Christians and non-Christians or Muslims and non-Muslims, just as once they were willing to see the world as divided between Communists and non-Communists? Well, if the classics tell us anything, they tell us that this is about rule. Such visions of the world empower some and disempower others. Human beings prefer ruling to being ruled and they are willing to construct “reality” to serve this preference. But until or unless they come to grips with those basic facts of the human condition – as Plato/Socrates and Aristotle did – they are bound to fail. What is worse is that they are bound to fail while being oppressive and letting blood run through the streets. But don’t believe me: Just consult your Machiavelli who saw all of this and embraced “modernity” nonetheless.