Monday, October 25, 2021

On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen


On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen

Peter Schultz


            The following was spurred in part by a book by Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, which is a book that should be read, despite its shortcomings. But to get to it.


            Jane Austen’s radicalness is two-fold. First, she saw the flaws, the deep flaws of English society, of the English aristocracy, of the English empire. As Kelly puts it in analyzing Emma: “There are more people who are going to be forced to crime, to become like gypsies.” [234] This is the crux of Austen’s radicalness for Kelly: her keen eye for the forces of history, e.g., enclosure, that were changing English life and not for the better.


            But Kelly misses the second part of Austen’s radicalness, viz., her recognition that the world is “magical,” that it offers the possibility of romance, of deep human connections for which there are no explanations as to origin, which are mysterious, even mystical. And, hence, Austen wrote romances. Go figure.


            Kelly writes regarding Austen’s novel Persuasion: “Persuasion … challenges us to think about history not as a smooth, orderly progression, but as disrupted, random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution.” [273] So, Kelly argues on Austen’s behalf, we humans are forced to go along with “the tide of history,” despite its dangers and its violence. There is, to use one of my favorite movie titles, “no way out.”


            But Kelly’s wrong regarding Austen. Jane Austen saw and wrote about the possibility of romance, i.e., she saw and wrote about the unalterable nature of human beings, a nature that allows them to step outside of history, so to speak, by accessing what may be called “magical places.” As Kelly points out, Emma is “uncoupled from history” as ‘’the time frame for Emma makes no sense at all.” Kelly’s right about Emma, but she misses the significance of this aspect of the novel. Because the novel is uncoupled from history, it is also uncoupled from England. That is, it speaks to and about the human condition. You could call it a “fairy tale.” After all, take note of Mr. Knightley’s name, who is Emma’s lover and eventual husband and co-ruler of Hartfield. Or you could all it philosophical, an exploration of the human condition in the imaginary village of Highbury.


            Of course, those who, unlike Kelly, see Jane Austen as a conservative spokesperson also miss her radicalness. They, like Kelly, see the world as a dangerous place but unlike Kelly they turn to established institutions and traditional values for security while navigating “the tide of history.” But because Jane Austen saw the world and human nature as open to the possibilities of romance, of “magic,” she was not constrained to go with “the tide of history” or to put her faith in deeply flawed established institutions – like the English aristocracy or its navy and empire – and similarly flawed traditional values.


            Jane Austen, as an artist, as a poet, drew her strength from romance and magic, which were as real as “death and destruction, invasion and revolution,” as real as “the tide of history.” Her imagination, her senses were sufficiently sharp to access parts of our world most people miss. And one reason Jane Austen is so treasured by so many is that through her they have some access, however momentary it proves to be, to the beauty of romance and magic, to the beauty of our world.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Strauss v. Straussians


Strauss v. the Straussians

Peter Schultz


            What Leo Strauss saw: the threat that the possibility of philosophy would be destroyed, leading to the disappearance of human beings; that is, beings seeking beauty, justice, love, or friendship. Strauss’s anti-communism was not political, but philosophical. His anti-communism wasn’t in the service of hegemony; it was in the service of philosophy or the possibility of the never-ending quest for truth. He sought to revive or fortify philosophy be resuscitating “the ancients,” trying to keep alive the never-ending debate between Jerusalem and Athens.


            Hegemony, Western or otherwise, threatens the possibility of philosophy because it is always tyrannical and, therefore, anti-philosophical. Hegemony cannot be obtained or maintained without recourse to propaganda and, of course, propaganda’s purpose is to curtail, even destroy the capacity for thinking and irony. Insofar as Straussians are seeking hegemony, and certainly more than a few of them are, they are in fact undermining Strauss’s philosophical project, replacing it with a political project that cannot be successful so long as philosophy survives.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Modernity and Politics: Lowering the Standards


Modernity and Politics: Lowering the Standards

Peter Schultz


            Machiavelli, who some say was the founder of modernity, wasn’t interested in “imaginary republics,” and was only interested, as he wrote in The Prince, “the effectual truth,” a phrase that tells us that Machiavelli knew that the effectual truth wasn’t the whole truth. What this means is that Machiavelli wasn’t interested in what some ancients called “the best regime,” a regime that existed only in speech, as in Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics. Machiavelli was willing to give up on the possibility of the best regime, replacing it with what may be called “legitimate regimes;” that is, regimes based on the consent of the governed.


            Of course, that these legitimate regimes would be despotic is not something that Machiavelli broadcast transparently, but that seems to be the crux of his political philosophy, as it was of other moderns, like Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The trick then for these moderns was to get the people to consent to this despotism, to accept it as legitimate and even as desirable. This is what it means to say that modern political philosophers lowered the goals of politics to guarantee success. To ensure the consent of the governed required that the reigning despotism be moderated or even humanized by ameliorating the human condition by means of liberating the acquisitive desires shared by almost all humans, by separating and balancing governmental powers so that neither the rich nor the poor could control the government. Constitutional government, in one sense, merely disguised despotism, a disguise that is revealed for what it is in times requiring extreme measures, like a “war on terror.”


            A troubling question arises, however, viz., to what extent can despotism be humanized? Unless one confuses “humanizing” with ‘’comfort” and “security,” it seems that despotisms cannot be humanized insofar as human beings have desires that rise above the desire for security and comfort. As a result of the lowering of the standards, modern nations resemble criminal conspiracies, as even Augustine knew. As such, they embrace injustice, ruthlessness, and even brutality for the sake of ameliorating the human condition. As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince, inhuman cruelty underlies all successful political orders and the activities of the greatest political actors. As might be said today, “It is what it is.”


            This is what leads Thomas Pangle to raise the following questions in his book on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws: “does not Montesquieu’s political program, aimed at making life secure, eventually threaten to create a way of life no longer lovely or enjoyable enough to be seen as worth securing? Is it possible that at the root of the practical difficulties is the unalterable nature of man, animated by needs and longings that cannot be harmonized with the desire for security or equality?” [303-304]

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Events on the Road to US Hegemony


Events on the Road to US Hegemony

Peter Schultz


            US foreign policy may be characterized since the end of WW II as a quest for US hegemony in the world. Among other things, the US’s most significant opponents regarding its hegemony were all virtually destroyed by WW II, the USSR, Great Britain and its empire, France and its empire, Germany, with one exception, China, which had however undergone a Communist revolution that had decimated that nation. So, the temptation to seek hegemony would have been irresistible even if the US had not shown a desire for an empire since at least 1789. The following are significant signposts on the US’s road to hegemony.


            The use of atomic weapons to end WW II even though Japan was prepared to surrender if given assurances that it could retain its emperor, which after the attacks it was allowed to do.


            The creation of the conditions for war in the remnants of the French empire in “Indochina,” and especially in Vietnam.


            The isolation of Communist or “Red” China and a virtual US alliance with the Chinese on Taiwan.


            The election of Eisenhower as president and the elevation of the Dulles’ brothers, John Foster and Allan, to be the chief executives of US foreign policy.


            The assassination of John F. Kennedy when it became obvious, after he sabotaged the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and refused to attack Cuba during the missile crisis, that he would was not supportive of US hegemony.


            The ascension and then election of LBJ as president, who indicated his approval of US hegemony by reversing Kennedy’s policy of not committing US armed forces to the wars in Southeast Asia.


            The “silent coup” against Richard Nixon after his landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election because he – and Kissinger – rejected the desirability of US hegemony and sought d├ętente with both the USSR and China, as well as withdrawal without victory in Vietnam.


            The subversion of Jimmy Carter’s presidency by both Republicans and Democrats – ala’ Ted Kennedy – because he too opposed US hegemony in favor of human rights, and as a result was labeled “a wimp.”


            The election of Ronald Reagan as president, who was surrounded by those favaoring US hegemony, who were labeled “neo-conservatives.”


            The election of former CIA head, George H.W. Bush, as president, who then virtually invited Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait so he, Bush, could proclaim the end of “the Vietnam syndrome” and the creation of “a new world order.”


            The election of Bill Clinton president in 1992 when it appeared that Bush might be threatened with impeachment for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, a scandal that made any reproachment with Iran impossible into the foreseeable future.


            The attacks of 9/11, facilitated or not by US agencies like the CIA, NSA, and the FBI, after Bush, Jr. had been “elected” president in 2000, attacks that allowed Bush to openly embrace his father’s “new world order,” which Dick Cheney described as “the dark side.” Bush was supported by both Republican and Democratic elites.


            The election of Barack Hussein Obama, who completed by legitimating Bush, Jr.’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, while expanding the war on terror by claiming that he and other presidents had the right to kill anyone, why where, at any time, for any reason(s). As if to legitimate Obama’s claims, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.


            The election and then the impeachments – twice – of Donald Trump who, although he proclaimed the desire to “make America great again,” indicated he did not embrace endless wars or nation-building.


            The election of Joe Biden, who would be touted as “saving America democracy,” especially after “the insurrection” of 1/6, while embracing US hegemony as a return to a rational foreign policy uninfluenced by Russia or China.


            And, yet, even after these events, the embrace of US hegemony remains suspect among large segments of the US population. These suspicions take the form of negative assessments of sitting presidents like Trump and now Biden, but they reflect not so much the very real limitations of these men as they do the very real limitations of the quest for US hegemony. And one has to wonder who is delusional, our elites or those who large swaths of the American people. But it is fair to say that the people are disillusioned while our elites are not. It should be interesting to see how this plays out as “time goes by” and “the fundamental things apply.”



Monday, October 4, 2021

Tony Soprano and History


Tony Soprano and History

Peter Schultz


            Modernity is defined by a progressive view of history. That is, as someone once said: “The arc of history bends toward justice.” So, as time passes, the human situation improves, “progress” is made and, at some point in the future, we will arrive at the end of history and reside in the promise land.


            Tony Soprano shared this view of history until his panic attacks planted the thought in his mind that history isn’t characterized by progress. In fact, “The Sopranos” opens with Tony visiting a therapist because he has the idea that his situation is characterized not by an ascent but by a descent, that the world of “organized crime” is dying. Dr. Melfi, his therapist, says that Tony isn’t alone, that many Americans feel the same way about the United States.


            Questions that arise as a result of these speculations are: What is to be done? Given the descent of organized crime and the U.S., what should be done? Should attempts be made to “make America great again,” or should a new road be taken, a new project launched? Or should the descent be allowed to continue until it reaches “rock bottom” and a new way becomes a necessity?


            In typical American fashion, Tony wants to try to stop the descent by “re-forming” the mafia, by recovering the old ways, the ways of the founding fathers – as it were – of the mafia. As the show goes on, however, this project only seems desirable by ignoring that these founders were, like Tony and his contemporaries, flawed and their organization was fatally flawed as well. “Omerta” wasn’t as universally practiced as Tony wants to think, just as his father was not the man Tony wants to believe he was. His father’s brutality extended at times beyond what was necessary or justified, and it even extended to Tony himself. To be sure, his father left Tony to deal with his mother’s cruelty on his own, while he, the father, played house with his mistress. Nonetheless, Tony persists in thinking his father made him a better man. But as shown by the results of Tony’s attempts to deal with his son, AJ, as his father dealt with him – AJ attempts suicide – Tony is delusional about how his father’s brutality affected him. Tony never was able to admit to Dr. Melfi or himself the effects of his having witnessed his father chop off a person’s finger, which Tony remembers as being a pinky.


            So, Tony’s project to “re-form” his mafia by recovering the practices of the founders was doomed from the start as it was, in fact, delusional. As the show progresses, this becomes clearer and clearer, e.g., in Tony’s relationship with Christopher, in his relationships with other “made men” like John and especially Phil Leotardo, and even in his relationships with Meadow and AJ, as well as with his sister and his uncle, Junior. Tony ends up pleading with Phil to humanely, a pleading that Phil ridicules. Vito is brutally murdered for being gay, illustrating both the flawed beginnings of the mafia as well as that humanitarian appeals, appeals to justice, have no place in the mafia. Even Christopher is forced to approve the murder of Adriana because she talked to the FBI, while he was trying to escape his situation either by way of drugs or by becoming a movie mogul. By the end, Tony even ends up accusing Melfi of being immoral when she decides – on less than persuasive grounds – she can no longer treat Tony. That accusation illustrates how desperate Tony has become in his attempt to redeem himself, his family, and his organization.


            Tony does not understand that from the beginning, the mafia was a fatally flawed project, one that could not last because its injustices were bound to infect the organization itself. And no enterprise can last without practicing justice amongst its members, even or especially criminal enterprises. Without justice, there will always be power struggles over who should be “boss.” In criminal enterprises like the mafia, these struggles will turn deadly, just as in other enterprises where justice is discounted or ignored the struggles will destroy careers and ruin reputations. The “reasons” or excuses for these struggles might be charges of disloyalty or sexual proclivities, but the problem is the fact that justice has been discounted or ignored all together.


[Whether this has relevance for the US today, I leave it to the reader to decide.]