Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Relativism (Part 3)


Frachon and Vernet are right to say that the neo-conservatives must not be confused with the Christian  fundamentalists (epitomised in the Bush administration by John Ashcroft): They are two opposite planets. The philosophical roots of this are made more clear by Grant Havers in 'Between Athens and Jerusalem'. Some extracts:

I shall also show that their critique of Jerusalem seriously compromises their commitment to democracy itself. [...] According to Strauss, the West has drifted so far from its original foundation that it is in decay. The West is so enmeshed in nihilistic doubt (due  to the triumph of historicism and relativism) that it no longer can rationally justify its proper superiority over other civilizations, let alone validate its own politics.  [...] the necessary foundation to which Strauss seeks a return is the classical political science of Plato and Aristotle, [...] which he calls “Athens”. [...] The great rival to Athens is the Bible, or what Strauss calls “Jerusalem.”

Athens and Jerusalem are in “perfect agreement” in their opposition to the modern movements—historicism and relativism—that contribute to nihilism by denying absolute truth. [...]  the “reason” that Athens embodies can be understood only by the few, while the “faith” which Jerusalem incarnates is for the many. This elitism, which runs through all of Strauss’s work, presupposes that only the philosophically enlightened few can be truly rational and indeed can rule a state justly. Because the many can only understand religion, or the irrational, they are not fit to govern. Religion is the noble fiction that instructs the masses in morality. [...] the apparent apolitical nature of the Bible, according to Strauss, is charged with a highly subversive politics, for the Bible undermines the hierarchy between rulers and ruled that is central to Strauss’s elitist conception of natural right. Thus not even the God of Jerusalem, who, Strauss acknowledges, is just as absolutist and universalistic in morality as Athens, offers a suitable, political basis for democracy, since he encourages subversive doubts about authority. [...] Strauss applauds the Greeks for teaching an attitude of resignation to the existence of evil. This resignation is useful to a political regime, for it instructs the masses to have few if any expectations (or hopes) that their rank (as defined by natural right) can be altered. Yet Jerusalem once again contrasts sharply with Athens on the problem of evil, for the Bible teaches an historic end to evil and advances the messianic promise of peace. The fatalistic resignation of the Greeks to suffering and war has no counterpart in the Bible.

[Strauss insists] that philosophers must enjoy “absolute rule” and, second, that they “ought not to be responsible to their unwise subjects.” Yet Strauss fails to show how a regime based on natural right elitism can be democratic while curbing the threat of nihilism. [...] the god of Aristotle [...]  is as indifferent to the masses as are the members of the philosophical elite who emulate this divinity. Above all, Strauss fails to explain why it is rational to give these elites absolute power or how they can be held accountable. For liberal democrats, in contrast, only the God of the Bible can be democratic, since he alone cares for his creation and offers liberation from tyranny.

The essay also discusses Hannah Arendt, another concerned about the fragility of democracy (like Strauss, she witnessed its collapse in Germany in the 1930's) and tempted by authoritarian or elitist solutions.
She is not convinced of the efficacy of double-truth, as Plato and his heirs (including Strauss) articulate it (one truth for the elite, another truth for the masses). She rightly observes that lying erodes and delegitimizes authority (although this does not stop her from supporting the doctrine of hell for political purposes, as we saw!). Yet she is silent on the fact that it is the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that endorses  truth-telling and condemns lying as sinful.
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