Stop Talking About The Philosophy Of Socrates, Please


Stop talking about the philosophy of Socrates, please. We don’t know what it is. We have three writers who put words into his mouth – Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes – all of whom had clear and different agendas for which they were using the idea and memory of Socrates. I would suggest that Xenophon might be the most accurate, because his Socratic dialogues seem to have the least personal agenda. Aristophanes was mocking the future hemlock drinker and Plato was building his own metaphysical structure, but Xenophon’s agenda seems little more than to show that he was a basic, but positive moral influence and not, as he was accused, a corrupter of the youth. But we don’t really know what he said and thought, beyond clearly having irritated many people.

Defense Of Poesy


The ur-text for all arguments for poetry in the English tradition, Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is better than you think. Don’t let that archaic spelling in the title throw you off.

I have heard it described as being very Aristotleian, though I confess I don’t see it myself, except insofar as both are operating under the shadow of Plato and both attempt to answer Plato’s challenges with more practical than theoretical answers.

After first reading it, one of my thoughts was its timelessness. In both a good and bad way. If you made the language blander and more modern, you could slap David Brooks name on it and claim it had been published in The Atlantic under the title “Poetry is dying: I have a plan to save it.”

The plan is reject literary theory and focus on how poetry is of practical value, as a moral and pedagogical tool. Which isn’t wrong, but feels inadequate.

‘The Arts Of The Beautiful’ By Etienne Gilson


I had always Gilson described as being a sort of Christian existentialist (people felt the need to add ‘Christian’ because figures like Sartre made their atheism such an important part of both their public image and the problem they attempted to solve). It took me a while to see it until I then read a bit of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, another Catholic thinker (better known as a theologian than a philosopher, though the difference feels hazy to me). Balthasar is a German and Gilson is French, but in terms of how their tendencies towards a sort of existentialism played out, Gilson is very much in the Heidegger mode, concerned with capital ‘B’ Being, whereas Von Balthasar has Sartre’s concern with freedom.

Gilson is attempting to reassert a sort of primacy for beauty. In. formulation of Being, Beauty, and Truth, many times, religious thinkers will put Beauty to use in the service of helping people experience the other two, especially Truth. Gilson seems to have Truth and Beauty emanate more or less equally from Being.

A lot of what he writes in The Arts of the Beautiful seemed to miss the point, to me. He made a mention of something resembling Stendhal Syndrome, and this helped confuse me, because he is not writing for the person who experiences art, but only about making art (in fact, his main point is that art is not a form of knowing, but or making; which doesn’t really make sense for the viewer, I would say). Once you get that, it all, more or less, makes sense.

Ion


Nope, not talking about particles or science, but about the minor dialogue by Plato, wherein Socrates interrogates a rhapsode name Ion on his vocation.

Generally, a rhapsode was someone who memorized an epic poem or myth and was an expert on reciting it. Ion specialized in Homer. He says that he also comments on it, but that doesn’t quite track, not in the least because Socrates’ questioning more or less positions as a sort of idiot savant who is able to recite Homer’s epic poems so well because, in the moment, he is divinely inspired. Socrates shows this by arguing that you could only speak well on, to use one Socrates’ example, horsemanship if you were also an expert horseman. He then, rather meanly, shows up Ion as a bit of dolt, which leads Socrates to conclude that Ion is divinely inspired and, by implication, all such performers who reach the highest levels of their profession.

The Phaedrus


Like the Symposium, I am enamored of The Phaedrus as a work of imaginative literature. Any contemporary writer would be jealous of how he draws and manipulates his characters, exposing them for the reader.

But again, his hatred of rhetoric, as something whose danger as a tool for demagogues makes it too dangerous, cannot be suppressed. And in that, a critique of democracy as something which killed his teacher Socrates.

Poor Quintillian, I see how he felt the need to defend his career from such complaints.

‘Liberalism And Its Discontents’ By Francis Fukuyama


Ten years ago, if you had told me that I would have read this much Fukuyama, I would have laughed at you. Though, I should hedge that ‘this much’ – most of his recent books have been pretty short.

He suggests he is making an argument for classical liberalism, but I would suggest that he’s really making the argument for liberal democracy. I say that because he is not deeply interested in economic issues.

It’s a short and useful read. While not its purpose, the book makes another argument that the American right is unknowingly carrying the banner for postmodernism and French theory, most recently for mimicking Foucault’s theory of power and science in its arguments again mask mandates and vaccines.

Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction


I read this not so much because I wanted to learn about Alexis de Tocqueville (I read Democracy in America many years ago, but could stand to dip into it again), but because I wanted to read something by Harvey Mansfield and this was all the DC Public Library had. My YouTube blackhole led me to Bill Kristol’s channel (Conversations with William Kristol), specifically to an interview with Harvey Mansfield about Leo Strauss. I used to see Kristol all the time; he and I got our coffee at the same dinky coffee/bagel place on the ambiguous border between downtown and Dupont Circle, near the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. It felt like a personal affront. But, he’s anti-Trump and I try to be relatively broad-minded, so I was feeling generous with my time (and also, I like to fall asleep to videos like that). Well, I can still say that Bill is a shallow and tendentious thinker, but he does sometimes like to talk to interesting people are not shallow and tendentious.

So books like these are not really great introductions to either the supposed topics or to the authors of these little things.

Did I learn anything about Harvey Mansfield? That he is not afraid how the ‘liberal’ has been perverted to use it in something closer to it’s traditional sense (though I don’t necessarily agree with his hints at a more comprehensive definition, which somehow fails to primarily be about more or less free markets, rule of law, and respect for civic institutions). That he wants Tocqueville to be respected as a political philosopher, even if the man himself was dismissive of ‘philosophers’ (a fair point by Mansfield). Where he lost me completely was calling France of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s ‘socialist.’ If you’re going to call Louis-Napoleon president and later emperor or a socialist country, you can’t just drop that remark and move on. Back that thing up, please.

The Essential Debate On The Constitution


I put this book on hold on account of Bailyn’s presence as an editor, even after my disappointment in volume of his own writing. Of course, it’s not really about him (his preface is remarkable in its brevity and lack of information), but about reading these late eighteenth century American political writings.

It’s easy to say that, wow, look at how literate and intelligent this discourse was, why can’t we be like that, but I’m certain there were plenty of broadsheets being passed around calling the other side out for scatalogical fixations. And, who knows that a hundred years from now, the four years (thus far?) of Trump’s reign may be collected in volumes depicting the debates of the age as a discourse between Ross Douthat’s melancholy concern trolling and David Brooks’ hand wringing exercises?

The argument in favor of ratification are well known due to the canonization of the Federalist Papers, some of which, like Federalists 10 and 30, are collected here (to the editors’ credit, they try not to simply collect Federalists, but to find other documents in support of ratification).

The arguments against are probably less well known, or, at least, were less well known to me. The rightness of the ratificationist cause was taught as an uncomplicated truth in my schooling. The writings of ‘Brutus,’ whose identity is not known for certain, I believe, part of the so-called ‘Anti-Federalist Papers,’ are particularly interesting and well written. That said, arguments that a federal government would take away state independence feel overwrought when states feel so presently empowered to pass whatever racist and discriminatory laws that their White majorities might want.

What struck me most was how suddenly prescient the warnings about the Supreme Court feel now. They feel almost prophetic, especially when you think that they were written before Wilson and Marshall instituted judicial review. The opportunity for unsupervised and unaccountable judges was well recognized then. I will admit to a certain ambivalence. I find judicial elections unnerving, because its feels like justice is vulnerable to being warped to support re-election.

American Scripture: Making The Declaration Of Independence


Described as a bit of a broadside against Garry Wills’ earlier book on the subject, rather than situate the Declaration within a pan-European intellectual environment, with special attention to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Maier is more interested in a strictly American context. The state and local proclamations that preceded it, for example. She is not terribly interested in the philosophical background of it (though she is interested in the philosophical implications).

If I’m honest, I found Wills to be a better writer. This is partly because I wasn’t too interested in the straight revolutionary history that makes up the first third or so the book.

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic


This wonderful, if sometimes clunkily written, book is a series of long digressions on figures of deep influence to the intellectual leadership of the American Revolution and America’s founding. He begins with a discussion of two lesser known Revolutionary figures, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, who wrote stridently ‘Deist’ (really, atheist) works. Theoretically, it is about the influence of Deism on the founders, but really, it’s about making sometimes tendentious, but always interesting arguments for another layer of philosophical forebears beneath accepted intellectual forefathers like John Locke.

So how does that work in practice? A long discussion of Epicurean cosmology and how it (supposedly) informed the intellectual climate that directly influenced Revolution figures (mostly Jefferson and Franklin; though this also undercuts the idea that these were foundational, since in their learning and interests, they were sui generis). Spinoza is brought up early and often and is taken to be a key figure whose ideas were behind all the most influential ideas of those most directly connected to the ideas of the Revolution.

I’m not sure that Stewart was all that deeply interested in writing a book about the intellectual history of the American Revolution, but rather that it made an easier sell on his actual book, a fascinating look at two marginal figures of the American Revolution combined with an expansive view of the influence of Epicurean physics and places Spinoza at the center of the Enlightenment (yes, he makes a point towards the end that Spinoza is an ‘early modern,’ but in context of the whole book, he is clearly shifting the Enlightenment backwards a good bit, moving it’s beginning to Spinoza and Hobbes).

Stewart is himself a materialist of the Spinozan variety (he wrote an earlier book about the Dutch-Iberian philosopher), I would hazard by his good natured glee when writing about it. I don’t mind a position, in that respect, especially when it is joyful in its advocacy, rather than disrespectful in it.

I enjoy listening to (and usually disagreeing with) some of the podcasts and YouTube videos put out by the gloriously titled “James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.” I will give them credit for introducing me to the philosopher Daniel N. Robinson and also for aiming to influence the legal community in a specific conservative direction. Unlike the Federalist Society, which is really just a political organization dressed up in judicial clothes, the James Wilson Institute has a very specific legal philosophy around natural rights, which also puts it in opposition to the current trend of pretending to be originalist (natural right theory is not orginalism).

I bring this up because Steward waits until the book is nearly done to bring James Wilson (a Founding Father who is not obscure, but, let’s just say, sits in the second tier) up and goes on to describe him as: avaricious, socially ambitious, lavishly educated

Ha.