Sunday, April 8, 2007

Andrew Sullivan -- Straussian?

Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris have continued the exchange that I blogged about earlier. To be honest, I find it difficult to untangle Sullivan's thought. He writes and writes and writes, but he seems unable to develop anything resembling an argument for his position -- rather, he believes what he wants to believe, and rational thought doesn't enter into it much.

That said, Sullivan does develop on interesting strain of thought: he speculates that perhaps people are hard-wired for religious faith, or something of the sort. Now, as an argument for the truth of religion, this is transparently specious. The mere fact that we are hard-wired to tend to believe something doesn't make that thing true. And, predictably, Harris make short work of Sullivan's argument.

Now Sullivan has a response. He doesn't actually try to defend the notion that religion is true because faith is, allegedly, programmed in at some level. Rather, he argues that, since faith exists, it ought to be tamed and channelled:

I argued that because we may be programmed by evolution for faith, faith may be intrinsic to being human and therefore something we should engage rather than deny. You make the solid point that we are also programmed by evolution for rape. Does that make rape defensible? Of course not, even though, as you point out, rape is a very effective and very natural way to disseminate DNA. But my response would not be to say that the evolutionary impulse to inseminate should be resisted entirely. I'd argue that the sex rive should be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. So rape cedes to consensual DNA dissemination. Similarly, the drive for faith needs to be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. Fundamentalism cedes to toleration. Hence my insistence on maintaining the humility apropriate for such immense claims about the meaning of everything; and hence my support for a faith that is live-and-let-believe in its social manifestation.

OK, so let me get this straight. Sullivan isn't saying that faith is true. He's saying that since faith is hard-wired in, people might as well believe something relatively harmless. I suppose so -- I mean if people have to believe in a Great Sky Being, far better for them to believe in one who commands them to eat their vegetables, exercise regularly, and generally be nice to people, rather than one who commands them to Kill The Infidels! But so what?

I never really made much sense out of Leo Strauss, but isn't this his argument? That there are certain higher truths that only the enlightened elite are ready for while the masses have to console themselves with comforting lies. It's the "you can't handle the truth!" theory. So at at the end of the day, Sully seems to concede that atheism is more-likely-than-not true, but since people are going to believe something, he wants them not to be fundamentalists.

I never took him to be a Straussian.

Oh, and by the way: Happy Easter!

UPDATE: A perceptive but anonymous commenter tells me that I've got Strauss all wrong. Well, I said I never made much sense out of him, so it wouldn't surprise me if my commenter is right. So instead of calling Sully a Straussian, I'll call him a "You can't handle the truther."


Anonymous said...

I think you're right about this exchange -- the longer it goes, the clearer it becomes that Sully doesn't know what he's talking about. All he has, all he ever had, were rhetorical tropes that have largely withered away into the incoherence from which they came.

But you're wrong about Strauss. Strauss never claims that a philosophical elite ought rule by deception. I don't blame you for repeating this, but there's a reason why no one who claims that Strauss thought this ever actually quotes Strauss saying it -- that's because he didn't say it nor is there any reason to think he even thought it.

Strauss did think there was an unbridgeable chasm between the truth claims of philosophy (or science) and the truth claims of religious faith. The person of faith can never covince the philosopher or his truth, but neither can the philosopher ever convince the person of faith. The more Sully tries to do this, the less Straussian he seems.

Strauss did think that the efforts of philosophers would inevitably collide with the demands of of political life. That's because philosophers, if they are to truly engage in philosophy, must remain open to any and all truth claims (including the truth claim that there is no truth); whereas, political life requires that the truth of certain things is settled (that all men are created equal, for example). Philosophers are no longer required to drink hemlock if they challange the pieties of the city (Socrates), nor must they flee for their lives while their books are burned (Hobbes), but there is intense pressure to conform one's views to the prevailing truth claims of the public. It was (and perhaps is) under the threat of persecution that philosophers wrote their books in such a way so as not to appear to offend the pieties of their political communities, while still conveying some sense of their genuine views 'between the lines.' That philosophers wrote this way is a controversial claim, but for Strauss, this is a method for interpreting texts. It has nothing to do with how to govern.

Sully has some vaguely favorable things to say about Strauss in his book, but his main philosophical inspiration, for the moment anyway, seems to be Oakeshott.

cheerful iconoclast said...

You are probably right -- I SAID I didn't make much sense of Strauss, didn't I? So perhaps I should say that Sullivan appears to be taking a position crudely and falsely associated with Strauss.

In any case, I am glad to know I'm getting a few readers at least, and I hope you will continue to read this blog and I invite further comments.

Anonymous said...

Sullivan's has been posting some reader comments on his blog the last day or two related to his "debate" with Harris. Some of these I thought were quite interesting. But this exchange is quickly approaching the point that these exchanges always reach: "I know I can't convince you of the truth of my faith, but I feel and I know it" versus "I glad such a feeling makes you feel good, but you have not given me an reason to believe any of it."

On Strauss, you might want to check out books by Steven Smith and/or Michael and Catherine Zuckert.