Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Writing over at the Corner, Michael Ledeen brings to our attention this interview with Paul Berman, author of the worthy book Terror and Liberalism.

Ledeen especially notes this passage:

...the liberal idea comes at a terrible cost in political understanding. In the pre-modern age the rational and the irrational could both be understood. It was possible to think and to speak about such things as the soul in political terms, and to think about distortions and perversions of the soul. This became impossible after the rise of liberalism. Political language became impoverished. If you read Plato, his idea of tyranny is very different from a modern liberal idea of tyranny. For Plato, tyranny is not a system based on bad institutions. It’s a perversion of the soul. The tyrant is someone who has lost the proper discipline over his soul and so is lost to his appetites and desires. There is even a fleeting passage or two where Plato mentions the tyrant might succumb to an appetite for cannibalism. This is amazing to see because it means Plato has already identified a cult of death as a temptation, one of the possible perversions of the soul that can take place. This is exactly the kind of thing that—after the rise of liberal ideas—it became harder for people to understand. We took all the questions of the soul, and of virtue, and of the perversions of the soul, and removed them to a corner reserved for religion or psychology. In a different corner we assigned political questions. In the political world, just as in the economic world, we wanted to accord everyone rationality, so we took all the questions of irrationality and put them in a different place entirely. It became very difficult to conceive that people might be behaving in irrational ways or might have succumbed to the allure of a cult of death.

I’ve long thought Berman was one of the handful of thoughtful leftists worth paying attention to. (Remember that Berman was one of the few on the Left who broke with the party line about Nicaragua in the mid-1980s.) But doesn’t Berman realize that by embracing this critique of modern liberalism, he is halfway to becoming . . . gasp! . . a neoconservative?    

Discussions - 17 Comments

I am on my way to the library to pick this up. This is a terrific interview!

I am struck by dissonance between the message copied above, regarding our naivete about irrationality and this passage:

Totalitarian movements are fundamentally ideological movements – they are driven by ideas. The ideas they are driven by are modern ideas, even if they are presented as exotic and are clothed in seventh century Muslim robes. If the ideas are modern we can argue against them, just as we could argue against fascists and communists. Winning the argument is actually the only victory that can be obtained. We are facing a mass movement with a huge number of adherents.

Am I missing something, or does Berman contradict himself? As a liberal, I identify with the fundamental assumption that most people and systems are rational, even if their conclusions do not agree with mine. There is even a certain distorted reason to the cult, if one takes the trouble to learn it.

I have maintained that the problem on the right is the assumption that understanding the logic of a strange (maybe hostile) system is equivalent to condoning that system. Thus, for instance, we should never investigate the U.S. contribution to the problem of terrorism because that is the same as supporting terrorists. The liberals that I know understand that we can both hate (and fight) terrorism and also be open about our previous actions that may have led to its growth. I am not sure where Berman sits on this issue.

Thanks for this. Berman is always interesting.

By the way, I’m all for good partisan debate, but the lame humor about labels (liberal, neoconservative) gets in the way of a careful reading of what Berman has to say.

Given the volume of responses to this post, I may be talking to air, but it occurs to me that I have stumbled upon an issue that may have been obvious to many before it became obvious to me.

As a psychologist, I investigate and explicate the laws of human behavior. We engage in this enterprise under the umbrella of science and of empiricism. Many of my opponents on this blog have articulated a holistic disdain for science in general , and of psychologiy specifically, as well as of Secular Humanism.

Is it the case that Berman appeals because he is a "liberal" who allows for a sector of the world with no humanism, no laws of behavior, and no empiricism? That is, Berman supports the "Madman" approach? The one where anyone who sells his oil too high, or who suddenly bites the hand that feeds him (and trains and equips him) is suddenly deemed outside the world of reason, or God, and therefore, of reasonable consideration? If so, and if I am correct, then Berman appeals because he legitimizes throwing out the rules, and the conventions, and the laws, and instead throwing in the weapons, and the pre-emptive strikes, and the anything-is-possible-so-let’s-beat-him-to-the-punch approach.

This is not a new argument on this blog, but it IS new coming from a liberal.

Fung, you must have forgot the parts towards the end where he decries the "romanticization of ruthlessness," particularly on the part of the Reagan administration and the present "neo-cons" (his critique of our sloppy use of the term neo-con is priceless, BTW). And indeed, a large part of his critique of Bush’s war-effort is that it hasn’t been conducted enough on the plane of ideas--that is, the Baathists and Islamists have ideas that have to be publicly argued against, even if they are of questionable rationality by liberal interest-maximization standards. That is, the ideologically-motivated irrationality of sectors of the world requires us to talk their populations more, not less. Berman also seems close to Leo Strauss’ view that concepts like "tyranny" and "nihilism" are in some sense scientific ones, and should not be dismissed on "they’re empirically untestable!" grounds. No surprise, I disagree w/ several of Berman’s criticisms of the Iraq war, but this is a must read. What I would give for more leftists of such caliber!

If you ask me the evil influence of Plato is nothing new. In this regard I would cite The Open Society and Its Ennemies by Karl Popper. My critique of modern libertalism is that in the end it isn’t much different from modern neo-conservatism. To be trite about it, each side is just making fotenotes. The "guardians" of each society rail against the rationality of the individual. Arguing that liberals have just rediscovered Plato is so nonsensical that I should think it would not need to be discussed.

If the tyrant for Plato is someone who has lost the proper discipline over his soul and so is lost to his appetites and desires...explain to me how the tyrant for Liberals is not someone who has lost the proper discipline over his soul and so is lost to his appetites....Don’t they have the proper invectives for describing this? Do I really have to remind liberals that Greed or Selfishness exist, and that this is a bad thing because in some way it shows a disordered soul?... Of course not... The tyrannically greedy business man is always a favorite target for the liberal "guardians"...

Of course...if by Liberals you mean Classical Liberals...or Open Society Liberals...or Millian liberals...then there is no room to argue that this group hasn’t banished Plato. Certainly this group of liberals arrising mostly from Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy has the deepest respect for Empiricism...and the least tolerance for the sort of grouping into metal classes encouraged by the "guardians" of the left and right.

Instead of saying that by rejecting Plato the liberal idea has came at a terrible cost in terms of political understanding, the popper liberals say that rejecting Plato is necessary for the flourishing of the open society, and the attending repression of the cult of victimization put foward by the respective Guardians.

Fung it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is this dissonance... The paragraph on liberalism loosing the anti-Popper. The statement in a different paragraph that "Totalitarian moverments are fundamentally ideological movements-they are driven by ideas." That is the summation of Karl Popper’s "The Open Society and its ennemies." Can you guess who ennemy number 1 is?

Ennemy number 1 is is essentially the ideas of Plato, that are foundationally responsible for all Totalitarian movements...In fact addopting a Platonic view point I am unsure it would be possible to rail against any islamic jihad...or islamic theocracy. In a sense Islam is a very Platonic religion...submission to Islam is the only means to have a properly ordered soul...there will be peace once all souls have made peace with Allah and cast away sinfull appetites and desires. An islamic nation exists to maintain an islamic culture. An Islamic culture is best maintained by Guardians and a philosopher King or Caliphate governed under the principles laid out in the Koran... Islam doesn’t believe in loaning out money for interest...because it is bad for the soul... everything is clothed in terms of what is good and bad for the short one could say that this platonic world view is the simplest way to understand Islam. Men are naturally sinfull unless they become muslim their souls will not be properly ordered because they will not be in submission to Allah. If your soul is not properly ordered then you are a tyrant because without Allah you are without discipline and lost to your appetites. American culture is precisely indicative of this disorderedness...americans are lost to appetites...they are not in submission they are without discipline. Jews are also without discipline and lost to appetites...Jews are also cannibals(in a Merchant of Venice sense)...that is the capitalist loaning of money for interest that they have historically been a part of has stolen food from the mouths of the this sense they consume other peoples...they feed on the arabs...unless Jews and americans can come to order their souls in accordance with submission to Allah they are forever bound to the alternative...which is tyrannical and thus a scorge on the middle east and the land of believers. The United States must leave the arab world and the muslim people...because americans have disordered souls and are thus tyrants...Jews must also be wipped from the face of the earth for the same reason. Jihad is the duty of all muslims who are tired of turning the other cheek when it comes to being canabalized by the tyrants!

John, I don’t know my "Popperian liberalism" as well as I ought to, (love his phil of sci stuff, BTW) but I do know that Popper was right about Plato being an inveterate enemy of liberal dmcy, IF Plato meant his "best regime" presented in the Republic to be taken as a model that good political actors ought to try to implement. BUT HE DIDN’T!!! (Cf. Bloom’s interpretive essay, p.407-411, and a score of other Strauss-influenced scholars on this. I can give you Platonic chapter and verse if you want.) And interestingly enough, Strauss was led to this conclusion through the commentaries of philosophers who actually had to live under Islam’s theocratic rules. That is, perhaps the most "Popperian" minds in medeival Dar-es-Islam turned to Plato’s works for sustenance and refuge! Hmmm...........

But as to Popper’s quote and the issue of virtue-promotion, I will say that while we cannot go back to the stringent polis-standards of virtue that Plato promotes in various dialogues, this idea that politics ought to separate itself from the health/virtue of the soul is suicide. I speak with all seriousness of suicide. If our fellow citizens conclude that Authenticity means never commiting oneself to marriage, or that Keeping it Real means being ready to act like a gangster when it suits one, or that Las Vegas and Greenwhich Village are the real cultural capitals of the U.S., then it will only be a matter of time before the U.S. falls apart. There are scores and scores of major works of political thought that recognize that preserving liberal demcy requires a certain level of virtue. While your first comment would seem amenable to this line of argument, your Popper appears to equate the timeless truth that virtue must be politically promoted with totalitarianism.

Vegas and LA being the fountainheads of poker mania are the true cultural capitals of America.... Or perhaps the ashbrook center and Ashland, Ohio and a bunch of other enclaves are culture capitals. I suppose this is also the case.

There are a lot of cultures in America...and some of these are quite toxic. I am not really in favor of a young mother choosing vodka and slots over carring for her a large extent I agree that a lot of people have become tyrants in the platonic sense. I call this tyranny just as plato does...only I rephrase it in terms of choice and responsibility. The addict has lost the ability to choose...this isn’t a free person... perhaps a large percentage of people are unfree...

But I reject the timeless truth that virtue must be politically promoted, and I do equate this with Totalitarianism. In its place I support a federalism of cultures...a market place of sorts. Perhaps it is simply a market place where one addiction may be traded for another and choice is the ultimate illusion, perhaps our character is our propensity towards various appetites...and ultimately our destiny. Lincoln in his brillance asks why one man should pat himself on the back for not having a vice he is not inclined towards...But if choice is possible it isn’t possible in an environment in which Virtue is impossed from above...In this sense I am decidedly Lockeian...decidely liberal. The promotion of Virtue is defacto totalitarianism because it is always the promotion of a certain virtue, to the exclusion of others. This is I think the message of Mill’s On Liberty. Europe was able to stay free and advance because there existed in Europe many different governments each promoting a different message while China with huge advantages squandered these by stiffling human potentiality out of cultural fear and strictures. Islam itself having the lead on medival Europe squanders this by virtue of its totalitarian religious structure.

So while I don’t believe in the promotion of Virtue(which is always specific) and thus eventually totalitarian...I do believe in the promotion of Choice (liberty/autonomy) which reserves to the individual the great responsibility of deliberating upon competing ethical systems and ideas/goals and trajectories.

I agree with Carl and would go a half step further. We can’t really mean to understand virtue as FOR liberal democracy. It’s good for its own sake etc. That’s why I’m not QUITE a neocon.

Virtue is good for its own sake, but only for those who understand why it is good. Otherwise we are simply saying that obediance is good for its own sake. For the classical liberal we must drop promotion of "virtue" which degenerates into opposing sides represented by self-titled "guardians" of virtue going to war for the bounty of impossing obedience on the masses. In a sense the classical liberal does go straight to the heart of the issue and it is a mischaricterization to say that this group doesn’t want to free the souls(we would call them minds) from addictions appetites or desires. In fact politics can’t seperate itself from questions concerning the possibility of individual autonomy, reason or liberty and personal responsibility.

Honor your father and mother is totalitarian? Always treat women with respect? And of course the soul doesn’t equal the mind and the attempt to make that identification deprives the allegedly autonomous individual of many of the good things of life. Its impossible even to imagine a mind not animated by desire in some sense or another. Objectivists are so unerotic!
(That’s why they give objective tests. They’re one-right-answer kind of guys.)

John, I am appalled and fascinated by your comments. Much one could respond to or ask about further, but I must stress that the verb I use is "promote," which implies the verbs "persuade" and "educate." I unambiguously support the 1st amendment right to free speech, but I do think that educational establishments, even our public ones, can have the guts to come out and say, and outside the empirical sciences, that certain things they teach are simply true and simply authoritative. Citizens may exercise their freedom to say they are not true, of course, but admitting that they have this right in no way admits that the truths are not truths. Jefferson’s promotion of a curriculum with fairly particular political teachings at the U of Virginia, indicate that this conception of truth/virtue promotion was accepted by the most Lockean of the major founders. A lot more to say here, but honestly, you’re exactly the sort of person who could benefit from a careful reading of book VIII of the Republic, wherein the soul that elevates Choice without Ever Really Choosing is displayed in all its colorful sadness. And if this soul thinks as yours does, he will add that Choice is probably an illusion! According to you, our situation is like that described in the old Velvet Undergound song, "I’m Set Free": I’m set free to find a new illusion... Better, your stance is like that of the Libertarian Sociobiologist, who simultaneously worships Choice but thinks it is an illusion, a personage Dr. Lawler describes at length his latest and very useful virtue-promoting book. I’m not trying to offend, John, but I am amazed by your stance.

"Honor your father and mother" is a command of the bible. It is also good policy and to a large extent rational...everyone has familly ties and connections...and there isn’t much need to politically promote this, but there are some cases when honoring your father and mother is irrational...the view that "Honoring your father and mother" is a universal truth or virtue is incorrect. A biblical example of this is Luke 9:62 when Jesus says: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

the exhortation to "always treat women with respect" is a good one...but if one respects all women equally one ends up disrespecting those most worthy of it. Respect isn’t a right it must be earned. An exhortation to unearned respect is totalitarian. Respect requires descrimination. In addition to this what one culture may teach as constituting "always treat women with respect" may be quite draconian and even oppresive. Certainly Islam believes in "treating women with respect" but one could easily see that the universal imposition of this virtue/value would result in what we consider to be cruel and oppresive treatment. In other words on an individual basis there is nothing wrong with treating women with respect but when translated into political action it can quickly become rather totalitarian.

The soul may not equal the mind...but the mind is the rational instrument of the ego...and I have no qualms about identifying the mind as the proper seat of the ego...(a somewhat platonic sentiment). Objectivists do not immagine a mind unanimated by desire and passion...the ego is the passionate selfish center of character. Selfishness properly understood is a virtue, that is the natural desire to do ones best in all things. Talk of the soul implies some element that countinues to exist after death...and in this sense implies that this life should be lived for the sake of the afterlife eternal life, which I presume could be seen as rational supposition if an afterlife exists.

I, on the other hand, appreciate what John has to say, though my relatively paltry reading of Plato is restricted more to the psychologically relevant than the political.

It is amazing how the argument comes around again to the nature of truth, as opposed to the TRUTH.

In comment 6, John describes a totalitarian, fundamentalist Islam that is easy to recognize and to abhor. But, when we turn that glass onto fundamentalist Christianity, and substitute "secular humanists," or "liberals" for Islam’s "Jews," then all heck breaks loose, because of course Islam has missed the Truth, and Christianity has found it.

Peter’s attempts to provide timelessly "True" virtues are good examples of the myopia of the absolutist. "Honor Thy father and mother" works better, for instance, for mom and dad than it does for the kids, while a person who chooses to honor all humans out of personal integrity and biophelia could be seen as a deviant in a paternalistic society. "Respect all women" invites a similar critique. In addition to John Lewis’s examples invoking cultural relativity, we might wonder, in the year 2006, why women deserve or demand any more or less respect than do men? Why single them out at all? Truth changes with time!

My point is that a more universalist (Not relativist) approach avoids the paradox of one fundamentalist, totalitarian culture abhoring another one with similar structure, and only slightly different content. By insisting on soul in addition to mind, you then insist on a single God in your own image, and thus a single Truth, thus committing the same errors as our totalitarian Islamic friends.

In all my comments, you may read pysche for soul. As used by Plato and other pagans, the Greek word psuche, best translated as "soul" does not necessarily imply an mainly refers to fact that the self is more than calculative mind.

I don’t have a problem with "promoting" "educating" "persuading" of even "advocating" Vitue. A muslim person or a christian person can live in and be a good citizen of our republic. I welcome them and challenge them to live the good life by personal example. I personally maintain some romantic attachement to chivalry despite possible sociological questions concerning its status as useful or proper....such questions I believe opperate better on a political level than a personal one. I have no problems with Aristotles psuche as laid forth in De Anima(I believe?). If you really want to talk about the soul...that is fine. Plato I believe says that the body is the tomb of the soul. But I digress...

The line I draw is a distinction between the promotion of virtue between individuals(such as we are doing or do in other cases on this blog and in daily life with friends when we approve or disaprove of behavior and hold people to account.) and the promotion of virtue on a larger scale that is...its "political promotion". To make it simple: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Thus I supported Dr. Moore’s (whose history classes I inhabited when he was at Ashland) suggestion that women could make men more virtueous by doing more to reward virtue and punish crude behavior, but I oppose the notion that the adultress(or adulturer) should be stoned...or to take less of a softball for myself...that porn should be banned(provided it is not displayed in public).

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