Save Us I: Abject and Garbage, Research Time, 10/12/2015

Your political priorities have a lot to do with what you think of human nature. What we’re capable of, and what’s impossible for us to do. 

The message, common in American political discussions
after horrifying gun violence incidents, that the only
defence against a crazy person with a gun is your own,
preferably bigger, gun, has a genuinely interesting
philosophical idea behind it. It's that humanity can
never become mature enough to solve conflicts
without violence, and your only defence from
violence is your own readiness and ability to kill.
G the libertarian once wrote me, “Don’t you believe in human nature?” He implied that human nature was inherently violent, selfish, animalistic, cruel. That’s why governments could never be trusted to ensure people’s welfare or a fair society, because leaders and officials would abuse their power. That’s why people needed to stockpile as many guns as possible, to defend themselves against governments and other groups who’d suppress and destroy them.

Inherent. Think about what that means. Immutable. Essential. Unchanging. Unchangeable. That’s how we’ve historically thought about human nature. No matter what we think that nature is, it is what it is, was, and always will be.

It’s taking humanity a long time to understand that change is possible. Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze. Me. We still need to learn the message.

Different civilizations have had different conceptions of what human nature is. Reading Leo Strauss on human nature is pretty slippery, because Natural Right and History doesn’t quite take an explicit stand on the subject* once he gets into the different epochs of this concept.

* And this is weird. I started reading Strauss thinking he was going to be the centrepiece of modern neoconservatism, but his own writing seems quite detached from the politics of his time. I’ll have to get hold of some of Shadia Drury’s work about Strauss, as she’s the primary source for this argument.

It’s going to take us a while to get through this. But it’ll be interesting. 

So Strauss spends a chapter examining the ancient Greek concept of human nature, and its political implications. His sources are mainly the philosophical writings of Plato and Cicero. 

The short version of this whole argument, exegesis, interpretation, and riff of overlong sentences and dry language goes like this.

Many heroic Greek thinkers have a disturbing tendency
to get themselves killed by the local statesmen.
Ancient Greek culture’s predominant philosophy culminated in Stoicism, of which Cicero was the most famous and politically powerful.** Skepticism was at the heart of this philosophical tradition, but so was political engagement.

** That didn’t stop him from getting killed by the imperial army after falling foul of the rulers. Killing your opponents has a much longer history in politics than peaceful compromise. At least when states are involved.

Because Cicero’s Stoicism began with Socrates. Socrates was the ultimate negative philosopher, whose method – when he was alive – was assaulting people and their beliefs, so that they could be torn down. Socrates believed that real knowledge of political and moral truths would be invulnerable to his dialectical attacks. If they weren’t, well then watch your world burn.

Plato developed this basic idea in a more profound direction that wouldn’t necessarily make enemies of your entire community. In Plato’s hand (or rather his pen), Socrates’ aggressive skepticism became a philosophy of aporias. 

There’s still no answer to the problem of whether you have knowledge of the good, but at the end of any of Plato’s books, you understand the question much better. You remain perplexed about what’s right, but you're not confused anymore because you understand the concepts around the problem. 

Aporetic thinking had a huge resurgence in philosophy during the late 20th century, particularly with Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray. But ancient Greek society developed aporetic thinking in the direction of Stoicism. 

I'm coming to the conclusion that this is probably a
better analogue in popular culture to what kind of
person Socrates was than I was ever taught in class.
In this model, so says Strauss, there is a form of perfect and true justice. But this genuine justice is strictly in the domain of the divine. Humans are corrupt and can’t access true justice.

Humans aren’t completely debased, though. Depending on how you interpret the idea, which for the Stoics was an open debate, humanity could achieve a diluted form of divine justice. The concept of human justice as a dilution of the divine was an acknowledgement of our essential corruption. Yes, it’s something like divine justice, but not. The best we can do.

Or perhaps it was a secondary form of justice, different in character from the divine, but related to it insofar as it was justice at all. The secondary form of justice has a purpose, however: uplift. 

Humanity could pursue justice, and in doing so, repair our corrupted nature. The pursuit of justice wasn’t a compromise, but a route to restore our lost divinity. To be continued. . . . 

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