Elitist nihilism? For Straussians only?

At least, that's how the philosophy is summarized by Strauss expert Shadia Drury, whose views are discussed in an excellent post by Jon Rowe. While Rowe disagrees with Drury's assessment of Straussians, he acknowledges a Straussian tendency which I've always found disturbing:

The Truth is not a Pearl, but rather is, or at least often is, harsh and something that most ordinary persons cannot handle unadulterated, because it can be so unpleasant. The wise philosopher receives intense pleasure from discovering the Truth even if what he discovers is horrifying.

The underlying point of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was that nihilism had trickled down to the masses, but it wasn't real nihilism, it was nihilism without the abyss or nihilism American style. It had all the fun of relativity of the Truth and freedom from objective traditional morality, but none of the horrific implications.

Bloom simply wanted people to understand the implications of nihilism, i.e., the abyss. And if they were "capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling" as Drury puts it, then they could be true philosophers. But Bloom's point was that the overwhelming majority of people -- even the overwhemling majority of his brilliant Ivy League students -- couldn't do this. So Bloom's exercise was to force his students and others to confront certain reductios of nihilism. And he discovered almost none of them were honest enough or willing to accept the logical conclusions of nihilism.

Therefore, certain knowledge should be kept off limits ("nihilism for the elite"?):

the Straussians genuinely believed that keeping nihilism confined to the wise few was better for society, in a sort of utilitarian sense (though they weren't utilitarians). It was, I sincerely believe, out of genuine concern for society. This is important: While they believe that Nietzsche and Heidegger were correct as to the ultimate nihilistic nature of reality, such a "Truth" could not be used to found political orders. And indeed, such a Truth gaining wider public acceptance made Weimar Germany more receptive to Nazism.
It's a mischaracterization of the Straussians to call them moral nihilists, for their morality is horrified by nihilism, even though they tend towards a sort of brutal honesty about nihilism which demagogues might characterize as championing nihilism:
...the Straussians genuinely believed that keeping nihilism confined to the wise few was better for society, in a sort of utilitarian sense (though they weren't utilitarians). It was, I sincerely believe, out of genuine concern for society.
Such genuine concern is not true nihilism.


But neither is it enlightened thinking. I am reminded of a previous post in which I discussed possible collusion between certain conservatives and deconstructionists in championing an anti-Enlightenment philosophy.

Jon Rowe's post reminded me that this collusion might revolve around a common core.

Disturbing as it might be to acknowledge the dark side (I find it tough to ignore), I think that attempting to restrict it to a certain tiny elite is far worse.

The idea that truth is too dangerous for the masses has a poor historical track record.

My own thoughts about nihilism are beyond this post, but I certainly have years of practical experience. I think that nihilism is one of the dark sides of truth, but I also think truth includes a lot more. (At the risk of oversimplifying, it's not an either/or choice. Light is not possible without dark.)

posted by Eric on 11.18.05 at 10:37 AM










Comments

In his The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote:
"If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, "If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?," they either remain silent or reply that the British should never had been there in the first place." p. 26.

"Should" never have been there? Where do these cretins get their "should"? If morality is relative, then the British or the Germans or anybody else with the biggest battalions can be anywhere they damn please. Might is right, and we're reduced to "the good old rule, the simple plan -- they shall take who have the power and shall keep who can."

Strauss -- extremely interesting style the more I read of him. Funy, at one time, the two top philosophers admired by the National Review orbit of the American Right were Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. Frank S. Meyer was highly influenced by Voegelin, and Thomas Szasz admired him. He was a Christian philosopher who believed that "Gnosticism" was the root of today's evils. There was also Richard Weaver, a Christian Platonist who saw nominalism as the root of modern evils. The styles of it all! I don't know what the Birchers think of Strauss. They have their own esoteric wisdom, centered around the Conspiracy. The styles of it all! And then, in Europe, there is Alain de Benoist and his Nouvelle Ecole. The styles of it all! Profound in the extreme.

Eric Scheie wrote:
"My own thoughts about nihilism are beyond this post, but I certainly have years of practical experience. I think that nihilism is one of the dark sides of truth, but I also think truth includes a lot more. (At the risk of oversimplifying, it's not an either/or choice. Light is not possible without dark.)"

I have always thought of Wanda and Dawn as complementary opposites, though I have been thinking and writing much more in the style of Dawn lately.

I should ("should") mention also, re my first comment, that, by that standard, most of the Hindus don't belong in India either, as they arrived with the Aryan invasion circa 1500 B.C.. And where did the original Indus Valley inhabitants, they who built Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro, come from? All of history is a history of migrations and conquests. If all is relative, then who is to say that an earlier conquest is better than a later one? Or vice versa?

Thanks. Just to point out my own shortcomings, I made a typo while copying that passage of Closing which you reproduced.

It should have been (ironically the clause I couldn't copy right):

"British should never haVe been" instead of "haD been...."

We bloggers (or at least me) are in desperate need of editors.

Jon Rowe   ·  November 18, 2005 5:42 PM

Jon Rowe:

You don't have to apologize for your typos. If you had a dime for every one of mine....

Typos not only don't bother me, they remind me that I'm not alone. (I'm plagued by my own typos -- many of which make me look moronic! I cannot stop typing the word "surprise" as "suprise" and I don't know why.....) Ideas are never marred by typos, though, and while I understand why clarity and appearances are important, whenever I see someone throwing in an attack on a typo amidst a disagreement with an idea, I suspect either insecurity, or a desire to win at debating. The desire to win a debate may be natural enough, but it gets in the way of examining ideas, and attacks on typos are often precursors to snide, ad hominem attacks. While this is all normal and expected in the course of any debate, debating itself gets in the way of the open exchange of ideas (probably much to the delight of the emerging coalition of NeoNihilists who'd impose their will on the rest of us).

Would it be bigoted of me to ask whether deconstructionists have a penchant for nitpicking over typos? (How about Straussians, then?)

Eric Scheie   ·  November 19, 2005 9:24 AM

Wanda vs. Dawn on Nietzsche: Did he go insane because he stared into the Abyss too long [Wanda]? Or because he saw the Beatific Vision of the Goddess (which his atheism had not prepared him for) [Dawn]?


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