An Email to Christopher Titmuss

[I wrote the following email to Christopher on the winter solstice shortly after he had agreed on the phone to give the talk. It provides a condensed explanation of the ideas being explored in the series.]

Hi Christopher,

This is just a quick note to confirm the telephone conversation where we agreed that you would give a talk on Tuesday 25th March at 7pm in the Bodhi Garden as part of our Studies in Peace and Wisdom series, looking at aspects of our western philosophy that could be driving us into wars. Tuesday 25th is the Tuesday after the Brighton DFP finishes on Easter Sunday 23rd. We can talk about content and format closer to the time.

[End of Quick Note: the rest is for your amusement—my attempts at making some kind of sense.]

I am particularly pleased that you are available as you were an inspiration for the series—do you remember the conversation you, me, Kate and Richard had some years ago after a retreat at the Bodhi Garden? I remember you explaining how angry peace activists often are—it was quite an ‘aha’ for me.

In the following I outline some of the ideas I am pushing around at the moment. They aren’t terribly balanced or structured, just as they come out.

The Neoconservatives

I am reading up on the neoconservatives at the moment—and it is fascinating. Have you looked into this? The movement is based on Leo Strauss’s philosophy and Shadia Drury has been studying Strauss and the movement for many years—her main work which I am reading, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss was published in 1988. Here is what she says in a 2004 article:

There is a certain irony in the fact that the chief guru of the neoconservatives is a thinker who regarded religion merely as a political tool intended for the masses but not for the superior few. Leo Strauss, the German Jewish emigre who taught at the University of Chicago almost until his death in 1973, did not dissent from Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the people; but he believed that the people need their opium. He therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit.

The more you dig into this the more certain patterns today become clearer. Strauss seemed to believe that perpetual war was needed to stave off decay and decadence. The key to the Straussian project is that philosophy has to be read carefully to pick out its true meaning, so, for example, Thrasymachus’ amoralism really speaks for Plato in the Republic according to Strauss. Drury starts the 2005 intro to The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss thus:

When The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss was published in 1988, it astonished the academic community (including many of Strauss’s students) because the analysis it presented of Strauss’s political ideas was radically at odds with his reputation in the academy. The book painted a clear but disturbing picture of Strauss’s political thought, which was based exclusively on his published works. It provided extensive textual evidence to show that, contrary to received opinion, Strauss was not a traditional conservative nor a quiet interpreter of old texts, but a representative of a new brand of rabid, radical, nihilistic, and postmodern conservatism. Instead of being a defender of religion and a critic of moral relativism, the book revealed that Strauss as an atheist and a moral nihilist who advocated the use of religion, morality and family values as useful political tools by which to placate and manipulate the masses. Instead of being the self-proclaimed protégé of Plato, the book revealed Strauss’s political thought as a dark brew of ideas borrowed from Machiavelli, Freud and Nietzsche. In short, the book showed that Strauss was a sworn enemy of freedom and democracy who believed that the best form of government is the absolute but covert rule of the ‘wise’ elite independent of the law.

Now this was written in 2005 but the book it introduces is unchanged from 1988.

One of the most important popularisers of Strauss was his student Allan Bloom who wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, and the introductory chapter to that book is titled Our Virtue. Apparently one of the things which has to be done to enter the Straussian magic circle is to disable all critical faculties.

The Thesis

It is easy to point the finger at others (especially American warmonger) but we have to ask how have they managed to do it, and that is where the real fun comes because these ideas are just a virulent manifestation of our Western (18th C) ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy, which builds on the 17th C scientific revolution to justify turning away from critical enquiry of the self to seek knowledge and happiness by analysing and manipulating the environment. Of course one of the things we Westerners have been doing is manipulating the Middle East for about 100 years get the cheap fuel to drive our very energy-intensive lifestyles, so plundering the region and the biosphere of future generations. Global production of oil is now near the peak so we see a big push to dominate the remaining reserves.

But we are still focusing on the externals here: modernity is as much about mass communications as energy, and they really came on line in the 18th C, with urbanisation, mass literacy, and the rise of journalism and the novel. I think the key breakdown in modernity is the sundering of the head and heart, which follows from Hume and Kant’s philosophies (the turning out) which in turn gave rise to the Romantic movement (the disdain for reality), and thence Nietszche and Strauss. One of the sharpest critics of this was Austen, the architect of the modern novel (she synthesized the great 18th novelists), who while playing no small part in shaping and critiquing modernity, was also grounded in the pre-Enlightenment pre-Romantic Christian stoical tradition which placed a central importance on knowing oneself and achieving happiness through self transformation—indeed as have all authentic wisdom traditions.

Oh there is our habits of demonising foreigners as well—first Saddam (though a nasty piece of work he was harmless to us and far less harmless to Iraqis than we were or have been) and now Ahmadinejad—evil personified? (I have been taking a close interest in him and the Iranian perspective.) So we may have to have a closer look at where journalism has gotten to. (By the way, I can’t wait to get Flat Earth News by Nick Davies; I saw a brilliant talk by him where he explained that what we read in our news papers now only has a very tenuous relationship to any reality independent of that being shaped by the big players—the book is due out in February. I am also ordering Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Medi by the MediaLens folks).

Can we see these wars in our habits of thought and our everyday lives? This is the question I will be trying to ask.

More than enough to keep us occupied, methinks (and I hope I can extract a coherent narrative).

Take care and have a good time in India. See you in ’08.

Chris

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