Sunday, July 12, 2009

Seek, and ye shall find

My last post was devoted to Anthony Kaldellis' 1999 book on the Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellos, The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia. Much of what I had to say was critical of Kaldellis' approach to Platonism in general and to the late antique Platonism of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, the Emperor Julian and Proclus in particular (so-called "neo-" Platonism).

It's quite fascinating, at least to me, that I should so strongly disagree with Kaldellis concerning the essential nature of both Paganism and Platonism, and yet nevertheless find his research so valuable on both subjects! I do not pretend to have any deep understanding of Leo Strauss, but it seems pretty clear that Kaldellis' work is strongly influenced by Strauss. This is hardly surprising since Strauss was keenly interested in Plato and many of Strauss' disciples have devoted themselves to the study of classical philosophy and Plato in particular (Alan Bloom, Seth Bernadette, and Stanley Rosen, for examples).

Personally I find a great deal of value in what very little I know of Strauss' work. (While at the same time I tend to find little of value in the output of most of his minions, including those just named.) I am especially interested in Strauss' theory that philosophers often write "esoterically" in order to avoid "persecution", as advanced in his Persecution and the Art of Writing. Strauss seemed to think of this as a nearly universal rule, but I have serious doubts about its broad applicability. However, certainly in the specific cases of societies dominated by monolithic oppressive ideologies, such as Christianity, Islam, Nazism and Stalinism it is almost too obvious to even bother mentioning that serious writers will naturally express themselves "esoterically" under such circumstances.

The reason that Strauss' theory of philosophical esotericism turns out to be useful, and not just a simplistic overgeneralization, is that in Western intellectual discourse it has never been the consensus that Christendom, qua Christendom, should be categorized along with Nazi Germany, etc. That is to say, the oppressive nature of the Christian religion, especially from 381 onward, has been fiercely contested by Christian intellectuals (and some others) to this day.

But Strauss' theory of philosophical esotericism can be applied to Christendom without "singling out" Christianity, and this puts the Christians somewhat off their guard. Another thing that accomplishes the same is the fact that Strauss was a critic of modern "liberalism" "atheism" and "moral relativism". Because of that, to the extent that his ideas and writings have any popular appeal, this is usually the case among people with "conservative" political and social leanings. The reception of Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind nicely demonstrates this point: conservatives hailed it, liberals panned it (personally I think the book is very close to being worthless, at best).

I don't think Kaldellis is a Straussian "true believer". Rather I think he is a brilliant young classical scholar who has been inspired and influenced by at least some of Leo Strauss' ideas. There are three "Straussian" ideas in particular that seem to play significant roles in Kaldellis' work so far: (1) the already mentioned concept of "esoteric philosophy", (2) Strauss peculiar conception of the "political" nature of Platonism, and (3) Strauss "third campism" with respect to monotheistic Judeo-Christianity versus atheism. Of these I think the first is by far the most important, and is the key to Kaldellis' importance as a historian of philosophy -- especially of the history of Platonic philosophy under Christendom.

To the extent that there were Platonic philosophers in Byzantium who were anti-Christian, obviously they could not express themselves openly. Many scholars take the position that anyone who explicitly professes Christianity must be a Christian. It should be, but evidently is not, obvious that this "logic" cannot be taken seriously in an oppressive society in which non-adherence to Christianity is punished with death by torture. Kaldellis apparently started out, apparently under the influence of Strauss, with the assumption that Byzantine philosphers, and Platonists in particular, should be automatically suspected of dissembling -- and he thereby avoids the boneheaded assumption that everyone who professes Christianity under pain of death is a sincere believer.

The second "Straussianism" embraced by Kaldellis (concerning the "political" nature of Platonism) is, in my opinion, the source of most of the important errors in his work. This is particularly the case with respect to Kaldellis' near complete misunderstanding of late-antique Platonism. The third "Straussian" idea (avoidance of either atheism or any "orthodox" form of Judeo-Christianity) doesn't make Kaldellis automaticallty sympathetic to polytheistic Paganism, but it does serve to inoculate him against the pernicious influence of the mentality that refuses to take seriously any world view that is not either monotheistic or atheistic. This is especially crucial in the case of Plato, who obviously has to be treated as a "serious" thinker! But for those who have taken the blue pill of the spiritual two-party system Plato must have been either irreligious or a proto-Christian. Kaldellis is not forced into that straightjacket - and it shows.

I think that Kaldellis' work is especially important to modern day Pagans, although I doubt that we make up a significant part of his intended target audience. Kaldellis has bothered to look for important non-Christian and even anti-Christian elements in the intellectual history of Byzantium (a culture that is profoundly important for the intellectual history of "the West"). Having looked, Kaldellis has found a great deal of evidence. Although it has not been his intention, and he might not appreciate this characterization, Kaldellis has thereby made fundamental contributions to a better understanding of Pagan history.

Plato was a Pagan, and late antique Platonism was one of the forms of Paganism that most stubbornly and effectively resisted coercive Christianization. Kaldellis' research supports the view that Platonism continued on as an "underground" form of resistance to Christianity long after this was no longer possible in the open. Kaldellis has helped us to better understand this important aspect of Pagan history not because he is a Pagan partisan, but because he is a good historian who happens to prefer to do his own thinking, and so he doesn't automatically toe the line of "scholarly consensus" - a consensus to which Kaldellis' work is providing a serious and spirited challenged, a challenge that should be warmly welcomed by Pagans.