I recently saw a documentary called “Arguing the World.” It’s about four intellectuals from New York City: Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell. All four came from immigrant-Jewish families, all four were born about 1920, and all four attended the City College of New York, which was then free. The documentary describes how, in the 1930s, City College was buzzing with intellectual debates and political arguments. The four intellectuals were inclined toward socialism. Socialists were divided between “party men,” who supported Stalin, and Trotskyites, who felt that Stalin was a tyrant. In the City College cafeteria, one of the most hotly-debated questions was, “Did Marxism lead inevitably to tyranny?”
The four intellectuals were fans of a magazine called Partisan Review, which dealt with politics and literature, and specialized in modern literature (Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, etc.). Some Partisan Review writers later moved to the conservative Jewish magazine, Commentary.
During the late Thirties, when Stalin’s atrocities became more widely known, the four intellectuals drifted away from Marxism, and began to respect American democracy and American capitalism. Only Irving Howe retained a life-long fondness for socialism; Howe founded a left-wing periodical, Dissent, which is still in existence. Howe was also a literary critic; he helped to introduce Isaac Bashevis Singer to the English-speaking world. All four of the “New York Intellectuals” are still alive, except for Howe, who died in 1993.
During the Fifties, Daniel Bell became a renowned sociologist. In 1960, he published The End of Ideology, which argued that the ideological debates of the Thirties had ended, and democracy/capitalism had triumphed. (This argument was given new life in 1992, when Francis Fukuyama published his much-discussed book, The End of History and the Last Man.) In 1973, Bell published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which argued that an economy based on services and technology was replacing an industrial economy. (This argument probably influenced Alvin Toffler’s book, The Third Wave, which was published in 1980.)
Bell was at Columbia in the late Sixties, when student demonstrations broke out. Bell was critical of the student radicals, but urged the President of Columbia to argue with the students, not to call in the police. But the President chose to call in the police. In “Arguing the World,” Bell says he was reduced to tears at the sight of his beloved university being torn apart. He also says that this incident destroyed Columbia. After this incident, Bell left Columbia, and went to Harvard.
Meanwhile, at Berkeley, Nathan Glazer was also a prominent sociologist, was also drifting to the right, and was also speaking out against left-wing student radicals. Like Kristol and Bell, Glazer was critical of Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious social programs (sometimes called the Great Society programs). Glazer collaborated with David Riesman on the well-known book, The Lonely Crowd. Glazer also collaborated with Daniel Patrick Moynihan on a book called Beyond the Melting Pot (a study of racial issues). Moynihan was a conservative Democrat, a critic of the Great Society, and later a senator from New York.
The most conservative of the four intellectuals was Irving Kristol, who wrote for Commentary, co-edited a literary magazine called Encounter, and also founded two magazines of his own: The National Interest, which dealt with foreign policy, and The Public Interest, which dealt with domestic policy. Irving Kristol was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party and of Ronald Reagan.
There’s a striking similarity between Irving Kristol’s career and that of his son, William Kristol. William Kristol also founded a magazine (The Weekly Standard), and also influenced Republican policies. The younger Kristol may be even more influential than his father was, and his magazine may be more widely read than his father’s magazines were. In “Arguing the World,” Irving Kristol says you can change the world with a magazine that has a circulation of a few hundred. Both Kristols have had an effect on government policy through their magazines; their magazines are aimed at Washington insiders, at decision-makers, rather than at the general public.
In “Arguing the World,” Irving Kristol says that religion is needed to cope with today’s problems. William Kristol also has a positive view of religion. His magazine, The Weekly Standard, recently published an article that said religious faith and monasticism are growing in Europe; the article ends by expressing the hope that a revival of monasticism “portends for the continent a new and glorious dawn.”1 I share the Kristols’ positive view of religion, but while they respect traditional, monotheistic religions, I turn away from traditional religions, and advocate new approaches to spirituality.
The Kristols are friendly to morality as well as religion. Here again, I find much to respect in their position, though I take a somewhat different position myself. Irving Kristol wrote a book called Two Cheers for Capitalism, which complained about the moral effects of capitalism. (E. M. Forster had written a book called Two Cheers for Democracy, which found fault with democracy.) Irving Kristol’s magazine, The Public Interest, argued that social policy will fail if it overlooks morality:
|What really matters [is] culture, ethos, character and morality. By the 1970’s, The Public Interest was publishing as many essays on these things as on quantitative social science. As [James Q.] Wilson wrote in 1985, “At root, in almost every area of public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials.”2|
Perhaps it is this interest in moral factors that drew William Kristol to Leo Strauss, a champion of moral philosophy. Moral considerations have also influenced the Kristols’ thinking in foreign affairs, and may have prompted William Kristol to advocate the overthrow of Saddam. As one neo-conservative writer put it,
What matters most is the character of the individual, the character of the community and the character of government. When designing policies, it’s most important to get them to complement, not undermine, people’s permanent moral aspirations — the longing for freedom, faith and family happiness.
That approach led to welfare policies that encouraged work and responsibility. It also led to what many derided as the overly idealistic foreign policies that are now contributing to the exhilarating revolutions we’re seeing across the Middle East.3 [This was written in March 2005, when the situation in Iraq was more hopeful than it is today.]
While some neo-conservatives are criticizing Rumsfeld, other intellectuals are criticizing the neo-conservatives themselves. Fukuyama, who was once a neo-conservative, condemns neo-conservative foreign policy in his recent book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Fukuyama says that the neocons rely too much on military power. He regards the Iraq war as a disaster, and says that it has discredited neo-conservative ideas. He is one of the founders of a new foreign-policy magazine, The American Interest. Fukuyama recently appeared on C-SPAN for three hours.
A few months ago, I saw Harvey Mansfield on C-SPAN, and he said that he and William Kristol were teaching together at Harvard this year. In the fall of ’05, Kristol and Stephen Rosen were teaching a class in American foreign policy, and in the spring of ’06, Kristol and Mansfield were teaching a seminar in Strauss, justice, ethics, etc. I decided to visit Kristol, listen to his foreign-policy lecture, ask if I could participate in the ethics seminar, and try to interest him in my work. I told my wife (Yafei) that I only have a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting help from him, but I want to give it a try.
On November 15, I threw the dice. I took the train to Boston, then walked across the Mass. Ave. bridge, and out to Harvard. I listened to Kristol’s lecture, then went to his office, where he was holding “office hours.”
He was very pleasant and approachable. He’s ten years older than I am. I said I wasn’t an enrolled student, and apologized for crashing the party. I introduced myself, said that I was a student at Harvard ten years after he was, and said that my teachers were Mansfield, Banfield, etc. He asked me what I do now.
This was the question I’ve been waiting years to answer, and this was the sort of questioner I’ve been waiting years to talk to. I told him I write philosophy on a freelance basis. He was floored; he seemed to think it was a hard road to pursue (and so it is). I told him I started writing philosophy in ’84, and I showed my first draft to Mansfield in ’85. And now here I am, twenty years later, still shopping my book around.
Kristol seemed interested and attentive. On the other hand, when I visited Mansfield years ago, he always seemed uninterested; he seemed to regret that I had come, and he seemed eager for me to go. I told Kristol that I had published in China and Taiwan; I showed him two Chinese versions of my book, and also the English version that I self-published. He asked to borrow the English book.
As I talked, he seemed more interested in glancing at my writings than in listening to what I said. I said I do a lot with the Internet; he said he would visit my website. In conclusion, he said he would look at my various things, and I should return in two weeks, and we’d talk again. It was a dream come true! Exactly what I wanted to hear!
Before I left, I couldn’t resist mentioning Shakespeare. I showed him a New York Times clipping about the Shakespeare controversy. He said he vaguely remembered the article, but was unconvinced by the evidence. I said Shakespeare dovetails with Strauss (his favorite philosopher) because Shakespeare conceals his meaning, as Strauss believed all great writers do. I quoted Shakespeare’s remark that he was “tongue-tied by authority,” and said that would make a good title for a Straussian book. He agreed with enthusiasm. I said the Shakespeare subject was on my website, and he said he’d look at it. I thanked him profusely, and left.
I set out for the Boston train station, walking on clouds. I called Yafei, and said that the meeting had gone very well — better than I had hoped. Although she was pleased by my report, she cautioned that Kristol might not read as much of my stuff as he said he would. But I brushed this aside, and insisted that he would read my work.
After hanging up with Yafei, I walked through Central Square, through MIT, over the Charles River (it was dark, and I could see the lights twinkling in the skyscrapers), and then worked my way to the train station, and headed home.
When I told my parents about my adventure, my mother didn’t seem to take it seriously; I was shocked by her indifference. This was my Big Break, I thought, the break for which I had waited decades. Later, I read Harding’s essay on the shadow, and I was reminded of my mother’s attitude:
|[When] an individual has received recognition for some achievement... it may go to his head.... Seeing only the positive side of the experience, he loses his sense of balance. Immediately all difficulties are going to melt away and he feels “everything’s coming my way!” If, however, his friends take his enthusiasm with a grain of salt [he] protests with increasing insistence that simply everything is coming his way. But the more he protests, the more skeptical do his auditors become, and the more indifferent, even bored by his protestations. This man has temporarily lost his shadow.5|
After two weeks, I returned to Harvard, hoping to hear Kristol’s reactions to my writings. After listening to another foreign-policy lecture, I went to Kristol’s office, and waited for him to arrive. He said he had been traveling and hadn’t had time to read my stuff. He also wasn’t interested in chatting, and brought the conversation to a quick conclusion. However, he seemed to think that my project deserved more time than “office hours” permitted, so he made an appointment with me for December 13 at 11, and he said he’d try to read my stuff before then. So it wasn’t as successful a meeting as I had hoped, but it was far from a complete failure. The jury hadn’t yet returned a verdict.
Though I had given Kristol a copy of my book, it had been printed several years ago, and didn’t represent my latest thinking. So I xeroxed a current version for him, and planned to give it to him on December 6. When December 6 came around, however, I had an uneasy feeling, a vague reluctance to go to Harvard. But since I haven’t learned to listen to my feelings, and since I had already taken the trouble of copying my book, I went to Harvard despite my uneasy feeling. My mood was low, there was a darkness inside me. When I got on the train, the conductor who sometimes said hello to me didn’t speak to me. As I walked to Harvard, this darkness stayed with me.
At the start of Kristol’s class, he said hello, and seemed friendly. When I gave him the book/manuscript, he said he’d look at it on the plane that night (he lives in the Washington, DC area).
As I walked back to South Station, my mood sank even lower. As I was crossing Longfellow Bridge, I had a strange desire/fear of jumping into the river. (Was it Kierkegaard who said that dread is fear of something that a part of you desires?) This feeling was so strong that I thought I might have to sit down on the sidewalk, and when a jogger approached me from behind, and wanted me to move to the water side of the sidewalk, my dread of the water prompted me to move to the other side, annoying the jogger. I don’t think I was ever in real danger of jumping, but it was a strong feeling of dread.
I couldn’t understand this feeling. Was it a fear of failure? Or a fear of success? Or did the effort to promote my book take me away from myself? I hadn’t slept well for a couple of weeks. Perhaps Harding would say that my initial “success” caused me to lose my shadow, and my low mood was my shadow re-asserting itself. Didn’t the Romans say that if you throw nature out the door, it will come in through the window? At any rate, my feelings as I walked to the train station were completely different from my elated feelings after my first meeting with Kristol.
On December 13, I went back to Harvard for my 11 o’clock meeting with Kristol. I arrived early, waited until 11, then knocked on his door. No answer. Finally he arrived, and said he hadn’t read my stuff (in retrospect, I think he did read some of my book, but found it uncongenial).
So the long-anticipated meeting was a complete failure. All my hopes had come to naught. Maybe it’s for the best. I suppose failure is better for one’s spiritual growth than success. Didn’t Proust say that the best thing about the stock market was losing? Now I’ve embarked on other attempts to sell philosophy. Hope springs eternal, and is always followed by disappointment. How difficult it is to sell philosophy!
I’d like to continue discussing my favorite Shakespeare Sonnets. In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed Sonnet 7, which urges the young man (the Third Earl of Southampton) to marry and beget a child. We find the same theme in many of the early Sonnets, including Sonnet 12. Time is passing, the poet says; your beauty will fade, as everything fades. But if you have a child, you’ll renew yourself, and protect yourself from the ravages of Time:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make,6
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
A. Every baseball fan remembers the ground ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series. A few weeks before the Series, Buckner told an interviewer that your fondest dream is getting a hit to win the World Series, and your worst nightmare is having a groundball go through your legs to lose the Series.7 A premonition! In previous issues, I discussed “Baseball and the Occult” and “Basketball and the Occult.”
B. A recent news story says that the city of New York agreed to pay 8.9 million dollars to a man injured in a ferry accident. This is in addition to the 3.6 million that it already agreed to pay to other people injured in that accident. This story shows how our society tries to remedy accidents with large sums of money. It also shows how we’re full of sympathy for the individual, and we overlook the interests of society as a whole. Years ago, I wrote the following aphorism on this theme:
|Preoccupied with the Individual Just as one should remember posterity, and not think only of the present, so too one should remember society as a whole, and not think only of the individual, and the individual’s rights. Western democracies are obsessed with the individual, and the individual’s rights. Western democracies have given the individual so much power that society as a whole has almost no power.|
I recently received feedback from Canada, the best feedback I’ve ever received:
|Hello, I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m 35 years old and just lost my younger brother to complications after Brain Tumor Surgery. He was a self-taught man who knew much about the Humanities. He took it upon himself to read the classics while I was preoccupied with sports. I cannot begin to describe the loss and the pain I endure on a daily basis. I am completely stuck on the age-old question, What is the meaning of life? The only comfort I get at the present time is to educate myself in more of the great works. I stumbled across your site and it has brought me much comfort. I have made it my home page. I just wanted to say Thank you very much. Tim|
I also noticed a “reader response” on Amazon:
|If you lack a general liberal education and would like to fill that gap, you may have noticed that it’s very easy to get lost. Pick any topic and you are faced with an overwhelming number of classical texts, authors and theories, each requiring a large investment of time and energy to understand and appreciate. What would be really helpful is a high-level overview of entire areas of study, and, incredibly, this very slim book attempts to provide just that. Of course, you won’t find any detailed analysis of any texts... just a few paragraphs per major work... but overall the book is incredibly easy to read and presents often impenetrably abstract ideas in a comprehensive and entertaining manner. Highly recommended!|
|1.|| “Monkish: What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism,” by Christopher Levenick, The Weekly Standard, 3/23/2006. In an earlier issue, I discussed a New York Times article that said religious faith was declining in Europe. back|
|2.|| “40 Years Of Character,” by David Brooks, New York Times, March 5, 2005 back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| “Rumsfeld’s Blinkers,” by David Brooks, New York Times, March 16, 2006 back|
|5.|| “The Shadow,” by Esther M. Harding, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 1945 back|
|6.|| question make = “speculate” or “entertain doubts” (Folger Library edition) back|
|7.||I saw this interview on a TV show called “Five Reasons Why You Can’t Blame Bill Buckner for Losing the 1986 World Series,” which was on the channel “ESPN Classic.” back|