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So for this episode “Lucretia” and I were going to discuss, and ask for audience input on, whether we should change the name of our format to “Cocktails Against Communism,” but owing to some technical glitches that we seamlessly fixed over an extra glass of single malt so that you won’t even be able to guess where the patches are, we completely forgot! Maybe next week.
In the meantime, we decided to take up some listener suggestions that we flip the usual format and go straight into our weekly classroom seminar on political thought, and save the whisky banter and comments on news of the week for the end. Some people said they thought we’d be more lucid if we proceeded with a lower blood-whisky level, while other self-effacing listeners said that, as they drink whisky vicarously with us every week, they lose their own capacity by the time the seminar segment rolls around.
We decided this week to take up again the idea of “historicism,” inspired in part because I was re-reading, for the first time in 45 years, C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (Lewis’s ironic, inside-out advice from the devil on how to corrupt a human being), where I came across two remarkable passages about historicism that parallel very closely the understanding of Leo Strauss in his classic essay, “Political Philosophy and History” (unfortunately not available online unless you have library access). I share excerpts from these passages in the episode, but for reference, here are the complete versions, starting with Lewis, chapter 27 of Screwtape:
Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (especially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.”
This is a perfect description of the dominant scholarly mode in most of the humanities these days. Here’s Strauss’s parallel passage:
But we cannot be passionately interested, seriously interested in the past if we know beforehand that the present is in the most important respect superior to the past. Historians who started from this assumption felt no necessity to understand the past in itself; they understood it only as a preparation for the present. In studying a doctrine of the past, they did not ask primarily, what was the conscious and deliberate intention of its originator? They preferred to ask, what is the contribution of the doctrine to our beliefs? What is the meaning, unknown to the originator, of the doctrine from the point of view of the present? What is its meaning in the light of later discoveries or inventions? They took it for granted then that it is possible and even necessary to understand the thinkers of the past better than those thinkers understood themselves.
The second passage from chapter 15 of Screwtape (written in 1941 by the way) offers a keen insight into the Progressive mindset of today that flows from historicism:
We sometimes tempt a human to live in the Past. But this is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the Past and it has a determinate nature and, to that extent, resembles eternity. It is far better to make them live in the Future. . . Thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the Future. Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
And here’s the parallel Strauss passage (written in 1949, for what it’s worth):
The typical historicism of the twentieth century demands that each generation interpret the past on the basis of its own experience and with a view to its own future. It is no longer contemplative, but activistic; and it attaches to that study of the past which is guided by the anticipated future, or which starts from and returns to the analysis of the present, a crucial philosophical significance:it expects from it the ultimate guidance for political life. The result is visible in practically every curriculum and textbook of our time. One has the impression that the question of the nature of political things has been superseded by the question of the characteristic “trends” of the social life of the present and of their historical origins, and that the question of the best, or just, political order has been superseded by the question of the probably or desirable future. . . Philosophic questions have been transformed into historical questions—or more precisely into historical questions of a “futuristic” character.
And the character of that Progressive future today is defined in a single word rapidly becoming familiar: “equity.” Which is not to be confused with equality.
Anyway, we give some baseline definitions of the terms hopefully in a user friendly way, before moving on to whisky news, Lucretia scolding Steve for going on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast this week, our Magic Numbers update, our Circleback Mountain update, and Beef of the Week. And it all came in just under an hour—a rarity for us! And let us know in the comments if you like the re-ordered format.
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