Category Archives: Political Theory

Tension Ridden Thinker


Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss:

Political Philosophy and American Democracy 

            In 2003, the year of the United States’ fateful invasion of Iraq, the anti-war opposition’s search for the culprits responsible took an odd turn, going well beyond the usual suspects, Rumsfeld, Chaney and their boss, President George W. Bush. Media reports in 2003, both before and after the invasion, were pointing to an obscure, deceased (since 1973) professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust, one Leo Strauss. Strauss was fingered as the thinker whose ideas had inspired a cabal of ambitious young policy wonks who left the University of Chicago to take positions of influence in Washington. These “Straussians” were grouped together as “neo-conservatives,” and, as the popular wisdom still holds, neo-conservatives were the driving force behind the 2003 Iraq invasion.

            Professor Strauss was said to be an adherent of a strong-willed approach to foreign policy which the authors associate with Woodrow Wilson, advocating regime change as a means to implant liberal democracy throughout the world. While this certainly suggests neo-conservatism, Strauss was also portrayed in a somewhat contradictory vein as a resolute Machiavellian who espoused a “very hard-edged realism” that was “unabashedly elitist” (p.6), in which the end justifies the means and “[o]nly philosophers can handle the truth” (p.7). The elite must therefore “lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them – arguably for their own good” (p.7).

            In The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, the authors, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, a husband and wife team at the University of Notre Dame and both former students of Strauss, seek to show that the views attributed to Strauss are at best caricatures, the result of a failure to dig deep enough into the man’s “complex and tension ridden” views about America and liberal democracy (p.20). As to those former students who could be termed Straussians, they are mostly academics like Strauss, with strong but by no means consistent views about the United States and basic American principles. Straussians are “far more interested in exploring the history of political thought than in acquiring or exerting direct and immediate influence on American public policy. The differences among the Straussians are principled and philosophical more than they are partisan or personal” (p.258), the authors contend. The common thread they see to today’s Straussians is a distaste for much of what transpired in American intellectual life in the 1960s.

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            The Zuckerts’s opening chapter, cleverly titled “Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington,” explores how the notion that Strauss’ thinking was behind Bush-era neo-conservatives gained traction in the first place. This part of their story constitutes a good lesson in how mainstream media can get stories wrong (the Iraq war and run up to it are filled, unfortunately, with far more consequential instances of media missing the proverbial boat). The genesis of the notion, the Zuckerts argue, can be traced primarily to an otherwise little-known scholar, Shadia Drury. In 1988, fifteen years after Strauss’ death and fifteen years prior to the second Iraq war, Drury produced what the authors consider a generally sound, objective account of Strauss’ thinking, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. This book established Drury’s credentials as a Strauss scholar. But sometime in the 1990s, the authors argue, Drury lost her objectivity and began to impute dastardly qualities to Strauss’ writing in an effort to tie Strauss to the American right.

            In this phase, Drury found Strauss to be a partisan of “tyrannical teaching,” which holds that there is “only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise over the vulgar” (p.158). Drury even compared Strauss to Adolph Hitler:

Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses – the same that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fuhrer. Strauss’ political philosophy advocates the same solutions to the problems of the recalcitrant masses. (p.17)

             Drury’s more polemical ideas gained traction in the mainstream media, inexplicably aided in no small part by Lyndon Larouche and his followers, whom the authors describe, with considerable restraint, as a “fringe if not quite lunatic group” (p.12). Larouche echoed Drury’s views and led his own drumbeat of anti-Strauss rhetoric. Larouche’s involvement should have been a warning that something fishy was afoot. But Larouche at least as much as Drury provided the mainstream media with its Straussian talking points. The New York Times was an early leader in linking Strauss to the darker side of American conservatism. In November 1994, Brett Staples wrote “Undemocratic Vistas: The Sinister Vogue of Leo Strauss,” followed by Richard Bernstein’s “A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero),” published in the Times in January 1995.

            In 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, the Times ran articles on Strauss bearing the titles “Leo-Cons, A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders” and “The Real Strauss.” The French daily Le Monde weighed in with an influential piece, “Strategist and Philosopher.” Other 2003 articles about Strauss included “Selective Intelligence” (The New Yorker); “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” (International Herald Tribune); “Philosophers and Kings” (The Economist); “ConTract: The Theory Behind Neo-Con Self Deception” (Washington Monthly); and “Neo-Cons Dance A Straussian Waltz” (Asian Times). Those whom the media mistakenly labeled Straussians included Richard Perle, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork (“not a shred of evidence to support these claims,” p.264); Thomas Sowell (“nothing to do with Strauss;” p.10); and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In some accounts, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore were characterized as Straussians. The only neo-conservatives outside academia whom the authors consider to be genuine Straussians are commentator William Kristol and Bush Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, along with Leon Kass, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

              The story of Strauss’ rise as the Darth Vader of the Iraq war seems in one way very European, more French or German than American, with a long deceased scholar of the abstractions of philosophy exercising a direct influence over those in power. That just doesn’t seem like the United States where, as Richard Hoftstadter reminded us a half century ago, anti-intellectualism dominates our public life. But perhaps the Strauss story underscores Hoftstadter’s point: when we Americans repair to abstract philosophy to explain current events, we often get it badly wrong.

              The easy part of the Zuckerts’ book is that devoted to how Strauss came to occupy such a prominent place in the post-Iraq debate, more than forty years after his death. Unfortunately, this story constitutes a relatively small portion of their book. A far larger portion is an effort to help us understand what Strauss was really saying, which necessitates a deep dig into his political philosophy. Readers not already familiar with the arcane debates that dominate the field may find this portion slow going.

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           Strauss’ signature idea was that philosophy should be reconstituted on the thinking of the ancients, especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Strauss “rediscovered an older and very non-standard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy” (p.31). Strauss considered Machiavelli the first philosopher of modernism who, in that capacity, had taken philosophy away from its Socratic and Platonic roots and provided impetus to the idea of reinventing political and social life around the passions. Although the Strauss who appeared in the anti-Iraq War debates was often portrayed as a Machiavellian who believed that elites were justified in doing just about anything necessary to stay in power, Strauss the philosopher was decidedly anti-Machiavelli. He drew the ire of his scholarly peers in the 1950s by describing Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil,” then a very retrograde view of the Florentine, but one that Drury and others would subsequently level at Strauss himself.

            The authors devote much time to Strauss’ “esotericism,” which has a particular meaning in philosophy sharply removed from its everyday use. In the philosophic sense, esotericism involves the hiding of meaning, somewhat akin to what we often refer to today as “speaking in codes” — “first and foremost a device whereby thinkers of the past concealed some part of their thought for the sake of guarding themselves against persecution” (p.120). Strauss wrote about thinkers who wrote “cautiously” because they believed that there are “basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they do harm to many people” (p.126). Strauss called this a “noble lie.” Strauss’ critics pounced on this pronouncement to conclude that Strauss meant to justify political leaders lying to the citizens they serve.

             Strauss was, the authors concede, fascinated by the practice of esotericism, and playfully employed it from time to time. But Strauss was fascinated by this manner of communication primarily because it was effective in societies where writers were not free to say explicitly what they believed. Esotericism is “first and foremost a method for historically understanding writers in the past who lived in illiberal societies, not a prescription for writers living in liberal societies” (p.121). In free societies, Strauss believed, the need for esotericism should not arise. Rather than reinstating esotericism, the authors conclude, “Strauss exposed it” (p.133).

           Strauss was a secular Jew with unorthodox views of religion. Revelation cannot be disproved by reason, he contended. For Strauss, the “core, the nerve of Western intellectual history [and] Western spiritual history,” was the conflict between the “biblical and the philosophical notions of the good life” (p.45), which he sometimes referred to metaphorically as “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The inherent tension between revelation and reason – between Jerusalem and Athens — was for Strauss the secret to the “vitality of Western civilization” (p.45), and exposure of this tension marked the “hallmark of Strauss’ philosophic activity” (p.154).

               In his efforts to go “back to the basics” in philosophy, back to the foundations of the ancients, Strauss was often portrayed as “anti-modern” and “anti-Enlightenment.” The Zuckerts do not disagree with this characterization. But if Strauss was “anti-modern,” and if the United States is the ultimate modern country, wouldn’t that make him anti-United States? Not necessarily, reply the authors. The Zuckerts argue in a syllogistic manner that Strauss found the United States good relative to the alternatives available within modernity; that he found modernity not wholly or uniformly bad; and that he considered the United States not wholly or uniformly modern. The United States’ modernism was tempered by the political thinking behind the United States Constitution, which Strauss found to be a reflection of the ancient philosophers whom he revered (contrary to just about everyone else, Strauss discounted the Enlightenment influence on the Constitution). Strauss adopted the Madisonian view that since the wise will not necessarily rule, government should be limited, and the limits should be established by law. For Strauss, tyranny was the absence of the rule of law.

          The ineffectiveness of Weimar Germany in withstanding the Nazi surge to power in his native Germany heightened Strauss’ reservations about liberal democracy. Democracy’s failure in Germany was for Strauss far more than the product of factors unique to German history and culture. Rather, it was an episode in what he came to call “’the crisis of our times,’ a crisis compounded of extremist ideologies . . . and a congenital weakness of liberal (modern) theory,” which made the “moderate, centrist, liberal order particularly vulnerable to attack from the extremes” (p.189-90). Much like a 20th century de Tocqueville, the authors argue, Strauss nonetheless provided a “restrained but genuine endorsement” of liberal democracy, reminding us that its freedom and openness to virtue can push democratic regimes to be “overly democratic” (p.78). The freedom of modernity opens human beings to the “insidious and powerful challenge of freedom in the phenomena of conformism and mass culture” (p.67). Having been driven from his home country by the Nazis, and having seen the damage of which ideological systems are capable, Strauss preferred individualistic, liberal governments like that of the United States. Strauss probably would have agreed with the quip attributed to Churchill that democracy is the worst of all systems of governance, except for the others.

            But the authors note the irony of Strauss becoming, after his death, a guru for a certain political viewpoint in the United States. Although an American citizen for much of his adult life, Strauss rarely spoke out on political or public matters, and there is virtually no record of his views on the major issues that the United States addressed during his day. Living in the midst of a modern liberal democracy, Strauss did not think he had to promote religious and intellectual toleration so much as self-restraint on the part of intellectuals and philosophers, particularly in criticizing and opposing the religious beliefs of others.

* * *

          After their effort to clarify Strauss’ philosophic views, the authors finish with a chapter on the Straussians, Strauss’ students. Although Strauss himself had little to say about the United States, three of his students made their mark in academic circles in the 1950s by addressing key issues concerning fundamental American principles: Walter Berns advanced a quirky view of freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; Martin Diamond challenged the Progressive view associated with Charles Beard that the framers of the Constitution sought principally to protect their own property interests; and Harry Jaffa wrote what the authors consider still among the greatest works on Abraham Lincoln’s political efforts to bring the United States back to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

              These authors’ work pre-dated what the Zuckerts term the “circus” of the 1960s, a decade which “aroused almost uniform opposition among Straussians on the basis of Straussian principles. Sixties ideals were utopian through and through, and the main theme of Straussian political philosophy was anti-utopian” (p.230). Allen Bloom, probably the best known of the Straussians, published a best seller in the 1980s, The Closing of the American Mind, which the authors describe as “largely a polemic against the sixties” (p.231). From the 1960s onward, the authors contend, all branches of Straussism were attempts to come to terms with the charged political culture associated with that decade. To this extent, Strauss’ approach to philosophy probably gives more comfort to what we would understand as conservatives today than liberals.

             Yet, the admiration of those influenced by Strauss “have not prevented them from thinking through the problems of political philosophy for themselves or coming to disagree . . . with each other and with Strauss himself” (p.253). Among Straussians, there is a “deep going debate and serious division of opinion about the character and meaning of American political principles at the time of the founding and at present” (p.258-59), a debate which Strauss himself only barely touched upon, but one in which his former students were and, in some cases continue to be, passionately engaged. But the authors stress that there is no single Strauss perspective; no sect attempting to impose the rule of philosopher kings by lying to the American public or its elected leaders; nor any cult seeking to implant American democracy around the world through any means necessary.

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                  Setting the record straight as to what Strauss did and did not espouse is a formidable task. But the Zuckerts do a credible job of explaining this complex and elusive thinker for general readers. Although not easy to read, the Zuckert’s book is assuredly worth the effort.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 10, 2015



Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory

Are We All Value Pluralists Now?


John Gray, Isaiah Berlin:
An Interpretation of His Thought

            A year ago, I ranked Isaiah Berlin near the top of my 20th century intellectual heroes, a thinker with profound insight into liberal democracy and its European antipodes, Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Then, I read David Caute’s “somewhat revisionist” portrait of Berlin in Isaac & Isaiah, The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, reviewed here in December. The Berlin in Caute’s book is, I wrote, “far from an endearing figure,” a smug, vindictive, slightly arriviste member of the British establishment. Having finished Caute’s book, I discovered that John Gray, an eminent professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, now retired, had updated his 1996 analysis of Berlin’s thinking, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought, with a new introduction (in a review of Caute’s book, Gray also mounted a vigorous defense of Berlin:

          The republication of Gray’s book thus seemed an opportune moment to deepen my understanding of Berlin’s thinking. Alas, after reading the book, Sir Isaiah continued his downward slide on my heroes list. Although I noted no further personal deficiencies, I found Berlin’s thinking anachronistic, a still-useful reminder perhaps that utopian schemes based on man’s perfectibility can lead to totalitarianism, but not much more. The chief insight which Gray attributes to Berlin, that no overarching principles can reconcile conflicting values, may represent solid armchair philosophy but seems of little utility in the real if messy world in which liberal democracies function.

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            Berlin was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family in Latvia in 1909, and spent formative young years in St. Petersburg, which his family left for Great Britain in 1921 amidst the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Berlin spent most of his adult life at Oxford, except for brief stints in New York and Washington during World War II and an even shorter period in Moscow in 1945, after the war. Berlin lost both grandfathers, an aunt, an uncle and several cousins in the Holocaust. Having seen the havoc precipitated by the Bolshevik Revolution close up and first hand as a young boy, as an Oxford scholar Berlin retained a life-long aversion to Marxism and Communism, an aversion which he extended to utopian schemes and ideological thinking of all stripes.

          Berlin liked to say that he transitioned in mid-career from a political philosopher to an historian of ideas. The difference can sometimes be difficult to grasp, but the six chapters in Gray’s book seem to fit neatly into one or the other category. The first two, “The Idea of Freedom” and “Pluralism,” along with the last chapter, “Agnostic Liberalism,” capture Berlin’s thinking as a political philosopher. The three middle chapters, “History,” “Nationalism” and “Rationalism and the Counter-Enlightenment” seem to describe Berlin working as an historian of ideas. The core principles which Gray attributes to Berlin, his idea of “value pluralism” and his elevation of “negative” over “positive” freedom as the ultimate liberal value are primarily those of Berlin the political philosopher.

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            Gray considers Berlin’s notion of “value pluralism” to be his “idée matrîssse” (p.158, his master idea), predicated upon the irreconcilability of fundamental human values. Value pluralism presumes that “ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable, and that sometimes when they come into conflict with one another they are incommensurable; that is, they are not comparable by any rational measure” (p.36). Berlin’s value pluralism constitutes for Gray a “single idea of enormous subversive force” because it challenges the basic claim of the “dominant liberalisms of our time” that “fundamental liberties, rights or claims of justice are (or indeed must be) compatible and harmonious” (p.36).

            Negative freedom for Berlin involves “choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others” (p.51; Gray uses the words “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably). Berlin once argued that the “fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor” (p.55). Although the liberal tradition, complex and itself pluralistic, accommodates many conceptions of freedom, the negative one for Berlin is the “most defensible and most congenial to liberal concerns of diversity and toleration . . . most consistent with the rivalrous diversity of human purposes and goods” (p.57-58). Negative freedom “facilitates human self-creation by choice-making among goods and evils that are rationally incomparable” (p.177).

          Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, which Gray defines as the “freedom of self-mastery, of rational control of one’s life” (p.52). Positive freedom implicates “collective self-rule” (p.56). But positive freedom can be utopian-prone, linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, “one, and only one course of action, one form of life, for the individual” (p.57). Berlin muddied the distinction, however, when he contended that the two forms are at “no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative or positive ways of saying the same thing” (p.53-54).

            Gray wraps Berlin’s core principles together into an approach labeled “agnostic liberalism” — that there can be “no overarching principle of liberty, and no structure of fundamental rights or set of basic liberties, fixed or determinate in their content and harmonious or dovetailing in their scope” (p.61). Agnostic liberalism rejects the idea of a “perfect society, or a perfect human life” (p.106), and substitutes a “stoical and tragic liberalism of unavoidable conflict and irreparable loss among rivalrous values” (p.36). But to temper what might sound like nihilism, and avoid a collapse into overtly anti-liberal forms of governing, such as Hitler’s National Socialism, Berlin allowed that an agnostically liberal society must maintain a “minimal universalism” (p.191), or “minimal standards of decency” (p.202).

           Berlin’s anti-utopian, agnostically liberal approach is reflected in his ambivalent interpretation of the 18th century Enlightenment. Berlin was committed to the Enlightenment’s “central element,” which Gray describes as “illumination of the human world by rational inquiry” (p.45). But Berlin rejected what he saw as the “universalist or uniformitarian anthropology of the Enlightenment” (p.165), its expectation that human beings would “converge on a universal identity as members of a cosmopolitan civilization” (p.199). The Enlightenment in Berlin’s view “consistently underestimated the significance of cultural difference” (p.144). Differences in culture and language should be preserved and lauded, Berlin contended, not suppressed or reduced to a common denominator. In this sense, Berlin’s thought aligns with that of the German Romantics and thinkers hostile to the Enlightenment. But Berlin’s agnostic liberalism and value pluralism were also a challenge to religious traditions which posit a “best way of life, one force good for all human beings” (p.153), and in this sense are entirely consistent with conventional views of the Enlightenment.

            Berlin’s view of history reflects this skepticism toward the universalism of the Enlightenment (and also reflects his value pluralism, agnostic liberalism, and anti-utopianism). Berlin regarded history as a discipline apart from both the natural and social sciences, affirming a method of inquiry based on “empathy and imagination” (p.116). He rejected as “indefensible” theories of development which postulate general historical laws, whether of progress or decline (p.115). Berlin thus had no use for Whig interpretations of history as embodying improvement or progress. He found such interpretations incoherent because of the lack of “any overarching standard whereby global progress or regress could be judged” (p.118). The idea of a “single human history” was for Berlin as “misconceived and incoherent as the idea of a perfect human life, which it is the deepest import of his pluralism to subvert” (p.109).

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            Berlin’s value pluralism may still be an idea of “enormous subversive force” because of its underlying premise that there can be no overarching standard to harmonize conflicting values. But modern liberal democracies have built into their systems a soft version of Berlin’s value pluralism, allowing room for divergent views to express themselves and compete for influence. Democracies can accept Berlin’s fundamental premise that a collision between basic human values that are legitimate and worthy of respect in the liberal state may not reconcilable by any overarching principle. Democracies, however, do not have the luxury of fretting over the lack of such principles to resolve value conflicts. Accommodating competing values is what democracies do; or, more precisely, liberal democracies should provide a process by which conflicting values can be accommodated. That the accommodation may be imperfect and impermanent is itself consistent with Berlin’s notion of value pluralism.

            Liberty and equality are for Gray the prototype examples of “inherently rivalrous goods” which “often collide in practice” and “cannot be arbitrated by any overarching standard” (p.79). But the list goes way beyond to include national security versus the right of the individuals to spheres of privacy and to know what their government is doing; the right of criminal suspects to a fair process versus the general right of the public to security; the right to exercise one’s religion versus the right of unwilling citizens to be free from state imposition of religion; and the “hate speech” conundrum, the right of unfettered free speech versus the right of minorities to be free from verbal vilification. And on and on.

         Although Berlin was himself no proponent of an unregulated capitalism, his negative freedom aligns closely with the classical liberal view of a minimalist state, associated with such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner in the 19th century, and Friederich Hayek and Ayn Rand in the 20th (sometimes termed “libertarianism” in contemporary North America). If liberal values of equal good are inherently irreconcilable and incapable of harmonization, it becomes difficult to argue that the state should privilege any one such value over any another. Instead, the state should privilege “choice-making as the embodiment of human self-creation” (p.176). The counterpart to the minimalist view is by definition more statist. It can embrace Marxist models that verge into totalitarianism, but also includes modern social democracy, in which the state regulates economic activity in the public interest and provides some sort of social safety net to meet “minimal standards of decency” (p.202), to use Gray’s phrase.

           Berlin’s preference for negative freedom was a direct outcome of his aversion to Marxism and Communism, which elevated a statist notion of positive liberty and dismissed negative liberty as an artifact of bourgeois, middle class liberalism that perpetuated economic inequalities. Marxism, however, is no longer with us as a serious argument for structuring the modern state. But if Marxism has largely been confined to the dustbin of history (and to scattered academic departments around the world), so too has the model of the entirely or even predominantly negative state. Outside of active libertarian movements in the United States and Canada, supported by some portions of today’s Republican party, there is almost no enthusiasm for an unregulated capitalist state or one that does not recognize the legitimacy of some sort of social contract between the state and its citizens, establishing “minimum standards of decency” by providing at least a modicum of social welfare benefits to its citizenry

          When they work well, modern democracies accommodate Berlin’s two notions of freedom, maximizing to the extent possible the spheres in which the state abstains from constraining individual choice while regulating economic activity in the public interest and providing some sort of safety net to cushion capitalism’s vicissitudes, so that even the least economically fortunate have the opportunity for the self creation which lies at the heart of Berlin’s preference for negative freedom. This is the model of modern social democracy, the model underlying the European Union’s approach to governance, and one embraced, however timidly, by elements of today’s Democratic Party in the United States.

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          Political theory need not be a blue print for day-to-day governance, but it should nonetheless have some relevance to governing. Berlin’s warnings about the dangers of ideological and utopian schemes, based on misplaced notions of human perfectibility, remain useful reminders. But in today’s democratic world – a significant portion of the planet – ideological and perfectionist schemes of the type that worried Berlin have little influence. The insight underlying Berlin’s value pluralism, that we will never satisfactorily harmonize conflicting values, appears oddly detached from the world in which democracies must operate. From the perspective of the mid-point of the 21st century’s second decade, the agnostic liberalism which Gray attributes to Berlin may still be stoical and tragic, but it also seems to border on irrelevance.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 27, 2014


Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory