Symposium Great Books Institute Life is short. Why read a good book when you can read a great one? Tue, 22 Aug 2017 19:07:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Seminar Report: Plato Laws 2014-2015 Wed, 28 Jan 2015 16:06:28 +0000 David Saussy One of the great pleasures in life is conversing with friends in leisure – free of the often necessary pressures of professional ambitions.   But as Socrates says in the Republic, what greater pleasure could there be than conversing with friends about deep and abiding questions like justice?

iSymposium on Plato’s Laws commenced in Spring of 2014 as a sort of experiment in friendship and leisure of this order.  We wanted to take on the challenge of a long and fine book like the Laws. The occasion created by weekly meetings for discussions is of course a great impetus to read all those books we want to read, but might otherwise never read on our own.  But if you’ve ever read Plato’s writings, you know how rich and complicated the texts are, not the least because they are dialogues instead of treatises.

The traditional great books model of assigning 50 or more pages of reading per seminar is an unsatisfying way to approach writers like Plato. The argument and action of each dialogue is an unfolding process. The different stages of the dialogue require the utmost care and attention. It is also difficult for those of us who lead busy professional lives to take the preparation time needed for a 50 page reading.

We decided instead to read three or four pages per session, very closely.  Each session is only one hour and fifteen minutes. Sometimes it takes members of the group a few minutes to sign on, but we try to start and end as punctually as possible. During the first fifteen minutes, we read the evening’s section out loud together, followed by the hour long discussion.

As the final week of January closes, as February begins, the group has made it halfway through Book VII. The Laws, as you may know is a giant book, containing twelve books. It is larger even than the Republic. At this rate we might not finish until the beginning of 2016.

But our common feeling is: What is the hurry?

There is no hurry. We have nothing to prove and everything to gain from a slow careful reading of Plato’s Laws.  One of the greatest things we have to gain is lifelong friendship that comes out of this experience.

It may be difficult to put into words the delight and the joy of conversing in leisure with a group of sincere readers.  But Symposium is dedicated to this joy, and to helping create (to the extent it is possible) opportunities for meaningful conversation of this kind.  We hope you join us sometime, or even join another great books group in your area!

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

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An Act of Hope, Part 2: A Revolutionary Creative Thu, 18 Apr 2013 08:00:42 +0000 David Saussy An  Act of Hope (Part 2) by SRE Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, of the Society of Jesus, Archbishop of Buenos Aires AKA Pope Francis
Translated by Reynaldo Miranda

Let us try to see this somewhat more concretely.  Why not try, now that we have broached the subject, to let ourselves be taught by history.  Thinking of the foundational era of our nation [fatherland], I was met by a figure who is not generally recognized for his relevance to the nascent Argentina.  I refer to Manuel Belgrano.[1]

What can one say of him, beyond his participation in the First Junta and his creation of the flag?  He was not a successful man–at least in the terms we have become accustomed to use that word in these times of pragmatism and foolishness.  His military campaigns lacked the brilliance and depth that won for Jose de San Martin the name of Liberator.  He lacked the pen of a writer and propagandist–of a Sarmiento.  As a statesman he was always relegated to a second rank.  Nor was his private life very notable: his health left much to be desired, he was not able to marry the woman he loved, and he died at fifty years of age and in poverty.  Still, Sarmiento said of him that he had been “one of the very few who do not have to ask forgiveness of posterity, and of history’s severe criticism.  His obscure death is still a guarantee that he was a citizen of integrity, an unblemished patriot.”  Of very few successes in our national history, could we say the same…  In addition to his unconquerable personal virtues and his profound [deep] Christian faith, Belgrano was a man who, just at the right moment, knew how to find the dynamism, drive, and equilibrium that define true creativity—the difficult but fruitful joining of realist continuity and magnanimous novelty.  His influence within the emergence of our nation’s identity is far greater than what is supposed; and, because it is such he can again stand to show us, in this time of uncertainty but also of challenge, how one can lay enduring foundations in a task of historical creation.

A revolutionary creative

Belgrano lived in an epoch of utopias.  Son of an Italian father and a colonial Spanish mother, he dedicated himself to the study of Law in some of the best universities in the metropolis: Salamanca, Madrid, and Valladolid.  In a convulsed Europe at the end of the [18th] century, the young Belgrano not only had learned the subject he had gone there to study, but he had become interested in the whirlwind of nascent ideas that were configuring a new age.  In particular, political economy.  Firmly convinced by the most advanced ideas of progress in his time, he did not lack confidence in forming in his interior a project to put all this at the service of a great cause in the country of his birth.  Thus, in 1794 he was appointed the first Perpetual Secretary of the Royal Consulate for Industry and Commerce of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, something similar to what today would be the ministerial portfolio of Treasury.  It was unusual for the strongly centralist Spain of the Bourbons to place a son of a colonial and a foreigner into such an important posting [office].  But in Buenos Aires there weren’t many men with a comparable formation and education.  The bright secretary was not long in facing American reality, as he attempted to fulfill his task of promoting production and commerce with a genuinely transformative spirit.  He soon came to understand that the resplendent ideals of the rights of man and of progress clashed with the conservative mindsets of the colonial administration and of the privileged sectors of Buenos Aires, merchants who benefited themselves from Spanish monopolies and contraband.  He would say in his brief autobiography: “…I came to know that nothing would be done in favor of the provinces by men who because of their private interests relegated those that were common.  However, as the obligations of my office permitted me to speak and write on such important matters, I endeavored, at least, to sow the seeds that one day might bear fruit, thanks to some others who stimulated by the same spirit might dedicate themselves to their cultivation, or to the order of things, itself, causing them to germinate.”

What were these seeds?  Our founding father would say, “To found schools is to found in souls.”  The revolutionary spirit of Belgrano quickly discovered that the new–that which could come to be able to modify a stagnant and rigid reality—would come out of education.  He thus promoted by all means the creation of basic and specialized schools.  The Memorias anuales del Consulado [SLP21] , the Telégrafo Mercantil journal, and later the Correo de Comercio [s2]  would be some of the means by which he sought to sow those seeds.  His teaching will insist on the need for technical education, and will design projects for schools of agriculture, commerce, architecture, mathematics, and drawing.  Of all these, only those of nautical arts and drawing, were actually founded.  Long before any others Belgrano understood that education and training in modern technical subjects were important keys for the development of his country.  If his projects were not able to be developed, it was because–as he himself would write years later—“all either failed within the administration of Buenos Aires or at court, or among the merchants themselves—individuals who comprised this body and for whom there was no other reason, justice, utility, or necessity than their mercantile interests; anything that clashed with their interests, would meet with a veto, without there being any recourse for circumventing or restricting the veto.”   But for all that he did not abandon his determination:  By one way or another he found ways to continue spreading and applying his ideas.  Because the creator of the flag was, in addition to an idealist, thoroughly persistent, and he did not allow himself to be easily vanquished, even though his character was moderate and conciliatory.

In addition to his work on economic development, Belgrano thought that “an educated people can never be enslaved.”  The dignity of the human person occupied the central place in his mind—a mind at once Christian and Enlightened.  From there he will struggle also for the foundation of schools in the cities and the countryside, in which all children will be offered elementary education in literacy, mathematics, catechism, and some useful occupations for earning a livelihood.

“Those miserable ranches where one can see multitudes of children who arrive at the age of puberty without having exercised anything but sloth have to be attended to,” he was writing in 1796.  “One of the principal means that should be adopted to this end is the free schools, to which those who are miserable can send their children without having to pay anything at all for their instruction.  There they could hear good maxims, and be inspired to love of work.  Among a people ruled by sloth, commerce declines and is replaced by misery.”

No, other than this was the spirit of his insistence (in the charter of the School of Geometry, Architecture, Perspective, and Drawing, written in his own hand) upon the equal rights of Spaniards, colonials, and Indians, and upon the provision of four places for orphans, “the most dispossessed of our land.”  Along these same lines, Belgrano placed fundamental import on the education of girls, in an era that was still very far from the practical recognition of egalitarian rights and conditions for men and women.  We thus see a true creator in action, someone who, far from considering himself satisfied by the places reached and turning them to his own advantage, gave the best of his energies to attempting to shape a new and different society—better for everyone.  Open to the most advanced ideas of his time, and, at the same time, attentive to the need that no one be left out of that new world then taking shape.  But there is something more: this was not about an idealist who willfully failed to understand the practical difficulties of his projects.  For all of them he sought to foresee the manner of financing, the material and human resources that would make them possible.  On this point he did not shrink from providing, out of his own private means, elements that would be necessary to sustain a serious educational effort.  Soon after the Revolution of 1810 he donated 165 volumes for the public library of Buenos Aires (today, the Biblioteca Nacional [National Library]).  Similarly, it is known that he set aside the 40,000 pesos awarded him for his victory in the Battle of Salta for the construction of four schools in Tarija, Salta, Tucumán, and Santiago del Estero.  He himself wrote the charters for these schools, in which he indicated the manner in which those resources should be used to sustain the teachers, provide books and supplies to the children of poor parents, etc.  A remarkable detail: he maintained that the school teacher should be considered as a “Father of the Nation” and should have a seat on the local council.  Another detail, not so remarkable: those schools were never built.

[1] Manuel Belgrano, born Buenos Aires, 3 June 1770, died Buenos Aires, 20 June 1820, one of the founding fathers of Argentina.


 [SLP21]Not italicized but appears to be the title for Annual Records of the Consulate.


 [s2]This was a newspaper founded by Belgrano, but it is not italicized, unlike the immediately preceding title.




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An Act of Hope Part 1: Utopia and Historic Creation Tue, 16 Apr 2013 15:50:02 +0000 David Saussy An Act of Hope

by SRE Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio

(Translated by Symposium’s own Reynaldo Miranda)

Exactly one year ago I began my message to the educational communities by speaking of a critical and decisive moment in the life of our people.  Many things have happened since then: suffering, consternation, indignation, but also much shouldering on the part of so many men and women who offered of themselves to others, without justifying themselves in indifference or in the zeal to “save themselves” from others.  On balance, we meet with the conviction that we need not wait for any savior, no magical proposal to make us prosper or to cause us to abide by our “true destiny.”  There is no true destiny, no magic.  What there is is a people with its history replete with questions and doubts, with its institutions barely sustaining themselves, with its values in question, with the minimal tools such as to sustain a short term.  [These are] things much too weighty as to entrust to a charismatic [leader] or a technical [expert]:  Things that only through a collective action of historical creativity can issue in a more successful direction.  And I do not think I am mistaken, if I intuit that your task as educators will have to lead out what is best in this challenge.  To collectively create a better reality, with the limits and possibilities of history, is an act of hope:  Not of certitudes, nor of mere wagers, neither of destiny nor gambling.  It requires beliefs and virtues, and to put in play all [the community’s] resources, and an imponderable plus/addition that lends it its dramatic character.

This year’s reflection also treats of hope, but very much in particular of an essential component of its active dimension: creativity.  Because, if we are in a moment of historic and collective creation, our task as educators can no longer be limited to “continuing as usual,” nor even to “resist” before a most adverse reality; rather, our task is about creating, about beginning to lay the bricks for a new edifice in the midst of history—that is to say, locating ourselves in a present that has a past, and, as we desire, also a future.

 Utopia and historic creation

For us, to speak of creation has an immediate creedal connotation.  The faith in God the Creator tells us that man’s history is not a boundless void, but that it has a beginning, and also a certain direction.  The God who created “the heavens and the earth” is the same who made a promise to His people, and His absolute power is the guarantee of the efficacy of His Love.  The faith in the creation, in this manner, is the sustenance of hope.  Human history, our history, the history of each one of us, of our families, of our communities, the concrete history that we build day by day in our schools, is never finished, never exhausts its possibilities; instead, it always can be opened up onto the new, to what until now had not been considered, to what had appeared to be impossible.  This is so because this history forms a part of creation that has its roots in God’s Power and Love.

Once again, it behooves us to clarify that this does not concern a sort of compulsion between pessimism and optimism.  We are speaking of hope, and hope does not fit comfortably with either of those two options.  We will center ourselves upon creativity as characteristic of an active hope.  In what sense can we be creative, creators, we human beings?  It will not be in the sense of creating from nothing, as God does, obviously.  Our capability to create is much more humble and bounded, as it is a gift from God which, before all else, we ought to receive.  As we practice our creativity, we should learn to move within the tension between novelty and continuity.  That is to say, we should make room for the new, parting from the already known.  For human creativity there is neither creation from nothing nor identical repetition of the same.  To act creatively entails seriously taking charge of whatever is, with all its density, and finding the way by which starting from there something new is made manifest.

On this point, we can again call upon, as we did already last year, one of the most important teachers of the Faith: Saint Augustine.  In his work The City of God, this church father reflected on the meaning of history from the perspective of the eschatological salvation realized in Christ.  The imminent fall of the Roman Empire announced a profound historic novelty: an end of one epoch, and the uncertain beginning of another.  And Augustine undertook to understand God’s designs in order to illuminate the Church entrusted to his ministry.  We have already explained the central elements of that work [City of God] in last year’s message.  In the last instance, we remitted ourselves to human history as the place of discernment between offers of grace, oriented towards the full realization of man, society, and history in the eschatological redemption; and, the temptations of sin, which pretend to construct a destiny that is opposed to the divine dynamic of salvation.

But there are other dimensions in this Augustinian thought that can orient us in the search for a historical creativity.  To profit from his teaching, it is necessary that we first ask ourselves about the meaning of utopia.  In the first place, utopias are fruits of the imagination, the projection toward the future of a constellation of desires and aspirations.  A utopia draws its force from two elements: On the one hand, the inconformity, the dissatisfaction or hurt generated by present reality; and on the other, the unbreakable conviction that another world is possible.  From there is derived its mobilizing strength.  Far from being a merely fantasized consolation, and imaginary alienation, utopia is a form that hope takes in a concrete historic situation.

The belief that the world is perfectible and that the human person has the resources to attain to a fuller life, nurtures any utopian construction.  But said belief goes hand in hand with a concrete search for the mediate steps which make that ideal actually possible.  Because, if the term utopia literally refers to something that is “in no place,” something that does not exist in a manner that can be located, even so, it does not entail a complete alienation in regard to the historical reality.  On the contrary, it is posited as a possible development.  Let us take note of this point: something that does not yet exist, something new, but towards which one must move, parting from what already is.  In this manner, all utopias include a description of an ideal society, but also an analysis of the mechanisms or strategies which might make it possible.  We may say it is projection toward the future that tends to return to the present, searching out the paths of possibility, in this order: first, an ideal vividly delineated [sketched]; later, certain mediate steps that, hypothetically, would make it viable.

But moreover, in its departure from and return to the present, it fundamentally supports itself upon the negation of the undesired aspects of present reality.  It emerges from the rejection (not merely knee-jerk, but intelligent) of a situation considered to be evil, unjust, dehumanizing, alienating, etc.  In this sense, one must specify that utopia proposes the new…but without ever being torn from what is.  It profiles the expectation of novelty from what would be desirable if we could free ourselves from the factors which oppress us, from the tendencies that impede us from reaching what is superior.  From two different directions, then, we see the indissoluble ligature between the desired future and the present that is endured.  Utopia is not wholly fantasy: It is also a criticism of reality and a search for new paths.

In this rejection of the present in favor of another possible world, articulated as a leap to the future which should later find its pathways to make itself viable, there are two grave limitations.  First, a certain “deranged” quality proper to its fantastical or imaginary character, which, if and when emphasized at the expense of the pragmatic aspects of its construction, can transform it into a mere dream–a wish for what is impossible.  Something of this resonates in certain present usages of the term realist.  The second limitation: in its rejection of the present and its desire to begin something new, it can fall into an authoritarianism more ferocious and intransigent than what was desired to be overcome.  How many utopian ideals have not given way, in human history, to all manner of injustices, intolerances, persecutions, outrages, and dictatorships of diverse stripes?

Well then, rightly, these are two limitations in utopian thought which have provoked its present discredit; be it by a pretended realism that adheres to what is possible, understanding possibility as the sole play of dominant forces and ignoring the human ability to create reality, parting from ethical aspirations; or, be it by excesses, set off by the promises of certain new worlds, which in the last century have only brought more suffering upon people.

And here we can return to reading The City of God.  Utopia, as we know it, is a typically modern construction (even if its roots go back to millenarian movements throughout the second half of the Middle Ages).  But St. Augustine, in proposing his scheme of the “two cities” (the city of God, ruled by love, and the earthly city, by selfishness), inexorably juxtaposed in secular history, offers us some clues to rightly place the relation between novelty and continuity, which is precisely the essential articulation in utopian thought and the key to all historical creativity.  Effectively, the City of God is, in the first place, a criticism of that conception which sacralized political power and the status quo.  All ancient empires were supported on this type of belief.  Religion formed an essential part of all symbolic and imaginative constructions which sustained society by a sacralized power.  And this not only applied to the pagans; but, once Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, bit by bit an official theology was formed which sustained this political reality as if it were the reign of God consummated on earth.

St. Augustine’s work countered precisely this manner of theological reading of historical reality.  By showing forth [uncovering] the seeds of corruption in imperial Rome, he was tearing asunder any identification between the Reign of Christ and the reign of this world.  And by presenting the City of God as a reality present in history, but in a manner interwoven with the earthly city, and only separable in the Final Judgment, he was making room for the possibility of another possible history, lived and built from other values and other ideals.  If in the official theology history was the exclusive and excluding place for a self-referential Power, in the City of God is constituted a space for a liberty that welcomes the gift of salvation, and the divine project of a humanity and a world transfigured.  A project that will be consummated  in eschatology, it is true; and yet, that may gestate new realities in history, overcoming false determinisms, opening up time and again the horizon of hope and of creativity parting from a meaningful [sensible] plus which is always inviting us to continue on [to move forward].

We can also take up the “utopian” moment of its criticism of the sacralized models, and link it to the realism with which the bishop of Hippo considered his own active belonging to the Church.  Because another aspect of our saint is his committed and concrete struggle for the construction of a Church that would be strong, united, centered upon the experience of Faith of which he himself was a privileged witness, but also a Church building herself in a historical and earthly manner, in a concrete community.  His firm position before the Donatists (a movement which pretended to a Church of the pure, without room for sinners) made manifest the realist conviction that the awaiting of a new heaven and new earth should not leave us with arms folded before present challenges, in pursuit of a purity or non-contamination by earthly things, but instead, and to the contrary, should give us a new orientation and an energy proper to molding the clay of what is quotidian [of the everyday], that ambiguous clay which comprises human history, to shape a world more becoming of God’s sons and daughters.  Not heaven on earth: only a more humane world in wait of God’s eschatological action.

Historical creativity, then, from a Christian perspective is governed by the Parable of the Wheat and the Chaff.  It is necessary to project utopias, and at the same time it is necessary to take charge of what is.  A “blank slate” does not exist.  Being creative is not to throw overboard all that constitutes present reality, however limited, corrupted, and worn it may be.  There is no future without a present, and without a past:  Creativity entails, as well, memory and discernment, equanimity and justice, prudence and strength.  If we are to attempt to offer our country something from the place of education, we cannot lose sight of both poles, the utopian and the realist, because both are integrating parts of historical creativity.  We should take heart in the new, but without discarding what others (and what we ourselves) have made with effort.

Coming next: Act of Hope, Part 2


Bibliographic information:

SRE Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, of the Society of Jesus, Archbishop of Buenos Aires AKA Pope Francis

Educar, eligir la vida: propuestas para tiempos dificiles, 2nd. ed.
Buenos Aires:
Editorial Clarentiana
(1st. ed. 2005)

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Seminar Report: SAPLF at the SAMA on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Sun, 14 Apr 2013 17:12:20 +0000 David Saussy Saturday evening from 5-6:30, Paul Martin – representing San Antonio Public Library Foundation – hosted a conversation on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Roman sculpture gallery.

In the play, after being struck by his assassins Brutus and Cassius, Caesar falls dead at the base of the statue of Pompey.  The group on Saturday, as conspirators for understanding and wisdom, circled around at the base of one of the Museum’s great statues, pondering the meaning of the play’s most central conflicts.  Paul, a graduate of St. John’s College (in Annapolis and Santa Fe), and an experienced leader of great books discussions, offered the evening’s opening question: what is the moral of the play?  The conversation opened up as each participant offered some thoughts about this question, and added questions of their own.

In Julius Caesar, the citizens of Rome are – as Shakespeare portrays them – fickle: their loyalty is easily swayed by whomever happens to be in power.  The play opens with Marullus scolding a few commoners for celebrating Caesar  now that he had defeated Pompey: hadn’t they also equally celebrated Pompey? Have they no dignity?  The climax of the play is the funeral orations at Caesar’s burial – first Brutus then Antony deliver orations, and as they do the crowd’s mind changes swiftly. It is comical to see how quickly the crowd changes its mind, and one wonders how to read this together with the central action of the play.  Brutus argues that he assassinated Caesar for the sake of Rome, and that he loved Caesar, but Caesar was “ambitious” – he presumed to stand above men like a god.  The underlying question is a serious one, concerning the right of authority: by what right can Caesar claim to become dictator or king? He is a man like anyone else. But Brutus presupposes without defending himself, that he was in the right in assassinating Caesar.  The crowd is all for it until Antony craftily persuades the crowd to turn against Brutus and kill the conspirators.  By the end of the play, one is left with a lingering uncertainty about the characters of Julius Caesar and Brutus.

A few words of Cicero early in the play (Act I Scene 3) stands out in memory, when he said
Indeed, it is a strange-disposèd time.
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
What underlies the crisis of authority in 43 BC, and perhaps periodically down to our own day, is a crisis in our ability to see things in themselves and to deliberate thereupon as a political community.  People make of things as they wish – which is not to see the good as it is. The play illuminates the age-old problem of factions – the great illness of political communities – citizens banded against each other in an apparently unresolvable conflict of interest. Shakespeare’s Cicero suggests that the conflict here might be resolvable, if only men could see things truly.  But as it is, the times are “strange”.  Today we might call this the problem of relativism or emotivism.  The inability to articulate the foundations of our own beliefs, our root premises – as well as the loss of responsibility to the very problem of seeing things truly and well-  leaves us unable to deliberate effectively as a community.
Here is the full text of Scene 3 Act I:
Thunder and lightning. Enter CASCA and CICERO
Good even, Casca. Brought you Caesar home?
Why are you breathless? And why stare you so?

Are not you moved when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th’ ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam
To be exalted with the threatening clouds,
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.
Why, saw you anything more wonderful?

A common slave—you know him well by sight—
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
Like twenty torches joined, and yet his hand,
Not sensible of fire, remained unscorched.
Besides—I ha’ not since put up my sword—
Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me and went surly by,
Without annoying me. And there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformèd with their fear, who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the marketplace,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say,
“These are their reasons. They are natural.”
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.

Indeed, it is a strange-disposèd time.
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
Comes Caesar to the Capitol tomorrow?


He doth, for he did bid Antonius Send word to you he would be there tomorrow.

Good night then, Casca. This disturbèd sky
Is not to walk in.
Farewell, Cicero.
Join us next Month at the San Antonio Art Museum as we  gather to discuss Confucian Classics in the Asian art Gallery. The event will include a docent led tour of Asian Art prior to the seminar!
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Seminar Report: Carl Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory Sat, 06 Apr 2013 13:44:32 +0000 David Saussy On Wednesday April 3rd, the final seminar in a four part series on the nature of Constitutions convened to discuss Carl Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory.  Wednesday’s reading rounded off the three prior readings: Aristotle’s Politics Book 4, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Carl Schmitt  – in the selections from Constitutional Theory – is engaged in a critique of the Weimar Constitution.   Questions central to his project are: What is the Constitution in the most authoritative sense? What give it its legal force, or what guarantees its authority?  Changeability or durability? Is the Constitution in essence written laws – lex scripta – or must it be something more than lex scripta?

Symposium groups several authors together in a series so that the conversation can develop its awareness of the fundamental issues through the various positions and outlooks of the authors.   Aristotle understands regimes or constitutions in terms of the common good: what makes a genuine regime, whether a republic or polity or an aristocracy, is the extent to which its authoritative elements rule with an eye to the common good.  For Aristotle, by the way, the common good a question of the deepest controversy. To read Aristotle is to bring this controversy into sharp relief while being given a few guideposts pointing in the direction of a possible sensible resolution.

Human communities are complex, says Aristotle.  It follows that there must be more than one form of good government.  But what is good – the best – government?  The best form of government will serve not only the common good, but will support the best way of life.  Nicomachean Ethics, another book by Aristotle, inquires into the matter of the best way of life. (You have to suspend for a time the modern habit of fearing any judgment concerning what is best. We should give him a chance and not assume that Aristotle is being judgmental and close-minded!) But the question that guides Aristotle’s thinking concerns not only what is the best regime, but what is the best possible regime.  The best regime is ruled by the most virtuous. But since virtue is rare, the best regime is unattainable or unrealistic for most communities. The question then becomes what is the best possible regime, which can be attainable by the greatest number of communities or cities without also sacrificing the common good and the best way of life.   Aristotle’s answer is the “middling” sort of regime, that is, one composed of a large middle class as a ruling element.  Why?  Because the those in middle class – those who are neither too rich nor too poor – are the most reasonable or most prudent.

The questions “What is the Constitution in the most authoritative sense? What give it its legal force, or what guarantees its authority?” are not the central questions for Aristotle as they are for Schmitt, because Aristotle’s premise – his starting point – is that what is or ought to be most authoritative and persuasive is the common good.

Schmitt answers that the Constitution properly understood grounds the authority of a Constitution in a principle that does not involve right or justice or a conception of the common good.  This principle, in his understanding, is the condition for any judgments about the good or “norms”: the “constitution-making power” of the people.   Every society has some basic questions to answer about its own existence: monarchy or democracy? Bourgeois middle class liberalism or Socialism?  This fundamental decision is an ultimate choice like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

On our reading, Schmitt places unbounded power – power unfettered by law or procedures – in the hands of the people. The constitution-making power of the people, the “fundamental political decision” as the will of the people is beyond good and evil and even (as Schmitt seems to understand it) beyond the banality and confusion of bourgeois compromises.  A consequence of this idea favors for unity and power at the expense of right.

In this way, Schmitt’s critique of the Weimar Constitutionmight be read as a critique of middle class “bourgeois” existence, which is to say  a critique of Aristotle’s “middling” regime.

In Schmitt’s conception of the People, the middle class or “bourgeois” form of existence is not the same as existential category the people: the genuine life of the people is not a bourgeois middle class liberal republic.  Moreover, Aristotle thought the middle behaves most reasonably – but Schmitt seems to indicate that it weakens the resolve to act and make decisions, inspires a conciliatory compromising attitude, which betrays principles.   Schmitt’s solution is not to discover where is “virtue” in the Republic, but to locate the faculty of decision-making, to find what seems most lacking in bourgeois liberal republican existence.  But this faculty of decision-making – the ability to make decisions for Schmitt is not the ability to deliberate and conceive of alternatives, and make wise choices – it is not found in prudence, but in a the power of resolve, will to power combined with the unity of German people.

It would seem, then, that Schmitt became involved in Nazi Party and anti-semitism, not as an accident or personal failing. His participation could be construed as a logical consequence of his constitutional theory, which is founded on a value-free norm-free act of the collective will.

At the end of our conversation, one is left with a greater appreciation and understanding of the impasses of our times, but also with the sense that the worth of certain ancient writers  for our times – like Aristotle – ought to be reappraised.

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Conformity and Authenticity Tue, 26 Mar 2013 15:46:44 +0000 David Saussy In his classic but forgotten essay “This Age of Conformity” (1955), Irving Howe lamented the retreat of radical intellectuals into the safe haven of University departments across America: conformism, it seemed, had won the day. The West had defeated fascism, the rise of Stalinism had refuted the claims of hard-line communism, and crisis of depression had been adverted without recourse to revolution.  For radicals, this experience was a hard lesson, forcing many to revise their views: revolution might not be the only path to saving civilization from itself.  A few underwent a more complete apostasy and became a new kind of conservative.  If ever there was a conformist in Howe’s eyes, Irving Kristol was surely one.  Kristol – the godfather of the “neo-conservatives”, and a former Trotskyist from the CCNY back in the 30s – must have perplexed and even infuriated Howe, as he came to write for Commentary magazine, and became one of the few talented intellectuals who defended Senator Eugene McCarthy in the early Fifties.

By his own standards, Irving Howe was not completely pure, however, for he taught English at Brandeis University in the 1950s.  But the academic experience gave him enough information to indicate that a great change was taking place in the scene of American intellectual life. The late 40s and 50s – with its GI Bill and the explosion of technical and industrial output – would inaugurate the post-war expansion of the University system, doubling and tripling in size by the end of the century. Hard-boiled intellectuals like Howe – who wrote for Partisan Review in its heyday and started the magazine Dissent in the 1950s – remained a stalwart defender of the calling of the intellectual, which ostensibly is – or was – “to start a magazine.” To accept an academic post – for all of its “academic freedom” – would entail a loss of independence and, more importantly, the loss of critical distance required for the radical intellectual. But even worse, the academic life spelled a loss of principle.

In the 1940s, Schumpeter famously gave an account of the sociology of the modern intellectual class – which he described as an “adversary culture”: this adversary culture, Schumpeter argued, was an internal necessity in the development of  capitalism.
Evidently Josef Schumpeter had not forseen the fate of the adversary culture of the intellectuals under the influence of post-war prosperity.  Despite the outbreak of New Left in the 1960s, the radical intelligentsia never overcame their love-affair with large institutions like the University.  Howe’s challenge to radical intellectuals still stands: independence of thought, critical distance is the most valuable possession of the social critic. Considering the political and economic power of the University, do radical intellectuals have any business there?


“To thine own self be true!” Conformity is not merely a weakness in character; it appears to constitute for some the deepest kind of betrayal, more treasonous than the betrayal of ones own country.  According to the idea, the question is not discovering what ones specific nature is – one is not a being with a specific nature – but the only question that matters is discovering and expressing the authentic self.  One is oneself first and foremost, and only accidentally a member of a political community or a tradition.   La Trahison des Clerics, the treason of the intellectuals, is understandable, if it is true that what comes first is really this authentic humanity.

A patriot loves his country as his own, but what we are dealing with in the related ideas of conformism and authenticity is something far different: the man who lacks strong beliefs and guiding principles merely adjusts himself to the expectations and desires of others, following along with mass sentiments. No fixed standard holds for mass sentiments: whatever direction they take, so will the man without principle follow them, will-nilly.  As David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd describes it, he is as it were guided not by a ‘gyroscope’, but a ‘radar’. Conformism presupposes the concept of mass society and ‘mass man’ – the term “mass” has the sense of alienation or estrangement from man’s authentic nature. The mass man  – entertained, anxieties soothed and comforted by a thousand conveniences and fantasies – has no real sense of his own power and limitations, but lives in a state of perpetual distraction, agitation, and alienation – he is blind to the emptiness of his own life and ignorant of his own nature. But if conformism presupposes mass society, it also presupposes the collapse of traditional sources of authority.


A choice must be made at the level of principle: either this love of authenticity – expressed in the maxim “to thine own self be true” – in its full expression is acceptable or it is not.  But in order to accept this position as a guiding light, as the principle to which which all commitments and choices refer, out of which fulfillment grows  – one must also weaken the demand of three sources of authority, by subordinating them to the self: nature, tradition (or obligations to prescribed laws and duties) and reason.  The authority of tradition and nature had already been mitigated by the advance of reason in the form of modern science and the idea of the rights of man embodied by the constitution of democratic regimes. For science presupposes that man shall become master and possessor of nature; and the modern democratic solution to the political problem is that reason shall rule, not traditional obligations and not men, in order to free mankind of the tyranny of tradition, to allow the free play of the heterogeneous ends of human life.

Reason is what makes evident things which by nature get obscured in human discourse.  Reason as a ruling principle is written into the very foundation of our inherited legal and political institutions. By all accounts, reason – or a certain form of reason – had become the predominant authority in principle under modern political arrangements.

But while reason itself may be authoritative in principle, Tocqueville shows so adroitly in his work Democracy in America that the authority of reason is yet again challenged by a fundamental feature of the new political and economic world: equality of conditions.   If everyone is equal, then no one is better than anyone else in an essential way. There are no differences in kind between people, differences which in other worlds would demarcate a superior class from an inferior class of people.  Differences between people certainly exist, but these are now understood to be merely horizontal shades of degree and not vertical differences in kind. The trust one may place in authority, therefore, is conditional or relative and not absolute.  Under the equality of conditions, one is thrown back upon oneself as the final arbiter of judgments concerning the good. 

The idea of equality – supported by the concept of the rights of man – is a liberating idea: it liberates from nature, tradition and reason.  In this way, nature, traditional prescription, and reason cannot be an organizing moral principle – they must be silent about what the good life is, and which values are worth living and dying for.  The question must be answered – whether consciously or unconsciously  - in the course of life, and in order to answer it, one has recourse neither to reason, nor tradition, nor nature but to oneself.  All three sources of authority are the nexus of determined necessity: to follow them is a denial of freedom: the authentic self, on the other hand, is the source of freedom.   The authentic self is neither natural, traditional nor reasonable: no wonder its expressions in art are absurd, rebellious, unnatural…and mannerist. 

But we have to ask – authenticity and the idea of equality liberates for what? Two alternatives remain in the search for the good life: conform to a value neutral “norm”; or be true to oneself.  But who am I if not a being with a specific nature, or a being shaped or directed by the laws and customs of a tradition, or a reasonable being?  There appears to be no way to answer this question, and in this light conformism seems to be the winner in the battle between conformity and authenticity.  Authenticity becomes indistinguishable from a kind of conformism, thus the herd of independent minds, in which efforts to distinguish ourselves in various ways, from thoughts to dress and “life-styles”, look the same.    




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Seminar Report: Aristotle, Montesquieu and Tocqueville Thu, 21 Mar 2013 16:04:39 +0000 David Saussy Last night iSymposium held its third Socratic seminar in a series of four on the phenomenon of constitutions.  Every two weeks starting last month on Wednesday, February 20th, a group of thoughtful individuals – hailing from across the country – have gathered to discuss problems and the nature of Constitutions, beginning with an examination of Aristotle’s “Politics” Book IV,   continuing with Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws” and Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”; and finally on Wednesday April 3rd the group will take on selections from a lesser known but still significant voice on Constitutional Theory, Carl Schmitt.  

I’ve enjoyed participating in these thoughtful discussions.  We’ve had a good balance of very close readings of the text and discursive discussion on a number of broader themes.  I’ve walked away after 2 and a half hours of discussion with a broader and deeper appreciation of each of the texts, not to mention the whole field of problems surrounding Constitutions.      

The following list of questions will give you a taste of some of the issues we discussed during the Aristotle session:

  1. What does Aristotle mean by the term ‘constitution’? Compared to modern usage, how does Aristotle’s usage differ?
  2. Why does Aristotle think it essential for a lawgiver to know the diversity of constitutions? Do you think the taxonomy of constitutions he supplies is well-fitted to the subject matter?
  3. Does Aristotle think that the constitution of a city is a constant or variable quality? To what extent does he think the lawgiver is capable of changing the constitution of a city?
  4. Is it a problem for Aristotle’s theory if the constitutional status of a city is ambiguous? How does Aristotle sort constitutional ambiguities, such as the case of Sparta?
  5. How highly does Aristotle value the permanence of a constitution relative to other traits? Would Aristotle be willing to accept  inferior laws if it meant a longer duration for a city’s constitution?
  6. Why does Aristotle rely so much on class, such as rich, poor, noble, ignoble, etc., to understand the constitution of a city? What is the reason Aristotle thinks the middle class are conducive to the maintenance of the laws?
  7. For what reason does Aristotle center his discussion mostly on the condition of democratic and oligarchic governments? Does Aristotle think a lawgiver should favor some forms of government of others?

In our discussion of Montesquieu and Tocqueville, we wondered about the status of virtue.  For Aristotle, virtue is one of the most important considerations even in the second best, or best possible, regime.  His justification for the “middling” type of regime is rooted in an argument he makes in the Nicomachean Ethics.   Montesquieu, as he lays out his doctrine of the separation of powers in government, seeks a kind of machinery for government which does not depend upon the particular virtue of individuals.  This is needed, he argues, in order to preserve political liberty.  Virtue, if anywhere found to be important for political liberty, is civic virtue, that is, the  concern for common interest.   Tocqueville, who has been influenced by Montesquieu’s work,  argues that in certain positions in the American system, more is needed than civic virtue.

The Federal judges must not only be good citizens, and men possessed of that information and integrity which are indispensable to magistrates, but they must be statesmen—politicians, not unread in the signs of the times, not afraid to brave the obstacles which can be subdued, nor slow to turn aside such encroaching elements as may threaten the supremacy of the Union and the obedience which is due to the laws.  …If the Supreme Court is ever composed of imprudent men or bad citizens, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war.      

Tocqueville therefore restores the problem of virtue in his discussion of the power of the Supreme Court, a problem which Montesquieu appears to have set aside in his “Spirit of Laws”.

The conversations on the phenomenon of Constitutions have touched on so many other ideas and questions, I cannot possibly hope to reproduce them here.  But we hope you can join us for our final discussion in two weeks on selections from Carl Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory!


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“Plato’s Phaedrus: Luminously Epiphanic” by Reynaldo Miranda Mon, 18 Feb 2013 07:00:22 +0000 David Saussy Plato’s dialogue The Phaedrus, is itself, in its entirety, an articulation of the faith-hope-and-love that sustains aloft and makes possible the logoi, our ratiocination by winged words, as he tries to rescue the boy Phaedrus who is too ignorant to distinguish properly and is much too easily impressed by bells and whistles.  Within said articulation is the notion of sedimentation we have already described, when Socrates says to Phaedrus at 274c-275b:

Well now, I heard [from men of former times] how there was, near Naucritus in Egypt, a certain one of the old gods there, whose sacred bird is the one they call Ibis.  And the name of this demon is Theuth.  Now, this one first found number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, and further draughts and games of dice, and then, indeed, written letters.  Now furthermore, at that time the king of all Egypt was Thamos, in the upper region’s great city, which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god Ammon.  Coming to him, Theuth displayed his arts, and said they must be given out to the other Egyptians.  He asked what benefit each art had, and as the other went through them, he expressed blame on the one hand, praise on the other, for what in his opinion the other spoke beautifully, or not beautifully.  Many things, then, about each art in both senses, it is said, did Thamos reveal to Theuth, to go through which would make a long speech.  And when it came to written letters, ‘This knowledge, king,’ said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and provide them with better memory; for it has been found as a drug for memory and wisdom.’  And the other said, ‘Most artful Theuth, one person is able to bring forth the things of art, another to judge what allotment of harm and of benefit they have for those who are going to use them.  And now you, being the father of written of letters, have on account of goodwill said the opposite of what they can do.  For this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through neglect of memory, seeing that, through trust in writing, they recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves.  You have therefore found a drug not for memory, but for reminding.  You are supplying the opinion of wisdom to students, not truth.  For you’ll see that, having become hearers of much without teaching, they will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they’ve become wise in their own opinion [wise in appearance] instead of wise. (trans. James H. Nichols Jr., in Agora Editions series, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998, p. 85-6)

In fact, all of Plato’s dialogue writing may be regarded as an attempt to forestall the inevitable falsification of philosophy, in a certain sense, by the written treatise and philosophy’s decadence into an academic discipline, and to preserve its true character as living speech.  So Plato, the great poet and dramatist, turns to writing mimetic plays of philosophic conversation, imagined likenesses of actual philosophy that may capture the imagination of readers with philosophic aptitude, who might then seek out the Lyceum, and do so long after the master’s death.  One may consult his marvelous Seventh Letter. But this aporetic and dialogic nature of philosophy need not be limited to the genre of dialogues.  For Plato’s pupil Aristotle internalized that nature in his treatises and lectures, and Aristotle’s student Thomas of Aquinas also internalized the same in his commentaries, and summa and their articles.

If the Phaedrus is luminously epiphanic (as the very name of its title character promises), we can only describe Cicero’s On the Orator as ghostly.  Even the setting of Cicero’s dialogue is decadent: in place of lyrical nature there is a villa, in place of the Illisus outside the city walls, there is a concrete irrigation canal, etc.  Cicero’s dialogue takes place among a group of leading lawyer-statesmen talking shop on a respite from Rome.  The opening given in Cicero’s own voice is an autumnal, bucolic lamentation by which Cicero introduces himself, the author, as an upstanding Roman of patrician-senatorial gens—pious, traditionalist, communitarian.  Yet, he intimates: if the mores handed down from Romulus, Laius, and Aeneas, were sufficient sustenance, why then is their beloved republic on its death bed?  And so, slowly, ploddingly, the lawyers disentomb the luminous Delphic motto Know thyself, and the Socratic motto The unexamined life is unlivable from the massive sedimentation of Roman laws and customs.  A Phaedrus, in so far as it is possible, for a nation of lawyers and engineers—in that way much like our own.

John Henry Newman gives us yet another Phaedrus, this time closer to the original, in that he is a schoolboy.  The schoolboy Newman describes had to translate from Latin into Greek and English and back into Latin and Greek, etc., parse the grammar unseen, imitate the style in his own compositions–he easily may have thought he understood the classic authors.  But how could he if even the best writers of his generation cannot replicate the classic accomplishment?  If this is right, which has priority how so, the dead letter, or the living language?  Notice Newman will pun on Virgil’s name (magician) and record the medievals’ regard for Virgil as a prophet (one who is possessed to deliver a message he himself does not know)–many Christians believed Virgil prophesied in the Aeneid.  His pathos “giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, that is the experience of her children in every time.”  And notice that the boy memorizes the words, and only perhaps decades later does their meaning come home to him, a seasoned man with sufficient experience of the world:

Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author.  Passages which to a boy are but rhetorical common-places, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness.  Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival.  Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician, his single words and phrases, his pathetic [full of pathos] half lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, that is the experience of her children in every time. (An Essay in the Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Ch. 4 Notional and Real Assent, s. 2 Real Assent)

Let us continue to read old books, then, and to talk about them together.

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“Jacob Klein: Clearing the Way” Part 4 by Reynaldo Miranda Mon, 11 Feb 2013 07:00:23 +0000 David Saussy (This guest post by Reynaldo Miranda follows upon prior installments of reflections on reading great books and the phenomenon of sedimentation, the problem of meaning and words. Read Parts One, Two and Three here, here and here)

It is not only C. S. Lewis the philologist who raises this important theme, but increasingly the philosophers of the twentieth century, such as Husserl, Heidegger, Klein, and Oakeshott.  In 1964 the Instruction Committee of St John’s College visited the new second campus at Santa Fe, New Mexico, while there was public concern over undergraduate education at UC Berkeley.  St. Mary’s College of California invited the Instruction Committee to visit St. Mary’s and meet with West Coast academics from Stanford, Cal, UC Davis, Claremont Men’s College, Reed College, Santa Clara University, University of San Francisco, San Jose State University, and several theological seminaries that would later combine into the Graduate Theological Union consortium.  The Colloquium on the Liberal Arts met from the 25th through the 27th of March 1965.  Among the attendees was Josef Pieper (during a sabbatical year at Stanford), though sadly there is no record of his intervention(s).  Jacob Klein was invited to deliver the opening address, which he titled “On Liberal Education,” and was first published in The Bulletin of the Association of the American Colleges, vol. 52, no. 2 (1966):

Let me turn to the difficulties inherent in the preservation of the liberal arts through generations of men.  Words used in common speech do not always preserve their commonly accepted meaning.  This commonly accepted meaning itself ranges, more often than not, over a series of connected shadings and connotations.  In the perspective of a detached inquiry the meaning of a word usually loses its ‘natural’ ambiguity, becomes more fixed, gains a definite significance determined by the scope of the attempted and sustained investigation, which investigation may lead to the establishment of a science, an art, a ‘techne’.  The inquirer then turns of necessity, into an ‘expert’ who is able to pass his knowledge on to others, who is able, in other words, to become a teacher.  It is thus that words do indeed become ‘technical’ and transcend the habitual and familiar.  Special terms, moreover, may be coined to satisfy more fully the understanding gained in the investigation.  And yet, the ‘technical’ use of words tends, in turn, to become accepted and to win a familiarity of its own.  The passing on of sciences, arts, and skills, especially of intellectual ones, cannot quite avoid the danger of blurring the original understanding on which those disciplines are based.  The terms which embody that understanding, the indispensable terms of the art, of the ‘techne’ in question, the ‘technical’ terms, acquire gradually a life of their own, severed from the original insights.  In the process of perpetuating the art those insights tend to approach the status of sediments, that is, of something understood derivatively and in a matter-of-fact fashion.  The technical terms begin to form a technical jargon spreading a thick veil over the primordial sources.  Again, whatever else may be said about liberal education, we are justified in setting down as a second rule that liberal education has to counteract this process of sedimentation and to find the proper way of doing this. (Taken from Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays, ed. Robert B. Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman, Annapolis, MD: St. John’s College Press, 1985, p. 263)

Let us note that sedimentation according to Klein is a natural process that is a two edged sword: it at once maintains and nourishes the roots that would otherwise die, and also obscures those roots from the mind’s eye.  As Klein says, formal speech settles and sets, it serves as a foundation from which to develop in certain directions and not others, and finally the original questions and problems it addressed are forgotten and/or confused.  Because we live in time the past lives on within the present, whether we are aware of it or not.  Therefore, we cannot understand the present without de-sedimenting it.  The way we do this is by turning to old books and pictures, and trying to understand them as they present themselves, that is on their own terms.

A few years earlier, Klein, in “The Idea of Liberal Education”, his contribution to The Goals of Higher Education (ed. W. D. Weatherford, Jr., Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) had put it thus:

Liberal education is a precarious and even perilous kind of business.  Let me show you the great obstacles that stand in its way.  These obstacles are not external impediments, nor do they stem from nonrational sources in man.  On the contrary, these obstacles are rooted in what is specifically human in man, and it is not possible not to meet them.

The second obstacle to liberal education is our condition as heirs of intellectual traditions.  Here again, it is man’s own rational nature that brings this obstacle about.  [Other] Animals do not pass on their skills to their progeny in such a way that those skills can accumulate and grow.  Man, and only man, does precisely that.  His skills and knowledge are many-storied edifices.  Each generation adds something to what has been previously built and preserved.  We are proud of this fact and call it progress.  And, indeed, such progress does exist in definite areas.  But this very fact confronts us with the ever-present danger of sedimentation, fossilization, or petrification of our knowledge.  We are fond of pointing to the European universities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which exhibit those petrifying tendencies rather clearly and are prone to exalt the fresh wind of the Renaissance and Humanism that blew all the accumulated dust away.  But it behooves us to look at our own institutions of higher learning and to discern these same tendencies among us.  We are not immune.  This danger is inherent in all learning and all scholarship, and liberal education can never ignore it. (Taken from Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays, pp. 166, 167-8)

We should be more precise:  It is not that words age and decay, in this we have spoken figuratively and projected from our own perspective, anthropomorphizing words; rather, we and our faculties grow old, frail, and palorous.  The words of Homer and the Gilgamesh poets are ever new and ever youthful and fresh; we as hearers and readers are the ancient ones who find it more and more difficult to follow in the footsteps of the authors, and remain faithful to their work, and thus to share in that work.

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Seminar Report: Supreme Court Case, DC V Heller (2008) Thu, 07 Feb 2013 07:00:10 +0000 David Saussy On Monday night, February 4th, iSymposium reconvened for the second of a two part series on the issue of gun control.  The text under scrutiny was the landmark Supreme Court ruling, DC v Heller (2008).

Now, readers may wonder – “What? A Supreme Court Case is not a great book. It’s a technical document full of “legalese” ordinary people can’t read without a law degree.”  To this, we reply: “This is, respectfully, not true.  You can read it, and you don’t need a law degree!”  But let me state a few reasons why it might be a good idea to offer and participate in seminars on Supreme Court Cases.

First, both the United States Constitution and the Opinions of the Court are primary sources texts which often touch on great fundamental questions of importance to not just a select class of people, but to all people.  I might have said only citizens of the United States, and properly speaking this is true.  But many of the greatest cases raise deeper questions about the best relationship between laws and the order of powers in government, or the relationship between the government and the people, and the nature and extent of fundamental rights of man as man.

A second reason for conversations on Supreme Court Cases comes from our belief  – following Tocqueville – that the American Legal System – for all of its well-known problems – remains America’s “free school”.   While Constitutional cases can sometimes be very technical – in general the most important cases are clearly and artfully written, in such a way that generally educated citizens can read them.  Cases as they are written – both the Opinion of the Courts and the Dissenting Opinions – frequently provide historical accounts of Court decisions and precedents at issue. So you don’t need to consult much outside information to get a handle on the ideas and arguments presented.   Furthermore, these cases are made available by the Court for everyone.  It would not be merely hyperbolic to claim that Supreme Court Cases are our birthright – to be more informed citizens of a democracy, we ought to make it our business to read the words of the Justices themselves – to go directly to the source, not rely on Cable Networks to tell us how to understand rulings.   The Cases serve as powerful vehicles for educating us about our common rights and – not only this – but our common interest as citizens of democracy.

The third reason for offering SCOTUS cases is that they present models of argumentation at the highest level on the most important issues that concern all of us.  Step outside of the worn-out political polemics of Cable News or even more trenchant and biased alternative media sources.  In principle and practice, the Supreme Court is intended to present the clearest legal thinking on current issues (as they pertain to the Constitution) by men and women who are not blown about by the winds of fashion and fortune – at least not as much as pundits and politicians.  The divisions of opinion and rhetoric still exists in SCOTUS decisions, but there is a clarity about the argumentation and procedure that can help thoughtful folks learn about the real issue and the real conflicts at stake – whether we’re talking about issues like health care, gun control, gay marriage, violent video games and so many others, Court decisions are one of the best and even purest sources we can consult to get a handle on the issue itself.  We can go to them just to see what the devil is the issue after all: that’s why it’s so valuable to read and talk about SCOTUS decisions.


Cases in American Law begin with a conflict between two parties.

In this case, a District of Columbia law which banned handgun possession, as well as carrying an unlicensed handgun. It also required residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device.

“Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms in the home.” (From the Case Syllabus or summary)

The prohibition was overturned by the Court.

Now, DC v Heller is the first case since the framing of the Bill of Rights – in over 150 years – to take on and explicate the meaning of the Second Amendment. It becomes clear from reading the case that it is not the final word. Justice Stevens attacks Scalia for leaving open the scope of the Government regulation; as Scalia argues in Section III, the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right, but the government has the power to regulate firearms on a number of grounds – but he does not list these grounds exhaustively.

The Second Amendment, by the way, reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear  Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The entire case turns on how to read the text of the Second Amendment.  Does the Second Amendment only protect the right to keep and bear arms connected with militia use? Or does it protect an individual right unconnected with militia service?

Justice Scalia, who wrote the opinion of the Court, argues that:

“The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” (Syllabus)

You may be wondering how we get from the the Second Amendment to Scalia’s interpretation.  Justice Stevens, who wrote one of two dissenting opinions, wonders as well, and argues that the more natural reading of the Second Amendment is this: it enumerates a single right and duty to have arms available and ready for military service and to use them for military purposes when necessary.

Moreover, the Pennsylvania and Vermont Constitutions at the time stated explicitly an individual right to bear arms for hunting or self-defense. Stevens asks the Court why the Framers didn’t just add self-defense to the prefatory clause, if that is indeed what they intended?

Socratic conversation is spontaneous – it follows the arguments where they lead.  A pre-programmed order of questions is not imposed – the conversation is given the maximum latitude of freedom (while staying on topic and the text).  The reason why is that this freedom allows the conversation to yield insights and important arresting questions which might otherwise be concealed by the programmed order of questions.  Jon Haron, the leader of the seminar, took notes on the following questions that came up in the conversation:

  1. What is the essential reason Scalia’s opinion gives for why the operative clause of the 2nd Amendment provides a personal right to have a gun?
  2. Why does Scalia argue the prefatory clause has neither an expanding nor a limiting effect on the operative clause? Do you agree?
  3. To what extent is the textual analysis in Scalia’s opinion dependent or independent of the historical analysis? Supposing he were wrong on the history, would his textual analysis be flawed too?
  4. Scalia’s opinion announces limits to the 2nd Amendment right but does not describe a standard for ascertaining those limits. Was this a serious or an insubstantial omission in his opinion?
  5. The Stevens opinion disputes almost every aspect of Scalia’s historical analysis, often interpreting the same evidence to the opposite effect. Who do you think has the better of the historical argument?
  6. Do you think the controversy over the historical evidence undermines the conclusiveness of the Originialism methodology? Are there other interpretative method would you suggest to help derive meaning from enigmatic laws?
  7. If Stevens argument is right that the 2nd Amendment is for the most part a collective, and not a personal, right, does his reading cast the 2nd Amendment into obsolescence? If so, how much does that strengthen the case for Scalia opinion?
  8. Were you persuaded by the way Breyer’s opinion reformed the question in the case, from whether there is a personal right, to what is the scope of the right?
  9. Do you agree with Breyer’s conclusion that the appropriate level of review for the 2nd Amendment is the Intermediate Scrutiny standard that would involve an interest-balancing analysis? If not, do you agree the level of review should be higher (Strict Scrutiny), or lower (Rational Basis)?
  10. All things considered, whose arguments did you find most persuasive in the case? And were you left fully or only partially persuaded?

One of the interesting things about DC v Heller is the conflict of interpretations over a single line of text in the Constitution.  The nature of a written constitution such as ours, the questions of the organization and role of powers in government in general, is an interesting question raised by this case.

In light of this, on Wednesday February 20th, iSymposium will launch a new series on the phenomenon of constitutions.  The first seminar is on Aristotle Politics, Book IV. These seminars are free and open to all who have an interest in reading some classics and engaging in discussion.  Beginners are welcome at the table – there are no prerequisites for the series besides a willingness to tackle the reading and talk freely about it.   Free PDF copies of the readings are available on the Constitutions page.

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