October 15, 2018
eventy years ago, Leo Strauss boldly claimed that political theory, practiced correctly, could be wiser and more powerful than the political science of his day. In his introduction to On Tyranny (1948) Strauss argued we needed a new science of politics. Having failed to predict two consecutive world wars—to say nothing of preventing them—political science was manifestly bankrupt. In this moment of crisis, Strauss attempted to revive the study of classical political philosophy as inaugurated by Socrates.
Did Strauss succeed? Political theory remains more an object of ridicule than reverence in today’s academy. Such ridicule is the starting point of Dustin Sebell’s excellent new book, The Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science. Sebell pulls no punches in criticizing the state of political theory today: it is incapable even of justifying its existence as a separate discipline, failing to make the case that it meets the standards of a rigorous science. Sebell convincingly argues that the prevailing consensus among political theorists is that their premises, arguments, and conclusions have the status of value-judgments rather than facts. In other words, they agree with their critics who fault them for not doing rigorous science. They disagree only about the consequence of this, viz., that they should no longer be employed by the academy. Sebell, a political theorist at Michigan State University, sides with the scientists. Sebell believes political theory must have a more rigorous defense than the request that value-judgments have their day in court. The Socratic Turn goes a great distance towards providing this defense.
Sebell writes with rigor and precision. If the precise is what scientists find most beautiful, then Sebell’s book should appeal to them. His exegesis of Socrates’s philosophical autobiography in Plato’s Phaedo weaves back and forth with a dialectical complexity designed to be scintillating and ultimately satisfying for modern scientists.
In substance as well as in style, Sebell’s argument is tailored to meet the scientific critique of theory head-on. Sebell reminds us that Socrates’s method of political philosophy arose out of a critique of natural science. As a young man, Socrates inquired into natural science because it claimed to explain the being of the world and the causes for the coming into being and the passing away of each of the beings in the world. But Socrates judged it failed to deliver on this claim, and so he turned instead to human opinions about nature and being as the starting point for philosophic inquiry. He turned to political philosophy like a sailor who falls to his oars when the wind that filled his sails dies down: Socratic political philosophy is a second sailing of the intellect.
Sebell argues that Socrates’s critique applies just as well to modern science as to ancient science, to Einstein as to Thales. From a layman’s perspective, modern scientists seem infinitely more sober than ancient ones. Sebell’s footnotes hint that modern and ancient science are more similar than might initially appear. For the most part, however, Sebell is content to argue the similarity of ancient and modern science by explaining Socrates’s critique of ancient natural science in a way that equally applies to modern natural science. The materialist-scientific account of the cosmos, he shows, necessarily leads to a confusion of different kinds of causes. Natural science fails to offer a convincing account of how the cosmos is and how it is intelligible, and of how these things go together. Consequently no natural science can offer a sufficiently rigorous account of the whole. Natural science’s ontology—its account of how things come to be and pass away, and how they are—is no more rigorous than the ontology implicit in religion. For Sebell, natural science is the religion of our age. Today, as in the time of Socrates, it falls to political philosophy to critique religious theology, and offer up an account of the causes and intelligibility of things that science cannot. Sebell’s account of Socrates’s second sailing shifts the plane of the debate about how to justify political philosophy: once natural science comes to light as akin to religion, then it is religious revelation rather than natural science that constitutes the principal alternative to political philosophy.
Although he leads us through Socrates’s account of the teleological or theological deficiencies implicit in natural science, Sebell does not immediately address the question of Socrates’s position on revelation at the time pictured in the Phaedo, shortly before his death. Instead, Sebell argues, Socrates’s position on revelation can be understood only through an analysis of the Phaedo’s famous teaching on the Forms.
Why does Plato present Socrates’s metaphysical teaching on the Forms and his thoughts on death and immortality in the same dialogue? Sebell suggests Socrates invents the Forms to avoid or temper accusations of impiety. Socrates’s study of natural science and metaphysics led him to conclude that there is no particular providence for human beings, and no immortality waiting for us after we die. But the loss of hope for eternal life is too much for most humans to bear, and they will turn upon whomever they perceive to have deprived them of it. The Forms preserves hope for eternity by positing the existence of transcendent, godlike entities that are the sustaining and stable source of the existence as well as of the intelligibility of everything. Sebell show that this teaching isn’t true, at least not in the way in which Socrates articulates it. But it does shield Socrates from the wrath of the many. When Socrates describes his second sailing to his interlocutors as a ‘safe’ or ‘saving’ account, his description is true but disingenuous: the life that the account of the Forms saves is Socrates’s own.
Sebell shows that the teaching on the Forms is not merely rhetorical, but reveals the specific character of Socratic philosophy to a select audience. Readers of the Phaedo who see that the teaching on the Forms is flawed will also discern the true teachings of Socratic political philosophy. Sebell’s analysis of exactly how Plato performs this feat of esoteric legerdemain is impossible to summarize here in its entirety, but the content one of the secret Socratic teachings Sebell reveals is of great importance. Socrates, according to Sebell, holds that the underlying ontological or phenomenological structure of the morally noble gives rise to both the just and the unjust. This is to say that, for Socrates, morality and immorality, piety and impiety, justice and injustice, are two sides of the same false coin: the ultimate root of moral behavior and immoral behavior, of religious piety and irreligious irreverence, of law and crime, is one and the same human psychological disposition. Sebell makes it clear that Socrates’s position does not amount to moral relativism, but it does decisively denigrate the moral and religious perspective. Sebell’s account of this psychological critique appears to be his response to the question of what Socrates thought about revelation. The content of this critique, the teaching that the just and the unjust have a common root, is the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” promised in the subtitle of Sebell’s book, among other places (e.g., Genesis 3:5).
According to Sebell, then, to understand Socrates’s teaching on the Forms is understand that though Socrates takes religious revelation more seriously than do natural scientists, he ultimately rejects it as an unsound psychological disposition. Sebell here follows in the footsteps of other Straussians, like Christopher Bruell and Lorraine and Thomas Pangle, for whom philosophy implies a psychological critique of the interconnected desires for morality, religion, and immortality. Like these scholars—and like Socrates himself—Sebell approaches the relation of Platonic political philosophy and revelation only indirectly, through the elaboration of religious psychology rather than through a direct examination of the competing ontological claims of political philosophy and theology. Socrates, however, was compelled to approach revelation indirectly, not only to deflect accusations of impiety, but also because ancient religion had no systematic theology or ontology. When he wanted to study natural science, Socrates had at his disposal books of more or less logical arguments from Anaxagoras and others—and he studied these books intensely. When he wanted to study revelation, the only texts available to him were the souls of believers—of the poet (in the Ion), of the pious man (in the Euthyphro), of the elders of the city (in the Laws), and of those concerned about the immortality of the soul (in the Republic and the Pheado). But these men all have “limited mental capacities.” Socrates’s own teaching on the Forms serves as a kind of surrogate for systematic theology, a facsimile of what a somewhat rigorous dialectical defense of the theological position would look like if such a defense existed in Socrates’s day: since theology did not exist, it was necessary to invent it.
There has been some progress in theology and ontology since Socrates’s day. Christianity claims that it is different from the revelation of ages past: “Behold, I make all things new.” Works of systematic theology like Aquinas’s De Ente, Summa Contra Gentiles, and Summa Theologiae directly address at least two of the key questions of the Phaedo: how there can be an efficient cause of being and how the noble can be understood to be the condition of both the just and the unjust? Sebell, like Strauss, is trying to revive political theory by imitating Socrates: if Socrates were alive today, it is difficult to imagine that he would not engage with Christianity’s teachings on these subjects.
Like many Straussians before him, Sebell substitutes a psychological critique of the religious mind for a direct engagement with theology. But Sebell has also given his readers an account that holds out hope for precisely such a direct engagement. For Sebell stakes the reputation of political philosophy on its ability to make the case that natural science’s ontology is no more dialectically sound than is religious ontology. In the ancient world, to prove that natural science was no more rational than religion was enough to discredit it. But in an age in which religious ontology takes the form of a long tradition of systematic theology, Sebell’s argument demands another step: either to demonstrate that ancient and Christian religious revelation are equally incoherent with respect to ontology, or to give a more extended and serious account of the relation between political philosophy and Christian theology.
Seventy years ago, Leo Strauss drew on the credit of Socrates to underwrite a political science that had gone bankrupt. Today, Dustin Sebell calls into question whether Socrates’s credit will suffice to restore political theory to solvency, or whether we must supplement Socratic political philosophy by drawing upon the deposit of faith.