[The following is the preface to my forthcoming The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age (Rowman & Littlefield)]
Propadeutic to a Thumotic and Erotic Ontology. This is the fanciful and facetious subtitle I used to try out on friends when asked about the book I was writing. It was a serious joke.
“Propadeutic” is just a philosophically pretentious word for “introductory,” or “preparatory,” I think, so we can pass over that. “Ontology” can only invoke Heidegger and his question about the meaning of Being in relation to human being. “Thumotic,” from the Greek for spiritedness, suggests what Leo Strauss learned from the ancients about the political in political philosophy, that is, in a way of philosophizing that is attentive to the question of its own purpose and status, a philosophy aware of the need to affirm its own importance. Of all Straussians, Harvey Mansfield, who led me to Strauss, has been most attentive to the manly assertion of human importance as an essential philosophical problem. And “erotic” suggests a Platonic and then a Christian longing for a completion beyond our ken. An erotic philosophy could never fulfill such a longing, or it would be satisfied and no longer a longing.
Ontology’s question, the question of Being, arises from a kind of second-order wonder. Philosophy begins with the immediate experience of wonder before a partially intelligible whole of which we are small and apparently insignificant parts. Christianity deepens this wonder through its conviction that little parts like us who are aware of and can be open to the whole, open to something that exceeds us infinitely, are somehow ourselves, individually, of infinite significance to the whole, which whole must then have personal significance, which is to say it must be God’s. Ontology in the present sense was revived when Heidegger pursued this Christian deepening but attempted to remove God; ontology is a pondering on the openness of human beings to Truth, and on the power of Truth to solicit human beings. (Heidegger would like this pondering to be at once somehow maximally bold and maximally reverent; Leo Strauss somewhere remarks that Heidegger’s Being is as mysterious as the Biblical God yet as impersonal as the pagan Plato’s ideas – that is, utterly inhuman because neither personal nor intelligible.) Ontology, or talk about “Being” articulates a dissatisfaction with an assumed separation between thinking and meaning. For me, though not exactly for Heidegger, this implies dissatisfaction with the assumption that seeing things clearly and understanding moral and spiritual purposes are different capacities. What we call a questioning of the meaning of “Being” springs from a need to address the common ground of theory and practice. Yet obviously there can be no simple “theory” of the common ground of theory and practice. This set of preparatory essays is “thumotic” in that it invites us, not to discern such a ground as if it were a neutral object of cognition, but responsibly to affirm and enact such a ground; it is “erotic,” moreover, in striving to hold such an affirmation open to some consuming fulfillment, some revelation of meaning, that must ever surpass it. And again unlike Heidegger, I do not insist that such a revelation be thought in isolation from or against the notion of a personal God.
Though I have forsaken the self-mocking title, it is not obvious, in the explanation I have just given of it, that I have removed the cause of ridicule. This prefatory account of a response to the wonder of Being that would attend to thumos as well as eros no doubt still appears laughably remote from common sense, ordinary language, and actual practical concerns. So I may as well admit that I am a professor writing to other professors and to their students. Of course I warmly welcome readers who are neither paid professionals nor their captive audience, but I confess in advance to the professional deformation that is the cost of pursuing a conversation that our busy society has left to a very few – inevitably, no doubt, but still to the detriment, I think, of both few and many.
I am not willing, in any case, to forsake all hope that this project, and kindred projects that it might stimulate, could matter beyond the echo chamber of the philosophical and political-philosophical academy. I write to an academic audience with considerable recourse to a distinctly academic vocabulary, addressing as I must established and somewhat inbred schools of thought. But I do not write for simply academic purposes. In fact I would hope ultimately to contribute to a kind of healing of the rift between academic philosophy and social science on the one hand and the concerns of thoughtful citizens, statesmen, believers and lovers on the other. For in fact each side suffers from this separation of the most critical and self-critical thinking from practical (political, religious, poetic) existence. The alienation of thinking from goods we affirm or long for as human beings is a matter of far more than academic consequence; it concerns our city or civilization as well as our souls .
The investigations and reflections offered here are my own response to what I have experienced as a call to attune my own thinking to my own human (moral and spiritual, thumotic and erotic) being. But let me try to say that more directly and colloquially: what I have written is a working out of a hunch I have not been able to repress that intellectual excellence and moral-spiritual excellence cannot finally be separate. Such a response is never adequate, but I find some satisfaction in the capacity and the opportunity to share it. For this I am grateful. If others find some resource here in seeking their own attunement, their own integrity in theory and practice, then my satisfaction and my gratitude will be multiplied. And I hold it to be possible that by multiplying examples of such a reconciliation between thinking and goodness the common good might become both better and more common.