Spinoza is forgotten, I think. People who should know better are not aware what they owe him. Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting exchange involving Francis Fukuyama. The interviewer, mentioning Spinoza, asserts: “secular liberal societies have real difficulty in coming up. . . with positive virtues that set boundaries on cultural behavior”. Fukuyama, amazingly, agrees:
This problem of how our post-religious societies come up with values was the critical issue for two celebrated thinkers from the University of Chicago—Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, and Leo Strauss.
Strauss called this “the crisis of modernity.” The question is whether there is a way of establishing values through reason and philosophical discourse without reverting to religion. His central argument was that classical political philosophy—the Greeks with their emphasis on “natural right,” or nature deciphered by reason as a source of values—had been prematurely rejected by modern philosophy.
The way to think about this is that we have both a deep philosophical problem and a practical political problem. The two may be related, but not necessarily.
The deep philosophical problem is whether you can walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzche and say that reason does permit the establishment of positive values—in other words that you can demonstrate the truth of certain ideas.
The practical problem is whether you can generate a set of values that will politically serve the integrating liberal purposes you want. This is complicated because you want those values to be positive and mean something, but you also can’t use them as the basis for exclusion of certain groups in society.
It is possible that we could succeed at doing one without the other. For example, the grounds of success of the American political experiment is that it has created a set of “positive” values that served as the basis for national identity but were also accessible to people who were not white and Christian or in some way “blood and soil” related to Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders of the country.
These values are the content of the American Creed—belief in individualism, belief in work as a value, belief in the freedom of mobility and popular sovereignty.
This upsets me. It is not a deep philosophical problem. We solved it in the C17th, or rather, Spinoza did. Spinoza formulated a clear philosophical underpinning, based completely on a priori reasoning, behind a series of core positive values: including unfettered reason which takes you where it must, freedom to think, respect for the opinions of others, individualism, democracy, and sympathy. The secondary attributes which follow on from Spinozism are the political outgrowths which, via Locke, Burke, Paine and the Founding Fathers, led to the US Constitution and the establishment of the United States of America.
The “practical problem” of exclusion I also do not understand. It seems very clear to me. The only people alientated by tolerance are the intolerant. Or does he mean it’s not clear that these principles are sufficiently attractive to unite disparate populations? Well, they’ve been backtested in the past 230 years or so and come through pretty well. Incidentally I am reading Allan Bloom (who Fukuyama mentions here) right now; my first impression is that he’s a dick. More on that later. It seems I also have to have a look at Strauss.
Fukuyama gets there in the end, but I simply do not understand why there is a debate about it in his head. If he knew anything about Spinoza, he simply could not suggest that whether we can “walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzche and say that reason does permit the establishment of positive values—in other words that you can demonstrate the truth of certain ideas” could be a “problem”. Of course you can do it. We can tell you how here. The problem simply should not exist, Fukuyama’s is a false dichotomy. But it clearly does in the minds of our peers, I am bothered about the blank acceptance of his ignorance. Our intellectuals have forgotten about Spinoza. What about you Bento? Do you think I am overly sensitive? Have you read any Strauss?