Saturday, September 7, 2013
Montesquieu was a Straussian
Here is something to chew on, from Montesquieu’s My Thoughts [HenryC. Clark, trans.]:
Look at how, in Plutarch’s Life of Nicias, the scientists who explained lunar eclipses by natural causes were suspect to the people. The called them weather fanatics, convinced that they reduced all of divinity to natural and scientific causes, until Socrates cut to the root of everything by subjecting the necessity of natural causes to a divine and intelligent origin. The doctrine of an intelligent being was thus discovered by Plato only as an antidote and a defensive weapon against the calumnies of the pagan zealots.
Wow. Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a Straussian! That is to say that he interpreted a very significant element in Platonic/Socratic thought as essentially political in nature. Plato came up with the idea of an intelligent designer in order to protect philosophy against religious opposition.
I suspect that Montesquieu is right about that. Most of the speculation about God in Plato’s dialogues comes in the form of deliberately constructed myths or, what is the same thing, discussions of what teachings are proper to a healthy political community. It is an open question whether or in what way Plato believed in the divine, though I see no evidence of atheism in his thought.
Two more things stand out in this passage. One is that the tension between philosophy and religion has always turned on the problem of reductionism. It is the fear that, by explaining something, one explains it away. The second is that Plato was the originator of the doctrine of intelligent design. Surely that is wrong, one might object. Didn’t the pagan zealots believe in such a thing? No. Their beliefs were grounded in the myths. Plato’s notion of the intelligent designer begins with the intelligible Kosmos and reasons from that to God. That kind of thought might well begin with Socrates.