Friday, March 16, 2007

Secret Codes

I have never been a huge fan of the Straussian approach to interpreting Plato. Straussians often have very interesting and valuable things to say about Plato, but they sometimes read more into the text than seems to me to be warranted by what Plato actually says. In defense of their views they will often cite a passage from Aristotle where he says something about "Plato's 'unwritten doctrine'", that is, they claim that Plato often says things rather cryptically, his texts making arguments that are quite different from what the words actually say, and you have to be in on the secret code underlying the text in order to know what Plato really thinks on a particular issue. Needless to say, the Straussians sometimes think that they know this secret code and, hence, are in a better position to interpret Plato than those who do not know the code.

That's a rather cartoonish sketch of the Straussian position, but it gets across something of the flavor. At any rate, as I said, I'm not a huge fan of the approach, but if I were perhaps I would be able make some sense out of the comments made about me today at Reformed Catholicism. In particular, the claim is made there that I criticized their use of the Vincentian Canon when I posted on the topic yesterday. For the life of me I fail to see how my post could be interpreted as a criticism of their use of the Canon as a motto, but I confess that I may not be in on the Secret Code that reveals how any discussion of the Canon itself can be construed as a criticism of someone who quotes it.

They also suggest that I am being pedantic in pointing out that the motto as they have it is inaccurate. One can forgive a popularizer for using popular sources, perhaps, but I note with some satisfaction that the trend among Reformed Christians generally tends rather more to a salutary and refreshing exactitude with respect to textual references, indeed, almost to the point of scrupulosity in some cases, and so this particular defense of devil-may-care laxity is perhaps not so very disappointing, however (unintentionally) ironic it may be in the present case. I suppose there may be some connection between careful scholarship and the capacity to give and respond to reasons, however; it may serve to explain, at any rate, the level of discourse to be found at Reformed Catholicism. Too bad there are not more people like Socrates running about these days: he, rather famously, averred as to how he regarded it as a favor to have someone correct him when he was in error Nowadays the tendency seems to be to defend the error as truth at all costs, as though dialectic were some sort of zero sum game where saving face is the principal intellectual value.

As for the other misapprehensions and distortions to be found there today, I will leave their discovery to the reader as an exercise; as pedantic as I am, I am not so very pedantic as to feel the need to respond to every vapid banality that comes my way. If you choose to go there looking for further howlers, have fun: it may be that you will not need the skills of a Straussian to find them all.

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