Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Neoconservatives' two forms of mysticism

Neoconservatism is an intellectual movement. Its leaders -- such as David Brooks, a writer for The New York Times and an adviser to Senator John McCain -- hope to steer the United States toward "national greatness" paid for by sacrificing the wealth and lives of its citizens.[1] The underlying philosophy of the neoconservative movement starts with a foundation of a metaphysics of supernaturalism (via Plato) and an epistemology of mysticism. Unlike most other mystics examined here in The Main Event, neoconservatives speak of mysticism in two versions, one esoteric and one exoteric, as explained by C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook, authors of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.

1. ESOTERIC MYSTICSM. Esoteric doctrines are ideas that theologians and other mystics discuss only among themselves and teach to select students in the inner circles of their movement. (The English word "esoteric" is related to the Greek adjective esoteros, "inner.") Esoteric doctrines are hidden from the public, that is, from the uninitiated individuals who might misunderstand the ideas and react with hostility.

In the 1930s to 1960s, the philosophical and intellectual founders of the neoconservative movement objected to reason as an ideal of the Enlightenment period (roughly 1700-1800). "Through reason," says Leo Strauss (neoconservatism's philosophical founder, 1899-1973), man "becomes aware of his world and its dependence on the 'upper world'." However, Strauss explains, reason is unable to rise to the highest truths, those grounded in that upper world. (p. 110)

What guide do the neoconservative leaders follow in climbing to the highest truths? Thompson and Brook show that Strauss, a Platonist, "seeks a mind meld with the eternal beings," that is, the Platonic Ideas. (p. 106) How can one gain such knowledge? As the first step, "Strauss thinks men gain access to the ultimate nature of things via thinking about what men say about them. Opinions are therefore the basic fact of social reality and are man's 'most important access to reality' . . . ." (p. 107)

As Plato's Socrates found, in Strauss's interpretation of Plato's dialogues, even that dialectical approach is insufficient for attaining higher knowledge. A second step is needed: recognizing that "some kind of nonrational or mystical great leap forward is required for the last push to the summit of wisdom," Thompson and Brook note. This second step is "divination" (daimonion in Greek), which is a kind of "divine illumination" or "revelation" from Plato's world of Ideas, says Strauss. (p. 108)

2. EXOTERIC MYSTICISM. Exoteric doctrines are ideas that theologians and other mystics discuss in the outer circle of their movement or among the public outside the movement, that is, those individuals who have not been "initiated" into special vocabulary and procedures. (The English word "exoteric" is related to the Greek adjective exoteros, "outer.")

The founders of neoconservatism complained that in the Enlightenment reason had "swept aside" the "faith, revelation, and mystic insight" of Medieval Christian culture. "Reason, argue the neocons, shatters everything that gives meaning to the lives of ordinary people; it undercuts their belief in everything that unites and brings order to society." Mysticism, the neoconservatives believe, is crucial to a united and orderly society. Mysticism is the foundation, and therefore for ordinary men the justification of ideas such as "the immortality of souls, . . . an afterlife, and . . . divine punishment, all of which [ideas] are necessary for [ordinary men] to bear the drudgery, injustice, and pain [of] . . . life in this world." In conclusion, the "neocons believe that all societies need religion," say Thompson and Brook. (pp. 78-79)

When leading neoconservative intellectuals speak in public, they advocate conventional monotheistic religions -- with their supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism -- as guides for non-intellectuals. (pp. 79, 126-127) A secular supplement to conventional religion is "civic religion." It turns the city or nation into a god to whom wealth and lives are sacrificed by their citizens. (p. 86)

"The [neoconservative] philosophic statesman knows that any such . . . civic religion makes truth claims that it cannot verify rationally," say Thompson and Brook. (p. 127) Lacking a rational base, neoconservative ideas about religion or national crusades require "benevolent coercion" to ensure public conformity. (pp. 127-128) Thus brute force must supplement mysticism -- as pro-reason philosopher Ayn Rand pointed out in her essay, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World."[3]

SUMMARY. Neoconservatives rely on and advocate mysticism in two forms. The first, intended for the inner circle of the neoconservative movement, is the secular, philosophical mysticism of "divination." The second, intended for the non-philosophical public at large, is the mysticism of conventional religion -- faith, revelation, and the authority of scripture or priests.

Burgess Laughlin, author,, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] This post draws from Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by C. Bradley Thompsom and Yaron Brook. I reviewed it here: (fully) and (narrowly). Their book, which I highly recommend for anyone who has a philosophically deep interest in current U. S. politics and culture, is available here: For David Brooks, the journalist, see the many entries under his name in the index of N:OI

[2] The N:OI index has no entry for "mysticism," "faith," or "divination." My own notes in the index cite: for "mysticism," pp. 79, 96, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 147, 148, 152, 164, and 224; for "faith," pp. 78, 79, 86, 87, 99, 108, and 147; and for "divination," pp. 108 and 147. The index does include entries for "Reason," citing pp. 23, 25, 49-50, 68, 73, 79, 85, 87, 107, 110, 146, 147, and others.

[3] Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," Ch. 7 of Philosophy: Who Needs It, 1982.


  1. Hi Burgess, in which dialogue did Socrates find that a dialectical process was insufficient to attain higher knowledge?

    Brad Williams

  2. Short answer: I don't know.

    That is, I don't know if Socrates every says that he relies on a daimon for ultimate answers. (I vaguely recall him saying that, but I can't find the location.)

    1. The article, "Neoconservatives' Two Forms of Mysticism," reports Thompson and Brook's presentation of, among other things, Leo Strauss's views. One of those views was that Socrates relied occasionally and ultimately on his daimon for "inspiration" (divination) to solve ultimate problems.

    Thompson and Brook cite Strauss's works for Strauss's views. I don't have Strauss's works, so I don't know which sources Strauss cites for his claim that Socrates sometimes went beyond reason and relied on his daimon for "inspiration."

    2. According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary ("Daimon"), Plato discussed the idea of daimon at these points:
    - Phaedo 107 d-e (a "guardian spirit," as a guide)
    - Republic 617 d-e (not clear which term represents "daimon" unless it is "divinity" -- I don't have the Greek text).
    - Republic 620 d-e ("genius" probably is the translation).
    - Symposium 202d-203a (translated as "spirit" -- "descending with the heavenly answers," says Diotima, who had taught Socrates certain lessons, Socrates said a page or so earlier).

    The index ("daemon(s)") of a complete works of Plato lists others, but apparently they are only mentions of daimon.

    3. I will reword the article's text to make the reporting chain clearer.

    4. An aside: Frederick Hamann (a fideist who was a younger contemporary of Kant) also interpreted Plato's Socrates as ultimately resorting to divination, that is, his daimon. (See Ch. 7, The Power and the Glory, for Hamann and Kant.)

    The sources I have for Hamann cite only Hamann's works not Plato's works. I have one by Hamann (Socratic Memorabilia) but it does not cite particular passages in Plato. (There was no standard numbering system then, I suppose, and Hamann wasn't a meticulous scholar.)

    I wonder if Strauss gained his interpretation from Hamann -- and neither of them actually cited passages in the dialogues. I don't know.

    5. Here is circumstantial evidence from other secondary sources and from my memory of reading Plato's dialogues many years ago:
    - As Plato portrayed him, Socrates in the later dialogues had less and less to say, and he used dialectic less and less. Answers were coming more dogmatically.
    - Dialectic itself, as Plato/Socrates used it, did not lead directly to answers about ultimate problems. It was a tool for uncovering Ideas already in the mind . . . somewhere.
    - A rhetorical question: What principles and concepts did Socrates develop dialectically with certainty? In other words, wasn't dialectics a never-ending process for Socrates?

    Thanks. A very interesting question.

  3. Anyone interested in Socrates, Plato, and the alleged impotence of reason through dialectics might also be interested in this book review:

    I do recommend the book for philosophy students who might be involved in its subject matter.


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