HOW TO READ DIALOGUES
I see that a refresher course in how to read dialogues is necessary. While I believe (perhaps hubristically) I’m qualified to give such a course, I don’t intend to do so here, as it would take too long, there are better sources, and such is in any case best done in the classroom. But I will nonetheless make a few elementary points.
In On Tyranny (1949), the book that single-handedly retaught those with eyes to see how to read dialogues, Leo Strauss remarks that interpreting a dialogue “comes dangerously close to the loathsome business of explaining a joke.” The whole point of the dialogue, as a genre, is that it is not a treatise. Hence its message is communicated largely indirectly. To explain how not only destroys the unobtrusive art of the dialogue itself, but obviates the point of having written in that form in the first place.
Cicero says, in his own name, that he writes dialogues in order to hide his own opinions (Tusculan Disputations V 11). But a principal advantage of the dialogue is that one needn’t ever say anything under one’s own name. Plato—as far as anyone knows, the inventor of the form—wrote 35 dialogues in which he never says a word (and indicates that he was present only once; Apology 34a, 38b). This allows the writer a certain level of protection from censors or, one may say as an update, woke retribution.
It is therefore a mistake to assume that one character represents or speaks for the author. To borrow an example Strauss himself cites, Shakespeare has his Macbeth declare that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (V v). To say nothing of the fact that when Macbeth says this, his soul is being ripped apart by guilt and his descent into madness is almost complete, is it really reasonable to assume that any single remark from any one character speaks for Shakespeare?
It will be retorted that this is an extreme example. By contrast, “everyone knows” that Socrates speaks for Plato (and Xenophon). Far be it from me to deny that the views of Plato’s (and Xenophon’s) Socrates are far closer to Plato’s (and Xenophon’s) views than Macbeth’s are to Shakespeare’s. But that still leaves open the question of why Plato and Xenophon did not choose to make themselves a, or the, character in even one of their dialogues.
In paying attention to those works, one notices many things which bear on their interpretation. First, are they narrated or performed? That is, are they presented in direct speech, rather like a play, in which the text comes to us as if it were a transcript? Or is the discussion someone’s recounting? If the latter, one must consider who is doing the recounting and what biases or purposes he may have. One also must consider how many degrees of hearsay separate the reader from the original conversation. Was the recounter present at the conversation he reports or did he hear it from someone? Did that persona also hear it from someone (and so on, potentially ad infinitum)? Second, when and where is the conversation said to have taken place? What might the author be trying to convey by the setting and the dramatic date?
Then each character’s words must be evaluated in their context: the dramatic situation, his state of mind, to whom he is speaking, for what purpose, etc. Not every character can be presumed to have been intended by the author to be intelligent or to speak in good faith. Also, just as all of us in our private lives speak differently to differing people, or even differently to the same people in differing situations, so one must assume that the characters in a dialogue, which is proffered after all as an imitation of life, do the same.
Nor can the reader assume that a character he dislikes or disagrees with, or believes the author feels the same way about, is always wrong. By the same token, one cannot assume that a dialogue’s “hero” or protagonist is always right. Inevitably in a dialogue, one will come across bad reasoning, risible statements, challenges unanswered, trains of thought dropped before taken to their logical conclusion, evasions, strawmen, and many other annoying, unsatisfying lines of argument. These need to be thought through in their dramatic context. Especially in the case of one who writes dialogues in order to hide his own opinions, part of the attraction of the genre is that much which remains unsaid is nonetheless intended to be inferred from what is said. Obvious conclusions and objections are often left unstated precisely to arrest the reader’s attention and make him wonder whether other, less obvious points are also left unstated and so induce him to look for them. More often than not (and always in the case of a great writer like Plato or Xenophon), all the objections that the reader thinks of in response to what he considers the inadequacies (or inanities) of the argument are already contained in the dialogue itself, if only by implication.
I make no comparison of myself to Plato or Xenophon. That said, my specific model, as to form, was Xenophon’s Hiero, a dialogue much simpler than the rest of his works (and than all but a few of Plato’s). And my dialogue was intended to be (and is) much simpler still. I deliberately avoided the performed v. narrated issue, opting instead for Xenophon’s mode of direct speech, using quotes separated by expressions such as “he said” and “he answered.” I similarly made it easy to figure out the setting and attached little importance to the date beyond a vague sense of contemporaneity. There are only two characters, thus reducing the need for the reader to spend more than the minimum of effort thinking through why this particular person might be making his particular point in that particular way to that particular person at that particular stage of the conversation. But that minimum effort is still required to understand it.
Still, for an audience not trained in how to read the genre, I supposed I should not be surprised that even a simple example proved troublesome. Yet as Strauss also liked to say, a certain bewilderment is the beginning of wisdom.I It is an educational cliché that the best books don’t teach one what to think but how to think. The danger of a treatise—even one written dialogically beneath the surface, like Machiavelli’s Discourses—is that the surface appears to present, in the author’s own name, conclusions that all but a few readers will take as final, sparing them the labor of thinking things through for themselves. The dialogue, whatever its other drawbacks, avoids this pitfall.
The value of the dialogue in modern discourse should then be obvious. The censor’s hand is stronger than it has been in centuries and the tools available to him are unprecedented. Censorship may not be the least of our problems but it is a huge problem, and one directly related to our greater problems. It’s hard to know what to do, and harder still when one is not allowed to talk about it. Which is the whole purpose of censorship: to forbid and, if necessary, persecute discussion of alternatives.
This leaves us with three options: forgo discussion, charge ahead heedlessly, or find other ways. The first is contemptible and guarantees failure.
As to the second, too many who see clearly the vileness of the present regime appear to believe that direct charges at its authority are the highest priority and indeed the highest good. At their worst, they attack people on their side for failing to say what they personally demand must be said, even—again, especially—if saying it guarantees instant cancellation. They assume either that anything not said must also be a thing not believed, even a thing contradicted, or else that prudence and caution can only be signs of cowardice or treason. Often they insist on both at the same time.
It’s tempting to respond: “Fine, if you want to sacrifice yourself for nothing, charge that machine gun and get shot.” But in fact the consequences of such bravado do not fall on the heedless alone. While heedlessness may be courageous, it also carries costs for those affiliated or associated with, even merely sympathetic to, the heedless. You are not helping your cause by saying things that guarantee the harsh reaction of the regime against your ideas and those who hold them, even—perhaps especially—if the things you say are true. Right now, only the left has the power to smash through the Overton window. We by contrast must nudge it open carefully and slowly. I realize that we’re running out of time, but that doesn’t make breaking glass any more useful at this moment. Besides, to compound the metaphor, anyone who has ever lived in an old house knows that a stuck window, gently worked for a bit, can suddenly become unstuck and fly open. But patience and care are required.
The flipside to counterproductive bravado is the conclusion that nothing big can be done because everything beyond smallball will necessarily fail. So why talk about things that can’t be done?
It’s a cliché, but not therefore false, to respond that if every dreamer were this “sensible,” then mankind would never have accomplished anything. It is also true that the doing of great deeds will once again require the coupling of great imagination with great daring. Of course, as always, both will have to be tempered by prudence, but a genuine prudence that recognizes the occasional necessity of risk, not the faux prudence which some hold to be synonymous with timidity.
This situation is dire; it is not hopeless. (And let me say as an aside, when you put me of all people in the position of dispensing white pills, that you are too blackpilled.) It is never hopeless because, first, one never knows what may happen. Virtue doesn’t always win, but it often does, and is only certain to lose when it doesn’t try. Second, fortune is capricious and does not consistently favor (as far as the human mind can discern) either side in any struggle. Third, adversaries make mistakes, even unforced errors. Fourth, despite its pretensions, this … thing cannot last forever. Even one of its own founders and most committed partisans admitted as much.II Fifth, and perhaps most encouraging, “there is no reason for despair as long as human nature has not been conquered completely i.e., as long as sun and man still generate man. There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds.”
I might also point out that many of the essays culminating in recommendations to do small things have an almost laughably anticlimactic quality. They sketch problems so huge they could only be addressed by grand solutions, only to propose … running for school board. Not to dismiss or ridicule running for school board. This and many other limited, local actions are going to have to be taken. They may even be (and likely are) indispensable foundation for future success. But if our problems are as large as these same authors assert, then such solutions cannot possibly be sufficient.
So I repeat the truism that, to know what to do, one must first debate what to do, which includes discussing the pros and cons of options that will eventually be ruled out. But the discussion must take place. Choosing smallball in advance is self-limiting, and will prove to be a mistake until and unless it is known that smallball will be sufficient and/or that all alternatives are impossible. Preemptive exclusions tend to cultivate defeatism.
In sum, the rhetorical challenge for now is to find a via del mezzo between encouraging self-defeating infantry charges and forbidding potentially fruitful conversations. That leaves only the third option. I’m not saying dialogues are the only way. But they are one useful way, and this moribund form deserves a return to favor.
(I) I feel as though I must address the frog hostility to Leo Strauss. I have never fully understood it, but it seems to boil down to two points: Strauss was Jewish; and Strauss was a “neocon.” Strauss was indeed Jewish, and if this fact alone is enough to put you off reading him, I realize there is nothing I can say to change your mind. Not to bring up the whole can of worms of what some on the dissident right like to call the “JQ,” but our views on this differ. If that forces you to conclude that I too am not worth reading, or even am somehow your enemy, there is nothing I can do about that either—or at least nothing I’m willing to do except what I’ve been doing all along, which is make the best arguments I can. Even summarizing the connection and tension between what Strauss called “Athens and Jerusalem,” and the commonalities and differences between the two main strands within “Jerusalem,” would be too long and exalted a matter to explore here—except to say that the West wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be the West without both. Just as there could be no modernity without antiquity, the New Testament depends decisively on the Old. Imagining the West without the Bible is like trying to reinterpret the United States without rights. I know that both takes are popular in certain quarters of the new right, but both are also, in my view, philosophically incoherent, historically illiterate, and self-defeating. That said, Leo Strauss is simply, in my view, the best guide to our present crisis. He is much more than this as well, but let’s stick with just that. Strauss seems to have seen coming the decay all around us decades before it became obvious to anyone else. In other words, he managed to do what Machiavelli (in Prince 3) says is all but impossible: to foresee future crises well before they arise, when signs of them are evident to few and will be denied by most. Strauss did all this in large part via careful readings of the most important books in the Western canon, from Homer to Nietzsche and beyond—books that people who self-identify not just as Westerners but as Western conservatives should revere. The insights of the great poets, philosophers and historians on whom Strauss focused remain our greatest source of wisdom, and Strauss is our best contemporary guide to their works. Strauss himself would be the first to say (and did often say) that no commentary or explication can compare to, much less equal, direct study of the original texts. So by all means, read them. And if you can do it without Strauss’s help, great. Though, if I am blunt, I would say that you are depriving yourself of a very great resource for reasons that don’t make sense. And that, since you’re not as smart or learned as Strauss was, you’d be better off accepting his generous offer of help. As for Strauss’s alleged “neoconservatism,” he died in 1973, when neoconservatism was still a movement focused almost solely on social science, public policy, and domestic concerns. It’s true that when a younger generation of neoconservatives later turned to foreign policy, a few of them were Straussians (though only one, as far as I know, actually studied with the man himself). But these few Straussians were vastly outnumbered by the non-Straussians and, more to the point, nothing in Strauss’s oeuvre demands or even suggests a policy of foreign adventurism. My teacher and now colleague Thomas West—who actually studied with Strauss and remains a staunch opponent of neocon foreign policy—went through all this nearly twenty years ago and his analysis still stands.
(II) I can hear some frog groaning that a citation to Engels is the sure sign of a dumb boomer convinced that our problem is “socialism.” The problem is indeed much deeper, but still related, and Engels hits the nerve of it here: the alleged historical dialectic, culminating in the “universal and homogenous state,” a term coined a half-century later by the left-Hegelian Alexandre Kojève. Read the latter’s “Tyranny and Wisdom,” followed by his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, and tell me they do not describe the present regime, both in operation and aspiration. Engels is certain (as it were avant la lettre) that the universal and homogenous state can be achieved, but is forced to admit that it cannot last. When later confronted on this point, Kojève declined to demur.
THIS PIECE IS AVAILABLE IN PRINT FORM IN VOLUME II ISSUE VI