Professor Mark Anderson kindly sent me a copy of the above-captioned book the other day. I am about a third of the way through its 108 pages. To write a proper review is hard work, something I will not attempt in the humid heat of the Arizona monsoon. But I will offer a few somewhat random comments over one or more posts.
PURE is a stimulating collection of aphorisms, observations, and obiter dicta which document "one man's struggle against the intellectual and existential disorder called Modernity." (1) It is written in a partially aphoristic Nietzschean style against Nietzsche who for Anderson is the anti-Plato. So while the packaging is Nietzschean, the content is Platonic. Indeed, the author sees "the intellectual history of the West as a prolonged struggle between Platonism and Nietzscheanism." (3)
I will now quote a passage that brings out Anderson's brand of conservatism:
The Reactionary: Not the size of government, but the end and aim of government is the salient matter. The ancients teach that the object of the political art is the production of virtuous citizens. In this they go further than America's founders. John Adams knew that the well-being of our society and our government depends on the virtue of the citizenry. Plato knew more: he taught that the virtue of the citizenry depends upon the government's inculcation and promotion of specific habits and social institutions.
No man can become good, and no man good man can flourish, in a decadent and corrupt culture. Therefore, governmental authority must extend even into those cultural concerns that we moderns are accustomed to regard as inviolably private. (23)
Like Anderson, I am a conservative, but of a less reactionary sort. (I do not use 'reactionary' as a pejorative: it cannot be a bad thing to react against the wild and pernicious excesses of the Left.) So while I agree with much of the above observation, I think it needs to be qualified to be incorporable into a sound conservatism.
First of all, it is certainly true that "the well-being of our society and our government depends on the virtue of the citizenry." This is a point of agreement. We are in trouble precisely because virtue is on the wane and vice is on the rise both in the citzenry and in the government. But can it be the legitimate role of government to inculcate and promote specific habits? Is it the job of the government to teach moral and intellectual virtues? Did Plato know more than Adams? No. The teaching of virtue occurs, if it occurs at all, at the level of the individual, the family, the school, the church, and the local community. Furthermore, pace Anderson, size is salient. As Mr. Jefferson said, "That government governs best that governs least." We need government, and we need a lot more of it that we did in Jefferson's day, but it is a necessary evil. It would be otherwise if our leaders were enlightened sages, but they are not, and they never will be. They are finite, fallible, and fallen, just like the rest of us. Indeed, many of them are worse than most of us. There is no philosopher-king on the horizon who can save us. Nor are there any political messiahs. Not even Barack Obama, that harbinger of 'change,' can save us.
The second paragraph of the quotation is a non sequitur, though I do not dispute the premise, slightly qualified. It is surely true that that it is very difficult to become good and to flourish in a decadent and corrupt culture, a culture in which entertainment is a form of debasement, worthless celebrities are idolized, and criminals are coddled. I expand on this thought in Good Societies and Good Lives. But how is it supposed to follow that "governmental authority must extend even into those cultural concerns that we moderns are accustomed to regard as inviolably private"? This might follow if our governors were good, knew the good, and fairly enforced it. But these conditions are not met.
As a conservative, I am open to the idea of a certain amount of government censorship. Why should cultural polluters be given free rein to contaminate the minds of impressionable youths? But there is a threat to liberty hidden in any attempt at censorship. This is a problem I would like to see Anderson address.
So far, then, our difference seems to be shaping up as follows: Anderson is more of an authoritarian conservative whereas I am more of libertarian conservative. This connected with our different attitudes toward the Enlightenment. But more on this later.