Franklin was morally earnest, if hardly orthodox.
Any book that bears the title “Naïve Readings” should be approached with caution. Undoubtedly, the author is up to something. When it begins with an epigraph from Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), hold on tight. When the author in question is Ralph Lerner, Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Lerner is one of the few surviving students of Strauss, a prodigious scholar and expert on some of the most intriguing, difficult, and impenetrable works in the history of political philosophy. Were Lerner writing about cattle futures or some such topic, we could be fairly confident his claims to naiveté were unironic. But on these topics?
Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophical is a collection of essays, half of which have been previously published. Only in the Afterward does the author explain that his “rationale for assembling these studies under a single head is, to repeat, that they are all intended to be experiments in reading complex texts.” As Francis Bacon (the subject of Lerner’s sixth and central chapter) well knew, science proceeds through failed experiments as well as successful ones. In this context it is to say that the essays are uneven.
This reader found the first two chapters, both on Benjamin Franklin, the most perplexing of the collection. The overly familiar use of “Ben” to refer to the great man is simply peculiar; nowhere else does Lerner refer to his subjects so familiarly. It is a little grating. So too is these chapters’ purported aim: to demonstrate that Ben Franklin was not an orthodox Christian and that “both his starting point and his end point were firmly lodged in this world, in this life.” (Emphasis in original.)
Quite right, but this was suspected during his lifetime. It hardly comes as much of a revelation that the man often styled “the First American” was not devout. So what is Lerner doing here?
The key to understanding the essays in this volume, especially these first two on Franklin, is the question Lerner asks in his chapter on Abraham Lincoln. It has implications well beyond the scope of his naïve readings. It is: “Can a private citizen—and an outsider to boot—be thought to be exhibiting statesmanship?”
This question is somewhat obscured in the context of the Franklin chapters and the next two (one on Thomas Jefferson, the other on Lincoln). While all were statesmen, Lerner focusses his attention on the periods when they were not in office—or not in offices that afforded them the opportunities of great political action. He pays attention to their writings, not their deeds. Why? We see it in a passage he quotes from an address Lincoln gave in New Haven, Connecticut in 1860: “No policy that does not rest upon some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained.”
Lerner’s attention to the written word is more clear and yet less likely even to be noticed in the second section of the book, where he turns to Bacon’s Essays or Counsels, Civill and Moral (1597), to Edward Gibbon’s great history of Rome, and to Alexis de Tocqueville. Again, despite that Bacon was a statesman and Tocqueville had some role in the government of France, Lerner keeps pushing his attention, our attention, away from their statesmanship to their writings. Perhaps it is better to say that he turns his attention to the statesmanship of their writings.
Who Qualifies as a Philosopher-Statesman?
We can see this especially well in the chapter on Tocqueville, which addresses the Tocquevillian engagement with Edmund Burke to great effect. Here we see philosophy as statesmanship. As Lerner argues, Tocqueville “leaves a reader with the sense that he and Burke are engaged in a kind of winner-takes-all contest.” The contest was over how the history of the French Revolution was to be understood. Tocqueville wanted to recover something good about 1789, something noble, something the French people could look to as an inspiration; he “meant to unearth and salvage those possibly redeeming moments, casting them not as a history but as a story.” Casting back, this can explain, too, the Franklin chapters.
To Bacon alone does Lerner give the title denied everyone else in the book, that of “philosopher-statesman.” And it is not Bacon’s scientific work but his political philosophy that earns him this title. This is why Lerner looks at the Essays or Counsels, a collection of 58 separate entries. As he admits, it may be impossible to fully account for the order and placement of the essays and come to a definitive understanding of the work as a whole. Bacon reissued it several times, each time shuffling the essays and expressing to friends dissatisfaction with the condition of the project.
Therefore Lerner mainly considers the essays entitled “Of Truth” and “Of Vicissitude of Things.” Many other works of Bacon’s are brought to bear on these, but these two essays are the focus of the chapter. And what we see is an engagement with the perennial question of whether the active or contemplative life is best. Bacon, choosing against Aristotle, looks to the possibility of command over nature and command over men. Yet to achieve this “would require a founder-legislator, an unbroken succession of like-minded managers and promoters, and, finally, an unflagging wariness of prophets hawking more tempting promises,” writes Lerner. His friend Ben was certainly a senior manager in Bacon’s enterprise.
Where does Gibbon fit in? That is much harder to say, but one of his most famous lines also proves central to Lerner’s project, and Bacon’s. Gibbon wrote in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) that “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
Consider what Franklin might have made of that passage. In a letter preserved in two English versions and one French, variously dating from 1757 to 1787, and written to an unknown addressee, Franklin advised the recipient not to publish a proposed essay of atheist arguments. We do not know who this author was, and there seems to be no extant atheist tract it would match, so whoever it was seems to have heeded the advice.
Central to Franklin’s argument was the following:
But think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc’d and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security.
It is curious that Lerner never refers to this letter, especially as it fits so well with his account of Gibbon’s exploration of the “Jewish problem.” For Gibbon, the problem was not how to make their distinct way of life disappear, as it would be for Karl Marx or Bruno Bauer in Prussia, but how this persecuted group actually survived. “Indeed,” writes Lerner, “it is the very persistence of the Jewish people or nation—as men and as Jews—that poses a puzzle and a challenge to enlightened thinkers.”
Halevi and Maimonides
They pose a puzzle and challenge to Lerner, too. Or, to put it another way, the strongest part of this book is its two chapters on medieval Jewish authors. These chapters, as with the Gibbon chapter, have not been published previously. They form not only the last but the longest section of Naïve Readings. The first is a masterful account of Judah Halevi’s 12th century Kuzari, a set of interviews as dialogues between a pious pagan king and representatives of philosophy, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Halevi himself entitled it The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion.
In the Kuzari, visions come to the king of Khazar demanding that he perform actions pleasing to God. Philosophy intrigues him but is not satisfactory. Christianity and Islam both admit being based upon the revelations of Abraham and his descendants, so he goes to the source and spends the vast majority of the work with a Jewish sage. The result is his own conversion to Judaism and the conversion of his entire nation. Lerner explains that “the true drama of the Kuzari lies in the exchanges between the king and those he interrogates in his search for the kinds of actions that might be pleasing to God.” This is the private citizen, the sage, playing the role of statesman.
A useful way to interpret this chapter and the next, which is on Moses Maimonides, is as a corrective to the Roman perspective on religion as recounted by Gibbon and, I have suggested, endorsed by Franklin. If Halevi is correct, not all religions are equally false nor are they equally useful. Against the magistrates who thought all religions equally useful, Halevi’s sage held that “the main consideration is to avoid a way of thinking that jeopardizes the unity of the entire community.” Not all religions are intellectually coherent or coherent to the same extent. Such a statement might seem, itself, incoherent in an age such as ours, that presumes all faith is irrational. It might also strike some as offensive, in an age that is repelled by comparisons. But is it any less true?
In a partial response to the philosophers, Halevi’s sage does not so much prove faith to be true as prove it not incompatible with reason. At one point Lerner suggests that “the very activity of philosophizing transcends the divide between true believer and atheist—for such an individual could be either.” Elsewhere, “the sage portrays philosophers not as immoral but as indifferent to the things with which morality is concerned.”
Philosophy remains the most persistent adversary of Halevi’s sage. The sage is concerned that the king will be distracted by the remarkable successes in mathematical sciences and logic that philosophy has produced and turn away from his instruction. Note the theoretical focus of philosophy as the sage understands it. This is not the relief of man’s estate that Bacon instituted much later. We are now almost 400 years from the publication of the latter’s New Organon (1620) and reaping the benefits of modern medical science. We are also seeing an unprecedented level of suicide and despair.
If we do think of the last two chapters as a corrective to the theological-political accounts of the authors in the first two sections of the book, it must be noted that there is an imbalance in favor of Halevi and Maimonides. None of the other authors was Christian in any orthodox sense; far from it. The closest might be Lincoln, who called upon Scripture throughout his speeches but never attempted a theoretical accounting of the relationship between Christianity and politics. In Naïve Readings, the authors of the Kuzari and the Guide for the Perplexed have the field to themselves.
A review like this can only skim the surface of a book that ranges over so many authors of such stature. The intent is to try to draw attention to the overall result of the work, leaving readers to explore the details that must be passed over here. So I return to the idea of the private citizen as statesman, as Lerner does in his Afterward.
Having offered an extended analysis of two of the great Jewish authors, Lerner concludes the book by pointing to the common theme among all of his authors, regardless of their views—public or private—of divine providence. For all, human providence, as he calls it, demands that “passivity and feckless behavior, not to speak of fatalistic acceptance, are rejected out of hand.” The active life they pursued, however, was a life of speaking and writing, just like the U of C’s Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus.