The Long View 2005-03-04: Secret Writings

H. P. Lovecraft's place in the American canon is assured.

Secret Writings

As a matter of policy, I cannot say that I was ever very keen on the practice of executing people who committed murders as juveniles, so I am not altogether displeased with this week's US Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, which held the practice unconstitutional. The interesting aspect of the decision is the general acceptance of the degenerate jurisprudential technique of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion. This was not the first case in which the Court tried to ascertain the national consensus on an issue by taking a poll of state laws on the subject, but I think we have yet to appreciate how remarkable this procedure is. Essentially, the court is inviting the states to amend the Constitution by a simple majority vote, contrary to that document's explicit terms.

This is worse than having an invisible constitution that exists only as a conversation among judges and law professors. At least the law professors publish learned articles and the judges issue formal opinions. The Kennedy Constitution is a dumb poll of the sentiments of the political class. The Supreme Court still claims the authority to decide when this "logic" will apply, but the Court's claims to clear and uncontestable powers of review are increasingly incompatible with its embrace of fuzzy logic in other areas.

Justice Scalia's dissent therefore misses an important point. Despite what he says, there is nothing wrong, or even novel, about US courts looking to foreign practice to settle domestic questions. He is also wrong to criticize the Missouri Supreme Court for, in effect, overturning the US Supreme Court's prior holding in this area. The broader the power of judicial review becomes, the weaker the power of stare decisis must become. That is inevitable. He would be better advised to think of ways to turn this development to the advantage of the causes he favors.

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Visitors to the top page of my site will have noted that I have done a review of On Tyranny, an anthology of the famous debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève about philosophy, politics, and, incidentally, the fate of the world. Very smart people have been urging me for some time to get started on Strauss. Well, honor is satisfied.

Frankly, the underlying question about the relationship of philosophers (broadly defined) to government is not something that it would ever occur to me to ask. That is far from saying it is not a real issue; I am just pointing out that it rarely comes up in my time and place. The closest I come to it is the question: what duties do technical experts owe to the public when they advise their clients? When does advice from a lawyer constitute aiding a client to commit a crime? How responsible are scientists and engineers for the uses to which governments and private enterprises put new inventions? At least in some forms, these circumstances present analogies to what Strauss and Kojève were talking about.

The big difference is that S&K are talking about the effect that the advice of "experts" can have on the fate of the world. My problem with On Tyranny is that, for a book with such a cosmic theme, the conceptual space in which the authors maneuver is so claustrophobic. When they were mature scholars, and when they were students, lots of people were discussing the "end state" of the historical process. Spengler, Hesse, Toynbee, H.G. Wells; I would have given a great deal to know what Strauss thought of the cult of the Ultimate Socratics in the First World State described in Olaf Stapledon's novel, Last and First Men. Allusions like this are precisely the kind of breath of fresh air that never enters the windowless world of On Tyranny, not even in the extensive private correspondence the book includes.

It is foolish to criticize an author for failing to write the book you would have written; it is even more foolish to criticize very learned writers for failing to have read one's own undirected reading. Still, it seems to me that On Tyranny is not a classic, but a period-piece.

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Speaking of the end of history, we know it is near, because H.P. Lovecraft has entered the American canon. That, at least, is the thesis of Michael Dirda's review ("The Horror, the Horror!") in The Weekly Standard of March 7. The review is of a new anthology from the Library of America, H. P. Lovecraft : Tales. (The review is edited by Peter Straub, who you figure would know about these things.) The review tells us:


For better or worse, I am in no position to quarrel with this. I have a Misketonic University tee-shirt in my closet. And a Hellboy baseball cap.

Thanks again, Ihor!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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