Teachers and Influences: An Intellectual Autobiography

I am sometimes asked who has influenced my thinking: “Who are among the biggest influences in your intellectual outlook”? This was a common question at Yale and remains a question I receive here in England as I work with Roger Scruton. Evidently that should giveaway an influence on me. I suppose there are different influences for different aspects of thought though.

If I had to limit the number of influences, and give a specified set—say, five, I think I would include: Plato, St. Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler, and Carl Schmitt.  Those five figures are probably the most instrumental in the formation of my outlook and general thinking. If I could include a “teacher,” someone who has taught me how to read and think, how to understand, and how to pierce into texts, I would include Leo Strauss.

The five I have chosen isn’t to exclude many others who are equally instrumental in the development of my thought, which would include mostly Platonists: Plotinus, Marsilio Ficino, Johann Hamann, Justus Möser, Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg W.F. Hegel; and many geopolitical thinkers like Thucydides, Homer Lea, Halford Mackinder. But Plato, Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, Spengler, and Schmitt properly situate themselves in relevant spheres of thought.

Everyone knows that Alfred North Whitehead wrote that, “[t]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Plato needs no introduction for those who have read him and know the depth of his mastery and his works. I’m also something of a Plato scholar and commentator, having published a short (8,000-word) commentary on Plato’s Republic,[1] an essay on Symposium, and having a commentary on the Crito under review.

Augustine is a major influence for understanding the human psyche, person, and culture. His reflections on the depth of “psychological interiority,” the first person I, the triad mind, etc., should immediately become recognizable for anyone in the field of psychology. Indeed, even men like Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek recognize the importance of Augustine on the formation and development of psychology and phenomenology. Moreover, Augustine’s body of criticism—especially Confessions and City of God—form the first systematic works of cultural criticism in the Western literary canon. Literary and cultural deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida also paid homage to Augustine in his deconstructive criticism. First is often best in many cases and this is true of Augustine. Whether it’s psychology, cultural criticism, literary deconstruction, political theology, and biblical hermeneutics, the church doctor from Thagaste is unrivalled and a necessary figure for those in the fields of political psychology, the cure of souls, theology, and cultural criticism. Augustine’s covenant theology, or his extrapolation of covenant theology from St. Paul, has equally been so foundational to Christian theology that it goes without saying that if not for Augustine there may have never been a Western Christian theological tradition. I’m also something of an Augustine scholar too, having done my M.A. in theology at Yale on him, having written an academic article on his theology of human nature and justice, and having written more public commentaries on how to understand themes in Confessions.[2]

When it comes to understanding the nature of the political, and “politics,” two men stand out for me: Ibn Khaldun and Carl Schmitt—but for different reasons. Ibn Khaldun is also my strongest influence in what some might call political sociology. Arnold Toynbee praised Ibn Khaldun and his Al Muqaddimah, which I have a summary review here, as the greatest intellectual work ever produced by a mortal. Understanding the movement of civilization, politics, economics, and the interstices of life in general, is Ibn Khaldun’s greatest achievement. I also have a chapter-by-chapter explanation of the first three chapters of Al Muqaddimah (the abridged version) available here.

Ibn Khaldun’s influence is based on his gritty realism. He understands that man is a tribal animal. “Respect for blood ties is something natural among men, with the rarest exceptions.  It leads to affection for one’s relations and blood relatives, the feeling that no harm ought to befall them nor any destruction upon them,” he writes. This is foundational for asabiyyah, or “group solidarity.” Ibn Khaldun charts the rise and fall of civilizations from this primordial anthropological reality. Furthermore, his geopolitics and reflections on environmental conditioning are paramount.

Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political and Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy were introduced to me as an undergraduate in philosophy. Needless to say, they obviously left an indelible impact on me. Schmitt boiled down the nature of the political to the “friend-enemy distinction.” Anyone who preaches “unity” is not talking about politics anymore. Schmitt has experienced a revival among post-Marxist lefties looking for a new critic of liberalism and capitalism and have found it in Schmitt. Schmitt’s reflections on capitalism and liberalism have equally been influential on me as he shows how the de-personalization and de-politicization wrought by liberalism are facades for liberalism’s own violence under the guise of “compromise” and “rationality.” His other short essays on jurisprudence, Hegel, Shakespeare, and geopolitics makes him the most understudied figure in the public though he has a serious reputation in the academy—mostly by critics who nevertheless feel that they must challenge Schmitt’s point of view. But if anyone wants to understand the phenomena of Western politics over the last four to five years, reading Schmitt’s Political Theology, Concept of the Political, Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Nomos of the Earth, Land and Sea, and Theory of the Partisan is a must. No other thinker so thoroughly put his thumb on the crisis of liberalism and the end of history as Schmitt.[3]

Lastly, Oswald Spengler and his Decline of the West (2 volumes) which I was also exposed to (selections) as an undergraduate created a desire to read more. I would not necessarily call myself a “Spenglerian,” but I would definitely consider myself a neo-Spenglerian. When it comes to the interstices of culture, civilization, sociology, and geopolitics, Spengler stands as a thinker who—though Ibn Khaldun beat him to many of the same observations—writes with a clarity and style that makes you readdress your own positions. Thus, Ibn Khaldun and Oswald Spengler share the two pillars of civilization and political sociology in my mind, but where Spengler moves into a category all his own—though Khaldun could also be argued to be in the same category—is in philosophy of history. While Ibn Khaldun offers something of a philosophy of history, I am more apt to say Ibn Khaldun offers a philosophy of sociology. Spengler, on the other hand, undeniably provides a philosophy of history in a systematic and no holds bar manner which Ibn Khaldun never did. In short, you can draw a philosophy of history from Ibn Khaldun—you and exegete a philosophy of history from within Ibn Khaldun’s master work; but with Spengler you get punched in the face with a philosophy of history from the start. The most influential aspect of Spengler on my thinking is his understanding of the culture-civilization cycle as being organic.

Additionally influences, who fail to make the cut into the top five, are all the German Idealists after Kant: Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, Hegel, and even some pre-Kantian ones like Hamann and Möser. It is also important to Machiavelli. After all, my site’s name pays homage to Hegel and Machiavelli who always loom over me like a haunting specter.

 

[1] See, Paul Krause, “Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic,” VoegelinView, 17 January 2018. I also have a commentary on Crito under review.

[2] See Paul Krause, “Augustine on Love, Justice, and Pluralism in Human Nature,” VoegelinView, 5 December 2018. For shorter essays on Augustine, see my “Augustine: A Saint for Eternity,” The Imaginative Conservative, 27 August 2017; “From Diotima to Christ: Augustine’s Visionary Ascents in Confessions,” The Imaginative Conservative, 9 March 2019.

[3] Schmitt, along with Weber and Hegel, were major interlocutors for my article “The Crisis of Liberalism and Cosmopolitan Democracy,” Kritike 11, no. 2 (Dec. 2017): 222-240, where I contributed to the ongoing academic discussion of the malaise of modernity and the crisis of global liberalism.

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