Monday, February 12, 2007

More on Conversion

Re: my post yesterday that the souls of a person seeking "conversion" may be born and not made:

I just came across this line from Leo Strauss from a reading that I've assigned for my Strauss seminar tomorrow:

"The only possible difference of opinion [about the existence of esoteric teaching] concerns exclusively the meaning of the distinction between inattentive and attentive readers: does a continuous way lead from the extremely inattentive reader to the extremely attentive reader, or is the way betwen the two interrupted by a chasm? Schleiermacher tacitly assumes that the way from the beginning to the end is continuous, whereas, according to Plato, philosophy presupposes a real conversion, i.e., a total break with the attitude of the beginner...." ("Exoteric Teaching," p. 68, _The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism_)

I'm not sure whether Plato may in fact not be closer here to how Schleiermacher is said to understand conversion than how Strauss understands him. I am thinking in particular of "the Myth of Er" in Book X of the Republic, in which the "soul" of each individual chooses the life that he or she will lead. Our "lives" are set into motion by the kind of soul that we already have. As such, even the person who undergoes a radical conversion may simply possess the kind of soul that is open to the experience. I suppose that this understanding has the potential of being deeply unsettling, because it flies in the face of the modern, and particularly American, belief in the everpresent possibility of radical self-reinvention.

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