This Week’s Guest: Matthew Continetti
Everyone can see that a revolutionary spirit is haunting American public life right now. The demands being made of our laws and culture are uncompromising and radical. The public mood is given to extremes, and notions of gradual improvement and subtle distinctions are thought to be incapable of speaking to the severity of our racial, cultural, scientific, and spiritual challenges
So this week, we are rebroadcasting a discussion from the archives that focuses on a figure whose watchwords were the very opposite of America’s present utopian fever—the essayist of American skepticism, empiricism, meliorism, and gradualism—Irving Kristol.
Our guest is Matthew Continetti, and the focus of our discussion is an essay he published back in 2014, “The Theological Politics of Irving Kristol.” In it, Continetti argues that there is a rabbinic cast of mind underneath Kristol’s meliorism, that is, his effort to weigh trade-offs and favor gradual improvement when possible within the confines of man’s broken nature.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
Kristol gave a remarkable talk―that was later condensed into an essay―where he basically says there’s an Orthodox view of the world―which he associates with the rabbinic tradition in Judaism―that sees the world as a benign place. God is good. Human beings are here to be fruitful and multiply, to live their lives, not to have any high expectations, and to be aware that we are made out of the crooked timber of humanity.
There’s another tradition―which he says comes from the prophetic tradition in Judaism―which is more gnostic. Which believes that actually the world is rotten, but the spirit of man is pure and good. And that the idea of original sin is completely wrong, and indeed it’s the bad environment which makes humans weak. We need to overcome it. There’s no such thing as original sin. Man can make himself. And indeed all the laws―religious laws, civil laws―are corrupt. This is what he called the gnostic tradition.
The conflict between these two, or the dynamic between these two traditions, really animates so much of political life. And of course Kristol was in the rabbinic tradition, and viewed negatively the prophets, and so he was much more inclined to defend Orthodoxy as basically laying a ground for a stable human life.
For more on the Tikvah Podcast at Mosaic, which appears roughly every Thursday, check out its inaugural post here.
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