JMC faculty partner Diana Schaub reviews Ralph Lerner‘s 2016 book, Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic in the Claremont Review of Books. Professor Lerner is also a JMC faculty partner.
The Figure in the Carpet
For a critic to lay claim to naïveté is unusual. The tribe of scholiasts prides itself on its super-subtlety, its powers of penetration, its ability to get at an author or into him. That professional assumption of knowingness can, however, in its haste to “dig deep, dissect, and deconstruct,” interfere with real knowing, of the fuller and more intimate kind. In the introductory chapter to Naïve Readings, Ralph Lerner makes the case for “patient attentiveness” to the surface of a text, especially when the text in question is notoriously difficult or elusive. This is what he means by that strange adjective in his title (titles being one of the surface features about which he is careful): “In proposing that we approach such works naïvely, I am suggesting that we not give short shrift to the obvious.”
Lerner demonstrates by doing. In nine chapters, each of which is dedicated to reading one author (and curiously, reading one particularly favored author twice), Lerner gives all the needed proof that his “experiments in reading complex texts” have been successful. His way of reading yields “readings” (the other term of the title), which is to say interpretations that bring into view “the figure in the carpet”—the figure that has been present all along, “somewhere in that dazzling array of colors, curves, and lines.” This Persian rug metaphor is a good one for Lerner, since it levels off, so to speak, the controversy about esotericism. In the Afterword, Lerner says explicitly that his aim has not been “to unearth and display secret thoughts” but rather to highlight “the message or teaching that is lying out in the open.” This planar openness, however, is rarely the openness of plain assertion, being instead “the very movement and action of the argument itself.” His readings, thus, are tracings—as he follows the shape of things that might initially seem incidental, from the “choice of form” and the “order of presentation,” to a “peculiar mode of opening and reopening its sundry themes,” and even “irregularities and idiosyncrasies.
About Naïve Readings
One sure fact of humanity is that we all cherish our opinions and will often strongly resist efforts by others to change them. Philosophers and politicians have long understood this, and whenever they have sought to get us to think differently they have often resorted to forms of camouflage that slip their unsettling thoughts into our psyche without raising alarm. In this fascinating examination of a range of writers and thinkers, Ralph Lerner offers a new method of reading that detects this camouflage and offers a way toward deeper understandings of some of history’s most important—and most concealed—messages.
Lerner analyzes an astonishing diversity of writers, including Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Edward Gibbon, Judah Halevi, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Moses Maimonides, and Alexis de Tocqueville. He shows that by reading their words slowly and naïvely, with wide-open eyes and special attention for moments of writing that become self-conscious, impassioned, or idiosyncratic, we can begin to see a pattern that illuminates a thinker’s intent, new messages purposively executed through indirect means. Through these experimental readings, Lerner shows, we can see a deep commonality across writers from disparate times and situations, one that finds them artfully challenging others to reject passivity and fatalism and start thinking afresh.
Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. Schaub received both her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She teaches and writes on a wide range of issues in political philosophy and American political thought. She is the co-editor of What So Proudly We Hail: America’s Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, and Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters.”
Ralph Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and of Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research spans British political thought, American political thought, and medieval political thought. Some of his works are The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic(1987), Revolutions Revisited: Two Faces of the Politics of Enlightenment (1994), Maimonides’ Empire of Light: Popular Enlightenment in an Age of Belief (2000), and Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times (2009).
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