viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi
But what is the core of the political? Men killing men on the largest scale in broad daylight and with the greatest serenity. - Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss was a philosophical supremacist who also understood the value of philosophy in practice by way of the political.
There are Straussians, but Straussianism is not a legitimate ideology. One can learn from the great minds of antiquity not just learn about them. Texts don't say what they seem to. They say both more and less than what meets the casual glance. Strauss's official reason for this is that philosophers hide their true views lest they be cancelled.
Another reason they hide their views is less out of fear for themselves and more out of fear for society, if the masses implement the true reading it may have maladaptive consequences. Philosophical truth and political fitness are not always aligned (and often contradict).
Intent matters albeit it is non obvious. Greatness is about thought (the end), not interpretive gymnastics (the means). The discovery of a human truth, which is that we often tell the truth but tell it slant, whether through outright deception or because of self-deception. On an aesthetic level, there are times when it's best not to take people at their word.
Strauss is anti historicism. Historicism means that there is no absolute value or absolute point of view from which we can judge; all ideals are relative.
Philosophy and philosophers trandscend historical time even though they live in time. Their questions are as transcendent as mathematics. In this way, Strauss is a kind of Platonist (ideas have a reality outside of us).
The relationship between philosophy and politics is one of the great themes in Strauss, and one that differentiates him from Heidegger who thought politics not as important as ontology. Strauss corresponded with Carl Schmitt, who argued for the supremacy of politics above all else. That Strauss corresponded with Schmitt as well as with Kojeve, a Marxist-Hegelian whose ideas helped shape the EU is a testament to his generosity of intellectual spirit, he welcomed great thought even when it led to political consequences he rejected, even feared.
Just as the banqueteers are drunk from wine, the citizens are drunk from fears, hopes, desires, and aversions and are therefore in need of being ruled by a man who is sober. - Leo Strauss
If I have to summarize Strauss it's this: he thought the philosophical life was the best way to live but was skeptical that it could improve society or fend off nihilism. It's the best because intellectual virtue is self-evident, but it's only one of the best because political life is also important and can't be reconciled with philosophical life. It's also not the best, but one of the best, because a religious life can be equally excellent even as it is philosophically unrigorous. In some ways Strauss, who grew up Orthodox Jewish in Germany, became nostalgic for Judaism post-WWII.
He believed that at its core the Bible is founded in Revelation, while the ancients ground themselves in Reason.
There's something dualistic about this view of Judaism and religion, as it allows Strauss to justify his own identity as an Orthodox Jew turned philosopher. Philosophy is his path but he doesn't begrudge traditional Jews for sticking to their tradition. Heidegger also used the image of two mutually incompatible but equally dignified paths when he wrote about philosophers and poets. In a way, the poet in Heidegger plays the role that Jerusalem does in Strauss's Athens vs. Jerusalem paradigm.
So Strauss is a philosopher who is deeply humble about the limits of philosophy. He distinguishes philosophers from sectarians in that philosophers have questions where sectarians have answers. It's lonely to be a lover of wisdom rather than wise.
In his argument with Kojeve, he wrote that he didn't think philosophers would seek to rule or that rulers could become reformed through philosophy. The reason is tragically simple: opportunity cost. To be a great thinker requires focus, focus on eternal questions, focus that requires one to be apolitical or at least minimally political.
One could dig deeper into the psychological reasons for this, but I'll simply point to a piece of data I once heard from a prominent angel investor: once companies have more than 10 employees the productivity per employee dramatically decreases. The reason: politics. Employees spend more time trying to get ahead, get a salary, get a title, get a promotion, etc. than just doing the work.
So Strauss knew about this too and thought pure philosophers had to be unambitious about worldly things to be ambitious about loving truth. He thought that worldly pleasures would corrupt philosophy. Ambition often leads to anxiety, anxiety retards intelligence.
Or rather, he presents the Platonic view (the body is the prison of the soul ) as correct. His addition is that he thinks caring about politics is no different than caring about sports or sex or sleep--it's a diversion. One must transcend the physical.
It's important that rulers not be grotesque tyrants; on the other hand, the philosopher isn't going to succeed at becoming a ruler and shouldn't try. The best he can hope for is to have the ruler's ear, and to serve as counselor.
This is all in his commentary on Xenophanes's Hiero translation as On Tyranny. The philosopher makes a deal with the proverbial devil--in exchange for a public persona of apolitical neutrality the philosopher will occupy himself with questions that don't, at face, shake the boat. To think without being persecuted.
Philosophy is not for the masses. The masses cannot handle the truth. Thus, noble lies are vital.
Every human being and every society is what it is by virtue of the highest to which it looks up. The city, if it is healthy, looks up, not to the laws which it can unmake as it made them, but to the unwritten laws, the divine law, the gods of the city. The city must transcend itself. ...the most important consideration concerns that which transcends the city or which is higher than the city; it does not concern things which are simply subordinate to the city.
― Leo Strauss, The City and Man
On liberal arts
Strauss's philosopher is a lonely figure in his refusal of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist politics. The discovery of great ideas and texts should inspire an aversion to relativism. Many turn to Strauss to justify why we should scale liberal arts to save society. It's not clear why the social-cultural argument for the Great Books works or why Strauss would have believed it sincerely. The Straussian read of Strauss is that he didn't believe it but wanted us to.
The death of the humanities for a thousand reasons, including that of their own self combustion under the strain of historicism, correlates with, even if it doesn't cause decadence and institutional decay. He would say the humanities have failed because modernity has failed. They failed with the thought of Max Weber which was itself but an extension of the early moderns, like Bacon and Descartes.
The diagnosis is that philosophy (and humanistic study) are devotional activities even if they involve grappling with unsettling questions. The point is not to eviscerate but to love. Being able to question and critique goes hand in hand with the liberal ideal of liberty, of finding leaders and authority figures to be suspicious until proven otherwise.
The fear of committing doesn't lead to great optionality, but less--a commitment to be uncommitted, the tragedy of Hamlet. So we need to be passionately committed to the humanities and this means that university education or great books education can resemble religious education in certain ways, even though the origins of the modern research institution was to destroy passion as naive.
Humanities have to give up the dream, says Strauss, of being scientific for one primary reason: science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be.
But does philosophy have the authority to tell us what ought to be? Strauss thought that it did, on the basis of telling us what is excellent, which is itself determined by human nature--and yet philosophers disagree about the answers to these questions.
While it may be too late for us to return to Plato as a society, we as individuals should try to reclaim the ancients, says Strauss. It may not save society but it's the best we can do. (the quietism reminds me of late Heidegger whose thought was for "the future ones").
One of Strauss's great rhetorical points is simply that we don't know better than our forebears. In some ways we know worse.
Strauss doesn't just join obvious conservative intellectuals like Chesterton and Burke; he's in line with Adorno and Arendt. A desire to undo the Enlightenment isn't simply a rightwing or leftwing view. It's a common 20th century sentiment.
Strauss didn't think we need to be more reasonable. He thought that classical philosophy is distinguished from modern reason in its respect for the need of myth. Religion and myth are not dumb, rather we are dumb for not understanding them. Ie myths can have moral and political truths even if they lack philosophical truth. Pure philosophy, stripped of myth or else built on modern myth, won't end well. Strauss thinks the ancients knew this and were more humble as a result.
East vs West
Tupac or Biggie… East Coast vs. West Coast Straussianism; philosophical humanism based in a secret or not so secret atheism vs a traditionalist Catholic aspiration to restore the study of natural law.
To be a philosopher is to appreciate hard questions, not necessarily have answers (it's tragic, for Strauss; it's comic and upbeat for Hegelians). Strauss makes a strong case for a tragic view of life--that hard choices aren't going away and that a messianic future in which all is right and just is an illusion
There's no shame in saying the arc of history bends towards justice from a place of Revelation, but things get dangerous when you think that Reason is going get you there.
Strauss is very serious about serious matters but it's also hard for me not to think that he's a kind of self-hating or self-critical existentialist, who believes himself incapable of fending off the criticisms he launches at others (such as Heidegger).
Philosophy is one of the best human pursuits and potentially incapable of saving humanity from self-destruction and horror. Religion which has its own set of political problems may be socially and culturally superior to philosophy even if it's not great for individuals.
There is a remarkable sentence of Pascal according to which we know too little to be dogmatists and too much to be skeptics, which expresses beautifully what Plato conveys through his dialogues. ― Leo Strauss, On Plato's Symposium
To square the circle, Strauss must hope for a world in which liberty reigns as an ideal, but in which most don't accept it's full offering. The ancients knew that liberty was double-edged. Liberalism is good, but weak. It's not enough, but the best we have.
Straussianism is the name given "to denote the research methods, common concepts, theoretical presuppositions, central questions, and pedagogic style characteristic of the large number of conservatives who have been influenced by the thought and teaching of Leo Strauss.
Strauss is famous for almost shouting that great thinkers have characteristically had secret or esoteric teachings. What they really think is true is found between the lines and often contradicts what they seem to say in the actual lines.
People, for good reason, can’t be persuaded by reason alone.
"While it "is particularly influential among university professors of historical political theory it also sometimes serves as a common intellectual framework more generally among conservative activists, think tank professionals, and public intellectuals."Within the discipline of political theory the method calls for its practitioners to use "a 'close reading' of the 'Great Books' of political thought; they strive to understand a thinker 'as he understood himself'; they are unconcerned with questions about the historical context of, or historical influences on, a given author"and strive to be open to the idea that they may find something timelessly true in a great book. The approach "resembles in important ways the old close readings in literary studies."
Straussianism puts forward the possibility that past thinkers may have "hold of the truth—and that more recent thinkers are therefore wrong."
In West Coast Straussians we see the emergence, for the first time since the Southern secessionists of the 1850s, of a group of conservative American intellectuals who advocate overthrowing the existing political order. Under Bush, Americans saw what Straussian ideas of regime change could do abroad. Under Trump, we might see the same urge for regime change applied to America itself.
The disputes between Jaffa’s West Coast Straussianism and Bloom’s East Coast Straussianism can be discussed along philosophic lines: Is America, as Jaffa believes, grounded in ancient philosophy or was the American founding, as Bloom would have it, built on the low but solid ground of early modern philosophers like Hobbes and Locke? Does the survival of America depend on the virtue of the people, as West Coast Straussians believe, or in the maintenance of constitutional norms, as East Coast Straussians believe? But the dispute can also more easily be understood in terms of the familiar social divide in the Republican Party. West Coast Straussians are the grassroots activists, grounded in social conservatism and ultra-nationalist in foreign policy. Sociologically, East Coast Straussians are more aligned with the party elite, and tend to be found in Washington think tanks and serving as career bureaucrats.
Another way to frame the divide is on the issue of regime change. Strauss, like Plato, was fascinated by the founding of regimes, and his students clearly believe that the key to politics is to have power at the moment of creation. For the East Coast Straussians, regime change is a matter of foreign policy, as witness the failed attempt to democratize the Middle East by force under Bush. For the West Coast Straussians—perhaps shaped by Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, a seminal and brilliant work on Abraham Lincoln as a revolutionary thinker—regime change begins at home.
His preference for old rather than new wisdom would certainly be noted and linked to his matter-of-factly conservative outlook, favoring stability over change, accepting the American Revolution but rejecting the French; he is fearful of the ideological passions unleashed by Utopian visions, of the vagaries and restless discontents of "intellectuals," yet appreciative of the basic good sense of ordinary human beings.
Strauss distinguished "scholars" from "great thinkers", identifying himself as a scholar. He wrote that most self-described philosophers are in actuality scholars, cautious and methodical. Great thinkers, in contrast, boldly and creatively address big problems. Scholars deal with these problems only indirectly by reasoning about the great thinkers' differences
Strauss is famous for almost shouting that great thinkers have characteristically had secret or esoteric teachings. What they really think is true is found between the lines and often contradicts what they seem to say in the actual lines.
Strauss himself knew that philosophy or philosophers always produce sectarianism (strong ties to a particular group or ideology). “zetetic” or incessantly questioning spirit. Pro-philosopher sophists or intellectuals with political ambition and rhetorical savvy are required to persuade people—with methods that aren’t fully rational—to do what the philosopher thinks best. It’s just that people, for good reason, can’t be persuaded by reason alone.
What was most important for Strauss was to set aside prejudice against the past and return to the ancients to learn from them
If science is susceptible of infinite progress, there cannot be a meaningful end or completion of history. There can only be a brutal stopping of man’s onward march through natural forces acting by themselves or directed by human brains and hands. – Leo Strauss
Two extremes: Platonism and historicism
If we are permitted to say that historicism is the view according to which at least all concrete or profound thought essentially belongs to a concrete dynamic context, and that Platonism is the view that pure thought, being ‘anonymous,’ transcends every dynamic context...” Historicism and Platonism, we might be permitted to say, are two extremes.
Historicism: the view of historicism is that what we can know depends on who we are at any particular time. The who is prior to the what, and the who is always in the process of Historical self-transformation. There is no natural or eternal stability that’s at the foundation of what we know or who we are. both who we are and what we’re supposed to do depends on our concrete location in a particular historical time and place, in a particular “dynamic” or changeable context.
Platonism: The view of Platonism is that the most profound or true answers about who we are and what we’re supposed to do have been given to us by nature—a nature that’s knowable as eternal and impersonal or incapable of being changed by any form of personal creativity. For the Platonist, the human or Socratic drama is the particular human being coming to know the eternal or impersonal truth. Being a Platonic philosopher is learning how to die or to surrender all pretensions about one’s own, ephemeral being in the light of eternity. The truth doesn’t depend on some human perspective; knowing it, in fact, requires a kind of negation of the human or personal perspective. The ascent toward what is true always requires shedding concern for one’s own individuality or personality.
In our freedom we transform nature or impose ourselves on what we’re given, but our freedom is always limited or socially contextual. So both who we are and what we’re supposed to do depends on our concrete location in a particular historical time and place, in a particular “dynamic” or changeable context.
For Strauss, actually, the deepest distinction is not between Platonic “natural right” and Hegelian or Heideggerian “History.” It is between identifying Being with Eternity or Being with Creativity. If Being is caused by creativity, then human beings are, finally, free from natural necessity. That freedom might be the gift of a loving, providential God. Or it might be the product of human beings gaining their freedom from nature through their personal or historical creativity. Either way, Being is personal. Either way, man is made, even if he makes himself (as the John Locke illuminated by Strauss explains) in the image of a free, creative, and loving God. From one view, the issue that separates the greatest human thinkers is whether human eros or love is, most deeply, personal or finds its real culmination or satisfaction in knowledge of impersonal or eternal natural necessity. Do we most deeply long for a “who” or a “what”? Is God himself a who or a what? For Strauss, famously, the right question is “What is God?”
For Strauss, the Platonic truth is that Being is nothing personal, and that means that those who pursue the eternal truth have no deep attachment to the pursuit of personal freedom—a pursuit which is based on illusions the classical philosopher doesn’t share. For Strauss, the “supernatural” virtue of charity is based on the love of a personal God and so doesn’t animate the classical philosopher. But for the modern philosophers, like the Christian theologian, being “supernatural” is no objection; Being itself is “supernatural” or imposed upon nature by free beings. And so philosophers, in pursuit of the truth, have, in a way, a duty to be charitable or to help us do what we can to free ourselves from our unfortunate natural misery. To use a very extreme example: Marx thought the revolution he helped incite would both free most human beings from their natural and their historical suffering or alienation and free the somewhat ignorant or alienated philosopher for the contemplation of wisdom— for knowing the whole of Being, History as a whole. Marx’s charity was, in a way, real, but it certainly began at home.
In Heidegger’s eyes, the truth has nothing to do with morality or our responsibility to persons, and for the Marxists the truth is that today’s persons can be used as expendable means to achieve History’s ends. The nonfoundationalist, accordingly, chooses against truth and for respect for personal dignity.
Strauss’s Platonism assures decent men and women, instead, that at least the exemplary philosophers—the classical philosophers—don’t make any claims to profundity for anything human beings do—especially collectively or politically. From the point of view of the pure thinker contemplating eternity, everything people do is ephemeral and paltry—or, as even some Christian writers have said, nothing in light of eternity So the classical philosophers were never out to screw up people’s lives to satisfy their personal needs. They thought that people were necessarily too screwed to respond reliably to any philosophic fix
Strauss opposes the pure universality of pure thought (thought experiments, Kant/Hegel)
Strauss’s Platonism is obviously an aristocratic correction to the democratic or vulgar reduction of science or philosophy to technology—to a tool for merely personal freedom.
Strauss’ aristocratic Platonism has certainly inspired ambitious, intelligent, and idealistic young men and women to a proud or aristocratic contempt for the pretensions of practice. Against the historicists or the modern technologists who “theorize” practice, Straussianism restores the leisurely view that the contemplative life has nothing to do with practice. It means to cure them of the longing for justice in this world; mere justice—especially at the expense of excellence—is a democratic concern. Platonism shows them the nobility of a way of life freed from the hopes, fears, and loves or all the moral impulses that point men in the direction of a personal God and other profound personal attachments.
The genuine aristocrat will not sacrifice himself—meaning his soul—for causes that aren’t his own, and part of his greatness of soul is to have his concerns distinguished from those that move most men and women.
How should I live my life?
Straussian Platonism is, of course, based on a true Platonic insight: The truth is that we don’t know the “whole” or have a comprehensive, airtight account of what is always. And so, as Pascal says (and as Strauss quotes time and again), we know too much to be skeptics and too little to be dogmatists.
Plato also knew that human beings couldn’t live well without final answers. But it turns out, the Platonist asserts, that we do have one final answer—the way of life of the philosopher.
Strauss says that the true philosopher is rare, and that any particular time and place is lucky to have even one.
The Straussian, apparently, is supposed to be somewhat confused about whether he himself is a philosopher, but he certainly takes pride in knowing much of what philosophers alone know.
Exotericism, of course, is directed by the esoteric insight that it’s necessary but not really true; the error of both Christianity and History is the thought that human beings could truthfully depend on the Creator or creativity.
In distinguishing the philosopher Socrates from the unrealistically idealized philosopher-king, Strauss, on the level of the truth about the philosopher and philosophizing, liberated the true Plato from the doctrine of Platonism.
Strauss manages to say that the philosopher as philosopher differs both in kind and in degree from his fellow human beings. And that contradiction is meant to moderate political ambition or not to accomplish the undesirable and impossible mission of freeing Straussians from any concern for the things of this world, from, for example, love of their families, friends, and fellow citizens.
But knowing about the philosopher and his concerns is still meant to be enough to show that neither the city nor History will ever be a genuine whole or perfected in a way worthy of our deepest longings. It’s the real or natural inability of the city to be perfected—and the corresponding real inability of the philosophers’ pursuit of wisdom to turn into wisdom itself—that’s part of the best evidence for the goodness of nature. What’s good about our lives— including our openness to eternity—is dependent on our invincible natural limitations, on our awareness, for example, of the necessity of the death of each of us. It’s part of the goodness of nature that we’re much more aware of eternal or at least permanent human problems than we are of any definitive solutions. It’s in that sense, at least, that Strauss can reasonably say that the realm of freedom is a province of necessity.
Strauss is right, of course, that we can’t think reasonably of ourselves as wholly free from nature, of what we didn’t create and wasn’t necessarily created. We’re animated and ennobled—in different degrees—by our openness to that truth.
Tocqueville was right when he claimed that Jesus Christ had to come down to earth to show human beings the ways in which they are all equally free persons; he showed them what has always distinguished members of our species.
One should become an esoteric to understand the degree of truth and usefulness of exotericism.
No law can bestow natural right. For Strauss, natural law is an oxymoron, and the Enlightenment effort to derive an effective morality merely from rational reflection on the interests we share in common is naive. Both Thomas Jefferson’s confidence that our country could be graced by the effectual selection of natural aristocrats of wisdom and virtue to rule and The Federalist’s Machiavellian controlled experiment of employing enduring institutions with teeth to solve the problem of the unreliability of character Strauss gently criticizes (as well as appreciates). Strauss’s own view seems to be that public opinion informed by the moral absolutism of the Declaration of Independence, assisted by those strong institutions, might serve to contain the experimentalism of unscrupulous men, who, when safely checked, are often capable of producing good political results.
That our belief in equal rights depends on a deeper belief in the equal significance of every human person. Political freedom had been replaced by social tyranny. The root of that tyranny came from the values hidden in the claims made on behalf of "value-free" social science. Strauss sought but found little solace in the traditional religious responses to the problem. In the name of justice, he found Americans pursuing paths that led to growing isolation, mutual hostility and passionate incivility.
Strauss's Wilsonian idealism would run something like this: Strauss's chief motivation as a thinker derived from his desire to oppose the twin forces of positivism and historicism, which separately and in combination produce relativism in political thinking. Positivism is the theory that says only scientifically (empirically) supportable claims merit the label of truth; all claims of the sort we have come to call values (for example, judgments of what is morally and politically good, right, and just) are pronounced merely subjective preferences, which can never be rationally validated. Only facts and broader theoretical conceptions built upon facts can be rationally established and defended. Values are thus "subjective" and "relative" to their holders.
Historicism goes even further than positivism in a relativistic direction: even truths of the sort positivists are willing to accept as rationally defensible are rejected as being subjective, as being dependent on or expressive of values—indeed, identified as value judgments themselves. In contrast to positivism, historicism, and relativism, it is said, Strauss taught "the immutability of moral and social values." This commitment to what is often technically (though never in the popular media) called "value cognitivism" ran contrary to the "moral relativism" dominant in the 1960s and1970s.
Moral relativism was not, in the eyes of Strauss and his followers, a merely academic foible; it underlay, among other things, the dominant foreign policy approaches of the era. It accounts for the sense of "malaise" so evident, for example, in the Carter years and the policy of détente pursued in the Nixon (Kissinger) years, a policy based on a notion of convergence of, or even moral equivalence between, western liberal polities and their communist adversaries in the cold war. In place of value relativism and the drifting foreign policy established under it, Strauss and the Straussians affirmed the necessity for "moral clarity," a term one hears fairly frequently from the lips of President Bush and Strauss-influenced political thinkers like William Kristol. Moral clarity, based on value cognitivism, is thought to supply clearer guidance on foreign policy than do the tenets of relativism.
He concluded that democracy had no ability to impose itself if it stayed weak and refused to stand up to tyranny." That action is premised on both self-interest (American security is best achieved in a world of likeminded regimes) and benevolence (peoples everywhere are better off and actually prefer, if they are free to express their preferences, a free and democratic polity).
Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for “vulgarity”; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful. ― Leo Strauss
Straussian theory is unabashedly elitist: "There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order."
Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped: inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition." Strauss "emphasized . . . the importance of intellectual elites," according to the Economist; a recent study of American conservatives found that "it is hard to be more elitist than the Straussians."
His elitism is presented as more intellectual: the relevant division between the elite few and the many is the line between philosophers and nonphilosophers. What distinguishes Strauss's elite is not wealth, status, power, or military or economic power, but recognition of "the truth." This truth is hard to face: there is no God, and there is no divine or natural support for justice. "Virtue is unattainable" by most people. "The hidden truth is that expediency works." Or, alternatively: "Strauss asserted 'the natural right of the stronger' to prevail."
The truths discovered by the philosophic elite "are not fit for public consumption." Philosophy is dangerous and must conceal its chief findings. Philosophers must cultivate a mode of esoteric communication, that is, a mode of concealing the hard truth from the masses. "Only philosophers can handle the truth." The elite must, in a word, lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them—arguably for their own good. The elite employ "noble lies," lies purporting to affirm God, justice, the good. "The Philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large, but also to powerful politicians." These lies are necessary "in order to keep the ignorant masses in line." Thus Strauss counseled a manipulative approach to political leadership. In sum, the media writers conclude, Strauss held that "Machiavelli was right." When read with "a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers . . . Strauss . . . emerges a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity."
Wilsonianism is mere "exoteric," or public doctrine, and that the hard truth that "expediency is all," or that "natural right is the right of the stronger," dominates and sets the ends as well as the means of political action. But the alternate view holds as well.
These "truths" are so harsh, says Papert, that "the philosopher/superman is that rare man who can face" them. In order "to shape society" in the interest of those "philosophers themselves . . . the superman/philosopher . . . provides the herd with the religious, moral, and other beliefs they require, but which the supermen themselves know to be lies . . . they do not do this out of benevolence, of course." Their public face is all "exoteric" doctrine; they attempt to rule indirectly through "gentlemen" whom they indoctrinate with their false but salutary myths.
The Wilsonianism is surface (exoteric), the Machiavellianism the covert or true doctrine (esoteric).
Strauss is a Machiavellian of a peculiar sort, however. Strauss favors the ancients, who agree with Machiavelli in all respects but one: they are atheistic and amoral, like Machiavelli and Nietzsche, but are critical of the moderns for openly admitting these things. The truth, according to Drury's Strauss, is that there is no God, no divine or natural support for justice, no human good other than pleasure. Strauss, in a word, is a nihilist. These truths are too hard and too harsh for the ordinary person. Only philosophers are capable of facing or living with them. Thus philosophers must conceal the truth from most human beings and communicate it secretly or esoterically to each other. In place of truth, they must tell the people lies; they must give the people sugarcoated myths that will console them and make them fit for social life. These myths include teachings about the gods, the afterlife, and natural justice or natural right. The philosophers manipulate the masses with lies and deception.
The philosophers tell themselves (or others) that this manipulation is for the good of the people, but, Drury insists, it is more than anything for the sake of the philosophers themselves. It caters to their desire for power.
The Straussian philosophers see themselves as "the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule." They affirm no natural right but the "right of the superior," by which they mean themselves. However, she also has Strauss endorse the quite different claim raised by Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic that "justice is the right of the stronger," that is, the thesis that might makes right. The Straussian philosophers seek to rule indirectly, via their influence on the gentlemen, that is, ordinary leaders like George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, who can be manipulated to manipulate the masses.
The natural human condition is not one of freedom but of subordination." His chief book "is a celebration of nature—not the natural rights of man but the natural order of domination and subordination." The people are "intended for subordination," and in the final analysis the lies the Straussian elite must tell are for the sake of concealing this unpleasant fact from the people.
The people need to be fed religion, and thus the Straussians have "argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the U.S. republic."
Strauss's distinctive contribution to political reflection is the supremely questionable assertion that all politics is, at bottom, theological politics.
Whereas revelation demands absolute obedience to received authority and treats the questioning of divine law as an affront against its metaphysical source and the community that reveres it, philosophy arises out of a courageous refusal to accept the authority of divine law at face value. Noting tensions or contradictions in what the law assumes about goodness and justice, the philosopher uses reason to subject it to sustained examination, the point of which is to determine if it truly is noble, good, and just.
Reason and revelation represent radically opposed existential possibilities. Revelation treats all questions as answered, all problems as settled. Philosophy, by contrast, is motivated and continually renewed by doubt.
Socratic self-understanding: it was the "peculiar heroism of philosophy to live with uncertainty and to resist the attractions of absolutist positions in both politics and philosophy." The Socratic philosopher rigorously stakes out and maintains a position "of detachment, of a certain ironic distance from the world of politics and the partisanships that it engenders."
Philosophy as such is nothing but genuine awareness of the problems, i.e., of the fundamental and comprehensive problems. It is impossible to think about these problems without becoming inclined toward a solution, toward one or the other of the very few typical solutions. Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problems. Therefore the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the "subjective certainty" of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution. At that moment the sectarian is born
Straussian teachers impart the history of political theory to undergraduates. The story begins with "the ancients" (meaning primarily Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but sometimes also including Aristophanes, Thucydides, and Xenophon), who are said to have engaged in trans-political, trans-historical, and trans-religious philosophical reflection on eternal human questions. What is love? What is friendship? What is justice? Is it good? What is beautiful? What happens to us when we die? Is there a God, and, if so, what might he want from us? What is the best way of life for a human being?
According to Strauss, the ancients posed these questions with unsurpassed analytical force and rigor, but they also did so in such a way as to leave the civic pieties of ancient Athens largely intact. They showed, in other words, that it was possible to live a philosophical life of radical questioning, and to lead potential philosophers toward such a life, without publicly challenging the revelations that are coeval with politics. They accomplished this remarkable feat by developing and employing a multileveled form of rhetoric that enabled them, in effect, to convey different things to different types of people. The vast majority of readers conclude from reading Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's treatises that they were written by well-intentioned moralists, not by radical skeptics.
Although their work contains far-reaching criticisms of various aspects of ancient Greek life and worship, those criticisms appear to be undertaken in the name of reforming, even perfecting, these moral opinions. Yet the rarest readers--readers possessed of the greatest intellectual acuity, courage, and stamina--will be led to a very different conclusion from the same texts. Following discreet hints and suggestions, these privileged readers will be led to see that the apparent moralism of the texts is in fact a subterfuge (deceit in order to achieve ones goal) meant to conceal a far more sweeping criticism of common moral opinion and its unexamined pieties.
Socrates, remember, was charged with atheism and corrupting the young, and this was never far from Strauss's mind. In his view, Socrates's fate stands as a paradigm of the inevitable antagonism between the claims of philosophy and of theological politics. It is an antagonism that only the subterfuges of esotericism are capable of mediating.
Western history, early modern political philosophy broke radically from this ancient prudence regarding the necessarily antithetical relation between theory and practice. Instead of engaging in the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake and leaving politics and religion largely untouched, as the ancients had done, the modern philosophers set out to use theory to "enlighten" the world at large by placing philosophy at the service of practical ends. The motivation for doing so varied considerably from thinker to thinker, but the enterprise was essentially the same. And Strauss harbored severe reservations about it. He did not believe that philosophical reflection should be used to benefit humanity.
Although he treated the United States with genuine respect and affection, considering it the finest flower of modernity, he worried that his adoptive homeland would prove incapable of resisting the many forms of modern degradation swirling around and within it. America, he taught, sits precariously at the top of a very steep and very slippery slope ultimately leading toward historicism, relativism, and finally nihilism. This modern slide into decadence began with Rousseau, who likened human nature to an archaeological ruin of which the features had been almost completely effaced by the ravages and corruptions of time, society, and civilization. No wonder, then, that after Rousseau, "history" took the place of an eternal human nature as the standard by which individual and collective human actions were judged. Hegel, Marx, and their many lesser followers in the mid-nineteenth century developed this historicism into a novel form of philosophical reflection that denied any possibility of permanent human truths.
In Strauss's account, it was Nietzsche who exposed the sham of such thinking, revealing the half-hidden, unexamined moral beliefs lurking behind the historical turn away from natural standards of morality. Nietzsche insisted that the proper response to the discovery of modernity's hidden democratic moralism was a far more radical break from common moral opinion--one in which philosophers and statesmen were explicitly encouraged to go "beyond good and evil." What Strauss calls the final, Nietzschean "wave" of modernity culminates in philosophy regaining the autonomy it lost at the start of the modern project, but at an enormous cost. Nietzsche's "philosophers of the future" practice an anarchic, Dionysian, artistic-creative autonomy that has nothing to do with ancient philosophy's sober contemplation of a permanent natural order.
In Nietzsche's thought, the only permanent things are the blind impulses of the will to power and the formless chaos out of which it emerges. It is in this way that the modern attempt to provide theoretical guidance for human practice ultimately self-destructs, leaving humanity cut off from any and all sacred restraints ("God is dead") and lacking any philosophical substitute for them.His primary concern was indeed with the conflict between reason and revelation, and not with politics narrowly construed.
Strauss writes that the Bible rejects "the possibility that man can find his happiness, or his peace, by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge," whereas the classical philosophers "conceive of man's desire to know as his highest natural desire," thereby tacitly rejecting the biblical view that "this desire is a temptation" that must be resisted. While the philosophical view is that "man's happiness consists in free investigation or insight," the Bible maintains that "man's happiness consists in obedience to God."
Philosophy stands or falls by the possibility of suspense of judgment regarding the most fundamental questions…[Its skepticism involves] looking at things, considering things. Philosophy is concerned with understanding reality in all its complexity… [It is] disputative rather than decisive. Disputation is possible only for people who are not concerned with decisions, who are not in a rush, for whom nothing is urgent except disputation.
"whoever is incapable of suspending his judgment…of living in such suspense, whoever fails to know that doubt is a good pillow for a well-constructed head, cannot be a philosopher."
The philosopher has no choice but to "refute revelation"--that is, to "prove that revelation or miracles are impossible." When it comes to philosophy, no pluralist tolerance is extended to religious faith.
Modern atheists tend to be too quick to dismiss revelation and too blind to the remnants of biblical morality in their own thinking. Hobbes, for example, repudiated many aspects of Christianity, but he failed to recognize the extent to which his desire to benefit humanity derived from Christian moral convictions. Marx dismissed piety as the "opiate of the masses," but he unthinkingly adhered to an ideal of egalitarian justice with Jewish and Christian origins. Heidegger described the idea of a Christian philosophy as a "square circle," but he was preoccupied with Pauline themes of existential anguish and the guilty conscience.
Even Nietzsche, a master of detecting and exploding the subterranean influence of Christianity in his fellow philosophers, remained in thrall to the ideal of probity, or intellectual self-cruelty--a distinctly Christian virtue. Strauss insisted that to refute revelation--to demonstrate its impossibility--it was necessary to go beyond Nietzschean atheism, to recover an even more radical, more thoroughgoing critique of piety. That is what he claimed to have found in Socratic philosophy.
As Strauss describes it, the ancient philosophical critique of revelation and miracles surpassed its modern variant in rigor and cogency by insisting on beginning from the premises of the religious believer. Unlike early modern philosophers, who begin their thinking by assuming the impossibility of revelation and miracles, Socratic philosophy supposedly begs no questions, taking the assertions of believers with the utmost seriousness. The Socratic philosopher invites the pious man to make the strongest case he can in defense of his beliefs, and even volunteers to help him make the case even stronger. The point of this generosity is not to strengthen religious faith, but rather to prepare a thoroughgoing dialectical examination of those beliefs.
How would such an examination proceed? Strauss claims that the Socratic philosopher attempts to show the believer that he assumes, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that God must be absolutely perfect--which means, among other things, absolutely wise. Once this has been established, the philosopher then seeks to "prove that revelation or miracles are impossible," because they are "incompatible with the nature of God as the most perfect being."
How can the philosopher show, on the basis of the believer's own premises, that God's wisdom is incompatible with revelation or miracles? He does so by turning his attention to the believer's views about morality--about justice, deserving, nobility, reward, and punishment--and by seeking to demonstrate that those moral views are such a tangle of contradictions that a perfectly wise being would refuse to abide by them. The philosopher denies, in other words, the "decisive and ultimate significance of moral criteria" for rendering wise judgments, and he thus flatly rejects the possibility that "the cosmic principle, or the first cause, is in any way concerned about morality."
Strauss would insist that to demonstrate the truth of their atheism--to transform it from dogmatic opinion into knowledge--they would have to subject their moral convictions to the same degree of critical scrutiny that they typically direct against religion alone.
Socratic philosophers pose no practical threat, it is nonetheless true that such philosophers undeniably constitute an insular elite that does not share the moral convictions affirmed by the rest of us. (Attempting to illustrate the radical difference between philosophers and non-philosophers, Allan Bloom used to quip to his students that had Oedipus been a Socratic, he would have responded to the news that he had married his mother and murdered his father with the remark, "Small world.") Despite Smith's attempt to domesticate and transform him into some kind of pluralist liberal, the fact is that Strauss considered skepticism and doubt to be dangerously subversive of the moral opinions and prejudices that are (in Strauss's words) the "very element of human or social or political life."
This is why Strauss himself never doubted for a second that philosophy "is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy," and that "the radical distinction between the wise and the vulgar is essential to the original concept of philosophy."
Strauss presents us with a highly original and even shocking vision of the ideal human society, marked by the starkest of contrasts and the steepest of hierarchies. At the very top is a tiny group of apolitical, amoral, atheistic philosophers who devote their lives to endless questioning of everything under the sun. Far from justifying their pursuit of wisdom in terms of the pleasure that they alone derive from it, these philosophers believe themselves to be leading "the right way of life," which constitutes "the happiness of man." And then there is, well, everyone else. Every single other way of life is "fundamentally defective," and every single non-philosopher lives a life of "misery, however splendid." The only true human difference, according to Strauss, is that between "philosophy and despair disguised by delusion."
Hence the need for every political community to inculcate "noble lies" and other delusions to shield the defective majority of people from despair, while also, ideally, directing a few of the promising young toward a life in the philosophic elite. While the members of that elite pursue lives of radical liberation from any and all constraints, every other citizen is condemned to a life of intellectual confinement in the darkness of the perpetually closed society.
"I really believe…that the perfect political order, as Plato and Aristotle have sketched it, is the perfect political order." It is no wonder that such a man would go on to declare in the same letter that modern society, with its "famous atom bombs," not to mention "cities with a million inhabitants, gadgets, funeral homes, [and] 'ideologies'…is contra naturam."
In a famous allegory in Book VII of the Republic, Plato insisted that in all political communities, even in a utopian state governed by philosopher-kings, non-philosophers live their lives unknowingly chained to the floor of a cave, forced to gaze at shadow-images that they ignorantly mistake for reality. Philosophers are those rare individuals who come to doubt received opinions about the shadows and seek to replace those opinions with knowledge. In doing so, they liberate themselves from their confinement in the cave and ultimately ascend to the outside world of real objects bathed in the light of the sun (which in the allegory represents the Idea of the Good).
Rather than simply reviving the image and applying it to the present, Strauss insisted that Plato's allegory needed to be revised in order to take account of the uniquely pernicious influence of modernity on human self-understanding. The modern world, in Strauss's view, is the creation of the Enlightenment--a movement to spread philosophical and scientific knowledge throughout society for the sake of improving the human condition, materially, spiritually, and intellectually. Strauss believed that no authentic philosopher--no genuine wise man--would ever pursue such a goal, since it blatantly contradicts the natural order of things.
The Enlightenment and the modern world to which it gave birth may claim to be philosophical, but they are in fact profoundly anti-philosophical, because they spread error and falsehood in the name of philosophy, convincing modern men and women that their liberal and democratic convictions are philosophically defensible when they are merely modernity's distinctive myth. This is why Strauss suggested in Thoughts on Machiavelli that Enlightenment could be more accurately described as Obfuscation.
Straussians' pedagogy presupposes their teacher's distinctive--and distinctively perverse--view of modern society: extramoral philosopher-supermen at the top, moral and religious simpletons in the vast middle, and at the very bottom, leading their fellow citizens into bondage in the cave beneath the cave, the nation's non-Straussian academics and intellectuals.
Nietzsche believed "our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as unconvincing and alien as all earlier principles (essences) had shown themselves to be" and "the only way out seems to be ... that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth". quid sit deus ["What is God?"]
An elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A person becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating the rule by, such a small group, whether or not that individual is well known or not known at all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well known; when they become known, they are watched, and the mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged.
In sum, Strauss attempts to recover classical political philosophy not to return to the political structures of the past but to reconsider ways in which pre-modern thinkers thought it necessary to grapple and live with the tensions, if not contradictions that, by definition, arise from human society. For Strauss, a recognition, and not a resolution, of the tensions and contradictions that define human society is the necessary starting point for philosophically reconstructing a philosophy, theology, and politics of moderation, all of which, he claims, the twentieth-century detsperately needs.