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On Three Waves
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
Leo Strauss was one of the most important historians of political philosophy in the 20th century. A Jewish emigre to America in the 1930s, Strauss made his name as an exegete of the classics (Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides especially; Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Maimonides among Arab-Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophers, and Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas among medieval Christians) as well as being a historian of the history of political philosophy. For Strauss, one had to take the classic to medieval philosophers seriously, and not just discard them as historical notaries of a bygone era with nothing to teach us besides a simple intellectual edification of “having read them.” Strauss was, beyond a great exegete of philosophical works, one of the greatest historians of comparative philosophy.
Strauss is responsible for two notable ideas in the history of Western political philosophy: The contest between Athens (Greek Rationalism) and Jerusalem (Abrahamic revelation) which was synthesized by Christianity as the thesis that underlay classical Western civilization; and the rupture (or break) in political philosophy between classics and moderns.
One of Leo Strauss’ most famous contributions to the study of modern political theory is his known idea of the “three waves of modernity”, in which Strauss made a short but important insight into the crisis of modernity – devised as the crisis of modern political philosophy. Historicism, the philosophical consequence of the discovery of the “historical sense”, was the result of a reaction to the first wave of modernity. Its evolution would arrive at relativism and nihilism, the product of the last, and third, wave of modernity.
The first wave of modernity, as Strauss explained it, is of relevant interest for our work: it was through it that a “radical modification of premodern political philosophy” took place, a transformation that “comes to sight first as a rejection of premodern political philosophy.” The succeeding two waves of this modern project come as reactions against this radical modification which was pioneered by Machiavelli and further developed by Hobbes and Locke. We can say that liberalism has been a direct product of this first wave. In the first part of this essay, we have looked at the crisis of the idea of progress and how it led to liberal relativism. We will now look further into the liberal project in modernity.
The change conducted by Machiavelli was thoroughly studied by Strauss. This change meant essentially the replacement of the “idealism of traditional political philosophy” by a “realistic” approach to the political problem: the old philosophers had paid too much attention to fancies, to “imagined commonwealths and principalities”; Machiavelli was, on the contrary, concerned with the way men actually lived. The result of this anthropological realism was, for Strauss, the “lowering of the standards” of political philosophy: in order to solve the political problem through the is and not the ought, the horizon of political philosophy had to be lowered; this lowering of political philosophy’s goal implied a reinterpretation of virtue.
Classical political philosophy understood virtue as the foundation through which the City must be sustained; in Machiavelli, virtue exists only for the sake of the City. “Political life proper is not subject to morality” and “morality is not possible outside of political society”, explained Strauss. To prove this amorality of the political, as Schmitt would stress, one must only remember the fact of the foundation of any political commonwealth: the founder of the greatest of commonwealths, Rome, “was a fratricide.
The crisis of modernity reveals itself in the fact, or consists in the fact, that modern western man no longer knows what he wants—that he no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. Until a few generations ago, it was generally taken for granted that man can know what is right and wrong, what is the just or the good or the best order of society—in a word that political philosophy is possible and necessary. Scientific knowledge cannot validate value judgments. - Leo Strauss
Above all, as is generally admitted, modern culture is emphatically rationalistic, believing in the power of reason; surely if such a culture loses its faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims, it is in a crisis. The spirit of modern capitalism is of puritan origin. Or, to give another example, Hobbes conceives of man in terms of a fundamental polarity of evil pride and salutary fear of violent death; everyone can see that this is a secularized version of the biblical polarity of sinful pride and salutary fear of the Lord. Secularization means, then, the preservation of thoughts, feelings, or habits of biblical origin after the loss or atrophy of biblical faith.
Hobbes's radical break with the tradition of political philosophy only continues, if in a very original manner, what had been done in the first place by Machiavelli. Machiavelli questioned, in fact, no less radically than Hobbes the value of traditional political philosophy; he claimed, in fact, no less clearly than Hobbes that the true political philosophy begins with him, although he stated his claim in a somewhat more subdued language than Hobbes was going to do.
There are two utterances of Machiavelli which indicate his broad intention with the greatest clarity. The first is to this effect: Machiavelli is in profound disagreement with the view of others regarding how a prince should conduct himself toward his subjects or friends; the reason for this disagreement is that he is concerned with the factual, practical truth and not with fancies; many have imagined commonwealths and principalities which never were, because they looked at how men ought to live instead of how men do in fact live. Machiavelli opposes to the idealism of traditional political philosophy a realistic approach to political things.
According to Plato's Republic, e.g., the coming into being of the best regime depends on the coincidence, the unlikely coming together, of philosophy and political power. The so-called realist Aristotle agrees with Plato in these two most important respects: the best regime is the order most conducive to the practice of virtue, and the actualization of the best regime depends on chance. For according to Aristotle the best regime cannot be established if the proper matter is not available, i.e., if the nature of the available territory and of the available people is not fit for the best regime; whether or not that matter is available depends in no way on the art of the founder, but on chance.
Machiavelli seems to agree with Aristotle by saying that one cannot establish the desirable political order if the matter is corrupt, i.e., if the people is corrupt; but what for Aristotle is an impossibility is for Machiavelli only a very great difficulty: the difficulty can be overcome by an outstanding man who uses extraordinary means in order to transform a corrupt matter into a good matter; that obstacle to the establishment of the best regime which is man as matter, the human material, can be overcome because that matter can be transformed.
Nature supplies the standard, a standard wholly independent of man's will; this implies that nature is good. Man has a definite place within the whole, a very exalted place; one can say that man is the measure of all things or that man is the microcosm, but he occupies that place by nature; man has his place in an order which he did not originate. "Man is the measure of all things" is the very opposite of “man is the master of all things." Man has a place within the whole: man's power is limited; man cannot overcome the limitations of his nature. Our nature is enslaved in many ways (Aristotle) or we are the playthings of the gods (Plato). This limitation shows itself in particular in the ineluctable power of chance. The good life is the life according to nature, which means to stay within certain limits; virtue is essentially moderation.
Not the maximum of pleasures but the purest pleasures are desirable; happiness depends decisively on the limitation of our desires. According to the Bible man is created in the image of God; he is given the rule over all terrestrial creatures: he is not given the rule over the whole; he has been put into a garden to work it and to guard it; he has been assigned a place; righteousness is obedience to the divinely established order, just as in classical thought justice is compliance with the natural order; to the recognition of elusive chance corresponds the recognition of inscrutable providence.
Machiavelli rejects the whole philosophic and theological tradition. We can state his reasoning as follows. The traditional views either lead to the consequence that the political things are not taken seriously (Epicureanism) or else that they are understood in the light of an imaginary perfection—of imagined commonwealths and principalities, the most famous of them being the kindom of God. One must start from how men do live; one must lower one's sights.
Conquest of nature implies that nature is the enemy, a chaos to be reduced to order; everything good is due to man’s labor rather than to nature’s gift: nature supplies only the almost worthless materials. Accordingly the political society is in no way natural: the state is simply an artifact, due to convenants; man’s perfection is not the natural end of man but an ideal freely formed by man.
Machiavelli had completely severed the connection between politics and natural law or natural right, i.e., with justice understood as something independent of human arbitrariness. The Machiavellian revolution acquired its full force only when that connection was restored: when justice, or natural right, were reinterpreted in Machiavelli’s spirit. This was the work primarily of Hobbes. One can describe the change effected by Hobbes as follows: whereas prior to him natural law was understood in the light of a hierarchy of man’s ends in which self-preservation occupied the lowest place, Hobbes understood natural law in terms of self-preservation alone; in connection with this, natural law came to be understood primarily in terms of the right of self-preservation as distinguished from any obligation or duty—a development which culminates in the substitution of the rights of man for natural law (nature replaced by man, law replaced by rights).
Eventually we arrive at the view that universal affluence and peace is the necessary and sufficient condition of perfect justice.
The second wave of modernity begins with Rousseau. He changed the moral climate of the west as profoundly as Machiavelli. Just as I did in the case of Machiavelli, I shall describe the character of Rousseau's thought by commenting on two or three sentences of his. The characteristics of the first wave of modernity were the reduction of the moral and political problem to a technical problem, and the concept of nature as in need of being overlaid by civilization as a mere artifact. Both characteristics became the targets of Rousseau's critique. As for the first, "the ancient politicians spoke unceasingly of manners and virtue; ours speak of nothing but trade and money." how can we know that a certain state in man's development is the peak? Or, more generally, how can we distinguish good from bad if man is by nature subhuman, if the state of nature is subhuman? Let us repeat: Rousseau's natural man lacks not merely, as Hobbes's natural man does, sociality, but rationality as well; he is not the rational animal but the animal which is a free agent or, more precisely, which possesses an almost unlimited perfectibility or malleability. But how ought he to be molded or to mold himself? Man's nature seems to be wholly insufficient to give him guidance.
The guidance which it gives him is limited to this: under certain conditions, i.e., in a certain stage of his development, man is unable to preserve himself except by establishing civil society; yet he would endanger his self-preservation if he did not make sure that civil society has a definite structure, a structure conducive to his self-preservation: man must get within society the full equivalent of the freedom which he possessed in the state of nature; all members of society must be equally subject and wholly subject to the laws to the making of which everyone must have been able to contribute; there must not be any possibility of appealing from the laws, the positive laws, to a higher law, a natural law, for such an Modernity started from the dissatisfaction with the gulf between the is and the ought, the actual and the ideal; the solution suggested in the first wave was: to bring the ought nearer to the is by lowering the ought, by conceiving of the ought as not making too high demands on men, or as being in agreement with man's most powerful and most common passion; in spite of this lowering, the fundamental difference between the is and the ought remained; even Hobbes could not simply deny the legitimacy of the appeal from the is, the established order, to the ought, the natural or moral law, Rousseau's concept of the general will which as such cannot err—which by merely being is what it ought to be—showed how the gulf between the is and the ought can be overcome. Strictly speaking, Rousseau showed this only under the condition that his doctrine of the general will, his political doctrine proper, is linked with his doctrine of the historical process, and this linking was the work of Rousseau's great successors, Kant and Hegel, rather than of Rousseau himself.
According to this view, the rational or just society, the society characterized by the existence of a general will known to be the general will, i.e., the ideal, is necessarily actualized by the historical process without men’s intending to actualize it. what is called man’s nature is merely the result of man’s development hitherto; it is merely man’s past, which cannot give any guidance for man’s possible future; the only guidance regarding the future, regarding what men ought to do or aspire to, is supplied by reason. Reason replaces nature. This is the meaning of the assertion that the ought has no basis whatever in the is. what is called man’s nature is merely the result of man’s development hitherto; it is merely man’s past, which cannot give any guidance for man’s possible future; the only guidance regarding the future, regarding what men ought to do or aspire to, is supplied by reason. Reason replaces nature. This is the meaning of the assertion that the ought has no basis whatever in the is.
Faust's goodness is decidedly not virtue—i.e., that the moral horizon of Goethe's most famous work has been opened by Rousseau. It is true that Faust's goodness is not identical with goodness in Rousseau's sense. While Rousseau's goodness goes together with abstention from action, with a kind of rest, Faust's goodness is unrest, infinite striving, dissatisfaction with everything finite, finished, complete, "classic," The significance of Faust for modernity, for the way in which modern man understands himself as modern man, was properly appreciated by Spengler, who called modern man Faustic man. We may say that Spengler replaced "roman¬ tic" by "Faustic" in describing the character of modernity.
Modernity started from the dissatisfaction with the gulf between the is and the ought, the actual and the ideal…
All philosophers have the common defect that they start from present-day man and believe that they can reach their goal by an analysis of present-day man. Lack of historical sense is the inherited defect of all philosophers.- Nietzsche
In the case of Hegel, we are indeed compelled to say that the essence of modernity is secularized Christianity, for secularization is Hegel’s conscious and explicit intention.
According to Hegel there is then a peak and end of. history; this makes it possible for him to reconcile the idea of philosophic truth with the fact that every philosopher is a son of his time: the true and final philosophy belongs to the absolute moment in history, to the peak of history. Post-Hegelian thought rejected the notion that there can be an end or peak of history, i.e., it understood the historical process as unfinished and un-finishable, and yet it maintained the now baseless belief in the rationality or progressive character of the historical process.
“Wherever I found life, I found will to power’ The transvaluation of all values which Nietzsche tries to achieve is ultimately justified by the fact that its root is the highest will to power a higher will to power than the one which gave rise to all earlier values. Not man as he hitherto was, even at his highest, but only the Over-man will be able to live in accordance with the transvalution of all values. The final insight into being leads to the final ideal. Nietzsche does not, like Hegel, claim that the final insight succeeds the actualization of the final ideal but rather that the final insight opens the way for the actualization of the final ideal. In this respect Nietzsche’s view resembles Marx’s. But there is this fundamental difference between Nietzsche and Marx: for Marx the coming of the classless society is necessary, whereas for Nietzsche the coming of the Over-man depends on man’s free choice. Only one thing is certain for Nietzsche regarding the future: the end has come for man as he was hitherto; what will come is either the Over man or the Last-man. The last man, the lowest and most decayed man, the herd man without any ideals and aspirations, but well fed, well clothed, well housed, well medicated by ordinary physicians and by psychiatrists is Marx’s man of the future seen from an anti-Marxist point of view. Yet in spite of the radical opposition between Marx and Nietzsche, the final state of the peak is characterized in the eyes of both Marx and Nietzsche by the fact that it marks the end of the rule of chance: man will be for the first time the master of his fate.
There is one difficulty peculiar to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche all genuinely human life, every high culture has necessarily a hierarchic or aristocratic character; the highest culture of the future must be in accordance with the natural order of rank among men which Nietzsche, in principle, understands along Platonic lines. Yet how can there be a natural order of rank, given the, so to speak, infinite power of the Over-man? For Nietzsche, too, the fact that almost all men are defective or fragmentary cannot be due to an authoritative nature but can be no more than an inheritance of the past, or of history as it has developed hitherto. To avoid this difficulty, i.e. to avoid the longing for the equality of all men when man is at the peak of his power, Nietzsche needs nature or the past as authoritative or at least inescapable. Yet since it is no longer for him an undeniable fact, he must will it, or postulate it. This is the meaning of his doctrine of eternal return. The return of the past, of the whole past, must be willed, if the Over-man is to be possible. Surely the nature of man is will to power and this means on the primary level the will to overpower others: man does not by nature will equality. Man derives enjoyment from overpowering others as well as himself. Whereas Rousseau’s natural man is compassionate, Nietzsche’s natural man is cruel.
Like Heidegger, Strauss drew a radical consequence from the experiences of World War I and the constant threat to the Weimar Republic: In his view, this served as historical proof that the Enlightenment, with its positive view of human nature and its faith in progress, was an illusion. He also believed that faith in a liberal democracy as the governmental and social order of the future was invalid.
Religion is the opium of the people, but it is an indispensable opium.
As his theory goes, philosophers following in Nietzsche's footsteps could devote themselves to the question of how the death of God and the renunciation of religion impacts thought and being. But without the inner cohesiveness faith provides, states could not exist. For this reason, according to Strauss, religion serves as a binding agent in a stable social order. It is, admittedly, the opium of the people, but it is also an indispensable opium. In Strauss' view, liberal democracies such as the Weimar Republic are not viable in the long term, since they do not offer their citizens any religious and moral footings.
The practical consequence of this philosophy is fatal. According to its tenets, the elites have the right and even the obligation to manipulate the truth. Just as Plato recommends, they can take refuge in "pious lies" and in selective use of the truth.
What is justice, what is the good life, what difference does the state make, where are the limits of our knowledge?
Eternal truths, preferably derived from Xenophon, Socrates, Plato? Refutation of the modern age through refutation of Hobbes? For the first time, those buzzwords were mentioned which still cling to Strauss in the current debate: nihilism, elitism, esotericism.
Strauss’s hope is that liberal society had not permanently destroyed the possibility of recovering classical premodern Western thought. Communism’s war against the past and religion prevent it from ever being able to recover and rejuvenate its society with the wisdom of classical and Biblical thought. Fascism’s war against everything, and its embrace of perpetual struggle, is antithetical to classical and Biblical philosophy and thought—therefore fascism is also a dead end. The reason why communism and fascism also fail to appreciate classical thought is because of their historicism and fascism’s embrace of the tragic and nihilistic. The past is worthless because History’s revelatory hand is all that matters. Thus, the possibility of recovering classical and Biblical thought is uniquely open in liberal societies.
Strauss did not think that the first wave had a conception of History as did the second and third waves. Liberalism may have an optimism with regard to human nature and the prospects of a peaceable life of hedonism, but the first wave had not conceived itself as the end of history. The discovery of History came later. Had Strauss lived through the 2000’s he may have changed his view on that matter.
Thus reason, if it is reasonable, will recognize its limits and come to terms with revelation, or in other words with ultimate answers, which are not within the power of reason to either evaluate or replace. Is it absurd to believe that Moses talked to a burning bush, or that Christ rose from the dead? Certainly. But absurd things (like quantum entanglement and the career of Pharrell Williams, for instance) do happen, and Strauss isn’t saying that we have to believe these things. He’s saying that we don’t know that they didn’t happen, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter since there is no reason to think that the demolition of an absurd belief will lead to its replacement with a rational one.
It may lead, after all, to only a different absurdity. On balance then, we’re wise not to challenge these beliefs publicly, for they have a long and proven track record of upholding precisely the types of beliefs that Enlightenment rationality has so consistently undermined. The proper relationship between reason and revelation, or, in other words, between Athens and Jerusalem, is, for Strauss, creative tension, not the futile attempt of one to destroy the other.