Four Readings of Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss was an interpreter of the classical philosophical tradition, whose substantial body of work is based on a defense of philosophy as a way of life. However, this defense of philosophy is apparently flawed; Strauss himself appears to recognize the flaw and, if we are to believe some of his interpreters, may even have introduced it into his work intentionally. After saying a little about Strauss’s life and work and the association of his name with neo-conservative political philosophy, this essay focuses on the various ways in which Strauss’s readers and commentators have attempted to understand the seeming contradiction or incoherence at the heart of his work. I will suggest that in their responses to this problem, four broad readings of Strauss have come into view: a ‘crypto-rationalist’ Strauss, a Strauss who is a man of faith, an internally divided and tormented Strauss, and a misguided, failed Strauss.
1. Strauss’s Life and Legacy
Strauss was born near Marburg, Germany, in 1899. After serving in World War 1, he took his PhD in Hamburg under the supervision of Ernst Cassirer (Lilla 2004a), and spent the 1920s as a scholar at various Jewish research centres and institutes in Germany. He left Germany in 1932, spending periods in Paris and London before arriving in the US in 1937. In 1938 he found an academic appointment at the New School for Social Research at Columbia University, remaining there until 1949 when he took up a position at the University of Chicago (Lilla 2004b). During his tenure at Chicago, he published the works which brought him to the attention of the US intelligentsia, including Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953) and What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (1959), and gained a reputation as a teacher, attracting distinct and often close-knit circles of students. Strauss retired from Chicago in 1967, but continued teaching and writing until his death in 1973 (Smith 2009). In the years since Strauss’s death, ‘Straussian’ enclaves have become established in many North American universities, primarily in political science departments (Lilla 2004a).
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In contemporary thought, especially in North America, Strauss’s name is strongly associated with ‘neo-conservatism’, and so it is necessary to say a little about this association before moving on to the main topic of this paper.
In 1952 Irving Kristol published an admiring review of Persecution and the Art of Writing in the journal Commentary (Kristol 1952). Kristol himself went on to embrace and popularize the label ‘neo-conservative’, and to formulate its key ideas in his journalistic work, frequently using Strauss as a point of reference; Commentary itself was to become a key Straussian journal (Thompson with Brook 2010).
Since Kristol first established the connection between Strauss and neo-conservatism, it has become accepted wisdom among some American conservative journalists that Strauss was for example an opponent of feminism and of state welfare — although commentators such as Lilla (2004a) point out that Strauss in fact wrote nothing on these subjects, and even the more scrupulous of the neo-conservative Straussians concede this (e.g. Blitz 1999).
In the build-up to the first Iraq war, mainstream journalists in the US became interested in identifying the intellectual roots of the neo-conservative movement which had become so prominent, particularly in the Bush administration, since 9/11. They identified Strauss as the intellectual source of neo-conservatism, on the grounds that some of the neo-conservatives among Bush’s closest advisors claimed intellectual allegiance to Strauss, most notably Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle (Sheppard 2006: 2). These journalists then looked into Strauss’s writings, but were unable to find anything there which might be in any obvious way relevant to Bush’s foreign policy, let alone supporting or intellectually underpinning it (Lilla 2004a). When it became clear that there was no clear connection between Strauss’s writing and the policies of the Bush White House, there emerged a narrative whereby Strauss had passed on secret, sinister teachings regarding contemporary politics to his coterie of students, and had passed these teachings on orally, without ever committing them to writing (Lilla 2004a). The Straussian Michael Zuckert (2009) and the non-Straussian liberal commentator Mark Lilla (2004a) concur that no substantial connection between Strauss’s thought and the policies of the Bush administration has been found, and that the existence of a secret oral Straussian teaching is mere conjecture, unsupported by evidence.
2. The Problem of Philosophy and Revelation
Far from being concerned with contemporary politics and foreign policy, Strauss’s thought centres on a valorization of the ‘philosophical life’ derived from Plato (see for example Strauss 1988a; Strauss 1988b; Strauss 1988c; Strauss 1988d). Strauss understands the ‘philosophical life’ to be the life devoted to the search for “knowledge of the eternal order” (Strauss 1988c: 118). However, Strauss insists that we do not have knowledge of the eternal order yet (Strauss 1988d), and often appears to take the view that this knowledge can in fact never be attained (e.g. Strauss 1988d: 38; Strauss 1953: 11). Thus, many readers of Strauss have found the justification for the ‘philosophical life’ to be a central problem in his work.
Strauss himself makes this problem most explicit in his discussions of the competing claims of philosophy and revelation (e.g. in Strauss 1953: 74–5; Strauss 1989). The need for knowledge of the eternal order can be understood to underpin the conflict between philosophy and revelation, as Strauss understands it, and he treats philosophy and revelation as the two possible methods by which knowledge of the eternal order might be attained, asserted or legitimated. Philosophy seeks to base its knowledge of the eternal order on what is evident to man as man, with no assistance beyond his own senses and intellect (1988d: 13). Revelation on the other hand begins with the assumption that a particular set of non-self-evident claims are true. As Strauss rehearses the debate, he assumes that these non-self-evident claims are the basic ontological and metaphysical claims of Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam, and archetypally the existence of God and of a divinely-warranted law (Strauss 1953; Strauss 2006). Strauss does not even contemplate the possibility of a reconciliation of reason and revelation; we must choose one or the other (Strauss 2006).
As a partisan of philosophy, Strauss claims that in order to demonstrate that philosophy is the right choice, we must be able to show that philosophy can provide knowledge of the eternal order without recourse to ‘revealed’ content (Strauss 2006). “The genuine refutation of orthodoxy would require the proof that the world and human life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of a mysterious God; it would require at least the success of the philosophic system” (Strauss 1982: 29). However, as we have seen, Strauss denies that philosophy has yet achieved this success, and he appears to hold that philosophy is incapable of ever achieving it. Thus, Strauss concedes, philosophy is incapable of refuting revelation. Revelation, he claims, is likewise incapable of refuting philosophy (Strauss 2006).
However, for Strauss we cannot simply conclude that reason and revelation are epistemologically incommensurable, and leave the argument there. As philosophy cannot justify itself by providing knowledge of the eternal order without recourse to the content of religious revelation, opting for philosophy cannot be justified by reason. One must choose to opt for philosophy without full rational justification for doing so — which would constitute an act of “blind decision” (Strauss 1953: 75) which Strauss appears to regard as identical with an act of faith. Reason is the methodology of what Strauss calls philosophy; faith is the methodology of what Strauss calls revelation. Since the choice between philosophy and revelation cannot be made on the basis of reason and can only be made on the basis of faith, revelation appears to have won the argument (Strauss 2006).
This, in very brief form, is the problem of philosophy and revelation as Strauss articulates it. Many sympathetic readers of Strauss have been concerned with this problem, and have responded to it in a variety of ways. Four of these responses are explored below.
3. Strauss as ‘Crypto-Rationalist’
The first way to resolve this contradiction is to claim that philosophy actually can refute the claims of revelation, and that Strauss knew this all along. This is the position generally taken or assumed by the so-called ‘East Coast Straussian’ school (Zuckert 2009), and most clearly stated by Meier, in his Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Meier 2006). Meier regards Strauss’s claim that philosophy cannot refute revelation as merely rhetorical, intended to spur the partisans of philosophy to greater intellectual efforts. He claims that Strauss did in fact believe that philosophy can refute revelation, and that a page of unpublished lecture notes from 1948, found among Strauss’s papers after his death, indicates how this refutation can in Strauss’s view be decisively achieved. In brief, these lecture notes present a ‘genealogy’ of belief in God and revealed religion, describing how these beliefs are generated in response to the practical needs of society.
However, Meier’s contention here seems unconvincing, on three counts. Firstly, it fails to fulfill Strauss’s own criterion for how philosophy might refute revelation. As indicated above, Strauss held that the justification of philosophy and the refutation of revelation would require a full, unquestionable account of the world without recourse to God and other ‘revealed’ religious concepts. This has not been provided, and therefore Strauss’s criterion has not been met. Secondly, as Zuckert points out (Zuckert 2009), Strauss discusses other such genealogies of religious belief at various points in his work, and does not regard this type of approach as being capable of refuting the claims of revelation. The genealogy presented in the 1948 lecture notes is fundamentally of the same order as other such genealogies, so it is unclear why he should he regard his own genealogy as uniquely refuting the claims of revelation. Thirdly, whether or not other writers genuinely used esoteric strategies to hide certain ideas in plain sight in their texts, as Strauss claims they did, there is nevertheless a strong case that Strauss himself used at least some of the esoteric techniques, at least on occasion (Drury 1988). Even if Strauss did regard this genealogy of religious concepts as the resolution to a central problematic in his work, and even if he did deliberately wish to obscure it in order to stimulate his readers to greater philosophical exertions, it seems much more likely that he would have published the material in question under esoteric concealment, rather than leaving it to languish entirely unpublished for the subsequent two and a half decades until his death. Occam’s Razor would suggest that in the 1948 lecture notes which Meier discusses, rather than revealing the secret key to his thought, Strauss was exploring a line of thinking which he subsequently rejected.
4. Strauss as Partisan of Revelation
As we have seen, Strauss depicts philosophy as failing to justify itself adequately in the face of revelation, and yet he also maintains that philosophy is the best life. A reader who wished to rescue Strauss’s thought from the (at least apparent) contradiction between these two positions might suggest (as Meier does) that the first position is merely rhetorical, and that Strauss believes that philosophy actually can justify itself against revelation. The alternative approach is to suggest that it is the second position which is rhetorical, and that Strauss does not in fact regard the philosophic life as the best life.
This is the approach to the problem of philosophy and revelation taken by Susan Orr in her Jerusalem and Athens (1995). Orr presents a reading of a Strauss essay, also entitled ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ and first published in 1967 (Strauss 1983: 147), in which Strauss rehearses his account of the problem of philosophy and revelation as summarized above, in the context of a discussion of the Book of Genesis. Orr’s first suggestion is that, while Strauss explicitly endorses and identifies himself with the philosophical side of the debate, his argument actually leads the reader to the realization that revelation is justified, and philosophy is not. He is, she suggests, writing “with pious intention and pious results” (Orr 1995: 158). Having demonstrated how Strauss calls philosophy into question and indicates that revelation has the epistemological advantage in this particular essay, Orr then moves to the conclusion that Strauss’s endorsement of philosophy in general is merely rhetorical, and that his overall intention is to incline his readers towards revelation.
If this is indeed Strauss’s strategy, then, as Zuckert notes (2009), it is an exact mirror-image of the strategy Strauss ascribes to ‘early modern’ writers such as Hobbes and Locke. Such writers in fact rejected the claims of revelation and took the side of philosophy, Strauss claims. Yet, they lived and worked in an environment in which the other side of the debate had the upper hand, and was likely to suppress and punish explicit dissent. Hence these ‘early moderns’ peppered their writings with professions of faith in revelation; however, they did so in such a way that the discerning and open-minded reader would be able to see through these protestations, and see that the true substance of the work lead to an endorsement of what Strauss calls philosophy (Zuckert 2009).
For Orr, Strauss is doing precisely the opposite: he is placing endorsements of the non-religious philosophical perspective on the surface of his writing, while leading the attentive reader to conclude in favour of revelation. He intends to show that religion (in this instance, Genesis) can in fact provide satisfactory knowledge of the whole. Anticipating the question as to why Strauss, writing in the US in 1967, would feel constrained to present an endorsement of religion in this indirect, esoteric way, Orr argues that it is because Strauss was writing in a society in which philosophy and atheism had become the new orthodoxy (Orr 1995: 150).
The claim that the US, or even the political science department on a US campus, was in 1967 so anti-religious that a public endorsement of faith would be on some level ill-advised or dangerous is a claim which requires further investigation. However, it must be noted that Orr’s view of Strauss as a writer who intended to guide his readers away from philosophy and towards revelation is a view based very heavily on an analysis of a single essay. It may indeed make a convincing interpretation of that essay, taken out of the context of Strauss’s work as a whole. However, a great deal of Strauss’s work is concerned precisely with the exposition of the philosophic life, and with the political ramifications of a view which takes the philosophic life as the primary or indeed the only form of the good life; in fact, almost all of Strauss’s work in English could be invoked as examples here, but one might point towards ‘What Is Political Philosophy?’ (Strauss 1988d) and Natural Right and History (Strauss 1953) as examples of Strauss’s most sustained and fully-realized works, which are centrally concerned with the exposition and lauding of the philosophic life. The view of Strauss as a covert partisan of revelation entails the proposition that the vast bulk of his work was devoted to deliberate misdirection and imposture. Although this proposition cannot of course be conclusively falsified, it seems barely credible. Again, the more economical explanation is that Strauss broadly meant what he said, and that rather than being a rhetorical device, the problem of reason and revelation was a genuinely unresolved problem at the centre of his work.
5. The Divided Strauss
Other writers, including some soi-disant Straussians, accept both that Strauss holds the philosophic life to be the highest value and that he cannot establish the validity of the philosophic life on its own terms. In order to achieve coherence, such writers must move beyond attempts to articulate what Strauss secretly thought, and must make alterations and/or additions to Strauss’s own ideas.
One such view, which recognizes an unresolved contradiction at the heart of Strauss’s thought and imports new ideas in order to resolve it, is the view that the choice for philosophy is a Nietzschean act of will, which from the point of view of reason must be seen as arbitrary. The major advocates of this view of Strauss are Lawrence Lampert and Stanley Rosen. Lampert argues explicitly that Strauss’s view of philosophy is ultimately a Nietzschean view, in which the philosopher’s decisive act of will in choosing to affirm a truth is primary (Lampert 1996). For Lampert, Strauss’s philosopher differs from Nietzsche’s in that the latter explicitly understands and declares himself to be a legislator, while the former conceals this fact, pretending that he ‘discovers’ the truth which he in fact chooses (Lampert 1996).
Rosen (2002) presents a similar account of the Straussian philosopher, but rather than the philosopher’s dissimulation, Rosen stresses his troubled conscience. For Rosen, the Straussian philosopher is ultimately unable despite his best efforts to believe in the philosophical project, and the ‘noble lie’ is philosophy itself (Rosen 2002: 135–58). A similar view is taken by Wilhelmsen (1978), who regards Strauss as having been a believer both in philosophy and in revelation, and having been personally torn between these two commitments which he could not reconcile within himself.
6. The Misguided Strauss
For Strauss, at least if we read him literally, the philosophic life is simply the best life, or the only way of life capable of leading to genuine happiness; for advocates of the ‘divided Strauss’ such as Rosen and Wilhelmsen, the absence of a compelling rational justification for philosophy renders the philosophic life a more complicated and internally dissonant way of life. Another group of readers of Strauss, sometimes referred to as ‘faith-based Straussians’, take the same critique further, and regard the project of philosophy as advocated by Strauss as an experiment in ethics which is interesting, and perhaps even creditable, but ultimately a failure.
The ‘Faith-based Straussians’ regard themselves as indebted to Strauss, especially in his critique of modernity and post-Enlightenment thought (Lawler 2007; Zuckert 2009), but they reject many of Strauss’s more positive assertions. They also reject Orr’s view that Strauss is actually a man of religious faith, and take literally both his advocacy of the philosophic life and his assertion that the philosophic life cannot justify itself against the claims of revelation. A key text is Ralph Hancock’s ‘What Was Political Philosophy? Or The Straussian Philosopher and His Other’ (Hancock 2007). Hancock emphasizes Strauss’s references to the erotic nature of the philosopher’s striving for knowledge (Hancock 2007), and sees the longing for ‘knowledge of the whole’ as an expression of a fundamental human desire for wholeness and for the eternal. Strauss deserves credit, he argues, for attending in his writing to this desire, which tends to be outside the scope of contemporary philosophy. However, he contends against Strauss that the philosophical life is not an adequate way to address that erotic striving, as the ‘knowledge of the whole’ which the Straussian philosopher desires cannot be attained. In fact, Hancock implies that this erotic striving towards the whole and the eternal properly belongs to the sphere of religion, and that Strauss’s ‘philosophy’ is an unsuccessful attempt to create a substitute religion (Hancock 2007).
In fact, as Zuckert (2009) points out, the faith-based Straussians take a position which Strauss himself describes in a set of lecture notes entitled ‘Reason and Revelation’ (Strauss 2006) as the general theological case against philosophy, at the centre of which is the view that man “without God” is inherently subject to “misery” (Strauss 2006: 172). In these notes, Strauss appears to attempt to refute this case against philosophy by demonstrating that the philosophical life without God can indeed be a happy and satisfying life. However, his ‘refutation’ appears to consist merely of the assertion that Socrates found “consolation” rather than “misery” in the philosophical life (Strauss 2006: 172). Clearly, adducing one single counter-example is not sufficient to refute Hancock’s case, let alone the fact that this one counter-example is such a complex and disputed character as Socrates.
In summary, then, two distinct interpretative moves have been attempted in order to ‘rescue’ Strauss from the problem of philosophy and revelation, the first construing him as a coherent ‘crypto-rationalist’ and the second painting him as a coherent but covert man of faith. Both of these readings, however, appear problematic and unconvincing, and it seems we must conclude that the incoherence at the centre of his work is not merely apparent, but genuine.
If this is true, then we might venture an assessment of Strauss as follows.
Firstly, he was a late defender of that particular intellectual ethic which devotes itself to the search for final, definitive knowledge of ‘the whole’, warranted by reason ‘all the way down’; an ethic which has of course been thoroughly critiqued since the advent of Nietzsche (and before). Strauss seems to have been committed to this ethic, and attempted to defend it against its many critics. This commitment involved him in a contradiction which rendered the foundations of his thought unstable. However, he recognized this contradiction and this instability only partially and inconsistently, and did not in any satisfactory way remedy them. Indeed, remedy may be impossible; Lampert for example is able to ‘save’ Straussian thought only by giving it new, Nietzschean foundations, and thus moving it far away from its original ethic.
There is perhaps an irony to be pointed out here. Strauss makes much of the clear-eyed moral courage of the philosopher who looks squarely at received ‘opinion’, recognizes that it is insufficiently warranted by reason, and renounces it, nobly insisting on the philosophical quest for ‘knowledge’ (e.g. Strauss 1953: 26). His views on the relationship between the philosopher and the polis, which account for a considerable portion of his work, rest on the distinction between on the one hand the philosophers, who have not only the intellectual acuity but also the inner strength and resilience to see through the accepted social ‘myths’, and on the other hand the mass of non-philosophers, who lack these qualities. However, Strauss himself does not seem to have been able to summon up sufficient moral courage to look squarely at the foundation of the philosophical life he himself was advocating, to recognize fully its lack of justification and the implications of this, and to contemplate renouncing his commitment to the quest itself.
The question of whether the erotic longing for final truth which animates the Straussian philosopher’s quest can properly be understood as a disguised or displaced religious longing, is a compelling one, and one to which I cannot attempt to do justice here.
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