BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 31, 2006
Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism
By Steven B. Smith
(University of Chicago Press, 256 pp., $32.50)
Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem
By Heinrich Meier
(Cambridge University Press, 183 pp., $60)
Of the many emigre scholars to leave a mark on American intellectual life in the latter half of the twentieth century, none has sparked greater controversy than Leo Strauss. In the years since his death, in 1973, he has repeatedly been accused of exercising a sinister influence on the country. At first he faced the general charge of having used a series of academic appointments at such institutions as the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago to spread elitist and anti-democratic ideas throughout the nation. By the mid-1990s, journalists had determined that this author of dense commentaries on Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, Judah Halevi, Machiavelli, and Spinoza should be considered the "intellectual godfather to the Contract with America." Then, in the most recent and most concentrated journalistic treatment of his writings and influence, Strauss was described as the philosophical founder of neoconservatism and the primary inspiration behind the Bush administration's goal of democratizing the Middle East through military force. Combine these ostensibly serious allegations with the risible charge that Strauss, a Jewish refugee from Nazism, was "a Jewish Nazi" (this repulsive charge was made by Shadia Drury)--or that he proposed that the state should "fry" criminals "before they break the law" (this was Brent Staples's contribution to the discussion)--and one begins to appreciate just how much animosity has come to surround this seemingly unassuming professor of political philosophy.
Strauss has never lacked for defenders. Indeed, one of the many controversies surrounding his legacy involves his remarkable success in founding a self-perpetuating school of intensely loyal followers who proudly describe themselves as "Straussians." During every flare-up of popular hostility to Strauss, his students (and students of students, and students of students of students) can be counted on to compose dutifully indignant articles and letters in defense of their teacher. Most of these essays profess astonishment that such a modest scholar could inspire so much hatred and misunderstanding. As his daughter, the classicist Jenny Strauss Clay of the University of Virginia, put it in The New York Times a few years ago, Strauss was merely a bookish academic whose truest passion was "to spend his life raising rabbits…and reading Plato." Such testimony makes for touching reading, but it is of little use in helping readers to form a more balanced view of the man and his place in intellectual history.
Steven B. Smith's book is a response to Strauss's critics, and it far surpasses previous efforts in clarity, rigor, and judiciousness. Smith is not an acolyte propagating the true faith; he is an admirer who wishes to persuade his readers of Strauss's intellectual importance. This balance between sympathy and critical distance, lamentably rare in studies of Strauss, contributes to making this book our best introduction to the complex and challenging ideas of this divisive figure.
Where most commentators--Straussian and anti-Straussian alike--have emphasized the conservative political implications of Strauss's thought, Smith maintains that his subject was primarily an apolitical thinker--"a philosopher" who "had no politics in the sense in which that term is generally meant." In Smith's view, Strauss focused on political questions in his writing and teaching not because he wished to pursue an ideological agenda, but because he believed that the ultimately irresolvable problems and unanswerable questions that arise from political life--about good and evil, justice and injustice, right and wrong, noble and base--reflect the "many-sidedness or heterogeneity of being," and so demonstrate the severe limits of human understanding. Smith's Strauss is a Socratic skeptic who believed that political philosophy culminates in wisdom that amounts to "knowledge of what we do not know or knowledge of the limits of knowledge."
Smith maintains, a little startlingly, that Strauss's self-limiting skepticism puts him in the company of the twentieth century's greatest liberals, such as Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Trilling, Walter Lippman, Raymond Aron, and Judith Shklar--thinkers who placed the awareness of social and moral complexity at the center of their political theories and championed a modest but confident "liberalism without illusions." In Smith's account, Strauss's distinctive contribution to this tradition of thought is the epistemological lesson that liberal democracy is "the regime most consonant with the partial, incomplete, and even contradictory nature of knowledge."
After so many seasons of hysterical accusations and pious apologetics, Smith's thoughtful and highly unorthodox account of Strauss's thought serves as a welcome corrective to the extremism so often practiced by his critics and defenders. Above all, Smith deserves credit for injecting some much-needed sobriety and freshness into the discussion of Strauss's work and its legacy. Whether Smith's book deserves to be the final word on Strauss's ideas is another matter.
Smith's interpretation takes off from a well-known statement by Strauss that "the theme of my investigations" is the "theologico-political problem"--the problem that flows from the need for every human being to make an existential choice between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, as rival alternatives for the best way of life. On one side, revelation demands absolute obedience to divine authority. Although this alternative will show itself most vividly in the lives of orthodox believers, who explicitly appeal to Scripture and the edicts of religious institutions for authoritative guidance on how to live, Strauss maintained that a version of it presents itself to all human beings, provided that they are citizens of a political community.
All politics, according to Strauss, demands obedience to the laws of a particular community, whether those laws have democratic, republican, oligarchic, aristocratic, monarchical, tyrannical, or theocratic origins. Citizens will obey the law for many reasons. A few will do so out of fear of getting caught and being punished for transgressions. Others might make a rational calculation that one's own obedience is an acceptable price to pay for the benefit of social peace that results from widespread law-abidingness. But the vast majority, according to Strauss, will obey for another reason: they assume that the laws under which they live are good and just in themselves, regardless of the positive or negative consequences that follow from upholding them. All laws, in other words, rest on quasi-theological presuppositions whose truth the vast majority of people living under them unreflectively assume.
The laws of the United States, for example, are founded on belief in the existence of natural rights. Strauss indicates that whether or not American citizens conceive of these rights as grounded in the God of the Bible, the God of eighteenth-century deism, or no god at all--and even if they have personally given no thought at all to the grounds of their rights--most Americans think and act in ways that demonstrate that they believe such rights exist, and that it is just plain wrong to transgress them, regardless of the practical consequences of doing so. Strauss describes this primeval sense of restraint (or "man's natural conscience") as arising out of a nearly universal experience of "sacred awe" or a "divination" that "the full and unrestrained exercise of…freedom is not right"--that, in Smith's words, "not everything is permissible." All political law, in other words, presupposes or points toward the existence of a divine law underlying it, providing it with a metaphysical foundation that bestows upon it a sense of intrinsic rightness. Strauss's distinctive contribution to political reflection is the supremely questionable assertion that all politics is, at bottom, theological politics.
The most electrifying chapters of Strauss's most famous book, Natural Right and History, which appeared in 1953, discuss this primordial revelation of divine law and then trace the emergence in ancient Athens of a diametrically alternative outlook--the radically skeptical outlook of reason and philosophy. 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. As Smith writes, summarizing Strauss's view of philosophy's original (by which he means 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." As Strauss put it in one of the most widely quoted passages of his exchange with Alexandre Kojeve in On Tyranny:
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.
Philosophy for Strauss was the antithesis of every form of sectarianism.
Strauss's conception of an ineradicable tension between reason and "theologico-political" revelation serves as the motor behind the narrative with which nearly every Straussian teacher imparts 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 meant to conceal a far more sweeping criticism of common moral opinion and its unexamined pieties.
This is Strauss's notorious doctrine of esoteric writing, which he claimed to have single-handedly recovered from scholarly obscurity by following through on hints and suggestions in the writings of such authors as the eighteenth-century critic and dramatist Lessing, the medievals Maimonides and al-Farabi, and Plato himself, in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter. As Strauss describes it in Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), esotericism was primarily an expression of philosophical prudence. It protected society at large from the acids of skepticism and doubt unleashed by philosophical questioning, while simultaneously protecting philosophers from the righteous indignation of citizens who (rightly) suspect that such questioning undermines belief in the gods of the political community and thus corrupts the virtue of its citizens. 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.
In Strauss's telling of 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.
This is what Strauss considers to be the inevitably self-devouring dynamic of modernity. It can be traced through Western intellectual history since the eighteenth century, from the confident rationalism of the Enlightenment to the self-canceling skepticism of postmodernism. It likewise marks the political history of Europe during the past two hundred years, from the idealistic bloodletting of the French Revolution to the nihilistic mass murders of Hitler. Strauss even believed it had begun to seep into American higher education during the 1950s and 1960s, where he detected it in the work of his fellow political scientists. His conviction that American academics were unknowingly furthering nihilism in the United States led him to produce some of the most ridiculous writings of his career, in which he deployed heavy European-philosophical artillery against unarmed practitioners of public-opinion-survey research, absurdly denouncing them for "fiddling while Rome burns." Decades later, his student Allan Bloom updated this hysteria, with improbable--and deeply ironic--popular success, in The Closing of the American Mind.
Smith is at his most original when discussing how Strauss conceived of the relationship between philosophy and its rival, revelation. Most studies of Strauss insist that he refused to take a side in the perennial conflict between them, preferring to treat the clash as one of the "permanent problems" of human life. A smaller number of scholars point to passages in Strauss's work that seem to indicate that the worth of philosophy stands or falls by its ability to demonstrate its superiority over revelation. And since Strauss never wrote a single word to indicate that he considered religious orthodoxy to be a viable alternative for himself (and on one occasion described Judaism as a "heroic delusion"), these scholars infer that Strauss must have thought that philosophy could definitively refute revelation, even if he left behind few clues about how such a refutation could proceed.
Smith stakes out a unique position in this crucial debate. He concedes something to each side. Employing an unintentionally misleading term of art, Smith describes Strauss as a "fideist skeptic." Instead of indicating that Strauss, like Pierre Bayle, was driven by reason's impotence to make a leap into religious faith, Smith employs the phrase to mean the exact opposite. Strauss, he maintains, sided unequivocally with rational philosophy against revelation, but he did so on the basis of a leap of faith into atheism. Not only does philosophy not need to refute revelation; its wisdom rests in part on the realization that such a refutation is both impossible and unnecessary. All genuine philosophers eventually come to recognize that philosophy "rests on faith, on an act of will," and not on any putative capacity to eliminate the possibility of God or revelation.
The existential outlook of the philosopher thus cannot be said to be truer than that of the committed believer in the biblical God. Rather than basing the goodness of philosophy on its possession of an account of human nature and the natural world that excludes the divine, Smith's Strauss implies that the life of rational contemplation and reflection is best, for those capable of living it, because it is the most pleasurable life. Finally Strauss's defense of philosophy is based, for Smith, "on a form of hedonism--a higher hedonism, to be sure, but one that can only be confirmed by the pleasure felt by the philosopher alone."
Smith's portrayal of Strauss as a defender of philosophical hedonism is crucial to his broader attempt at depoliticizing and liberalizing Strauss. By treating philosophy as a source of intellectual pleasure instead of as a means to reaching a final truth that would call into question the views professed by other ways of life, Smith's Strauss leaves political and religious pieties intact. Philosophers affirm skepticism, believers advocate faith in God, statesmen treat the laws of their political community as sacred, and none of these divergent outlooks can be said to refute the others. Each of them exists in a state of productive and irreconcilable tension with the others. The human condition would seem to be profoundly pluralistic.
Then there are the relativistic implications of Strauss's supposed hedonism. Although numerous passages in Strauss's writings imply that he believed a life of Socratic questioning to be the best way of life for human beings, Smith's interpretation suggests something else entirely. Few people, after all, consider a life of endless questioning to be supremely pleasurable. Indeed, a rich tradition of thought running from Paul through Pascal and Rousseau to Nietzsche has powerfully maintained that for the vast run of humanity, philosophical reflection produces profound misery. Philosophy would thus seem to be the best way of life only for the few who derive pleasure from philosophizing. For the others, there are other "truths."
Once again, Smith's Strauss proves to be a kind of pluralist, open to various ways of life and claims to truth, acting (in Smith's words) as a "friend of liberal democracy," affirming the "liberal values" of "toleration, open-mindedness, and skepticism," refusing to rank different human types or to look down on the competing goods affirmed by the unphilosophical multitude. Smith's Strauss deserves to be read and taught alongside the greatest anti-utopian thinkers of the twentieth century. He certainly has little to nothing in common with those conservative ideologues to whom his name has recently been attached.
There is much in Heinrich Meier's brief but masterful study of Strauss that supports Smith's interpretation. The leading interpreter of Strauss's writings in Germany, as well as the editor of his collected works in German, Meier marshals abundant textual evidence from Strauss's corpus to demonstrate that his primary concern was indeed with the conflict between reason and revelation, and not with politics narrowly construed. Meier's preface even contains a mild rebuke to American Straussians for using their thinking and scholarship to serve partisan ends.
While the series of densely written academic essays that form the core of Meier's book are interesting and instructive, the book's greatest contribution to our understanding of Strauss's thinking can be found in two previously unpublished lectures from the 1940s that Meier includes as appendicies--particularly an essay that Strauss composed for delivery at the Hartford Theological Seminary on January 8, 1948, titled simply "Reason and Revelation," which contains some of his most concise and radical statements on the manifold tensions between the life of philosophy and the life of piety. Here 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."
Going further, Strauss states with uncharacteristic bluntness what he means by philosophic skepticism--of the sort that piety, which demands unwavering obedience to God's commandments, must absolutely reject.
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.
In notes to the lecture that Meier also supplies, Strauss even goes so far as to declare that "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." This is a thinker passionately committed to open-ended questioning--a thinker who, like Smith's Strauss, seems to stand shoulder to shoulder with such liberal skeptics and champions of doubt as Berlin, Trilling, and Shklar.
Except for one crucially important thing: the lecture that Meier provides for us proves beyond dispute that, all of Smith's assertions to the contrary, Strauss believed that philosophy could not settle for leaving revelation intact as an existential possibility. Philosophy is "radically atheistic." And to confirm the truth of this atheism, the philosopher must confront revelation's contrary claims about the world and man, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating that these claims are fundamentally false. 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.
Meier points to strong evidence that Strauss's entire intellectual project grew out of an effort to chart a third way between biblical faith (especially in its Christian variant) and modern unbelief, which Strauss considered to be insufficiently rigorous. 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's statements about the relatively low status of morality have long perplexed his conservative admirers. While he admitted that "the philosophic life, especially as Plato and Aristotle understood it, is not possible without self-control and a few other virtues," Strauss also insisted on treating those virtues as "subservient to philosophy," which he described as "not only trans-social and trans-religious, but trans-moral as well." For all of his moralistic rhetoric and impassioned denunciations of relativism, Strauss was far more radical than such contemporary academic atheists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who combine professions of godlessness with conventionally liberal moral and political opinions. 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.
Although Smith provides much less detail than Meier about how Strauss's rationalist critique of moral opinion and religious belief is supposed to proceed, he gives every appearance of recognizing where it leads--namely, far beyond good and evil, at least as they are typically understood by ordinary human beings. One thus wonders why Smith denies so strenuously that Strauss advocated "the creation of an inward-looking elite that exempts itself from the moral principles applicable to the rest of humanity." If this statement merely means that Strauss did not wish to foster a sect of sociopaths who would prey on American society, then it is surely true. A central contention of ancient political philosophy is that great acts of immorality are almost always motivated either by untamed and misdirected moralism or by an immoderate desire for the intense but fleeting goods of the body (as opposed to the more enduring and ultimately more fulfilling goods of the mind). The amoral Socratic philosophers that Strauss aimed to produce would therefore be quite unlikely to see their liberation from conventional moral opinion as an opportunity to exploit or to harm their fellow citizens.
But even if we assume with Strauss that 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."
And so 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." These are not, to put it mildly, the words of a Berlin-like or Trilling-like liberal.
This duality, this hierarchy of souls, is for Strauss a natural and ineradicable fact of human life. And social and political arrangements must take it into account. 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.
If this political arrangement sounds familiar, it should. Strauss's writings may be dismissed by most classicists, but he was arguably the twentieth century's most consistent Platonist. Strauss was being completely sincere when he declared, in a letter to Karl Lowith in 1946, that "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."
If Strauss added anything to the political vision of the ancient philosophers, it is the notion that modern developments have led to the creation of an even greater gap between Socratic philosophers and the remainder of the human race. 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.
In a world founded on such false philosophy, education toward genuine philosophy, toward Socratic philosophy, cannot proceed as it had in the premodern world, where it involved the radical questioning and examination of commonly accepted moral and religious opinions. Rather, such questioning must now be preceded by preparatory instruction that aims to bring the skeptical young back to the contemporary equivalent of the naive moral and religious convictions of Plato's original, "natural" cave. It requires that citizens be educated away from sophisticated modern theories and disciplines, inoculated against the skepticism bred by modern scientific methodologies, to embrace simple patriotism and unthinking piety in their place. Only after this education has been completed and the young have been taught to revere God and their nation unreflectively can authentic education in radical doubt begin for the very few potential philosophers.
Some Straussians focus on the first form of instruction, creating a literate band of right-wing ideologues and moralists who revere Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan as American demigods. Others devote themselves to the second, turning out ironic hedonists who seek their pleasure in studying Platonic dialogues in the original Greek and contemplating the comedic absurdity of common moral attachments. (Bloom was one of these.) But in nearly every case, the 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. Think of it as a cross between the worldviews of Bill O'Reilly and Diogenes the Cynic.
So Strauss can hardly be described as a liberal. But neither was he a conservative in any meaningful sense of the term. How has a thinker as radical as Strauss--a thinker so blatantly hostile to democracy and modernity, so deeply suspicious of political liberty and equality, so profoundly skeptical of moral and religious belief--managed to become the intellectual idol of contemporary American conservatism, with its clamorous moralism, its pious parochialism, its shameless populism, and its instinctual suspicion of doubt? Only when we have devised a satisfactory answer to that troubling question will we be capable of rendering a responsible judgment of Leo Strauss's ideas and their enigmatic legacy to the times in which we live.
This article originally ran in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.