It's my pleasure to present three studies of the work of LeoStrauss, probably the most profound and certainly the mostfascinating writer on political philosophy of the twentieth century.Marc Guerra, Ralph Hancock, and Paul Seaton each offer a sympatheticbut critical account of both Strauss's work and that of prominentstudents of Strauss. Guerra displays his erudition and philosophicpenetration in his panoramic overview of Strauss's project torecover the "theologico-political problem" as a permanent humanproblem. Hancock and Seaton approach Strauss mainly throughrecent work by Straussians. Seaton offers a very close and gentlyprovocative reading of the introduction to a Strauss-inspired responseto the challenge posed to political philosophy by the Bible. InHancock's case, the genuinely postmodern (or almost Thomistic)interpretive focus is on two very recent Straussian commentaries onStrauss, and he boldly announces his declaration of independencefrom the "serenity now" crowd. Each of the three authors dissentsfrom both Strauss and Straussians by doubting that philosophy cantruthfully liberate a human being, even the greatest thinkers, fromtheir natural orientation toward morality and God. But each alsogratefully acknowledges his debt to Strauss for clarifying in his ownmind the complex relationship between faith and reason.
In introducing this symposium, I'm confronted with a postmoderninterpretive nightmare. The authors have each employed scholarshipin the service of interpretation. They clearly are saying whatthey think is true about the thought of Strauss and Straussians, butto some extent in the service of defending their own view of the trueand proper relationships among philosophy, theology, morality, andpolitics. I'm not saying that they're writing esoterically; they probablyaren't. But they're each alive to the esoteric or hidden dimensionof Strauss's thought. Not only that, Hancock and Seaton are outto expose esoteric dimensions to the writing by Straussians.Straussians, it turns out, misquote Strauss not out of carelessness butto obscure their real disagreements with their mentor! ThomasPangle, according to Hancock, deliberately exaggerates the extent towhich Strauss thought philosophers could achieve liberation frommoral guidance, from pre- or unphilosophic concerns about humanvirtue. If that's the case, Pangle's exaggeration merely enhanceswhat for Strauss was already an exaggeration.
Michael and Catherine Zuckert's claim that Strauss didn't writeesoterically turns out to be a way of exaggerating the extent to whichStrauss thought the perennial tension or hostility between thephilosophers' true concerns and the demands of political life hadbeen ameliorated in our enlightened time. The Zuckerts show theirhand with the qualification that Strauss thought the time was ripe forabandoning esotericism for radical enlightenment "for all practicalpurposes," which seems to mean that his neon highlighting of pastesotericism was, in part, actually an exoteric or consciously dogmaticteaching to humor our intellectual vanity. Esotericism, the suggestionis, was only necessary in unenlightened times when peoplekilled over God and didn't know about natural rights. But is it reallytrue that people today are more able than ever to handle the truth?Or so indifferent or passive that it's possible to say anything and getaway with it? Straussians such as Steve Lenzner seem closer to thetruth when they contend that Strauss didn't really believe thatanything that fundamental had changed. The Zuckerts seem to wantto exaggerate how genuinely enlightened, in Strauss's eyes, ournatural-rights republic is.
Strauss, after all, claimed that it remains the case, as Guerrareminds us in a note, that the person who lives morally but notphilosophically is a mutilated human being. The person who livesjustly, as Plato writes, is nothing like the person who lives erotically.The just man is self deceived in ways both the philosopher and thetyrant are not. Strauss even says, as Guerra goes on, that hisrhetorical intention was to overstate the tension between philosophyand politics, the source of the need for esoteric writing, as an antidoteto the dominant contemporary inability to see any tension or problemat all. That permanent problem just can't be resolved, and themisguided attempt to put it behind us has been disastrous for bothpolitics and philosophy.
It seems more likely that Strauss highlighted the fact of esotericwriting as perhaps the only way today to restore a moribund invigoratingtradition, and it's impossible to believe that Strauss could haveboth been so insistent on its necessity and not engage in it himself.Still, the Zuckerts are right that Strauss's esoteric exposes weremeant to change the way the teaching of the philosophers of the pastappears to us. Strauss's thematic esotericism seems to have been away of changing the exoteric face of philosophy.
According to the Zuckerts, "the stripped-down truth" aboutphilosophy has been brought to light through Strauss's acknowledgmentthat all that stuff in Plato about the Ideas and the soul'simmortality was just moralistic window-dressing. Philosophic inquirydoesn't really provide definitive answers to the inevitablehuman questions, because the truth is that all solutions to humanproblems are always questionable and provisional. But there's oneexception: the philosophic way of life, not any particular philosophicaldiscovery or metaphysics or cosmology or ontology, is the pointof human existence and the secret of human happiness. That unadornedpresentation of the truth is not only good news for the veryfew capable of following that way of life. It provides, the Zuckertsclaim, the doctrine required to refute the ignoble relativism of ourtime.
Strauss's exoteric outing and so alleged abandonment ofesotericism is a way of turning a way of life into a doctrine or dogma.Philosophy comes out of the closet with the assertion that in our timethe choice is the philosophic way of life or nothing. (This is certainlythe teaching of the seemingly very candid Straussian best-seller,Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. ) It turns out thatthe only true ground for morality is compatible with our most radicallongings for liberation. And that spiritual or transcendent liberationgives a purpose or point to the practical liberation that's beenachieved through modern technology and modern liberal democracy.The way of life of the philosopher is constituted by nothing buthis own reason and exists "above fear and trembling as well as hope,"above what makes other human lives miserably uneasy in pursuit ofthe impossible. The Declaration of Independence liberated us forthe pursuit of happiness, but it neglected to tell us what humanhappiness is.
The philosophers' way of life must become a doctrine to replacethe two others that falsely promised radical liberation. The first, ofcourse, is Christianity, which cruelly alienated human beings fromtheir natural satisfactions with an impossible, wish-fulfilling hope insalvation from a loving, personal Creator. The Christian hopes weresecularized by the modern or Enlightenment philosophers' doctrineof the mastery of nature. The philosophers displaced the priests byrefocusing human hopes in technological liberation. The purpose ofscience or philosophy or reason became maximizing human powerover nature, and virtue was reconstructed as simply a means for thequest for power. And so reason was justified as a way of liberatinghuman beings from the natural or bodily constraints they all have asindividuals.
The modern philosophers knew that technological progresscouldn't satisfy the deepest human longings, and that in the crucialrespect they would remain as mortal or as enslaved by nature as ever.They also saw the opportunity to employ human fear and hope tosecularize the world or open it to the more direct rule of reason. Butthey underestimated the prospects for monstrous tyranny thatwould accompany transformative hopes in technology or history.Modern hopes eluded philosophical control as much as Christianones; the pious cruelty of Stalin or Hitler or the biotechnologicaleugenicists to come exceeded anything Machiavelli and his successorspowerfully opposed.
Modern philosophy was a doctrine connecting reason withdomination. It aimed for the power of the biblical God, but withoutHis loving concern for particular beings made in His image. To freethemselves from rational domination, it seemed that human beingshad to liberate themselves from reason in the name of love. Technologyhad to somehow be subordinated to purposes worthy of beingsborn to know and love particular persons and places. But thatsubordination proved almost impossible. The chaining of reason totechnology relativized or deprived of weight every human claim topoint or purpose. Considerations of humanity's spiritual or transcendentfulfillment became, as Pangle says, "unserious."
Technological progress became itself curiously impersonal ormore and more freed from rational direction by particular humanthinkers. Logos is disconnected from the love or eros of particularhuman beings. Extravagant hopes intertwined with unmoderatedfears revealed that the unproblematic satisfaction of human desirerequired that it be technologically separated from the particularbeing's longing for nobility and love. So the almost incredible butdecisively incomplete success of the Enlightenment threatens thevery future of human nobility and love, and without them philosophyor, better, philosophers, the beings genuinely open to the permanenttruth about the human situation, have no future.
Strauss's doctrine is, in large measure, a questionable responseto this problem of his time. It is, as Hancock explains, "politicalphilosophy" in the sense of an innovative approach to the perennialpolitical responsibility of philosophers. Strauss, like his predecessors,attempted, Hancock writes, "to represent, moderate, anddirect the human longing for transcendence." If an intellectual elitecould be convinced to accept the philosophic way of life as the sourceof distinctively human happiness and a genuinely rational or nonreligiousopenness to eternity, then that elite could "apply somebrakes" to "the post-Christian hopes of political mastery, politicaland scientific." Technology and biblical religion wouldn't whollydisappear, but they would be chastened by the philosophers. Transcendencecould be reconfigured as a noble, personal endeavor thatwas neither otherworldly nor directed toward some vague historicalfuture. Christianity could be affirmed insofar as it teaches thathuman salvation is not political or technological, and that the humanmind was created free to discover some transpolitical truth. Biblicalreligion would be presented as allied with classical political philoso6phy against every modern excess, and the deep connection betweenChristian and modern hopes would be obscured for the benefit ofbelievers, while highlighted for those intellectuals who needed to becured of their incoherent mixture of atheism and humanitarianism.One pedagogical purpose of the neon highlighting of esotericism isto counter the intellectual chauvinism of our dogmatic atheists byshowing them that philosophers have always been atheists.
Modern politics and science could be affirmed insofar as theyoppose religious tyranny and the sectarian complacency of creatureshappy in hope. And political life itself could be affirmed in recognitionof the fact that genuinely cosmopolitan human life is limited tothe community of the philosophers, and most human beings get whatsham nobility they can by serving some communal illusion oranother. The theology that culminates in some wise and benevolentdeity would be managed by philosophic theologians as some mixtureof Biblical, natural, and civic theology appropriated for a chastenedenlightenment. But neither technology nor the bible would anylonger be considered as the source of the truth most needful forhuman beings, and Plato and Aristotle or classical political philosophywould be celebrated as the source of the good human beingstruly can share in common. That good would be wisdom, which, theclassics taught, most men will never share in common.
The outing of the allegedly esoteric truth that the philosophershave always been atheists would be muted by the implication thatthey really lack both the wisdom and the power to refute those wholive obediently in light of God's revelation. Ancient atheism, unlikethe modern, aggressive atheism of the French Revolution and theMarxists, was not meant to be dogma to be imposed on everyone,because the philosopher doesn't know enough to transform persuasivelyor genuinely liberate common opinion.
The lesson of the Enlightenment's failure isn't that the philosophershave no responsibility to influence common opinion; thesalutary character of that influence is the lesson of the success of theEnlightenment's defanging of aggressive Christian fanaticism andinfinitely increasing the domains of human power and freedom. Thekey now is to ennoble the Enlightenment's success with a Platonic/Aristotelian account of its true point, which is the beneficial rule byand behalf of philosophers. Reason has to be transformed from amodern, impersonal "ism," rationalism, into a personal tale aboutparticular men—really, a particular man—with a name. The somewhatmythic character of this tale is vaguely but insistently indicatedby the fact that we only have "hearsay" knowledge of its hero—Socrates. Is our hero the "historical" Socrates or the characterpresented most admirably, but perhaps not completely realistically,in plays (dialogues) composed by Plato?
Philosophy as a way of life is a doctrine that connects logos to erosand nobility in the philosopher, in Socrates. Nobility, as the Zuckertsexplain, is unreserved devotion to a cause greater than oneself, andcertainly philosophy is that. The nobility or magnanimity of thephilosopher is also displayed in his contempt for the petty concernsof most people. Because his concern is private and transpolitical, hehas no interest in dominating other human beings, and his politicalactivity is largely in the service of his private pursuit. To the extentthat he is also motivated by a public spiritedness he can't fully explainas properly philosophic, his benevolence is relatively undistorted byanger or personal love. The philosopher is the human being leastdistorted by the tyrannical lust for domination. If he's to be criticizedfor his lack of personal love or concern, it's because his eros hasascended beyond the ephemeral in the direction of what is eternal.His life is more passionate and purpose-driven that that of anybeliever.
Part of Strauss's intention in exaggerating the tension betweenphilosophy and politics, no doubt, was to heighten the perception ofthe nobility of the philosophic pursuit. In Pangle's hands, thatpursuit is mainly for the truth about one's own situation in thecosmos, knowledge of which would secure his own rational emancipationfrom all binding ties of obedience and trust for rationalautonomy and independence. And Pangle writes to "wrestle" withany and all threats to the self-sufficiency of this rule of reason. Itwould seem, as Seaton observes, that the philosopher is motivated by both a love of truth and a spirited desire for independence, andPangle hasn't properly articulated the relationship between, muchless properly separated out, those two motivations.
Their interplay seems to culminate in a kind of trans-eroticsolitude, the result of the philosopher rationally overcoming all thesocial neediness and dependence characteristic of human eros. Hehas freed himself from all the imaginative illusions that makepossible the human experiences of nobility and love. But, as Hancockadds, "philosophy's claim to radical independence purged of allnobility is itself an expression of nobility." The philosopher can'treally lose himself, the who, in the impersonal necessity, the what,that governs the cosmos he now basically believes he has come tounderstand. He remains, at least in Pangle's eyes, concerned with hispersonal situation.
Does the life of the philosopher ever free itself from the need forself-assertion and self-mastery, from what ought to remain a questionableclaim to rule? Seaton observes that the philosopher'sdefense of his way of life against moral and religious challenges aren'treally open minded if it's really true that he's untouched by theemotional claims or challenges of virtue and revelation. But if hisrational serenity weren't in some ways troubled by insecurity oranxiety he wouldn't bother to take up, much less go out and look for,these challenges at all.
Like Aristotle's magnanimous man, the philosopher as philosophermay lack proper gratitude for the conditions of his existence,and for the concerns he shares with all human beings. One place wefind an exaggerated account of the philosopher's transcendence ofthe opinion-governed domain of political life is Plato's Republic .There, philosophers, in their wisdom, are presented as the bestrulers. But their love of wisdom causes them to find ruling to be timesuckingdrudgery; participation in the illusions of political life hasnothing to teach them. The philosopher- kings Socrates describes arenot really philosophers. They are the oxymoron wise men, who knowwith complete adequacy the idea of the good, or what gives being itsbeingness. Their wisdom liberates them completely from "the cave,"or the political lies that govern other men's lives. Their lives areperfectly happy and, it seems, perfectly free from ordinary humanneed. They and the radically unenlightened cave dwellers havevirtually no perceptions or experiences in common. They aren't likethe character Socrates, who presents himself an ignorant manmaking endless progress toward becoming wise, who locates himselfin the web of opinions that is the cave, and who shows that he knowsthat he needs other men even to think well.
Socrates' idealization of the philosopher, his exaggeration of histranscendence of the world in which most human beings live, was,in part, an exoteric teaching. It was an effective antidote to thetyrannical idealism of his interlocutor Glaucon. Glaucon was persuadedthat there is a way of life nobler than ruling that is fundamentallyuntyrannical. And so ruling is unworthy of the best of men,especially given how closed political communities are to the naturaltruth that the philosopher alone can grasp.
Socrates' rhetorical strategy did have its downside: to exaggeratephilosophical liberation, he had to do the same with the intellectualenslavement of the denizens of the cave—or the citizens of allpolitical communities. In Socrates' account, they are completelyseduced by manufactured images, and they aren't even allowed thefreedom to discuss what they believe with each other. They areunrealistically denied any opportunity to make any progress at all torefine and enlarge their opinions in the direction of wisdom; theycertainly aren't like the young democratic citizens participating inthe animated conversation described in the Republic. The totalwisdom of the philosopher-king (not Socrates) is unrealisticallycontrasted with the total ignorance of the cave dwellers. It's becausethe philosophers are lacking in nothing and have no intellectual oremotional connection with the cave dwellers at all that they'recompletely freed from the desire to rule.
Strauss presents the philosopher-king's real indifference to theconcerns of non-philosophers as characteristic of classical and medievalphilosophers in general. He writes, Guerra reminds us, that"the philosopher has no attachment to society: his soul is elsewhere"(emphasis added) or wholly outside the cave. And his pursuit is of aneternal truth that's more dignified than the life of any ephemeralman. His social connections and conduct don't go beyond what'srequired to secure the conditions conducive to his essentially privateand transpolitical activity. So insofar as the philosophers write toencourage virtue and obedience to the law in others, it's not becausethey regard either as good in themselves. They encourage a certainkind of discipline in others as a means to the end of their personalintellectual liberation. Strauss, again, exaggerates or at least highlightsin a wholly unprecedented way the philosopher's real indifferenceto the fate of the souls of others, his radical spiritual liberationfrom any political or religious conception of the common good. Theconscious exaggeration of the philosophers' wisdom and independencein the Republic he presents as the real self-conception of themedieval political philosophers.
It does seem that many students of Strauss confuse the philosopher-king with Socrates and even with themselves. Due to Strauss'sexoteric outing of esotericism, they find it all too easy to regardthemselves as basically intellectually liberated or transpolitical andtransmoral beings—although they usually don't seem as happy or asserene as beings should be who have solved the problem of humanlife and live beyond hope, fear, and anxiety. Certainly Strauss curedvirtually all of them of any tyrannical or totalitarian temptations andreconciled them to our liberal democracy with all its imperfections.Contrary to the reigning intellectual prejudices of our enlightenedtime, Strauss led them to believe that they are too smart to bepolitical progressives, that the intellectually liberated are for allpractical purposes conservatives. From Strauss, they learned thesalutary teaching that Socrates would actually often vote Republican,if he bothered to vote at all.
But that doesn't mean that they've been completely cured of thedesire to rule, nor even that such a cure would be realistic orbeneficial for them. Pangle, following Strauss's lead, writes that thewisest among us should write to make our political rationalism moreself-conscious and secure by promulgating a doctrine that avoids theexcesses of both relativism and sectarian fanaticism. But how canrationalism be a cure for relativism if it clearly devalues everythingthat most human beings love, such as God, country, and family, in thelight of philosophic transcendence? Certainly the more insistent ormore exoteric this formerly esoteric devaluing becomes in Straussianwriting the less influence it will have on our political life.
As Seaton and Hancock subtly suggest, we can wish that Pangle,for example, would write more esoterically and follow the exampleof the medieval philosophers in showing more respect for thereligion and traditions of his time and place. And given that Strausshimself wrote that the tension between reason and revelation is thesecret to the vitality of the West, we wonder why Heinrich Meier, asSeaton mentions in a note, displays so openly and proudly hisdecoding of Strauss's authoritative refutation of the possibility ofrevelation in the draft of a piece he probably never intended topublish. Pangle and Meier, of course, don't do any real harm,because their books only have force as a way of preaching to thealready converted.
Strauss's effort to purge the doctrine of philosophy or thephilosopher of all Christian and post-Christian elements seems toproduce a doctrine, as Hancock puts it, more aristocratic than thatof any political aristocracy. All non-philosophers exist for philosophers;the philosopher is the point of human existence; the way outof relativism is to rank all human activities and human beingsaccording to how well they serve the needs of the philosopher.What's missing in this picture is a clear conception of a being who isneither pure mind nor pure body—the human person or individual.Hancock explains that the Straussian tendency is to reduce humanindividuality to bodily necessity, and to elevate philosophic transcendenceto some impersonal or wholly intellectual domain. Theconsequence, again, of exaggerating philosophic transcendence is todeny any real capability of transcendence at all for most people, andso of any real moral or loving or opinionated connection between thephilosopher and his fellow citizens.
The dignity of his mind alienates the philosopher from thematerial necessities that govern the lives of anyone else; his mindleads him to be at home in the world or nature, but not at home withothers. One point of Socrates' image of the cave is that the philosopherexperiences himself as radically disoriented or homeless in theworld of men, and the best of citizens rightly experience his radicalalienation as, above all, a threat to their being at home. To be at homewith our homelessness, we need a common conception of themystery of our individuality or personhood that is characteristic ofbeing human as such.
So it would seem that the philosopher has no way of grasping, forexample, the Christian anthropology that inspired the anti-communistdissidents who saw an irreducible moral and judgmental elementin the duty to live in the light of the truth. Nor would it seemthat what the zetetic philosopher Strauss describes, a particularbeing open to the truth about all things, is in the end really aliveenough to the mystery of the individual, a particular kind of beingthat is neither mind nor body that is given that openness andcorresponding responsibilities. Only a whole human being, a person,an individual, could be open to the whole. More wonderful than thecosmos, and certainly the heavens and the stars, is the person madein the image of a personal God whose logos and eros doesn't abstractfrom or transcend his insistent, loving, rational concern for thesignificance of particular beings. The doctrine of the way of life of thephilosopher homogenizes or rationalizes or depersonalizes the worldtoo much for it to do justice to the real heterogeneity introduced intonature by strange and wonderful men and women. As a doctrine,even classical political rationalism remains too much an "ism."
Peter Augustine Lawler