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Leo Strauss and the Recovery of the Theologico-Political Problem

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Fall, 2007 - Vol. 36, No. 1

Scholarly and journalistic interest in Leo Strauss has increasedin recent years. But as the attention Strauss has garneredreminds us, being a person of interest is at best a mixed blessing.Much of this attention has flowed from the ill-informed andincredible belief that Strauss is somehow responsible for mastermindingthe Bush administration's approach to foreign policy andits use of military force in the Middle East. If it were not for thedishonor these kinds of frenzied machinations heap upon Strauss'slife and his own thought, such portrayals would be laughable.

Fortunately, the past several years have also witnessed thepublication of a number of serious books that seek to engageStrauss critically as a thinker in his own right.1 Several of theseworks, most notably Heinrich Meier's Leo Strauss and theTheologico-Political Problem and Daniel Tanguay's detailed andimpressive Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography, provide theimportant service of placing front and center what Strauss himselfthought to be at the center of his own thought: the question of Godand politics. Strauss repeatedly emphasized that "the questionquid sit deus" is "coeval with philosophy."2 Paradoxically, Straussat the same time went out of his way to emphasize that the classicalpolitical philosophers did "not frequently pronounce" this "allimportantquestion."3 Unlike their modern counterparts, theclassical political philosophers tended to approach the questioncautiously, raising it only indirectly through dialectical inquiresinto the "roots" of the city's alleged authoritative divine law.Strauss, in other words, appreciated that the question quid sitdeus is as much a moral and political question as it is theologicalor philosophical one. As he succinctly put it, "The fundamentalquestion, therefore, is whether men can acquire knowledge of thegood without which they cannot guide their lives individually orcollectively by the unaided effort of their natural powers, orwhether they are dependent for that knowledge on Divine Revelation.No alternative is more fundamental than this: humanguidance or divine guidance."4 It is not surprising then thatStrauss identified the theologico-political problem as theoverarching theme of his studies.5

Strauss did not formulate his understanding of the nature andscope of the theologico-political problem all at once. Rather, ittook form gradually and was deepened by his sustained investigationsinto the ways in which that problem was articulated anddebated by modern, medieval, and classical political philosophers.Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1930) contains Strauss'sfirst sustained treatment of the theologico-political problem.That work examined the role that Spinoza's bold treatment of theessential relation of philosophy, religion, and politics played inmodernity's original argument in favor of liberal democracy.6Looking back at his argument in that work some thirty-two yearslater, Strauss concluded that he "understood Spinoza too literallybecause I did not read him literally enough."7 In part becauseStrauss had yet to discover esoteric writing and thus to thinkthrough the various implications of that "peculiar technique ofwriting,"8 he had not broken free from the characteristically latemodern "premise, sanctioned by powerful prejudice, that a returnto premodern philosophy" or for that matter to traditionalbiblical faith is impossible.9

The premise that ostensibly precluded any return to premodernthought had its roots in and was "expressed . . . in its simplest andstrongest form, in Descartes' resolve to doubt everything in orderto free himself once and for all from all prejudice."10 Allegedly"erected on foundations" that were "absolutely certain," modernrationalism asserted that it "no longer left any place for doubt."11It claimed to be able to liberate reason and mankind from therealm of opinion and darkness that resulted from man's prescientificadherence to the moral and doctrinal tenets of biblical faith.12Spinoza himself proclaimed in the preface to the Theologico-Political Treatise that his overarching aim in that work was toovercome the "obstacle to others who would philosophize morefreely if this one thing did not stand in their way: they deem thatreason has to serve as handmaiden to theology."13 Because it didnot dialectically question but rather radically doubted the claimsof common opinion, modern rationalism, in contrast to premodernor Socratic philosophy, dared to conceive of "philosophy . . . as [a]completed system."14 According to its proponents, the possessionof such a system and the inevitability of consequent scientificprogress would show that modern rationalism, not the God of theBible, was the true benefactor of man.

From the beginning, Strauss understood modern rationalismto be "caused, or at least facilitated, by anti-theological ire."15 Inhis view, modern philosophy was essentially Epicurean in itsintention. However whereas ancient Epicureanism sought toliberate individual men of "good natures" from the tyranny of thegods and religion, modern Epicureanism expressly sought to freemen and political societies from revealed religion and its fearfuland tyrannical invocation of what Hobbes rather bluntly called"powers invisible."16 Beginning with Machiavelli, early modernphilosophers labored to bring into existence a new form ofrationalism and republicanism. To this end, they advanced rationalisticcritiques of biblical faith and formulated arguments thatwere designed to show that modern reason could provide the truegrounds of civil society. As Strauss pointed out, "political atheismis a distinctively modern phenomenon."17

But Strauss gradually came to see that the purported solutionthat modern rationalism offered in place of "theology" wasequally opposed to the claims of Socratic philosophy. To beginwith, like biblical faith, Socratic philosophy emphasized theindispensability and non-constructed nature of morality in generaland justice in particular. Moreover, each affirmed thatmorality must be tethered to a transcendent order that supplementsand grounds morality. Lastly and most importantly forStrauss, both the Bible and Socratic philosophy, in their ownways, claim that man is incapable of comprehending the whole.Modern rationalism's attack on biblical faith was therefore equallyan attack on the foundations of Socratic philosophy.18 To theextent that it was successful in discrediting the grounds of biblicalfaith, it was also successful in discrediting the foundations—andtherewith the very possibility—of Socratic philosophy.

Strauss consequently began to see that the only way in whichan authentic "return" to orthodoxy, and by extension to Socraticphilosophy, could be justified was to show that, contrary to itsclaims, modern philosophy had not proven that "the world andhuman life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of amysterious God."19 At the very least, this argument required oneto show that modern rationalism and science were not in possessionof a complete and coherent philosophic system. Put somewhatdifferently, Strauss recognized that a return to the sharedground of either orthodoxy or Socratic philosophy was trulyimpossible only if modern philosophy had in fact succeeded in itseffort to formulate "a philosophic system [in which] man has toshow himself theoretically and practically as the master of theworld and the master of life; the merely given world must bereplaced by the world created by man theoretically and practically."20 Absent a systematic—i.e., a complete rationalistic accountof the universe—modern rationalism's alleged victory overorthodoxy was unwarranted on its own terms.

Strauss understood Spinoza to be the modern philosopherwho made the grandest attempt to articulate a philosophicalsystem that would definitively disprove the notion of revelationand therewith the existence of the biblical God. Yet his attempt toformulate "a clear and distinct account of everything," Straussconcluded, ultimately rested on premises that remained "fundamentallyhypothetical."21 The "cognitive status" of the philosophicsystem he constructed remained in the decisive respect nodifferent from the theoretical grounds of the orthodox position itoriginally set out to overcome. Strauss understood each to begrounded in "an act of the will."22 Despite its efforts first to argueand later to "mock" orthodoxy out of existence, modern rationalismand modern science could not "legitimately deny the possibilityof revelation."23 Strauss concluded from this that the modern"antagonism" between Spinoza and Judaism, "between unbeliefand belief, is ultimately not theoretical but moral."24

At the same time, Strauss also recognized that modernrationalism "still had a highly consequential and positive result."25"The quarrel between Enlightenment and Orthodoxy made clearerand better known that the presuppositions of Orthodoxy (thereality of Creation, Miracles, and Revelation) are not known(philosophically or historically) but are only believed and thuslack the peculiarly obligatory character of the known."26

Having shed light on the basic presuppositions of the life ofbiblical faith, modern rationalism's polemical attack and attemptedrefutation of orthodoxy eventually paved the way—through the progressive radicalization of the modern desire forcertainty in philosophers like Kant and Hegel—for the emergenceof what Strauss calls "the atheism from intellectual probity."27This form of atheism represented the ultimate consequence ofmodern rationalism's critique of revealed religion and biblicalfaith. Unlike the early modern critique, it did not attempt polemicallyto disprove the possibility of divine revelation.28 Rather, onthe grounds of "intellectual honesty," it limited itself to assumingthat the proof of such things as miracles and God's revelationfinally could not be scientifically established according to criteriathat would be acceptable to the "positive mind."

Strauss, however, also rejected the argument from intellectualprobity. It represented neither the vindication of modernrationalism nor that of Jewish orthodoxy, since it reduced thecognitive grounds of every revealed religion indeed every particularclaim to truth finally to a matter of willful belief. Thatreduction not only relativizes the claims made by any form oforthodoxy but in grounding all claims to truth in the act of"probity" or intellectual honesty it also finally proves "fatal to anyphilosophy."29 Strauss argued that when the founding premises ofmodern rationalism were followed to their logical conclusions—as they ultimately were in Nietzsche's intransigent insistence onthe requirements of "probity" and his teaching on the "will topower"—they resulted in the self-destruction of reason. Strauss'sstudies in the early modern attempts to resolve the theologicopoliticalproblem led him to conclude that "'irrationalism' is onlya variety of modern rationalism."30 In its dogged pursuit ofabsolute certainty and ruthless efforts to overcome the verygrounds of biblical faith, modern rationalism sowed the theoreticalseeds for the self-destruction of reason and the eventualemergence of radical historicism or nihilism. Put somewhatdifferently, Strauss concluded that modern rationalism—and notrationalism or Socratic philosophy per se—provided the moraland intellectual foundations of the present-day "crisis of theWest."

Strauss's study of the early modern political philosophers ledhim to discover that the modern Enlightenment had been precededby a medieval Enlightenment, what he in Philosophy andLaw provisionally called the "Enlightenment of Maimonides."31Unlike its modern counterpart, that Enlightenment was notrooted in a fatally exaggerated conception of the limitless powersof reason. Nor did it believe in the inevitability of moral, political,and scientific progress. And yet it was simultaneously more daringin its thought and more sober in its expectations than the modernEnlightenment. Medieval rationalism neither dogmatically truncatedthe scope of philosophic inquiry nor imprudently lost sightof the fact that philosophy necessarily poses a "grave danger" tothe political order.32 Resting on "classical (Aristotelian and Platonic)foundations,"33 it did not seek to re-create the whole ofsocial and political life along the lines of philosophic knowledge.Over and against the modern Enlightenment's insistence on thepublic dissemination of knowledge, it emphasized the "duty tokeep rationally recognized truths secret from the unchosen many."34

Contrary to many of his contemporaries who interpretedmedieval thought to be chiefly concerned with reconciling biblicalrevelation with the now allegedly discredited natural science andcosmology of Aristotle, Strauss recognized that that conventionalapproach wittingly or unwittingly preceded from the prior assumptionthat philosophy was a legitimate activity for the man ofbiblical faith. Taking the thought of medieval Islamic and Jewishthinkers on its own terms, he questioned the validity of thatassumption. Strauss thus viewed the subject of divine Law—arevealed law that spoke directly to all aspects of man's religious,moral, and political life—to provide the necessary point ofdeparture for medieval rationalism.

Through its emphasis on the centrality of Law, medievalrationalism represented "the first, and certainly the first adequate,discussion . . . between the way of life based on faith andobedience and a way of life based on free insight, on humanwisdom, alone."35 Most immediately, that discussion requiredphilosophy to justify itself before the tribunal of an allencompassing,perfect Law. Whereas modern rationalism tookthe legitimacy, indeed the practical necessity, of philosophy forgranted, medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkers recognized thatfaced with an authoritative divine Law philosophy necessarily hadto justify its own legitimacy.36 Medieval Jewish thinkers such asMaimonides and Halevi—to say nothing of Islamic thinkers likeAl-farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes—"took it for granted being aJew and being a philosopher are mutually exclusive."37 For thisreason, Strauss understood the "issue of traditional Judaismversus philosophy [to be] identical with the issue of Jerusalem andAthens."38

Medieval Islam and Judaism typically viewed philosophydifferently than Christianity traditionally did. Religion for theChristian, unlike the Jew or Muslim, is primarily "a faith formulatedin dogmas."39 Given the nature of Christian revelation, thereligion eventually came to see philosophy as a legitimate sciencethat could be used to clarify and defend the revealed teachings ofthe faith. The Jew and the Muslim, on the other hand, principallyencountered revelation and hence religion as a matter of Law,that is, as a divinely revealed "code" that regulated all aspects ofhuman life, individually and collectively. The divine Law wasdistinguished from human laws inasmuch as it aimed not merelyat the well-being of the body but "above all at the well-being of thesoul."40 There was or appeared to be no need for philosophy in thisscheme and many saw it as unjustified in that light.

The precarious state of philosophy in Islam and Judaism,however, was not altogether detrimental to philosophy, accordingto Strauss. Christianity traditionally cast philosophy in the role oftheology's handmaiden. Such an official arrangement requiredphilosophy to be under the watchful eye of ecclesial supervision.Conversely, the suspicion with which philosophy was viewed inmedieval Islam and Judaism guaranteed it a greater degree of"inner freedom." Philosophy's status "in the Islamic-Jewish world"therefore resembled "its status in classical Greece."41 For inStrauss's view, the "guiding idea upon which the Greeks and theJews agree is precisely the idea of the divine law as a single andtotal law which is at the same time religious law, civil law, andmoral law."42 Strauss in fact suggests that it finally was theappearance of the "New Testament" that "brought about thebreak with ancient thought" on this matter.43

The central role of Law in Judaism and Islam brought intosharper focus for Strauss the importance of medieval rationalism'ssubtle treatment of prophecy. The philosophical understandingof Law meant that the Jew or the Muslim necessarily had toelucidate the nature of "prophecy out of the nature of man."44Practitioners of medieval rationalism such as Al-farabi, Avicenna,Averroes, and Maimonides typically interpreted the prophet as aman who was "perfect in philosophy" but who surpassed the manwho was merely a philosopher in the perfection of his imaginativefaculty.45 The true or perfect prophet is the "founder of theperfect political community."46 Prophecy and Law were hereviewed as emphatically political subjects, as themes that weretreated by these "philosophers" as a part of political science.47 ButStrauss came to see that medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkerscharacteristically cast their treatment of Law and prophecy in adecisively more Platonic than Aristotelian light. By so doing,these thinkers reflected an awareness of the precarious positionthat the philosopher necessarily occupies in a political community.48 Their situation was analogous to Socrates' in Athens.49Illustrative of this fact, as Strauss repeatedly emphasized—mostnotably in the epigraph to his The Argument and Action of Plato'sLaws, was Avicenna's observation that "the treatment of prophecyand the Divine law is contained in . . . the Laws."50

Indeed, Plato's Laws develops a line of inquiry that has noexact parallel in Aristotle's works. In that dialogue, Plato has theAthenian stranger dialectically investigate the origins of humanand divine law as well as the origins of the revelation or prophecyby which these laws are communicated to men. Strauss accordinglyunderstood the Laws to be Plato's most pious and politicalwork.51 He also emphasized the intimate connection between theLaws and the Apology: the former is the only Platonic work thatbegins with the word "god," the latter is the only dialogue that endswith that word. Strauss saw thematic significance in this apparentunremarkable fact. Indeed, he took it to help one understand why"in the Laws the Athenian stranger devises a law against impietywhich would have been more favorable to Socrates than thecorresponding Athenian law."52

Strauss did not think that the Platonizing approach thatmedieval Jewish and Islamic thinkers took to the question of therelation of religion, philosophy, and morality simply representeda mere appeal to Platonic political philosophy to supply what wasoutwardly lacking in Aristotle's political works. Rather, it signifiedtheir awareness of the inherent tension between the moral andtheoretical claims of philosophy and those of the Law as well astheir recognition of the dangers that threaten the philosopherwithin a community ruled by divine Law. Simply put, the Platoniccharacter of medieval rationalism finally explained why a thinkerlike Al-farabi chose to present "the whole of philosophy within apolitical framework, or why his most comprehensive writings are'political books.'"53 By presenting their teaching on the nature andway to human happiness "politically," men like Al-farabi orMaimonides neither unnecessarily disturbed the settled opinionsof their respective religious and political communities nor unnecessarilydrew unwanted attention to themselves.

Within medieval Islamic and Jewish thought, the prophetfounder-legislator was seen as a man skilled in philosophy and theroyal art.54 Given his political role, the prophet had to speak in away that was less exact than the speech employed by the man whowas simply a philosopher. To this end, he invoked images andlocutions when speaking about God that were intended to swaythe souls of the nonphilosophic citizenry to uphold the moral,religious, and political demands of the Law. Such a legal form ofpersuasion was used in the first place to moderate and educatecitizens' passions and thereby to secure the grounds of moral andpolitical life.55 At the same time, the Law did more than secure thenecessary conditions of the social order; it also sought to protectand to educate the potential philosophers living within the religiouscommunity. According to Al-farabi and Maimonides, the Lawspoke differently to different men. To the vast majority of men, theLaw promulgated a morally and politically useful code of conductthat should serve as the basis of any decent human society. But toa select few, it articulated the requisite moral claims that thephilosopher must adhere to within a religious society which, if lefton its own, was naturally hostile to philosophy.56

The practitioners of Islamic and Jewish rationalism thusrightly recognized that philosophy presupposes social life. Moreover,this realization led them to seek to have a humanizing effecton social and political life by shedding light on and expanding thepolitical community's imperfect understanding of the demands ofjustice and morality. Yet, in different ways, they also subtlypointed out that "the philosopher has no attachment to society:his soul is elsewhere."57 His ultimate attachment is to an activitythat is "essentially private and trans-political: philosophy."58Accordingly, the rules that govern his conduct do not extend past"the minimum moral requirements of living together."59

Strauss jarringly concluded that in its rawest form medievalrationalism held that the philosophers live as it were on the fringesof the religious community, viewing morality and moral virtue notas ends in themselves, but simply as "means to an end, the ultimateend being contemplation."60 For thinkers like Maimonides, "moTheRecovery of the Theologico-Political Problem 57rality, as distinguished from the divine law, is not of capitalimportance."61 The philosopher and the adherent to the Law agreedon the indispensability of morality within human social and politicallife, but they did so for fundamentally different reasons. Al-farabi,Maimonides and the philosopher in the Kuzari, ultimately viewedmorality as instrumental to the transpolitical ends of philosophy.Conversely, the adherent to the Law has "a passionate interest ingenuine morality."62 Viewed from this perspective, the "moral manas such" is seen to be "the potential believer."63

As Strauss understood it, medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophershad internalized Plato's lesson about the need forphilosophy to combine "the way of Socrates with the way ofThrasymachus." Esoteric writing provided just such a way. Itallowed an author to engage in the kind of intransigent questioningthat is appropriate when addressing other philosophers. At thesame time, it communicated in a manner that was "more and lessexacting than the former," and therefore appropriate for thephilosopher's "dealings with the vulgar."64 By speaking in this way,the philosopher could show the requisite care for both thepolitical community and the community or sect of actual orpotential philosophers.

The practitioners of medieval rationalism therefore in thedecisive respect did not—nor did they claim to—solve thetheologico-political problem. On the contrary, Strauss believedthat they showed how one could live a life of Socratic inquirywithin a political community that took its bearings from anallegedly all-encompassing Divine Law. Strauss undoubtedlyappreciated their salutary if cautious respect for the moral andreligious teachings that form the indispensable foundations of anydecent political society. At the same time, Strauss admired theirunflinching Platonic affirmation of the ultimate superiority of the"life of contemplation" to the life of religious faith and moralvirtue.65 For both these reasons, the medieval Enlightenment ofIslamic and Jewish rationalism stood in sharp contrast to themodern Enlightenment.66

But what is it about the life of Socratic inquiry that puts it soat odds with the demands of both the life of faith and the life ofmoral and political virtue, according to Strauss? According to atradition dating back to Cicero, Socrates is said to have been thefirst person to call philosophy down from heaven and force it tomake investigations into the human things. By so doing, hebecame the founder of political philosophy.67 But as Straussperiodically observes, Xenophon and Plato, not to mentionAristophanes, hint that Socrates was not always a political philosopher.Prior to his "second sailing," Socrates, like all the earlyphilosophers, initially was preoccupied with the divine and heavenlythings, a preoccupation that, according to Xenophon andPlato, Socrates never simply abandoned.68 Socrates' turn to thehuman things marked a new way of studying the whole.

In contrast to what can paradoxically be called his earlier, pre-Socratic approach, his new method of philosophizing attemptedto discover "what each of the beings is."69 It appreciated that "tobe" means to be "something" and that most fundamentally thismeans to be different from "something else." Socrates accordinglybegan to inquire into the various heterogeneous parts of thewhole. This "new approach to the understanding of all things,"according to Strauss, had the two-fold benefit of not reducing thehuman things to the divine things as well as hopefully uncoveringthe unity "that is revealed in the manifest articulation of thecompleted whole."70 The change in orientation can be seen mostclearly in what Socrates now took as his point of departure.Whereas pre-Socratic philosophers routinely began by investigatingwhat is first in itself, Socrates' turn to the human thingsmarked philosophy's move away from the world of theoreticalabstractions and its return to the world of common sense.

In keeping with his return to the common-sense perspective,Socrates now began by examining the most reasonable, authoritativeopinions about the most important things. The diversity ofopinions gives rise to the recognition that one has to sift throughthe variety of opinions in the hope that this will unearth the truth.One becomes aware of the need to engage in "dialectics" or the"art . . . of friendly dispute." For opinions about things are onlypartially true; they contain only "fragments of the truth." Yetprecisely because the opinions are partly true, they must be takenseriously. As Strauss repeatedly emphasizes, Socrates recognizedthat the absence of the whole truth need not occasion universaldoubt, as the proponents of modern skepticism wrongly believed,but rather points to the need for the dialectical ascent fromopinion to truth. Socratic dialectics accordingly is characterizedby the effort to transcend the combination of truth and falsehoodthat is emblematic of opinion.

Socratic dialectics brought to light the actual grounds ofclassical political philosophy's teaching on natural right. It wasthe original form of theologico-political investigation. Prior to thediscovery of natural right, "prephilosophic life is characterized bythe primeval identification of the good with the ancestral."71 Theidentification of the good with the ancestral is based on the viewthat "the right way was established by gods or sons of gods orpupils of gods: the right way must be a divine law."72

In his effort to inquire into the moral and political claims ofthe city's divine law and to counter the powerful argumentsleveled against the citizen's view of morality by classical hedonism,Socrates became a phenomenologist of the human soul.Socrates' dialectical examination of the soul aimed to reveal itsinherent natural desires or essential "wants." These "wants" donot represent a mere collection of indistinguishable urges orimpulses. Rather they possess a "natural order" that reflects thehierarchical "natural constitution" of the soul. As regards humanbeings, their natural constitution finds its distinctiveness in theability to speak and reason.

Socrates understood that to live well, to live in accordancewith their nature, human beings have to live within society. For"man is by nature a social being."73 Human rationality, the abilityto speak and to communicate with others, makes human beingssocial in the most radical way imaginable. Every human act, everyact involving reason and speech, is directed toward another andis therefore in some sense a social act. Following this line ofthought, Strauss goes so far as to say that "humanity itself issociality" and observes that human sociality has natural goodsattached to it such as "love, affection, friendship, and pity."74Socratic philosophy accordingly discovers that it is sociality, acharacteristic shared by human beings as human beings, whichsupplies the basis for natural right "in the narrow or strict senseof right."75 This means that the rules that govern human socialrelations at the very least must recognize that human beings arenot free to act in any way they see fit. While human reasonobviously allows for an elevated, increased form of freedom, it isalso "accompanied by a sacred awe, by a kind of divination that noteverything is permitted."76 In the final analysis, nature imposesdiscernable limits on man's freedom that make life in society bothpossible and elevated.

Socratic political philosophy consequently recognizes theneed for political rulers who are entrusted with a "serious concernfor the perfection of the community."77 Such human beingspossess a greater degree of virtue than ordinary citizens and aremotivated by a deep appreciation of the demands of justice andnobility. They are the guardians and the caretakers of the bodypolitic. Unlike modern social science, Socratic philosophy squarelyopposes "crypto-materialistic" accounts of statesmanship whichseek to explain political action on merely "hedonistic or utilitariangrounds." The actions of the true statesman are guided by agenuine concern for the common good and cannot be reduced tothe mere calculation of self-interest. Viewed on its own terms,political life seems to culminate in the observation that "the fullactualization of humanity would then seem to consist, not in somesort of passive membership in civil society, but in the properlydirected activity of the statesman, the legislator, or the founder."78

But as Strauss repeatedly emphasizes, Socrates ultimately didnot limit his analysis of human excellence simply to the moral andpolitical horizon. In so doing, Socrates subtly but radicallychanged the terms on which the life of virtue was based and thusraised formidable questions about the adequacy of the religious,moral, and political horizon tout court. Socrates ultimately judgedthe right ordering of the soul not on the basis of justice andnobility but on the grounds of man's perfection as a rational being.As a result of this shift of emphasis, Socratic political philosophyeventually replaces the prudent statesman with the wise philosopheras the highest human type.

As Socrates made clear in the Republic, the question of whoshould rule is to some extent identical to the question of the bestregime. That question necessarily requires one to recognize thatindividual human beings have different natural capacities, mostnotably and decisively in their capacity to reason. Only a few raresouls are blessed with a first-rate intellect and the means to cultivateit. Justice—and nature itself—would seem to demand that thosewho are superior in wisdom rule those who are inferior in wisdom.As a specialist in the soul, the philosopher knows best what isneeded for the perfection of each human being and therefore canbest judge what is due to each human being. As Plato's Socratesstrikingly argues in the Republic, the regime according to nature,the best regime, would require the rule of the wise.

Yet as Strauss further points out, although the rule of the wiseis theoretically the best of regimes, it is a practical impossibility.As Strauss forcefully puts it,

The wise do not desire to rule; they must be compelled becausetheir whole life is devoted to the pursuit of something which isabsolutely higher in dignity than any human thing—the unchangeabletruth. . . . If striving for knowledge of the eternaltruth is the ultimate end of man, justice and moral virtue ingeneral can be fully legitimated only by the fact that they arerequired for the sake of that ultimate end or that they areconditions of the philosophic life. From this point of view theman who is merely just or moral without being a philosopherappears as a mutilated human being. It thus becomes a question. . . whether what Aristotle calls moral virtue is not, in fact, vulgarvirtue . . . whether by transforming opinion about morality intoknowledge of morality, one does not transcend the dimension ofmorality in the politically relevant sense of the term.79

The Socratic philosopher radically transcends the moral andpolitical opinions of the city and thus "the dimension of divinecodes altogether."80 By appealing to and taking its bearings froman essentially transpolitical good, the Socratic way of life revealsthe incompleteness of the moral-political horizon. More pointedly,it argues that that horizon is incoherent; it falsely believesthat the just and noble things are desirable for their own sake.Socratic philosophy, on the other hand, affirms that the moral lifeis only capable of being rendered coherent when it is seen as beingordered to and in the service of the transcendent ends of philosophy.In contrast to the moral-political—not to mention religious—horizon, the free life of Socratic inquiry "is not onlynecessary but sufficient for producing happiness: philosophydoes not need to be supplemented by something else, or bysomething that is thought to be higher in rank than philosophy, inorder to produce happiness."81

The dual senses in which morality can be viewed are reflectedin Strauss's two related yet distinct descriptions of politicalphilosophy. One takes politics as its subject and offers a philosophicreflection on political life.82 Political philosophy in thissense remains in genuine dialogue with civil society and attemptsto moderate it by informing human action with human wisdom. Itdistinguishes between good and bad actions and articulates thevarious virtues and vices as well as the political facts that areconstitutive of political life. Political philosophy here is markedby Aristotelian sobriety and as a result discusses political life "onits own terms . . . refus[ing] to be drawn into the dialecticalwhirlpool that carries us far beyond justice in the ordinary senseof the term toward the philosophic life."83 In this presentation, thepolitical philosopher is the "umpire" who humanizes the politicalorder by mediating between the various political parties andgoods that inevitably come into conflict in political life.84

But Strauss also describes political philosophy as primarilybeing a politic presentation of philosophy. Political philosophythus understood retains a greater distance from actual politicallife. The political philosopher is still concerned with the humanthings, but no longer as the umpire much less artisan of thepolitical community. His studies of the distinctively human thingsare instrumental to his supra-political concerns. Political philosophyhere represents the politically responsible presentation ofphilosophy "as quest for wisdom . . . the attempt to replaceopinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole."85 Thepolitical philosopher turns to the city's authoritative opinionsbecause they provide him with the greatest access to the divine orthe eternal things, to the nature of the whole. The particularitiesthat come to light in political life serve as a means of access to theuniversals. On the other hand, the turn to the human things allowsthe political philosopher to point out the tensions inherent in themoral-political horizon and thus to alert others with "goodnatures" of the ultimate superiority of the philosophic life. In thissense, a work of political philosophy is a "speech caused by love"intended to benefit the "puppies" of the philosophic race.86

It is undoubtedly tempting to view these different descriptionsas finally offering two opposing accounts of political philosophy.But if we look at what Strauss does and not merely atwhat he says, one can argue that the relation between politicalphilosophy and political philosophy is more dialectical than wouldappear at first glance. Strauss noted that Machiavelli's explicitteaching finally could not account for the public spiritedness thatanimated Machiavelli as a political philosopher.87 A similar claimcan be made about Strauss. For while he published many worksthat seem to have little connection to any immediately recognizablepolitical concern, Strauss also wrote many things whoseconcern with moral and political matters cannot simply bereduced to mere veiled pleas for the superiority of the philosophiclife. For Strauss, then, political philosophy arguably meanssomething more than either the philosophic reflection on politicsor the politic presentation of philosophy.88 In his practice,political philosophy combined both of these elements in a waywhose theoretical coherence somehow denies any straightforwardpresentation.89

Strauss's most extended and comprehensive treatment of the"conflict between" biblical faith and Socratic philosophy occursin his three-part essay "Progress or Return?"90 According toStrauss, that conflict revolves around the question of what way oflife is most natural to man, about what way of life is best able tobring about genuine human happiness or wholeness. Because it isbased on ultimately irreconcilable principles, it is therefore a"necessary conflict." It is a conflict between the two great"alternatives" for the human soul over the true grounds of "theright way of life" for human beings.91

The antagonism between the biblical and the Socratic way oflife does not rule out a prior "implicit" agreement, an importantagreement that unites both parties in their "opposition" to thereductionist "elements of modernity."92 The Bible and Socraticphilosophy agree "regarding the importance of morality, regardingthe content of morality, and regarding its ultimate insufficiency."93 The antagonism between the two has to do with the "X"that each sees as completing and grounding morality. Socraticphilosophy views "autonomous understanding" as this "X," whereasthe Bible claims that morality is supplemented by man's "obedientlove" of God. Confronted with the mystery of the whole, theSocratic life begins in wonder. In a state "above fear and tremblingas well as above hope," the Socratic philosopher seeks to come toknow the whole through his own efforts.94 On the other hand, thebiblical way of life begins in the fear of the Lord. The man ofbiblical faith lives in a state of "fear and trembling as well as inhope" and therefore rejects the proud and vain notion that mancan know the whole or can find adequate guidance apart fromGod's revelation.95

Strauss repeatedly emphasizes that the God of the Bible is notlike the gods of ancient Greece. Contrary to the gods of Greekpoetry, the Biblical God is a personal God who creates the worldand exercises providence over His creation. Moreover, unlike theimpersonal necessity recognized by classical philosophy, the Godof the bible has an absolute concern with man.96 The "oneparticular divine law" revealed by this God is believed to be theonly divine Law precisely because, in contrast to the gods of thepoets, the biblical God is said to be "omnipotent, not controlledand not controllable."97 The implication of this omnipotence,according to Strauss, is that the "absolutely free" God of the Bibleis unknowable apart from His act of self-revelation.98 Inasmuchas the biblical God and the way of life that He ordains for manrepresents "the one thing needful," the life of biblical faithovercomes the problem posed by an absolutely free, omnipotent,personal God through the establishment of the covenant. Thebiblical notion of the covenant, established by God and resting onman's faith in His promise, responds directly to the problem of theone true God singling out "one particular, and therefore contingent,law of one particular, contingent tribe."99

The inscrutability and omnipotence of the biblical God meansthat man is in the end totally dependent on divine revelation forknowledge of the one thing needful. In Strauss's reading, theauthor of Genesis insists that man is not created to be a theoreticalor contemplative being; in fact, it forbids his efforts at "freeinquiry." For Strauss, this fact is "fundamental" to the life ofbiblical faith, in both its Jewish and Christian presentations.100Man is meant to live righteously in loving childlike obedience toGod. Only if it begins in God's revelation and is dedicated to Hisservice is the pursuit of knowledge "necessary" and thus "good."Without that dedication, the pursuit of theoretical knowledgerepresents a "rebellion," a proud calling into question of theauthority and completeness of God's revelation. "Man was givenunderstanding in order to understand God's commands."101 Understandingis thus not something man can or should arrive at onhis own. Nor is it something pursued for its own sake. On thecontrary, God gives man understanding so that he can be freelyobedient to God's revealed commands.

The Socratic way of life, in turn, is animated by an eroticdesire for knowledge about the whole.102 Incapable of coming intopossession of complete wisdom, Socratic philosophy remainsaware "that the problems are always more evident than thesolutions."103 Lacking complete knowledge of the whole, mannecessarily remains ignorant of the most important things andthus lacks definitive knowledge of how he should live. Faced withsuch ignorance, the life of philosophic inquiry is a reasonable andjustifiable response. Through such investigations, the Socraticphilosopher attempts to gain some, albeit partial and thereforeincomplete, knowledge of the whole and therewith knowledgeabout the right way of life. The elusive character of the whole,according to Strauss, provides the first—indeed the final—justification of the philosophic way of life.

But what is the Socratic philosopher's response when confrontedwith the Bible's claim to the authoritative and comprehensiveaccount of the whole? Despite his many remarks aboutthe distinctive challenge Biblical revelation poses to philosophy,Strauss nonetheless thinks that the philosopher's response isessentially the same as the one that Socrates gave to Athens' theosnomos. The difference between the gods of the poets and the Godof the bible—a difference that Strauss often outwardly stressedand clarified—is finally a difference of degree, not kind.104Confronted with an allegedly authoritative divine revelation, theSocratic philosopher can say that revelation is "nothing but afactum brutum, and in addition an uncertain one."105 The Socraticphilosopher necessarily "suspends judgment."106 He is and alwaysremains a philosophic agnostic.

The philosopher that Strauss describes is not primarily concernedwith the content of any particular divine revelation. Tohim the substantial differences between the various revealedreligions are finally of secondary importance. What ultimatelymatters is that they all have their "roots" in man's obedience todivine Law. Biblical revelation in general and Christian revelationin particular does not, in other words, change or alterSocratic philosophy's original formulation of the theologicopoliticalproblem. This helps explain why Strauss pays so littleattention to Christianity's claim about the integrity and intelligibilityof the created natural order or why, despite his admittanceof the fact, he does not emphasize Christianity's teaching on thetranspolitical end of man. Rather, what is essential for Strauss isthe phenomenon of divine revelation. According to Strauss,revelation remains an unproven "possibility," a hypotheticalwhose cognitive status Plato satisfactorily showed, before theemergence of biblical revelation, was ultimately rooted in beliefand in certain of the soul's longings. Implicit in Strauss's positionis the breathtaking claim that Socratic philosophy, or at leastPlato's presentation of it, revealed all of the possibilities that areopen to man within the natural world.107 Socratic philosophy isnot able to refute the possibility of revelation but it is able to showthat the arguments in favor of divine revelation are circular andnot rationally compelling since they are grounded in faith.

Strauss occasionally suggests that Socratic philosophy's inabilityto disprove the very possibility of revelation means thatphilosophy would seem to be "based on faith."108 Such claimscould suggest that Strauss finally accepted the partially Nietzscheaninspired argument for atheism from intellectual probity. But thatconclusion would be incorrect. Strauss's statements about philosophyresting on an "unevident, arbitrary, or blind decision" alloccur when he addresses the relation of reason and revelationfrom the perspective of contemporary social science or philosophy.109 Within the framework of "present-day philosophizing,"every choice is viewed as a commitment, as a groundless act ofwill. That framework reductively views biblical faith and philosophyonly formally, as two equally arbitrary and thus equallydefensible (or indefensible) sets of propositions.

Conversely, Socratic philosophy proceeds from the recognitionthat the right way of life cannot be positively established, thatis, irrefutably demonstrated, apart from the possession of ademonstrable metaphysics that renders the whole fully intelligible.Absent that completed metaphysics, which for Strauss isnot possessed by either modern philosophy or biblical revelation,"the quest for knowledge of the most import things" is seen to bethe "most important thing for us."110 Socratic or zetetic philosophyis therefore presently possible even though modern sciencehas seemed to discredit the various ancient cosmologies includingAristotle's. In short, given the permanently elusive characterof the whole, philosophy is "evidently the right way of life."111 Afinal justification of the philosophic life that Strauss cited wasSocrates' consistent claim that he found "his happiness in acquiringthe highest possible degree of clarity which he can acquire."112The Socratic way of life is the most natural life for man since it,Strauss maintains, best satisfies man's natural, that is, eroticdesire for happiness.113

Strauss's account of the lives of Biblical faith and Socraticphilosophy is in many respects similar to the views he attributedto medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers like Al-farabi andMaimonides. Like them, Strauss affirms that political life necessarilyrelies upon a religiously based morality that the Platonicphilosopher must outwardly respect and seek to humanize. Whatis more, he also affirms a deep and ultimately unbridgeable chasmto exist between the biblical and the Socratic ways of life. Lastly,Strauss also finally privileges the life of unfettered Socraticinquiry to the life of lawful obedience to a personal God.

At the same time, one cannot help but notice that Strausschooses to make explicit what Al-farabi and Maimonides chose toveil, namely, the "fundamental tension" between the lives of faithand philosophy. In the concluding paragraph of "Progress orReturn?" Strauss explicitly gives one reason as to why he woulddo this. By bringing to the fore the conflict between biblical faithand philosophy, Strauss claims to expose the enduring "vitality ofWestern civilization." While initially disconcerting, the recognitionof the conflict between the two "roots" of Western civilizationis also "reassuring and comforting." For that recognitioncarries with it the further realization that there is no inherentreason why Western civilization should give up on itself. Theexposure of the conflict that forms the nerve of the West is thusin some sense a high-minded political act, a prudent calling ofattention to the fact that Western civilization has within itself themeans to overcome late modernity's disenchantment with theworld.

Strauss also intimates that by exposing this conflict oneglimpses the nerve of "Western intellectual history, Westernspirituality." That exposure paves the way for late modern humanbeings to transcend the intellectual and spiritual limitations oftheir age. It also allows them to see that philosophy, in its originalSocratic sense, remains possible. At the least, by making theconflict that lies at the heart of the theologico-political problemexplicit, Strauss contributes to a recovery of what he elsewheredescribed as "a nonhistoricist understanding of nonhistoricistphilosophy."114

Marc D. Guerra
Ave Maria University


  1. See, for example, Thomas L. Pangle, Leo Strauss: AnIntroduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore,MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Catherine H. Zuckertand Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: PoliticalPhilosophy and American Democracy (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 2006); Stephen B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss:Politics, Philosophy, and Judaism (Chicago, University of ChicagoPress, 2006); Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006);Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography, trans.Christopher Nadon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
  2. Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1964), 241.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 1953), 74.
  5. Leo Strauss, "Preface to Hobbes Politische Wissenschaft" inInterpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (January), 3.
  6. Leo Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 1997). Strauss states in the "Preface tothe English Translation" to this book that his work was written by"a young Jew born and raised in Germany who found himself in thegrip of the theologico-political predicament" (1).
  7. Leo Strauss, "Preface to the English Translation," Spinoza'sCritique of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997),31.
  8. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1988), 24.
  9. Strauss, "Preface to the English Translation," 31.
  10. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, 181.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 172–82.
  13. Benedict Spinoza, The Theologico-Political Treatise, trans.Martin D. Yaffe (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2004),xxiii.
  14. Ibid. See also Spinoza's Critique of Religion, 178–82;Natural Right and History, 198; Leo Strauss Philosophy and Law,trans. Fred Baumann (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,1987),113–14, note 12.
  15. Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? And OtherStudies (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988), 44.
  16. See, for example, Leo Strauss, "The Three Waves ofModernity" in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essaysby Leo Strauss, ed. Hilail Gildin (Detroit: Wayne State UniversityPress, 1989), 81–98. For an insightful introduction to this developmentin modern Epicureanism, see chapter five of JamesNichols's Epicurean Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornel UniversityPress, 1972).
  17. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 169.
  18. See Strauss, "The Three Waves of Modernity," 83–85;Natural Right and History, 139; What Is Political Philosophy?, 34–35. See also Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 15; Hobbes, DeCive, Epistle Dedicatory; Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part I.7–8; Bacon, Advancement in Learning, Book 2.
  19. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, 29. (Emphasisadded.)
  20. Strauss, "Preface to the English Translation," 29.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 11.
  26. Ibid., 12.
  27. Strauss, "Preface to the English Translation," 30.
  28. See Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 18.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 111, note 1.
  31. Ibid., 19.
  32. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 21.
  33. Strauss, "Preface to the English Translation," 31.
  34. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 82.
  35. Leo Strauss, "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,"The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introductionto the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1989), 214.
  36. See, for example, Strauss, Persecution and the Art ofWriting, 19–20; "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,"217; Leo Strauss, "How to Begin to Study The Guide of thePerplexed," Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Ithaca: Cornell UniversityPress, 1989), 147–48.
  37. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 19.
  38. Ibid., 20.
  39. Strauss, "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,"221.
  40. Leo Strauss, "Some Remarks on the Political Science ofMaimonides and Farabi," trans. Robert Bartlett Interpretation,18, no. 1. (Fall 1990), 20–21.
  41. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 21.
  42. Strauss, "Some Remarks on the Political Science ofMaimonides and Farabi," 5.
  43. Ibid., 4. Strauss qualifies this remark with a "perhaps." Hegoes on to state that this break was "certainly" brought about—undoubtedly in different ways and to different degrees—by both"the Reformation and modern philosophy."
  44. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 83.
  45. See, for example, Maimonides' description of Moses, theprophet par excellence, in The Guide of the Perplexed, II. 40.
  46. Strauss, "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,"224.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Strauss notes that while this view takes center stage inmedieval Islamic and Jewish rationalism, it "appears in theChristian Middle Ages only at their fringes," and even here onlyindirectly in thinkers such as Marsilius of Padua ("How to Beginto Study Medieval Philosophy," 224). See also Strauss, Persecutionand the Art of Writing, 95–97, 136; Leo Strauss, "Marsiliusof Padua," Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 185–202.
  49. See, for example, Averroes' Decisive Treatise and TheIncoherence of the Incoherence.
  50. Leo Strauss, The Argument and Action of Plato's Laws(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) 1. See Avicenna,"On the Division of the Rational Sciences," in Medieval PoliticalPhilosophy: A Sourcebook, ed. Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) 97.
  51. Leo Strauss, The Argument and Action of Plato's Laws, 1–2.
  52. Ibid., 2. Indeed, through the establishment of the NocturnalCouncil, the philosophers in the regime described in the Lawsindirectly exercise a kind of rule that is similar to the overt formof rule that the philosophers exercise in the Republic's "city inspeech." Partly for this reason, Aristotle notes that the regime inthe Laws gradual turns around again to the regime in theRepublic. See Aristotle, Politics, 1265a 1–4.
  53. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 18.
  54. See, for example, Alfarabi, Political Regime, 49–50;Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, I. 63, II. 35, 39, 40.
  55. See "The Law of Reason in the Kuzari" in Persecution andthe Art of Writing, 112–18.
  56. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 17.
  57. Ibid., 139.
  58. Ibid., 21.
  59. Ibid., 139. Strauss notes in the introduction to Persecutionand the Art of Writing that Al–farabi insists that "conformity withthe opinions of the religious community in which one is broughtup, is a necessary qualification for the future philosopher" (17).It is worth noting that for all of his boldness, Descartes makes anearly identical claim in the moral provisions he lays out in hisDiscourse on Method.
  60. Ibid. Strauss repeats this line almost verbatim twice in hiscommentary on the Kuzari, a work which contains some of hismost jarring statements about the relation of religion, morality,and philosophy in medieval rationalism. The first time Straussmakes this remark he observes that "from the philosopher's pointof view, goodness of character and goodness of action is essentiallynot more than a means towards, or a by product of, the lifeof contemplation" (Persecution and the Art of Writing), 114.(Italics added.)
  61. Strauss, "Some Remarks on the Political Science ofMaimonides and Farabi," 12.
  62. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 140.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 16.
  65. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 114.
  66. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 82–83.
  67. See Cicero, Tuscan Disputations, V. 10.
  68. See, for example, Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV. 7.5.
  69. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 122.
  70. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 122–23. WhereasStrauss here speaks openly of the merits of Socrates' new methodof philosophizing, elsewhere he is less sanguine about its abilityfully to elucidate the nature of the whole. Strauss in fact goes sofar as to say that the kind of knowledge that comes from knowledgeof the parts "is not knowledge of the whole. It seems thatknowledge of the whole would have to combine somehow politicalknowledge in the highest sense with knowledge of homogeneity.And this knowledge is not at our disposal. Men are thereforeconstantly tempted to force the issue by imposing unity on thephenomena, by absolutizing either homogeneity or knowledge ofends. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal tosuccumb to either charm" (What Is Political Philosophy?, 39–40).
  71. Ibid., 83.
  72. Ibid., 84.
  73. Ibid., 129.
  74. Ibid.
  75. Ibid.
  76. Ibid., 130. Strauss also speaks of the importance of sacredrestraints in his "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero." Straussthere states that Hobbes, Hegel, and Kojéve are able to constructtheir accounts of human life only by denying the existence of suchsacred restraints. See What Is Political Philosophy?, 111.
  77. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 133.
  78. Ibid.
  79. Ibid., 151–52. Shadia Drury points to this statement asalleged proof of Strauss's Epicureanism. See Drury, The PoliticalIdeas of Leo Strauss (New York: St. Martin's Press 1988), 105;"Leo Strauss's Classic Natural Right Teaching," Political Theory,15.3 (August 1987) 308. Harry V. Jaffa counters Drury's chargeby noting that Strauss taught that both the biblical and the Greekphilosophic traditions acknowledge that morality needs to beperfected by something higher, piety or faith for the former andwisdom for the latter. Jaffa rightly concludes that "morality cutoff from transcendence sinks into Kantian absurdity" ("DearProfessor Drury," Political Theory, 15.3 [August 1987] 321).Though Jaffa's argument prov