Introduction: Strauss, Straussians, and Faith-Based Students of Strauss

It’s my pleasure to present three studies of the work of Leo
Strauss, probably the most profound and certainly the most
fascinating writer on political philosophy of the twentieth century.
Marc Guerra, Ralph Hancock, and Paul Seaton each offer a sympathetic
but critical account of both Strauss’s work and that of prominent
students of Strauss. Guerra displays his erudition and philosophic
penetration in his panoramic overview of Strauss’s project to
recover the “theologico-political problem” as a permanent human
problem. Hancock and Seaton approach Strauss mainly through
recent work by Straussians. Seaton offers a very close and gently
provocative reading of the introduction to a Strauss-inspired response
to the challenge posed to political philosophy by the Bible. In
Hancock’s case, the genuinely postmodern (or almost Thomistic)
interpretive focus is on two very recent Straussian commentaries on
Strauss, and he boldly announces his declaration of independence
from the “serenity now” crowd. Each of the three authors dissents
from both Strauss and Straussians by doubting that philosophy can
truthfully liberate a human being, even the greatest thinkers, from
their natural orientation toward morality and God. But each also
gratefully acknowledges his debt to Strauss for clarifying in his own
mind the complex relationship between faith and reason.

In introducing this symposium, I’m confronted with a postmodern
interpretive nightmare. The authors have each employed scholarship
in the service of interpretation. They clearly are saying what
they think is true about the thought of Strauss and Straussians, but
to some extent in the service of defending their own view of the true
and proper relationships among philosophy, theology, morality, and
politics. I’m not saying that they’re writing esoterically; they probably
aren’t. But they’re each alive to the esoteric or hidden dimension
of Strauss’s thought. Not only that, Hancock and Seaton are out
to expose esoteric dimensions to the writing by Straussians.
Straussians, it turns out, misquote Strauss not out of carelessness but
to obscure their real disagreements with their mentor! Thomas
Pangle, according to Hancock, deliberately exaggerates the extent to
which Strauss thought philosophers could achieve liberation from
moral guidance, from pre- or unphilosophic concerns about human
virtue. If that’s the case, Pangle’s exaggeration merely enhances
what for Strauss was already an exaggeration.

Michael and Catherine Zuckert’s claim that Strauss didn’t write
esoterically turns out to be a way of exaggerating the extent to which
Strauss thought the perennial tension or hostility between the
philosophers’ true concerns and the demands of political life had
been ameliorated in our enlightened time. The Zuckerts show their
hand with the qualification that Strauss thought the time was ripe for
abandoning esotericism for radical enlightenment “for all practical
purposes,” which seems to mean that his neon highlighting of past
esotericism was, in part, actually an exoteric or consciously dogmatic
teaching to humor our intellectual vanity. Esotericism, the suggestion
is, was only necessary in unenlightened times when people
killed over God and didn’t know about natural rights. But is it really
true 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 get
away with it? Straussians such as Steve Lenzner seem closer to the
truth when they contend that Strauss didn’t really believe that
anything that fundamental had changed. The Zuckerts seem to want
to exaggerate how genuinely enlightened, in Strauss’s eyes, our
natural-rights republic is.

Strauss, after all, claimed that it remains the case, as Guerra
reminds us in a note, that the person who lives morally but not
philosophically is a mutilated human being. The person who lives
justly, as Plato writes, is nothing like the person who lives erotically.
The just man is self deceived in ways both the philosopher and the
tyrant are not. Strauss even says, as Guerra goes on, that his
rhetorical intention was to overstate the tension between philosophy
and politics, the source of the need for esoteric writing, as an antidote
to the dominant contemporary inability to see any tension or problem
at all. That permanent problem just can’t be resolved, and the
misguided attempt to put it behind us has been disastrous for both
politics and philosophy.

It seems more likely that Strauss highlighted the fact of esoteric
writing as perhaps the only way today to restore a moribund invigorating
tradition, and it’s impossible to believe that Strauss could have
both been so insistent on its necessity and not engage in it himself.
Still, the Zuckerts are right that Strauss’s esoteric exposes were
meant to change the way the teaching of the philosophers of the past
appears to us. Strauss’s thematic esotericism seems to have been a
way of changing the exoteric face of philosophy.

According to the Zuckerts, “the stripped-down truth” about
philosophy has been brought to light through Strauss’s acknowledgment
that all that stuff in Plato about the Ideas and the soul’s
immortality was just moralistic window-dressing. Philosophic inquiry
doesn’t really provide definitive answers to the inevitable
human questions, because the truth is that all solutions to human
problems are always questionable and provisional. But there’s one
exception: the philosophic way of life, not any particular philosophical
discovery or metaphysics or cosmology or ontology, is the point
of human existence and the secret of human happiness. That unadorned
presentation of the truth is not only good news for the very
few capable of following that way of life. It provides, the Zuckerts
claim, the doctrine required to refute the ignoble relativism of our
time.

Strauss’s exoteric outing and so alleged abandonment of
esotericism 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 time
the choice is the philosophic way of life or nothing. (This is certainly
the teaching of the seemingly very candid Straussian best-seller,
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. ) It turns out that
the only true ground for morality is compatible with our most radical
longings for liberation. And that spiritual or transcendent liberation
gives a purpose or point to the practical liberation that’s been
achieved through modern technology and modern liberal democracy.
The way of life of the philosopher is constituted by nothing but
his own reason and exists “above fear and trembling as well as hope,”
above what makes other human lives miserably uneasy in pursuit of
the impossible. The Declaration of Independence liberated us for
the pursuit of happiness, but it neglected to tell us what human
happiness is.

The philosophers’ way of life must become a doctrine to replace
the two others that falsely promised radical liberation. The first, of
course, is Christianity, which cruelly alienated human beings from
their natural satisfactions with an impossible, wish-fulfilling hope in
salvation from a loving, personal Creator. The Christian hopes were
secularized by the modern or Enlightenment philosophers’ doctrine
of the mastery of nature. The philosophers displaced the priests by
refocusing human hopes in technological liberation. The purpose of
science or philosophy or reason became maximizing human power
over nature, and virtue was reconstructed as simply a means for the
quest for power. And so reason was justified as a way of liberating
human beings from the natural or bodily constraints they all have as
individuals.

The modern philosophers knew that technological progress
couldn’t satisfy the deepest human longings, and that in the crucial
respect they would remain as mortal or as enslaved by nature as ever.
They also saw the opportunity to employ human fear and hope to
secularize the world or open it to the more direct rule of reason. But
they underestimated the prospects for monstrous tyranny that
would accompany transformative hopes in technology or history.
Modern hopes eluded philosophical control as much as Christian
ones; the pious cruelty of Stalin or Hitler or the biotechnological
eugenicists to come exceeded anything Machiavelli and his successors
powerfully opposed.

Modern philosophy was a doctrine connecting reason with
domination. It aimed for the power of the biblical God, but without
His loving concern for particular beings made in His image. To free
themselves from rational domination, it seemed that human beings
had to liberate themselves from reason in the name of love. Technology
had to somehow be subordinated to purposes worthy of beings
born to know and love particular persons and places. But that
subordination proved almost impossible. The chaining of reason to
technology relativized or deprived of weight every human claim to
point or purpose. Considerations of humanity’s spiritual or transcendent
fulfillment became, as Pangle says, “unserious.”

Technological progress became itself curiously impersonal or
more and more freed from rational direction by particular human
thinkers. Logos is disconnected from the love or eros of particular
human beings. Extravagant hopes intertwined with unmoderated
fears revealed that the unproblematic satisfaction of human desire
required that it be technologically separated from the particular
being’s longing for nobility and love. So the almost incredible but
decisively incomplete success of the Enlightenment threatens the
very future of human nobility and love, and without them philosophy
or, better, philosophers, the beings genuinely open to the permanent
truth about the human situation, have no future.

Strauss’s doctrine is, in large measure, a questionable response
to this problem of his time. It is, as Hancock explains, “political
philosophy” in the sense of an innovative approach to the perennial
political responsibility of philosophers. Strauss, like his predecessors,
attempted, Hancock writes, “to represent, moderate, and
direct the human longing for transcendence.” If an intellectual elite
could be convinced to accept the philosophic way of life as the source
of distinctively human happiness and a genuinely rational or nonreligious
openness to eternity, then that elite could “apply some
brakes” to “the post-Christian hopes of political mastery, political
and scientific.” Technology and biblical religion wouldn’t wholly
disappear, but they would be chastened by the philosophers. Transcendence
could be reconfigured as a noble, personal endeavor that
was neither otherworldly nor directed toward some vague historical
future. Christianity could be affirmed insofar as it teaches that
human salvation is not political or technological, and that the human
mind was created free to discover some transpolitical truth. Biblical
religion would be presented as allied with classical political philoso6
phy against every modern excess, and the deep connection between
Christian and modern hopes would be obscured for the benefit of
believers, while highlighted for those intellectuals who needed to be
cured of their incoherent mixture of atheism and humanitarianism.
One pedagogical purpose of the neon highlighting of esotericism is
to counter the intellectual chauvinism of our dogmatic atheists by
showing them that philosophers have always been atheists.

Modern politics and science could be affirmed insofar as they
oppose religious tyranny and the sectarian complacency of creatures
happy in hope. And political life itself could be affirmed in recognition
of the fact that genuinely cosmopolitan human life is limited to
the community of the philosophers, and most human beings get what
sham nobility they can by serving some communal illusion or
another. The theology that culminates in some wise and benevolent
deity would be managed by philosophic theologians as some mixture
of Biblical, natural, and civic theology appropriated for a chastened
enlightenment. But neither technology nor the bible would any
longer be considered as the source of the truth most needful for
human beings, and Plato and Aristotle or classical political philosophy
would be celebrated as the source of the good human beings
truly can share in common. That good would be wisdom, which, the
classics taught, most men will never share in common.

The outing of the allegedly esoteric truth that the philosophers
have always been atheists would be muted by the implication that
they really lack both the wisdom and the power to refute those who
live obediently in light of God’s revelation. Ancient atheism, unlike
the modern, aggressive atheism of the French Revolution and the
Marxists, was not meant to be dogma to be imposed on everyone,
because the philosopher doesn’t know enough to transform persuasively
or genuinely liberate common opinion.

The lesson of the Enlightenment’s failure isn’t that the philosophers
have no responsibility to influence common opinion; the
salutary character of that influence is the lesson of the success of the
Enlightenment’s defanging of aggressive Christian fanaticism and
infinitely increasing the domains of human power and freedom. The
key now is to ennoble the Enlightenment’s success with a Platonic/
Aristotelian account of its true point, which is the beneficial rule by
and behalf of philosophers. Reason has to be transformed from a
modern, impersonal “ism,” rationalism, into a personal tale about
particular men—really, a particular man—with a name. The somewhat
mythic character of this tale is vaguely but insistently indicated
by the fact that we only have “hearsay” knowledge of its hero—
Socrates. Is our hero the “historical” Socrates or the character
presented 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 eros
and nobility in the philosopher, in Socrates. Nobility, as the Zuckerts
explain, is unreserved devotion to a cause greater than oneself, and
certainly philosophy is that. The nobility or magnanimity of the
philosopher is also displayed in his contempt for the petty concerns
of most people. Because his concern is private and transpolitical, he
has no interest in dominating other human beings, and his political
activity is largely in the service of his private pursuit. To the extent
that he is also motivated by a public spiritedness he can’t fully explain
as properly philosophic, his benevolence is relatively undistorted by
anger or personal love. The philosopher is the human being least
distorted by the tyrannical lust for domination. If he’s to be criticized
for his lack of personal love or concern, it’s because his eros has
ascended beyond the ephemeral in the direction of what is eternal.
His life is more passionate and purpose-driven that that of any
believer.

Part of Strauss’s intention in exaggerating the tension between
philosophy and politics, no doubt, was to heighten the perception of
the nobility of the philosophic pursuit. In Pangle’s hands, that
pursuit is mainly for the truth about one’s own situation in the
cosmos, knowledge of which would secure his own rational emancipation
from all binding ties of obedience and trust for rational
autonomy and independence. And Pangle writes to “wrestle” with
any and all threats to the self-sufficiency of this rule of reason. It
would seem, as Seaton observes, that the philosopher is motivated by
both a love of truth and a spirited desire for independence, and
Pangle hasn’t properly articulated the relationship between, much
less properly separated out, those two motivations.

Their interplay seems to culminate in a kind of trans-erotic
solitude, the result of the philosopher rationally overcoming all the
social neediness and dependence characteristic of human eros. He
has freed himself from all the imaginative illusions that make
possible the human experiences of nobility and love. But, as Hancock
adds, “philosophy’s claim to radical independence purged of all
nobility is itself an expression of nobility.” The philosopher can’t
really lose himself, the who, in the impersonal necessity, the what,
that governs the cosmos he now basically believes he has come to
understand. He remains, at least in Pangle’s eyes, concerned with his
personal situation.

Does the life of the philosopher ever free itself from the need for
self-assertion and self-mastery, from what ought to remain a questionable
claim to rule? Seaton observes that the philosopher’s
defense of his way of life against moral and religious challenges aren’t
really open minded if it’s really true that he’s untouched by the
emotional claims or challenges of virtue and revelation. But if his
rational serenity weren’t in some ways troubled by insecurity or
anxiety 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 philosopher
may lack proper gratitude for the conditions of his existence,
and for the concerns he shares with all human beings. One place we
find an exaggerated account of the philosopher’s transcendence of
the opinion-governed domain of political life is Plato’s Republic .
There, philosophers, in their wisdom, are presented as the best
rulers. But their love of wisdom causes them to find ruling to be timesucking
drudgery; participation in the illusions of political life has
nothing to teach them. The philosopher- kings Socrates describes are
not really philosophers. They are the oxymoron wise men, who know
with complete adequacy the idea of the good, or what gives being its
beingness. Their wisdom liberates them completely from “the cave,”
or the political lies that govern other men’s lives. Their lives are
perfectly happy and, it seems, perfectly free from ordinary human
need. They and the radically unenlightened cave dwellers have
virtually no perceptions or experiences in common. They aren’t like
the character Socrates, who presents himself an ignorant man
making endless progress toward becoming wise, who locates himself
in the web of opinions that is the cave, and who shows that he knows
that he needs other men even to think well.

Socrates’ idealization of the philosopher, his exaggeration of his
transcendence of the world in which most human beings live, was,
in part, an exoteric teaching. It was an effective antidote to the
tyrannical idealism of his interlocutor Glaucon. Glaucon was persuaded
that there is a way of life nobler than ruling that is fundamentally
untyrannical. And so ruling is unworthy of the best of men,
especially given how closed political communities are to the natural
truth that the philosopher alone can grasp.

Socrates’ rhetorical strategy did have its downside: to exaggerate
philosophical liberation, he had to do the same with the intellectual
enslavement of the denizens of the cave—or the citizens of all
political communities. In Socrates’ account, they are completely
seduced by manufactured images, and they aren’t even allowed the
freedom to discuss what they believe with each other. They are
unrealistically denied any opportunity to make any progress at all to
refine and enlarge their opinions in the direction of wisdom; they
certainly aren’t like the young democratic citizens participating in
the animated conversation described in the Republic. The total
wisdom of the philosopher-king (not Socrates) is unrealistically
contrasted with the total ignorance of the cave dwellers. It’s because
the philosophers are lacking in nothing and have no intellectual or
emotional connection with the cave dwellers at all that they’re
completely freed from the desire to rule.

Strauss presents the philosopher-king’s real indifference to the
concerns of non-philosophers as characteristic of classical and medieval
philosophers 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 an
eternal truth that’s more dignified than the life of any ephemeral
man. His social connections and conduct don’t go beyond what’s
required to secure the conditions conducive to his essentially private
and transpolitical activity. So insofar as the philosophers write to
encourage virtue and obedience to the law in others, it’s not because
they regard either as good in themselves. They encourage a certain
kind of discipline in others as a means to the end of their personal
intellectual liberation. Strauss, again, exaggerates or at least highlights
in a wholly unprecedented way the philosopher’s real indifference
to the fate of the souls of others, his radical spiritual liberation
from any political or religious conception of the common good. The
conscious exaggeration of the philosophers’ wisdom and independence
in the Republic he presents as the real self-conception of the
medieval political philosophers.

It does seem that many students of Strauss confuse the philosopher-
king with Socrates and even with themselves. Due to Strauss’s
exoteric outing of esotericism, they find it all too easy to regard
themselves as basically intellectually liberated or transpolitical and
transmoral beingsalthough they usually don’t seem as happy or as
serene as beings should be who have solved the problem of human
life and live beyond hope, fear, and anxiety. Certainly Strauss cured
virtually all of them of any tyrannical or totalitarian temptations and
reconciled them to our liberal democracy with all its imperfections.
Contrary to the reigning intellectual prejudices of our enlightened
time, Strauss led them to believe that they are too smart to be
political progressives, that the intellectually liberated are for all
practical purposes conservatives. From Strauss, they learned the
salutary 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 the
desire to rule, nor even that such a cure would be realistic or
beneficial for them. Pangle, following Strauss’s lead, writes that the
wisest among us should write to make our political rationalism more
self-conscious and secure by promulgating a doctrine that avoids the
excesses of both relativism and sectarian fanaticism. But how can
rationalism be a cure for relativism if it clearly devalues everything
that most human beings love, such as God, country, and family, in the
light of philosophic transcendence? Certainly the more insistent or
more exoteric this formerly esoteric devaluing becomes in Straussian
writing 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 example
of the medieval philosophers in showing more respect for the
religion and traditions of his time and place. And given that Strauss
himself wrote that the tension between reason and revelation is the
secret to the vitality of the West, we wonder why Heinrich Meier, as
Seaton mentions in a note, displays so openly and proudly his
decoding of Strauss’s authoritative refutation of the possibility of
revelation in the draft of a piece he probably never intended to
publish. Pangle and Meier, of course, don’t do any real harm,
because their books only have force as a way of preaching to the
already converted.

Strauss’s effort to purge the doctrine of philosophy or the
philosopher of all Christian and post-Christian elements seems to
produce a doctrine, as Hancock puts it, more aristocratic than that
of any political aristocracy. All non-philosophers exist for philosophers;
the philosopher is the point of human existence; the way out
of relativism is to rank all human activities and human beings
according to how well they serve the needs of the philosopher.
What’s missing in this picture is a clear conception of a being who is
neither pure mind nor pure body—the human person or individual.
Hancock explains that the Straussian tendency is to reduce human
individuality to bodily necessity, and to elevate philosophic transcendence
to some impersonal or wholly intellectual domain. The
consequence, again, of exaggerating philosophic transcendence is to
deny any real capability of transcendence at all for most people, and
so of any real moral or loving or opinionated connection between the
philosopher and his fellow citizens.

The dignity of his mind alienates the philosopher from the
material necessities that govern the lives of anyone else; his mind
leads him to be at home in the world or nature, but not at home with
others. One point of Socrates’ image of the cave is that the philosopher
experiences himself as radically disoriented or homeless in the
world of men, and the best of citizens rightly experience his radical
alienation as, above all, a threat to their being at home. To be at home
with our homelessness, we need a common conception of the
mystery of our individuality or personhood that is characteristic of
being human as such.

So it would seem that the philosopher has no way of grasping, for
example, the Christian anthropology that inspired the anti-communist
dissidents who saw an irreducible moral and judgmental element
in the duty to live in the light of the truth. Nor would it seem
that what the zetetic philosopher Strauss describes, a particular
being open to the truth about all things, is in the end really alive
enough to the mystery of the individual, a particular kind of being
that is neither mind nor body that is given that openness and
corresponding responsibilities. Only a whole human being, a person,
an individual, could be open to the whole. More wonderful than the
cosmos, and certainly the heavens and the stars, is the person made
in the image of a personal God whose logos and eros doesn’t abstract
from or transcend his insistent, loving, rational concern for the
significance of particular beings. The doctrine of the way of life of the
philosopher homogenizes or rationalizes or depersonalizes the world
too much for it to do justice to the real heterogeneity introduced into
nature by strange and wonderful men and women. As a doctrine,
even classical political rationalism remains too much an “ism.”

Peter Augustine Lawler
Berry College

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like