This question, I learned from our Porcher friends, is the stock “traditionalist” or “paleo” shot against Leo Strauss. It’s hard to know what it means, exactly, or why they think it’s at least a symptom of evildoing. But indulge me in some relatively pro-Strauss observations.

Strauss was certainly concerned with restoring the IDEA of philosophy, which meant restoring the IDEA of eternity. Eternity, of course, is what IS always and can’t be changed by any form of creativity, either divine or human. So the philosophers—characteristically—have always said the world is eternal (and called that impersonal necessity nature) against those who’ve said the world is created (and so in some sense personal and contingent). It is possible, as the Thomists and the Declaration of Independence do, to speak of the laws of nature as being created by a personal, providential Creator, but Strauss thought that “third way” was untenable. The Bible speaks of the world and persons being governed by a personal logos, but for Strauss personal logos is an oxymoron, finally. (I will explain why I think Strauss is wrong on that point—but for now, I’m agreeing that logos is not personal in the sense of Historical.)

Eternity has always been opposed to divine creation. But in the modern world it’s also opposed to History. The modern view, crudely speaking, is that we only know what we make, and we free beings make ourselves by liberating ourselves from nature. What we can do and so what we can know is called History, or human creativity. The modern philosophers (Hegel, Marx) came to think that History has a logos that reveals itself over time. So the point of doing and thinking is to bring history to an end. The result will be both practical satisfaction and theoretical wisdom.

For Strauss, the modern doctrine of History is an attempt to make the Biblical understanding of who we are reasonable—to provide empirical verification of its truth. Man, the Bible says, was made in the image of the active and revealing God. History is the proof that man, through his action, can reveal himself to himself. Man, in a way, can make himself into God by creating for himself all that the Biblical God promised for him. At the end of history, we’lll have all we need with hardly any work. We’ll be unalienated, self-sufficient, and lacking in nothing, like God himself. To translate this into Voegelinian, the eschaton will be immanentized. It is will be a real or historical creation of the work of free or historical beings.

The philosophers, to take History so seriously, have to forget nature or what’s eternal. Human reality emerges in opposition to nature, which is, for us, nothing but worthless, infinite spaces indifferent to all personal existence. To be human is to be historical—to be in time, to be temporary. That means, ironically, the end of history would have to be the end of human—that is, historical—beings.

Members of our species would be integrated into nature again; we would no longer be the self-conscious mortals open to truth about ourselves. One deep teaching about History is that we’re all kind of cosmic accidents destined to become self-aware and then, as self-conscious accidents, self-destruct. Surely sociobiology and Deep Ecology are features of thought at the end of history. (That’s not to say I’m against superficial or anthropocentric environmentalism.)

The result of the forgetfulness of eternity, finally, is the end of the being open to the truth about eternity. The post-historical return of eternality or impersonal necessity would be without beings who share all our distinctively human characteristics. Human beings—even philosophers—have significance only as “history fodder,” as beings who make a contribution to History’s future perfection. (That, of course, explains a lot of the unprecedented slaughter of the 20th century.) When the perfection comes, they become superfluous and so have to disappear.

So Strauss attempted to show the insignificance of history, of what human beings do, in the light of eternity. Philosophers aren’t concerned primarily with the meaning of historical change, and the truth is that there’s no such thing as an historical logos and so historical progress. Strauss did what he could to discredit “History” with eternity in the name of perpetuating history in the ordinary sense. History (with a little h) is the endlessly ambiguous record of human accomplishments, nobility and cruelty, and sad and laughable screw-ups that reveals nothing fundamental about the true purposes of particular human lives.

When Strauss said that the philosopher’s concern with history—or what human beings do—is “exoteric,” he meant that every genuinely self-conscious practical effort aims not at some kind of perfection, but only a kind of damage control. There’s a lot I’m going to say to disagree with Strauss, but he was right to say that we should look for perfection in particular human lives and not in “History.” Strauss thought of himself as discrediting History in the name of history, which is the only place we can find beings open to eternity. (I’ll discuss later the Platonic/Straussian contention that the human desire for immortality—or the continuation of personal being—is, mostly deeply, really the desire to know the eternal, or what’s not personal.)

I agree that we should debate how relevant this worry about History is today, what with the definite discrediting of Communism and similar modern “metanarratives.” Arguably Strauss was too concerned with History. But we still have lots of people around in the thrall of what Strauss called Heideggerian “radical historicism,” which suggests in a related way that people are stuck with being determined by their horizon of their time and place. They include, for example, those who think “technology” determines everything about who are these days.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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