Please don’t think I’m a Strauss-obsessed geek. I just thought you’d like to read the latest version of my talk for the American Political Science Association meeting to be held in Canada.

In his essay on Kurt Riezler, Strauss writes “If we are permitted to say that historicism is the view to which at least all concrete or profound thought essentially belongs to a concrete dynamic context, and that Platonism is the view that pure thought, being ‘anonymous’ transcends every dynamic context . . . ” Historicism and Platonism, we might be permitted to say, are two extremes. They are, for Strauss, on one level serious claims about the relationship between human thought and Being. But on another, they are two “isms” or ideologies—two philosophic doctrines presented as human solutions. They are, as Strauss says, the foundation of the classical and modern solutions. As Strauss says in the last paragraph of his polemic against Kojeve—the one left out of WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY?, neither identifying Being wholly with history or time or identifying Being wholly with eternal necessity seems self-evident to him.

For Strauss, actually, the deeper distinction is between identifying Being with eternity or Being with Creativity. If Being is caused by creativity, then human beings ARE, finally, free from natural necessity. That freedom might be the gift of a loving, providential God. Or it might be the product of human beings gaining their freedom from nature through their personal or historical creativity. Either way, Being is personal. Either way man is made, even if he makes himself, in the image of a free, creative, and loving God. From one view, THE ISSUE that separates human thinkers is whether human eros or love is, most deeply, personal or finds its real culmination or satisfaction in knowledge of impersonal or eternal natural necessity. Do we most deeply long for a “who” or a “what”?

For Strauss, the Platonic truth is that Being is nothing personal, and that means that those who pursue the eternal truth have no deep attachment to the pursuit of personal freedom—a pursuit which is based on illusions the classical philosopher doesn’t share. For Strauss, the “supernatural” virtue of charity is based on the love of a personal God and so doesn’t animate the classical philosopher. But for the modern philosophers, being “supernatural” is no objection. Being itself is “supernatural” or imposed upon nature by free beings. And so philosophers, in pursuit of the truth, have, in a way, a duty to be charitable or to help us do what we can to free ourselves from our unfortunate misery. To use a very extreme example: Marx thought the revolution he helped incite would both free most human beings from both their natural and their historical suffering and alienation and free the somewhat ignorant philosopher for the contemplation of wisdom—for knowing the whole of Being. Marx’s charity was, in a way, real, but it certainly began at home.

The ideology of historicism was used by philosophers to justify Stalinist or Nazi tyranny by finding profound significance in the historical activity of personal beings—beings with names. The murderous crimes of Stalin were justified as the means necessary for taking the final step from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom, as well as the final step from philosophy to wisdom. The philosopher Heidegger employed the ideology of historicism to way overestimate the personal significance of Heidegger for Being itself. And Heidegger really thought he was acting as a kind of philosopher-king or shepherd of Being by putting his stamp of profound approval on what happened to be happening in his country in 1933. He, like the Stalinist philosophers, found profound significance in the victory in his country of the most immoderate, cruel, and humanly destructive political force.

Those who take Being personally—in the historical sense at least, Strauss shows us, are far too serious and dramatic and have no sense of humor or sense of proportion. We have to add, though, that those who think they can rely on divine creativity to sustain their personal significance, as Machiavelli complained, think they can afford to be a lot more laidback or not nearly so sweaty. I myself have to admit I sweat the coming of Nietzsche’s “last man” or some kind of universal tyranny that would make philosophizing impossible a lot less than Strauss seemed to have done.

Decent men and women, of course, can’t help but be repulsed by the philosophers’ identification of Being with what was obviously, to anyone with any common sense, the most bizarre and horribly cruel forms of collective insanity in human history. Sensible men and women think, of course, that nothing the Nazis or Communists could have done could have revealed to us who we are. The self-indulgent or self-induced madness of historicist ideology—and the disgusting personal irresponsibility of the intellectual who embraced it—now seem obvious to us all.

What was wrong with identifying Being with history is that it turned particular persons with names into “history fodder.” Their significance came not in who they are as unique and irreplaceable beings (as the Bible says), but in being sacrificed for either the coming end of history or their country’s profound historical destiny. Theorists today, as far as I can tell, often oppose themselves to the sacrificing of unique and irreplaceable beings for God or country or history or anything else. They’re willing to say we all have rights, but they don’t look to religion or philosophy—given their repressive and murderous records—for any justification for their view of who they are. Decent people who care about people are repulsed by the record of modern philosophers, and so they think they’re stuck with claiming they don’t need philosophy or theology to know who they are.

Strauss doesn’t claim that Platonism or classical political philosophy can give any philosophic justification of the person’s high opinion of his unique and irreplaceable significance. The possibility of such a justification depends on either a revealed theology about the creativity of the personal God or some form of modern or historicist or creative philosophy. Kojeve, the historicist adversary Strauss deemed most worthy, made the point that Strauss’s choice of eternity over history is at the expense of denying real significance to particular human lives. Strauss didn’t disagree. Strauss even agrees, in a way, with contemporary non-foundationalists that the search for such a philosophic justification for personal significance or individuality has been a large part of the modern problem.

Strauss’s Platonism assures decent men and women, instead, that at least the best philosophers—the classical philosophers—don’t make any claims to profundity for anything human beings do—especially collectively or politically. From the point of view of the pure thinker contemplating eternity, everything people do is ephemeral and paltry—or, as even some Christian writers have said, nothing in light of eternity The classical philosophers were never out to screw up people’s lives to satisfy their personal needs.

The most profound human drama is the most perfect human being—a being with a name—becoming dead to himself and emotionally detached from the concerns of the people of his time and place through his profound encounter with the anonymous, eternal truth. He becomes, in fact, emotionally detached from the moral longings most human beings share, because he doesn’t see any evidence for the claims about human freedom and divine providence they can’t help but presuppose. To the pure particularity Strauss sees in revelation and to the attempted synthesis of universality and particularity he sees in Kojeve the Hegelian historicist (and, for that matter, in Thomism), Strauss opposes the pure universality of pure thought.

For Strauss, the Kojeve/Heidegger historicist exaggeration is that nothing human is natural or that to be free is to be detached from every necessity given to members of our species— to be free is to be detached from the laws of nature. Historicism, so understood, Strauss shows to be probably untrue but certainly pernicious. The necessitarian exaggeration of Platonism is both the theoretical and political antidote for our time, as it was in Plato’s time. Strauss’s Platonism is obviously an aristocratic correction to the democratic or vulgar reduction of science or philosophy to technology—to a tool for merely personal freedom. Strauss’ aristocratic Platonism has certainly inspired ambitious, intelligent, and idealistic young men and women to an aristocratic contempt for the pretensions of practice. It means to cure them of the longing for justice in this world; mere justice—even at the expense of excellence—is a democratic concern. It shows them the nobility of a way of life freed from the hopes, fears, and loves or all the moral impulses that point men in the direction of a personal God and other profound personal attachments.

The genuine aristocrat will not sacrifice himself—meaning his soul—for causes that aren’t his own, and part of his greatness of soul is to have his concerns distinguished from those that move most men and women. Freed from the charm of morality, he’s also freed from the beliefs that would cause him to exaggerate either his freedom or the evil that plagues us all. It goes without saying that Platonism—being aristocratic—isn’t really meant to obliterate all concern for personal significance, for the nobility of one’s own life. The question of political philosophy remains personal—Or how should I live MY life?—although my life, being as ephemeral as everyone else’s, is nothing in the light of eternity.

One place Platonism originates, of course, is in the REPUBLIC, where we find the exaggeration of the completely liberated philosopher-king with the corresponding exaggeration of cave-dwelling citizens completely in the thrall of the city’s poetic manipulations. Total freedom is contrasted with total slavery, and controlling slaves is less wonderful, surely, than one’s own self-sufficient liberation. Those exaggerations, of course, are presented for the benefit of a group of young and idealistic men, who want what they do and think to be pure and have eternal significance. We also see the heroic character of Socrates—called by Heidegger the purest thinker of the West—about whom we only have hearsay evidence. But even the character of Socrates locates himself in the cave or is always less than confident about the purity of his thought. Platonism begins with Socrates’s unrealistic or sublime idealization of what philosophy is and who the philosopher is for Glaucon’s benefit.

It’s the praise of the philosopher as an image of perfection that detaches the young men, in some measure, from merely human concerns, and not some airtight case for any particular LOGOS that incorporates human beings into an account of necessitarian nature that is eternity. As Strauss says, it’s modern thought—and not classical, Platonic thought—that’s tied to a particular cosmology. And even the image of the philosopher doesn’t correspond perfectly to the life of any particular human being.

After saying, quite implausibly, that the philosopher is so detached from other human beings that he doesn’t even know whether his neighbor is a member of his species or not, Strauss end up admitting that the philosopher is merely as self-sufficient as humanly possible or is just less moved than others by the social passions that we all share. The philosopher as philosopher, he even admits, will lack political ambition, but that’s not to say that any real human being is a philosopher all the time. The philosopher as philosopher doesn’t describe completely even the historical Socrates or the historical Strauss. Certainly Strauss didn’t intend for many of his best students to lack political ambition. Strauss manages to say that the philosopher as philosopher differs both in kind and in degree from his fellow human beings

But knowing about the philosopher and his concerns is still enough to show that the city or history will never be a LOGOS or a genuine whole or perfected in a way worthy of our deepest longings. It’s the real or natural inability of the city to be perfected—and the real inability of the philosophers’ pursuit of wisdom to turn into wisdom itself—that’s part of the best evidence for the goodness of nature. What’s good about our lives—including our openness to eternity—is dependent on our invincible natural limitations—on our awareness, for example, of the necessity of the death of each of us.. It’s part of the goodness of nature that we’re much more aware of eternal or at least permanent human problems than we are of any definitive solutions. It’s in that sense, at least, that Strauss can reasonably say that the realm of freedom is a province of necessity.

So on some levels at least—on the level of politics or even that of particular human lives—natural right vs. history and reason vs. revelation or philosophy vs. law seem rhetorically exaggerated as stark alternatives. Certainly America and Americans are impure—but strange and wonderful—mixtures of all those perhaps fundamental alternatives. Certainly our faith in the absolutism of the Declaration of Independence to which Strauss calls attention is partly grounded in a philosophical sense of self-evidence, partly in the revelation of a monotheistic personal God, and partly in grateful, traditional veneration for our law and our Founders. Our faith, in fact, has its vitality in our refusal not to chose one form of extremism over another and in not regarding the truth we hold in common about who we are as some invincible final solution.

Our Declaration’s devotion to NATURE is compromised by what Strauss regards as Locke’s proto-historicism (nature gives we self-creating beings nothing of value). Its devotion to REASON, Strauss would say, is somewhat compromise by the legislative compromise that transformed Nature’s God of the philosophic Jefferson’s first draft into also a providential and judgmental God. Because Strauss says that all universal moral law depends on monotheistic revelation—on an omniscient and omnipotent God who’s willful and loving (or, as Chesterton says, a center of significance that gives us all significance)—Strauss makes it clear in his criticism of John Dewey that he approved of the statesmanlike compromise in Congress between the Calvinists and the Lockean Deists that produced something better than the extremism of either of the parties to the compromise. Certainly our absolute faith that were all equally significant or unique and irreplaceable, Strauss suggests, comes more from our belief in creation and the Creator than from the laws of nature or the idea that the truth is self-evident. It would be dangerous, Strauss even says, if our absolutism were simply philosophical absolutism.

That’s not to say that the American founding embodies some classical idea of natural right; no law, Strauss makes clear, can do that. For Strauss, natural law is an oxymoron. And both Thomas Jefferson’s confidence that any country could be graced by the effectual selection of natural aristocrats of wisdom and virtue to rule and The Federalist’s Machiavellian controlled experiment of emphasizing enduring institutions with teeth over the instability of character would be all that reliable were naïve on many levels. Public opinion informed by the absolutism of the Declaration of Independence, assisted by strong institutions, serves to contain the experimentalism of unscrupulous men, who, when safely checked, are often capable of producing good political results.

Strauss does suggest that Plato would approve of the American compromise— from the perspective of a standard that admits, in theory, of no compromise. The political philosopher’s “choosing of this or that law,” Strauss writes, “is normally a compromise between what he would wish and what circumstances would permit.” And, of course, he knows that the invincible necessity that is legal compromise is one thing among many that keeps the Platonic philosopher away from the utopian temptation of attempting to impose his will—based on what’s best for him—on us all.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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