My review of Yuval Levin’s excellent and thought-provoking book, Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy , is up now at First Principles. Yuval’s closing exhortation to conservatives, to write more clearly, probingly, and persuasively about human dignity, is problematic, but in a good way, and very important. A conversation about the way dignity figures into a tension in the conservative soul between visions of nobility and visions of solidarity might have to wait for another day, but in the interest of good blogging, here’s the most spirited or controversial part of the review. Yes, it’s about Strauss!

Levin acknowledges that the modern “lowering of aims” seems “as much a result of political as of scientific ideas.” But, he notes, “it is no coincidence that Hobbes and Locke were not only great philosophers of modern politics but also great enthusiasts of the new science, just as Aristotle was not only the great ancient philosopher but also the preeminent scientific mind of the Greek world” (11). Yet this analogy, like the insinuation it accompanies, obscures some important differences that bear directly on the future survival of self-government. To be sure, on Locke’s account, man’s relation to man derives from man’s prior relation to the natural world (though nature, as it is given, affords not a model of order but a lump of raw material). Yet Hobbes in no way grounds our social relations in our relation to the natural world. In vividly portraying human life at its extreme antisocial nadir, Hobbes appears to “lower his aims,” but not because he refuses to look upward or forward. Hobbes is at pains to show that the Lutheran vision of political authority, in which the New Covenant of Christ radically breaks from and replaces the Old Covenant of Moses, is actually apt to destroy all political authority. For Hobbes, the enduring authority of Mosaic rule in the wake of the Reformation is central to his claim that only the awesome spiritual and temporal reign of the Leviathan can save us from falling into the terminal disorder of the Jews who broke the Mosaic covenant.

This Biblical vision of the fundamental weakness of our human sociality is at odds with the Aristotelian perspective, in which the human species naturally orders its political life socially. In light of this tension, the “break” from the ancients in early modern political thought appears less a function of some enchantment with the modern scientific project than of the advent of Christianity and the Reformation. Despite some superficial similarities, putting Machiavelli with Hobbes and Locke into a first “wave” of modern thought conceals more than it reveals. Hobbes and Locke—and, afterward, the American founders who politically reconciled Calvinism and Deism—are concerned above all to achieve precisely what Levin advocates as our best hope for the future: a way of life fully open to human flourishing which remains fully cognizant of the limits beyond which our exercise of power becomes destructive to that end.

But in adopting the Straussian narrative of modernity that he does, Levin disposes us to view the early moderns as not just technophilic but technocratic—even while averting our gaze from the way in which a new Hobbesianism threatens to divest us of self-government for reasons conceptually prior to our whole attitude toward science. Hobbes teaches that individuals, including liberal democratic ones, may truly flourish only if they surrender their prideful claims of self-governance to the legal—not scientific—rule of a “mortal god.” If this argument retains any force in an age when individuals increasingly long for the apolitical comforts of Rorty’s bourgeois bohemian, content to outsource rule to legal experts, then Levin—and anyone sympathetic to his incisive portrayal of the current temptation to outsource rule to scientific experts—must be prepared to reach deeper than the traditional critical history of the “modern scientific project” can reach. Perhaps the threat science poses to self-government is so profound only because it supplements and reinforces a prior, more primal longing to be ruled.

Articles by James Poulos

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