These thoughts are offered as an addendum and complement (mostly) to Peter Lawler’s recent  “Leo Strauss and Postmodern Conservatism.”

Whatever Leo Strauss’ personal disposition on the question of Biblical religion (and he certainly seems not to have been a believer in any familiar sense), he remains an indispensable thinker for believers because of his unrivaled deconstruction of the faith of modernity. The modern rationalist critique of religion is itself based, he shows, on an unexamined faith in the mastery of nature as the end of knowledge. This critique is invaluable to all who would resist the blind colossus of modern rationalism, whatever we think of the alternative Strauss proposed—i.e., the alleged self-sufficient goodness of philosophic inquiry itself. And this proposed Straussian solution appears much more nuanced and deliberately political, I believe, on close examination.

Leo Strauss offers the most perspicacious critique of modern rationalism because he never loses sight of the question of the good of thinking, and therefore of the problem of the relation between theory and practice. The moderns deny the linchpin of classical thought, the intrinsic good of philosophizing, and thus make knowing instrumental to power. Power in turn can only be interpreted according to the most “natural,” that is, universal, human needs and appetites (at least until Nietzsche’s attempt to liberate the will to power from this democratic conception of nature).

Leo Strauss understands that the modern critique of the intrinsic good of philosophy is derivative of the Christian critique of pagan pride. Modern materialistic universalism is both directed against and borrowed from the hopes of Christian spiritual universalism. The collapse of the Christian synthesis of Greek reason and Jewish revelation produces the modern project of a new, secular synthesis.

Strauss does not publicize the affinities or parallels between the Christian and modern syntheses, because he values a practical alliance with Christian natural law, and because he prefers to hold the founders of modernity rationally accountable. Only if we consider the rise of modern universalistic hopes as a rational project can we hold modernity rationally responsible, and thus hold open the possibility of a more responsible view of reason. It is thus on eminently practical grounds that Strauss resists portraying modernity as the “secularization” of Christianity (as in Voegelin’s “immanentization of the eschaton,” for example).

The alternative Strauss presents to blind modern “rationalism” is classical natural right, which amounts to the rule of the wise, where wisdom is grounded in the alleged self-sufficiency of the goodness of philosophizing. Strauss knows full well that this assertion of self-sufficiency is a prolongation of aristocratic pride, and he’s for it precisely for that reason. The nobility of philosophy serves him as the anchor of virtue and excellence more generally. Thus a moral-political concern lies at the esoteric heart of Strauss’s recovery of “political philosophy,” and the political is much more than an exoteric front or a ladder that is finally kicked away.

Strauss is very aware of the one-sidedness of this grounding of morality and politics. He is aware that his aristocratic strategy gives short shrift to another dimension of morality and indeed of the meaning of human existence. This is the dimension he refers to, as it were in passing, when he asserts quite flatly that humanity is unthinkable without reference to “sacred restraints.” We are subject to mysteriously grounded limits, divine commands that cannot be accounted for from the perspective of the nobility of aristocratic self-sufficiency. These commands issuing from a divinity beyond the reach of reason connect us with the universality of humanity and with common human hopes for the redemption of what is dearest to us as simple human beings. This is to say, the reference to an author of mysterious “sacred restraints” connect us with personal love.

But Strauss judges it best not to get philosophy mixed up in the articulation of personal love or hopes of universal salvation associated with love; instead he prefers to keep sacred law separate from the nobility of philosophy, Jerusalem (i.e., Judaism) separate from Athens. Reason on the one hand, and divine law on the other—and never the twain must meet.

Strauss must know that this strategy is quixotic, since as soon as he says we must be open to the excellence of philosophy and to the obedience of the pious, he has made it impossible not to wonder how these dispositions can be integrated, or at least held together in the same soul. But Strauss suppresses any such integration because he abominates the modern synthesis, which binds philosophic excellence to the project of universal salvation.

One might say that Strauss believes that Hegel is not simply wrong when he presents the culmination of rational universalism as the fulfillment of Christian revelation. And I do not believe Strauss is simply wrong in his resistance to the Christian quest for synthesis, for the attempt to combine reason with love does indeed tend in the direction of modern rational universalism—of universal “recognition” and “satisfaction” in a homogenous state.

In other words, Christianity is vulnerable to co-optation by “social justice,” since its Jewish humility undermines aristocratic pretensions, and its Hellenism undermines the particularity of Jewish commandments. To be sure, Christians will appeal to “conscience,” and to the mediating authority of the Church—but can these avoid borrowing content from Jerusalem and Athens, from sacred commands and from the pride of human nature?

The only brakes on the secular appropriation of Christian humility and universalism are Jewish law and pagan honor.

Postmodern conservatism is postmodern because it aspires to no final synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens that would provide wholly rational foundations for morality and politics. It is conservative because it sees the truth in both Jerusalem and Athens, and therefore the partial and dangerous truth in the drive to synthesize them.

None of this would be possible without Leo Strauss. He reminds us that Christians are not exempt from the deeply political responsibility of reason.

Articles by Ralph Hancock


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