Herewith some comparative remarks on Strauss and Oakshott prepared for last week’s meeting at Baylor University of the Michael Oakshott Association. (Later, if you’re interested, I’ll relate how the homosexual “marriage” issue — or, as I like to say, the advocacy of “sad marriage” — sprung up in this august gathering.)
We begin with the obvious observation that Oakshott seems simply not to be interested in “political philosophy” as Strauss understands it – that is, in philosophy as intrinsically attuned to a fundamental political concern, as inwardly conditioned by political necessities and questions. On the other hand, one might say there is at least a superficial similarity between Strauss’s praise of the serene autonomy of philosophy (in comparison with which all merely human concerns are “ephemeral and paltry,” and all that) and Oakshott’s understanding of philosophy as the (unattainable) wholeness of experience, “experience without presupposition, reservation, arrest or modification” (EM, 2). But of course I have argued that Strauss’s praise of the pure detachment of philosophy from practical concerns must be understood rhetorically, and that the deeper truth is that the detachment of philosophy from practical nobility must be understood as continuous with a pretension of such nobility to a detachment from ordinary, “vulgar” human concerns. Oakshott, for his part, seems to have little interest in continuities between philosophy, or absolute experience, and the world of practice, which is just one among a number of “modes” of experience.
Oakshott’s idea of philosophy is thus very austere, to say the least. Absolute experience seems to be a kind of sheer self-possession and unhindered self-identity. The question of the character of its goodness does not seem to be acknowledged as a pertinent question, and so the problem of the relation of some goodness of philosophy to the goods of practice does not even arise.
How can the question of the good be set aside? Of course Oakshott recognizes the pertinence of the question, but only within a “mode” of experience that is considered altogether distinct from that of the most adequate and comprehensive idea of experience, namely, philosophy. The leading questions of practice, the realm which concerns human agency and therefore the possibility of change from a worse to a better condition, are not considered relevant to the interest in absolute knowledge that governs the pure mode of philosophy. To be sure, the distinction between the realms of eternal and necessary truth and things that can be other than they are is an ancient one that structures Strauss’s philosophical rhetoric as much as it does Oakshott’s. And Strauss no more than Oakshott imagines that theory can dictate directly to practice; both may be said to follow Aristotle’s lead in endeavoring to protect the practical realm against philosophy’s imperialist tendencies. Nevertheless, philosophy emerges for Strauss as the answer to the most pressing practical question, the question how one should live. Even if, as Aristotle himself says (Nichomachean Ethics X), the purely philosophic life, as divine, remains beyond the reach of human faculties, the best humans are invited to strive towards and emulate such a contemplative life. Philosophy rules practice for Strauss, even if he cautions it not to rule directly. And the less salient implication, I have argued, is that practice deeply conditions philosophy. If the practice of the virtues is understood in the light of contemplative wholeness and self-sufficiency, it is no less true that the very good of self-sufficiency is implicitly modeled on an experience or a pretension sustained in practice.
In sum, Strauss’s thought, like Aristotle’s, is finally governed by an interest in sustaining what Tocqueville called a “moral analogy,” a linkage between the a sense of an orderly whole (a cosmic whole prefigured in practical order) of which the individual is a part and the individual’s awareness of his transcendence of any given whole. Philosophy rules, and the very character of philosophy is conditioned by its ruling responsibility. The question of the True never completely leaves the orbit of the Good.
Oakshott, for his part, is resolute in severing the True from the Good. Valuation is confined to the realm of practice, and practice is a mere “mode” of experience, an abstraction from the absolute encountered “without presupposition or arrest.” Is it not fair to ask, though, just where the “abstraction” lies, and what experience or region of human activity advances the strongest claim to standing “without presupposition, reservation, arrest or modification?” Strauss seems to argue that there is no more immediate and primordial and in that sense “natural” mode of existence than that in which we are interpellated by the question of the Good, a question that bridges practical and contemplative experience. This then becomes the ruling, integrating question for Strauss. Oakshott, for his part, begins with an idea of absolute experience inherited (indirectly) from Hegel, but severed from the ruling claims of a theory of History that aims to integrate the contemplative and the practical. Strauss might ask whether Oakshott’s idealism of pure experience and the radical separation of the practical from the philosophical that results are not themselves abstraction, even violent and uninterrogated abstractions from the natural springs of human questioning.
Oakshott’s approach can no doubt be understood and perhaps justified as a response to modern, predatory rationalism, which aims to master and possess reality for human convenience. But Strauss would of course interpret such an abstracting will to separation as part of a “strategy of separations” (of religion from politics, society from state, represented from representative, etc – the term is Pierre Manent’s) inherent in modern rationalism, and which is founded ultimately on the separation of the useful from the good, or, what amounts to the same thing, of the good from the true. And Strauss would thus regard such an abstraction as tending to aggravate the rationalistic disease it is meant to contain, if not to cure. In Strauss’s view, I think, any configuration of theory and practice that does not limit practice by situating it in effect under the (indirect) rule of theory (conceived as the good life of contemplating eternity) is bound to nourish the blind and destructive metaphysical passion of practice to create a world in which its contradictions are resolved – the passion of “technology.” Or, in my formula, adapted from Tocqueville: longings for transcendence that are not oriented vertically (aristocratically) and thus integrated into a scheme of “moral analogy” can only spill over into horizontal (democratic) projects that threaten the human soul.
Now it must be said that such a Straussian diagnosis seems utterly to miss the mark in the case of Oakshott, who never seems to betray any taste for technological projects of any kind. To be sure, Oakshott’s separations seem to lead to a certain constructivism at the individual level, in which a “poetic” conception of the best way of life is associated with a kind of pure (but somehow not aggressive) willfulness. And Strauss would no doubt find his prognosis justified by Oakshott’s insistence that “culture” and “values” are absolutely prior to politics and by no means a matter of or product of political deliberation. This after all quite radical historicism takes a characteristically benign form in Oakshott’s thought, but (as has been noted, for example, by such a discerning and friendly critic Andrew Sullivan, Intimations Pursued) it would seem to leave Oakshott as a political thinker defenseless before the ugliest cultural and ideological assertions. In this sense Strauss would argue that Oakshott’s failure to appreciate the classical rule of reason causes him to throw out reason itself along with modern rationalism and leaves him vulnerable to the leveling, homogenizing power of democracy-technology.
Notwithstanding these Straussian questions that it seems to me Oakshott would have difficulty answering, it is time to grant that there is something attractive, even compelling in Oakshott’s aesthetic or “poetic” appreciation of the immediacy of ordinary life. There is truth in the separation of life from the rule of teleological reflection, because there is a beautiful mystery in the givenness of existence that cannot be referred to “higher” plan of reflection. This attunement to what Charles Taylor calls the sacredness of the ordinary surely points to some truth, and one to which Leo Strauss might seem to be utterly tone deaf. Strauss quite assiduously ignores this truth, because it is ultimately a Christian truth, and because, for Strauss, Christianity, in its appeal to the longings of ordinary human beings, its sanctification of a goodness irreducible to the resigned elevation of classical “reason,” is the real “first wave” of modernity.