Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Mr. Poulos, in reference to my recently posted “Draft Manifesto 2.0,” set me to reconsidering the last pages of Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli. Whether he suspected how many hours this invitation would cost me, I do not know, but, now that the ordeal is (temporarily) over, I thank him for tempting me. These final pages are wild stuff indeed, and, after numerous re-readings, I’m ready to venture some hunches. File under: “Desperately Seeking Interlocutors.”

Needless to say, my little hermeneutical exercise will not be to the taste of many, probably most, readers. Fair enough – none of this is required for the final exam (as I sometimes say to my students, in order to claim the freedom to talk about something that really interests me). But just in case you, too, are vulnerable to such a temptation, let me offer this prefatory apology for such close attention to Strauss.

Why read and re-read Strauss? Because no one interpellates the founders and foundations of modernity so relentlessly or dissects them so expertly, exquisitely – and no one undertakes the critique of modernity with less confidence than Strauss (despite deliberate appearances) in any known alternative. He both guides us further than anyone and leaves us more responsibility to carry on the quest.

That said, I launch into my little re-reading. Here is Mr. Poulos’ inviting question:

In re 1.1.3, I’m put in mind of the last page of Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli, which purports to reveal the one aspect in which Machiavelli’s political science has a foundation: “The difficulty implied in the admission that inventions pertaining to the art of war must be encouraged is the only one which supplies a basis for Machiavelli’s criticism of classical political philosophy.” Strauss warns that this difficulty, however, is the result of a bad (modern) idea about what science is: “such a use of science is excluded by the nature of science as a theoretic pursuit.” But Strauss goes on to say that Machiavelli’s rather premodern consideration that “natural cataclysms” will snap humanity back from scientific excess and cultural corruption has been “rendered incredible by the experiences of the last centuries.” Strauss drops a footnote here which does nothing I can tell to clarify this incredibly cryptic phrase. And he closes suggesting that classical philosophy must ‘rethink’ “the beneficence of nature” or “the primacy of the Good.” What, in your estimation, gives?

And my reply:

Whenever Strauss uses the word “only” in some decisive statements I see neon lights flashing. For example, the “only” thing Machiavelli owes to Christianity is “propaganda” – which is to say, a whole lot – the very horizontalization of transcendence I would say, in my shorthand. Here: the “only” basis for Machiavelli’s criticism of the classics has to do with the necessity of military technology. (p. 299 – the last.) On the previous page, Strauss has shockingly asked “what essential defect of classical political philosophy could possibly have given rise to the modern venture as an enterprise that was meant to be reasonable.” Does Strauss actually grant the existence of some such“essential defect”? What is the difference between a project that is “mean to be reasonable” and one that is in fact reasonable? If the modern project was only meant to be reasonable, then need there be any “essential” defect in the classical alternative?

Let us pursue what seems to be Strauss’s surprising suggestion, that is, that classical political philosophy is defective and vulnerable in some essential way. Why would it be so decisive an admission for a classical philosopher to recognize that technology must be fostered, if only for the purpose of military defense? Re-reading a few preceding pages, I am reminded that what is fundamentally at stake here, as always for Strauss, is “the nature of science as a theoretical pursuit.” (299) Everything depends upon science or theory or philosophy being understood as a purely disinterested participation in “the realm of necessity” (298), that is, on “the superiority of thinking to doing or making.” (295) Any breach in the barrier separating theory from practice (such as admitting the necessity of military technology) seems to Strauss to threaten the “radical [classical] distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers,” to efface the borders of “the cave,” and thus to undermine the idea of “nature ordered toward fixed ends,” thus leaving humanity to be understood as “infinitely malleable.”

Now, the curious thing about Strauss’s discussion of the relation of theory and practice in this context is that, whereas Machiavelli and the moderns are in one sense accused of collapsing or fusing the categories (“philosophy is to fulfill the function of both philosophy and religion”), it is also true that modern philosophy (parallel, I would say, to extreme interpretations of Christian transcendence, as in certain forms of nominalism and in Calvin) assumes a standpoint more radically removed from practical experience than anything articulated in classical philosophy: “the human in man is implicitly understood to reside in an Archimedean point outside of nature.” Modern transformative “materialism” depends upon a certain (I would say Christian or post-Christian) spiritualism or “idealism” (297) a “jump from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.” (298) For Strauss this leap into “an expanding universe” threatens “the very possibility of human excellence.” But on close inspection of what Strauss calls this “amazing process,” we are given to understand that modern man’s becoming “every more shallow” or materialistic is the underside of his limitless freedom, his idealistic openness to an “expanding universe” which can be contained by no natural figure of human excellence.

All of Strauss’s work, it seems to me, constitutes an attempt, perhaps not a very confident attempt, to check this process of idealistic expansion and materialistic contraction by reviving the classical “philosopher” as a determinate figure of human excellence. To do this Strauss insists, in direct opposition to Heidegger’s abandonment of philosophy to History, and notably to his embrace of the movement of the least wise at their worst moment (1933 - WIPP), on the utter remoteness of philosophical concerns from the “paltry and ephemeral” (Restatement to Kojeve) practical concerns of ordinary human beings. However, as these last pages of Thoughts reveal, Strauss’s intention is precisely to counter the appeal of the “Archimedean point” of extreme and abstract transcendence (cf. Nietzsche’s ascetic star) and to reconnect thinking with practical, moral being. Machiavelli has forgotten “the soul” and thus cannot account for his own greatness (294) because he has forgotten justice or “the sacredness of ‘the common’.” (292) He does not understand that “moral virtue” is not only a “qualified requirement of society” but is more fundamentally “a requirement of philosophy or of the life of the mind.” If he cannot understand “moral-political phenomena in the light of man’s highest virtue or perfection, the life of the philosopher or the contemplative life,” this is because he no longer implicitly understands (as did the classics) the philosophic life in terms of the moral-political phenomenon; Machiavelli (and the moderns who follow him) no longer situate pure theory at the pinnacle of a practical scale of virtue, the anchor of “the stability of excellence.” (295)

Thus it is precisely because and only so long as philosophy does not know itself as “edifying” that it remains “of necessity edifying.” (299 – the very last words of Thoughts). Hence the great dilemma haunting Strauss’s project: he must revive classical philosophy as edifying without insisting upon or even explaining its edifying essence, that is, its intrinsic connection with moral excellence. And this is not only a rhetorical, but in fact a real philosophical difficulty. For it is possible that Strauss understands the ancients better than they understood themselves. The confidence of the ancients in the superiority of theory is inseparable from their contempt for the demos, from the conviction that “the city is necessarily the cave,” that there is an absolute gulf between the demos and the philosopher. But Strauss himself is constantly showing the permeability of this barrier, of the city’s “openness, or deference, to philosophy,” though of course he is less candid about philosophy’s necessary conditioning by this very openness. Strauss’s difficulty is in fact plain in his most characteristic formula: the city is both closed and open to philosophy; his whole project depends on his having things both ways on this decisive question – philosophy is continuous with morality, theory with practice, and it is not – and this despite his apparently absolute allegiance to the principle of non-contradiction.

Strauss’s philosophical difficulty can be stated simply: philosophers are not wholly exempt from the desire to rule, and so the demos is not simply wrong in its distrust of the aristocratic pretentions of the philosophers. The materialism of the demos is not a univocal phenomenon, for, as Christianity will reveal, it is the underside of a telling critique of human pride, a demotion of “the sacredness of the common” politically understood against the standard of a some more rigorous transcendence, a freedom with respect to the human city that flows from an openness to what is somehow at once more truly sacred and more truly common.

I agree with Strauss that this Christian and modern openness is inseparable from the danger of a radical closing, a closing to determinate and livable figures of human virtue, the closing of “technology.” Strauss bids us combat this closing by a return to “fundamental experiences” from which is derived “the notion of the beneficence of nature or of the primacy of the Good.” (299) I do my best to follow him in this most worthy quest. But Strauss himself has taught us – whether despite himself or not, I cannot tell – that there is no more fundamental experience than that of a freedom that cannot be reserved to philosophers alone. And so somehow we must learn to consult both dimensions of the fundamental experience of our humanity.

Show 0 comments



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles