So I have to give a talk at the American Political Science Association in a few weeks on Strauss. Here are some tentative thoughts for your consideration.
In his essay on Kurt Riezler in WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY? Strauss writes “If we are permitted to say that historicism is the view according to which at least all concrete or profound thought essentially belongs to a concrete dynamic context, and that Platonism is the view to which pure thought, being ‘anonymous,’ transcends every dynamic context . . . .” Historicism and Platonism seem to be two extremes and both, in a way at least, “isms” or ideologies. The ideology of historicism was used by philosophers to justify Stalinist and Nazi tyranny or to provide profound significance in the historical activity of beings with names. Heidegger, to say the least, way overestimated the political significance of Heidegger and put the stamp of his philosophic approval on what happened to be happening in 1933—which was the victory in his country of the most immoderate, cruel, and humanly destructive political force.
The ideology of Platonism opposes to any claim for profundity to anything people DO the possibility of anonymous or impersonal pure thought. From the point of view of the pure thinker (the exemplar Socrates—whom Heidegger himself called the purest thinker of the West) contemplating eternity, everything people do is ephemeral and paltry or, as even some Christian writers said, nothing in light of eternity. The most profound human drama is the being with a name becoming dead to himself and emotionally detached from the concerns of the people of his time and place through his encounter with the anonymous truth. He becomes, in fact, emotionally detached from moral longings in general.
Against the Kojeve/Heidegger exaggeration that nothing human is natural or all human freedom is disconnected from biological imperatives—or the laws of nature—the exaggeration of Platonism is the only antidote left, in Strauss’s view. Straussian Platonism, as Ralph has shown, inspires in ambitious and intelligent young men an aristocratic contempt for the pretensions of practice and means to cures them of the longing for justice in this world.
One place Platonism originates, of course, is THE REPUBLIC, where we find the exaggeration of the completely liberated philosopher-king and the corresponding exaggeration of citizens completely in the thrall of the poetic manipulations of the city or cave presented for the benefit of the guys—but especially FOR the smart, emotionally disordered, audacious, and potentially dangerous young men Glaucon and Thrasymachus.
So somehow NATURAL RIGHT vs. HISTORY or REASON vs. REVELATION seem, at least on one level, to be rhetorically exaggerated as stark alternatives. Certainly the faith in the absolutism of the Declaration of Independence that Strauss recommends as safest for Americans has its vitality by not choosing some form of extremism. Its devotion to NATURE is compromised by Locke’s proto-historicism (nature gives we self-creating beings nothing of value) and its devotion to REASON is compromised by the legislative compromise that made Nature’s God both a providential and judgmental God. Because Strauss says any universal human law depends on revelation—and even on a God who is both willful and loving, it’s hard to see how Strauss would have objected to the 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. But then we’re still stuck, perhaps, with defending the compromise as absolutely or even self-evidently true.
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