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

Here are some not quite random reflections on Strauss. I know the Wittgenstein inspired bullet point presentation style leaves something to be desired, but just keep in mind it’s not meant to create the impression of any real exactitude.

1. The noetic hetergeneity thesis seems to contradict the centrality of Socratic ignorance to philosophy for Strauss. Knowing parts of the whole as wholes themselves seems considerably more Aristotelian than Platonic. Still, Strauss says its not a full ignorance but rather knowledge of our ignorance of the whole, which he calls mysterious. SO we can know lots of things about the parts without knowing the whole, as long as the parts are also wholes in themselves.

2. BUT then the NH thesis seems to undermine the reason revelation thesis which states that reason is only vindicated against the claims of revelation IF we have an account of the whole. This is philosophically dubious in itself but also inconsistent with NH.

3. Strauss intends NH as a way to vindicate philosophy independent of cosmology-he calls the difference between the human and non-human “essential”. He also describes NH as a return to common sense, and the surface of things. SO NH seems to mean that we can understand human life given its pre-theoretical intelligibilty without  KNOWING the mysterious whole. So Strauss says the cosmos is the home of the human mind whether or not it is eternal or created, meaning whatever fundamental cosmology we choose.

4. HOWEVER, he also writes to Kojeve that he “assumes” an uncreated and stable eternal order that is essential to philosophy. He’s cagey on this-in City and Man he says Aristotle’s physics and politics are entirely separable but completely contradicts this in two other places. Either way, he describes his own cosmological thesis to Kojeve as a hypothesis alone.

5. Strauss sometimes discusses NH as an alternative to the platonic doctrine of ideas-the former is ‘sober” and the later “mad”. But he also says Socratic ignorance is nothing more than knowledge of the fundamental problems which he interchangeably calls “unchangeable ideas”. Both NH and Ideas though are described as an “openness to the whole”.

6. Strauss says in Persecution and the Art of Writing that the highest political task of the philosopher is the defense of philosophy in the city (he repeats this on the Tyranny book). BUT consider: according to Strauss there are very few great or real philosophers (Klein says there are 15). Heidegger, he says, is the only one in our age. But only great philosophers can know other great philosophers and Strauss places his own work on the level of Lessing. Moreover, he says that philosophy is only possible because the great minds disagree but if we’re not competent to identify the greats we surely can’t adjudicate their disputes. And we never know when and where a great philosopher will emerge-maybe the next one in Burma in 2025 he wonders in one essay.

7. My point is this-Strauss’ view of the political defense of philosophy presupposes the dependence of the emergence of philosophy on political circumstance-but its much more random and almost epiphanic than than that in its genesis. The real issue is the defense of the city/political life against the only great philosopher of the age: Heidegger. Strauss’ whole project is conventionally couched as a defense of philosophy against the city but his efforts really move in the opposite direction. This is at the heart of Strauss’ attempt to draw a close connection between philosophy and political prudence while suppressing the madness that is philosophy. NH turns out to be the sober presentation of the doctrine of ideas in this regard.

8. I can only comment briefly on this now but a big problem for Strauss is that the only real philosopher of the age, at least in his estimation, not only throws in his lot with the “least moderate forces” politically but also challenges the possibility of philosophy itself. I should point out that Strauss considered Heidegger to be a philosopher despite the fact that he clearly didn’t believe philosophy amounts to nothing other than Socratic ignorance, or a grasping of the fundamental problems. In fact, Strauss charges Heidegger with “oblivion to eternity” and a contempt for permanencies”.

8. The overarching premise of Strauss’ project seems to be the eternity of the cosmos, which cannot be known or demonstrated, since the cosmos is mysterious. BUT we have a pre-theoretical access to the intelligible surface of our own experience of our contingency, and the intersection, however fleeting, of that contingency with eternity through philosophy. The argument for philosophy then turns out to have a cosmological component in almost Kantian fashion-we have an articulateable experience and so we deduce the conditions that make it possible. Strauss learned that procedure from his Marburg days.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles