Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Lilla on Strauss

The following are some excerpts from Mark Lilla's typically clear and insightful account of a complex thinker in the New York Review of Books (Oct. 21 and Nov. 4, subscription only). In this case, he explains the different perceptions of Leo Strauss in the U.S. and in Europe, the American understanding being distorted by tendentious connections to American politics.
Strauss often remarked that although politics can address finite problems it can never resolve the fundamental contradictions of life. Those contradictions have their source in the human need to answer the existential question "How should I live?," a supra-political question giving rise to stark alternatives. In the West, those alternatives were seen in philosophy and divine revelation, the lives of Socrates and Moses. The tension between them was, in Strauss's view, the hidden wellspring of our civilization's vitality.

The principle leading to emancipation—that, to quote from the debate in the French National Assembly of 1789, "the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals"—proved untenable; the call of revelation could not be extinguished from thought or politics. And that, for Strauss, meant that philosophy needed to reconsider the original "theological-political problem" afresh.

In Plato's Republic Socrates likened that condition to our being in a cave transfixed by shadows projected on a wall, when we should be outside, gazing upon things themselves in the sunlight. The question human beings face in this cave is how to live: Do we remain shackled by convention, satisfied with the partial view of life endorsed by political and religious authority, or do we ascend to inquire into life under our own power? The answer provided in most societies in history has been one that mixes the theological and political: we are to obey the laws because they are sacred. The Socratic alternative to this obedience in the cave was the life of Socrates himself, a life of perpetual philosophical questioning beholden to no theological or political authority. Between these antagonistic ways of life, which Strauss sometimes called those of Jerusalem and Athens, there can be, he argued, no compromise; we must choose. Yet both share the assumption that the existential question can indeed be settled.

This "historicism," as Strauss called it, is now so deeply rooted that it prevents an honest examination of those fundamental questions as if genuine answers were possible, the kind of examination Socrates taught. If the philosophical life of Socrates were to be pursued again, the very idea of it would first have to be recovered from historical oblivion. That was Strauss's most fundamental ambition: to prepare a return to Socratic philosophy by first beating a path up from the second cave through the critical study of the history of philosophy.

His interpretations try to suggest that the truly radical nature of Socratic questioning had been domesticated and routinized by modern Enlightenment philosophy, and that this was a loss, not a gain. Through the new philosophy of the Enlightenment we have learned to master nature and partially master our political destinies, but in the process we have lost the genuine freedom of philosophy as a way of life. In the process of Enlightenment, we have forgotten ourselves.

Mark Blitz, a former associate director of the United States Information Agency during the Reagan years who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College, a Straussian stronghold, tries to isolate "the elements in Strauss that prepared and allowed an affin-ity with conservatives." He finds the following:
anti-communism (and not amelioration), the virtue of individual responsibility (and not excessive social welfare), individual rights (and not affirmative action or feminism), market competition (and not excessive regulation or quasi-oligarchy), and educational and artistic excellence (and not "politicization" or self-indulgence).
While it is true that Strauss was opposed to communism, spoke of virtue, and was concerned with educational excellence, there is not a word in his works about such topics as welfare, affirmative action, feminism, and the like. Not a word, as Blitz himself admits. Why, then, do so many of his disciples act as if the political implications of his thought point them in one partisan direction? Why is it that his European readers, who study his books but have no connection with the pedagogical tradition Strauss began in America, find no such partisan drift? And who is right?

Had Strauss returned to continental Europe to teach after the war, his students already would have studied the history of philosophy, however superficially, in high school. That might have made them more difficult to reach, plunging them deeper into what he called the "second cave" of historicism and relativism. But in return they probably would have been more inclined—as are the authors of the new European studies of Strauss—to see him as a thinker exploring the philosophical tradition for his own purposes. His American followers have had difficulty seeing him in that light, as an original thinker whose example might help them down their own paths. They treat him less like Socrates than like Moses.

Strauss introduced the book with the words of the Declaration of Independence, "we hold these truths to be self evident," and then asked: Do we still? Does the contemporary West still believe in natural "inalienable Rights," or do we rather believe, as Strauss dryly puts it, that "all men are endowed by the evolutionary process or by a mysterious fate with many kinds or urges of aspirations, but certainly with no natural right"? If the latter, doesn't that mean that modern liberalism has declined into relativism, and isn't that indistinguishable from the kind of nihilism that gave rise to the political disasters of the twentieth century? "The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism," Strauss writes, "nay, it is identical with nihilism."

During the first two decades of his Chicago period, Strauss's American students were mainly interested in studying old books, in reviving la querelle des anciens et modernes, and adapting an aristocratic understanding of the philosophical life to the slightly vulgar American democratic setting. After 1968, all that changed. The universities imploded, and Straussianism took a new turn. It is difficult for those of us educated on the other side of that cultural chasm to imagine the trauma experienced by some of those teachers wedded to the pre-'68 American university, however sympathetic to their loss we might be. Their sense of betrayal is infinite; they cannot and will not be consoled. Straussians in the universities took the student revolts, and all that followed in American society, particularly hard. From Strauss they had learned to see genuine education as a necessarily elite enterprise, one difficult to maintain in a leveling, democratic society. But thanks to Natural Right and History, they were also prepared to see the threat of "nihilism" lurking in the interstices of modern life, waiting to be released, turning America into Weimar.

Unlike the new European studies of Strauss's thought, which focus on the tension between philosophy and revelation, the catechism begins and ends with politics, specifically American politics. But it does so in contrasting styles. To speak musically, it begins to strains of Götterdämmerung and ends with "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Given the state of American education it is hard to complain about a curriculum that encourages students to extend their thinking from ancient to modern thought. But so tied is the teaching to Strauss's own readings that it becomes a well-tailored straitjacket. More than anything, it kills students' intellectual curiosity and fills them with contempt for teachers and fellow students who aren't with the program.

The neoconservative impulse was originally a moderating one, arising from a sense that American liberalism needed a reality check. Great Society programs, it was said, were exacerbating problems they were meant to solve, such as poverty and urban blight; rising taxes were stifling economic prosperity; middle-class values were being vilified, driving voters to the right; the "Vietnam syndrome" was paralyzing American foreign policy. Over the past two decades these criticisms have become commonplaces in American politics; with the election of Bill Clinton it appeared that we were (nearly) all neoconservatives now. Except for the neoconservatives themselves, who in the interim abandoned the moderate liberalism they once championed, for a coarse provincial ideology giving them enormous influence in Washington.

Neoconservatives used to give two cheers for capitalism; now four or five seem hardly sufficient. They once promoted a hard realism in foreign policy, to counteract the pacifist idealism they saw among Democrats in the Seventies; now they flirt with an eschatological faith in America's mission civilisatrice, to be fulfilled by military means. They once offered a complex view of bourgeois culture in its relation to economic and political life; now they are in the grip of an apocalyptic vision of post-Sixties America that prevents them from contributing anything constructive to our culture.


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