What is Straussianism?

Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy by Leo Strauss ...

I am posting a piece critiquing the Straussians in a few days, and thought a short companion essay explaining Straussianism would be helpful.

Leo Strauss was a German Jewish émigré who ended up spending the majority of his career teaching at the University of Chicago. From that perch, he had access to many talented youths whom he led to an interest in political philosophy. Many of these went on to become professors in prominent universities and he himself was widely praised as a talented scholar for some time. Eventually he published an essay ridiculing the sorry state of political science and the social sciences generally. After this, his work and students garnered more scrutiny and blackballing. While they did in fact make their way into many institutions and even the federal government, into places where they really did influence the direction of America, this influence is by and large spent, relegated to an increasingly small number of prominent schools. Though plenty of departments across the nation still provide ready homes for these scholars who, I would say, make up the best sect in American academia.

What did Strauss teach these promising young pupils? Strauss focused on a few principal themes that run through the Western political tradition. In this he is quite different than any philosopher to come before him, insofar as those philosophers typically spoke to a specific people about their God and their law (Maimonides and Alfarabi come to mind) or about universal truth, like Aristotle or any of the Enlightenment thinkers. (Nietzsche too, insofar as “truth is manmade” is obviously a claim to universality. Something of which Nietzsche was perfectly aware so don’t think this insight does anything substantial to his position.) Unlike these earlier philosophers, Strauss wrote books about thinkers throughout the political tradition and tried to show, contrary to an easy relativistic view, that they were not all giving different interpretations of “reality” or something like that, but that they were all talking about the same things and indeed all agreed on the essentials, that where they appeared to differ was a matter of political rhetoric in order to make the truth palatable for their time (this includes Maimonides and Alfarabi, by the way).

This attempt to attune the truth to the times, Strauss (and many others before him) called “esoteric writing.” The esoteric/philosophic writer speaks in the terms that are used and popular in his time, and tries to show how all virtue and all good things… he tries to show where these things have their ultimate source. Philosophic writing is an invitation to a discovery of the truth of things, an invitation which must be given in terms that can possibly be understood by contemporary readers. In other words, you cannot just “tell” someone the truth. It has to be discovered if it is to be “possessed” or understood.

Strauss invited his readers to this discovery by focusing on a few “tensions” or “conflicts”: the conflict between the ancients and moderns, the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem (aka Reason vs. Revelation), and the tension between politics and philosophy.

When it comes to the conflict between the ancients and moderns, Strauss teaches that the moderns are relativistic while the ancients were not. This is his baseline teaching and it was already familiar to English readers through the works of many Christian thinkers. Indeed, this aspect of Straussianism was meant specifically to appeal to Christians and especially Thomists in the fight against the leveling forces of communism (and not merely USSR Communism). The moderns openly or almost-openly taught atheism and materialism and if they appeared not to teach these things, their positions implied atheism and materialism as foundations. The moderns were teachers of evil, or were driven to foolish teachings out of “antitheological ire.” They were actually angry with God and his Church and wanted to bring these edifices down. Ultimately modern philosophers are responsible for “moral relativism,” because they taught Skepticism (atheism + materialism) in order to win the fight against religious persecution. The ancients on the other hand were interested in the promotion of nobility and they were not materialists. In this conflict, Strauss sides decisively and openly with the ancients.

When it comes to the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, or Reason vs. Revelation, let me quote the most famous passage:

If we take a bird’s eye view of the secular struggle between philosophy and theology, we can hardly avoid the impression that neither of the two antagonists has ever succeeded in really refuting the other. All arguments in favor of revelation seem to be valid only if belief in revelation is presupposed; and all arguments against revelation seem to be valid only if unbelief is presupposed. This state of things would appear to be natural. Revelation is always so uncertain to unassisted reason, and man is so built that he can find his satisfaction, his bliss, in free investigation, in articulating the riddle of being. But, on the other hand, he yearns so much for a solution of that riddle and human knowledge is always so limited that the need for divine illumination cannot be denied and the possibility of revelation cannot be refuted. Now it is this state of things that seems to decide irrevocably against philosophy and in favor of revelation. Philosophy has to grant that revelation is possible. But to grant that revelation is possible means to grant that philosophy is perhaps not the one thing needful, that philosophy is perhaps something infinitely unimportant. To grant that revelation is possible means to grant that the philosophic life is not necessarily, not evidently, the right life. Philosophy, the life devoted to the quest for evident knowledge available to man as man, would itself rest on an unevident, arbitrary, or blind decision. This would merely confirm the thesis of faith, that there is no possibility of consistency, of a consistent and thoroughly sincere life, without belief in revelation. The mere fact that philosophy and revelation cannot refute each other would constitute the refutation of philosophy by revelation. (Natural Right and History 74-75)

In spite of that quotation, Strauss clearly sided with philosophy. So that should be taken into account. Likewise, he clearly sided with Athens. But his choice in this conflict led to a different course of action than his choice in the conflict between the ancients and moderns. He sided with the ancients and openly attacked the moderns. On this question, he sides with Athens and Philosophy but openly promotes the dignity of Jerusalem and Revelation.

Third, Strauss discussed the conflict between politics and philosophy. Athens killed Socrates and many Straussians believe that this was in a way just, because they believe that Socrates really did “corrupt” the young, that philosophy corrupts the young by turning them away from the noble pursuits of politics towards the private life of philosophy. This question is in large part what my other essay is about.

Now that I have stated Strauss’ positions as basically as I could, let me tell you what developed out of those teachings, what “the school” teaches. And I will try to do so generously.

When it comes to the atheism of the school, I am not joking when I say it is the norm. The clearest book on this was written by professor Leibowitz: An Ironic Defense of Socrates. In that book, he argues that the question of religion has been bungled by most. The question is emphatically not about whether or not god “exists,” but whether or not we—from our perspective—can actually obey commands if we think they are bad for us. He comes down on a solid “no.” You cannot obey a command if you think it is bad for you. Full stop. If you cannot obey a command you think is bad for you, then you cannot blame those people who do not obey commands. They couldn’t help it. And if you can only obey commands that you think are good for you, well, then, what do you think that means about your relationship to god? Are you obedient to him or obedient to your reason? You are only ever obedient to God when what he commands aligns with what you think is good for yourself. God(s) might exist, how can a philosopher or anyone say he definitely doesn’t? but that isn’t the point at all.  This little argument sparked off a giant debate in the Straussian world. By the way, Nietzsche belittles this argument as a Socratism in BGE—he points out that this argument makes little leftists out of halfwits. But the Straussians are hated as crypto-fascists!?! It is almost only ever other Straussians who accuse their fellows of being too leftwing. Pangle is somewhat famous for this. I add this bit about Straussians criticizing their fellows as lefties to recommend the school to you.

On the other questions, the Straussians tend to be hardly distinguishable from rather fluffy conservatives and have most definitively split when it comes to whether or not patriotism is a virtue. I recommend the essay by Anton in UNZ, which covers well the disagreement between the “East Coast” and the “West Coast” Straussians. I only add one thing:

The East Coast Straussians really do not think the “modern philosophers” were philosophers. They read the ancient philosophers for understanding and write about the modern philosophers to show that they themselves understand philosophy better than Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau among others. And look I kind of get it… when you are reading the “great books” you tend to agree or disagree with authors, but I promise you this is a low way of reading. Almost all the major authors in the canon can show you the way if only you know how to read them. Relativism is a mirage produced by nonessentials being different in different times… and people placing too much importance on those nonessentials, thereby seeing disagreement on them as signs of an inability to agree about the most profound things. Let’s take an extremely obvious example and I will be done with this essay: say in one time it was absolutely important for your people to reject clothes made of two materials because a ruinous political faction, a political faction that would betray your people over to their enemies, promoted the fashion of mixed materials, a fashion common among the enemy. So a philosopher might openly oppose wearing mixed-material clothing in his writings. Now apply that to most questions that “grip the populace” and you have a provisional but true answer as to why philosophers appear to have different “philosophies” or “descriptions of reality.”

2 thoughts on “What is Straussianism?

  1. Hey guys, good job. Been listening from afar. Wanted to ask your opinion on Michael Millerman’s reading of Strauss. He has a few videos on his YouTube. I thought this one would be appropriate since your last mention of German Nihilism. Your take was kind of short on that episode – that was the content I was actually listening for! Do you depart from what Millerman emphasizes from essay?
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=heb7NPYOAms. Cheers.

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    1. Thanks for sending the link. I haven’t watched Millerman’s videos yet (& I don’t think Cerb has either), but they look interesting. I will listen and let you know what I think.

      Like

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