January 18, 2006

1. Leo Strauss

A. Milton Himmelfarb on Strauss

As I was glancing at the Weekly Standard website, I noticed an article by Bill Kristol on his uncle, Milton Himmelfarb, who died recently. Kristol’s article said that Himmelfarb wrote numerous essays for Commentary magazine. Kristol had special praise for two of Himmelfarb’s essays: an essay on Leo Strauss, and an essay on Hitler.

When I began reading the Strauss essay, I was immediately impressed by Himmelfarb’s fine prose and broad culture. Himmelfarb says that Strauss distinguished himself in two different fields: the study of Jewish culture, and the study of political philosophy:

For political scientists he was the man who challenged what ‘everyone’ knew was the first requirement of science — that it should be, in Max Weber’s language, wertfrei, value-free.... To the scientific study of politics Strauss opposed the philosophical study of politics.... It was against social or political science understood as value-free that he waged battle. He held that what the social or political scientist studies is so entangled with good and bad, better and worse, that value-freeness is impossible. Since the ancients taught this, and since the moderns have obscured or denied it, the beginning of wisdom — not the end, the beginning — is to take the ancients seriously again.1

Himmelfarb notes that Strauss attracted many devoted followers: “There are many excellent teachers. They have students. Strauss had disciples.” Strauss’s disciples regard him as a philosopher, though Strauss regarded himself as a scholar:

Strauss did not persuade anything like a majority of his profession, but his followers include a number of impressive people. For them, it was he who restored political philosophy from death to life. Beyond that, for them he was a great political philosopher in his own right. Among themselves his followers rank him if not quite so high as Plato and Aristotle, then at least as high as Locke or Burke.

If Strauss was a philosopher, what was his philosophy? What is the doctrine to which his disciples adhere? Himmelfarb says that Strauss didn’t have a definite philosophy:

Aristotelians are adherents of Aristotelianism, Thomists of Thomism, Marxists of Marxism, Freudians of Freudianism. Straussians call themselves Straussians, but they deny that there is a Straussism. One can see what they mean. Although close to a doctrine, Strauss’s teaching is less palpable than those isms, less sturdy, less unequivocal as to theory and more renunciatory as to practice. Perhaps the Straussians are constituted not so much by a unifying doctrine as by the direct personal influence of an extraordinary man?

Perhaps Strauss represents not a particular philosophy but rather general principles, a method of studying, a love of learning, and a dedication to the life of the mind.

He may have been the most learned man of our time in the great writings that it is worth being learned in, of poets and historians as well as philosophers; and to his learning were joined acuteness, penetration, intuition, zest, and a certain serious playfulness.

Just as there are literary critics, so too there are philosophy critics. Perhaps Strauss was a philosophy critic. I’ve developed considerable respect for literary critics; I’m apt to agree with Oscar Wilde, who argued in “The Critic As Artist” that the critic’s role is an important one — perhaps as important as the artist’s role.2 My opinion of art critics is even higher than my opinion of literary critics; I regard Ruskin’s art criticism as philosophy of a high order, and I also have a high opinion of Panofsky. So if I call Strauss a “philosophy critic,” that shouldn’t be seen as a derogatory description. Just as Wilde wrote “The Critic As Artist,” perhaps someone could write “The Critic As Philosopher.”

B. Strauss and Natural Right

Strauss was a champion of moral standards, moral absolutes, and natural rights. Consequently, he was an ally of philosophers like Socrates and Kant, and a critic of philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger. Himmelfarb tells a story about an old friend of Strauss’s, Hans Jonas, who went to Germany after World War II, and visited a former professor who had stood firm against the Nazis:

When I did visit him and congratulated him on the courage of his principled stand, he said a memorable thing: “Jonas,” he said, “I tell you this: Without Kant’s teaching I couldn’t have done it.” Here was a limited man, but sustained in an honorable course of action by the moral force of an outmoded philosophy; and there was the giant of contemporary thought [i.e., Heidegger] — not hindered, some even say helped, by his philosophy in joining the cause of evil. The point is that this was more than a private failing, just as the other’s better bearing was, by his own avowal, more than a private virtue. The tragedy was that the truly 20th-century thinker of the two, he whose word had stirred the youth of a whole generation after the First World War, had not offered in his philosophy a reason for setting conduct in the noble tradition stemming from Socrates and Plato and ending, perhaps, in Kant.

One can transfer this personal story onto a larger stage, and say that the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviets was the result of rejecting moral absolutes and natural rights.

Strauss pointed out that the American government is based on the idea of natural rights, but this basis is being undermined because American intellectuals no longer believe in natural rights:

In Natural Right and History.... Strauss suggests... that few teachers of political science and American government agree with the central proposition of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” For the Declaration, all hinges on the Creator. How many of us believe in a Creator? A passionate desire for equality, and to some degree for liberty also, remains with us, but it is without a reasoned basis. Suppose that tomorrow the dominant passion is for despotism. Having debarred ourselves from invoking a Creator, what shall we then invoke for liberty and equality and against despotism? Once we deny the Declaration’s Creator and “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we have nothing left. Strauss shows that wickedness must ensue from denying natural right. Heidegger’s denial led to wickedness.

Although the Straussian school sees the importance of a belief in God, they don’t seem to make any effort to prove the existence of God.3 Likewise, they see the importance of natural right, but why aren’t they trying to demonstrate that natural rights really exist? “Strauss does not say he has proved that natural right, because desirable, is also real.” Do the Straussians think it’s impossible to prove the existence of God and of natural rights? Do they intend to postulate the existence of natural right, instead of trying to prove it, just as Kierkegaard postulated the existence of God, instead of trying to prove it?4

Himmelfarb credits Strauss with understanding the origins of the idea of natural rights, and also with understanding the origins of opposition to that idea:

Strauss shows that it was conservatives who abandoned natural law, in reaction against 18th-century revolutionary appeals to it — the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. To natural law, conservatives opposed history: the rights of Englishmen; the laws, customs, and traditions of the Germans.

This reminds one of Edmund Burke, a conservative who opposed the French Revolution, and stressed the importance of tradition and custom. And it reminds one of Hegel, who also opposed the French Revolution, and who viewed politics in terms of history rather than in terms of natural rights, timeless rights. According to Hegel, justice and right aren’t universal, but rather unique to a particular people and a particular period: “Right... acquires a positive element in its content through the particular national character of a people [and] its stage of historical development.”5

Out of the conservative opposition to natural law arose the Historical School. And out of that opposition arose, by way of the Historical School’s development or degeneration into historicism, Heidegger [who] ratified nihilism.

In the old struggle of Ancients vs. Moderns, Strauss is on the side of the Ancients. He takes a dim view of modern political philosophy, beginning with Machiavelli:

A line leads from the abandonment of classical thought to the contemporary political scientists’ reserve about the Declaration of Independence. A line leads from Machiavelli to historicism and its dissolution into nihilism or fanaticism, two sides of the same coin; to the greatest philosopher of our time [i.e., Heidegger] supporting Nazism.

When Himmelfarb calls nihilism and fanaticism “two sides of the same coin,” I’m reminded of contemporary writers who refer to Islamic fanatics as “nihilists.” I once disagreed with those writers, and said that Islamic fanatics weren’t nihilists, they believed in something, they believed in old-fashioned Islam. But perhaps I was wrong, perhaps it’s appropriate to call Islamic terrorists “nihilists.” Jung thought that fanaticism is related to skepticism: “Fanaticism is nothing but over-compensated doubt.”6

According to Himmelfarb, Strauss’s mission was to undermine the moderns, and restore the ancients:

Machiavelli was a founder — of modern political thought. I am persuaded that Strauss regarded himself, and was confident that future generations would regard him, as a refounder: the thinker who expelled (who undermined the taken-for-granted superiority of) the alien, intrusive teaching that had conquered political thought, and who restored, partly, the authentic, classical teaching or teachings.

My own view is that Strauss didn’t appreciate the moderns (especially Nietzsche), and he didn’t grasp the importance of modern phenomena such as Zen and Jung. His longing for moral clarity led him to overrate Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

C. Strauss and Religion

Strauss saw a sharp distinction between philosophy and religion. My own view, on the other hand, is that philosophy and religion are closely related, even identical. In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed the “perennial philosophy,” and said that it was “both a philosophy and a religion.” The same is true of the Hermetic worldview, and the same is true of Zen. But Strauss felt that religion is completely separate from philosophy because religion is based on revelation:

Like Maimonides, Strauss was a Jew and a philosopher. Like Maimonides, he held that ‘Jew’ and ‘philosopher’ exclude each other. A Jew must believe in revelation, a philosopher cannot.7

For Strauss, the relationship between religion and philosophy is tense, but it’s a fruitful tension:

[Strauss] wanted the fruitful tension between Judaism/Jerusalem and philosophy/Athens to endure. (His definitive formulation of this, “Jerusalem and Athens,” was published in these pages, June 1967.) If this Athenian had lived a more Jerusalemite life, he would have set an even stronger Jewish example than he did.

One is reminded of Panofsky’s argument that the Renaissance and Baroque periods were torn between their loyalty to Christianity and their loyalty to Greco-Roman culture.8 Like Strauss, Panofsky thought that this tension was fruitful.

Himmelfarb says that Strauss had considerable respect for Judaism, but he fell short of actually believing:

Strauss was not a believing Jew, but the only religion he could take seriously was Judaism. He himself said that while Judaism — the revelation — cannot refute philosophy, neither can philosophy refute Judaism.

It seems to pain Himmelfarb to admit that “Strauss had stopped going to the synagogue.” Himmelfarb wishes that Strauss had gone to the synagogue, even if only to set an example of piety to his Jewish disciples.

D. Strauss and Politics

Turning to Strauss’s politics, Himmelfarb says that Strauss was a conservative, but not an advocate of laissez-faire policies, not a libertarian.

The guiding instinct of Strauss’s conservatism, linked to temperament, family, history, and theory, was this: If it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change. Why should he have thought that change is good? .... Bad as the Czars’ Russia was for Jews, for philosophers and poets, and for the people, the Leninists’ Russia has been much worse.... Preferring stability to change is Aristotelian. [Aristotle said] the crafts and sciences are one thing, the law another. [That is, crafts and sciences advance, but law doesn’t.] Custom and long usage are the foundation of the law. To change laws is to risk weakening veneration of the law.... Strauss affirms classical conservatism, the doubt about progress.

I believe Machiavelli shared Aristotle’s respect for stability, and Aristotle’s wariness of change, so perhaps Machiavelli should be regarded as a conservative.

2. Heidegger

Himmelfarb’s essay on Strauss prompted me to read Wikipedia’s article on Heidegger. (The article isn’t Wikipedia at its best; it’s rambling, badly-written, and obscure.) Here’s what I learned:

  1. “Heidegger’s great opening was to take Plato seriously again, and at the same time undermine the entire Platonic world by challenging the core of Platonism — treating being not as timeless and transcendent, but as immanent in time and history.” One is reminded of Heidegger’s student, Leo Strauss, who also ‘took Plato seriously again.’ One is also reminded of Hegel, who stressed the importance of “time and history.” Strauss, on the other hand, was critical of historicism, and believed that there were timeless truths.
  2. “Although Heidegger was a supremely creative and original thinker, he also borrowed heavily from Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard.”
  3. “Heidegger can be compared to Aristotle, who took Plato’s dialogues and systematically presented them as treatises and concepts. Similarly, Heidegger extracted Nietzsche’s unpublished fragments and interpreted them as the culminating expression of Western metaphysics.”
  4. “[Heidegger’s] ideas have seeped into an incredibly large number of research areas.” Heidegger had considerable impact on existentialism and deconstruction; he also influenced people in the arts, such as the lyric poet, Paul Celan.
  5. Sartre was heavily influenced by Heidegger, but “Heidegger insists that Sartre misunderstood his works” (as Husserl insists that Heidegger misunderstood his works).
  6. “Heidegger departs from the tradition of Aristotle and of Kant, both of whom, despite the vast difference between their respective philosophical positions, approach the question of the meaning of being from the perspective of the logic of propositional statements. Implicit in this traditional approach is the thesis that theoretical knowledge represents the most fundamental relation between the human individual and the beings in his surrounding world.”
  7. “Theoretical knowledge represents only one kind of intentional behavior, and Heidegger asserts that it is founded on more fundamental modes of behavior, modes of practical engagement with the surrounding world, rather than being their ultimate foundation.” This view reminds one of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, both of whom stressed the importance of living rather than knowing.
  8. “An entity is what it is (i.e., it has being) insofar as it “shows up” within a context of practical engagement (Heidegger calls such a context a ‘world’), not because it has certain inherent properties ascertainable by disinterested contemplation. A hammer is a hammer not because it has certain hammer-like properties, but because it is used for hammering.” This reminds one of Sartre’s view that man has no nature, no “inherent properties”; rather, man defines himself by his choices/actions.
  9. “This also necessitated a rejection of the Cartesian, disembodied ‘I’: that is, an ‘I’ as a purely thinking object. Instead, Heidegger insisted that any analysis of human behavior should begin with the fact that we are in the world (not viewing it in an ‘abstract’ fashion): therefore the fundamental fact about human existence is our ‘being-in-the-world’.”
  10. “The fact that beings can show up, either as meaningful in a context or as meaningless in the experience of Angst, depends on a prior phenomenon: that beings can show up at all. Heidegger calls the showing up of beings ‘truth’, which he defines as unconcealment rather than correctness.... The unconcealment of being is an essentially temporal and historical phenomenon (hence the ‘time’ in Being and Time).”
  11. “As part of his ontological project, Heidegger undertakes a reinterpretation of previous Western philosophy. He wants to explain why and how theoretical knowledge came to seem like the most fundamental relation to being. This explanation takes the form of a destructuring (Destruktion) of the philosophical tradition, an interpretive strategy that reveals the fundamental experience of being at the base of previous philosophies. In Being and Time he briefly destructures the philosophy of Descartes; in later works he uses this approach to interpret the philosophies of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Plato, among others. This technique exerted a profound influence on Derrida’s deconstructive approach.”
  12. “In his later works, Heidegger turns from ‘doing’ to ‘dwelling.’ He focuses less on the way in which the structures of being are revealed in everyday behavior and in the experience of Angst, and more on the way in which behavior itself depends on a prior ‘openness to being.’ The essence of being human is the maintenance of this openness.”
  13. “Heidegger opposes this openness to the ‘will to power’ of the modern human subject, who subordinates beings to his own ends rather than letting them ‘be what they are.’ Heidegger interprets the history of western philosophy as a brief period of authentic openness to being in the time of the pre-Socratics, especially Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander, followed by a long period increasingly dominated by nihilistic subjectivity, initiated by Plato and culminating in Nietzsche.” (Heidegger’s “openness” or objectivity remind one of Zen.)
  14. “Heidegger sees poetry as a preeminent way in which beings are revealed ‘in their being’.... Heidegger focuses especially on the poetry of Hölderlin.”
  15. “Against the revealing power of poetry, Heidegger sets the force of technology. The essence of technology is the conversion of the whole universe of beings into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The standing reserve represents the most extreme nihilism, since the being of beings is totally subordinated to the will of the human subject. Heidegger does not unequivocally condemn technology; he believes that its increasing dominance might make it possible for humanity to return to its authentic task of the stewardship of being. Nevertheless, many of Heidegger’s later works are characterized by an unmistakable agrarian nostalgia.”
  16. “Heidegger’s importance to the world of continental philosophy (which he largely created, there being no distinction between analytical and continental philosophy prior to him) is probably unsurpassed. His reception amongst philosophers of the analytic school, however, is quite another story.... Heidegger’s contemporaries from the analytic tradition... generally regarded both the content, insofar as they believed there to be any at all, and the style by which he delivered it, as evidence of the worst possible way of doing philosophy.”9
  17. “The analytic tradition values clarity of expression, whereas Heidegger thought that ‘making itself intelligible was suicide for philosophy’ ....Heidegger is still spoken of with derision in most quarters of analytical philosophy, and his influence is considered to have been disastrous for philosophy, in that a clear line can be traced from it to most varieties of postmodern philosophical thinking.” It has long been argued that the first rule of style is “be clear.” I regard philosophy as a type of literature, and I think that obscurity is suicide for literature. So my approach to philosophy is very different from Heidegger’s, very different from that of “continental philosophy.”
  18. “When Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (lectures originally given in 1935) was published in 1953, he declined to remove a reference to the ‘inner truth and greatness of this movement,’ i.e. National Socialism.” Heidegger’s reputation has been stained by his links to the Nazis.
  19. I’ve never read Heidegger, and the Wikipedia article on him didn’t give me a strong desire to read him; he’s on my “Books To Read” list, but he isn’t high on the list. According to academics, the main schools of modern philosophy are the Continental school (in which Heidegger figures prominently) and the Analytic school (which emphasizes logic, etc.). My own writing isn’t influenced by either of these schools; in fact, I pay no attention to them. I’m not alone: neither the Analytic school nor the Continental school is popular outside academia.
  20. Those who want to learn more about Heidegger should consider reading Rüdiger Safranski’s Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, which Wikipedia says is the best study of Heidegger’s life and work.10 Consider also this 45-minute interview, Bryan Magee interviewing William Barrett (the interview is divided into three Youtube videos).

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. “On Leo Strauss,” Commentary, August, 1974 back
2. Wilde said that the goal of his movement was contemplation, criticism, not creation: “The mission of the aesthetic movement is to lure people to contemplate, not to lead them to create.” Wilde said that criticism performs the important function of drawing the public’s attention to the best work: “It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration makes culture possible. It takes the cumbersome mass of creative work, and distils it into a finer essence.” back
3. Strauss told a story about a philosophy professor, Hermann Cohen: “how Cohen once explained his God-idea to an Orthodox Jew; how the Jew then asked, And what about bore' 'olam, the Creator of the world? and how Cohen’s only answer was to weep.” back
4. Kierkegaard: “The postulate [of God is] a necessary act of self-preservation.” (Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, IV, 1) back
5. The Philosophy of Right, 2 back
6. Psychological Types (Collected Works, v. 6), “General Description of the Types” back
7. When I read this, I wondered, “Wasn’t Aquinas a philosopher who believed in revelation?” Aren’t there Christian philosophers — Kierkegaard, for example, Pascal, etc.? back
8. I discussed Panofsky’s argument here and here. back
9. Jung also took a dim view of Heidegger: “Heidegger’s modus philosophandi is neurotic through and through and is ultimately rooted in his psychic crankiness.... I hate to see so many young minds infected by Heidegger.”(letter of 2/28/43; see Letters, I: 1906-1950, edited by G. Adler and A. Jaffe) back
10. The original German title of this book is Ein Meister aus Deutschland. back