One can safely claim that Leo Strauss was an enigmatic man, since he prided himself on being enigmatic. He raised the art of double-talk to the dignity of a requisite for any serious philosophizing: For him, it took stupidity or insignificance for a (self-proclaimed) philosopher to be able to afford to write or speak in a clear, straightforward way; a true philosophical truth, he believed, is a hidden truth. Whatever the reason for this rather quixotic postulation, it has one merit: It warns us never to take Strauss’s words at face value. Understanding him amounts to understanding not what he says, but what he doesn’t say—not his words, but what he hides behind his words. Since obfuscation is of the essence, debunking is as well. The exercise would seem futile (after all, if he doesn’t want to be understood, why not leave him alone?) but for the fact that, in the highest places of American society, Strauss’s name seems to be an open sesame for power and influence. Strauss wrote with a purpose, but he obviously meant to address only a chosen audience able to read between the lines.
It could be argued that something at least is quite clear as well as provocative: Strauss is no friend to what he calls modernity; he seems to side clearly with the conservatives, fleeing modernity so far that only with classical Greek philosophy does he find his real bearings. I don’t deny his bearing a grudge; the question is, What, exactly, does he bear a grudge against?
Strauss bases his diagnosis on the principle that ideas move the world, at least the human world. I couldn’t agree more with the implicit denial of the Marxist creed. Men are indeed always governed by their own conceptions, and philosophers are but men whose special competence is to translate these conceptions into words. Strauss is perfectly justified in thinking that philosophical systems lie, however unconsciously, at the base of all societies. And even more justified because, for him, not all of these ideas are equally valid, for they come under only two headings: the ones underlying barbaric societies and the ones that give birth to civilized societies—the latter being the only ones which must be defended. Such were the ideas prominent in the classical Western world, and such are the ideas Strauss intends to revive, because, according to him, they are threatened with death.
At least that is the way the Straussian symphony begins, promising bliss to classical conservative ears. But the classical conservative should hear out the words before succumbing to the melody. If he does, he might begin to think that Strauss has invented a new kind of conservatism.
To start with, it’s difficult not to mention how exasperatingly convoluted his way of dealing with the doctrines is. The reader soon understands that Strauss doesn’t care too much about what the philosophers actually say or try to say (he never quotes them precisely anyway); he is only concerned with using them to state something without appearing to do it on his own.
Whatever his reasons, the method borders from time to time on plain unfairness. One could, for instance, argue (I did it some 30 years ago) that Burke’s conception of history amounts to equating the present with the good, which is a rather revolutionary idea; but to have Burke say that “the state must pursue the greatest variety of ends and must be concerned with individuality” makes him a vague forerunner of Friedrich Hayek, which is, I believe, downright preposterous.
On top of that, one very often remains in doubt about what exact ideas Strauss uses the philosophers to defend or criticize. For instance, he is very critical of Machiavelli, but the reader ends up being taught that Machiavelli’s main discovery is that “what is most powerful in most men most of the time is not reason, but passion”—which is fine, but hardly closes the case. If he means Machiavelli is a realist, so what? In the same vein, to learn that Locke is obsessed with allowing the accumulation of capital to take place, and therefore ends up advocating “a life that is a joyless quest for joy,” is hardly devastating. Or again, to be made aware of Hobbes’ limited validity, because he is confronted with the fact that, in many cases, the fear of death proves to be a weaker force for uniting men than the fear of Hell or the fear of God, only makes Hobbes impractical, but not necessarily a barbarian.
That much had to be said before mentioning the obvious: Strauss has a doctrine of his own. But the reader has to be very wary of being submerged by the morass of his particular comments and digressions and must learn to pick up one word here and another word there. Or one could say he has to behave like people who eat artichokes: They have to peel off layer after layer of leaves to get to the heart of the vegetable. A classical conservative must agree with nine tenths of what Strauss says against Machiavelli, Locke, or any of the other supporters of modernity. But then, I’m sure a nagging doubt will remain with him about what Strauss is up to—and he will start peeling.
For Strauss, modernity may be summed up in one word: relativism. Modernity coincides with the withering away of objective standards of human behavior, which he occasionally also calls eternal or universal, and, eventually, with the radical criticism that there are such things at all. (Sometimes, he seems to refer to ideas in Plato’s sense—which is natural, since Strauss claims to be Plato’s disciple—and sometimes, he disowns them as ridiculous notions.) His indictment of the modern world rests on the notion that modern man does not rely, to conduct his life or his thoughts, on anything but himself—i.e., his subjective opinions, his passions, his interests. Modernity is the brainchild of Machiavelli, the first philosopher to consider moral rules vain and without any natural foundations, the founding father of societies devoid of any unifying moral principle, built up using men’s passions, from fear to greed. (As everybody knows, there is no effective prophet for Machiavelli except the armed one.)
No classical conservative can support relativism, but what exactly are Strauss’s reasons for opposing it? All in all, I think they all point to the same idea, which Strauss expresses in his usual semi-hidden way: Moral or philosophical relativism is a threat to man’s nature. But that only means the reader is left with the question: What, for Strauss, is man’s nature?
It seems that threat has, for Strauss, developed to its full lethality in two distinct stages, or behind two different masks.
First, says Strauss, modernity took the guise of what he calls political hedonism. (Here and following, all words in italics are Strauss’s.) Hedonism was born with Epicurus: What is good for a man cannot be what requires any sacrifice on his part; it is what is pleasant for him. But while this principle led Epicurus to retreat from society, with modern philosophy, it becomes the founding principle of society itself. Each of them, though on his own terms, claims the same thing: Every man is supposed to have a natural right to what is most pleasant for him—first of all, his life; then, all the commodities of living. Therefore a man enters society for only two reasons: to have his life more securely protected and to enjoy more pleasures. Consequently, governments are supposed to “furnish the citizens abundantly with all good things that are conducive to delectation.” There is no moral law; the only legitimate rules are those conducive to the safe enjoyment of one’s life. It is nigh impossible not to recognize in these features, however sketchily outlined, the very features of our modern consumer societies. But now, the question is: What’s wrong with enjoying life and being dedicated to a society that hails the pursuit of happiness?
The classical conservative library provides endless rows of written evidence against these seductive dreams. The gist of their common teachings is that no man can possibly be a world unto himself, unless he is God (which means he has taken leave of his senses and reality, as all madmen do) or he is a beast (which means he has taken leave of his human nature). And that is why men, by nature, are not only sociable but religious animals (a religion is what relates people), whether they acknowledge it or not. But men who confuse what’s good for them according to their nature with what is pleasant to their senses are precisely beings unable to relate to anything outside themselves: Each individual becomes the measure of everything, his personal pleasure being the only legitimate law he has to obey. This attitude has been known ever since the Fall: It consists, theologically speaking, in man’s loving himself to the point of preferring himself to God, or revolting against Him, and, philosophically speaking, considering himself as an achieved, perfect being who has nothing to do but be what he is. It is the Original Sin, that of pride, the reverse of humility or knowledge of man’s true nature, of the distance between his immediate self and the perfection of his nature, and of his duty to achieve it within himself.
Now, is this classical evidence against hedonism Strauss’s own? Hardly so. At first, Strauss presents a vague series of half-hearted criticisms, such as the relative ineffectiveness of the fear of death to ensure social peace, or the boredom of Lockean life. It takes time to realize that his actual criticism consists in assimilating hedonism with a lowering of the standards for a man’s life; hedonism is said to debase man, to degrade him, to lead him to lead a life that is not honorable or noble. A man endlessly indulging his pleasures or whims is not so much a renegade as he is, purely and simply, a pig. In other words, he does not commit sin, he is not disobedient, he is not inflated with pride; he behaves like a drunkard who just stumbles into the gutter.
Such a criticism would be absolutely clear if one were provided with at least one example of those standards. This, Strauss doesn’t do, at least not in the same book: One is left wondering what that man is whose dignity is infringed by his equating the good with the pleasant. Then, Strauss suddenly confronts us with this implicit evidence: This argument is, quite simply, the opposite of the classical one. Hedonism does not result from a surge of pride on man’s part that allows him to take his own pleasure as the measure of all other things, but from man’s shying away from his own dignity, stooping to indulge in a way of life unworthy of his stature. A hedonist is not a man who doesn’t respect God; he is a man who doesn’t respect man. Instead of a classical tenet of a classical conservative attitude, one is left with so many questions (for instance, how can man measure himself against himself?) that it’s simpler to stick to this one: What does Strauss mean to say without saying it?
At first, Strauss’s second indictment of modernity doesn’t help much to answer this question. For him, hedonism is only the first stage of relativism, of modernity. As hedonism develops, says Strauss, it forces relativism to assume a new guise, which he calls historicism. The term seems to have three meanings for him.
The first is what one could call harmless: The philosopher must not only look for true principles but consider his particular historical situation and use sagacity to put them into practice.
The second is exemplified by modern philosophers of history. It states that the truth slowly unveils itself so that only its latter-day lovers are lucky enough to become really wise. There is, for Strauss, a dark side to this historicism (for which he seems to hold Burke, the first historical philosopher, responsible), and this is the potential sanctification of the present moment, which results from the sanctification of the past ones. Prescription is, indeed, a well-known theme in Burke. But if this is the case, isn’t historicism just another facet of relativism? And then, why exactly is this relativism any worse than that displayed by its hedonistic twin? One may say that historicist relativism is just individual hedonistic relativism on a public scale. It may then be argued that, while the former may, in practice, be more painful to the dissenter than the latter, they are both rather indistinguishable on a purely conceptual level.
So obviously, for Strauss, there is something sinister lurking in this mutability of standards that is still to blossom into its full lethalness. I think Strauss’s reasoning is as follows.
While original historicism, such as Burke’s or Hegel’s, does maintain that what is considered truth varies from one era to another, it never claims that the relativity of their truths is apparent to men who believe in them. At its worst, historicism, claims Strauss, appears when this relativity becomes fully conscious, at least to some: This is what he calls the absolute moment—not the moment when the truth of the whole history appears, but when, suddenly, nothing appears to be true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. History suddenly appears as an ever-changing flow of ephemeral notions, and, therefore, the consciousness of history culminates in a nihilistic consciousness. This is Strauss’s ultimate indictment of modernity, and it surely seems to be quite consonant with classical conservatism.
Nihilism, however, may be considered bad on two entirely different grounds. One is religious. Logically enough, Nietzsche, the nihilist, is an atheist: God must be dead for men to create their own values; nihilism is the barren moral field on which men must plant, since nothing grows naturally on it. Whoever wants to prosecute nihilism must first prosecute atheism; whoever disapproves of nihilism must be a religious man.
For Strauss, there is no more fundamental philosophical choice than the one between Reason and Revelation, between a life of manly intellectual autonomy and a life of loving obedience to God. But Strauss makes his choice plain: The true philosopher knows of no other authority than that of unassisted human reason. So he is bent on proving that nihilism is wrong on purely human grounds. It is not true, says he, that man does not bear in the depth of his nature some objective norm of behavior, some universal law whose origin is neither the mere will of some men nor the whims of many, which no man can break without feeling some inner guilt, not out of any fear of a formidable God, nor out of love for a paternal God, but simply because it is part of man inasmuch as he is a man.
Hence, the precise definition of what Strauss is after to offset historical relativism and pronounce it absolutely evil: a norm that is indisputable but owes nothing of its authority to the nonhuman status of its author; in other words, a norm that is purely human—accessible to unassisted human reason—but endowed with the dignity of a divine law.
Strauss is not about to give a cut-and-dried definition of this law, but a careful confrontation of several disseminated texts uncovers a very simple idea. Hedonistic relativism was offensive to human dignity but, to a certain extent, livable: The hedonist cares nothing for his fellow men but does not demand that they enjoy what he enjoys; he is no angel, but no demon either; he mostly wants to be left alone. Standard historical relativism observes the revolutions of the moral sphere and is the probable cause of a moral skepticism, which is bad but still livable, or of a moral positivism, which is dangerous (one subscribes to what is) but conducive to moral cowardice rather than aggressive dogmatism. Nihilistic relativism is something else: Men have become fully conscious that all principles are equally valid, because they are all equally invalid (or the reverse); more precisely, they have become conscious that there is no rational way to decide among moral principles, but only personal choice and dedication to this choice. In other words, nihilism obtains when sheer will has once and for all superseded understanding: That which is claimed to be a valid standard of life is but that which is willed to be such. Eventually, since validity is synonymous with power (to enforce this validity), and since there is no reason for a man to set another man’s values over his own, nihilism culminates in terrorism, whether it be that of Rousseau’s General Will, Nietz-sche’s Will to Power, or the will of a political gang striving for domination.
In a nutshell, nihilism is evil because it is fanatical obscurantism, radical dogmatism, intolerance (such as that displayed by most religious men). Nihilism is bad because it consists in man not respecting man.
At this point, the classical conservative is taken aback: The criticism of relativism, which started as a defense of an objective norm, ends up as a defense of the absence of an objective norm that could be imposed on all men. Strauss, though, seems utterly unaware of any contradiction in his thinking and steadfastly opposes anything that smacks of relativism: Max Weber is an inadvertent precursor to Hitler (there is no rational way to prove the superiority of any one value to any other), and Rousseau’s sovereign General Will would be perfectly entitled to legitimate cannibalism. In other words, Strauss preaches intolerant tolerance, or tolerant intolerance. So what’s the catch?
The catch, I think, consists in some such idea: Just because some ignoble men avail themselves of a self-proclaimed mission to spread a spurious truth does not mean that one must throw the baby out with the bath water. One must rest assured that there actually are noble men, quintessential men who embody the essential nature of man, and who therefore are the natural bearers of standards for human life, men who deserve to assume the role of natural leaders of mankind. In other words, there must be truth, but not the so-called truths based on a revelation that some unscrupulous men can too easily claim to have been privileged with: Instead, truths are universal because they partake of a human nature knowable to a human reason, and the very purpose of this reason, and its noblest one, is to understand what a man is.
Hence, the glory of Socrates, who, says Strauss, was the first true philosopher, because he decided to set aside the study of nature to concentrate on the study of man, and who was, at the same time, the first to understand that philosophy is primarily political philosophy. Hence, Strauss’s pretence to find in classical Greek philosophers, the heirs of Socrates, the solution to his personal riddle.
Strauss’s main interest lies with Plato and Aristotle, marginally with Thucydides, and it is noticeable that he pays only lip service to the Stoics. Following his habit, he proceeds to make them say what he wants them to say, mixing their thinking in his personal blender and extracting from the result four main teachings.
The first one, and a crucial one, is that there is a nature of human things, which means, on the one hand, that they are not necessarily what custom wants them to be (philosophy is a revolt against tradition), and, on the other, that what man is or is supposed to be, whether individually or collectively, cannot be determined by mutual agreement, by convention. (Philosophy is the discovery of what is, whether men like it or not, versus the framing of an artificial reality for the purpose of achieving convenience or pleasure.) But classical philosophy teaches not only what nature is not, but also what nature is. For Strauss, the Greek philosophers agreed on one issue: The wise man is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, defined as the understanding of the fundamental laws that make human life livable. However, while Strauss repeatedly praises wisdom as devotion to contemplation, he is obviously reluctant to grant Plato’s intelligible world any serious status. (At some point, he even flatly speaks of “the decayed Platonism which is underlying the notion of timeless values.”) He would rather have wisdom as the Aristotelean virtue of prudence—that is to say, as the know-how necessary to apply ideas to a changeable and often reluctant reality. But he is not too keen on defining precisely which ideas should be applied. (Never does Strauss mention the belief in a cosmos.) It becomes increasingly evident that this know-how is so utterly the exclusive privilege of certain men, the philosophers, that it becomes less the understanding of an objective reality than the possession of an inner truth of which only they are the natural bearers; less of an essentially communicable truth of which all men partake—be it very unequally, and even minimally—than an essentially esoteric knowledge that should not be revealed to all and, in any case, can neither be possessed nor, still less, understood by all. Philosophy is the endless quest for the truth that some men pursue throughout their lives, which means that, eventually, it coincides with what the philosophers do or say.
The first teaching implicitly leads to the second. What is remarkable about the Greeks, says Strauss, is their unfaltering certitude of the inequality of men in regard to human perfection. According to him, classical philosophers contended that some men are by nature superior to others and, therefore, “according to natural right, the rulers of others.” Strauss’s Aristotle agrees with Strauss’s Plato: There are some men who are, by nature, fit to be wise, and multitudes who are, by nature, doomed to be unwise; there is no deeper, nor more eternal difference between men than that between fools, on one hand, and philosophers and gentlemen, on the other. (These gentlemen are men who lack active wisdom but are “habitually sympathetic to philosophy.”) The pessimism of the Greek philosophers, says Strauss, is perfectly justified; it is in the nature of things. It has nothing to do with education, for no teacher does much more than water the seeds of wisdom lying dormant in his pupils’ minds, as Socrates always maintained. There are men capable of knowledge, and these “men are a small minority, men who possess certain gifts that most men lack, the few who possess a certain nature.” In other words, there are forever three cities within every city, and, says Strauss, the city of wants is that of pigs who will never be interested in, or friendly to, those who dwell in the city of the armed camp, and still less those who inhabit the city of beauty and are the lovers of wisdom.
Unfortunately, the three cities are parts of every city, and all citizens must live together. But “the few cannot rule the many unwise by force,” and “the ability of the wise to persuade the unwise is extremely limited”: Thus arises the political problem that consists in “reconciling the requirements for wisdom with the requirements for consent.” There is even “a natural right to unwisdom.” There is no question that, under these circumstances, no perfect society has existed, or ever will; one can only hope for the least bad. Hence, the Straussian classical philosopher’s third lesson. It is not so much that the best regime is the famous mixed one. It is that the wise have to learn the know-how to govern the masses, the ways to make them do what they not only wouldn’t do but would be loath to do by themselves. Here, Strauss’s Plato takes the lead from Aristotle, and, though he seems to teach the reverse, actually demonstrates how indispensable Thrasymachus is—not the stupid bully he appears to be, but the man who knows the language that pleases the masses. And the older Plato, nearing his end, has no qualms about pleading for a dilution of truth, for a dilution of natural right, giving up the dream of an absolute rule of the wise and setting up, instead, a mysteriously composed senate of magistrates (“men remarkable for their capacity for science, for their moral propensities and habits”), who assemble at night and whose competence Plato himself calls divine. It suddenly seems as if Machiavelli had made only one mistake: to lay bare the fact that the tools of the political trade are hidden constraint and cunning.
The fourth lesson that Strauss draws from classical philosophy completes his personal vision of Greek wisdom. Unlike the celebrated Karl Popper, Strauss staunchly adheres to the Greek idea that any healthy society is, if not a radically, at least a reasonably closed society—and a small one, at that. Leaving the Stoics in the shadows, Strauss reads through the Platonic or Aristotelean lines an implicit disavowal of any general society of mankind. He flatly assumes the constant need in any society for that class of warriors Plato was so famously fond of. (Globalists, provided they know how to read, do probably shriek in horror, and with good reason, for an open or comprehensive society of mankind “can only exist on a lower level of humanity.”) Strauss apparently echoes the very classical idea that a healthy society must be small enough for all citizens to be able to maintain at least potential links. (“A city is a community commensurate with man’s natural powers of firsthand or direct knowledge . . . with his power of love or of active concern, which is by nature limited.”) Citizens must be friends, Aristotle used to say. At the same time, there is an obvious gap between the third and fourth lessons, between defending the necessity of civil friendship and that of governing one’s fellow citizens by pure deceit or cunning demagoguery. So obviously, Strauss’s closed society does not refer to any contemporary Western societies; he has in mind a particular type of nation whose historical embodiment remains to be determined. And this nation, which embodies the “natural affection that men have especially for their kin,” he intends to defend by all means:
There are no assignable limits on what might be just reprisals: there are situations in which the normally valid rules of justice are justly changed, or exceptions are as just as the rules: justice is mutable so as to be able to cope with the inventiveness of wickedness.
To summarize, modernity is wicked; classical paganism, salutary. The former deprives mankind of all natural notions of human dignity and nobility and ends up giving birth, at best, to a society of lawless pigs and, at worst, to totalitarian societies. The latter extols the essence of man, and, even if it fails to communicate respect for its standards to the masses, it at least gives the wise a chance to rule the unwise, thereby promoting a society in which man can survive.
This much is absolutely clear: To Strauss, what is admirable about classical philosophy is that, in its effort to save mankind from decaying, it does not rely on any notion that is even remotely theological; it manages to “avoid the Charybdis of relativism” without falling prey to the “Scylla of absolutism.” Classical philosophers know that men need rules, but they are reasonable men who do not, like fanatical obscurantists, look up to the skies and wait for these rules to rain down upon them. In other words, the Greeks invented philosophy as the unrelenting effort of human reason to discover those reasonable rules that mankind, by nature, needs—rules whose authority is none other than that of man’s reason, but is, at the same time, as indisputable as reason itself. That is to say, rules that depend totally on what man is but are totally independent of his essentially mutable and unthinking will, and of the essentially fallible, intellectual grasp of most men; rules that some men have been able to dig up, not because they were supermen—their quest is endless; their sagacity, constantly put to the test; and, after all, they are only men—but because they approximate the essence of man better than others.
Where are today’s Platos and Aristotles?