Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reasons for Liking Leo Strauss

As I'm nearing the end of my dissertation, I've begun reflecting on why Leo Strauss attracts me as a thinker. I've noticed a certain reluctance on my part to come and explain why to people, mostly because of the anti-egalitarian implications of his thought (see #A and #B), so I thought about simply writing about it.  The major ideas are these:

1. Strauss's concern with "virtue." This requires a vision of human nature where the "ends" of a human being can be uncovered through reason.

2. His concept of the "regime" and the "what is said."

3. I also appreciate Strauss's sense of the conflict between "ancient and modern," the very different sorts of questions and answers that either period is likely to ask and give. This may be the most personally illuminating aspect of Strauss's thought. When I was reading The Closing of the American Mind, there's an episode where a college-aged Allan Bloom asks his professor a question about Thucydides. The professor answered angrily, "Thucydides was a fool!" I didn't know who Thucydides was, but I immediately wanted to find out. I've always felt the romance of the long ago, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that my attraction to fantasy literature is because of the sense of the "long ago" that it gives.

4. Probably the most important thing about Strauss, though, is his reasoned argument for the supremacy of the life of the mind. He has clarified the longing for such a life much better than any other writer I have encountered.

What follows below is a list of likable things about Strauss, which encompasses the points I made above.

  • Okay, I just have to come out and admit this: I am an elitist. I'm an abashed (as opposed to an unabashed) elitist, but there it is. Elitism is as much a dirty word on the political right as it is on the political left, although the former tends to equate it with college educations and political insiders whereas the latter tends to equate it with anti-egalitarian thinking, but the viewpoint isn't all that odd or illiberal. W.E.B. Du Bois was a famous elitist who advocated "the talented tenth," and the Founding Fathers were all class elitists. The idea of elitism closely relates to hierarchical thinking and ideas of superiority/inferiority, but I think all these things are inescapable in practical everyday life. A carpenter is superior to me in the making of chairs; others are stronger, others are faster. Our own families are superior to other peoples' families (and if that idea makes you uncomfortable, then I suggest that this represents an example of egalitarian thinking running up against a radically inegalitarian social institution). At the highest levels, some ways of life are superior to other ways of life. I would never choose the life of a stock broker over the life of an academic, for example, because I believe that the life an academic is innately superior. Yet, fortunately, we live in a free society which accepts a heterogeneity of goods among its citizenry, and the stock broker and the academic have the freedom to live out their own lives as they please.
B. The Issue of Egalitarianism
  • One of the most captivating stories I ever read was "Harrison Burgeron" by Kurt Vonnegut -- the one where the titular character rebels against a radically egalitarian society. That it was written by an avowed socialist and champion of the poor, which I learned at a much later date, convinced me that a rebellion against the levelling tendencies of democratic society is not incompatible with social democracy, to which I am strongly committed. The issue of egalitarianism is important in Straussian thought because of its elitism (some modes of life are nobler than others) and the idea of an orientation to the highest possibility within the being of a human. Again, I see this view at odds with nearly all contemporary critical theory. The tendency within such thought is to re-think matters so that the thinking of difference is impossible. This might seem like an odd remark to make since deconstruction, for example, is all about linguistic meaning arising from the differences between words in the ever shifting unstable structure of language, but deconstruction is often applied rigidly to radically egalitarian goals. Such egalitarianism, it should be achieved, is worthwhile in itself and constitutes one of the crowning achievements of liberal thought. What I resist, however, is the infiltration of such thinking into all facets of life. Our personal lives are always filled with choosing between better and worse, and that requires the wisdom to know the difference between better and worse. 
  • To put it another way, radical egalitarianism often has the status of a prejudice -- something whose goodness we accept or assume without thinking. I appreciate that Strauss forces me to reflect upon this issue.
C. The Importance of Virtue
  • In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom makes a point that has always stuck with me (one of several from that book). It goes something like this: "America students today are 'nice.' I use that word carefully. They're friendly and amiable, but this does not equate to what older writers would have called lives lived according to 'virtue.')
  • In the classical political philosophy of Strauss, he always orients himself to the possibility of what is "highest" in mankind, an orientation which requires a teleological conception of the being of humans, and what is "highest" is the acquisition of virtue. The content of this virtue may change. Strauss views the Socratic life, the life lived in pursuit of wisdom, as the highest possible life, an understanding congenial to my own intuitions, but he also emphasized the virtue of statesmen and citizens, and different writers (like Marcus Aurelius) have composed different lists of virtues. Because I do not think you can remove "the human factor" from politics, and because the strength of political institutions is at least partly constructed on the quality of those people who uphold them, I think that a concern with virtue is of paramount importance. Yet the discussion of virtue never appears in contemporary political discourse, and none of the critical theories rife within the academy give virtue serious consideration.
D. The Value of "What Is Said"
  • One of the dangers growing up reading nothing but fantasy fiction is that you develop a quite robust Manichean view of Good and Evil. I've largely, though not entirely, abandoned that conception as an adult, but what I retain is retained thanks to Strauss. Strauss's thought takes seriously the "what is said," the popular opinion about things, for the popular opinion about things is the starting point of philosophy. One of the historically most common beliefs in Western thinking is the belief in good and evil. Again, contemporary critical theory has no place for terms such as these within its thoughts, but, like religion, Strauss does. I suspect he does not believe in good and evil as any sort of transhistorical concept, but, by including them, his thought is more comprehensive than other approaches which I have seen.
  • Strauss's idea of the regime is a heavy factor in this. All regimes are constitutive of the sorts of citizens needed to maintain the regime.
E. The Possibility of Trans-historical Knowledge.
  • I occasionally hear the claim that different historical eras have ways of viewing or interpreting the world which are incommensurate with the ways common to other eras or periods. That is, we can't, as 20th/21st century people, judge the ways of people in the Renaissance and so forth. The problems or issues that obsessed people of that era are simply incomprehensible under our paradigms. The major modern theorists of this view are Nietzsche and Heidegger, who claimed that all thought is historical and which means that no transhistorical thought is possible. This view conflicts strongly with my universalistic intuitions, so I appreciate Strauss's claim that certain "permanent problems" of philosophic import are indeed transhistorical and accessible through the writings of philosophers.
F. The Difficulty of Historical Interpretation
  • This second problem is almost the opposite of the first. A basic contention of Straussian hermeneutics is that, when we read the writings of vastly older or different thinkers, we often cannot help "translating" or interpreting their ideas into modern idioms. Plato, or Lucretius, or Spinoza are vastly different thinkers than we give them credit for, because we read them under the weight of a tradition of a certain way of reading them. For example, it's very hard to read Plato without subconsciously adopting the lens of Neo-Platonism and the Christian appropriation of Plato's ideas. For a more personal example, when I was an undergraduate I remember often being unable to comprehend difficult philosophers (Sartre, Hegel, and the like) by reading their own writings, so I would often seek out commentaries or explanations of what they were saying. Even when I could grasp individual sentences or even individual chapters, I lacked the experience or the knowledge to see the "big picture" in such matters.
  • Strauss's hermeneutical method leads to some odd consequences, at least in that his commentaries are almost line-by-line readings of the original text and completely ignore all secondary scholarship. Still, his readings can nonetheless be fascinating and highly compelling. 
G. The Abstraction of Modern Terminology
  • This comes more from Allan Bloom (a student of Strauss's) than Strauss himself, but it remains one of the most fascinating intellectual discussions I've ever read. Basically, words like culture, creativity, personality, and charisma are all modern terms set to handle certain problems created by modernity. Naturally, given Bloom's liking for classical thought, he rejects many of these terms because he rejects the intellectual situations that gave rise to them. 

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