“A searching examination of Leo Strauss’s defense of political philosophy and a fine, sure to be controversial, collection of essays by old hands and new.”
Leo Strauss's Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading "What Is Political Philosophy?"by Rafael Major
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Leo Strauss’s What Is Political Philosophy? addresses almost every major theme in his life’s work and is often viewed as a defense of his overall philosophic approach. Yet precisely because the book is so foundational, if we want to understand Strauss’s notoriously careful and complex thinking in these essays, we must also consider them just as Strauss treated philosophers of the past: on their own terms. Each of the contributors in this collection focuses on a single chapter from What Is Political Philosophy? in an effort to shed light on both Strauss’s thoughts about the history of philosophy and the major issues about which he wrote. Included are treatments of Strauss’s esoteric method of reading, his critique of behavioral political science, and his views on classical political philosophy. Key thinkers whose work Strauss responded to are also analyzed in depth: Plato, Al-Farabi, Maimonides, Hobbes, and Locke, as well as twentieth-century figures such as Eric Voegelin, Alexandre Kojève, and Kurt Riezler. Written by scholars well-known for their insight and expertise on Strauss’s thought, the essays in this volume apply to Strauss the same meticulous approach he developed in reading others. The first book-length treatment on a single book by Strauss, Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life will serve as an invaluable companion to those seeking a helpful introduction or delving deeper into the major themes and ideas of this controversial thinker.
“A searching examination of Leo Strauss’s defense of political philosophy and a fine, sure to be controversial, collection of essays by old hands and new.”
“What is Political Philosophy? is Strauss’s most comprehensive, and arguably most introductory, work. But the fact that each chapter focuses on key themes more fully elaborated elsewhere creates the need for a systematic supplementary text. With this collection of essays, the reader is afforded helpful guidance to the way each of the chapters relates to, illuminates, and is illuminated by other major treatments of the same themes by Strauss. The book will attract a broad readership among the many who are involved in or attentive to the ongoing debate over Strauss's controversial thought.”
“Lively interest in the work and legacy of Strauss continues as does controversy over what he did—and did not—argue for. This collection of essays demonstrates an expository thoroughness that will be of great interest to those who read them alongside the Strauss essays themselves. One doubts this will clear away the controversy, but one can hope that it will promote a more serious, engaged, and sympathetic debate.”
“With Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life, Rafael Major has produced an outstanding volume distinctive among the many books treating Strauss’s thought for its attempts to read Strauss as closely as Strauss reads other philosophers. The essays accomplish expertly this task with one of the most interesting and revealing of Strauss’s books, What is Political Philosophy?, covering the entire range of Strauss’s interpretations from Xenophon to the twentieth century.”
“Rafael Major has put together a fitting tribute to the thought of Leo Strauss. Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life brings together excellent essays by major scholars on each of the chapters of Strauss’s book. Of the recent works on Strauss, this is among the best. . . . An essential element in any collection of works in politics and philosophy.”
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Leo Strauss's Defense of the Philosophic LifeReading "What Is Political Philosophy?"
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Chapter OneReading "What Is Political Philosophy?"
Characterizing the morbid state of political philosophy in the 1950s, Strauss writes: "Today, political philosophy is in a state of decay and perhaps putrefaction, if it has not altogether vanished." For some, he implies, political philosophy has decayed into "weak and unconvincing protestations" against newfangled thoughts and ways; for others it has survived as "a matter for burial," that is, as a matter for historical inquiries that put to rest its unwholesome pretensions; but for most it has vanished altogether, being replaced by an unphilosophic political science. After establishing to his own satisfaction—and he was not a man who was easily satisfied—the possibility and the necessity of political philosophy, Strauss sought to change this state of affairs, and with some success too. Thanks to his efforts, today political philosophy is held in high, even highest regard, at least in small circles within the academy. To be sure, such success may turn political philosophy into a prejudice and destroy its vitality by obscuring questions that give urgency to thought. But among the best antidotes to these dangers are Strauss's own writings, which were designed to lead the demanding reader to a sharper understanding of the problem of man and therewith of the problem of political philosophy.
This certainly is the case with What Is Political Philosophy?, a collection of essays, chosen by himself, that appears to be an introduction to Strauss's lifelong activity. The eponymous essay that opens this collection is an introduction to this introduction. Political philosophy like any other human activity can be defined adequately only in terms of its end, by what it tries to accomplish. Strauss defines political philosophy by the problem it seeks to solve: what is the good society? He does not state the character of this problem; instead he attempts to show to political human beings that this problem is implicit in all political controversies: beginning with the observation that all political action aims at either preservation or change, Strauss shows that this implies some thought of the good, asserts that that thought has the character of mere opinion, the awareness of which compels one to search for that thought of the good that is no longer questionable, and finally argues that this search must turn into the search for knowledge of the complete political good, for knowledge of the good life and the good society. The pivot of this argument is the assertion that while every political act assumes a thought about the good which the political actor no longer questions—otherwise he could not act—this thought upon reflection proves questionable, an assertion that is confirmed by the ubiquity of disputes in political life. Once he becomes aware of this fact, the serious political human being becomes in a way a political philosopher, for it does not suffice to pursue policies that only seem to be good. To determine the goodness of these policies, one must examine them in light of the ultimate political goal, the good society, and one cannot understand the good society without knowing the character of the truly good human life. All this means that one must pursue the question of the good society, and the connected question of the good human life, with the radicalism and comprehensiveness that are characteristic of philosophizing.
In this way, Strauss arrives at his first definition of political philosophy as the attempt "to acquire knowledge of the good life and of the good society" (10). This most provisional definition is modified after Strauss gives a provisional explanation of philosophy. According to Strauss, philosophy, as quest for wisdom, is an attempt to replace opinions about the whole with the knowledge of the whole. What men believe about God or gods necessarily implies some opinion about the whole (for instance, that it consists of "God, the world, and man"); philosophizing then necessarily involves the questioning of the prephilosophic view of divinity. Strauss suggests that philosophers identify the whole with "all things" because "the whole is not a pure ether or an unrelieved darkness in which one cannot distinguish one part from the other, or in which one cannot discern anything" (11). We see things, but what is harder to see is their nature, the unalterable characteristics of things that belong to the same class. Philosophy is the attempt to replace the opinions about the whole with the knowledge of the nature of all things. This definition of philosophy prepares Strauss's second definition of political philosophy, which is now understood as a branch of philosophy: "Political philosophy will then be the attempt to replace opinion about the nature of political things by knowledge of the nature of political things" (11–12). For the moment the question of the good society fades into the background as the nature of political things, the necessities that rule political things, surfaces. To understand this movement, we need to look at another aspect of his explanation of philosophy.
Strauss gives an account of the philosophic refusal to abandon questions to which there may not be adequate answers. This refusal belongs to the essence of philosophy, which is "essentially not possession of truth, but quest for truth." Strauss's account is based on a distinction between more or less important things, an important thing being one that affects many other things. By quoting Thomas Aquinas, he suggests that it is better to have a slight knowledge of God than certain knowledge of the least important thing, say a pebble (11). For clearly what God is or what he is not affects one's understanding of everything. This implies that one can have at least a slight knowledge of the most important things. Strauss explains this possibility and more by arguing that it is possible to know the nature of a thing (in the sense of a demarcation of its possibilities) without answering the fundamental question that concerns it: "For the clear grasp of a fundamental question requires understanding of the nature of the subject matter with which the question is concerned" (11). These reflections must be applied to political philosophy as a branch of philosophy. The political philosopher does not abandon the question of the good society because it is difficult or impossible to answer, for the clear grasp of this question may be sufficient for the acquisition of the knowledge of the nature of political things.
The above consideration explains the second definition of political philosophy, but it also indicates its incompleteness. According to Strauss, one cannot understand political things if they are examined in a disinterested manner, for in them there is an "explicit or implicit claim to be judged in terms of goodness or badness, of justice or injustice" (12). This reflection moves in the direction of the first definition of political philosophy, but in a richer or more complex manner, for it couples consideration of goodness with that of justice. Accordingly, we arrive at the third definition of political philosophy: "Political philosophy is the attempt truly to know both the nature of political things and the right, or the good, political order" (12, emphasis added). It is noteworthy that this insistence on understanding political things in terms of their claim to justice appears only after Strauss's discussion of philosophy. In his essay "On Classical Political Philosophy," Strauss explains this sequence: "it is ultimately because he means to justify philosophy before the tribunal of the political community, and hence on the level of political discussion, that the philosopher has to understand the political things exactly as they are understood in political life" (94). Even in "What Is Political Philosophy?," where the focus is fittingly on the ordinary meaning of political philosophy as the philosophic treatment of politics, we see the influence of the deeper understanding of political philosophy as "the political, or popular, treatment of philosophy" (93). Even here Strauss shows the meaning of political philosophy by showing its meaningful character, answering the question "What is political philosophy?" with the answer to the question "Why political philosophy?"
After defining political philosophy, Strauss distinguishes it from political thought in general, political theory, political theology, social philosophy, and political science. The last discussion is of special interest because it includes a rare discussion of the useful work done by members of political science departments, which "consists of careful and judicious collections and analyses of politically relevant data," an activity that he distinguishes from the "scientific" political science guided by the model of natural science. He begins by showing how "all political life is accompanied by more or less coherent and more or less strenuous efforts to replace political opinion by political knowledge" (15). Yet this movement to knowledge is not political philosophizing because by political opinion Strauss means not opinion about the nature of political things but "guesses, beliefs, prejudices, forecasts, and so on." In the past, the usual way of acquiring political knowledge was through political experience and the reading of good historians, but as societies governed by traditions gave way to dynamic mass societies, a need emerged for specialized scholars who follow the rapidly changing situations of the new increasingly complex societies. The need in question is a public-spirited one, for these scholars want to counteract the degeneration of the public into a mass that can be manipulated by unscrupulous men: "while even the most unscrupulous politician must constantly try to replace in his own mind political opinion by political knowledge in order to be successful, the scholarly student of political things will go beyond this by trying to state the results of his investigations in public without any concealment and without any partisanship: he will act the part of the enlightened and patriotic citizen who has no axe of his own to grind" (15–16). But Strauss notes that the unscrupulous political actor and the political scientist have one thing in common; for both of them "the center of reference is the given political situation, and even in most cases the given political situation in the individual's own country" (16). In contrast, "[i]t is only when the Here and Now ceases to be the center of reference that a philosophic or scientific approach to politics can emerge" (16).
It seems then that the dynamic character of mass society calls for a political science that is even more distant from political philosophy than the citizens and statesmen of traditional societies were. Yet Strauss sees a bridge that necessarily takes the more demanding political scientist to political philosophy: "All knowledge of political things implies assumptions concerning the nature of political things, i.e., assumptions which concern not merely the given political situation, but political life or human life as such" (16). For instance, Strauss observes that "[o]ne cannot know anything about a war going on at a given time without having some notion, however dim and hazy, of war as such and its place within human life" (16). This notion is apt to affect one's perception and evaluation of the war in question. If frontiers, patriotism, and wars are ultimate verities, one is apt to see in some wars "a kind of dignity and even nobility"; if they are not, war might appear "only as a nightmare interlude, something to be permanently avoided." Or we may consider Strauss's example about domestic politics: "One cannot see a policeman as a policeman without having made an assumption about law and government" (16). If one assumes that laws and governments are instruments that only serve the interest of the ruling class, one will see a policeman differently than if one assumes that laws and governments are attempts to support moral action. Once the political scientist sees the import of different opinions about war and its place in human life, or of the assumptions about law and government, he will see the necessity of replacing these opinions or assumptions with knowledge about these matters; he will see the necessity of entering the ambit of political philosophy.
Strauss suggests that there is also another, if harder to see, reason that leads a political scientist to political philosophy. This reason is seen once a political scientist as a political scientist becomes self-conscious. While the center of reference of political science is the given situation at the time, political science does not "emerge if it has not been realized among other things that even such political matters as have no bearing on the situation of the day deserve to be studied" (15). In other words, political science as an organized discipline is possible only in a society that has recognized the goodness of science. This breeds an attachment on the part of the political scientist to the political order and society in which he exists, making him act the part of the enlightened and patriotic citizen. Yet, this state of affairs makes it difficult for a political scientist to examine the assumptions underlying the modern liberal society and his own activity. To see whether these assumptions are sound, to see whether his love of truth is merely a prejudice inculcated by a particular society, the political scientist has to think about society and human life in general; he has to think about the place of science in political life.
After articulating the character of political philosophy by distinguishing it from similar activities, Strauss examines two reasons that have led his contemporaries to reject the inquiry into the nature of political things and the good, or right, society as a reasonable pursuit. They are the claim of social science positivism that denies the possibility of objective value judgments and the claim of historicism that denies the permanence of important statements of fact or value. Strauss argues that positivism is theoretically indefensible and that its deficiencies are such that when thought through it transforms itself into historicism, which he judges to be the serious antagonist of political philosophy. In addition, he argues that the denial of the objectivity of value judgments puts the positivist social scientist in an indefensible political position in relation to his political community, an argument that anticipates "the post-behavioral revolution" in political science (18–20). As to historicism, he observes that thoughtful historicists do not deny the existence of "permanent characteristics of humanity, such as the distinction between noble and base" (26). They only argue that "their objective, common, superficial and rudimentary character" prevents them from being used as criteria for evaluating the social situations that fate has imposed on us. In describing the permanent characteristics of humanity recognized by thoughtful historicists, Strauss does not mention the distinctions between good and bad, and just and unjust. Perhaps this is because a historicist such as Heidegger (whom Strauss describes here as the radical historicist) respects nobility more than justice or advantage. Yet Heidegger has contempt for any efforts to derive from the idea of nobility a permanent standard. Strauss then seems to be suggesting that it was Heidegger's attraction to nobility together with his contempt for an analysis of nobility as a permanent characteristic that allowed him "in 1933 to submit to, or rather to welcome, as a dispensation of fate, the verdict of the least wise and least moderate part of his nation while it was in its least wise and moderate mood, and at the same time to speak of wisdom and moderation" (27). Both positivism and historicism find themselves in an indefensible political position precisely because they have given up on the questions of political philosophy.
There is, however, a third and older objection to political philosophy, which is almost invisible in Strauss's treatment because he chooses to address it in an indirect manner. The essay "What Is Political Philosophy?" is based on a series of lectures that Strauss gave in Jerusalem in 1954. It is divided into three parts: "the Problem of Political Philosophy," "the Ancient Solution," and "the Modern Solutions." Given that the eventual book includes essays on Farabi and Maimonides, we are struck by the absence of medieval political philosophy in the introductory chapter. Indeed, such a discussion would have been especially relevant in Jerusalem. Strauss comes close to explaining this omission in his opening paragraph, where he apologizes for speaking about political philosophy in Jerusalem. He excuses himself by appealing to necessity. After expressing his utter inability to convey to his audience "our prophets' vision," he writes:
I shall even be compelled to lead you into a region where the dimmest recollection of that vision is on the point of vanishing altogether—where the Kingdom of God is derisively called an imagined principality—to say here nothing of the region which was never illumined by it. But while being compelled, or compelling myself, to wander far away from our sacred heritage, or to be silent about it, I shall not for a moment forget what Jerusalem stands for. (9–10)
Excerpted from Leo Strauss's Defense of the Philosophic Life Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Rafael Major is the director of faculty development at the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History and teaches at Ursinus College.
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