With Leo Strauss on Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” eminent Strauss scholar Richard L. Velkley presents Strauss’s lectures on Zarathustra with superb annotations that bring context and clarity to the critical role played by Nietzsche in shaping Strauss’s thought. In addition to the broad relationship between Nietzsche and political philosophy, Strauss adeptly guides readers through Heidegger’s confrontations with Nietzsche, laying out Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche’s “will to power” while also showing how Heidegger can be read as a foil for his own reading of Nietzsche. The lectures also shed light on the relationship between Heidegger and Strauss, as both philosophers saw Nietzsche as a central figure for understanding the crisis of philosophy and Western civilization.
Strauss’s reading of Nietzsche is one of the important—yet little appreciated—philosophical inquiries of the past century, both an original interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought and a deep engagement with the core problems that modernity posed for political philosophy. It will be welcomed by anyone interested in the work of either philosopher.
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Introduction Nietzsche's Philosophy, Existentialism, and the Problem of Our Age
Leo Strauss: By natural right one understands the right which is by nature, the right which is not made by man, individuals, or society. That there is such a thing, a right by nature, was generally accepted until the early nineteenth century. Today it is generally rejected, and one can say all right is historical: nature has been replaced by history. The natural right doctrine originated in Greece. They were therefore in total ignorance of our experience and our situation, hence it does not seem to be applicable to our situation or to be helpful for the analysis and understanding of our situation. What we need, we are told, are empirical studies of society and proposals of policy based on such studies. But the difficulty arises that the empirical studies as now frequently understood are based on the fundamental distinction between facts and values. Accordingly, the social scientist as social scientist cannot propose policy; he must cease to be a social scientist in order to make value statements for proposals of any kind. Thus we cannot turn to our social scientists for guidance. What shall we do? Shall we turn for guidance to contemporary philosophy? As philosophy, it is not limited by the peculiar relations of science, and by being contemporary philosophy it would be aware of the peculiar character of our situation.
Now this contemporary philosophy is known by the name of existentialism. I am aware of the fact that there is also something called philosophy which is known by the name of positivism, but positivism is admittedly unable to give us any guidance. It cannot do more than clarify values. Existentialism, on the other hand, is a philosophy in the older sense of the term: it claims to be able to give us guidance. Existentialism is often called, and not without reason, the philosophy of our age and our society. Those who are entirely unfamiliar with this phenomenon would profit by Barrett's book Irrational Man, which is, I think, the best English introduction to the subject.
Existentialism is surely related to the disillusionment characteristic of the West: the collapse of the belief in progress — that is to say, of the belief in the possibility of democracy as a rational society, a society of free and equals who are in the main rational and public-spirited. The disillusionment is known to all of us. Think of the praise of electoral apathy as a good sign. Think of the talk of elite (elite being in itself a nondemocratic concept), or of the phenomenon called anonymity. I refer only to well-known subjects in social science — The Lonely Crowd, the beatnik, or juvenile delinquency — phenomena which can best and most simply be understood by the fact that great public hopes have ceased to determine the present young generation. Other terms are mass society and its mass culture. Whether people claim that these are merely descriptive terms or evaluative terms is a purely verbal affair; to hear these terms and to look at the phenomena designated by them means to evaluate them. There is a connection between this mass society and mass culture and technology, the greatest triumph of which may be said to be the H-bomb, and therewith the whole question whether technology, which promised to be the way toward human happiness on earth, may not be the way toward the extinction of the human race.
All these and an infinite variety of other phenomena are underlying that philosophy called existentialism. Existentialism, however, is not a mere accusation of the present situation or a diagnosis of it. Existentialism attempts to supply us with a profound analysis. We can state its thesis provisionally as follows. The root of all our activities is the belief in reason, the belief in man's ability to master his fate. Existentialism, we may say, makes explicit what is only implied in the general uneasiness of our time and even in the present-day positivism. For present-day positivism, as you all know, denies the power of reason, that reason can establish any value judgments. To repeat, existentialism asserts that the root of the present difficulties is the belief in reason, in man's ability to master his fate, which has given rise to the tremendous modern venture and to the apparently insoluble difficulties which we are confronted with. This is only a reminder of the very common and very popular phenomena with which we have to live.
But we would like to do more than that. We would like to try to understand existentialism and not merely report about it; therefore one must go beyond the popular conflict and turn to its sources. The most important source of existentialism is Nietzsche. In passing, I mention that the understanding of Nietzsche would have the additional advantage for us as social scientists in that it would enable us to understand the deepest roots of fascism. Nietzsche was not a fascist — fascism is only a stupid shortcoming of what Nietzsche meant. Still, there is some relation between Nietzsche and fascism, whereas there is no relation between Nietzsche and communism and hardly a relation between Nietzsche and democracy. To that extent, the crude statement that Nietzsche is the father of fascism contains an element of truth.
Now Nietzsche was not an existentialist. Existentialism emerged out of the conflict between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the Danish religious writer. Today natural right is generally rejected on the basis of the view that all right is historical. Nature has been replaced by history in the course of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche started from this fundamental change. He started from historicism, the view that all human thought is essentially and radically historical, but he saw in this view (which had become almost trivial by the nineteenth century, at least in Europe) a problem. Therefore, he tried to return from history to nature. To this extent, Nietzsche was on the way to the restoration of natural right as distinguished from mere historicism. By understanding Nietzsche, we shall understand the deepest objections, obstacles to natural right which exist in the modern mind. This is the reason why I plan to give this course in the form of an interpretation of Nietzsche or, more precisely, of Nietzsche's most famous work, the work which he himself regarded as the greatest of his completed works: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There is a translation available in the Viking edition, The Portable Nietzsche, by Walter Kaufmann, and I will use this translation.
In order to prepare the discussion, I would like to remind you of certain points which I have made in my book Natural Right and History. I will not repeat the argument of that book here — this would be very boring — but I would like to remind you briefly of what I believe I have done in that book. What I tried to do is show that natural right is an open question and not an obsolete issue, as is generally held. I tried to show this by taking issue with the two leading schools of our age, positivism and historicism. Positivism is characterized by the assertion that all value judgments are of a noncognitive nature, that human reason cannot substantiate any value judgment. Historicism is the view that all human thought is radically historical and therefore a natural right is impossible.
After having tried to show that the issue of natural right is not settled, I tried to clarify the whole issue of natural right by the following observation. In the first place, natural right is a very ambiguous term, because it means something very different in premodern thought and in modern thought. I would like to restate this as simply as I can. In premodern thought, the premise of natural right was the end of man as the rational animal, a rational and social animal. On the basis of the understanding of man as a rational and social animal, it is possible to give certain broad indications as to what course of action, what way of life, is conducive to the perfection of man. This, we may broadly say, is the premodern view of natural right. This complete end of man, the perfection of man as a rational and social animal, was also said to be the meaning of the common word happiness. Happiness, a word which we all use and which in a way is used by men of all times, was identified by the classical philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, with the complete perfection of man as a rational and social animal. Happiness did not mean mere contentedness but the contentedness of the reasonable human being, contentedness on a certain level. It was implied that a reasonable man cannot be contented unless he has reached perfection as a rational and social animal.
Now what about the modern natural right doctrine? Its starting point is not the end of man but, we may say, man's beginning, his most fundamental, most elementary need: self-preservation. Self-preservation was of course recognized in the older view, but as a lower end. In the modern view, self-preservation became the end. But self-preservation can be had on various levels. Merely keeping oneself alive is not very satisfactory for us; therefore it was enlarged to something that was called comfortable self-preservation, and comfortable self-preservation was understood as a mere enlargement of self-preservation. So we can say that in modern thought mere self-preservation on the one hand, and comfortable self-preservation on the other, are the starting point for establishing the meaning of right.
Another formulation of the modern natural right doctrine is to say that the place of happiness was taken by the pursuit of happiness. When the older thinkers spoke of happiness, happiness was meant to possess a clear and universal objective meaning. The claim of modern natural right was that happiness does not possess an objective meaning: everyone understands something else by happiness, and even the same individual understands by happiness very different things in different situations. The pursuit of happiness in the modern interpretation means therefore the pursuit of happiness however happiness may be understood. Therefore, from this point of view, the principle is purely subjective and cannot give birth to a notion of right. The notion of right comes in as follows. In spite of the fact that happiness has no clearly defined meaning, there are certain conditions of happiness which are universal: however you might understand happiness, it was always a unique right to the pursuit of happiness. While happiness itself is purely subjective, the conditions of happiness are universal.
As a consequence of these modern notions, the emphasis shifted entirely from duty to right. In the traditional notion, by virtue of the primacy of the end of man, the rules of life, the rules of action, had the character of duties. Rights were implied and in most cases only implied. In the modern view, however, rights were thought to be the principles from which any possible duties would follow. I mention in a merely enumerative way another characteristic feature of the modern natural right doctrine, the notion of a state of nature. There is a presocial state in which isolated individuals lived but possessed right. The natural rights, we can say, are those which presocial man already possessed, and out of these rights of presocial man these thinkers tried to show what the structure of civil society would be, civil society being nothing but an attempt to safeguard these rights. As a corollary, I add that by virtue of this analysis of modern and premodern natural right, it appears that the difference between Hobbes and Locke is not a fundamental difference, but it is a difference of the utmost practical importance. I would say that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are the greatest representatives of the modern natural right doctrine.
Another point of some importance to clarify the whole issue which I tried to make in that book concerns the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Plato and Aristotle. This is of some importance, because according to the best-known view today, the classic of natural right is Thomas Aquinas. The natural right doctrine of Thomas Aquinas is surely much more fully developed than that of Plato and Aristotle. The view is very common that the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Plato and Aristotle is fundamentally that Thomas elaborated the Platonic-Aristotelian teaching, whereas I would say that there is a fundamental difference. I try to explain this as follows: the key term used by Aquinas is natural law; this term, so to speak, does not occur at all in Plato and Aristotle. (This is not literally true: the term occurs twice in Plato, but never in the sense in which it is used by Aquinas, and it does not occur in Aristotle.) What is the significance of this distinction? In the first place, the question concerns the principles of action, the cognitive status of the principles of action. According to the Thomistic teaching, which is not peculiar to Thomas but his is the most famous, these principles are inherent in, or given in, a faculty which we may loosely call conscience. Man possesses a faculty belonging to his nature for knowing the principles of human action. The second point is that in the Thomistic teaching of natural law, there is a reference of that natural law to the giver of that law, to God as the divine legislator. Those fundamental premises of the Thomistic teaching are absent in Plato and Aristotle. The crucial implication of that is that according to the Platonic-Aristotelian teaching there are no universally valid rules of action; there is a universally valid order of the ends of man, a universally valid hierarchy of ends. There is no Platonic-Aristotelian equivalent to the Ten Commandments. To bring out this difference, it is important to consider that the Aristotelian tradition, as long as it was predominant, especially in the Middle Ages, consisted of two branches. The best known is that represented by Thomas Aquinas, but there is also another one which is known to historians of philosophy as the Averroistic tradition, after the Arabic philosopher Averroes. In order to get at the true Aristotelian teaching, it is helpful to make use of the Averroistic teaching as well — not that the Averroistic teaching is necessarily the correct interpretation, but it indicates that we cannot immediately assume that the Thomistic interpretation is correct.
There is a fourth point I would like to refer to, one to which I alluded in that book rather than elaborated it, and that is what I have called the three waves of modernity. Modern thought, which begins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, developed in the seventeenth century this modern natural right doctrine — the doctrine of the rights of man, as it came to be called. This I call the first wave, represented by such people as Hobbes and Locke. This was a radically modified traditional teaching, but it was still a teaching of natural right and even of natural law. The break with this began in Rousseau himself and was carried through by the German philosophers beginning with Kant. We can say that in this second stage, nature disappeared from the thought about right. When Kant speaks of the moral laws, he calls them laws of freedom, in opposition to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are laws like the Newtonian laws; the moral laws have nothing to do with nature. We can perhaps say that in this stage nature is simply replaced by reason, because for Kant the moral law is still the law of reason. This epoch, which begins with Rousseau or Kant, ends with Hegel and certain pupils of Hegel.
In the third wave, not only nature but reason too is abandoned in the moral orientation. This third wave begins most clearly with Nietzsche, and of course we live in that wave. In this stage, universal standards in any sense are abandoned. Both in the premodern sense and in the first and second waves, there was no question that the standards, in order to be true standards, must be universal, but in this last stage the necessity and even possibility of universal standards was denied. This much about what I have been trying to do in my earlier discussion of natural right.
There are a few more things which I have to do in order to prepare the discussion, but first I believe I must explain more fully why a discussion of Nietzsche is of special importance for us.
I begin with the following consideration. If we look at the infinite literature on our subject and see what is really the crux of the problem — why is the very notion of a natural right no longer intelligible or plausible? what is the root of the modern theories of natural right? — we can give this answer: the notion of natural right is based on the assumption that nature supplies us with standards. That implies that nature is good, but how do we know that? The traditional phrase was "The good life is that life according to nature." Why should the life according to nature be the good life? How do we know that nature is good? Could it not be that nature is devilish, that it is the work of a mean demigod as distinguished from a good God, as some rustics formerly held? When people said that nature is good they meant also that nature is intelligent, that there is a fundamental harmony between nature and the human mind. We may begin from this part of the argument. Here again the question arises: How do we know that? It is not sufficient to say that we know natural things to some extent and to try to know them better shows that there must be some natural harmony between nature and the human mind. As a fundamental proposition this is not clear.
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Table of ContentsThe Leo Strauss Transcript Project
Editor’s Introduction: Strauss, Nietzsche, and the History of Political Philosophy
1 Introduction: Nietzsche’s Philosophy, Existentialism, and the Problem of Our Age
2 Restoring Nature as Ethical Principle: Zarathustra, Prologue
3 The Creative Self: Zarathustra, Part 1, 1–8
4 The True Individual as the Highest Goal: Zarathustra, Part 1, 9–15
5 Postulated Nature and Final Truth: Zarathustra, Part 1, 16–22
6 Truth, Interpretation, and Intelligibility: Zarathustra, Part 2, 1–12
7 Will to Power and Self- Overcoming: Zarathustra, Part 2, 15–20
8 Summary and Review: Fusing Plato and the Creative Self
9 Greek Philosophy and the Bible; Nature and History: Zarathustra, Part 2, 20–22
10 Eternal Recurrence: Zarathustra, Part 2, 21; Part 3, 1–13
11 Survey: Nietzsche and Political Philosophy
12 The Goodness of the Whole, Socratic and Heideggerian Critiques: Zarathustra, Part 3, 4–12
13 Creative Contemplation: Zarathustra, Part 3, 13
14 Restoring the Sacred and the Final Question: Zarathustra, Part 4