Saturday, September 26, 2009

Three Cheers for Midwest Straussianism!--Strauss, Science, and the Zuckerts

Although I never met Leo Strauss, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s where I studied under friends and students of Strauss such as George Anastaplo, Joseph Cropsey, and Herbert Storing. For many years, I have been a political science professor at Northern Illinois University in a department that has had a long tradition of faculty members who were students of Strauss--including Morton Frisch, Gary Glenn, and Martin Diamond.

Under this Straussian influence, I have adopted many of the ideas and habits of the Straussians, such as the deep respect for the history of political philosophy from Plato to the present and a devotion to a careful reading of the classic texts of political philosophy. But in many respects, I am not an orthodox Straussian. For example, I have always been skeptical of the stark ancients versus moderns dichotomy of the Straussians, along with the assumption that the ancients are better than the moderns. A related point of disagreement is that while Strauss and the Straussians are generally suspicious, if not scornful, of modern science as showing the bad traits of modernity, I regard modern science, and especially Darwinian biological science, as a great achievement of the human mind that can illuminate political philosophy.

Now, having read Catherine and Michael Zuckert's book The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (2006), I finally have a label for my position. I'm a "Midwest Straussian"!

Other people have noticed the debate between the "West Coast" and the "East Coast" Straussians. But the Zuckerts are the first to identify the "Midwest" Straussians as occupying a third position in this debate.

This debate arises from what the Zuckerts describe as the "tension-ridden legacy" of Strauss (21). The tension is clearest in the three following propositions that constitute Strauss's position on American liberal democracy:

1. America is modern.

2. Modernity is bad.

3. America is good.

To resolve the obvious contradictions between these propositions, each of the three schools of Straussian thought has had to deny, or at least downplay, one of the three propositions. The West Coast Straussians (led by Harry Jaffa) reject the first proposition, because they argue that the American founding is actually rooted in ancient (especially Aristotelian) thought. The East Coast Straussians (led by Allan Bloom) stress the first and second propositions, while questioning the third proposition, because they doubt that America can ever overcome the moral and intellectual defects of its modernity. The Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) deny or at least express doubts about the second proposition, because they are impressed by the apparent improvements in the human condition brought by modernity that seem to show clear progress beyond ancient thought. Thus, the Midwest Straussians cast doubt on what the Zuckerts identify as Strauss's "signature idea"--his "return to the ancients" (252-53).

According to this scheme, I would place myself under the category of Midwest Straussian, because I agree with those like Diamond who argue that the American regime manifests the progress that modern political thought has made beyond ancient political thought. The modern liberal constitutional regime provides for individual liberty, civil society, commercial prosperity, and limited government, which secure the conditions for moral and intellectual excellence more fully than was done in the ancient or medieval world.

As the Zuckerts rightly indicate, "modernity" as the Straussians understand it includes modern science. So, the second Straussian proposition--that modernity is bad--includes the proposition that modern science is bad (see, for example, 28, 33, 37-41, 50, 56, 61, 65, 68, 70-72, 78, 82, 84-85, 88, 96, 99-100, 112-14, 192-93, 208, 236-37, 244-45, 252, 255-59). My defense of Darwinian science and Darwinian natural right obviously denies this proposition, and so, again, I am in the Midwest Straussian camp.

On this question of the goodness of science, the Zuckerts are not as helpful in their analysis as they are on other issues, because they speak about "Aristotelian cosmology" as opposed to modern physics without seeing the importance of Aristotle's distinction between cosmology and biology.

The Zuckerts rightly notice that one of the biggest obstacles to Strauss's "return to the ancients" was that Strauss accepted modern natural science in its refutation of "Aristotle's view of the eternity of the world and the species, or his natural teleology" (37). It took Strauss a long time to figure out how to get around this. They write:

"Unlike some of his students (or his students' students), Strauss did not try to resurrect Aristotelian natural science by showing that it is compatible with modern natural science. [In a footnote here, the Zuckerts cite David Bolotin's book on Aristotle's physics and my book Darwinian Natural Right.] He came to think that would not be necessary, even if it were possible. Further study of Maimonides and Farabi convinced Strauss that they were not so much Aristotelian as Platonic philosophers. They did not deduce the characteristics or qualities of the best human life from an understanding of the natural order as a whole. Nor did they propagate Plato's doctrine of the ideas. . . . Philosophy, as represented by Plato's Socrates, constituted a fully satisfying form of human existence that could be enjoyed by private individuals in less-than-perfect regimes. Based entirely on reason, Socratic philosophy nevertheless involved something less than a claim to full knowledge. . . . Explicitly lacking knowledge of the most important things, Socrates did not affirm the truth of any particular account of the cosmic order, although he did have to be able to show why no available account was entirely satisfactory in order to maintain his paradoxical claim that he knew that he did not know. Since modern natural science also explicitly provides less than full knowledge of the whole, Socratic philosophy was compatible with it in a way Aristotelian cosmology was not (38)."

One can see here some of the main themes of Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers, which I have taken up in some previous posts. As I indicated in those posts, I generally agree with Catherine's argument that Plato's Socrates distances himself from the cosmological teachings of the Athenian Stranger and Timaeus. But I also indicated that Catherine never really explains Socrates' yearning for some cosmology in which Mind rules everything; nor does she explain why some of the greatest philosophers--from Aristotle to Nietzsche--failed to see that Plato was not a Platonist. Furthermore, the Zuckerts don't explain how Plato could reject the doctrine of ideas while simultaneously affirming the Socratic doctrine that "being is divided into essentially different kinds (or ideas)" that are eternal (112).

But here my main concern is to question the loose language here about "Aristotelian cosmology." As I have noted in previous posts, Aristotle spoke of the cosmology of eternal order as based largely on mythic stories. By contrast, he spoke of the biological study of living beings as closer to human life and more open to direct study. While cosmological science (like that of Timaeus) looks for the eternally fixed order of being, biological science looks to the temporal flux of becoming.

Aristotelian natural right does not depend on a cosmology of eternal, teleological order. It depends on the biology of human nature and its immanent teleology. That empirical biology of human nature is not so far away from modern Darwinian biology. The way that the Zuckerts cite my book indicates that they have missed the point of the book, which is to argue that empirical biology manifests an immanent teleology of enduring but not eternal species that does not depend on any cosmic teleology of eternal order.

In contrast to Aristotle, Plato gave almost no attention to biology, because he was more interested in looking for the eternal patterns promised by mathematical knowledge or astronomy. But then Plato (or Plato's Socrates) could not account for the relationship between the invariant patterns of intelligible being and the variant patterns of sensible becoming.

Modern Darwinian biology continues in the tradition of empirical biology begun by Aristotle. Darwin's evolutionary science is a clear advance beyond Aristotle--one that Aristotle himself would surely have welcomed. In this and other respects, therefore, modern science shows progress in the philosophic study of nature and human nature. Modern science is good, and the modernity that sustains modern science is good.

That's why I'm a Midwest Straussian.


Anonymous said...

Prof. Arnhart,

I know that Jaffa often uses "Darwinism" as a pejorative for a certain strain of modern thought.

Leaving that aside, however, do you think that he comes closer to your "Mid-Western" position in his transition from "Crisis of the House Divided" to "New Birth of Freedom?" i.e. Do you think his assertion (paraphrasing) that if Aristotle were writing the "Politics" in late 17th Century England it would have resembled Locke's "Second Treatise" is a softening of #2 in your post? I read him as ignoring modern natural science (along with other Straussians, but with less ambivalence, and even less hostility) but as also embracing certain branches of modern political thought as explicitly compatible with Aristotlean natural right in a manner that is ultimately not dissimilar from yours - again admittedly without the emphasis on explaining the phenomenon of (teleologic) human nature as being consistent with the insights of modern Human Biology, rightly understood. Do you agree?

Also, an idea I have never seen proposed: should one perhaps, not distinguish Straussians based on geography but by philosopher? e.g. Platonic Straussians, Aristotlean Struassians, Nietzschean Straussians, etc.? (Not that it is ever precisely clear to me where Strauss himself would be placed in these categories).

Thanks, wbond

Larry Arnhart said...

Last year, in my posts on Thomas Krannawitter's book on Lincoln, I tried to answer the common argument of Jaffa and his students that the Progressives' distortion of Lincoln was based on their Darwinism. My point was that the Progressives were relying more on a crude Hegelianism than anything in Darwin--and that their reading of Darwin was as bad as their reading of Lincoln.

Yes, I agree with you that Jaffa's Aristotelian Locke is actually close to what I have in mind.

As I suggested, I think Strauss's ancients/moderns dichotomy is overstated.

Lorenzo said...

I have been reading your site with enjoyment and interest for quite some time.

As it happens, I have just posted a long piece on classical natural law thinking on sex which, in passing, has a bit of a go at Prof. Jaffa.