Monday, July 11, 2011

Strauss on the Supremacy of the Philosophic Life: Where's the Proof?

Having summarized Leo Strauss's critique of Thomas Aquinas's natural law teaching and Tom West's replies to that critique, I will offer some assessments of this debate in the light of Darwinian natural right.

But before I do that, I want to raise a question about an unquestioned assumption in this debate. West never asks whether Strauss has proven that the philosophic life is the highest human perfection--a perfection achieved only by a few wise individuals, in contrast to the great majority of human beings who live merely moral lives that are inferior. West assumes without proof that Strauss is right about this, and West's only concern is to try to show that Aquinas agreed with Strauss about this. But to rely on an unproven assertion--to rely on Strauss's authority--is unphilosophic.

Where's the proof?

Where's the demonstration that the life of philosophy or science is the only good life for a human being? If the philosophic life is the life of relentless questioning and inquiry where one accepts nothing as true unless it has been proven to be true based on what we can see and know for ourselves, rather than relying on faith in what others have told us, then it is self-contradictory to choose such a life as the best life without demonstrative proof that it is so.

Although Strauss generally assumes that the philosophic life is superior in dignity to any moral life, I cannot think of any place in Strauss's writing where he carefully lays out a demonstrative proof that the philosophic life is the only truly good life for a human being. If I am mistaken, and Strauss has provided the proof, then I would be happy to have this pointed out by those who know Strauss better than I do.

Considering the writings of Plato and Aristotle, I can only think of one place where one might think the proof for the supremacy of the philosophic life has been provided--the end of Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But as I have indicated in some previous posts, Aristotle's arguments there are remarkably dubious. They are so dubious--particularly, when one considers them in the context of the whole of the Ethics--that the careful reader might conclude that Aristotle does not take them seriously, that he is actually mocking the Platonic arguments for the supremacy of philosophy. As I have suggested previously, I think this points to the books on friendship in the Ethics as the true peak of the book, where Aristotle indicates that the happiest life is a life that embraces a wide range of moral and intellectual goods.

For Strauss's reasoning on the supremacy of philosophy, one good place to start is his lecture on "Reason and Revelation," which he delivered in 1948 at Hartford Theological Seminary, and which was unpublished until it was published in Heinrich Meier's Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Although it was not published during Strauss's lifetime, it contains language and formulations that appear in his published writings, beginning with Natural Right and History.

Consider the following passage from this lecture:

This view of the relation of philosophy to life, i.e. to society, presupposes that philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy. The radical distinction between the wise and the vulgar is essential to the original concept of philosophy. The idea that philosophy as such could become the element of human life is wholly alien to all pre-modern thought. Plato demands that the philosophers should become kings; he does not demand that philosophy should become the ruler: in his perfect polity, only 2 or 3 individuals have any access whatever to philosophy; the large majority is guided by noble lies. The quest for knowledge implies that in all cases where sufficient evidence is lacking, assent must be withheld or judgment must be suspended. Now, it is impossible to withhold assent or to suspend judgment in matters of extreme urgency which require immediate decision: one cannot suspend judgment in matters of life and death. The philosophic enterprise that stands or falls by the possibility of suspense of judgment, requires therefore that all matters of life and death be settled in advance. All matters of life and death can be reduced to the question of how one ought to live. The philosophic enterprise presupposes that the question of how one ought to live be settled in advance. It is settled by the pre-philosophic proof of the thesis that the right way of life, the one thing needful, is the life devoted to philosophy and to nothing else. The pre-philosophic proof is later on confirmed, within philosophy, by an analysis of human nature. However this may be, according to its original meaning, philosophy is the right way of life, the happiness of man. All other human pursuits are accordingly considered fundamentally defective, or forms of human misery, however splendid. The moral life as moral life is not the philosophic life: for the philosopher, morality is nothing but the condition or the by-product of philosophizing, and not something valuable in itself. Philosophy is not only trans-social and trans-religious, but trans-moral as well. Philosophy asserts that man has ultimately no choice but that between philosophy and despair disguised by delusion; only through philosophy is man enabled to look reality in its stern face without losing his humanity. The claim of philosophy is no less radical than that raised on behalf of revelation. (146-47)


So, first, there must be a "pre-philosophic proof" that the philosophic life is the only right way of life; then, secondly, this proof is confirmed by "an analysis of human nature." But as far as I can tell, Strauss never provides this "pre-philosophic proof" or the "analysis of human nature" that would confirm it.

"However this may be" is a strange expression in this passage, suggesting that Strauss is inclined to assume the supremacy of philosophy without proving it.

I agree that "an analysis of human nature" can show that there is a range of natural human desires that constitute the natural goods of life, which would include goods such as family life, social ranking, politics, property, friendship, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding. These generic human goods include philosophy or science as devoted to intellectual understanding. But while the philosophic life is certainly a good life for those inclined to it by nature, there is no good reason to say that this is the only truly good life for human beings, that any life other than the philosophic life is a life of "despair disguised by delusion."

The generic standard for a good human life is that it should include all or most of these human goods to some degree. But the ranking of goods--so that one good is stressed more than the others--depends upon the temperament and circumstances of individuals. The philosophic life is best for only a few people--as Strauss recognizes. The philosophic life is best for Socrates, but not necessarily for those who lack Socratic inclinations. Of course, someone who would live a life without any intellectual understanding at all--someone utterly ignorant and lacking in any curiosity about the world--would be living a less than fully satisfying life. But while some desire for knowledge is an element of any minimally good life, there is no reason to say that those few people who live a purely Socratic life of relentless questioning and inquiry are the only happy human beings.

As I have suggested in some previous posts, one of the primary arguments for liberalism is that a liberal society allows human beings to pursue the full range of generic human goods, with individuals free to adopt those ways of life that are suited to their individual and social circumstances.

West quotes Strauss (in a letter to Karl Lowith) as saying: "A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of magnanimity exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C."

But according to Strauss, the life of the great-souled man is a merely moral life that is not a truly good life because it is not a philosophic life. According to Strauss, the life of Churchill manifests "human misery, however splendid" or "despair disguised by delusion."

Where's the demonstrative proof of this strange assertion?

Elsewhere in "Reason and Revelation," Strauss offers a few hints as to what he might take as proof. But he never lays out the necessary evidence and arguments.

He asserts "man's desire to know as his highest natural desire" (149). But he never explains exactly why we should be persuaded that the other natural desires don't count as part of a good human life.

He says that knowledge of the good is the necessary precondition for finding the good (149-50). But to say that we need some knowledge to pursue the good for us does not prove that pursuing knowledge for its own sake is the only good.

He says "if we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers" (163). But does he really mean this--that philosophers are gods?

Strauss notes that theologians like to use Pascal's claim that the "misery of man without God" is shown by the craving for distraction and the mood of boredom. Strauss seems to accept this as a reason for rejecting all lives other than philosophy:

these and similar phenomena reveal indeed the problematic character of all ordinary human pursuits of happiness which are not the pursuit of the happiness of contemplation. The philosopher as philosopher never craves distraction (although he needs relaxation from time to time), and he is never bored. Theological psychology is such a psychology of non-philosophic man, of the vulgar, as is not guided by the understanding of the natural aim of man which is contemplation. (163)


Does the proof depend on evidence of boredom? Are philosophers never bored, while everyone else is always bored?

According to Strauss, the proof for the supremacy of the philosophic life depends crucially on the reason-revelation debate--on whether philosophy can refute revelation, or whether revelation can refute philosophy. If this debate remains inconclusive, then "that philosophy is the highest possibility of man" is only a "hypothesis" and thus "a blind decision" (175-76).

What kind of a "decision" is this? Isn't this a moral decision, because it's a decision about how one ought to live, about what constitutes a good life? But if so, then the choice to live a philosophic life is a moral choice. If it's a moral choice, then how can the Straussian philosopher denigrate morality as lacking any dignity?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

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