Sunday, February 05, 2012

Strauss's Secret: "The Most Terrible Truth"

This semester, I am teaching a graduate seminar on Leo Strauss and the debate over Strauss and his legacy.  One of the crucial issues in that debate is whether Strauss was a secret writer.  

One of Strauss's most famous claims is that many of the classic writers of political philosophy have practiced an art of secret writing, by which they could convey an esoteric teaching that is unpopular or heterodox to a few careful readers who are philosophic, while conveying an exoteric teaching that is more popular or orthodox to the many careless readers who are unphilosophic.  This claim--elaborated in Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952)--suggests the question of whether Strauss himself was a secret writer with a secret teaching.  If he was, then what's the big secret that would be so disturbing to most readers that it needs to be hidden from their view?

Some of Strauss's critics insist that his secret teaching was his promotion of fascist or Nazi ideas as an alternative to modern liberal democracy.  One piece of evidence for this is in a letter to Karl Lowith in May of 1933, in which he endorses "the principles of the right . . . fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles," and declares that "there is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of Roman thought."  Another piece of evidence is Strauss's interest in Carl Schmitt, who became a leading Nazi theoretician.  In his "Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political," Strauss seemed to endorse Schmitt's argument that liberalism had failed and that the bourgeois values of liberalism were decadent.  Strauss sought "a radical critique of liberalism" and a "horizon beyond liberalism," although he thought Schmitt had not gone far enough beyond liberalism.  When the students of Strauss speak about the "problem of the bourgeois," they seem to be following Schmitt in his scorn for bourgeois liberalism. 

In Strauss's lecture on "German Nihilism" in 1941, he traced this disdain for bourgeois life to Nietzsche as a formative influence on the "young nihilists" of Germany, and Strauss suggested his partial agreement with their "heroic nihilism": "I take it for granted that not everything to which the young nihilists objected, was unobjectionable, and that not every writer or speaker whom they despised, was respectable."  The Straussian allure of "heroic nihilism" is manifested in Harvey Mansfield's account of the "manly nihilism" of Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt, and in Mansfield's praise of George W. Bush's "one-man rule" in advancing the imperial power of the United States.

These and other lines of evidence have led people like William Altman (in The German Stranger) to charge that Strauss was a Jewish Nazi.  I am not yet convinced that there is enough evidence to support such an inflammatory accusation.

If Strauss had a big secret, I think, it's to be found elsewhere--in what he identified as "the most terrible truth."  When a writer has a deeply disturbing message that he wants to transmit to his philosophic readers while hiding it from his vulgar readers, Strauss suggested, there are various techniques available to him.  A writer can convey his own views through writing interpretive commentaries on the texts of other writers, so that only careful readers will notice his implicit endorsement of ideas attributed to others.  A writer can also hide his most unpopular views by putting them at the center of his text, because careless readers tend to pay more attention to the beginning and ending of what they read than to the middle.  In Strauss's Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), the central chapter--and the longest chapter--is a commentary on Lucretius's On the Nature of Things.  The exact center of the book is page 135, where Strauss concludes his study of Lucretius by explaining "the most terrible truth."

As I have indicated in some earlier posts, Strauss saw Lucretius as the exponent of "liberalism ancient and modern," because Lucretius was the one premodern thinker who came closest to modern liberal thought, particularly as based on modern natural science.  The central insight of Lucretius's argument is that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (LAM, viii).  Lucretius proves the mortality of the world as a product of emergent evolution from atoms in motion: "the world is one of the many arrangements of atoms which in a very long time came about through the furious clashes of the blind atoms without the intervention of an ordering mind or a peaceful agreement agreement between the atoms; and once it has come about, it preserves itself for a long time" (123).  Since the world is not the product of an ordering mind, the world is not teleological, although it contains intelligent species--particularly, human beings--that have evolved to be teleological in their natural striving to satisfy their natural desires (125-26).  Since the world is not intelligently designed by a divinely providential mind, the world is indifferent to human beings and thus provides no cosmic support for human purposes.  Moreover, while the world is enduring, it is not eternal.  The world and everything in it--including the human species and all other species of life--will eventually collapse into the ceaseless motion of atoms that will then produce another world.  This is, Strauss believes, "the most terrible truth."  He writes:

"Lucretius does not speak here [in Book 6], as he did in the section on the thunderbolt, of men's tracing the terrifying phenomenon to the wrath of the gods; he only alludes to men's believing that the gods in their kindness vouch for the sempiternity of the world (601-602); on the other hand, he says explicitly that men 'fear to believe' that the world will die a natural death (565-567). It is this fear for the world, that is, for this world, for everything that is a man's own or his nation's own, which gives rise to the belief in gods and therewith also to fear of the gods; the fear of gods is not the fundamental fear. The fundamental fear gives rise in the first place to fear of that very fear, to fear of the most terrible truth." (LAM, 135)

In his footnote to this passage, Strauss cites Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1050b22-24, and On the Heaven, 270b1-16. Aristotle indicates that "eternal movement, if there be such" depends on the eternity of the heavens, and he identifies the eternity and divinity of the outermost heaven as an ancestral belief based on faith or trust (pistis).

Strauss hints that he agrees with this teaching of Lucretius. "Lucretius' poetry makes bright and sweet the obscure and sad findings of the Greeks, that is, of the philosophers" (83). "One may therefore say that philosophy is productive of the deepest pain. Man has to choose between peace of mind deriving from a pleasing delusion and peace of mind deriving from the unpleasing truth. Philosophy which, anticipating the collapse of the walls of the world, breaks through the walls of the world, abandons the attachment to the world; this abandonment is most painful" (85). "Religion thus appears to be a human invention which serves the purpose of counteracting the indifference of the whole to man's moral and political needs, for not all men are or can be philosophers" (100). (See also 88, 91, 95-96, 106, 119.)

Although Strauss often seems to defend religious belief by arguing that revelation cannot be refuted by reason, some of his readers have suspected that his big secret is his atheism. But even if he was an atheist, his writing on Lucretius suggests that atheism is only part of a deeper truth--"the most terrible truth" of the perishability of the world that is hidden by religious belief in an eternal order of intelligent design that cares about and for human beings.

This "most terrible truth" also illuminates what Strauss in the Introduction to Natural Right and History identified as "the problem of natural right." There he said that this problem is that "natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe" that seems to have been refuted by modern natural science. He explained: "From the point of view of Aristotle--and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?--the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved" (7-8). This emphasis on cosmic teleology is reinforced by Strauss's claim that "the primary object of philosophy" is "the heavens and the heavenly bodies" (PAW, 20; "Farabi's Plato," 364-65, 382-83, 390-91).

But if Strauss agreed with Lucretius that the universe is neither eternal nor purposeful, then natural right cannot be defended unless it is rooted in the immanent teleology of human nature as an enduring but not eternal product of a natural evolutionary process.

As Strauss indicates, Aristotle spoke of the cosmology of eternal order as based largely on mythic stories and traditional religious beliefs. By contrast, Aristotle spoke of the biological study of living beings as closer to human life and more open to direct study. While Platonic cosmological science (like that of Timaeus) looks for the eternally fixed order of Being, biological science looks to the temporal flux of becoming. Empirical biology manifests an immanent teleology of enduring but not eternal species that does not depend on any cosmic teleology of eternal order.

Strauss even pushed Plato in this direction by denying that Plato believed in the eternal order of the Ideas or the immortality of the soul (PAW, 13-15; "Farabi's Plato," 364, 371, 376), which meant pushing Plato in the direction of Lucretius.

The culmination of all of this could be Nietzsche's Darwinian argument in Human, All Too Human that "everything has evolved," and that therefore there are no eternal truths, although modern science can satisfy the free-spirited philosopher in the quest for the "humble truths" of nature, which include the moral and political truths of evolved human nature.

In an earlier book, Nietzsche had warned against Darwinian evolution as a "deadly truth"--the phrase echoed in Strauss's "most terrible truth"--but Human, All Too Human shows how a "gay science" of evolution can affirm the intrinsic purposefulness of mortal human life in a mortal universe where everything evolves.  Thus does a seemingly deadly truth become life-affirming.

This is what I have tried to do in defending "Darwinian natural right," in providing a scientific grounding in evolved human nature for natural right.  And yet most of the Straussians scorn such an enterprise. 

In fact, most of the Straussians are silent about substantive arguments for the natural ground of natural right.  Does this silence point to the real Straussian secret--that the Straussians don't really believe in the truth of natural right, because they are nihilists, even if manly nihilists?

Sometimes the Straussians suggest that the only clear standard of natural right is the natural ranking of the philosophic life as the only truly good life, which includes a denigration of moral and political life as lacking any natural justification.  But even here the Straussians never lay out the substantive arguments necessary to prove the natural supremacy of the philosophic life.  Does this mean that they are so radically nihilistic that they regard even the choice to live a philosophic life as an arbitrary choice with no grounding in nature?

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


Anonymous said...

There is actually a question lurking behind your final string of questions, which might help to answer them. That question is: what exactly is "the philosophic life" of which so much is said but so little is specified? Is there any "there there"? The Straussian talk of "nature" and "philosophy" is partly meant as a replacement for the dead god(s). That is what accounts for the vagueness of the rhetoric.

But that isn't to say that there is a Nazi under every Straussian rock, as Altman finds there to be.

Kent Guida said...

I share your frustration. It seems to be impossible to get a straight answer about the Darwinian Natural Right thesis from Straussians of every stripe. However, I am not yet convinced that they “don't really believe in the truth of natural right, because they are nihilists.” They may have just not thought the question through by, for example, acquiring an adequate understanding of Darwinism. It is much simpler to stick with dualism.

However, straussians are not the only ones who can’t get a handle on Darwinian Natural Right. Here is Will Wilkinson (a product of your institution, I believe) arguing against eudaimonism because it’s “hard to make sense of eudaimonia within a Darwinian worldview” – we are not instances of natural kinds and therefore our natural telos is limited to inclusive fitness. The whole thing is here:|+Big+Think%29

bjdubbbs said...

A Straussian might say something like this: Philosophy is a way of life, not a doctrine. Darwinism already assumes too much, for instance that the world was not created by God in six days or that natural scientific investigation is a worthwhile pursuit. Even "the temporal flux of becoming" or an "emergent process" is already too hypothetical. The proper starting point for the philosopher is what is first for us, the law and ordinary opinions regarding, for instance, the just, good, and beautiful. What's more, what is "first in itself" is available only by way of an examination of what is first for us. There are, in any case, no Socratic or Platonic doctrines; to the extent that the Timaeus or Republic contain any doctrinal content, it is negative and part of a kind of Platonic askesis. And to ascribe any doctrine to Strauss himself, especially an aristocratic nihilism, is also misguided, and nihilism is in any case a kind of senescent Christianity.

Rob S said...

Just for the record, Wil Wilkinson didn't study Political Science at NIU. He worked on an advanced degree in Philosophy there.

That's nothing to say, however, about his point on evolution and eudaimonia. Clearly it's a related topic.

Rob S said...

When considering the question of Strauss's position on natural right, isn't it important to recognize the distinction between so-called "western" and "eastern" Straussians? Don't the western Straussians attribute a more solid natural right foundation to Strauss's thinking, one which might even be consistent with the liberalism of the American founding? And wouldn't the eastern Straussians be more inclined to either 1) question Strauss's commitment to natural right altogether in an openness to a more nihilistic perspective, or 2) emphasize a natural right position that recognizes the philosophic life as highest and therefore exists in tension with the moral life and/or life of the city?

Anonymous said...

In response to Rob S: no, it's not "important to recognize the distinction between so-called 'western' and 'eastern' Straussians", because the so-called 'western' Straussians are irrelevant. Understanding Strauss or Plato is one thing. Understanding the Jaffa cult is another thing, but "important" it is not.

In response to bjdubbbs: what we have here is a good example of the empty blather of a many a Straussian student - mouthing vague, half-digested formulas, stringing together faux-profound non sequiturs, placing self-important assertions in place of argument, etc. Mr. dubbbs is likely unaware that he has not even attempted to answer Arnhart's question, and that simply repeating the old saw about "philosophy is a way of life, not a doctrine" (without, of course, specifying anything about what that way of life would entail) does nothing whatsoever "to prove the natural supremacy of the philosophic life", and so does nothing to show that "the choice to live a philosophic life" is anything other than "an arbitrary choice with no grounding in nature"; in other words, he does nothing to show that he does not "assume" what he claims that "Darwinism" merely "assumes". Never mind that Arnhart's post never said nor implied anything about requiring a "doctrine" - only arguments.

bjdubbbs said...

Thanks for responding to my comment, anonymous (is it really so hard to come up with an alias?). Please keep in my mind that I put the comment in the mouth of a "a Straussian," I wasn't speaking for myself, though I'll defend the comment.

a) Old saws: often true! Read the beginning of his first book, on Spinoza. It's clear that from the start Strauss was interested in "philosophy as a way of life."

b) No argument is made for the superiority of the philosophical life. Don't put words in the mouth of the hypothetical Straussian's mouth.

c) "Does this silence point to the real Straussian secret--that the Straussians don't really believe in the truth of natural right, because they are nihilists, even if manly nihilists?" Who cares what "Straussians" "really believe"? Triangles do just fine regardless of what mathematicians believe deep in their hearts. Same is true of natural right.

c) By the way, the whole idea of "manly nihilism" is so comical. Eeyore as Superman.

The comment was about the proper starting point or method of philosophical inquiry. A Straussian would say the proper starting point is opinion, not "scientific grounding in evolved human nature." The results of science are themselves grounded in ordinary opinions, so we should begin by examining the foundation and not with the roof, to quote what he says about the neo-Kantians. That's a position he held throughout his life.

Anonymous said...

The only point of Mr. dubbbs reply that is the least bit either relevant or interesting is (b): if “no argument is made for the superiority of the philosophical life”, then why take the notion seriously at all?

Kent Guida said...

The discussion of Lucretius, utilitarianism and classical liberalism is making me uneasy. I don’t see how Mises and other utilitarians can really claim to be epicureans in any but the most superficial respects. Epicureanism was more than atomic theory, materialism and the pursuit of pleasure. To put it as simply as possible, Bentham, Mill and Mises were not epicureans, and Lucretius was certainly no utilitarian.

Yes, Lucretius' materialism was crucial to modern philosophy and modern political philosophy from Hobbes on, but the moderns all jettisoned Lucretius' conclusions -- what 'the way things are' means for human happiness. They all more or less follow Hobbes -- happiness is pursuit of power after power, ceasing only in death. Lucretius would consider this the vulgarization of epicurean understanding and the mistake most people will make when they apply epicurean physics to human life. The true epicurean teaching is that the relentless pursuit of pleasure as described by Hobbes is futile and self-destructive, and that happiness comes from pursuing things like friendship and philosophy. Unleashing vulgar desire is a problem. Among other things, it leads to war. Mises, on the other hand, says war comes from 'different creeds,' especially religions. There is much more to it, or course, but I think the differences between the ancient epicureans and modern utilitarians are at least as important as the similarities. The best discussion I know is James Nichols' excellent Epicurean Political Philosophy.

bjdubbbs said...

"if “no argument is made for the superiority of the philosophical life”, then why take the notion seriously at all?"

Indeed. Why? Let's say the philophical life were placed in front of you, with a review from Consumer Reports validating that philosophy is, indeed, superior to all the other lives. What then? Wouldn't you have to plug it in and turn it on in order to find out for yourself? I'm aware there are people like Bloom who seem to think that "the philosophical life" is a magical charm and the answer to any difficult question. I wouldn't pay too much attention to that.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere in the Land of Non Sequiturs someone is very impressed right now.

Kent Guida said...

Your favorite manly nihilist, Harvey Mansfield, has a review of The Swerve in The Weekly Standard (2/13) that makes my point about the difference between ancient and modern epicureanism in a much better way:

"But danger is not the only reason for a philosopher to say less or other than what he knows, as did Lucretius when he beautified and personified—and falsified—human love in a goddess. One may also use “rhetoric,” i.e., dissimulation, in order to persuade. Lucretius addresses his poem to a Roman noble, Memmius, whom he wishes to benefit. To do so he attracts him with what Greenblatt calls a “hymn to Venus.” After that Lucretius needs to introduce his student to the possibility that an effete Greek philosopher, Epicurus, could teach something to a manly Roman. And beyond that he tells him of harder facts than the hard facts such a person believes he knows. Greenblatt mistakes the first step for the entire message, which is not to embrace the world in its delights but to retire as much as possible from its dangers, rigors, and horrors to the pleasure of the philosopher."

"He believes that Lucretius’ ascetic philosophy of pleasure can be extended to everyone, that today we can take him as a guide to life among our comforts.

"Lucretius does appear to have had an agenda that would permit each human being to escape the illness of a frightened soul. But this can be done only through knowledge of “the nature of things,” and only by disarming the passions that cause men to fear death. The philosopher Epicurus provides the reasoning for the few philosophers, but the poet Lucretius with his beautiful images provides a partial benefit for the rest of mankind, bringing relief from torments of the soul and even guiding nonphilosophers toward philosophy. The creators of the modern world—Machiavelli, Bacon, and the rest of their kind—had no such program of withdrawal. They had an active, progressive vision not to be found in Lucretius. One later modern philosopher, Karl Marx, spoke for them all when he said that heretofore philosophy had as its aim interpreting the world; the point now was to change it. This was to be deliberate, planned change—pace Greenblatt—progress that would bring the benefits of philosophy (which became science) to the many, rather than bring many to the benefits of philosophy, as with Lucretius."

Kent Guida said...

The last sentence of Strauss's brief remarks on Epicureanism in the preface to Liberalism Ancient and Modern is:

"Apart from this, it may suffice here to refer to Kant's presentation of Epicureanism as identical with the spirit of modern natural science prior to the subjection of that science to the critique of pure reason."

I confess I don't really understandthis statement. Can someone explicate?

bjdubbbs said...

This is a quote from the beginning of the first book, on Spinoza:

"Must the difference between positive science, which offers no possibility of criticism of religion, and metaphysics, which in principle permits criticism of religion, be defined as it has been defined by Kant in his transcendental dialectic, namely by the statement that this difference has its basis in theoretical consciousness?"

So "theoretical consciousness" (ie Kant's Copernican turn, or the idea that we know only what we make) separates Epicurus from modern science.

Kent Guida said...

Thanks. That whole section of the Spinoza book is very helpful in understanding Strauss's view of Epicureanism.

Ben Bell said...

Dr. Arnhart,

I think your conclusion hinges on whether or not Nietzsche was a noble nihilist, or whether the eternal return actually exists. If it does, then it is quite loveable. Such an enquiry is necessarily edifying, making Nietzsche and Strauss teachers of Eros: about things which are eternal. One thing for Strauss which is eternal is that every city has pious beginnings (vico) and that this beginning is predicated on a crime (patriarchal rule). These are eternal truths the latter of which is dangerous.

clifford said...

I think Mr Bell is on to some
thing. If N isnt a nihilist because there is a fundamental underlying the nature of things then is N a teacher of natural right?

Have real Paul Gottfried's new Cambridge univ press book on Strauss, where he debunks the strauss the protofascist line of xenos etal while at the same time gives a critique of strauss from the old right.