Sunday, April 01, 2012

Strauss, Drury, and the Tyranny of Philosophers

Shadia Drury's The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (first published in 1988 and then in an updated edition in 2005) was the first book on the political thought of Strauss.  She argued that Strauss's core teaching was the natural superiority of the philosophic life of the few human beings capable of such a life, as the only life that was good by nature, and thus the inferiority of the nonphilosophic life of the great multitude of human beings who were incapable of living this naturally good life.  She criticized this teaching as both false and dangerous.  It was false because this absolute separation of all of humanity into two groups--the philosophic few and the vulgar many--was a pure fantasy rather than an accurate account of what human beings are like.  It was dangerous because it promoted a tyranny of the philosophers, in which the moral, religious, and political life of the vulgar many was seen as governed by lies--even if noble lies supported by philosophers for the good of philosophy.

Most of the prominent Straussians have been remarkably silent about this book.  The Straussian journal Interpretation has never published a review of the book.  Thomas Pangle's book Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (2006) does not have a single reference to Drury.  The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss (2009), edited by Steven Smith, lists Drury's book in the bibliography; but otherwise, there is no mention of Drury in the text.  This silence suggests that the Straussians are uncomfortable about trying to respond to her interpretation and criticism of Strauss's teaching on the superiority of philosophers over the vulgar multitude of human beings.  Of course, the Straussians might say that they're silent about her book because it's so flimsy in its reasoning.  But then we might expect that they would at least explain why they think it so flimsy.

In The Truth about Leo Strauss (2006), Catherine and Michael Zuckert do try to answer Drury's argument.  But if one is aware of the textual evidence cited by Drury, one can see that the Zuckerts don't fully confront the textual evidence in Strauss's writings for Drury's position.

For example, Drury cites, but the Zuckerts ignore, the following passage from Natural Right and History (151):
If striving for knowledge of the eternal truth is the ultimate end of man, justice and moral virtue in general can be fully legitimated only by the fact that they are required for the sake of that ultimate end or that they are conditions of the philosophic life.  From this point of view, the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being.
 The Zuckerts never consider the strange and disturbing implications of viewing the "merely just or moral" person as a "mutilated human being," whose life has value only in so far as it promotes the life of the philosophic few.  Nor do the Zuckerts comment on Strauss's propensity to throw out bold assertions like this without supporting evidence or argumentation. 

Drury identifies this claim that most human beings are "mutilated" as part of Strauss's teaching on the tyranny of the wise.  Strauss writes:
It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule.  It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise wishes of the unwise; hence the wise rulers ought not to be responsible to their unwise subjects. (NRH, 140-41)
the rule of a tyrant who, after having come to power by means of force and fraud, or having committed any number of crimes, listens to the suggestions of reasonable men, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates as such. (OT, 76-77)
Drury identifies this as what Strauss calls the "tyrannical teaching" of Plato and Xenophon.

The Zuckerts try to refute Drury's reading of Strauss's "tyrannical teaching" in their book (especially, pp. 155-77).  But there are lots of weaknesses in their reasoning.

They say that Drury "makes Strauss incoherent in moving between the claim that natural right points to the 'absolute rule of the wise' (i.e., the tyranny of the wise) as best, and then the rule of gentlemen under law as best.  She nowhere makes intelligible how these two quite different ideas fit together." (159)

But this ignores what Drury says about Strauss teaching that while the absolute rule of the wise would be best, "a close approximation of it exists in the rule of gentlemen, or any other regime (even a tyranny), where those in power listen to the advice of the wise" (111).

The Zuckerts say that Drury has distorted what Strauss says in his commentary on Xenophon's Hiero.  Simonides presents the "tyrannical teaching" in conversation with Hiero.  But, according to the Zuckerts, Strauss makes it clear that Simonides is not a truly wise man (163).  After all, Strauss says that "the form in which [the 'tyrannical teaching'] is presented characterizes it as a philosophic teaching of the sort that a truly wise man would not care to present in his own name" (OT, 35).  But the Zuckerts are silent about what Strauss says elsewhere in his commentary about how "it is one thing to accept the theoretical thesis concerning tyranny; it is another thing to expound it publicly."  Neither Plato nor Xenophon could safely expound this thesis in their own names or in the name of Socrates, but they could safely put it into the mouth of a "stranger" like Simonides (OT, 76-77).

Similarly, while Drury interprets Strauss as supporting the teaching of Thrasymachus--that justice is the advantage of the stronger--the Zuckerts (167) quote Strauss as saying that "we ought to loathe people who act and speak like Thrasymachus and never to imitate their deeds and never to act according to their speeches" (CM, 74).  But the Zuckerts take this remark out of context.  In speaking of Socrates's "friendship with Thrasymachus," Strauss writes:
Plato makes it very easy for us to loathe Thrasymachus:  for all ordinary purposes, we ought to loathe people who act and speak like Thrasymachus and never to imitate their deeds and never to act according to their speeches.  But there are other purposes to be considered. . . .
Notice how careful the Zuckerts are to drop Strauss's ambiguous language: "for all ordinary purposes . . . . But there are other purposes to be considered."  Notice also that while we should "loathe" people who speak and act like Thrasymachus, we are not told that the teaching of Thrasymachus is utterly false. 

Moreover, the Zuckerts are silent about Strauss's revealing statement that "the difference between Thrasymachus and Socrates is then merely this: according to Thrasymachus, justice is an unnecessary evil, whereas according to Socrates, it is a necessary evil" (CM, 83).

The Zuckerts recognize that Strauss clearly teaches that the only natural human good is philosophy (171).  But they don't comment on the troubling implications of this--that no nonphilosophic life, no matter how moral, can be truly good.  They don't comment on Strauss's claim that if philosophy is the only good, then the moral life of nonphilosophers must be based on "a fundamental falsehood, albeit a noble falsehood" (CM, 125).

Oddly enough, the Zuckerts speak about "the morality of the philosopher," but they also quote Strauss's remark that "philosophy is as such trans-political, trans-religious, and trans-moral" (176).  How can the philosopher be moral if philosophy is "trans-moral"?

Moreover, the Zuckerts don't tell their readers how Strauss has explained this idea of philosophy as "trans-moral" in his lecture on "Reason and Revelation" (147):
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.

So morality is "not something valuable in itself," because whatever value it has comes from being "the condition or the by-product of philosophizing."  The moral life of nonphilosophers is "fundamentally defective," "human misery," or "despair disguised by delusion."

As I have indicated in a previous post, the passage from Strauss just quoted illustrates Strauss's failure to offer any arguments to prove the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life.  He refers vaguely to a "pre-philosophic proof" that could be confirmed by "an analysis of human nature."  But then he fails to lay out any proof--"however this may be."

I have argued in some previous posts that while "an analysis of human nature" might show that the philosophic life is one of the generic goods of human life--because it satisfies the natural desire for intellectual understanding--this does not show that philosophy is the only natural good.  Furthermore, even if a man like Socrates is naturally disposed to rank the philosophic life as his highest good, this does not prove that such a ranking is the only natural ranking of goods.

Darwinian natural right recognizes all twenty natural desires of evolved human nature as constituting the generic natural goods of life that are diversely expressed in individual human beings with different natural temperaments and talents.  A free society conforms to natural right by securing the freedom of people in civil society--in their natural and voluntary associations--to cultivate the moral and intellectual virtues that perfect these human goods.

Some previous posts on related themes can be found here, here, herehere, and here.


Troy Camplin said...

If Plato's Republic is actually about how to develop a just soul (Socrates argues that the city he describes would be happy, but the individual members would not be; thus, consider his model one of the soul), then perhaps Strauss too is actually talking about individual development rather than external politics?

Larry Arnhart said...


This is what Drury argues against Strauss: all human beings have the three parts of the soul (reason, spirit, appetites), and the differences among human beings are only differences of degree in their ordering of these parts.

By contrast, Strauss sees three human types--philosophers, gentlement, and the vulgar--who differ "not just in degree but in kind."

Drury and other critics rightly reject this as psychologically implausible, because it fails to see how even the philosophers will be moved by honor and appetites.

Even Strauss says that the philosopher writes esoteric books for "the young men who might become philosophers." "All books of that kind owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn" (PAW, 36).

We might wonder whether this need for puppy love is healthy.

Anonymous said...

If philosophy is a remedy of sorts for potential tyrants (Aristotle, Politics 2.7:1261a1-a15), then rhetorically it seems necessary that for it to be used as a remedy an argument would need to be made that appeals to the potential or actual tyrant’s desire for honor and glory and thus the desire to be esteemed as the best. If it is a true remedy, then the thought must be that philosophy as a remedy could be employed to persuade tyrannical souls away from doing tyrannical deeds. As long as there is the belief that there is a tyranny of philosophers in speech but not in deed, there appears to be no political problem. Moreover, those who take themselves to be of the first rank would need to be pushed further, one might say, in order to be of the first rank, i.e., if there is such an order of rank among human ways of being.

The order of rank comes up explicitly in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, 10.7-8. Here the contemplative life ranks the highest. The standards seem to be self-sufficiency and what is "most of all is a human being". The contemplative life is the most self-sufficient in its activity and the way of life that is most in "accord with the intellect". The "rest of virtue is happy in a secondary way". The philosophic way of life is thus of the first rank. But one should not leave out what Aristotle says later (10.8) about the need of the second order of virtue (moral virtue) in order to "live a human life."

That said, Aristotle's audience appears to be gentlemen and perhaps potential philosophers. One could argue that what he has to say with regard to the rank of the contemplative life is merely to moderate potential tyrants in the crowd, and as a result, it is a curative teaching. But if Aristotle is also looking for potential philosophers, could we say that his argument also goes beyond philosophy as a remedy? In other words, to the thoughtful person who is concerned with how he should live, is Aristotle providing an argument for his own way of life?

From a Darwinian point of view, is it impossible to arrive at Aristotle's argument for the contemplative life based on the standards that he uses? Given the central importance of the principle of self-sufficiency in Aristotle's political writings, would it be possible to affirm this standard with Darwinian theory? (Given your extensive knowledge of Aristotle, does this principle ever come up in HA, PA, or in other writings outside of his strictly speaking political writings?) Or is living well in the end for the sake of the ultimate end of living or, to use Darwinian language, survival and reproduction? (For what it is worth, the philosophic way of life, however, doesn’t appear to be the way of life that best serves that end!) If so, it appears Darwinian theory inverts Aristotle's political theory at some crucial points.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. You say that, "Most of the prominent Straussians have been remarkably silent about this book." Like you, I have often thought that Straussians have chosen to ignore Professor Shadia Drury's critique of Strauss instead of refuting it. However, I would draw your attention to a direct engagement that one Straussian had with Professor Drury in the pages of Political Theory. Professor Harry V. Jaffa addressed many of the themes that eventually appeared in Professor Drury's book. Now, you may not consider Professor Jaffa a prominent Straussian, which is an entirely separate discussion. But I draw it to your attention because he responds directly to the "mutilated human being" example that Drury uses, as well as the subordination and depreciation of morality to trans-moral ends. As I recall, Jaffa made excellent points based on textual exegesis to rebut Professor Drury, although he does so in a polemical style that can be somewhat abrasive to some readers. I have not read the article in years (many years), but I remember it being rather persuasive at the time I read it. In the same issue of Political Theory there is another response to Drury from Fred Dallmayr that offers additional, albeit milder, criticism of the Drury interpretation of Struass. See Political Theory, volume 15, number 3, August 1987.

Anonymous said...

There were essays on Drury's book by Clifford Orwin and David Lewis Schaefer.

Larry Arnhart said...

What did they say about the "mutilated human being" passage?

Xenophon said...

There is a very interesting discussion of the "mutilated human being" claim and the tension between the "Platonic" and "Aristotelian" accounts of natural right in Natural Right and History in this article:

GUERRA, MARC D. "The Ambivalence of Classic Natural Right: Leo Strauss on Philosophy, Morality, and Statesmanship." Perspectives on Political Science 28.2 (1999)

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to the Schaefer piece:

He addresses the "mutilated human being" passage on p. 107 by suggesting that she misrepresents it.

I don't recall whether or not Orwin addressed that passage. He published two separate pieces on her book, both of which are referenced in the Schaefer piece.

Troy Camplin said...

His divisions sound very camel-lion-child. Nietzsche argued that one could go through all three.

I wonder, too, how Strauss' ideas would map onto Gravesean psychology.

Anonymous said...

The passages you quote, one from NRH and the other from OT, are talking about natural justice divorced from prudence. Needless to say, they don't describe a political program of any kind that Strauss endorsed. This should be obvious.

Anonymous said...

What about Minowitz's book? It devotes an enormous amount of attention to Drury. Pretty sure "Reading Leo Strauss" by Smith does as well.