Saturday, January 31, 2015

Was Leo Strauss a Midwest Straussian?

I am now working hard to finish up my revisions of the 4th edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.  I am adding some totally new chapters, including one on Leo Strauss. 

As you can see from the previous post, I am wondering whether Strauss was an esoteric writer and, if he was, what his esoteric teaching was.  Melzer's book is helping me to think through this, although he's a little confusing on these points.

Although he does not say so explicitly, Melzer intimates that Strauss was what Catherine and Michael Zuckert would call a Midwest Straussian.

If Strauss thought the premodern philosophers were closer to the truth than the modern philosophers, would this mean that he had to see modern liberal societies as based on a dangerous delusion—the mistaken belief that a liberal society can tolerate complete freedom of speech and thought for philosophers, because philosophic truth does no harm to a liberal social order?  If this is what he thought, would he not have had to practice esoteric writing in seeking to overturn the liberal social order and promote some kind of illiberal social order that denies freedom of speech and thought?
Melzer denies this.  He denies that Strauss practiced esoteric writing, because Strauss saw no need to try to overturn the modern liberal enlightenment, which is to say that he accepted the success of the modern liberal project as the refutation of the premodern belief that the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life could never be overcome in an open liberal society.  If this is what Melzer is implying, then he's identifying Strauss as a Midwest Straussian.

The Zuckerts have pointed out that there is an obvious contradiction in Strauss’s apparent teaching about the history of political philosophy as applied to American liberal democracy.  Strauss seemed to teach that modern political philosophy was inferior to premodern political philosophy.  He also taught that American liberal democracy was rooted in the thought of the early modern political philosophers (particularly John Locke).  And he also defended the goodness of the American way of life.  So Strauss seemed to make three claims.  First, modernity is bad.  Second, America is modern.  Third, America is good.  We don’t need much training in logic to see the contradiction between these three claims!

According to the Zuckerts, the Straussians have divided up into three opposing groups depending on which of these three claims they deny.  Labeling them according to their geographic location in the United States, the Zuckerts identify the East Coast Straussians (led by Allan Bloom) as those who deny that America is good, the West Coast Straussians (led by Harry Jaffa) as those who deny that America is modern, and the Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) as those who deny that modernity is bad.

If Strauss had been a Midwest Straussian, then he would have had no need to engage in esoteric writing.  He would have claimed that since the modern philosophical project had succeeded in establishing liberal societies in which the philosophic life and the practical life were harmonious, because philosophic truth could be openly tolerated without any danger to society, then modernity is good, and premodern political philosophy has been shown to be mistaken.  And in that case, esoteric writing is no longer necessary or desirable, at least in liberal societies, although esoteric reading is still necessary and desirable in our reading of the texts of political philosophy written before 1800.
Having previously identified myself as a Midwest Straussian, I could embrace this Strauss.  Part of this Midwest Straussian acceptance of modernity as good would be the acceptance of modern science, including modern Darwinian biology, as good.  And so, as I indicated in my previous post, the truth of evolution--the truth that everything has evolved, including human beings--would not be a "most terrible truth," but a truth that human beings could accept without fear and without any harm to the moral and political order of a liberal society.

Consider the alternatives.  If Strauss had been a West Coast Straussian, then he would have believed that the modern liberal regime was actually the fulfillment of ancient political thought.  So he would have agreed with Will Altman that the superiority of liberal democracy was taught by Plato in Book 8 of The Republic in describing democracy as the one bad regime that was open to the philosophic life.  In fact, in "Persecution and the Art of Writing," Strauss identifies the Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. as "comparatively liberal" (33), thus suggesting that modern liberalism might be a fuller expression of the liberal freedom provided by ancient Athens, in which there was plenty of room for open Socratic philosophizing until Socrates provoked the city at the end of his life.

If Strauss had been an East Coast Straussian, he would have been an esoteric writer, and his esoteric message would have been that liberalism is based on a delusional denial of the human reality that the philosophic life is dangerous for most people.  Presumably, that esoteric message would have included advocacy of an illiberal regime, which is what Altman sees in Strauss's writing.

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