Saturday, September 24, 2016

Smith and Strauss on Bourgeois Liberalism and the Philosophic Life

Steven Smith's Modernity and Its Discontents elaborates the argument of Leo Strauss and the Straussians for the "crisis of liberalism" as showing "the problem of the bourgeois."  The basic idea for Smith's book comes from Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity"--the idea that the first wave of liberal modernity is theoretically flawed in ways that provoke two waves of illiberal attacks on modernity. This suggests the question of whether Strauss and the Straussians are proposing some illiberal alternative to the bourgeois liberal order. 

Smith's answer is no, because while Strauss was a critic of liberal democracy, he was a friendly critic who saw liberal democracy (like that of the United States) as the best practicable regime for the modern world, despite its weaknesses.  And, therefore, Smith says, Strauss was actually "a classical liberal who believed that present-day liberalism requires the support of certain premodern sources of authority if it is to be sustainable" (292).   Smith is relying on what Will Altman has called the "Golden Sentence" of Straussian apologetics: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy."  (Altman points out that Strauss is careful here to use the word "we" rather than "I," and that Strauss says that Maimonides uses the word "we" to distinguish a popular opinion from what he himself believes.)

It's not clear how Smith's claim that Strauss was a friend of liberalism is consistent with Smith's observation that in his lecture on "German Nihilism," Strauss implicitly included himself among those young German nihilists who preferred a "closed morality" that was "based on such old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, duty, honor, and self-sacrifice" as showing a higher level of humanity than an "open morality" that was "divorced from the particularities of nation, race, or class" (250). Smith is silent about Strauss's assertion in "German Nihilism" that National Socialism was "a return to a pre-modern ideal."

We must wonder whether Smith's reading of Strauss as a classical liberal is persuasive.  In particular, given what Strauss said about the supremacy of the philosophic life and about the conflict between philosophy and society, we must wonder whether a bourgeois liberal regime can allow for such a philosophic life.  And if the open society of a liberal regime can be open to philosophy, does that refute Strauss's claim that every stable society must be a closed society that cannot tolerate the skeptical questioning of philosophers?

In order to separate Strauss from the illiberal critics of the Enlightenment, and thus protect Strauss from Will Altman's charge of being a Jewish Nazi, Smith distinguishes between the radical Counter-Enlightenment of those like Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Martin Heidegger, and the moderate Counter-Enlightenment of those like Strauss, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Isaiah Berlin (348-49).

Smith's distinction here between two forms of Counter-Enlightenment is strange for at least two reasons.  First, to put Strauss on the side of Berlin rather than Heidegger ignores Strauss's severe criticism of Berlin as failing in his attempted defense of liberalism and Strauss's fervent endorsement of Heidegger as the one great thinker of our time who has refuted liberalism.  Strauss writes: "All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power. One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate. I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger" ("Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," 29).  Remarkably, Smith is silent about this claim by Strauss that Heidegger has refuted any argument for rational liberalism.

The second reason why Smith's distinction is strange is that in assigning Nietzsche to the radical Counter-Enlightenment, Smith is silent about Nietzsche's defense of the Enlightenment and liberalism in Human, All Too Human and other writings from his middle period.  As I have argued in some previous posts, Nietzsche lays out in his middle writings a vigorous defense of Darwinian aristocratic liberalism as superior to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later writings.

Smith does not see that in order to push Strauss towards Berlin and away from Heidegger, he has to implicitly reinterpret Strauss as a Platonic or Aristotelian liberal who embraces Berlin's advocacy of both liberal pluralism and negative liberty, so that the individual liberty secured by a liberal regime allows a few people to choose the philosophic life as the highest end, while most others choose different lives with a different ranking of ends.  In other words, Smith has to interpret Strauss as being what Michael and Catherine Zuckert have identified as a Midwest Straussian, who believed that bourgeois liberty allowed for the expression of the bourgeois virtues, which could include the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life.

Another way of putting this is to say that Smith has to read Strauss's classical liberalism as based on a liberal interpretation of both Plato and Aristotle.

Strauss is best known for his illiberal interpretation of Plato as arguing that the philosophic life is the only naturally good way of life, and that this philosophic life is necessarily in irreconcilable conflict with society.  As Smith puts it, this can be expressed as a syllogism:
"Major Premise: Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinion, including opinions about political things, by knowledge.
"Minor Premise: Opinion is the medium of society.
"Conclusion: Philosophy is necessarily at odds with society." (304)
If this is true, then Strauss would seem to be saying that a liberal open society is either impossible or a foolish mistake, because no stable society can be open to philosophical questioning.  No society can safely tolerate the philosophic life.  Therefore, philosophers must employ esoteric writing to hide what they are thinking, and thus protect philosophy from social persecution, while also protecting society from subversion by philosophical questioning.  Plato's metaphor of the cave in The Republic shows that society must always be ruled by illusory opinions rather than philosophic enlightenment.  And Plato's Apology of Socrates shows that society must persecute Socratic philosophers who corrupt the young and deny the gods of the city.

But as Smith indicates, Strauss also offers a liberal interpretation of Plato.  While Book 8 of The Republic contains the "severest indictment" of democracy, according to Strauss, it also presents democracy as a "multicolored coat" in which every way of life, including the philosophic life, can be lived.  And, after all, Socrates lived his philosophic life in Athens until the age of seventy, and he could not have lived this life in Sparta (298).  Thus, as Will Altman has argued, Plato might endorse liberal democracy as the regime most open to the philosophic life, because "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c). 

This suggests the possibility that a liberal open society could overcome the conflict between society and philosophy by creating a free market of ideas, so that philosophers would no longer need to practice esoteric writing.  In fact, Arthur Melzer has pointed to that in his Philosophy between the Lines.  Since about 1800, he observes, the art of secret writing has largely disappeared, because in modern open societies, we no longer see the need for hiding dangerous philosophic ideas.  That's why Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing was so novel--and controversial--because he was rediscovering an art of esoteric writing that was common before 1800, but that had been rendered unnecessary by the triumph of the liberal open society over the past two centuries.  Smith suggests the same point when he writes: "It is certainly far from evident that a strategy adopted by Halevi, Al-Farabi, and Maimonides, writing in times of considerable hostility to philosophy, remains applicable in a modern democratic age where the demands for intellectual probity and 'transparency' have become not just private but also public virtues" (308).

Notice the startling implication here.  What often seems to be Strauss's signature idea--the irresolvable conflict between society and philosophy and the necessity for esoteric writing as dictated by that conflict--has been refuted by the success of bourgeois liberalism in creating an open society where the philosophic life can be openly lived in the free market of ideas.  Does that follow from Strauss's liberal interpretation of Plato?

Smith also suggests a Straussian liberal interpretation of Aristotle, although he is not as explicit about this as he is with Plato.  Strauss often asserted the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, in contrast to which the merely moral person appears as "a mutilated human being" (Natural Right and History, 151).  Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be read as supporting this idea of the philosophic life as a purely solitary contemplative life that is superior to the moral life.  From this view, as Smith says, "morality is at most instrumental to the attainment of a kind of contemplative autonomy," in which the philosopher does not need morality or any engagement with other human beings (309).  Here there seems to be no common ground between the moral life of society and the philosophic life of the solitary thinker.  Here Aristotle seems to affirm a dominant end conception of the good life as directed to one end--philosophic contemplation.

But in the books on friendship (Books 8 and 9) of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of the political association (koinonia) as an association of associations in which people pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life in association with others who share their ethical ends, and this includes those who pursue the philosophic life in association with their philosophic friends (NE, 1160a9-31, 1170a13-1170b19).  This conforms to what Smith identifies as Strauss's understanding of philosophy as a way of life, in which the aim is "to create spiritual communities in which the individual members could seek to live freely and in friendship with others who had chosen a similar way of life" (293).  In democratic Athens, philosophical schools could form voluntary private associations (like the Academy and the Lyceum) in which philosophic friends could gather with others who shared their devotion to the philosophic life.  In this understanding of Athens as an association of associations, Aristotle seems to affirm an inclusive end conception of the good as a multiplicity of moral and intellectual goods, with different ways of life organized by different rankings of those multiple goods.

This suggests the possibility, which Smith never considers, that modern liberalism is the expansion of ancient Athenian liberalism.  After all, even Strauss admitted that "the city of Athens was rather liberal" ("The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy," 47).  This would cast doubt on the sharp Straussian dichotomy of ancients and moderns.

Aristotle's inclusive end conception of the human good as supporting a free society in which individuals pursue their diverse ends in association with others of like mind looks a lot like Berlin's understanding of liberal pluralism and negative liberty, in which the negative liberty of an open society allows for the fullest expression of value pluralism in the diverse associations that people form to pursue their differing conceptions of the good life.  We might think that Strauss could not have endorsed this, because he criticized Berlin's value pluralism as a relativism that created the crisis of liberalism by denying any absolutist affirmation of liberalism as conforming to the human good of human nature. 

But as Smith indicates, Berlin denied that his value pluralism was value relativism (277-86).  While Berlin believed that there were many different good ends for human life, and that these good ends were not perfectly harmonious, yet he believed that these good ends were not "infinitely many," because they were all within the "human horizon."  Berlin affirmed both "a common human nature" and "a wide variety of cultural experience" (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 11).  The pluralism of human nature--that human beings have different natural ends or desires--is an objective truth about human nature, and therefore this pluralism is not relativism.  By virtue of our shared human nature, we all share in the generic goods of human life--such as, for example, self-preservation, family life, friendship, social status, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.  (These generic goods correspond to what I have called the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature.)  But how we rank these generic goods will vary across cultures and across individuals.  A liberal open society secures the negative liberty that allows for individuals live different ways of life in association with others in their families and associations, and these different ways of life will manifest different rankings of those generic goods.  Those with the temperament and talents of a Socrates will live a philosophic life that ranks intellectual understanding as higher than the other generic goods.  Others will live different kinds of life with different rankings of the generic goods.

This seems to be what John Locke meant by a free society that would secure the pursuit of happiness for diverse individuals with diverse conceptions of the good life rooted in human nature.  The summum bonum is not by nature the same for all human beings, but all human beings by nature "are both concerned and fitted to search out their summum bonum" (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV.12.11).  Locke's point seems to be that there is a summum bonum--a highest good--for each person that constitutes the natural standard of happiness for each person.  But there is no single highest good for all people, because different people will rank the generic goods of life in different ways.

Human nature sets the standard for the human good.  By nature the generic goods characterize the human species.  By nature the individualized goods characterize human individuals.

A bourgeois liberal society conforms best to this human nature, because a liberal open society will secure both natural liberty and natural virtue--the liberty of individuals to develop those moral and intellectual virtues that express that ranking of the generic goods of human nature that constitutes the best life for those individuals.  In such a free society, someone like Strauss, who "fulfills the office of philosopher to the highest degree," will be free to live the philosophic life in friendship with other philosophers; and the rest of us will be free to live other kinds of life that best conform to our individual propensities and talents.

Smith concludes his book by declaring that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable" (352).  He believes this is true because antibourgeois intellectuals have said that it is true.  He never reflects on the fact that this contradicts the reality of the life that most of us live today in bourgeois liberal societies.  Because of market freedom, cultural pluralism, and the bourgeois virtues, our life today is generally more peaceful, more just, and richer in both material and spiritual goods than has ever been the case for human beings at any previous time in history.  Does Smith really believe that that is not progress?


Won Joon Choe said...

Dear Prof. Arnhart,

The "open society" may have eliminated the need for the philosopher's need to resort to self-protective rhetoric, but what about the need to safeguard knowledge that may harm the unphilosophic?

Larry Arnhart said...

What is the philosophic knowledge that harms the unphilosophic?

In his writing on Lucretius, Strauss suggested that "the most terrible truth" is the mortality of the "world"--that the Earth and the solar system is not eternal within the cosmos. Is that it?

Is there any evidence that learning this scientific truth really is harmful for people who are not philosophic? Harmful in what way?

Anonymous said...

I think Strauss's problems are at least in part because he has two quite different views of human nature. One, from thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau and Nietzsche, sees humans as basically asocial, and so a society needs a fixed, limited and quite illiberal set of values that it imposes on them.

But Strauss also supports Aristotle's political philosophy, and it assumes that biologically inborn human nature includes moral, social, and political components. Human beings thus are naturally made for society, so society doesn't need to be so rigid, and this supports liberalism.

I wonder if Strauss ever wrote about this contradiction in his philosophy. Likewise if any Straussians have.

--Les Brunswick

Larry Arnhart said...


This is an insightful comment about Strauss and the Straussians. The Aristotelian interpretation of Strauss is that he sees human beings as naturally political or social animals, and therefore in a liberal open society, social order can arise naturally or spontaneously. The Platonic interpretation of Strauss is that this is only the exoteric teaching, and that the esoteric teaching is that human beings are not naturally political; and therefore the philosopher must promote the artificial opinions of a closed society, without which social order would collapse. Plato's image of the cave can be interpreted as teaching that philosophers, legislators, and poets must artificially create the shadows cast on the walls of the cave.

That Aristotle himself did not really believe that human beings were political animals by nature is the argument of Wayne Ambler in an article in THE REVIEW OF POLITICS (vol. 85, 1985, 163-185). Many Straussians assume that Strauss intimated this.

This explains the attraction of the late Nietzsche for many Straussians--the philosopher's will to power is expressed in the mythic creation of a new poetic vision of a heroic way of life to counter the emptiness of the last man. This is Strauss's German nihilism.

Larry Arnhart said...

For many Straussians, it's the truth of nihilism that is the philosophic knowledge that harms the unphilosophic.

Anonymous said...

"The Aristotelian interpretation of Strauss is that he sees human beings as naturally political or social animals, and therefore in a liberal open society, social order can arise naturally or spontaneously." Does Aristotle explain why, in spite of his view of human nature, liberal societies are so rare? It seems to me that knowing what blocks liberalism would be helpful when we are trying to promote it in illiberal societies.

I think there is a close connection between political philosophy and views on human nature. Each political philosophy, such as liberalism, fascism, or communism, has a distinctive view of human nature, and uses it to justify its view of the best society.

Also, people can disagree so much in these views of human nature in part because human psychology is in many ways hidden and not obvious to inspection. However, in recent decades scientists in various fields such as anthropology, brain science, and child and infant psychology have learned a great deal about human psychology. And in particular they have determined that the liberal Aristotelean view is pretty much correct, and the other views are mistaken.

I think the problem is that when Strauss was forming his views in the early 20th century, the relevant sciences were new, and many of their ideas on these matters were mistaken, and seemed to indicate a more Nietzschean view is right. But Strauss and his followers adopted the old scientific ideas in a dogmatic manner, and since then have refused to look at the new, more correct science.

Which leads me to the question, do the Midwest Straussians pay attention to the new science, and make use of it in their arguments for their political philosophy?

--Les Brunswick

Joe Ruf said...

I'm not sure it is true that "things have become more peaceful" given that that "peace" is in the shadow of two mushroom clouds. Likewise Pinker's book isn't all that rigorous when it comes to methodology in his use of statistics. I agree with much of what you write but disagree with your reading of Plato's cave (ironically my reading seems to support your libertarianish views). I'm also surprised given your citing of the virtues that you don't face head on the real "crisis of liberalism" (as exampled by Hobbes going awol to France) which is the tendency towards "self service" instead of sacrifice. One notices the character of the soldier missing from the minds of many liberals. Yet the soldier is necessary for it's maintenance.

Larry Arnhart said...

From October of 2011 to January of 2012, I wrote a series of posts on Pinker that respond to your concerns here. Although I criticize some of Pinker's handling of statistics, I generally find his empirical evidence persuasive. I also comment on the need for the "ethical warrior" in the military service of liberalism.

Anonymous said...

Joe Ruf,

I am rather puzzled by your comments. You seem to think it would be good if we had a warrior ethic like the Greeks. But the Greeks had a warrior ethic because they had a military in which all citizens served, and were almost continually at war with powerful enemies. But one problem with that today is that continual warfare would almost certainly lead, sooner or later, to nuclear war, a fact that you seem to be clearly aware of.

So what exactly is it that you advocating for our society and world today? Perhaps you think things should basically stay the same, but that a tiny group of elite students of philosophy, not become warriors themselves, but still become far superior to ordinary people by realizing that the warrior ethic is good?

--Les Brunswick

Won Joon Choe said...

“What is the philosophic knowledge that harms the unphilosophic?

In his writing on Lucretius, Strauss suggested that ‘the most terrible truth’ is the mortality of the ‘world’ – that the Earth and the solar system is not eternal within the cosmos. Is that it?

Is there any evidence that learning this scientific truth really is harmful for people who are not philosophic? Harmful in what way?”

Dear Prof. Arnhart,

Indeed, the public dissemination of the possible truth of nihilism – that human beings are merely temporary denizens in a universe fundamentally devoid of meaning or order – appears to be what the great thinkers across different traditions sought to prevent. It seems that they feared at least two potentially catastrophic social consequences that could result from such a dissemination. First, men may become paralyzed with the fear of death and no longer think or pursue the higher things. I strongly believe that the Buddha preserved the Hindu belief in the transmigration of souls due to this particular concern, among other reasons that were not purely “philosophic”; Plato, too, propagates something similar in certain dialogues, e.g., the Republic; and while Confucius is deliberately silent regarding the spirits, he does not actively debunk their existence, and he certainly seems to acknowledge – via his painstaking elaboration on the rites - the social need for the maintenance of the existing structure of ancestor worship. Second, the absence of cosmic supports for human institutions – especially human laws – may mean that each man may appropriate himself a Gyges-like ethic that disdains all restraints or limits, inevitably leading to social chaos. In fact, Strauss’ criticism of Machiavelli’s teaching on tyranny seems to have been motivated by this very concern. He stresses that the “Machiavellian” perspective was taught covertly by the ancients, not overtly. Certainly, the philosopher’s overt teaching on the laws was everywhere something like what Plato’s Socrates teaches Crito: Publicly, unconditional obedience to the laws must be stressed.

Now, I suppose it is possible for us, the children of the Enlightenment, to imagine that the ancient philosophers across the traditions have been proven wrong, because most men today still lead normal – if not particularly noble – lives, and the social order reasonably holds. Weber’s disenchantment does not lead to the dissolution of society. The worst fears of the ancient conservatives have then not materialized.

But is this really because ancient esotericism was wrong – or was it because new factors were introduced to the mix that ancient esotericism did not, and could not, sufficiently anticipate?

I would cautiously – and provisionally – argue that it is because of the latter. To put it in Allan Bloom’s simplistic, but perhaps not inaccurate terms, I conjecture that the alliance of Descartes’ doctor and Hobbes’ policeman may have at least temporarily tamed the void. Modern medicine, on the one hand, greatly mitigates the fear of death by holding out the possibility of infinite – or at least near-infinite prolongation of – life; modern surveillance state, on the other hand, reduces the proverbial possibility of getting away with murder.

But again, I am not sure if our current happy state per se indicates that ancient esotericism was wrong: After all, one could argue that we have replaced old gods with the god of modern technology; and our current satisfaction is linked to our new god’s yet unproven promises about its puissance or capacity. Further, the drama is surely not over yet: The Cartesian faith in modern medicine seems to be waning; and technology seems increasingly a two-edged sword, capable of both restraining and enabling anti-social behavior.

Won Joon Choe said...

Prof. Arnhart,

Thank you for that reference to Ambler's argument that Aristotle's zoon politikon argument may be merely an exoteric facade. I had heard someone else mention such an article a long time ago, and I assumed it was David Bolotin - who had made such an argument about Aristotle's physics - who presented it. I am now going to track it down and read it, but I find it prima facie less credible than Bolotin's argument, because - among other reasons - human beings by nature being political is a lot more plausible than the eternity of the universe.