Monday, September 02, 2019

Leo Strauss's Silly Idea: "There Are No Gods But the Philosophers"

At the APSA panel on Friday morning, I made the point--but I did not stress it enough--that my fundamental disagreement with Catherine Zuckert was over her acceptance and my rejection of Strauss's claim that the philosophic life is the only naturally good life.  While Catherine thinks this is a great idea, I think it is a silly idea.

In my response to her comments, which is reproduced in my previous post, I restated some of my reasoning from my chapter on Strauss in Political Questions for why Shadia Drury was right about this and why the Zuckerts (in The Truth About Leo Strauss) did not adequately answer Drury's criticism of Strauss.

This dispute turns on how one sees the natural desires of human nature.  My argument is that the good is the desirable, and the natural good is the satisfaction of the natural desires.  The generic human good requires the satisfaction of all or most of those desires to some degree, but the ranking of those desires varies according to the natural temperament, capacities, and circumstances of individuals, and prudence is required for that individualized ranking.

I agree with Strauss that the philosophic life is best for only a few people--the "very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy," because they are animated by the "natural desire" to know--people like Socrates.  But I disagree with Strauss's claim that this philosophic life is the only naturally good life, and that moral lives, religious lives, and political lives are the lives of "mutilated human beings."  Most human beings are fit by nature for such lives because they are naturally fitted for ranking some natural desires--such as familial bonding, friendship, social status, and religious understanding--as higher than the natural desire for intellectual understanding.

Strauss's mistake was in his silly assertion that philosophers are god-like in their transcendence of ordinary human life: "If we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers."

Nietzsche was right in Human, All Too Human in saying that the belief that some human beings are "superhuman" (ubermenschlich) is a "religious or half-religious superstition."  In his later writings, Nietzsche affirmed a Dionysian atheistic religiosity with a vision of the superhuman artist-philosopher exercising will to power over all of humanity, and it is this later Nietzsche who has appealed to Strauss and the Straussians.

The Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human supports a Darwinian liberalism, because Nietzsche here sees that evolved human nature shows a range of natural desires, and he sees that the freedom of a liberal democracy allows for the expression of all those natural desires as diversely expressed in different kinds of lives, all of which can be justified as naturally good, including Nietzsche's own philosophic life of the Socratic "free spirit."

When I was speaking at the panel, Catherine shook her head repeatedly to indicate that she disagreed with everything I was saying.  I was surprised, however, that no one on the panel or in the audience offered any reasoning to support Strauss's idea that the philosophic life is the only good life by nature, as if this were a Straussian doctrine that is not to be questioned.


Anonymous said...

Isn't Strauss's line deliberately silly? It is obviously oxymoronic to say "If we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person," but Strauss says this because he is staging a somewhat comical dialogue between a theologian and a philosopher (quoting the line that you do on its own makes it sound melodramatic, but the larger context strikes me as more tongue-in-cheek). So I don't read Strauss as saying that philosophers are Gods but that philosophers are the best humans. That is still a pretty controversial claim, and you have given good reasons for rejecting it in other posts, but it does not have much to do with "a Dionysian atheistic religiosity with a vision of the superhuman artist-philosopher". The serious objection to Strauss concerns whether philosophers are the best humans, not whether they are gods.

Larry Arnhart said...

Strauss's claim is not just that philosophers are the best human beings but that the philosophic life is the only naturally good human life, and that those who live all the other lives--moral, religious, political--are "mutilated human beings" who live lives of "misery," "despair," and "delusion." That's the silly idea. It's so silly that I doubt that any sane human being really believes it.