Saturday, May 05, 2012

Altman's Nine Theses on Strauss as the German Stranger

The argument of Will Altman's The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism can be summarized in nine theses:

1. Biblical dualism
2. Biblical liberalism
3. Platonic dualism
4. Platonic liberalism
5. Straussian anti-dualism
6. Straussian anti-liberalism
7. Nazi anti-dualism
8. Nazi anti-liberalism
9. Straussian Nazism

In my comments on these nine theses, there will be some repetition from my previous post on Altman's book.

Altman identifies himself as a Jew, a Christian, a Platonist, and a liberal.  These religious, philosophic, and political commitments support one another, he argues, because the Bible and Plato teach a dualism that provides the metaphysical ground for political liberalism.  Strauss rejects the dualism and the liberalism of the Bible and Plato.  In doing so, Altman concludes, Strauss agrees with the intellectual core of National Socialism--in its nihilistic denial of dualism and liberalism--and thus he became the German Stranger in the United States, seeking to destroy the American enemy of German Nazism.

Altman thus sets a big task for himself.  It's hard to imagine that anyone could provide sufficient evidence and argumentation for all of these claims in one book.  And, indeed, he leaves some of these claims as assertions without much support.

Biblical dualism is one of Altman's less controversial claims.  Given the existence of a transcendent God, reality is divided into "two worlds"--the real world of divinity and the apparent world of ordinary human experience.  This dualistic metaphysics is shared by Judaism and Christianity, because Christianity is originally a Jewish religion.  Here Altman apparently agrees with Nietzsche about the "two worlds" tradition of the Western Biblical culture.

Biblical liberalism is a much more controversial claim.  To support it, he cites only two Biblical verses--1 Samuel 8:7 (on the conflict between the rule of kings and the rule of God) and John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world") (27).  Altman believes that the true solution to the "theological-political problem" is the liberal solution--the separation of religion and politics through religious toleration (527).  It's easier to find this in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, which is why it was easier for Locke to find support for religious toleration in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.  Christian proponents of toleration like Roger Williams contrasted the theocracy of the Jewish polity with the New Testament teaching that Christians were not to expect a legal enforcement of their religion.

In defending Platonic dualism, Altman accepts the traditional interpretation of Plato as teaching "the absolute existence of transcendent Being and the problematic existential status of everything else" (14).  The transcendent peak of Platonic philosophy is the ascent to the Idea of the Good.  This puts Plato in opposition to Aristotle's naturalism.    Plato really is a Platonist, and Aristotle really is an Aristotelian.  Altman elaborates this in his new book on Plato--Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (2012). 

Altman argues that Plato's dualism is found most clearly in the Symposium, the Republic, and the Phaedo.   In the other dialogues, Plato's teaching is challenged in various ways.

In contrast to the true Plato, Altman argues, "Strauss's Plato" (or "Farabi's Plato") is actually the Athenian Stranger of the Laws, which is an anti-Platonic book, with no Idea of the Good and with a political theology that is invented by the Stranger for his political ends.  Strauss distorts the Republic by reading it through the lens of the Laws.  Actually, Altman suggests, the Athenian Stranger is Plato's prediction of Strauss, the German Stranger.

For the student of Plato, Altman's reading of the Republic as Platonic in contrast to the Laws as anti-Platonic is perhaps his most intriguing idea.

Like Clement of Alexandria and Augustine (522), Altman sees Plato's dualism as prefiguring Christianity and the transcendent God of Israel who identifies Himself as "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14).

So, again, Altman agrees with Nietzsche--Christianity is "Platonism for the common people" (19).

Altman's affirmation of Platonic liberalism is one of his most controversial claims.  Traditionally, Plato has been read as a fervent critic of democracy, and generally modern liberalism is assumed to be fundamentally contrary to Plato's political thought.

Oddly enough, one of Strauss's insights supports Altman's reasoning for Plato's liberalism.  Strauss points out that when Plato gives his history of regimes in Book 8 of the Republic, his sequence of five regimes corresponds to Hesiod's history of the five races of men (CM, 130-33; LAM, 35).  Consequently, democracy as the fourth of five corresponds to Hesiod's divine race of heroes.  So, although Plato presents democracy as a bad regime, he also suggests that it comes closer to the golden age than any other bad regime.  The end of democracy is not virtue but freedom--the freedom of each to live as he pleases by choosing from among all the possible human lives.  This freedom of choice makes democracy the only bad regime in which some people can choose the philosophic life.  Indeed, the conversation of the Republic, in which people are free to philosophize about all the various regimes is possible only in a democracy like Athens.  Even if Socrates is a critic of democracy, he shows his preference for democracy by his action in living in Athens, fighting in its wars, and living by its laws.  So while democracy does not aim at excellence or virtue as such, democracy does secure a freedom of choice that allows people the freedom to choose excellence or virtue, including the excellence of the philosophic life.  If one believes that philosophy is the highest life, as Strauss does, then the openness of democracy to philosophy might lead one to regard democracy as at least the best of the bad regimes.

In his book on Plato, Altman elaborates this Straussian insight into democracy as the best of the bad regimes, and this constitutes his argument for Platonic liberalism.  But then in his book on Strauss, Altman never seriously considers the possibility that such reasoning could have supported Strauss's qualified embrace of liberal democracy.

In his book on Plato, Altman comments on "Plato's characteristically serious joke: despite appearances, Democracy--fourth on Plato's list as the Age of Heroes is fourth in Hesiod--is philosophy's golden age; i.e., the golden age tout court" (349).  The democratic freedom to choose one's own way of life is the precondition for Glaucon's choosing justice and the precondition for the philosophic discussion in the Republic--democracy is the only regime where the philosophic life can be freely chosen.

Altman suggests that those like Karl Popper who see the Republic as a defense of totalitarianism fail to see this Platonic endorsement of democratic freedom, and they also fail to see that the totalitarianism of the Athenian Stranger in the Laws is meant to be a challenge to Plato's teaching.

Altman recognizes that the depiction of democracy in Book 8 of the Republic does offer a comically exaggerated image of democracy's aimless freedom and formless equality.  But he suggests that this very comic exaggeration is part of Plato's pedagogy:
"Attacking 'the democratic man' as a lazy, scatter-brained, selfish, shape-shifter, incapable of any sustained and consistent dedication to fixed principle, should be recognized for what it is: effective pedagogy.  Certainly no effective teacher of adolescent males is unfamiliar with Plato's technique.  Through Socrates, Plato is challenging the freedom-loving reader to prove him wrong by overcoming the typical democrat's directionless drift, a drift that leads to Tyranny.  Encouraged by neither the state nor the prevailing temper of the times, any student capable of shame may yet, under the influence of a good teacher, seek other influences--the influence of Greek philosophy, for example--and practice an internal politics quite different from what prevails.  And there is always the fear of what may follow Democracy: of what may happen if no heroes arise." (354)
Was there something like this in the pedagogy of Strauss--attacking "democratic man" so that his freedom-loving students and readers would be challenged to prove him wrong?  After all, Altman praises Arlene Saxonhouse for recognizing the Platonic argument for democracy, but he does not identify her as a scholar influenced by Strauss (350, n. 142).

Altman might respond by arguing that the Straussians can't appreciate Plato's liberalism because they can't appreciate the dualism in which it is grounded.  But this contradicts what Altman notices about the purely naturalistic grounding of democracy in Book 8 of the Republic.  According to Altman, Socrates states "the single most important truth about democracy" (353) when he says: "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (562c).  If democracy is rooted in natural freedom, it's not clear that this requires any appeal to a supernatural dualism.  Altman writes:
"This is not to say, of course, that Democracy values the Idea of the Good: none of the defective cities do this.  But unlike the false forms of the merely apparent good sought after in Timocracy (honor), Oligarchy (wealth) and Tyranny (absolute power), Democracy's good is merely an indefinite plurality: freedom (cf. 562b10-c2).  Of course, Plato does not regard freedom per se as the Good.  In fact, it is worth repeating the central Idea of Platonism as often as necessary: Plato regards only the Idea of the Good as the Good.  But because the citizens of a democracy (unlike other cities) can agree on no one thing that is absolutely good--other than the freedom to seek after their good--only here is the door left open to philosophy, as 'the bazaar of constitutions' passage indicates." (Plato, 353-54)
Democratic freedom allows for human beings to pursue their natural desires, which includes the natural desire for intellectual understanding, and a few human beings will be inclined by this natural desire to live a life of philosophic inquiry, which might include questioning whether there is an Idea of the Good.  But regardless of what we might think about the Idea of the Good, we can recognize the natural goods of human life as constituted by the natural human desires.   Liberal democracy is naturally good in so far as it secures the freedom that is the condition for the possibility of the expression of those natural human desires.

My point here is that while Altman is surely right about Straussian anti-dualism--the tendency of Strauss and the Straussians to dismiss the metaphysical dualism of Platonism as not truly Plato's teaching--it's not clear that this must lead to Straussian anti-liberalism.

Moreover, I am not convinced by Altman's thesis about Nazi anti-dualism, because as I have argued in another post, many of the Nazi philosophers were neo-Kantian dualists who appealed to eternal values grounded in some transcendent realm of absolute good.

Clearly, Strauss was a critic of liberal democracy.  But the question in dispute is whether Strauss was a friendly or unfriendly critic.  Against Altman's claim that Strauss was an unfriendly critic of liberal democracy, Strauss's defenders can quote what appears to be a clear statement from Strauss: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy" (LAM, 24).

Altman identifies this as the "'Golden Sentence' of Straussian apologetics," because it is so frequently quoted to show that Strauss was a friend of democracy (GS, 356).  Altman's commentary on this sentence illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of his argumentation. 

The strength of his argument here is in pointing out Strauss's use of the word "we" in the Golden Sentence, in contrast to his multiple uses of "I," "me," and "my" in the first paragraph of the essay in which the Golden Sentence appears ("Liberal Education and Responsibiliy").  This is significant if one considers what Strauss says about how Maimonides uses the word "we" to distinguish a popular opinion from what he himself believes.

Strauss could have said: "I am not permitted to be a flatterer of democracy precisely because I am a friend and ally of democracy."  I agree that we should criticize Strauss for not speaking in such an emphatic way so that all his readers could recognize him as a friendly critic of liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, the weakness of Altman's commentary is that he fails to note that the immediate context of the Golden Sentence suggests a rather clear but qualified embrace of liberal democracy.  Strauss writes:
"What then are the prospects for liberal education within mass democracy?  What are the prospects for the liberally educated to become again a power in democracy?  We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.  While we are not permitted to remain silent on the dangers to which democracy exposes itself as well as human excellence, we cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence.  No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone. . . . As matters stand, we can expect more immediate help from the humanities rightly understood than from the sciences, form the spirit of perceptivity and delicacy than from the spirit of geometry.  If I am not mistaken, this is the reason why liberal education is now becoming almost synonymous with the reading in common of the Great Books.  No better beginning could have been made." (LAM, 24)
Notice that Strauss evokes the same Platonic argument for democracy that Altman adopts: "by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence."  Moreover, many of those influenced by Strauss--Martin Diamond and William Galston, for example--have developed this idea as supporting the conclusion that liberal democracy can cultivate human excellence by cultivating the "liberal virtues."

Moreover, the conviction that a liberal education through the Great Books can promote excellence, at least among those few open to such an education, underlies much of Strauss's influence in promoting the study of the classic texts of political philosophy as well as the Great Books generally. 

My criticism of Altman here is that in his determination to demonize Strauss as anti-liberal, he fails to acknowledge that he and Strauss ultimately agree in their friendly criticism or qualified embrace of liberal democracy as--in James Madison's words--"the least imperfect" form of government.  In his Plato book, Altman writes: "Indeed, the highest praise Plato has for Democracy is indirect.  Why wouldn't that be?  Everyone who has ever fought for Democracy with intellectual weapons knows that it is the worst form of government except for all the rest of them" (354-55).

One example of this "least imperfect" character of liberal democracy is the liberal distinction between state and society.  To demonstrate "Strauss's ineradicable hatred for Liberal Democracy," Altman quotes this "extraordinary passage":
"To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism.  Liberalism stands or falls by the distinction between the state and society or by the recognition of the private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere.  As certainly as the liberal state will not 'discriminate' against its Jewish citizens, as certainly is it constitutionally unable and even unwilling to prevent 'discrimination' against Jews on the part of individuals or groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private 'discrimination,' to protect it, and thus in fact to foster it.  The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibition against every kind of 'discrimination,' i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state." (Altman, GS, 517-18, quoting LAM, 230)
Altman complains that in affirming this as a "truth" in 1962, Strauss had chosen to blind himself to the truth of his experience in the United States where he had been free to live and work as a Jew without persecution.  What Strauss affirms here as a "truth" was actually something that he had learned in Weimar Germany, and he would not allow his American experience to show the falsity of this truth.  But to reach this conclusion, Altman has to pass over in silence Strauss's explanation that he accepts the "uneasy solution" to this problem offered by liberal democracy.  "There is nothing better than the uneasy solution offered by liberal society, which means legal equality plus private 'discrimination'" (JPCM, 317; LAM, 231). 

Strauss's willingness to accept the "uneasy solutions" of liberal democracy and his failure to endorse any anti-liberal alternative as providing superior solutions refute Altman's thesis of Straussian Nazism.

In fact, Altman implicitly concedes the weaknesses in this thesis.  He recognizes that Strauss regarded Hitler as a fool (GS, 323-26, 451-52, 515-16).  He also recognizes that there is no evidence that Strauss ever developed any positive program for moving towards a National Socialist society.

And yet, Altman insists that Strauss was "remarkably successful" in his project "to take Germany's western enemy out of the picture: to destroy Liberal Democracy's faith in itself" (516).  Where's the evidence for this?  Is there any evidence that Strauss and his students have in fact destroyed liberal democracy's faith in itself?  Clearly, many of those under Strauss's influence have actually defended liberal democracy--Jaffa, Diamond, Galston, Anastaplo, and many more.  Would Altman say that all of these people failed to get the secret message from Strauss?  If so, who did get the secret message that Strauss wanted to destroy liberal democracy's faith in itself?

In his section on "My Personal Encounter with Straussianism," Altman begins with this startling claim: "As is now the case with every American, I came under the influence of Leo Strauss long before I'd ever heard his name" (393).  Really?  Every American has been under Strauss's influence without knowing it?  And consequently, every American has been losing faith in liberal democracy?  Wild claims like this weaken Altman's argumentation.

Still, I am persuaded that Altman has shown that Strauss is open to the criticism that he was not emphatic enough in defending liberal democracy against the ideas of Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Heidegger.  Strauss never really offered a thorough refutation of these ideas, and instead he showed some attraction to them--most clearly in his lectures on "German Nihilism" and the "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism."  Significantly, these lectures were not published in Strauss's lifetime.

In "German Nihilism," Strauss seemed to admire the "young German nihilists."  Many of the ideas he attributed to them were recurrent themes of Strauss's writing.  For example:
"It is a moral protest.  That protest proceeds from the conviction that the internationalism inherent in modern civilization, or, more precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is at it were the goal of modern civilization, and therefore all aspirations directed toward that goal, are irreconcilable with teh basic demands of moral life.  That protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral; the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness." (GN, 358)
In "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," Strauss left his reader doubting whether there was any good refutation of Heidegger's Nazi attack on liberal democracy:
"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." (RCPR, 29)
George Anastaplo has told the story of trying to arrange a meeting between Strauss and Strauss's old friend Hans Jonas.  Anastaplo reports that Strauss refused to meet with Jonas because Jonas had met with Heidegger once in the late 1960s.  For Anastaplo, this showed Strauss's hatred of Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. 

I am not persuaded, however, that this story shows that Strauss exercised better judgment in his handling of Heidegger than did Jonas. Jonas had publicly criticized Heidegger's ideas.  In fact, his 1964 lecture on "Heidegger and Theology" provoked an international controversy because of the vehemence of Jonas's criticisms, and there was even a front page story in the New York Times about the controversy.  This led to lecture invitations for Jonas from around the world to explain his disagreements with Heidegger.  Jonas wrote to Heidegger demanding that he renounce his Nazism and confess his mistakes.  Jonas was disappointed when Heidegger refused to answer.  Strauss did nothing like this.  Instead, Strauss praised Heidegger--just after Heidegger had reaffirmed his support for Nazism in 1953--as "the only greater thinker in our time."  Anyone who wants to defend Strauss against Altman's charges must explain Strauss's behavior.


Will Altman said...

This is really a nice piece of commentary; I am very grateful for the insight you repeatedly show, the seriousness with which you are taking my arguments, and your willingness to consider the relationship between these two long books. Here are some responses to specific points: on Biblical Liberalism, particularly with regard to the Old Testament, see (in addition to the young Strauss's comments on the clash between prophets and kings and his support for the latter) Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, 2010). Next, I wish I'd responded earlier to your repeated claim about neo-Kantian Nazis; this just isn't right. See Peter E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Harvard, 2010), 264-65 and notes; this passage makes it clear that Neo-Kantianism, thanks to Hermann Cohen--and Strauss's antagonism to Cohen is central to my more controversial claims (see German Stranger, 296)--was regarded as Jewish by the Nazis. As for any common ground with Strauss on a chastened defense of liberalism, you are not paying due heed to his fateful and never denounced decision to call "a radical critique of liberalism" an "urgent task" in 1932 (Strauss on Schmitt, last words). Finally, although Strauss does note the Age of Heroes/Democracy link in CAM, he does not develop it along the pro-democracy lines I propose. Nor do I agree that Plato's defense of democracy is entirely this-wordly (this is probably why so few have seen that it is a defense!); it is the intangibility of the Idea that requires (a) the unfettered freedom to search for it, and (b) the unshakable awareness that no worldly institution--the City in particular--could fully embody it (see Plato the Teacher, 53). More generally, I don't think you have adequately considered the separation of Church and State--an absence of any defense for it in Strauss despite his lifelong fascination with "the theological-political problem" and, on the other hand, its Judeo-Christian/Platonic basis for me--in analyzing my argument (this point also leads back to the Laws). And finally, if my claims about Strauss and the theoretical basis of National Socialism are correct, the textual basis for them is first and foremost Strauss's invention of "the Second Cave." Once you admit that Judaism is the tradition responsible for it, the pieces fall into place, particularly the need to supplant the dualism essential to the first Cave, i.e. Plato's. But the crucial thing is that you have correctly and astutely placed dualism at the dead center of my story and I am beholden to you for doing so in this friendly, public, and thoroughly thoughtful way.

Larry Arnhart said...


The passage you cite from Gordon's book doesn't support your position that the Nazis were opposed to Kantian idealism. In fact, it shows just the opposite. This is clear in the source cited by Gordon--John Michael Krois, "Why Did Cassirer and Heidegger Not Debate in Davos."

Bruno Bauch and Othmar Spann criticized neo-Kantianism as not being truly Kantian. They argued that Jews like Cohen and Cassirer were "foreigners" who could not properly interpret a German philosopher like Kant.

Bauch was a Kantian in the tradition of Fichte. Bauch actually appealed to Plato's Idea of the Good in arguing that a philosophy of objective, eternal values based on Platonic/Kantian thought was the best philosophic basis for Nazism. (Much of this is covered in Hans Sluga's HEIDEGGER'S CRISIS: PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS IN NAZI GERMANY.)

The Kantian basis for the German nationalist tradition was set by Fichte's ADDRESSES TO THE GERMAN NATION. Heidegger's Rectoral Address draws its themes--crisis, nation, leadership, and order--from Fichte.

Notice, also, that Heidegger chose to end his Rectoral Address with a quotation from Plato's REPUBLIC (497d) to support his claim to philosophical leadership of the new regime.

Will Altman said...

Do you want to commit yourself to the view that Heidegger's citation of Plato's Republic indicates any truly Platonic element in his Rectorate? (I hope you aren't going to cite the old "back from Syracuse" remark as further evidence of MH's "Platonism" at this time). In any case, since we are now operating on the level of dualism, I am sure you realize that I'm not willing to bestow the label "Kantian" on anyone who makes no room for "the thing in itself" outside of Fichte's "I" (or, for that matter, outside of the "not-I" posited by Fichte's "I") any more than I admit that you can be a Platonist without affirming the transcendent Idea of the Good. In other words, I don't regard Fichte as any more Kantian than I regard Aristotle as Platonist; Kant's "Perpetual Peace" is Kantian; Fichte's Addresses are Fichtean. Since you cite Sluga and are familiar with Gordon, you know that Bruno Bauch attacked Cohen in 1917 just as Spann attacked Cassirer in 1929 and both of these lightweights did this in revenge for Marburg making Kant "Jewish"; I suppose you realize that I agree with this assessment while regarding Cohen and even Cassirer as Kant's legitimate heirs, not Spann and Bauch. Perhaps we could settle our differences on this point if you would admit that just as pro-Nazi "Kantians" denounced Marburg Neo-Kantians as "Jewish," so too no Marburg Neo-Kantians embraced NS. In addition to Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer, the attacks on Heidegger's Kantbuch by Siegfried Marck and Heinrich Levy deserve your attention; Eberhard Grisebach's as well. As for Krois, I don't find evidence for the position you find "clear" especially because your first paragraph seems to depend on "Kantian idealism." Given Kant's famous ""Refutation of Idealism" in the first Critique, this label is problematic. As for Krois, I take his claim to be that Cassirer was spooked at Davos by Spann, not that Cassirer's enemies were just as much or more Kantian than he. And in notes 40-41, Krois cites the texts that establish not only why the Nazis attacked Marburg in the person of Cassirer (Cohen and Natorp were dead) but why Marburg was right about Kant.

Will Altman said...

Here's a nice statement that preserves some validity for both of our positions; see Allan Kim's n. 23 at:
As much as I am enjoying our debate, I need to get back to working my Nietzsche book; I will only guarantee one more reply in this exchange; please forgive me.

bjdubbs said...

"Biblical dualism is one of Altman's less controversial claims."

This is where I had problems with what I read of Altman's book.
If "dualism" refers to both revelation and reason, it really has no meaning. Strauss sometimes draws the distinction between revelation and philosophy as the difference between voice and sight. Voice is not dualistic, but sight is. Sight (or intuition) leads to ideas in the sense of looks, ideas to permanence, and from permanence to eternity, ie dualism. That's Heidegger's account, which he aacribes to Plato and which largely agrees with the traditional interpretation of Plato. But Biblical revelation is not dualist in that sense. It would be anachronistic to describe the Old Testament as dualist. Only with Christianity is philosophical dualism introduced ie Platonism for the people. Hence for Strauss the second cave is not the product of Biblical revelation but through a distortion of Greek philosophy. Hence Altman's account of Strauss as a self-hating Jew is false.