Saturday, February 16, 2013

Will Altman's German Trilogy and Leo Strauss's Third Wave of Modernity

At the end of the summer, the American Political Science Association will be meeting in Chicago.  For that meeting, I have proposed a panel on William Altman's book The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism (2011), which makes the provocative argument that Strauss was the secret theoretician of National Socialism. 

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Altman's book on Strauss.  I argued that Altman does not prove his strongest claim--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).  But I also conceded that Altman does show a disturbing refusal of Strauss to clearly and emphatically state his defense of liberal democracy against the anti-liberal position of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt.  By contrast, Strauss's friend Hans Jonas was very clear and emphatic in his criticism of Heidegger for failing to apologize for his endorsement of Nazism.

If my panel proposal is approved, my contribution will be to indicate how Altman's book on Strauss needs to be read in conjunction with the other three books that Altman has published in the last three years (all published by Lexington Books): Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (2012), Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration (2012), and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich (2013).  (To have published four books in three years that show impressive scholarship and intellectual depth would be a great achievement for any university professor, and so it's remarkable that Altman is a public high school teacher!)

In the Preface to his Nietzsche book, Altman indicates that this book along with his books on Heidegger and Strauss can be seen as a "German trilogy," following a tripartite structure suggested by Strauss in his "Three Waves of Modernity."  According to Strauss, the First Wave of modernity came with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the Second Wave came with Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; and the Third Wave came with Nietzsche and Heidegger.  But if each wave comes through a sequence of three thinkers, who is the third thinker of the Third Wave?  Surely, Altman suggests, it must be Strauss.  And if the Third Wave leads to fascism, as Strauss indicated, then this would point to Strauss as the thinker who most fully worked out the theory of fascism or Nazism as the anti-liberal solution to the crisis of liberal democracy.

Consequently, Altman's books on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss can be understood as a "German trilogy" that works through the three stages of the Third Wave of modernity as the consummation of the crisis of liberalism and the emergence of an anti-liberal alternative.

If Strauss was completing what Nietzsche had started, then we should see all the elements of Strauss's critique of liberalism in Nietzsche's writings.  And, in fact, Altman claims, we see in Nietzsche the five components of National Socialism as Strauss understood it:
"(1) a radical anti-Christianity that explains even Nietzsche's rejection of Christian anti-Judaism, (2) a crystal clear sense of the Jewish origins of Christianity, (3) an interest in the use of exotericism, (4) a rejection of racialist anti-Semitism, and (5) the valorization of Israel's kings as opposed to her prophets." (xiv-xv)
Most fundamental for all of these components of National Socialism is a monistic metaphysics of secularization that rejects the dualistic metaphysics of Plato as expressed in Judaism and Christianity as a Jewish religion.  For this reason, Altman's book on Plato is connected to his "German trilogy" of books, because Altman defends Plato as the proponent of a metaphysical dualism that supports the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and liberal democracy.  Thus does Altman defend a transcendentalist dualism that is Platonic, Jewish, Christian, and liberal against a materialist monism that is anti-Platonic, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-liberal.

Altman suggests that Pope Benedict XVII agrees with his interpretation of National Socialism.  He quotes from the Pope's remarks in 2006 during a visit to the Auschwitz Camp:
"By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they [sc. the Nazis] ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful."
Yes, Altman argues, that's exactly what Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss wanted to do.

I will have more to say about Altman's account of Nietzsche in my next post.  As you might expect from my previous posts on Nietzsche, I will defend the Darwinian science of Nietzsche's middle period as morally, politically, and intellectually superior to the early and late writings of Nietzsche, and thus I will disagree with Altman in his playing down the distinctiveness of Nietzsche's Darwinian middle period.

My previous posts on Altman can be found here, here, and here.  My previous posts on Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity" can be found here and here.

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