Friday, July 10, 2015

Did Leo Strauss Think that Liberalism's Success Denied the Need for Esoteric Writing?

I have written a series of posts--here, here, and here-- about Arthur Melzer's book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  Some of the writing in those posts is included in an article--"Does Modern Liberalism's Success Deny the Need for Esoteric Writing and Thus Refute Strauss?"--that has just been published in Perspectives on Political Science (July/September, 2015). 

This entire issue of PPS is devoted to a symposium of essays on Melzer's book edited by Peter Minowitz.  The other authors are Francis Fukuyama, Norma Thompson, Catherine Zuckert, Michael Zuckert, Michael Frazer, Adrian Blau, Douglas Burnham, Miguel Vatter, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers, and Peter Augustine Lawler.  The next issue of PPS will have four or five new articles on the book and Melzer's response to the entire symposium.  (If you have access to any good academic library, you should be able to download PPS.)

My main idea is that Melzer's book points to a contradiction in Leo Strauss's account of esoteric writing.  On the one hand, Strauss seems to agree with the pre-modern view that esoteric writing is necessary and desirable because of the natural conflict between the philosophic life of the few and the moral, religious, or political life of the many.  On the other hand, Strauss seems to agree with the modern view that in a liberal or open society, there is no natural conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life, and therefore esoteric writing is unnecessary and undesirable.

None of the other authors in the PPS symposium explicitly recognize this contradiction.  But some of them do implicitly point to it.  Some of them say that Strauss  agrees with the pre-modern view of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, as a life for a few human beings that must conflict with the practical life of the many, and therefore esoteric writing is necessary and desirable to keep these opposing lives from harming one another.  And yet some of these authors also say that Strauss endorses modern liberal democracy in establishing open societies in which esoteric writing is no longer necessary or desirable, because complete freedom of thought and speech does not weaken the social order of a liberal society.

So far, I have not seen anyone who can clear up this apparent contradiction in Strauss's writing.  Nor have I seen anyone who can plausibly deny that modern liberalism really has succeeded in creating a largely open society with no need for esoteric writing.  In such a society, the philosophic life is not the only naturally good life restricted to a few, but it is rather one of the natural goods of life that is open to all human beings.  On this point, I agree with Lawler, who writes:
"As St. Augustine says, action and contemplation are for all of us.  Even Socrates should have practiced the virtues of generosity and charity and parental responsibility, and all of us should have some time--because we're all given the inward inclination--to contemplate the truth about who each of us is and what we're born to do.  This line of thinking is the way both to restore the dignity of liberal education and to recover the truthful foundation of the rights we all cherish.  The bottom line: I don't think we should practice esoteric writing, and I don't think it ever faithfully or unambiguously served the truth.  Truths that Melzer presents as once esoteric and now inauthentic commonplaces among sophisticates (e.g., that love is an illusion and suffering is meaningless) turn out not to be true, deep down, after all" (203).

Lawler has responded to this post on his "Postmodern Conservative" blog.


djf said...

Perhaps the contradiction is a clue that Strauss himself was writing esoterically.

I'm not so sure that the need for esoteric writing has disappeared. Indeed, in our purportedly "liberal" society, it seems to be getting more and more dangerous - not to one's life or liberty, so far, but certainly to one's career and wealth - to write candidly on certain topics from any perspective other than the "progressive" one.

CK MacLeod said...

Or the conflict remains, but not usually or as much under the liberal regime, to the extent it is authentically a liberal regime, for the philosopher preparing to publish. Following Meier's view of Straussian philosophical politics, it would be at the moment of subjective doubt that the philosopher would be moved to consider a political intervention simultaneously in the interests both of the liberal regimes or its citizens and of philosophy. I'm not sure why we need to presume that the determination of the right moment or of the correct course of action would be available before the fact and according to some scientifically rigorous standard or in some perfectly consistent manner. Ambiguity, uncertainty, and the discovery of contradictions might be inherent, at the origin and likely also at the outcome of the entire matter, and the suspicion that the philosopher must in fact be hiding some ulterior certitude from "the city" unjustified and itself "unphilosophical."

Wade McKenzie said...

The habit of writing against the government had, of itself, an unfavorable effect on the character. For whoever was in the habit of writing against the government was in the habit of breaking the law; and the habit of breaking even an unreasonable law tends to make men altogether lawless….

From the day on which the emancipation of our literature was accomplished, the purification of our literature began…. During a hundred and sixty years the liberty of our press has been constantly becoming more and more entire; and during those hundred and sixty years the restraint imposed on writers by the general feeling of readers has been constantly becoming more and more strict…. At this day foreigners, who dare not print a word reflecting on the government under which they live, are at a loss to understand how it happens that the freest press in Europe is the most prudish.


Once one gets past the translation of Xenophon’s Hiero which precedes the main body of Strauss’s On Tyranny, the above quotation from Macaulay is the very first piece of text that the reader encounters. Strauss placed the quote directly before his own “Introduction”. Again, aside from the Hiero itself–concerning which Strauss’s On Tyranny is a commentary–this quote is the very first thing one reads.

Question: Why did Strauss append this quote to the beginning of On Tyranny? What was his intention in so doing?

Anonymous said...

In his "Persecution and the Art of Writing" essay, Strauss writes about the care taken by writers to preserve their own selves. They write with subtlety to have something like "plausible deniability" with the whole thing.

What are some of the examples he gives? He embraces the full spectrum of punishments, including "the most cruel type, as exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition, to the mildest, which is social ostracism." To be sure, one prefers ostracism to being nailed to a cross, but ostracism is not to be simply dismissed.

Why? It seems clear: Thinking is a social sort of thing. Socrates was impolitic from time to time, but he also played the fool and flattered the vanities of his interlocutors. He practiced private politics, maintaining friendships about the city -- indeed, he was more a friend than a father or husband, it seems!

And we can conclude without debate that social ostracism is still a powerful weapon in liberal societies. We make even more an art of it because the older, "nail-em-to-the-cross" option is no longer tolerated -- ostracism is our strongest weapon. To approximate Tocqueville, democracy will "leave you your life, but it is a life worse than death."

So esoteric writing may be merited in a liberal society if one wanted to present "illiberal truths" -- we concede that some truths may be illiberal? -- without the risk of ostracism and what accompanies it. Perhaps the "intelligent young men" -- the "puppies of his race," as he wonderfully puts it -- would be warned off of his or her work without having had the chance to read it.

Beyond this possibility of finding friendship is the issue Strauss raises of harm: The philosopher may do harm by speaking too brashly about things that could be distorted. Nietzsche, a philosopher-masquerade and among the most brash, fell victim to no small amount of distortion and weaponization from the Nazis and others.

This is so much to say that, if one accepts the reason for esoteric writing, there is no reason to think a moment in time where society is "liberal" should put a halt to the practice.

If one disagrees with the classic conception of the philosophic life entirely, however - as the author and Mr. Lawler seem to - then that is a separate conversation.

Larry Arnhart said...

Are you saying that Strauss wrote esoterically, because he had a illiberal teaching that he had to keep secret to avoid social ostracism? If so, what was the secret?

Anonymous said...

That's a good question; I can't confess to having a satisfactory answer from personal insight.

I can only give an inclination, which would be that Strauss did not understand himself to be among the high philosophic minds. So his primary effort is to say something about how (and who) to read and to demonstrate it through interpretation of thinkers he believed were necessary to understand in order to address what was, in his view, a contemporary crisis.

Thoughts and opinions came from that - he wrote a fair deal outside of commentaries, of course - but I can't say that any of Strauss' writings I'm familiar with elevate him to the level of those he studied. So I'm immediately less likely to think him a practitioner of the art.

There are holes in that argument, naturally. Enough of Strauss' descendents seem to argue he did or didn't have such secrets. But I've not been convinced by anything... Strauss seems more the "handmaiden of the handmaiden" of philosophy.