Friday, November 30, 2018
Leo Strauss, Esoteric Writing, and "The Most Terrible Truth" of Evolution
At the Claremont Institute's American Mind website, Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise have replied to my recent post on "Strauss, Darwin, and the Pursuit of Comprehensive Natural Science," which was a response to an earlier essay of theirs. The fundamental question in this discussion is why the scholars in the tradition of Leo Strauss have failed to take seriously modern natural science in the pursuit of a comprehensive science of the whole.
The answer to this question, I suggest, is that Strauss and his followers believe that science--particularly, Lucretian atomism and Darwinian evolution--teaches "the most terrible truth," and that those few philosophers or scientists who can bear this terrible truth must hide this truth from the great multitude of human beings who would be harmed by it.
According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times" ("Persecution and the Art of Writing," 34). That's why premodern philosophers wrote esoterically to protect the vulgar from those harmful truths discovered by the philosophic few.
When a writer has a deeply disturbing message that he wants to transmit to his philosophic readers while hiding it from his vulgar readers, Strauss suggested, there are various techniques available to him. One is to hide his most unpopular views by putting them at the center of his text, because readers tend to pay more attention to the beginning and ending of what they read than to the middle.
In Strauss's Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), the central chapter--and the longest chapter--is a commentary on Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. The exact center of the book is page 135, where Strauss concludes his study of Lucretius by explaining "the most terrible truth." Strauss saw Lucretius as the exponent of "liberalism ancient and modern," because Lucretius was the one premodern thinker who came closest to modern liberal thought, particularly as based on modern natural science. The central insight of Lucretius's argument is that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (LAM, viii). Lucretius proves the mortality of the world as a product of emergent evolution from atoms in motion: "the world is one of the many arrangements of atoms which in a very long time came about through the furious clashes of the blind atoms without the intervention of an ordering mind or a peaceful agreement between the atoms; and once it has come about, it preserves itself for a long time" (123). Since the world is not the product of an ordering mind, the world is not teleological, although it contains intelligent species--particularly, human beings--that have evolved to be teleological in their natural striving to satisfy their natural desires (125-26). Since the world is not intelligently designed by a divinely providential mind, the world is indifferent to human beings and thus provides no cosmic support for human purposes. Moreover, while the world is enduring, it is not eternal. The world and everything in it--including the human species and all other species of life--will eventually collapse into the ceaseless motion of atoms that will then produce another world. This is, Strauss believed, "the most terrible truth."
Notice that this terrible truth assumes atheism--the universe is not ordered by a providential Creator. In his published writing, Strauss always said that reason could not refute revelation. That was his exoteric teaching. But in writing that was not published until after his death--particularly, his lecture on "Reason and Revelation" at Hartford Theological Seminary--he stated his esoteric teaching that reason had actually refuted revelation. In that same lecture, he referred to the truth of Darwin's science of evolution as part of reason's refutation of the Bible.
Atheism is a terrible truth for most human beings because they are terrified by the thought that the universe is not permanently or eternally hospitable to human life--that the cosmic conditions for the possibility of human life arise only for a brief moment. Think about photosynthesis, for example. As is true for the history of all life, the history of human life depends on the photosynthetic flow of energy from the Sun through the biosphere of the Earth. Photosynthesis was impossible until about 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic cyanobacteria began to raise the level of oxygen. All complex life as we know it depends on this atmospheric oxygen, and also on the right levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When these conditions disappear--perhaps a billion years in the future--life on Earth will be impossible.
Farther off into the future, the Sun will burn out. And then, even farther off, the Universe will continue to expand until it becomes a dark, cold place filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles.
Most of us need esoteric writing to protect us from this "most terrible truth" that everything we care about must die in a lifeless universe that does not care about or for us.
Ellmers and Wise seem to deny this in affirming cosmic teleology. "We can see," they write, "the reasonableness of an order for which intelligence is immanent and which thus tends, permanently, to produce a creature that thinks as it does. Cosmic teleology has thus in a way not been denied by modern science, but it has, unwittingly, been affirmed." "Permanently"?
Some Straussians--like Arthur Melzer in his book on esoteric writing--have suggested that esotericism is no longer necessary or desirable, because the success of liberalism and the scientific enlightenment in achieving open societies allows us to see now that scientific or philosophic truth is no threat to social order or human happiness. Liberal social order can be based on the scientific truth of moral anthropology without any need for the noble lie of a moral cosmology that prevailed in traditional societies of the past. Now we can see that the "most terrible truth" is not so terrible after all.
But if this is so--that liberalism's success denies the need for esoteric writing--then this would deny Strauss's central claim that the philosophic life and the vulgar life must always be in deep conflict, so that the public communication of philosophic or scientific truth can never be possible or desirable.
Some of my posts on Strauss and the "most terrible truth" of science are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Some of my posts on Strauss's atheism and esoteric writing are here, here, here. and here.
One of my posts on the esoteric atheism of the American Founders can be found here.