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.

Xenophon said...

The best discussion of this issue I've seen is in Marc Guerra's article "The Ambivalence of Classic Natural Right: Leo Strauss on Philosophy, Morality, and Statesmanship." Perspectives on Political Science 28.2 (1999).

Guerra points out that Strauss's account of classic natural right in NRH wavers between an "Aristotelian" account of natural right which emphasizes natural sociality and community, the nobility of statesmanship and the moral-political virtues and a "Platonic" account which emphasizes philosophical rationality. The two accounts stand in dialectical tension. Your own Darwinian Natural Right would be very much in the Aristotelian camp.

Recounting the Aristotelian version, "Strauss goes so far as to claim that "humanity itself is sociality" and observes that human sociality has natural goods attached to it, such as "love, affection, friendship, and pity" (NRH p 129). Strauss maintains that it is sociality, a characteristic shared by human beings as human beings, that ultimately supplies the basis of natural right "in the narrow or strict sense of right" (NRH 129). For since human sociality is natural, it stands to reason that justice, the quintessential social virtue, is itself natural. On the most basic level, this means that the rules that govern human social relations at least implicitly must acknowledge that human beings are not simply free to act in any way they see fit. As Strauss powerfully formulates it, while human reason obviously allows for an elevated, increased form of freedom, it is also "accompanied by a sacred awe, by a kind of divination that not everything is permitted."(10) In the final analysis, nature imposes restraints on human beings that make life in society both possible and tolerable."

On the Aristotelian version, then, the highest human being, is not the philosopher but the statesman: "the full actualization of humanity would then seem to consist, not in some sort of passive membership in civil society, but in the properly directed activity of the statesmen, the legislator, or the founder. (NRH p. 133)

But then Strauss turns to the Socratic-Platonic description of the philosopher as one who seeks the truth and doesn't desire to rule: "By so doing, he gradually and subtly changes the terms on which his discussion is based. Whereas previously Strauss had spoken of natural right in terms of human beings' natural sociality and their perfection as moral and political beings, he now approaches natural right from the perspective of human beings' perfection as rational beings.(12) As a result of this shift of emphasis, Strauss slowly but perceptibly moves out of the realm of the just and the noble, the realm in which his preceding evaluation of political life had taken place. The prudent statesman who earlier had "seemed" to represent the full actualization of humanity eventually is replaced by the wise philosopher as the highest human type."

However Guerra goes on to say that the "mutilated human being" claim (NRH p 151) is a deliberate exaggeration of the Platonic side of the argument, citing a statement in Strauss's review of David Grene's book, cited in the footnote to NRH 152).

I don't know if he is right but I found his Guerra's article useful in thinking about these things.

Larry Arnhart said...

Although I haven't read Guerra's article, what you say sounds right to me. The Zuckerts have also written about how much of the differences among the Straussians depend on whether they favor the Aristotelian or the Platonic sides of Strauss, although Strauss himself ultimately seems to favor the Platonic side.