Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
Strauss, the Bible, and “Pseudo-Rationalism”
When Strauss contends that the classics rejected in advance the Machiavellian solution to what he calls “the human problem” (see 182), he should not be taken to mean that the classical authors would have had no sympathy for the political predicament in which “the triumph of the Biblical orientation” seems to have placed Machia- velli. In fact, Strauss’s “Restatement” emphasizes that Machiavelli could have criticized certain moral and political aspects of “Biblical righteousness” without departing in any way from the teaching of the classics. For instance, “after having made his bow to the Biblical interpretation of Moses,” Machiavelli subsequently “speaks of Moses in exactly the same manner in which every classical political philosopher would have spoken of him,” that is, as merely one of humanity’s great political founders or legislators. “Machiavelli interprets Moses in the ‘pagan’ manner”: in a manner consistent with the “classical, or ‘pagan,’” framework that Kojeve might have claimed the Bible has made obsolete (183*; cf. 177-178*). In this way, Machi- avelli continues in certain respects the tradition that “we still call, with pardonable ignorance, the Averroistic tradition,” meaning the classical tradition, which tends to interpret political events in light of “natural” rather than supernatural causes (184). Strauss even says that Machiavelli’s naturalistic interpretation of the political “ruin of Italy,” which departs from the Christian preacher Savonarola’s interpretation of the same event, is “in the same vein” as Maimonides’ naturalistic interpretation of the political “ruin of the Jewish kingdom,” in which Maimonides seems to depart from the Biblical interpretation and so to speak like an “Averroist” (see 184). Machiavelli’s political teaching thus contains numerous elements that could easily have been borrowed, not only from the classical political practice that he obviously admired, but even from the classical political philosophy that he “rejected” (cf 184).
Nonetheless, even while mentioning Machiavelli’s continuity with the “Averroistic” tradition, Strauss insists that he continues that tradition only “while radically modifying it,” and Strauss has already said that to “radically modify” means in some essential respect to “abandon” (cf. 184 with 177). He points to the significance of this radical modification by the very examples with which we have seen him illustrate Machiavelli’s partial continuity with the classical tradition, the first example having to do with Moses and the second with Maimonides. For it is in their respective interpretations of Moses that Machiavelli and Maimonides do diverge sharply, for all that they may at some point have offered similar interpretations of certain aspects of their nations’ political histories. Maimonides does not speak of Moses, as Machiavelli does, “in exactly the same manner in which every classical political philosopher would have spoken of him.” He does however speak of him in a manner heavily indebted to classical political philosophy: Maimonides interprets Moses as an equivalent to the Platonic philosopher-king, the founder of a perfect political community, one who moreover has “actually brought into being what the philosopher Plato could only postulate.” According to Strauss, this “modification” of Plato’s political philosophy “as such implies a critique of Plato,” but its result for Maimonides is that “the Platonic framework is only modified, in a certain respect broadened, but not exploded”—merely modified, not “radically” modified (cf. 184). Maimonides’ interpretation of Moses required him to avoid the question of the “origin” or efficient cause of the Mosaic Law and concentrate instead on the Law’s “end” or final cause; Machiavelli, by contrast, always concentrates on the origins or efficient causes of the Mosaic and all other political orders, as we might expect given what we have seen of his new, postclassical, nonteleological science of man (see 183—184). Strauss thus shows that Maimonides and Machia- velli were united in the recognition that the teachings of classical political philosophy offer insufficient guidance in the post-Biblical world, but that they attempted to solve this problem in opposite ways. Machiavelli adopted certain teachings of classical political philosophy only as part of his general rejection of its “framework,” a rejection that he undertook in “opposition” to the Biblical teaching. Maimonides made certain innovations relative to the classics’ teachings, but he did so only as part of his effort to understand the Biblical teaching on the basis of the classical framework, to show that the Biblical teaching “finds its place within the classical framework” (cf. 178), and hence to preserve both the Biblical teaching and that framework as much as possible. This allowed him to become the author of one of the “reconciliations . . . between the Biblical and the Aristotelian teachings” that would be rejected, first by the Protestant Reformers, and then by the early modern philosophers. It also allowed him to become the embodiment of that “rationalism” which, for Strauss, is “the truly natural model [of rationalism], the standard to be carefully guarded against any distortion, and hence the stumbling block on which modern rationalism comes to ruin,” and even “the standard measured against which the latter proves to be merely pseudo-rationalism.”
Still, the contrast between Machiavelli’s and Maimonides’ teachings about the Bible does not yet tell us what a classically minded philosopher would have done in Machiavelli’s own political situation, which after all differed significantly from Maimonides’. Strauss alludes to a particularly difficult aspect of that situation when conceding to Kojeve that any philosopher must indeed “act upon the city or upon the ruler.” Against Kojeve, Strauss asserts that this action politique des philosophes does not necessarily require a philosopher’s “participating . . . in the total direction of public affairs” in order to make his “philosophic pedagogy . . . effectual,” but rather only acting to “defend himself, or rather to defend the cause of philosophy” against the charge of corrupting the young, by “satisfying the city that the philosophers . . . do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences” (205-206*). This “defense of philosophy before the tribunal of the city” was according to Strauss “achieved by Plato with a resounding success . . . whose effects have lasted down to the present throughout all ages except the darkest ones,” and it was repeated successfully by three heirs to Plato who undertook the same defense in their own communities: Cicero in “Rome,” Alfarabi in “the Islamic world,” and Maimonides in “Judaism” (206). Strauss conspicuously fails to mention any Christian counterpart to Alfarabi and Maimonides, and this omission could certainly be taken to mean that no Christian philosopher had successfully taken up this political defense of philosophy in the premodern Christian world. Strauss does mention elsewhere that “in Christianity, philosophy became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of the student of the sacred doctrine,” but by not mentioning this fact among the “resounding successes” of philosophic politics, he implies that he does not consider this publically defensible philosophical- theological activity to be sufficiently similar to philosophy in “the strict and classical sense” of the term (cf. 212). In fact, since “the official recognition of philosophy in the Christian world made philosophy subject to ecclesiastical supervision,” it is fair to assume that Strauss has certain medieval Christian experiences in mind when he speaks in the “Restatement” of rulers who “in former ages” presented themselves as “the supreme exegetes of the only true philosophy” and hence persecuted philosophy while claiming to persecute only “false philosophies” (211). From this evidence one could conjecture that on Strauss’s interpretation, Machiavelli’s world presented an unprecedented danger to philosophy in the form of a tyrannical hybrid of pseudo-philosophy and political theology, that Machiavelli’s rejection of the moral strictures of classical political philosophy was motivated only by the desperate hope of preserving philosophy by attacking the Biblical roots of this political-spiritual tyranny, and hence that Strauss is “perhaps more sympathetic to Machiavelli’s rejection of [the classics’] authority than is often understood.”
This conjecture is however faced with two main difficulties. The first is that it has no support in any explicit statement by Strauss that I am aware of, either in the “Restatement” or anywhere else. Certainly none of his writings through the “Restatement” (in 1954) claims that mere difference of political circumstances, in the absence of a more substantive disagreement about human nature, could have led Machiavelli to his radical break with the classics. In the only passage of those writings drawing any connection between Machiavelli and the particular abuses of medieval Christendom, Strauss brings up the latter in a paragraph that claims to be explaining, not “the main point” of Machiavelli’s own “critique of classical political philosophy,” but merely the error of Machiavelli’s numerous contemporaries who thought he offered any genuine improvement on the classics and hence were what we might call “sympathetic to Machiavelli’s rejection of [the classics’] authority.” And the second difficulty with this conjecture is that Strauss, as if to anticipate that some readers might imagine and sympathize with such an antimoral defense of philosophy as it describes, goes out of his way to show that he himself would reject any such defense. He states in his own name that the political defense of philosophy in the spirit of the classics, that is, the attempt to show philosophers as “reverent” (“not atheists”) and “good citizens,” “was required always and everywhere, whatever the regime might have been” (205-206, emphasis added).
His explanation for this assertion (in keeping with what we have seen above) is that “morality,” which also cannot be separated from “citizenship and religion,” is to be found wherever there are human beings (206*). When he does speak of the pseudo-philosophic tyrants just mentioned, he says that philosophers of the past who were confronted with them simply “went underground,” adopting an exoteric teaching that protected them from those tyrants even as it simultaneously, and quietly, undermined the tyrants’ intellectual pretensions so as to liberate (only) “potential philosophers” from their spell (211). Since Machiavelli hardly meets this description of “philosophers of the past,” Strauss evidently does not think he was responding to the same situation that they were—unless one were to deny that Strauss considered him a philosopher “in the strict and classical sense” of the term. Moreover, by calling those pseudo-philosophic tyrants “rulers who believed they knew things which they did not know,” Strauss reminds us of the famous Socratic view of all nonphilosophic rulers and indeed all nonphilosophic human beings, of whom these rulers are merely a particularly egregious case (211; see 201). It is therefore not surprising that he elsewhere identifies this same strategy of going “underground” as the strategy adopted by all “‘the philosophers’” in “imperfect cities, i.e. in the world as it actually is and as it always will be.” For Strauss, “society” as such, not merely medieval Christian society, “will always try to tyrannize thought” (27). Whatever political problems medieval Christendom may have presented to Machiavelli or other philosophers, then, those problems cannot (for Strauss) have radically altered the dangerous situation in which philosophy always and everywhere finds itself. Philosophers will always have to manage that situation as best they can, as Strauss all but asserts that some were able to even in medieval Christendom, and their inevitable difficulties in doing so could never (in his mind) justify a Machiavellian project of politicalreligious revolution that would attack the basic and universal moral awareness which is, we have seen, essential to man’s humanity.
But for Strauss, any historical question about the origins of Machiavelli’s project should ultimately be subordinate to the more urgent question of how we ought to live today, both as individuals and as citizens (see 22-23, 78, 177). We should therefore conclude with one last observation by Strauss about the Bible and modernity that bears on that question. Kojeve had argued that “anyone who would like to be able to grant, as Hegel does, that there is a meaning to history and historical progress’ (Kojeve evidently includes himself in this category) “should” accept Hegel’s understanding of the end of History (169). In responding to this, Strauss does not say whether the classics would have “liked to be able to grant” what Hegel grants, but he does assert that they did not grant it: they “did not dream of a fulfillment of History and hence not of a meaning of History.” They did speak of a best regime, a “utopia,” but they held that its actualization “depends on chance” (210). “Modern man,” however, “dissatisfied with utopias and scorning them, has tried to find a guarantee for the actualization of the best social order,” which of course “modern man” could do only by presupposing a “lowering” of the “goal of man” relative to the classics’ understanding of that goal (210). As Strauss had said in his earlier discussion of utopias, “modern men are in the habit of expecting too much” (188). In that earlier context, Strauss was complaining that “the trouble of today is largely that” people do not take “seriously enough” such “little actions” as that of Xenophon’s Simonides, who had to go to considerable efforts, including cozying up at length to the tyrant Hiero and taking pains to “present himself” to him as the sort of “utterly unscrupulous man” to whom a tyrant might listen, all with no greater end in view than convincing Hiero to make the minor political improvement of not taking part in the Olympian games (188*, 53-56, 63). “Modern men” apparently have unrealistic expectations about the possibilities for political improvement: they would not have taken such “little actions” “seriously enough” because they would have expected Simonides when confronting a tyrant to attempt some greater reformation, as for example the prophet Nathan did when confronting King David over a tyrannical action of his (see 117n61). We “modern men” in some way share our high expectations from politics with Biblical prophets.
In contrast to Kojeve and other “modern men,” “the philosopher” according to Strauss “fully realizes the limits set to all human action and all human planning (for what has come into being must perish again)” and so “does not expect salvation or satisfaction from the establishment of the simply best political order” (200). In particular, Strauss is certain that even the universal and homogeneous state “will perish sooner or later” and hence that the most a Hegelian could reasonably expect in the way of that state’s alleged finality is that “the identical historical process which has led from the primitive horde to the final state will be repeated” (209, 238). To his hypothetical Hegelian’s expected disappointment at this prediction, Strauss replies: “But would such a repetition of the process—a new lease of life for man’s humanity—not be preferable to the indefinite continuation of the inhuman end [i.e., to the end of history and the last man]? Do we not enjoy every spring although we know the cycle of the seasons, although we know that winter will come again?” (209). The answers to these rhetorical questions are less obvious than they might seem (raising such questions being a favorite technique of Strauss’s), for only a few sentences earlier, Strauss had described such an interminable “cycle” of human history with the words “Vanitas vanitatum,” the opening words of Qoheleth in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (209). “Vanity of vanities” is the bleak judgment that the Biblical Qoheleth expresses on precisely that perpetual and unchanging cycle of seasons that Strauss claims that, or rather asks whether, “we” can in fact “enjoy” (see Ecclesiastes 1:2- 10). Qoheleth experiences, or at least comes close to experiencing, the very “despair” that Strauss asserts we have “no reason” to feel even if the classics are right that such a cycle governs human history (209). Kojeve and Qoheleth both revolt against the idea that the history of the world has no “meaning.” There is then something to Kojeve’s claim that modern philosophy is the “secularized form of Christianity” (207): “modern men,” even avowed atheists like Kojeve, share the revulsion that any Biblical believer would feel at the bleakness of the classical view of the cosmos, a revulsion to which an entire book of the Bible gives powerful witness.
Strauss does not make clear whether he regards this Biblically minded revulsion as a cause of the success of modern philosophy— that is, whether the high “expectations” spread by Biblical morality might have contributed to the broad attractiveness of the modern project to relieve man’s estate—or whether it is rather an effect of that success, or for that matter whether it is neither. He does not accuse Machiavelli himself of having shared Kojeve’s unphilosophically high “expectations,” although he does elsewhere make just such an accusation against Hobbes. But Strauss’s most significant point in indicating this hidden kinship between Kojeve and the Bible does not, it seems to me, relate to any efficient-causal account of the development or success of modern philosophy. It relates rather to one of the most massive obstacles that Strauss sees to the recovery of the classical “orientation.” For “philosophy in the strict and classical sense,” as he understands it, “requires liberation from the most potent natural charm,” the “charm that consists in unqualified attachment to human things as such.” Only such “liberation” can make possible the truly philosophic “detachment from human concerns,” or the acceptance of “the ultimate futility of human causes” without despair at that futility, that is absent from both Kojeve and Qoheleth (see 202-203). One of the strongest claims that the Bible can make on the human soul, a claim that (as he indicates in such asides as the one just quoted) Strauss experienced more acutely than he often shows in his public writings, is that its teaching speaks directly to those “human concerns” that classical philosophy demands in some crucial sense that we abandon. Kojeve, in believing himself to be a philosophic atheist while maintaining a deep attachment to those concerns, is in Strauss’s view trying to “eat the cake and have it.” For Strauss himself, those human concerns ought to point one, not to Machiavelli’s purported “secularization” of the Biblical teaching or any of its later iterations in modern philosophy, but to the Biblical teaching itself.
The “Restatement” maintains considerable ambiguity as to the degree to which Strauss himself endorses the classical view that he defends against Kojeve’s attack. It therefore bears reemphasizing in conclusion that he nowhere claims to have defended that view against the Biblical view that he regards as its more serious alternative. Nor does the “Restatement” give any indication of how Strauss’s model, Maimonides, achieved a “reconciliation” between these apparently opposed views of man’s place in the whole. Nor, emphatically, does Strauss argue that we ourselves should try to avoid Kojeve’s inconsistency by adopting instead that classical and un-Biblical “detachment from human concerns” that even Strauss refuses to endorse unequivocally. For according to Strauss, “what is popularly known as the philosophic attitude toward all things which are exposed to the power of chance, is not a preserve of the philosopher. But a detachment from human concerns which is not constantly nourished by genuine attachment to eternal things, i.e., by philosophizing, is bound to wither or to degenerate into lifeless narrowness” (202). Not our ability to imitate superficially the outward attitude of classical philosophers, but rather our understanding of our own natural “awareness of sacred restraints,” is the only yardstick that Strauss’s “Restatement” offers as any measure of our progress in moral and political self-knowledge. If Strauss’s text offers any practical recom?mendation, then, it is surely that we use Maimonides and his classical teachers as our guides in the pursuit of that self-knowledge—a knowledge that, as Strauss’s dialogue with Kojeve demonstrates ad oculos, has not been made any easier of access by the great successes of the Machiavellian project.
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