Arnhart: “Did Leo Strauss Think that Liberalism’s Success Denied the Need for Esoteric Writing?”

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Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  1. Avatar CK MacLeod
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    Left a reply at Arnhart’s blog as follows…

    Or the conflict [briefly, between freedom and prudence] 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 regime 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.”

    – but still haven’t gotten to your post…Report

  2. Avatar CK MacLeod
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    Now having read your post, I think we’re in some agreement. Arnhart seems to be looking for a perfect consistency that Strauss’ approach doesn’t contemplate, and that Strauss in various ways and at various points warns against seeking. To use Strauss’ terms, he is clear that the nature of the liberal-democratic and constitutional regime worthy of allegiance, as a “decent” regime, was also that of a “mixed” regime, one in which the tension between “philosophy” and political theology (or the “politico-religious”) must remain unresolved. If truly unresolved, then those contradictions might at any time produce a danger of the old type, or reminiscent of it – or potentially worse. The decent regime was therefore not an example of “the best regime” as “the classics” defined the latter, but remained a type of regime of which “the classics” would approve and accept compared to the alternatives. A more pessimistic observer like Adorno, who shared some of Strauss’ experiences. background, and main interests, but came at these questions from the left, might say that in a bad world (our world) a good life was impossible, but even he, in the end, stood up for a kind of classical moderation and philosophical humility against a tide of radical perfectionism.Report

  3. Avatar Wade McKenzie
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    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.

    ~Macaulay

    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?Report

    • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Wade McKenzie
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      @wade-mckenzie : Interesting question!Report

      • Avatar Wade McKenzie in reply to CK MacLeod
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        says:

        Well, CK, you’re an able interpreter–please take a shot at answering my query. The quote itself, I believe, supplies the answer to my question–it is, so to speak, self-evident.

        I’m not trying to trap you–I’m genuinely interested in what you (or anyone else) might have to say about it.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Wade McKenzie
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          (I’ll be thinking about it, and I’ve now re-read the Introduction – a pleasure – but, as I’m suffering from eye-strain to the point that I could hardly make out the words by the end, don’t wait on the edge of your virtual seat for me this evening (PST).)Report

          • Avatar Wade McKenzie in reply to CK MacLeod
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            Thanks, CK–I myself will be offline this weekend, but I’ll be sure to check back next week. Since you mentioned your pleasure in re-reading the introduction, I couldn’t resist the temptation to experience the pleasure for myself–and I was struck by the following passage:

            We are now brought face to face with a tyranny which holds out the threat of becoming, thanks to “the conquest of nature” and in particular of human nature, what no earlier tyranny ever became: perpetual and universal. Confronted by the appalling alternative that man, or human thought, must be collectivized either by one stroke and without mercy or else by slow and gentle processes, we are forced to wonder how we could escape from this dilemma.

            Now Strauss published this work very shortly after the Second World War, and it seems clear that his reflections on the prospect (as opposed to the retrospect) of a tyranny contemporaneous to the time of the book’s present cannot have reference to Nazi Germany.

            Question: Are we–the United States–undertaking “the conquest of nature and in particular of human nature”? Of course we are. Strauss says that brings us “face to face” with the prospect of something like an infinite tyranny.

            Confronted by the appalling alternative that man, or human thought, must be collectivized either by one stroke and without mercy or else by slow and gentle processes[…]

            This seems to be a reference to, on the one hand, the Soviet Union and, on the other, the United States.

            Of course, we might avert the prospect of the United States evolving “by slow and gentle processes” into a “perpetual and universal” tyranny, if only we might restrain ourselves therefrom. According to Macaulay, that is what the British did: they exercised an admirable restraint, despite the liberty–with its attendant temptation to license–which they enjoyed.Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Wade McKenzie
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              Wade McKenzie: According to Macaulay, that is what the British did: they exercised an admirable restraint, despite the liberty–with its attendant temptation to license–which they enjoyed.

              I think you’re mostly on track with the first part of the comment, but may lose the thread in that last sentence, as I don’t think Macaulay meant to express admiration, and I don’t think that’s how Strauss was using the quote.

              I think a more just interpretation is that, as one scholar puts it, pointing to the use of the Macaulay epigraph for support, “Strauss recognizes that democratic societies may even impose their own forms of self-censorship that inhibit, even if they do not absolutely forbid, certain forms of free expression.” So, the self-restraint being attributed to the British press of Macaulay’s time is not a positive or purely admirable characteristic in this context, especially when associated with the word “prudish.” Though I don’t think “prudish” is intended here to refer to discussion specifically of sexual matters, the connotation would remain pejorative, referring to someone who responds reflexively – by habit, or priggishly, rather than thoughtfully – to mention of the unmentionable. (I often think of the discussion of homosexual eros in Hiero and of Strauss’ utterly unblinking discussion of the discussion: Not what one would normally expect from staid “conservative” writing of the post-war period.)

              We do often find ourselves using the same words for both types of taboo speech: We call certain types of political expression “obscene” as though a presumed wrong idea about political order is offensive or indecent in the same way that depiction of a sex act, especially one involving disgusting or violent acts, or a type of profanity, is taken to be offensive or indecent. We may even have reached or be approaching the point in popular culture where the word “obscene” applies meaningfully only to forbidden political ideas.

              Yet I also think it would be simplistic and absurd to suggest that Strauss is speaking up in general “for obscenity” or in favor of “anything goes” in politics, culture, or in any other way. Strauss’ main question here is, after all, why modern political science or “the new political science” offered little or nothing in the face of the new, worse tyrannies of the modern age, and his argument is that the performance leaves us no good reason to trust it going forward (“it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns”). Since our modern political science and our connected historicist inversion of history offer uncertain protection or perhaps even disarm us, he seeks a way to preserve and nurture or perhaps restore an ability to recognize the authentically obscene as such. (Clearly we do retain it or some of it or we found it somewhere, since the new, worse, total tyrannies did not in fact achieve, or have not yet achieved, total victory.)

              I’ll leave further remarks on OT itself and the development of the debate with Kojeve for some other time – perhaps after Chris has performed the reading he has now assigned himself. Before ending this hijack of Mr. Rowe’s thread, I’ll also note that, while looking for evidence of anyone else addressing Strauss’s use of Macaulay, I ran across another Macaulayism said by Harry Jaffa to have been a Strauss favorite, describing the difference between political speech and philosophical inquiry:

              If [political speeches] effect that which they are intended to effect, they are rational though they may be contradictory. If they fail of obtaining their end, they are absurd.

              I’d recommend it as a motto to most Ordinary regulars, since they normally proceed from presumptions, ones they naturally take to be obligatory, of possession in hand of the good and the true, and see themselves as able to judge the quality of a thought by the extent to which it conforms to those presumptions.

              I think the difference returns us to the initial interesting question: Strauss’ bald statement in the Introduction is that “Society will always try to tyrannize thought.” The simple sentence evokes a lengthier statement (that I’ve used elsewhere), written around the same time as ON TYRANNY, on the struggle between “revelation” and “philosophy” – including: “In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis however impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed, more or less subtly, but in any event surely, to the other: philosophy which means to be the queen must be made the handmaid of revelation or vice versa.” I think with the Macaulay epigraph, which refers to a time period corresponding to “post-Enlightenment modernity” historically, or the rise of the modern mass society, Strauss is illustrating one means by which that state (and – or through – its intellectuals) makes itself more vulnerable to tyranny – whether by falling before a tyrant or or by turning tyrannical on its own. Strauss is, I think, clearly writing against both potential tyrannies, and he is not being “esoteric” about it – he is putting the problem before us in very plain speech. That we or some of us see it as anything else reinforces the sense of danger, even as the act itself, refers us quietly (but not esoterically) to a hope that, in certain circumstances – contemplating mountains of corpses, for example – it may seem obscene, or just almost obscene, to mention.Report

              • Avatar Wade McKenzie in reply to CK MacLeod
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                CK: I just wanted to signify that I’ve re-read your comment. I asked a question about Strauss’s purpose in including the Macaulay quote in the context of his commentary on Xenophon’s Hiero. That question intrigues me, though I’m not sure it particularly intrigues anyone else. However, you were kind enough to write this comment that grapples with my question about the quote. Initially, I felt that your approach to the quote was “wildly off”, if you will. Upon reviewing your comment and its exposition of the quote from Macaulay, I realize that my first response itself was wildly off. By drawing attention to the prospect that Macaulay himself is speaking in an ironic voice–something I’d not hitherto considered–I believe you’ve made a valuable contribution to the interpretive analysis of the Macaulay quote and thus, insofar as it serves as a sort of frontispiece to Strauss’s text, of On Tyranny itself.

                So–an extract from Macaulay concerning the subject of freedom of the press and/or speech, wherein the author himself is speaking ironically, appended to a text which is a commentary on another text which treats its subject matter with subtle artifice, while the commentary treats of the ancient problem of free speech in relation to classical philosophy and politics–I’m not sure where it all leads or to what it all adds up, but you’ve done a service in making the intrigue of it all even more intriguing.Report

      • Avatar Wade McKenzie in reply to CK MacLeod
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        says:

        I should say the quote itself supplies the answer to my question–in approximately the same way that Hegel says that, if at midnight, one writes down “It is night”…Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Wade McKenzie
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          says:

          As soon as his text begins, the quote has lost its spirit?

          (I have never read the book, though CK recommended it on Twitter just a week or so ago, so I will soon.)Report

          • Avatar Wade McKenzie in reply to Chris
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            I no doubt expressed myself clumsily in making allusion to Hegel–about whom I know nothing, save that he is approximately CK’s preferred philosopher (a fine choice, I might add–I don’t quibble with it at all).

            Hearkening to Hegel’s simple and–for that very reason–rather striking figure in the Phenomenology, which I left half-stated (and assuming that my memory serves): If, at midnight, one writes “It is night”–that is a true statement. By noon tomorrow, it is otherwise.

            Mike Schilling, below, supplies the necessary analogue.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Wade McKenzie
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      At least the British press got over being prudish.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    Peter Watson’s History of Ideas covers how atheism has undergone a radical change in definition from the 17th century when the term first appeared to the modern usage. The original definition did not comprehend people like Richard Dawkins.

    The term was an insult in the 16th and 17th centuries. I am not sure when it became a descriptor. I also think that the term was used to mean everyone who was non-doctrinaire. John Locke could have been an atheist as the term was considered during his day because it might have been broad enough to include anyone who challenged the hierarchies. John Locke’s LCD test for Christian certainly counts.

    Though Locke was weird by our sentiments because he would have granted liberty and toleration to Jews but denied it to Catholics. This makes sense in terms of the English Civil War but not necessarily to our modern ideas.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw
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      “When an imaginative constructor [who would write, say, Stages on Life’s Way], who, as a rule, thank God, feels very well, lives in an age when all have doubted everything, overcome doubt, made their way through reflection, found mediation, left religion behind as surmounted presumably by leaving out its terrors, he pricks up his ears and thinks there must be trouble in the wind.”Report

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