Strauss the Skeptic
There’s an excellent, thought-provoking essay on Leo Strauss and Straussians in the new (Sumer 2006) issue of Modern Age by Richard Sherlock of Utah State University. He’s sympathetic to Strauss in some respects and particularly values Strauss’s close readings of ancient texts. But ultimately he finds the project of Strauss and the Straussians sterile:
At bottom Strauss appears to be a skeptic on the most fundamental question of all: Can either philosophy or theology ground either wisdom or virtue? It is not that Strauss did not do all he could have done. It is rather that, on his own terms, such a grounding of natural right seems not to be possible. This is why in his masterwork [Natural Right and History -- D.M.] the language of natural right is so fervent and pervasive while the pay-off is so meager. On the question at hand the project appears as rhetorical, not philosophic. In Natural Right and History Strauss argues that classical natural right is superior to modern natural rights, but he nowhere shows how classic natural right is anything more than rhetoric.
Nowhere does Strauss provide solutions to, or show how Plato or Aristotle provided solutions to, fundamental epistemological problems found in Plato’s own work. Nowhere does he engage Aristotle’s metaphysics or biology in search of natural right, in the way that Aristotle himself might have done. Nowhere does he seriosuly engage the nature of the physical cosmos. On his own view, philosophy must aspire to and thus assume a comprehensive account of the whole. But to invoke the whole–a cosmos–immediately raises the question of the grounds on which we can assume that whole to be intelligible. Such a move, of course, leads to classic natural theology, which Strauss studiously ignores.
… One strenuous critic of Strauss [Myles Burnyeat -- D.M.] has attacked him as being a “sphinx without a secret.” I think that this is a limited and unsatisfactory response to Strauss and to Straussianism. In general, the secret of Strauss’s teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its sight?
… [O]ne searches Strauss’s corpus and that of leading Straussians in vain for any serious encounter with Christian theologians, or for that matter with the real theologians of Islam like al-Ghazali. Straussians express their partiality for the ancients over the moderns as a preference for the high over the low. When confronted with the very highest, however–the claims of Christianity–they turn back on the road to Athens without any serious argument to justify their turn.
Of course, as Sherlock himself argues earlier, even that “road to Athens” is only followed as a rhetorical strategy.
There are several pro-Strauss books by Straussians out recently, by the way, including Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy by Thomas Pangle and Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. The latter appears to cover Strauss’s leading students and proponents particularly well. I’m looking forward to reading both one of these days when I have a bit of time on my hands. In the fullness of time, I’ll write up something at length about them and about Strauss generally.Explore posts in the same categories: Books, Ideology, Philosophy