A review of Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting, by Richard Velkley

No contemporary has thought more deeply about what it is to be a philosopher than Leo Strauss. Strauss distinguished between the true philosopher and the scholar. Philosophers are those like Plato, Spinoza, and Nietzsche who confronted the greatest problems "without being overpowered by any authority." Scholars by contrast are dependent on the existence of philosophers. While scholars are cautious, modest, even pedestrian, philosophers are bold, going (in the words of Star Trek) where no man has gone before. While the scholar stands with his feet planted firmly on the ground, the philosopher often becomes lost in "inaccessible heights and mists." Strauss claimed that he was only a scholar, but his work suggests otherwise.

Like all great thinkers, Strauss left a legacy that is still widely debated. His books and articles extended over an extraordinarily wide range of topics for someone who described himself as a mere scholar. His studies of Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza remain permanent contributions to the life of the mind. The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, the tradition of esoteric writing, and the challenge of Biblical revelation to philosophical thought ("Jerusalem and Athens") have become, due to his influence, standard themes in the discussion of great thinkers. But the questions remain: what exactly were Strauss's accomplishments and what did he hope to achieve?

The answers to these questions are by no means obvious. There are at least three schools that claim to interpret and speak for him. The first and perhaps most obvious regards Strauss as the direct inheritor of ancient political philosophy in its Socratic form carrying on the tradition of "classical political rationalism" against a range of modern and postmodern alternatives. This is the approach most widely associated with Allan Bloom, Seth Benardete, and their disciples. The second regards Strauss as the defender of the natural law tradition in its Thomistic, Lockean, and ultimately Jeffersonian and Lincolnian forms that have done battle in the American regime against the twin forces of progressivism and historicism. This is the view of Harry V. Jaffa and his students. And finally, there is Strauss the inheritor of the German philosophical tradition beginning with Kant and Hegel and culminating in Nietzsche and Heidegger. This approach has been pioneered by Stanley Rosen, Robert Pippin, and Laurence Lampert, and now has been given it fullest treatment by Richard Velkley in his new book Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy. This is a book that all serious students of Strauss will have to consider.

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Velkley, a professor of philosophy at Tulane, is the author of two previous works. Freedom and the End of Reason (1989) is the best book we have on the Rousseauean origins of Kant's views on reason and culture. Being After Rousseau (2002) is a profound meditation on Rousseau's influence on the German philosophical tradition more broadly. This new book is an attempt to begin a conversation between Strauss and Heidegger, a conversation that was begun by Strauss but so far as anyone knows was never reciprocated by Heidegger. As Gershom Scholem once quipped about the famous "German-Jewish dialogue," it was largely a one-way conversation among German Jews about Jews in Germany. So too has the Strauss-Heidegger relation been a monologue initiated by Strauss and some of his followers but never seriously broached by the other side. The book can be read as a companion to Heinrich Meier's Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss (1995) that attempts to reconstruct another dialogue that never actually took place.

Strauss recalled his association with Heidegger with tantalizing brevity. As a recently minted Ph.D. from the University of Hamburg with a dissertation on the epistemology of Friedrich H. Jacobi ("a disgraceful performance"), Strauss embarked on a year of post-doctoral study at Freiburg University with the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl. Strauss's dominant interest at the time was in theology about which Husserl confidently asserted, "If there is a datum ‘God,' we shall describe it." Yet it was not Husserl, but Heidegger ("[o]ne of the unknown young men in Husserl's entourage") who captured Strauss's attention. Almost half a century later he could still recall with enthusiasm Heidegger's interpretation of the opening chapters of Aristotle's Metaphysics: "I had never heard nor seen such a thing—such a thorough and intensive interpretation of a philosophic text." Strauss was not alone in his appreciation. Among others in Heidegger's circle were Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Löwith, Gerhard Krüger, and later Hannah Arendt.

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Velkley distances himself from two dominant ways of thinking about the Strauss-Heidegger connection. The first regards Strauss as presenting a comprehensive response to Heidegger's "radical historicism." Strauss's Natural Right and History(1953) is often taken as an antidote to Heidegger's Being and Time (1927). Even the title of Strauss's book seems to mime that of Heidegger's. Strauss's analysis of historicism and its gradual descent into relativism and nihilism is frequently believed a response to Heidegger's analysis of the analytics of Dasein. The second approach has emphasized the connection of Heidegger's early philosophy to his embrace of National Socialism in the infamous Rektoratsrede, the speech he gave as rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933. Strauss linked Heidegger's ethic of "resoluteness" to a kind of groundless decisionism that led ultimately to his support of Hitler's revolution.

Velkley treats Strauss less as Heidegger's critic than as his co-dependent. Strauss allegedly drew from Heidegger the apocalyptic language of the "crisis of our time," and Heidegger's Destruktion of modern thought made it possible for those like Strauss to view philosophy "in an untraditional or fresh manner." Strauss, like Heidegger, is said to take his point of departure from the problem of Being. Accordingly, "the primacy of the political" was no more for Strauss than a starting point for philosophic inquiry. In other words, not politics but man's "openness to the whole" remained Strauss's primary concern. "To describe Socrates as the ‘founder of political science,'" Velkley declares, "is to say he is the founder of the study of politics as offering philosophic access to the character of Being."

Velkley acknowledges that Strauss's turn to political philosophy was occasioned in part by Heidegger's own forgetfulness of the subject. In his "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero" (1950) Strauss concluded with a brief discussion of how Heidegger's single-minded focus on the problem of Being led to an indifference to beings. Strauss explicitly condemned Heidegger for lacking the courage to face up to the problem of tyranny. Nevertheless, one could say of Velkley what Strauss says of Heidegger, namely, that he is too enamored of the problem of Being. There is an apolitical, even anti-political, character to his reading of Strauss. From the outset he announces that his book will not be about "politics in the narrow sense." What he means by "politics in the narrow sense" includes such seemingly large and important topics as Heidegger's relation to National Socialism as well as Strauss's controversial views on American politics and political science. Central to Strauss's concerns were the major political ideologies of the 20th century including democracy, liberalism, Communism, and Zionism. These hardly seem like narrow or peripheral themes.

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Strauss and Heidegger are presented as "late moderns" who "attempt to uncover or renew forms of thinking that lie beyond the modern standpoint." Both "see themselves as living in a time of exhaustion and collapse of the tradition, which calls for a new beginning." What is this new beginning? For Heidegger—at least the post-Being and Time Heidegger—it consisted of a new piety, waiting for new gods, and a new dispensation of Being. For Strauss, it led to a recovery of Socratic philosophy in its original open-ended, skeptical, and erotic sense. If for Heidegger the besetting sin is the forgetfulness of Being starting with Plato and culminating in the Nietzschean metaphysics of the will, for Strauss the danger has been modernity's self-destructive attempt to replace the natural horizon or cave with certain "conscious constructs" that have created an entirely new and artificial environment—the cave beneath the cave—from which it will be far more difficult to emerge.

One difficulty with charting this relation is that Strauss's remarks on Heidegger are so exceedingly spare. Unlike his often painstakingly detailed interpretations of such figures as Plato, Maimonides, and Spinoza, his discussions of Heidegger occur mainly in occasional pieces and remain at a very high level of generality. The young Strauss was clearly drawn to Heidegger whom he treated as far surpassing in depth and profundity any other thinker of his generation. He confessed to Franz Rosenzweig that in comparison with Heidegger even the great Max Weber appeared an "orphan child." His 1941 lecture on "German Nihilism" provides an unusually sympathetic account of the mood in interwar Germany to which Heidegger's philosophy gave expression. One of the best parts of Velkley's book is his discussion of the Strauss-Löwith correspondence over Heidegger. In these private letters one hears Strauss's admiration for Heidegger expressed more openly than in his later public statements. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of Strauss's now famous—or infamous—letter to Löwith of May 19, 1933 expressing support for a Roman imperial solution to what might be called the German problem.

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Heidegger was certainly the eminence grise behind Strauss's classic work Natural Right and History, but his name is not mentioned a single time—most likely because Strauss did not wish to draw attention to him at a time when Heidegger was virtually unknown in America. After Heidegger's works began appearing in translation, Strauss became more outspoken. His reflections often wavered between admiration and contempt. He referred to Heidegger as the "highest self-consciousness" of modern philosophy and "the only great thinker in our time" before whom "[a]ll rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power." Yet he also clearly regarded Heidegger's philosophy as responsible for his capitulation to radical evil. Stanley Rosen once told me that when he was about to go to Germany, Strauss looked him in the eye and made him promise that if he were to meet Heidegger he would not shake his hand.

While denying that his is a political reading of the Heidegger-Strauss relation, Velkley nevertheless claims to discover some hidden affinities between the two thinkers on political matters. "Even on a practical and political plane," he avers, "Strauss shows guarded respect for Heidegger," and "Strauss indicates some sympathy with Heidegger's views on the shortcomings of democracy." I would argue otherwise. On the practical and political plane Strauss was deeply critical of Heidegger not simply for his embrace of National Socialism but for his neglect of those "permanent characteristics of humanity" that led to that embrace. "It was the contempt for these permanencies," Strauss wrote, "which permitted the most radical historicist in 1933 to submit to, or rather to welcome, as a dispensation of fate, the verdict of the least wise and least moderate part of his nation while it was in its least wise and least moderate mood."

Strauss's concern about the rise of mass democracy and the dangers of conformism and uniformity bear some superficial similarities to Heidegger's description of das Man and his fears about the age of technology. Strauss worries that democracy does not educate non-conformists, "rugged individuals," who are prepared to stand alone. But nowhere in Heidegger can one find sentiments in praise of liberal democracy of the kind for which Strauss is well known. Of Nietzsche, Heidegger's great predecessor, Strauss could remark that he prepared the way for a regime that as long as it lasted "made discredited democracy look again like the golden age." Contrast this to Heidegger's statement (from approximately a year or so before this) celebrating "the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism." Therein lies precisely the difference between Strauss and Heidegger.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here.