About ten years ago I had a letter from Dante Germino, asking why Strauss’s students had paid so little attention to the work of Eric Voegelin. Earlier, Dante had asked me to lecture at Virginia. On that occasion he had been suddenly hospitalized. Although nothing serious had resulted, I did not see him during my visit. His students however had been models of hospitality, and in the seminars I conducted they showed themselves well trained, and highly motivated in right directions. Dante had taught political philosophy to Lawrence McGoldrick, my son-in-law to be. Dante and his wife and daughter had attended Lawrence and Karen’s wedding in the University of Virginia Chapel in 1979. Dante’s daughter had been a waitress at the rehearsal dinner at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville (where Lawrence had been a waiter). For all these reasons I thought it fitting to respond in as friendly a manner as possible.
I wrote, in part,
As to the “incomprehensibility” of the neglect of Voegelin by Straussians, some of it must be put down to the blinding power of the light that emanated from Strauss himself. For it is the paradoxical truth that light can at once enable one to see and, if sufficiently intense, to blind. I have often compared my encounter with Strauss, beginning in September 1944 to the experience of Saul on the road to Damascus. When one is in that kind of exalted consciousness, it is easy to neglect or dismiss other prophets (or to assume without inquiring that they must be false prophets!)
I went on to say that it was a mistake to continue to think of “Straussians” as a single class. As illustrative of this, I sent a copy of my critique of The Closing of the American Mind. Unfortunately, he took offense at my implied comparison—as he thought it—of Strauss and Jesus. But he took infinitely greater offense at what I had written about homosexuality in the Bloom review. He accused me of a lack of scholarly integrity for not taking as unqualified truth what John Boswell (of whom I had never heard!) had written in his book on Christianity and homosexuality. Boswell, as it happened, was a professor of history at Yale (he died of AIDS at the age of 47), and his book was a “revision” of all traditional morality concerning homosexuality, in the Old Testament as well as in the New. (The story of Sodom, for example, was about “inhospitality”.)
I later learned from one of Dante’s colleagues that he had come out of the closet, divorced his wife, abandoned his family, and imported a catamite into his domestic establishment. That—and his uncompromising demand for approval—brought to an end any possibility of friendly discussion between us.
I do not think my response about how my encounter with Strauss changed my life offended Christian piety. The paradigmatic account of the phenomenon of conversion—the source for Christianity itself—is the cave in Plato’s Republic. No one’s life, I believe, was “turned around” more completely than mine by my meeting with Strauss.
My five years at Yale were not wasted. They were, in fact, probably the best non-Straussian preparation for what followed. As an English major, I read only good books. For four years I attended an informal weekly Bible reading by my favorite professor, Alex Witherspoon. In my senior year I had an independent study in Plato and Aristotle with Eugene O’Neill, Jr. The three authors who had come to mean most to me were Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare. I had good instincts but no guide to unlock their mysteries.
Before Strauss, my greatest ambition was to write a history of Elizabethan drama. In my mind, this was the way to discover the secret of Shakespeare, which I assumed could be achieved only by the closest study of the soil out of which Shakespeare came. I was also greatly influenced by Marxist and Freudian interpretations. I recall being impressed by an interpretation of Shakespeare, in which Ariel was said to be the apotheosis of the free wage laborer! And Ernest Jones’ Freudian book on Hamlet ranked very high. In all such accounts, the high was understood in the light of the low. It was Strauss who struck off the shackles in my cave, and taught me to look in the opposite direction.
Little did I, or could I, have imagined in 1939 or 1940 that my ambition would be fulfilled—at least in part—in 1977, when I set forth the hypothesis that Shakespeare was the poet mentioned by Socrates at the end of the Symposium. Only Strauss could have led me to see that Shakespeare’s inner and ultimate motivation was Platonic.
If I had any pre-Straussian theoretical framework, it was that of the sociology of knowledge. Later, Strauss would describe his own project—ironically—as the sociology of philosophy! From the perspective of the sociology of knowledge no distinction could be drawn between opinion and knowledge. Whatever believed itself to be true could be believed to be true only relative to the environment that “produced” it. Thus, what I later learned to be historicism (the idol of our modern cave) had permeated every atom of my mental existence. I had assumed that everything was relative except the proposition that everything was relative. The contradiction therein had not of course penetrated my consciousness before Strauss.
Strauss began Natural Right and History (1953) by quoting “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and asking, “Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised. Does it still hold those “truths to be self-evident?” He not only quoted from the Declaration, but used Lincoln’s words, without quotation marks, to characterize it. Strauss clearly thought that the nation no longer dwelt within the precincts of the principles of the Declaration, and NR&H goes a long way towards explaining why. But he never addressed directly the question of how the authority of those principles might be restored.
I claim no right to speak for Strauss in this matter. I can say however that it was a subject we discussed continuously in the late forties and early fifties. I believe that Strauss believed that my restoration of Lincoln was the most apt way to restore the aforesaid authority, and that this was the form in which the statesmanship of classical political philosophy might become authoritative in our world. While Strauss articulated the connection between Plato, biblical religion, and medieval political philosophy, to discover the presence of classical principles in the post-classical world, he propelled my articulation of the connection between Plato, biblical religion, Shakespeare, and Lincoln. And Lincoln’s recovery of the Founding corresponded closely with the Maimonidean recovery of the rational origins of prophecy.
It is almost routine in the scholarship of greatness, whether philosophic or political, to discover fathomless complexity in its subjects. Certainly this has been true about Lincoln. Yet in the case of Lincoln, as in that of many others, the difficulty has been more in the mind of the observer rather than in the subject. Scholars who do not to believe in “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all time” either do not believe that Lincoln believed it, or think of him as unsophisticated. In either case, they embark on a quest for hidden motives because they cannot see the ones that lie plainly on the surface.
The recent torrent of literature about Strauss is not unlike that about Lincoln. No one would deny Strauss’s complexity. Yet great minds are often, if not always, as great in their simplicities as in their complexities. Lincoln’s statesmanship can always be explained in its relationship to “a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” Strauss revealed himself perhaps more directly than anywhere else in his eulogy of Churchill.
The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.
To the best of my recollection, in the political science of the 1930’s neither Hitler nor Stalin was referred to as a tyrant. Their regimes were called dictatorships, or totalitarian, in deference to the quest for a “value free” objectivity. Yet this “objectivity” made it impossible to understand political reality. Strauss’s On Tyranny was written in part to restore the classical term and with it the classical understanding. The centrality of “tyranny” in all its classical dimensions to the Declaration of Independence also demonstrates the essentially classical understanding of politics in the American Revolution. The magnanimity of those who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor directly parallels the contrast between Hitler and Churchill.
Strauss understood that modern tyranny was different from the tyrannies of the ancient world. But the identification of the species, or variety, depended upon recognizing the genus. The recognition of tyranny did however not come from books. It came from experience antecedent to books. The “spectacle” which Strauss says presents us with one of the greatest of all lessons, is therefore the ground of an education upon which great books can build, but without they cannot instruct. The Nicomachean Ethics is addressed only to those who have sufficient experience of the moral phenomena, and who are well brought up. The greatest political books are those that reflect an original understanding of the moral and political phenomena, unmediated by ideology or philosophy. It was the corruption of that original understanding by modern philosophy that denied to the democracies the understanding of tyranny that nearly destroyed them.
In a letter to Lowith, Strauss once remarked that he had found great difficulty in understanding what Aristotle meant by magnanimity, until he realized that Churchill was a perfect example of it. That Churchill helped Strauss understand Aristotle illuminates profoundly how political philosophy depends upon the pre-philosophic experience of political life. The lesson embodied in the “clear simplicity” of the confrontation of Churchill and Hitler is that of the reality of evil, and the primacy of the good. It is also that the conflict of good and evil lies at the foundation of human experience. To reduce that experience to a subjective “value judgment” is not merely to trivialize it, but to blind one to objective reality. In Strauss’s earlier work he referred to political philosophy as a part of philosophy. In his later years, I believe, he regarded it as the foundation of philosophy. So far are the moral distinctions from being merely subjective, they are the distinctions most knowable “to us,” and hence the starting points of reasoning about “the whole.”
“A Summary View of the Rights of British America” is Jefferson’s compendium of the American position, written a year before the onset of the Revolution, and two years before the Declaration of Independence. In it he tells the King that “The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader…” These are of course the principles we hold to be self-evident. They are the principles of a free people, the principles of good and lawful self-government, distinguished from the evil principles of tyranny or slavery. They are the principles of Churchill as opposed to Hitler.
Everyone knows that Strauss ended his ever memorable lectures on “Progress or Return” by asserting the categorical opposition of Reason and Revelation as ultimate principles, and the necessity to make a choice between them. I have come to have doubts however as to whether this opposition is as categorical as Strauss made it seem in that lecture. That it formed part of his peroration, and was therefore a rhetorical conclusion does not, of itself, disqualify it as a dialectical conclusion. But in his desire that classical political philosophy provide the moral foundation for constitutional government that modern philosophy had destroyed, he had particular motives for absolutising the difference of revelation and reason.
Modern philosophy was a rebellion against both classical rationalism and biblical religion. The skepticism that accompanied Socratic rationalism applied necessarily to the enterprise of Socratic rationalism. That is to say, Socratic rationalism had to grant the premise that supplied the ground of faith. The reason in skepticism for continuing an endless inquiry, and the reason for ending such inquiry by turning to biblical religion, was one and the same reason. Nor was there, in that very reason, any ground for preferring the one alternative to the other. For Strauss, to restore the authority of Socratic rationalism was of necessity to restore the authority of biblical faith.
The attempt to remove skepticism from philosophy had proved an utter failure. The project to infinitely enhance the power of reason over human life had culminated in the fact-value distinction, and the complete destruction of reason as a guide to human life. Both the Bible and Socratic philosophy provided a firm basis for moral choices, and the moral choices they endorsed were substantially the same. Whether the ultimate reason for choosing the moral virtues was obedient love of the living God, or the goodness of the life of autonomous reason, was less important than their agreement upon the moral order which must inform the life of decent society. From this perspective revelation and reason, Jerusalem and Athens, were in agreement. For this reason Strauss was committed no less to the defense of Jerusalem than of Athens. For this reason, it would have been imprudent of him to allow his own preferences to weaken the case for either of these cities, or the principles they represented.
The moral and political harmony of revelation and reason is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, in which rational moral truths, the truths of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” are enshrined within the order of Creation. Strauss was keenly aware, however, as were the American Founders, that those who had falsely claimed the authority either of reason or of revelation, as the basis of political authority, had done so in the interest of despotism. The absolutised claims of faith, stigmatizing opposition as heresy, supported the union of altar and throne, and the Inquisition. Modern rationalism, dismissing biblical faith as superstition, had led to the regimes of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and the Nazis. Neither classical rationalism, nor genuine faith in a living God would claim political power in its own right. The true constitutional regime, shaped by the wisdom both of revelation and reason, formed the character of the citizens by the free and uncoerced dissemination of opinion.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, Strauss seems on occasion to have written to the contrary. The dialectical confrontation on page 75 of NR&H ends with the assertion that “The mere fact that philosophy and revelation cannot refute each other would constitute the refutation of philosophy by revelation.” However, in his autobiographical preface he remarks that “…Jewish orthodoxy based its claim to superiority to other religions from the beginning on its superior rationality (Deut.4:6).” In the passage in question, Moses tells the children of Israel that if they keep the laws that he has set before them, the nations which shall hear these laws will say “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” In citing this, Strauss seems to impute to the Bible something like the doctrine of the Meno, that learning is recollection, and that the recognition of wisdom is a human potentiality common to all nations. The suggestion here, however slender, is that the Bible is a Platonic book, and that reason is the esoteric foundation of revelation. In the Introduction to The City and Man (1964), however, his remarks on this theme seem to point to the priority of revelation.
It is not sufficient for everyone to obey and to listen to the Divine message of the City of righteousness, the Faithful City. In order to propagate that message among the heathen, nay, in order to understand it as clearly and as fully as is humanly possible, one must also consider to what extent man could discern the outlines of that City if left to himself, to the proper exercise of his own powers. But in our age it is much less urgent to show that political philosophy is the indispensable hand maid of theology than to show that political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and human affairs: even the highest lawcourt in the land is more likely to defer to the contentions of social science than to the Ten Commandments as the words of the living God.
Strauss—addressing the “crisis of the West”—says that is not sufficient to “obey and listen to the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” (The capitals are Strauss’s.”) But what is not sufficient may nonetheless be necessary. Strauss will undertake to show “to what extent man could discern the outlines of that City if left to himself,” i.e. without revelation. The purpose in so doing however is, to repeat, “to propagate that message—viz., the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City”— among the heathen. I do not recall Strauss speaking elsewhere of “heathen.” What is most remarkable however is that the City whose outlines are sought by man’s unaided powers, and which we want to understand as clearly and fully as is humanly possible is the Faithful City. Jerusalem and Athens seem to have become one.
This appears to be confirmed by Strauss’s saying that it is less urgent—but nonetheless urgent—to show that political philosophy is the indispensable handmaid of theology. The reason it is less urgent than it otherwise would be is that “even the highest lawcourt in the land is more likely to defer to the contentions of social science than to the Ten Commandments as the words of the living God.” Strauss is clearly referring to Warren’s opinion for the Court in Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 decision declaring school segregation to be unconstitutional. In that opinion Warren abandoned any attempt to ground his reading of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment on the intent of its framers and ratifiers, preferring instead what he said modern psychology told us was the effect of segregation upon the “minds and hearts” of Negro children. His authority was Kenneth Clark’s doll tests, which Thurgood Marshall, the attorney for the NAACP, has brought to his attention. But the aforesaid tests did not actually prove what they were said to prove, and it is unlikely that Warren (or his fellow justices) even knew that they were. Warren seized upon them because they constituted a license to disregard the genuine meaning of the equal protection clause. The “contentions of science” were nothing but a cynical device by which the court could emancipate itself from the restraints of the Constitution. The original meaning of the equal protection clause had been embodied in Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy (1898), the case that had enshrined “separate but equal” in constitutional law. Harlan had declared that the Constitution was colorblind, and did not recognize different classes of citizens. Harlan’s opinion, which should have been the opinion of the Court in Brown, was clearly based upon the proposition that all men are created equal. The actual alternative to the “contentions of social science” was therefore the Declaration of Independence, and of the Creator and author of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” To re-establish the authority of political philosophy as the architectonic social science meant therefore to reestablish both the natural and divine foundation of American constitutionalism. Clearly the crisis of the West could not be resolved apart from its biblical foundations interpreted by the kalam of political philosophy.
In the essay “What Is Liberal Education?” Strauss addresses the crisis of the West from the difference between mass democracy and “democracy as originally meant.” For Jefferson, democracy was intended to provide more effectually than any other form of government for “a pure selection of [the] natural aristoi into the offices of government.” Without liberal education, the natural aristoi have themselves become debased. The liberal education which was ground and basis of the Founding was supremely expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and in the harmony of reason and revelation, in the support of the moral and political order.
Strauss concludes that essay with something that more nearly approaches a confession of faith, than anything in any other writing of which I am aware. It is an appeal to experience, the experience which accompanies the act of understanding, when we not only understand, but understand that we understand. This “noesis noeseos” is “so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God.” Strauss continued:
This experience is entirely independent of whether what we understand primarily is pleasing or displeasing, fair or ugly. It leads us to realize that all evils are in a sense necessary if there is to be understanding. It enables us to accept all evils that befall us and which may well break our hearts in the spirit of good citizens of the city of God. By becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith of the goodness of the world, whether we understand it as created or untreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind.
We are invited, on the basis of an experience available to man as man, to become “good citizens of the city of God.” The realization of the dignity of man is independent of whether we understand the world to be “created or untreated.” Strauss says nothing here of the necessity to choose between these two opinions. The crisis of the West does not require us to make such a choice, and we do not know that Strauss himself ever made it. What it does require is to recognize the authority of the moral order based upon the dignity of man, supported both by reason and revelation. To secure that recognition was, I believe, the essential purpose of Leo Strauss’s life and work.
Harry V. Jaffa
May 14, 2003