A review of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, by Leo Strauss
In 1974, the year following Leo Strauss’s death, the American Political Science Association established an annual award, in his honor, for the best dissertation in the field of political philosophy. The petition in favor of such an award was signed by a solid phalanx of Strauss’s students, although there was also a number who were not in any sense “Straussians.” The petition observed that there was at present no award in political philosophy, and expressed the belief that the establishment of one by the Association “would signalize to the profession in general, and to graduate students in this field, its recognition of political philosophy as one of the important traditions within the discipline.” The motion by which the petition was adopted spoke of “the universal recognition of Strauss’s exemplary devotion to the philosophic study of politics.” The irony in this hyperbole is today universally recognized in the highly publicized aphorism attributed to a member of Yale’s political science department that neither Leninists nor Straussians belong in the profession!
I never saw either the petition or the motion until the Leo Strauss Award had become an accomplished fact. I cannot say whether my omission from the ranks of those invited to sign the petition was a matter of foresight, oversight, or insight. Certainly, my standing in the American Political Science Association hardly qualified me for inclusion in any representative enterprise of that august body. However, that would have been equally true of Leo Strauss. If there was any undertaking that might properly have been called “Straussian,” it was the History of Political Philosophy edited by Strauss and Cropsey. Moreover, Strauss had chosen me to write the chapter on “Aristotle,” which immediately follows his chapter on “Plato.”
Shortly after Strauss’s death, Bill Buckley asked Walter Berns to organize a memorial symposium honoring Strauss in the pages of National Review. (It appeared in December 1973.) Berns asked Herbert Storing to write on Strauss and political science, and Werner Dannhauser to write on Strauss and conservatism. Berns asked me to write the central article on Strauss and political philosophy. He also asked that in my eulogy I indicate the relationship between Strauss’s work and my own. I think it worth remembering this now, because Berns has recently abused me-in the pages of National Review (Jan. 22, 1982)-for “presenting [myself] as the chosen spokesman for Leo Strauss.” Of course, I have never done anything of the kind. But in 1973 Berns evidently thought that I was in some particular way qualified to speak of the main theme of Strauss’s life and work. He even thought that in remembering Strauss it was proper that I speak of the relationship of his work and my own. Strauss’s concern with the “crisis of our time, the crisis of the West” (The City and Man, p. 1), and mine with the “crisis of the House Divided” are certainly not unrelated. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Strauss began Natural Right and History not only by quoting the sentence beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .” but by speaking of the “nation dedicated to this proposition.” That is to say, he used Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg to characterize the relationship of the Declaration of Independence to the nation and government at whose birth (according to Lincoln) it had presided. Further, Strauss paraphrased Lincoln in speaking of the nation so dedicated becoming “no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth.” When Strauss asked, “Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised?” he was asking the question which was the core of all of Lincoln’s speeches from 1854 until his death. The crisis of the West, in its proximate form in the American regime, was represented for Strauss in the repudiation of that natural right which was embodied in the Declaration of Independence, as that natural right had been interpreted by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had spoken of the principles of the Declaration as “our ancient faith,” and had appealed to those principles in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, calling upon his people to return to the right way. Like Lincoln (above all in his second inaugural), Strauss too would express the meaning of natural right in the language of the Bible, for the theme of Natural Right and History is expressed a priori in its epigraphs, which are taken from II Samuel and I Kings. I do not pretend for a moment to speak for Leo Strauss, but I am perfectly convinced that Strauss shared the conviction that Lincoln’s appeal, in his greatest speeches, to the Declaration of Independence and to the Bible-to Reason and to Revelation-was the very model of wise statesmanship at the highest level. It was, in particular, a model of that statesmanship in its bearing upon the crisis of the West, the crisis of that civilization constituted at its core by the coming together of doctrines derived from the Bible and from the idea of autonomous human reason. The connection between prophecy and statesmanship, which Strauss himself first learned from the Islamic scholars of Plato, and which he first taught to me in 1945, was the ground upon which my study of Lincoln began. Strauss always taught the importance of “unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution.” He also taught that such a constitution, however modern, would nonetheless require “powerful support from . . . the premodern thought of our western tradition.” That support had to come from both Jerusalem and Athens. I do not think that Strauss believed that without such support a decent constitution could remain decent or sustain loyalty to its decency. Again, I do not pretend to speak for Strauss when I express the conviction that Strauss’s entire work pointed toward rescuing the political practice of the modern world from the consequences of the political theory of modern philosophy. The core of Strauss’s interpretation of modern political philosophy, understood in the light of its Machiavellian origins, was that it attempted to guarantee the actualization of the goals of political life, first by lowering them, and second in finding institutions whose successful functioning would dispense with the need for virtue. “Scientific” political science has had as its goal the discovery of mathematical necessities in “political matter” that paralleled the necessity in the matter studied by the natural sciences. A properly designed constitution, like a properly designed automobile-or nuclear fission device-would do what it was designed to do because it could not do otherwise. All the virtue of the regime would be in its original design: thereafter it would function without virtue. Human beings would seem to be perfectly free, because they would be obeying the dictates of necessity without being in the least conscious of doing so. This is what Marx’s “leap into freedom” means. But human beings would seem to themselves to be free, because they would be denied none of those things that had hitherto been denied them because of the requirements of virtue, as traditionally understood. No one would, for example, be required to be brave or temperate or just: the state would protect you; medical science would repair you; and the economy of abundance would supply you with everything you wanted. Perfect freedom would mean the absence of any conscious self-denial. The fact that no one would ever choose to be brave or temperate or just (or gentle or kind or generous) would simply go unnoticed.
Strauss’s critique of modernity pointed toward both its undesirability and its impossibility. This was the meaning of his oft-quoted maxim from the Roman poet Horace: that no matter how often nature was expelled with a pitchfork, it would always return. This maxim of course implied the truth of what radical modernity denied: namely, that there was a nature that placed limits upon human freedom, a nature that was unconquerable. Modernity, however, meant the conquest of nature. Strauss was convinced that the deepest reason in modernity for wanting to conquer nature was a mistaken reason, for he was convinced that even if the technical means for dispensing with virtue were perfected (e.g., if the doctor could always cure you of the consequences of your intemperance), the result would be a combination of boredom and fanaticism, but it would not be happiness. I think, incidentally, that the history of the American Political Science Association in the last thirty years, bears out this prophecy, for it is divided between behavioralists, who bore everybody (including themselves), and “caucuses” for black rights, women’s rights, “gay” rights, peace, the Third World, etc. One might characterize the state of the profession-the profession that annually awards a prize in the name of Leo Strauss-as one divided between those who pursue facts uncontaminated with values and those who pursue values uncontaminated by facts.
Strauss’s work pointed therefore toward the restoration of statesmanship, as exemplified in the lives of such men as Lincoln and Churchill. It pointed toward the restoration of prudence, as that combination of intellectual and moral virtue that is the necessary attribute of statesmanship. More precisely, it pointed toward the restoration of both statesmanship and citizenship. It pointed toward rhetoric, as the art by which the statesman vindicates the rule of law by securing consent to wise decisions. But Strauss never believed that men could be governed by speeches alone, or that the art of rhetoric could ever be separated from the art of war. He liked to point out that Xenophon, the pupil of Socrates, could rule both gentlemen and non-gentlemen. And he often cited Aristotle’s criticism of the sophists, for thinking that men could be ruled by speeches alone. Lincoln’s and Churchill’s speeches could never be studied profitably apart from their deeds. Strauss had nothing but contempt for someone who, like John F. Kennedy, could profess an unbounded admiration for Churchill and could even do a commendable imitation of Churchill in his inaugural address, but who then called off the air cover for the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
One of my many objections to the Leo Strauss Award was that it assumed that political philosophy meant the study of the works of political philosophers, and did not extend to the study of the speeches and deeds of political men. It did not consider that one principal end and aim of political philosophy, as Strauss understood it, was to provide guidance to political life.
Clearly, the establishment of the Leo Strauss Award represented a sharp change in the attitude toward his work, of many of those who had studied with him. No doubt many voted for the award, simply to express a pious regard for his memory. But no one who actually took note of the meaning of the words, either of the petition or of the resolution, and who had any understanding of Strauss as he understood himself, could have voted for it. That is to say, no one who in any way understood Strauss as he understood himself, and sympathized with that understanding, could have done so. It was, among other things, a white flag, by those who had grown weary of Strauss’s unrelenting contentiousness, and who wanted now to be at peace with the mainstream of the profession. By accepting the designation of “one” (but only one) of the innumerable disciplines of political science, they accepted the character of a group engaged in the esoteric cultivation of its own garden, who posed no threat to the mainstream.
Lest there be any mistake about it, here is how Strauss himself had referred to that mainstream, in the peroration of his most famous diatribe: “Only a great fool,” he had written,
would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.
The Leo Strauss Award is a fiddler’s award, by those who-like Walter Berns-think that the burning of “Rome” (viz., Jerusalem and Athens) is no concern of the “philosopher.” The core of Berns’s attack upon me was his allegation that “Strauss did not believe that he, or political philosophy, could save Western civilization,” or that it could “reverse ‘the decline of the West,'” Such “hopes,” Berns declared, “distort the quest for the truth.” The “theme of philosophy” according to Berns is “Eternity, not history.” Berns’s contrast between “eternity” and “history” corresponds, I believe, to a distinction between “theory” and “practice.” As Berns here drops the adjective “political,” with reference to philosophy, he seems to imply that Strauss was not a political philosopher at all. Or, perhaps, he implies that political philosophy for Strauss meant an exclusive concern with philosophy, and with the protection of “the class interests” of philosophers, but not with the moral and political interests of men and citizens. However, Strauss, in his exchange with Kojève, made it clear that the decline of the West-culminating in the universal and homogeneous world state-would culminate in the complete eclipse, if not the extinction of philosophy. Moreover as Hilail Gildin has written recently:
[I]t would be a mistake to conclude that Strauss cared about the fate of constitutional democracy only to the extent it was linked to the fate of philosophy. Like Socrates, he was just in more than one sense. His support of liberal democracy can be compared to his support of political Zionism. No one who knew Strauss ever doubted the depth and genuineness of his concern for Israel. Nor could anyone who knew him think that this concern was based upon his belief that the fate of philosophy in some mysterious way depended upon the fate of Israel. He thought no such thing. (“Leo Strauss and the Crisis of. Liberal Democracy,” State University of New York, Geneseo, New York, October 7, 1983.)
Strauss cared about the fate of liberal or constitutional democracy and about Israel, as a moral and political man, as he cared about the fate of philosophy, as a philosopher. Indeed, political philosophy meant precisely the combination of these concerns, rightly understood. As we shall see, it is the denial of the propriety of this combination that lies at the heart of Pangle’s Introduction to Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, as it lies at the heart of Berns’s diatribe against me.
My opinion of the Strauss Award, written immediately after the event, was expressed in an essay entitled “Political Philosophy and Honor” (Modern Age, Fall, 1977, reprinted in How to Think About the American Revolution, Carolina Academic Press, 1978). In that essay I pointed to the “Hippodamus Award” celebrated in the second book of Aristotle’s Politics and to Strauss’s commentary upon it in The City and Man. In it I pointed to the absurdity of having “the city” decide “what is political philosophy,” if it is a purpose of political philosophy to guide “the city.” The American Political Science Association-as Strauss hinted broadly in The City and Man (viz., “On the basis of some observations made nearer home, one might suspect a connection between Hippodamus’ unbridled concern with clarity and his unbridled concern with technological progress,” p. 22)-was itself very much a Hippodamean city. And Hippodamus, according to Strauss, failed to become the founder of political philosophy or political science because he failed to distinguish the political from the non-political; for, according to Aristotle, it is impossible to understand the moral and political things without understanding their non-mathematical character (Nicomachean Ethics [NE] 1094 b 23 ff).
The Rome that Strauss said was burning, we repeat, was “the West,” whose “decline” was central to his concern, as a citizen of a liberal democracy, as a Jew, as a man, and as a political philosopher. “[I]n our age,” he had written, in the Introduction to The City and Man, “it is much less urgent to show that political philosophy is the indispensable handmaid of theology than to show that political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and of human affairs.” Notwithstanding the presumption in favor of Revelation, vis-a-vis Reason, with which Strauss here (as elsewhere) begins, he meant to restore political philosophy to its rightful estate among the human disciplines. This meant, of necessity, its restoration as the “architectonic discipline” described in the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics.Just as the architect gives commands to the builders, so does the art of the politikos “ordain which of the sciences should be studied . . . and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point.” (NE 1094 a28ff). To concede, as the promoters of the Strauss Award did, that political philosophy is “one among many” disciplines, theaggregate of which constitutes political science, is to concede that it has no practical or political function at all. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the unity of political philosophy, among the human disciplines-the fact that it cannot be counted as “one among many”-is the indispensable condition of its authority. It is the condition of its authority in the same way that the authority of the Biblical God is grounded in the truth that He cannot be counted as “One among many.” In Aristotle, political philosophy cannot be counted as “one among many” human disciplines for the same reason that happiness or the human good-of which it is the art or science-cannot be counted as “one among many.” Happiness is not a sum or aggregate of good things, nor can its goodness be increased by the addition of any good thing (NE 1097 b 19). Rather is it the good in virtue of which all other goods (e.g., health or wealth or virtue or freedom) become good for man. To concede that political philosophy is “one among many” of the “sciences of man and of human affairs” would imply that there was no comprehensive human good. All individual good things become then, with respect to their goodness, discrete. One cannot then say, as Aristotle says, that one should not pray for wealth or health or freedom, but that one should pray that such things are good for us.Aristotle means by this that only as health or wealth or other individual goods lead toward happiness are they genuinely beneficial. To put this in the language of simple morality, good things are good for the good, but bad for the bad. Health, a good thing, was bad for Hitler. Political power, which made Churchill better, made Hitler worse. We also know that there are human beings who, being healthy, wealthy, and free, nevertheless commit suicide. Their blessings were not blessings for them. These simple common-sense reflections are, I believe, a key to Strauss’s understanding of what is political philosophy. In a sense, the entire “Straussian” enterprise can be understood as an attempt to restore to political philosophy the authority of such common sense reflections upon experiences available to everyone. It is these reflections which lead to the idea of an overarching good, in virtue of which all contingent goods become genuine goods. Without such an idea, there can be no common measure of the goodness of good things, and in this negative sense all “goods” become equal. From this it is a short step to the doctrine that all goods are subjective, or that all goods are “values” and not “facts.” The abandonment of the idea of a summum bonum, of happiness, or of the idea of the good, is both the necessary and the sufficient condition of radical modernity, of that moral relativism, positivism, and historicism, against which Strauss’s entire life was a protest. Strauss would often say that what political life needed primarily was the art of the gentleman, of the man whose decent opinions and good character arose directly from these elementary experiences. Political philosophy, in one sense, became necessary only when “sophistry” undermined the gentleman’s unsophisticated attachment to his gentlemanship. False theories, against which gentlemen as gentlemen had no defense, made necessary political philosophy. Modern philosophy had denied the gentlemen-and the citizens whom the gentlemen ruled by consent and right of nature-access to the self-understanding of their own gentlemanship. This, in part, is what Strauss meant by saying that modern man had dug a cave beneath the “natural” cave, and that what he was trying to do was to make possible a return to that original cave. His work can therefore be understood, at least in one of its fundamental aspects, as a refutation of all those false modern theories that prevent gentlemen from exercising the authority that is rightfully theirs. And the great statesmen of the modern world were precisely those who, by some divine dispensation, acted like responsible gentlemen, notwithstanding the theoretical obstacles to their so doing. For example, when, before World War II, Churchill called Hitler “that bad man,” the left-wing intellectuals fell out of their chairs laughing, while the right-wing appeasers smiled their smiles of supercilious sophistication. When the bombs fell on London, shortly thereafter, Churchill’s speeches were the only thing that gave them the courage that enabled them to survive. No one patronized Churchill then. Nature had indeed returned! (It has of course been subsequently expelled.)
If Strauss’s career as a political scientist had any center or focus, it was in his critical destruction of the distinction between “facts” and “values.” It was this achievement of Strauss which became the ground, within the profession, of the revival of classical political philosophy-which meant, of course, the revival of the idea of political philosophy as the architectonic practical discipline, as “the queen of the social sciences.” Strauss, I maintain, intended not only to revive, but to restore such a discipline. For maintaining this, Walter Berns accuses me of “doctrinairism.” “Strauss,” he writes, “raised the possibility that ancient thought might be superior to modern thought. Jaffa, however, takes the possibility to be a certitude, thereby making what was supposed to be a fresh openness into just another dogma.” But Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith in 1946 (in correspondence published in 1983 in the Independent Journal of Philosophy), “I really believe, although to you it appears fantastic, that the perfect political order, as Plato and Aristotle sketched it, is the perfect political order.” (Emphasis by Strauss.) Strauss goes on to say that he knows “very well that today [such an order] cannot be restored.” Yet he nonetheless argues that the knowledge of the regime that is best by nature is decisive for making the right political decision concerning the most fundamental alternative that is open today. Strauss’s argument in the letter to Löwith is substantially the same as in the famous reply to Kojève. But it is also substantially the same as in Walter Berns’s own 1956 essay, “The Case Against World Government” (later versions of which were published in National Review in 1960 and 1983). I leave it to the reader to decide whether Strauss’s overwhelmingly expressed conviction that “the completely modern solution is contra naturam“ and therefore bad, is adequately characterized as a “fresh openness” to just another “possibility.”
The book before us is entitled Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1984). It has fifteen chapters, each a separate essay or article by Leo Strauss. It is followed by a bibliography of Strauss’s writings, and an index of the names of authors mentioned in the preceding text. The fifteen chapters are preceded by a Foreword by Joseph Cropsey that occupies less than one page. The Foreword is followed by an Introduction by Thomas L. Pangle, of twenty-six pages. This is accompanied by a page giving the “Abbreviations [of] Works by Leo Strauss Cited in the Introduction.” The references cited by Pangle are as interesting for what they omit as for what they include, but we have no time to pursue this matter here. Given fifteen chapters, the central one is the essay entitled “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.” But Cropsey, in his Foreword, tells us that it had been Strauss’s intention to have added two more chapters: “a projected paper on Plato’s Gorgias . . . was to have been placed after the paper on the Euthydemus.” This “would have brought to three the number of essays on Platonic dialogues.” Strauss did not live to write this, nor “the introduction that would . . . have explained his choice of title. . . .” If we assume that the Introduction would have been Chapter I, and the paper on the Gorgias Chapter 4, the chapter entitled “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” instead of being Chapter 7 (of 15) would have been Chapter 9 (of 17). In short, it appears to have been Strauss’s intention that the Jerusalem and Athens chapter be the center of this, his final book. That he called the reflections in this chapter “preliminary” is characteristically Straussian.
In his Introduction (p. 19) Pangle notes Strauss’s declaration, in 1965, that since the time of his first work on Spinoza (i.e., since his mid-twenties) “the theological-political problem has remained the theme of my investigations.” Pangle’s quotation is from Strauss’s autobiographical Preface to the English translation of Spinoza’s Critique of Religion(1965), which had been published in German in 1930. The Preface, however, is dated 1962, not 1965. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the problem Strauss declared so emphatically to be his theme par excellence is not treated as such by Pangle. Although “Jerusalem and Athens” is the intended center of this book, “The Theological-Political Problem” is discussed by Pangle in the sixth of the seven titled sections into which his Introduction is divided. Why Pangle does not regard the theme of “Jerusalem and Athens” as central is explained by him, in the section on “The Theological-Political Problem” thus: “What is most essential in the quarrel between Plato and the Bible is already present in the quarrel between Plato and the poets. . . .” In short, Pangle thinks that the quarrel between philosophy and poetry is the theme of Strauss’s “investigations,” and the opposition of Jerusalem and Athens, or of Revelation and Reason, is only a particular example of that conflict. Consistently with this, “The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry” is the central section of Pangle’s Introduction.
Pangle, in short, thinks that the Bible is only one particular kind of “poetry.” Pangle is not unaware of the shocking character of this assertion. He tries to soften it by saying “Strauss did not overlook, he rather brought out and stressed, the enormous differences between biblical thought and the thought of the Greek poets. . . .” Nevertheless, “he regarded those differences as, in the final analysis, secondary” (p. 20). Is Pangle right about this?
Professor Cropsey, in the Foreword, declares that Pangle’s Introduction was intended “so far as possible [to] replace the statement that [Strauss] was prevented from writing.” And he concludes that “Professor Thomas Pangle’s brilliant essay does that as well, I believe, as anything written by any living author could do.” This is a very considerable claim. In “The Primacy of the Good: Leo Strauss Remembered” (Modern Age, Summer/Fall 1982, p. 266), I wrote “The character of [Strauss’s] work, no less than its merit, has become matter of ever-increasing controversy. . . . It would then be less than candid to conceal from my readers that I myself appear to be at or near the center of the disputations about Strauss. Anything I write should then be taken with all the caution with which one approaches the views of a partisan.” Pangle may be right about Strauss, and Cropsey may be right about Pangle. But no one can claim canonical status for his opinions in these matters. Each must bear the burden of such argument as the case may require.
At the center of Pangle’s position is the judgment that, according to Strauss, the Bible is only “one of many” kinds of “poetry.” He seems to imply that it must be subjected to “philosophy” in the same way that poetry is subjected to philosophy by Plato, whether in the Republic or in the Laws. But there is more than a suggestion that Pangle really believes, not in a Platonic conquest of poetry by philosophy, but in a Nietzschean conquest of philosophy by poetry (the “will to power”). This is as much as to assert, in explicit opposition to Strauss-or by implying that Strauss’s explicit statements in this matter are all “exoteric”-that the Biblical argument for revealed truth as the ground of genuine wisdom is not serious. However, to say that there is no serious argument for the Bible may also be to say that there is no serious argument for classical political philosophy, for the skepticism-the Socratic knowledge of ignorance-that is the rational ground of classical political philosophy is also the rational ground upon which the argument for faith in the Biblical God stands. Strauss argued again and again that the modern rationalistic critique of the Bible-beginning with Spinoza-assumed that the Bible was a book like other books and that miracles were impossible. But these were assumptions and as such no more nor less in need of proof than the contrary assumptions of the pious believers. In a series of writings-of which “Jerusalem and Athens” is one-Strauss demonstrated the internal integrity of the Bible, not as a book among books, but as a perfect product of perfect piety. From the point of view of poetic art, all the matter of the art is in the service of its form, and its form in the service of its end. Not chance, but necessity, dominates “poetry,” properly understood. There are no irrelevancies, and no contradictions-except such as are intended to bring to light an underlying noncontradictory intention. From this rationalist viewpoint, the Bible is not a work of poetry (i.e., of deliberate making). The Bible is not addressed to unbelievers, and “from the point of view of the Bible the unbeliever is the fool who has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” The Bible, says Strauss, “narrates everything as it is credible to the wise in the Biblical sense of wisdom.” As such, it is perfectly intelligible, but not as poetry. To attribute to Strauss-as Pangle does-the view that the Bible is a species of poetry-no different from Greek poetry in the most essential respect-is profoundly mistaken.
The ultimate conflict or tension between the Biblical and the philosophic meanings of wisdom is what Strauss meant by “the theological-political problem.” In his chapter on Max Weber in Natural Right and History he argued that the apparent insolubility by reason of this problem was the underlying cause of the fact-value distinction, as it existed in Weber’s mind. He also argued-in my mind, conclusively-that this was not a sufficient reason for adopting the fact-value distinction, and that in this Weber had erred. But Weber did not therefore regard all “value judgments” as merely subjective. In this, he had not erred in the manner of his latter-day followers. They do not see, as Strauss put it, that because you cannot tell which of two mountains, whose peaks are shrouded in mist, is the higher, that you cannot tell the difference between a mountain and a mole hill!
The issue between poetry and philosophy is presented to us most lucidly in Plato’s Euthyphro. There it is reduced to the alternative of the ideas, on the one hand, and fighting gods on the other. Unless the gods themselves are subject to intelligible necessity, there is nothing to prevent either their multiplication or their division. There is nothing about the gods that enables them to solve the question of the right way of life for man. Only as the gods become the exoteric names for the permanent and unchanging attributes of nature-above all of the sun, the moon, and the stars-can they supply such guidance. Then they become but the names for the intelligible necessities which are not gods, but ideas. But it is precisely on this issue that the Bible differs both from Plato and the Greek poets; for the Bible affirms the unity of God and denies that this unity is subject either to multiplication or division. Why this is so is a mystery. There is no intelligible necessity that accounts for God, and hence there can be no “science” of God. “I shall be that I shall be” is Strauss’s translation of the name of God. God is not bound by anything other than His own will. Hence the highest “science” is not metaphysics, but Torah: the study of God’s promises to man, as the ground of the knowledge of the right way of life. Strauss’s account of Genesis focuses on the depreciation of the heavens and the heavenly bodies in favor of the earth and man. The story of Genesis is the story of what God has made and done for man, and why fear of the Lord and not wonder is the beginning of wisdom. God has made what He has made, and done what He has done. It is no more possible for man to fathom this than to fathom God Himself. Fear and loving obedience are what is demanded of man, and actions following from such fear and love are informed by true wisdom and constitute the right way for man. Philosophy on the other hand consists in “articulating the riddle of being.” For the philosopher there are only eternal questions. The evidence for these questions is always greater than the evidence for any answers to them. Hence there is never any sufficient reason to decide that the quest for the answers is the answer to the quest for the right way of life. Philosophy, as the quest for evidence as to what is the right way of life, rests upon an unevident premise. The Bible rests upon the premise that faith and not reason is primary, because God, Who is unknowable, is the ground of all reality. As Strauss says in Natural Right and History(p. 75), it is “the thesis of faith, that there is no possibility of consistency, of a consistent and sincere life, without belief in revelation.”
The issue between Plato and the poets is, to repeat, the issue between the ideas and gods who fight among themselves. The issue between Plato and the Bible is that between the ideas and the One God. The God of the Bible not only is One, but is unknowable precisely because He is One: What is unique is, from Plato’s own point of view, unknowable. In Plato, an idea, properly so-called, is the class characteristic of a number of objects, with respect to which there are both resemblances and differences. It is the intelligible link between what is otherwise unintelligibly idiosyncratic. The idea of the Good, like the Biblical God, may be One and beyond Being. However, as an idea, it represents something common to many things that are-perhaps even to everything that is-whereas the Biblical God is at once unique and absolutely separate from the universe He has created. The uniqueness and separateness of the Biblical God excludes the possibility of philosophic knowledge of God. Knowledge of God must therefore, to repeat, consist of knowledge of God’s ways, of His speeches and deeds, as they are set forth in the Bible.
Pangle, having admitted that for Strauss the theological-political problem is central, treats it as peripheral. The opposition of Revelation and Reason, or of Jerusalem and Athens, becomes merely a subsidiary aspect of “The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry.” The section of Pangle’s Introduction that bears the foregoing title is (as noted) its central section. This central section has five paragraphs: two, three, and four are the central paragraphs, and three is the central paragraph. In this central section there are references to Strauss only in paragraphs one and five, but none in two, three, or four. Pangle, we know, places great weight upon whatever is “central,” and tends to regard what is near the beginning or the end as “rhetorical” or “exoteric.” We are confident therefore that the following account of “The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry” represents a nonexoteric understanding of that quarrel. The first sentence of the first paragraph says that “From a long study of the evidence available Strauss concluded that philosophy originally represents a thoroughgoing, if muted, rebellion against the spiritual authority of civil society (NRH, chap. 3).” This sentence, unobjectionable in itself (and in its reference to Natural Right and History) is, however, the only reference to Strauss before Pangle’s account of the great “Quarrel” is complete. Here now is the very heart of the difference, as Pangle presents it. It comes from the central paragraph of the central section of the Introduction.
When viewed in the light of this distinction between what is by nature and what is by artifice or convention, the gods appear to be merely the fictions of the poets and their sponsors or listeners. Belief in the gods is seen to veil from man the evidence whose reasonable interpretation would lead toward knowledge of the true causes of things. In particular, it seems plausible to suppose that the gods are needed as supporters of nobility and justice because nobility and justice lack intrinsic support in the hearts of men-in their natural and not simply imagined needs and inclinations. After all, that which men incontrovertibly seek and need is not the noble but, rather, personal pleasure, security, and comfort. The concern for the noble can best be explained on the basis of speculations about its origins. Then one recognizes that the noble was in all likelihood the semi-conscious invention of primitive men, who congregated and gradually devised civil societies in order to further their several individual interests: in the process, they found that it was necessary to encourage, through praise, honor, and habituation, some among themselves to sacrifice their original, natural good for the sake of others. Over long ages, and given the plastic power of custom, the concern with being held to be noble or at least not ignoble has gained such strength that it now competes with man’s natural, spontaneous, and uninvented desires, and obfuscates the calculation which naturally serves and guides the latter. Yet through piercing, uncompromising thought and iron self-discipline some men can liberate themselves from the sway of opinion and learn to content themselves with the pursuit of the pleasures that are truly or intrinsically sweet. Since man does, by nature, need the assistance of society, the truly free man will continue to dwell among and profit from his deluded neighbors; but spiritually, he will live a life apart.
Here then is the reason for the quarrel of philosophy and poetry-according to Pangle, but not, as we shall see, according to Strauss. The quarrel arises, we are told, because of the philosopher’s attachment to “nature” and the “knowledge of the true causes of things.” To underline what this means, Pangle gives us what he regards as a philosophic account of those most interesting things-the things called noble and just. These, Pangle tells us, “lack intrinsic support.” Intrinsic support, as Pangle understands it, would be support in man’s “natural and not simply imagined needs.” These natural needs are most emphatically not for the noble (or, more generally, for the moral), “but, rather, [for] personal pleasure, security, and comfort.” According to Pangle then, man is by nature radically hedonistic, egocentric, and a-social. But according to the account for which, near the end of his life, Strauss declared himself still to have an unshaken preference (in the September 1970 Preface to the reprinting of Natural Right and History) man is by nature social. And by reason of his social nature, he is bound to distinguish between the pleasant and the good. According to the classics, it is according to the nature of man, that he sometimes chooses the opposite of what Pangle says is natural, and that he prefer what is painful but noble to what is pleasant but base.
Pangle gives us a genetic account (complete with all the logical attributes of the genetic fallacy) of the noble and the just things. They were, he says, “the semi-conscious invention of primitive men.” This certainly sounds like Rousseau’s Second Discourse. It implies that the “congregation” of men into civil societies, and their invention of morality, was prompted by the necessities of the body or by “efficient causality,” but not by the needs of the soul, or by human dignity. It implies therefore that the coming into being of moral codes cannot be attributed to nature and cannot be according to nature. However, Aristotle says that what comes into being last may nonetheless be first in the order of being, or of nature. But Pangle follows Rousseau-and modern science generally-in considering only what comes into being first, what is first in the order of generation, as according to nature.
According to Pangle, the admiration for the noble and just things is not according to nature, but is the result of “the plastic power of custom,” which over long time has come to be mistaken for nature. This power of custom, he says, “obfuscates the calculation which naturally serves and guides” the original, and truly “natural, spontaneous, and uninvented desires.” But Strauss, expounding classic natural right in Natural Right and History (p. 128), says exactly the opposite. “There are things that are admirable, or noble, by nature, intrinsically,” Strauss says. Of these things admirable or noble by nature, Strauss continues, it “is characteristic of all or most of them that they contain noreference to one’s selfish interests or that they imply a freedom from calculation.” (Emphasis added.) Where Pangle speaks of custom “obfuscating calculation” Strauss asserts without qualification that there is, by nature, “freedom from calculation.” No opposition of views could be more direct.
“The phenomenon of admiration of human excellence,” Strauss writes, is so far from being the effect of the “plastic power of custom” that it “cannot be explained on hedonistic or utilitarian grounds,” viz., the grounds upon which Pangle has attempted to explain it. The attempt to do so, says Strauss, requires “ad hoc hypothesis.”
These hypotheses lead to the assertion that all admiration is, at best, a kind of telescoped calculation of benefits for ourselves. They are the outcome of a materialistic or crypto-materialistic view, which forces its holders to understand the higher as nothing but the effect of the lower, or which prevents them from considering the possibility that there are phenomena which are simply irreducible to their condition.
That “It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low” is, perhaps more than any other, the thematic proposition of Strauss’s life work. Pangle’s account of the noble and just things is, however, nothing but an account of the high in the light of the low.
Pangle’s supermen are those who, as he says, “through piercing, uncompromising thought and iron self-discipline . . . liberate themselves from the sway of opinion.” (Viz., “the concern with being held to be noble or at least not ignoble.”) Having done so, they will have learned “to content themselves with the pursuit of pleasures that are truly or intrinsically sweet.” Having learned to treat with contempt the opinion with which Leo Strauss associates himself, these “philosophers” will have nature’s bonbons at their disposal. Exactly what these bonbons are, we are not told. But it does not take a great deal of imagination to run through one’s mind a list of things widely regarded as naturally or intrinsically sweet, yet forbidden by custom or by law in decent societies. Aristotle says (NE 1107 a 16) that there is no such thing as “committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way,” but Aristotle, like Leo Strauss, apparently lacked the iron self-discipline to liberate himself from the sway of opinion. For that, we turn to Hugh Hefner and Playboy.
Pangle’s hero-his “truly free man” (viz., free from any inner attachment to anything noble or just)-“does, by nature, need the assistance of society, and he will therefore “continue to dwell among and profit from his deluded neighbors; but spiritually he will live a life apart.” Here then is Pangle’s “heroic Epicurean.” He has absolute contempt for “his deluded neighbors,” whom he looks upon merely as subhuman instruments to his need for “personal pleasure, security, and comfort.” But for those who believe, with Leo Strauss, that admiration for noble and just things is according to nature, this monster-“beast-god”-is himself simply contemptible.
In the third of the three central paragraphs of his alleged account of “The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry” Pangle begins a shift from this more to his less esoteric account of this quarrel, by trying to make his anti-conventionalist Epicureanism more respectable. He writes: “Man’s material requirements are by nature few, and he who understands this can devote most of his life to the deepest genuine pleasure-that of the thinking which liberates itself from every delusion or false hope, and thus comes to bask in the austere light shed by increasing knowledge of the unfailing nature of things.” But, one must ask, on what substantive reality does this “austere light” fall? In truth, the reductionism which Pangle has practiced to explain the moral phenomena, when applied to the universe as a whole, can result in nothing but modern nihilism. Classical Epicureanism was grounded in classical materialism: Its hedonism was in theory at least an ascetic doctrine. It regarded the moral things as conventional-as does Pangle-but it regarded the universe as an intelligible reality, unchangeable by human will or reason. A classical Epicurean might then retire to “cultivate his garden,” that is, contemplate this universe. This, however, assumes-at the very least-the plausibility of classical materialism, or classical atomism. But I know of no one who today adheres to classical materialism in the presence of its modern scientific counterpart. The word “atom” means “the uncut,” and who, after the splitting of the atom, actually believes that the “atom” or anything else is the ultimate and intelligible material constituent of the universe? Modern science, even in its most theoretical branches, does not provide ground for the contemplative activity that was common to the idealism of Platonists and the materialism of Democriteans. Pangle’s Epicureanism, to repeat, points toward modern nihilism. It does so because the reductionist mode of explanation, always seeing the high in the light of the low, always ends by seeing everything in the light of nothing. Actually, of course, one can see nothing in the light of nothing, and nihilism therefore always in the end substitutes “resolute action” for contemplation. This action must be in the service of self-willed myths: hence the ultimate triumph of poetry over philosophy, for only by resolute action in the name of self-willed myths can one overcome the emptiness, the boredom, the suicidal loneliness of an existence free “from every delusion or false hope”; i.e., free from every belief in the intrinsic dignity of noble thought or action, and from every hope that in obeying the moral law one might do what is acceptable to the living God. The resoluteness of the resolute action justified by the nihilist philosopher will differ from all previous resoluteness, by the complete absence from it of any moral inhibitions, of any sense of objective limits upon the will of the willing agent. “Then everything includes itself in power,/ Power into will, will into appetite,/ And appetite, a universal wolf,/So doubly seconded with will and power,/ Must make perforce a universal prey,/ And last eat up himself.” Heidegger’s Hitlerism and Kojève’s Stalinism are examples that come to mind.
Pangle’s account of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy has nothing whatever in common with anything that might be attributed to Leo Strauss. For Pangle it is the quarrel of one or another species of Epicureanism with both Jerusalem and Athens, with the morality of both the Bible and classical political philosophy. (“One can say. . . that the Bible and Greek philosophy agree in regard to what we may call, as we do call in fact, morality ” [Strauss, in “Progress or Return,” Modern Judaism, vol. 1, 1981, p. 34]). In his autobiographical Preface (Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, p. 29), Strauss makes one of his memorable demonstrations of how Spinoza’s critique of the Bible rests upon an unproved assumption: The unproved assumption that the orthodox belief in an omnipotent God is mistaken. Strauss argues here that the premise of orthodoxy could be refuted only by a philosophical system that would show “man . . . himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of life; the merely given world must be replaced by the world created by man theoretically and practically. Spinoza’s Ethics attempts to be the system but it does not succeed; the clear and distinct account of everything that it presents remains fundamentally hypothetical. As a consequence, its cognitive status is not different from that of the orthodox account.” According to Strauss, there is no cognitive-i.e., philosophic-ground for choosing between Spinoza (or any of his successors) and the Bible. “Hence the antagonism between Spinoza and Judaism, between belief and unbelief, is ultimately not theoretical but moral.”
“For the understanding of that moral antagonism,” Strauss continued, “the Jewish designation of the unbeliever as Epicurean seemed to be helpful . . . Epicureanism is hedonism, and traditional Judaism always suspects that all theoretical and practical revolts against the Torah are inspired by the desire to throw off the yoke of the stern and exacting duties so that one can indulge in a life of pleasure.” This suspicion, we suspect, is eminently applicable here. Strauss characterizes Epicurean morality as “mercenary,” and contrasts it with traditional Jewish morality in which the reward for fulfilling a commandment is the commandment itself. But this closely parallels the Aristotelian view that the reward for each act of every virtue lies in the act itself. It is true that for Aristotle each act of virtue is pleasant to the man possessed of that virtue, but its pleasantness is due to its goodness and not the other way around.
Pangle recognizes that the defense of Jewish orthodoxy is moral, but not that it may be Strauss’s. Hence he does not see that the form of this defense may be a form of political philosophy. He observes:
Strauss seems to have regarded Yehuda Halevi as perhaps the greatest directly antiphilosophic thinker in Judaism; and of Halevi he concluded, “His basic objection to philosophy was then not particularly Jewish, nor even religious, but moral.” In this connection Strauss also remarked: “Moral man as such is the potential believer.”(Pangle’s italics.)
One must, I think, look more closely at the argument and action of these passages in “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari” (chapter 4 of Persecution and the Art of Writing).Strauss wrote “One has not to be naturally pious, he has merely to have a passionate interest in genuine morality in order to long with all his heart for revelation: moral man as such is the potential believer.” I believe that both Yehuda Halevi and Leo Strauss were such men as Strauss here characterizes. Whether or not “potential” believers become actual believers is not here the question. What is crucial is the connection between Halevi’s and Strauss’s undeniable moral passion and their intellectual vision. Socrates, sitting in the prison rejected Anaxagoras’ philosophy because Anaxagoras’ explanation of why he was sitting in the prison made no sense to him as a moral man. Anyone who takes with full seriousness human responsibility for human action will recognize the fundamental importance of the distinction between the just and the unjust, the noble and the base, for the exercise of that responsibility. In the sentence immediately following the one we have just quoted, Strauss wrote, “Halevi could find a sign for the necessity of the connection between morality and revelation in the fact that the same philosophers who denied the Divine lawgiver, denied the obligatory character of what we would call the moral law.” The Kuzari is indeed, as Pangle indicates, a polemic against philosophy. But its adversary is determined by its addressee. It is addressed to a naturally pious man in a state of doubt (Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 111). We may compare it, in part, to such a polemic as that which Strauss found in Rousseau’s First Discourse (“On the Intention of Rousseau,” Social Research, December 1947). According to Strauss, Rousseau there attacked philosophy in the name of morality. But he did so, partly in the interest of morality, but mainly in the interest of philosophy itself. Philosophers must be taught-sometimes even by chastisement-how to act in a responsible manner. In the study of Halevi, Strauss goes to some length to distinguish the different kinds of “kalam,” that is, the different medieval Islamic systems or methods by which reason might be employed to defend faith. (Ibid., pp. 99, 100). One of those systems-that of Halevi-although embracing the defense of revelation is essentially in defense of morality. More generally, it is in defense of the political life which makes the moral life binding by means of Law. Of Halevi, and his kalam, Strauss concluded: “In defending Judaism, which, according to him, is the only true revealed religion, against the philosophers, he was conscious of defending morality itself and therewith the cause, not only of Judaism, but of mankind at large.” This kind of defense of morality-and, therewith, of the cause of mankind at large-is, I believe, ultimately indistinguishable in Strauss’s mind from the practice of political philosophy, as he wished to revive that practice.
Strauss speaks at the very end of Halevi’s “basic objection to philosophy,” which, he says, was “not particularly Jewish, nor even particularly religious, but moral.” Halevi’s objection becomes Strauss’s, when we substitute for philosophy such contemporary representatives of “philosophy” as “scientific social science.” In general, however, Strauss’s project is far more difficult than Halevi’s. In the eleventh century, philosophy, in some of its widespread manifestations, had irresponsibly endangered the moral order. An attack on philosophy would not adversely affect the Socratics-for they would not only support, but if possible direct the appeal to revelation. They would do so by means of what it would not be too misleading to call a “Socratic kalam.” In our time, there is no traditional piety which can form the moral substratum for any such “kalam.”Modernity’s prejudice against traditional piety is equally a prejudice against traditional moral philosophy, and the reason which informed it. Religious fundamentalism tends to be anti-rational; but what we might call contemporary academic philosophical fundamentalism is equally so!
It has often been said that Leo Strauss regarded Heidegger as the greatest philosophic intelligence of the twentieth century. I think that this is true. Its significance however must be measured against the equally undeniable fact that Strauss considered Winston Churchill to be the greatest man of the twentieth century. Nothing I can think of brings into sharper focus the questionable status of philosophy divorced from the morality of “the Bible and Greek philosophy,” for Heidegger was a Nazi and remained one after Hitler’s death. By a kind of inversion of language, we might call Heidegger “a Nazi on principle,” even if (perhaps) the only one. In “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” the first chapter of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Strauss observes that “There is no room for political philosophy in Heidegger’s work.” Of course this absence signifies an absence of all moral concern in that work. Strauss speaks of “the facts” of Heidegger’s Nazism, and says that “We cannot help holding these . . . against” him. Strauss holds the facts of Heidegger’s Nazism against him all the more because “one is bound to misunderstand Heidegger’s thought radically if one does not see their intimate connection with the core of his philosophic thought.” This connection, we believe, is essentially that expressed above: between the “nothingness” to which unqualified reductionism leads (understanding the high in the light of the low) and “resolute action” as a substitute for contemplation.
Churchill was the supreme enemy of Hitler and everything Hitler stood for. He was the supreme enemy of Hitler because in the decisive respects he was not touched by modern philosophy. For him, the moral distinctions, as they are discovered by gentlemen in practical life-above all, political life-are the primary ground for their understanding of life and the world. In 1946 Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith (in the correspondence published in the 1983 Independent Journal of Philosophy), “I know from my experience how incomprehensible and foreign Aristotle’s concept of megalopsuchia was to me originally, and that now I not only theoretically, but also practically, approve of it. A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalopsuchia exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century, B.C.” (All emphasis is by Strauss.) Strauss’s earlier alienation from Aristotle was due to his earlier “sophistication,” his earlier belief (such as he attributes to Löwith in the letter) in the “culture bound” quality of moral judgments. But Strauss had become persuaded of the genuine possibility of a “culture” that was independent of time and place. Just as he had by 1946 come to believe that “the perfect political order” was the one that “Plato and Aristotle have sketched,” so was he persuaded that the great-souled man simply was the one described by Aristotle in Book IV of theNicomachean Ethics. There was, however, this difference: He knew that the perfect political order was not now possible; but the great-souled man was not only possible but actual. Churchill as the embodiment of megalopsuchia is of decisive importance, theoretically no less than practically, in Strauss’s argument against historician, against radical modernity. His example is equally decisive in favor of classical political philosophy, as the necessary condition of a decent politics in modernity. Above all, it is decisive for establishing the importance of the moral and political phenomena as the theoretical, no less than the practical, ground of philosophic wisdom. The example of Churchill was decisive for Strauss, as evidence “that there are phenomena which are simply irreducible to their conditions.”
As editor of Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, I was privileged to publish as its epigraph the eulogy that Strauss had delivered in his class January 25, 1965, the day following Churchill’s death. His remarks are, I believe, spontaneous. Yet they surpass-I believe-everything anyone else has said about Churchill. And in certain respects they are as authentic-perhaps more authentic-in what they reveal of Strauss himself, as anything more deliberately composed. I believe a review of his words on this occasion a fitting way to end this account of Strauss’s “legacy.”
“The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to academic students of political science of their limitations, the limitations of their craft.” Strauss begins with this ironic conjunction of death and health. But the limitations of political science-as we shall see-are precisely those, of nature and of fortune, that Machiavellianism in all its dimensions was dedicated to abolish. Strauss begins the essay on “Jerusalem and Athens” by saying the task he has set himself “goes much beyond my power.” However, “we cannot define our tasks by our powers, for our powers become known to us through performing our tasks; it is better to fail nobly than to succeed basely.” The ground of the moral and political life is the distinction between noble failure and base success. Churchill, in The Second World War, says that in war it is impossible to guarantee success, it is possible only to deserve it. But clearly this applies to peace no less than to war. This “practical” judgment of Churchill touches the profoundest level of Strauss’s theoretical understanding, for it is the intervention of chance which, according to Aristotle, causes “noble and just actions” to “admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion,” and to permit virtuous men to suffer catastrophe. It was Machiavelli’s project to conquer Fortune (who, as a woman, could be dominated by a sufficiently virile if sufficiently unscrupulous male.) Of course, Machiavelli’s successors turned the conquest of Fortune into the conquest of nature. As we have seen, Strauss’s critique of modernity implied that Science’s abolition of the physical limits of man’s power was always understood to imply the abolition of the need for morality from human life. As we know from Swift’s “Struldbruggs,” the modern project looked from an early moment to the abolition of death-not, as in Biblical religion, by promising eternal life in another world, but by promising it in this one. Churchill’s death, like his life, is first of all a lesson in limits, in mortal limits. But it is only within these limits that actions can be noble and just, for such actions can properly bear such names only if we do them in some sense for their own sake, and not solely for their extrinsic benefits. The phenomenon of disinterested admiration, of which Strauss makes so much in Natural Right and History, is a function both of man’s mortality and of the role that chance plays in determining the outcome of his deeds.
“The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power,” Strauss continued. “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.” Strauss calls the confrontation between Churchill and Hitler both a spectacle and a lesson; that is to say, an object both of theoretical and practical wisdom. As the latter, it teaches us how to act: that we should not submit to evil (“Never, never, never, never!”). But it also teaches us that chance, which permits good actions to fail, for reasons over which the agent has no control, can also befriend the good, by bringing successful outcomes where there is no probability-where, indeed, there may seem even to be no possibility-of success. After the fall of France, Britain stood absolutely alone, Stalin was the ally of Hitler in every respect except open belligerency, and the United States was wrapped in thousand-fold isolationism. There were ten thousand reasons of prudence why an almost completely defenseless Britain should have reached an accommodation with Hitler, who was himself anxious to make Britain his “Aryan” junior partner in the “thousand-year Reich.” No one in 1940 could have foreseen that Hitler would gratuitously attack his loyal partner, Joseph Stalin, that Japan would gratuitously attack the United States at Pearl Harbor, and that Hitler would complete the cycle of folly by gratuitously declaring war against the United States. But chance works both ways. We see virtue fail, despite deserving success; but we also see virtue succeed, sometimes against every rational expectation. Strauss invites us to contemplate, with him, the spectacle of Churchill defying Hitler at the height of his power, thundering his maledictions against the tyrant, giving hope to all mankind-at the very nadir of all hope-that all would yet be well. Strauss speaks of the “simplicity” of this spectacle: It is the simplicity of good in its starkest contrast with evil. Our admiration for the good, and our detestation of the evil, Strauss implies, are grounded in our nature. Such admiration-or detestation-is, as he says in Natural Right and History, inherently disinterested. That both are such is exemplified in the story of Nathan and David, which Strauss used as one of the two epigraphs for Natural Right and History and to which he returned in the concluding passage of “Jerusalem and Athens.” The “plastic power of custom” may obstruct or it may facilitate the access of our natures to the pleasure intrinsic to contemplating what is by nature noble and just, but nature and not custom is the original ground of such pleasure.
“No less enlightening,” Strauss went on, “is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure, which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom posed by Stalin or his successors. Churchill did the utmost that a man could do to counter that threat. . . .” Of course, Churchill’s failures are all ultimately of a piece with his successes. We are reminded of the “locust years” which preceded “the war years.” We are reminded of Churchill’s campaign to “strangle the infant Bolshevism in its cradle,” more than a decade before his warnings against Hitler, as well as his unheeded warnings against that same Bolshevism, now grown so great, at the end of the Second World War. The still, small voice of Churchill’s wisdom, in peace and in war, elicits our admiration even more than that “lion’s roar” of defiance that greeted the Nazi tyranny when it seemed about to devour the world. In the end, Churchill’s wisdom and Churchill’s courage illuminate the human condition itself, beyond the transient generations whose mortal fate he shared.
Strauss also paid tribute to Churchill’s writings, “above all his Marlborough,” for “their inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.” Then he concluded: “The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. We are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”
Strauss’s eulogy of Churchill thus ends as it begins: with a reminder of “the limitations of our craft.” This reminder, however, is not a depreciation of that craft. It is, we have seen, a rejection of Machiavellianism, and of radical modernity, of those forms of human thought that would make the noble and just things irrelevant to human life. And so it is a reminder of “our duty.” In his eulogy of Churchill, Strauss reminds us, as Churchill would remind us, of duty as an inescapable feature of the right way of life. The duty to which we are here called is said to be at once the highest and the most pressing. It represents therefore what might be called a peak demand, equally of theory and of practice. It flows from our obligation “to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are.” Seeing things as they are implies the Socratic enterprise, of asking “what each of the beings is” (NRH, p. 122). Seeing the low in the light of the high here means seeing things in the light of the moral distinctions, as they become visible in such spectacles as are furnished by such lives as Winston Churchill’s.
Strauss ends by a condemnation of “mediocrity,” which however brilliant we must never, he says, mistake for true greatness. Nothing begets this kind of mistake more than does cynicism about morality, or the depreciation of politics. Churchill was himself deprecated during much of his career for his frequently unabashed ambition. If he had disguised that ambition, as a more sophisticated man would have done, by ideological justifications (preferably socialistic and pacifistic), no one would have objected-or perhaps even noticed. But he was a great-souled man, and claimed honor as his right, even though-as a great-souled man-he knew that the highest merit transcended any honor, for honor, like moral virtue, points beyond itself. The great-souled man can be indifferent to honor, even as he claims it. His invincibility to evil, he knows, represents a rendezvous with eternity, in which success and failure are themselves insignificant, and “Greatness is all,” for greatness resonates being, the understanding of being-of seeing things as they are, which always means seeing the low in the light of the high. Such understanding is the legacy of Leo Strauss.