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Leo Strauss as a Political Philosopher

Updated August 31, 2021
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Leo Strauss as a Political Philosopher essay

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One would not be entirely missing the mark in summarizing the history of Western philosophy as the story of a long conflict between the men of flux and the dogmatic philosophers. Dogmatic philosophers like Plato, Maimonides and Immanuel Kant start their philosophies with ideas about the nature of our soul and its genesis, deducing from this the purpose of man and universal moral doctrines that are in line with their divinations about man’s destiny. Skeptics like Heraclitus, Al Ghazalli and David Hume, in contrast, recognize the elusive nature of Truth and, despaired by the inadequacy of their knowledge, become suspicious of morality as a whole and are hesitant about political theory.

They do not want to command anyone since they think that no one can demonstrate what one knows in a coherent argument. There is a philosopher in late modernity that occupies an influential position on this spectrum, Leo Strauss. He recognizes that our knowledge of the world is inherently limited but, out of friendship to humanity and in the spirit of a political philosopher, he recounts the history of political philosophy in his What is Political Philosophy. Particularly, this essay will argue that the location in which he is giving his speech-Jerusalem- pressures him to be politically correct and lean towards morality.

In the section of The problem of Political Philosophy, Strauss lays the foundation of his view of political philosophy by asking the question why man is concerned with political philosophy. His response is that the aim of politics is “ to acquire knowledge of the good life and of the good society” (10). Political action, then, “aims at either preservation or change” (10). One would think that Strauss shows the stomatch for new insights in here with regards to the aim of politics. However, as original as his explanation seems, the following quote demonstrates the ancient political thought in his argument: “All political action has then in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or of the good society. For the good society is the complete political good” (10). Strauss points to the the fact that an awareness of the good life eventually leads human beings to philosophizing about the good life, but he suggests that we should shift from forming opinions about the good life to seeking knowledge of the “complete political good” (10).

Unlike Hannah Arendt who, in her definition, likes to distinguish political philosophy from philosophy, Strauss argues that political philosophy is “ a branch of philosophy, even the most provisional explanation of what political philosophy is cannot dispense with an explanation, however provisional, of what philosophy is (10-12). By virtue of gluing political philosophy to philosophy, much like the ancient Greeks, Strauss seems to suggest the idea that it is the philosopher who is supposed to be political and hence, rule others.

How can a man who is in a quest for the truth rule the masses who are dogmatized by morality and religions? Strauss offers a valuable advice: “ political philosophy is the attempt truly to know both the nature of political things, and the right or the good, political order” (12). Strauss understands a ruler with the knowledge of the political things will provoke the masses and probably threaten the good life if he attempts to exercise his knowledge of the political things over the masses. “The political order” seems to refer to the means in which a philosopher can employ to to ensure the safety of himself and that of his power and the state i.e, understanding the importance of dogmas and moralities, noble lie.

Strauss seems to understand that a ruler who is blind to this reality is naive and that humans are inter-dependent and need to agree on some first principles on faith for the sake of living together. If one sees one’s friend spending entire weeks watching TV and skipping work while risking bankruptcy, one does not encourage him to drift into the abyss by discussing with him Man’s inability to show with any logical clarity that life is better than death but one tells one’s friend to work and to stop being lazy. One does this although one is not sure precisely what the word lazy means. The friend speaks confidently and even passionately about what his friend should do to improve the quality of his life despite the fact the he cannot prove with any logical consistency that suicide would not be a superior choice.

Strauss seems to recognize that our life, since we have bodies that are located in a spatial-temporal location that we did not choose and desires that we do not fully understand, will never be fully rational but that there, nonetheless, are some ways of living it that can be defended with greater coherence than others. This is my understanding of the the way he defines political philosophy and its aim, but Strauss contradicts himself and my comprehension later in the book as he begins to critique Nietzche and Machievelli for the sake of morality and concludes that morality is “ a force in the soul of man” and that the political theories of Machievelli and Nietzche are “not fit for human habitation” (40).

Although I haven’t read and grasped Strauss’s political theory throughly, I see his embrace of morality as an attempt to flatten great spirits in order to make their actions and passions palatable to bourgeois society. Nietzsche’s and Machievelli’s political works are a roadmap to the highest peaks of human experience for those who have the capacity to tower over and above civil society. Their political theories are endeavors to give psychological education to the highly energetic in order elevate them from the depressing effects of soft modern “virtues”. What I call the crippling naiveté of Strauss’s call for morality is rooted obviously in his presence of Jerusalem, but also in his inability to admit the necessity of extra moral enmity for a healthy psyche, an enmity that stands outside of, or is indifferent to, questions of justice.

Apart from the fact that serious psychiatrists of our time have shown the need that man has for growing claws and fangs even if he is to be good, we should all know from experience that all the strong people, the leaders of mankind, all those who are worthy of friendship and can be relied upon in times of trouble, are necessarily capable of inflicting pain on other human beings, even if only as teachers. A capacity for evil is a sign of not only strength but also it shows an ability to do good. Achilles was cruel to Hector and he frustrated the leader of the Achaean army beyond measure, but he was also a great friend who was so infuriated by the death of his friend, Patroclus, so much that he dashed into the battlefield without armor upon hearing about this incident.

The clear mistake that morality and religions make from the point of view of even the greatest good of mankind, is that they are oblivious to the formation of the genius. This not only robs mankind of the greatness that great epochs so easily produce such as Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Homer but it doubly taxes us by turning our most promising jewels into ugly criminals that haunt our streets. Following the footsteps of Fyodor Dostoevsky in his study of criminal psychology, Nietzsche recognizes the fatality of the criminalization of the most promising in modern society.

In a society that has almost completely renounced war, the warrior type is forced to feel guilty and ashamed of his most powerful drive, the instinct to kill. Now we can close our eyes to the reality of physiology and act as if we could all very easily become tame, and toothless and cute, or we can take responsibility for our nature and ask: how do we harness the potentialities of all types of humans in a way that benefits us all to the highest degree? Strauss shies away from asking this question in his lecture in Jerusalem.

It is not in the interest of the energetic, spirited, and supremely ambitious to listen to morality of passivity and averageness. It also seems to be the case that it would not be in the interest of the peace loving types to listen to Nietzsche’s and Machievelli’s exhortation to take up arms and go to war for its therapeutic affects. This calls for a third class, a class of men who play the role of a priest, with special emphasis on the word play because this class should not be dogmatic but should nonetheless pose as some kind of moralists. A great example would be the West especially the American empire.

These are the legislators that modernity needs. The greatest poem that was written about war, Homer’s Iliad, ends with physical contests among veterans of war and this is a hint that all those who have interest in the building and maintenance of civilization should take seriously. Rather than look at the ambitious and spirited with a look of disgust and call them competitive and vain, a wise legislator will recognize that instincts are the result of millions of years of experience embedded in a body that is unfolding in time.

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