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Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Modern European…

by Heinrich Meier

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Full disclosure: I have a degree from the committee on social thought at the university of chicago, where Meier and a bunch of other Straussians teach. One of the offices in the building there is a Leo Strauss research center. I basically lived and thought in the eye of the Straussian storm for 7 years. That said, I never really understood what all the fuss, positive or negative, was about. Not because of any conspiracy to keep me from knowing the Great Secret or anything; I just didn't take the time to find out.
And so this book was great for me, and I imagine would be great for anyone who knows about Straussian themes and various controversies and maybe really enjoyed by reading Miles Burnyeat's old articles tearing apart various Straussian interpretations of Plato and other ancient thinkers. If you were really sad about those articles, I don't know how much in here will be news to you.
Anyway, Meier's claim is that the best way to understand Strauss's life work is to see him as responding to a supposed clash between revelation and reason. The philosopher needs to rationally justify the philosophical way of life against those who reject it; he needs to take part in politics in order to defend the philosophical way of life; and he aims to come to self-knowledge through the undertaking of philosophy. This self-knowledge will include knowledge of the 'cosmos,' which, as far as I can tell, means human nature.
But if you're going to understand human nature, you'll have to cut through all the awful stuff that says there's no such thing: historicism, relativism, positivism and so on. Hence, you need to read through the history of philosophy in order to see that our own historicist self-understanding is itself a forgetting of the key question about human nature. By reading the ancients, and coming to see that their concerns are identical (!!!) with ours, we can see that philosophy is asking the one question that we should all be asking: what is right?, in a rational manner.
Anyway, historicism is not a fact, but a flawed understanding of human life, according to which there are multiple main questions that vary through time. Why would we end up as historicists? Because the moderns, as good philosophers, tried to make philosophy 'safe' from political oppression. But they did this by putting it at the service of 'society': philosophy becomes useful, and specialized, and 'scientific'- not really philosophy at all. Sad face.
The true alternative to philosophy isn't historicism, anyway, but religion. Religion claims to ask the one important question, but it claims that the answer has been revealed to it rather than saying we need to work on it rationally. So philosophy is always set against revelation. In the worst case scenario, politics and theology gang up on philosophy, and then the philosophers are all made to drink hemlock. This is because while theology and politics are all about stability and unquestioning habit, philosophy is all about criticizing the way the world is. Philosophy is dangerous for political stability, which is why They killed Socrates (and, I assume, Cicero and Seneca and put Abelard in prison and so on). Hence philosophy's need to protect itself politically, which, you'll recall, led to philosophy becoming useful.

So Meier helped me to understand all that. His prose is stilted, but then, he's German, so you have to expect little. But his prose is clear. As a textbook of Strauss, I give this 5 stars. I can't give it 5 stars because the object of the textbook is so obviously flawed:

i) Strauss rightly seeks to historicize historicism, but fails to historicize himself. Why is it that *he*, of all people, is able to see through, if you'll forgive a mixed metaphor, the forgetting of the question of philosophy? No reason seems forthcoming, at least according to Meier's book and the lectures by Strauss that follow it.
ii) The argument that there is One Great Question is based on an ingenious but particularly flimsy claim: that Strauss' readings of the great philosophers show us that they and we are concerned with the same question. Know, then, that everyone from Aristotle to the very latest author to appear in The Journal of Ancient Philosophy has a different interpretation of those great philosophers, not only from Strauss, but from each other. So if there is One Great Question, it sure as heck appears in a whole bunch of different outfits. There's no reason to believe Strauss' interpretation really is one that results in us 'understanding the author as he understood himself.'
iii) The claim that, because historicism is a modern way of thinking, it isn't a genuine insight, holds no water whatsoever. This for a couple of reasons at least. First, and most obviously, because Christian philosophies of history have been historicizing forever, so it's certainly not a peculiarly modernist way of thinking anyway. Second, because Strauss ignores the good historicists and focuses on the idiots: he assumes, along with said idiots (not that he is one), that if x is historically specific, x is relativistic. There's no reason to assume that. The Frankfurt school, following Hegel, does a good job of arguing just the opposite: that a custom can be historically specific while still being, for all intents and purposes, an absolute moral duty. As someone puts it, it's not that the truth is in history; it's that history is in the truth. So we needn't attack historicism in order to defend the ideal of truth. It's much more likely that the ideal of the truth can only be defended on the basis of historicism.
iv) Strauss is meant to be a rationalist, but he ignores the main achievements of reason. For instance, we know that humans have evolved from apes. If that's true, how can there be some sort of 'human nature'? Are we, among all animals, unique in no longer evolving? It seems unlikely. All the evidence is against there being a human nature at all. Given this, it makes more sense to stop philosophising about what we necessarily are, and to start thinking seriously about what we would like to be, and how best to become that.

In short, I appreciate his aims, accept that he shouldn't be considered a cult-leader, but really think what he wanted to do (say, get us to focus on what sort of life we want to lead) is better done by other Germans.

( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521699452, Paperback)

This book, by one of the most prominent interpreters of Leo Strauss's thought, is the first to examine the theme that Leo Strauss considered to be key to his entire intellectual enterprise. The theologico-political problem refers to the confrontation between the theological and the political alternative to philosophy as a way of life. In this study, Heinrich Meier clarifies the distinction between political theology and political philosophy and sheds new light on the unifying center of Strauss' philosophical work. The book is the culmination of his work on the general topic of the theologico-political problem.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:58 -0400)

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