The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 16, 2017

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The Theologico-Political Problem Revisited: How to Think About the Modern Project
Ted McAllister - 05/12/08

The political passions of our time have thrust a dead philosopher, who in life displayed no political passion, into our contemporary troubles, usually in the role of chief troublemaker. Leo Strauss, according to those observers who display a paranoid style of thinking about politics, was a deeply un-democratic thinker whose teachings, often through other teachers, have shaped the philosophical commitments of powerful neo-conservatives. Like Strauss’s own explanation of Machiavelli as an unarmed prophet who altered the “modes and orders” through his disciples, Strauss himself is the purported unarmed prophet of the new American empire.

Another, and more important, body of literature has emerged in recent years and the authors, usually mining Strauss’s heretofore neglected early works, have exposed a complex philosopher who speaks to our time. These are not political treatments of Strauss and they are often not products of the Straussian industry or even of those of the American right. One such contribution comes from Daniel Tanguay, a French Canadian, whose slim but dense book, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography, is a superb primer on Strauss and, to a degree, the philosophical world he inhabited. Just as important, reading Tanguay’s book plunges the reader into the civilizational conversation of our time, not by any reference to contemporary debates but by the complex presentation of Strauss’s struggle with liberalism, with modernity, with “the Jewish Problem.” One enters into the civilizational conversation in a typically Straussian manner—by reading commentaries on Great Books, and these commentaries lead one back to the human problems as such. But most importantly, Tanguay’s book helps accomplish one of Strauss’s objectives—to escape the provincialism of modern thinking and modern categories and to allow us to approach the issues of our time less captive to conventional assumptions.

The virtue of Tanguay’s book is not found, as he argues, in its originality, but in its concentration on detail and its rigor of analysis. The author asserts that the dominant rubric for understanding Strauss’s work—the conversation between the ancients and the moderns—is misplaced. As Strauss himself asserted, the “theologico-political problem” served as the core of his work and the other major themes should be understood as they relate to this universal “problem” or condition of human existence. I find Tanguay’s claims about the misplaced emphasis in other scholarly treatments of Strauss to be cavalier or oddly selective about the interpretive literature, especially since he supplies no bibliographical investigation of the scholarship (repeating one of the frustrating qualities of Strauss’s own work). This is not a startling new interpretation of Strauss, but it is a refreshingly clear and rigorous interpretation. In that respect, it may be the best single volume on Strauss’s ideas. Someone familiar with Strauss and the literature interpreting him will likely not be challenged in a dramatic way, but fed in a hundred small ways with details and with connections that require enormous effort to expose and understand.

Strauss’s zetetic journey ends where it began, problematically—with the theologico-political problem. Tanguay’s analysis is sharpest when he confronts the political conundrum that Strauss could not resolve, because resolving it would constitute a rejection of his philosophical quest. Dismissing the silly claims that Strauss was a closet Nietzschean, a modern wolf in ancient sheep clothing, Tanguay finds the philosopher’s fundamentally erotic or zetetic way of life to preclude any dogmatic refutation of revelation. Strauss believed that the contemplative life is defined as openness to the Whole (which comes only with some awareness that there is a Whole). Contemplative happiness (that which is peculiar to the philosopher who alone fulfills human nature) is found in the journey that can have no resolution because humans cannot possess knowledge about the Whole, only awareness of that which they search. Since the Whole after which he lusts cannot be known, the philosopher cannot propose a dogmatic atheism and still retain his zetetic search. Incapable of eliminating the possibility of revelation, a genuine philosopher understands that he pursues the philosophical life based on faith—there is no objective grounding (beyond that found in the soul of the philosopher) that justifies his claim that the contemplative way of life is the highest or best. And so Strauss concludes that the theologico-political problem is universal and an insoluble part of the human condition.

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