The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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

Strauss’s journey to this philosophical aporia was not circular and it exposed a great deal about the modern or enlightenment attempt to resolve this problem. Hitching a ride with Tanguay on this journey is rewarding because it inspires a kind of meditation on our own time, without detours into the partisan ghettos of either politics or international relations. We don’t have to ask whether Strauss was a Nietzschean or a tepid defender of the American liberal tradition of natural rights or whether he serves today as the patriarch of the tiny band of neoconservatives. Tanguay helps us look to more enduring questions about Strauss and the subjects that constituted Strauss’s philosophical life.

The existential source (and hence the beginning) of Strauss’s philosophical quest was the Jewish problem and the purported liberal solution. On this subject Tanguay is often as elusive as was Strauss, but at the center of the Jewish problem stands the twin themes of authority and identity. The Jewish problem is an expression of the never resolved human problem of the relationship between theology and philosophy, and thus is a particular example of the universal theologico-political problem. The liberal solution to this problem was to make matters of religion private, chasing the deepest questions about how to live out of the public realm. Incapable of arguing away religious ontological claims, the modern answer was to leave to individuals the question about how to live well. In a word, the answer to competing religious traditions and claims to final authority was tolerance. In the case of Jews, the creation of an identity outside of the Law, as rights-bearing individuals of a liberal society, constituted a threat to the very Jewish identity as determined by fidelity to the Law and it provided legal equality that fostered assimilation without the means of providing social equality. Disconnected from the most basic form of their Jewish identity, Jews were nonetheless vulnerable to discrimination.

Strauss’s attempt to resolve the problem of Jews in modern society took several early forms but did not gain satisfactory clarity until, through his study of the “moderate” medieval enlightenment in Judaism and Islam, Strauss rediscovered Platonic or zetetic philosophy. Strauss discovered in the Jewish thinker Maimonides, and then the Islamic philosopher Farabi, a via media that resolved, at least temporarily, the tension between revelation and philosophy. If the Law, as discovered through revelation, declared that human flourishing is found in blind devotion to God while the philosophical imperative is skeptical and zetetic and finds human happiness in philosophical questioning, how can they coexist? The Law and revelation concern themselves with the moral and political life and establish the beliefs necessary to satisfy the human needs for a social and political life. The philosopher is not exempt from these needs even if he cannot believe unambiguously in the claims that establish the social/moral life that he so needs.

Farabi understood the different needs of the citizen and the philosopher and therefore noted the important distinction between necessary beliefs (political and moral beliefs that come from revelation) and true beliefs (the beliefs determined by reason). If necessary beliefs are important conditions for the philosopher to devote himself to the theoretical life in pursuit of true beliefs, the philosopher must respect both beliefs and should write in a way that supports necessary beliefs while exposing to other philosophers true beliefs. Strauss embraced this “esoteric writing” because true philosophers pursue their quest based on three assertions: 1) that only very few people are suited to the theoretical or philosophical life and that all others would be harmed by having their religious beliefs challenged; 2) that true beliefs expressed too bluntly to the vulgar poses a direct threat to the life and wellbeing of philosophers as their statements would pose a threat to the health of the city; and 3) that philosophers cannot provide a satisfactory alternative to revelation—that the philosopher has to assume that revelation may be true as well as necessary.

Common to both Jerusalem and Athens—to all the meaningful ancient alternatives—is the assertion of a normative order, to an authority found in revelation or in Nature, that defines the best way to live. The medieval enlightenment—the term given to the development of a political and philosophical harmony in Judaism and Islam—found an accommodation that was moderate. It allowed philosophical inquiry, justified by the religious Law but without any attempt to undermine revealed religion. Philosophers sought to protect the regime and themselves, both of which had in common devotion to a higher good. Strauss found in the modern attempt to resolve the theologico-political problem a much more radical alternative—the goal of eliminating the normative and thereby undermining both theological truth and the philosophical life.

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