The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 18, 2018

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

Tanguay’s account of Strauss’s engagement with modern philosophers is fairly conventional. In brief it begins with Machiavelli’s “anti-theological ire” and Machiavelli’s attempt to destroy the normative orientation inherited from the ancients and to replace theory with practice, to employ reason not to understand reality but to bend nature to human desires. Hobbes, of course, lowers the horizon famously by grounding political order on the natural right of all individuals to self-preservation. Rather than the lofty goals of either Jerusalem or Athens, Hobbes tries to create an orderly society based on universal and shared fears.

The trajectory of modern thought pointed toward both a moral individualism and an applied science. With regard to the former, modern natural rights claims moved away from ancient conceptions of inherent inequality and toward an assertion that the individual has equal right to determine for himself how to live well. Even where natural right is supplanted by historicism, it “has for its first principle the valuing of the individual and the particular over the universal and abstract.”(205) With regard to the elevation of applied science, Strauss emphasized that the uncontrolled development of technology—so much a concern for the ancients—produces dehumanizing effects. Modernity effectively understands humans not as beings with souls but as material beings who (or should I say that) can see no higher than their most basic desires allow. Technology, unchallenged by normative claims, feeds our lower selves and hides from us our needs for higher and more human purposes. Life may no longer be nasty, brutish and short, but it is likely to be boring, meaningless, and seemingly interminable.

Tanguay raises, but does not explore adequately, some of the more intriguing questions about Strauss’s beliefs. The author accepts that Strauss probably believed, though didn’t explore in his writings, the argument that Christianity is, in some fashion, a primary source for modernity—that modernity is the secularized version of Christianity. Moreover, Tanguay notes Strauss’s belief in the superiority of Judaism to other religions because unlike others it provides “a complete and coherent substitute for philosophy.”(208) One wishes for more on this subject and a longer meditation about the peculiar dangers of the modern answer to the theologico-political problem. Tanguay leaves the reader frustrated because he claims that, however much Strauss found the medieval enlightenment a compelling alternative, the late modern era does not allow a simple return to that model. We live in a context in which a healthy relationship between religion, politics, and philosophy cannot exist and this satisfies neither the human need as such nor encourages the human excellence found in the philosophical life.

Tanguay’s book, among other recent works, helps us reclaim Leo Strauss’s philosophical quest without requiring that one join a camp. Reclaiming Strauss as a serious philosopher allows us to focus on the problems he raises and to accept that his insights are sometimes profound without requiring that we sign a loyalty oath. Most importantly, reading Tanguay’s book helps us reopen inquiry into the moral objectives of the Enlightenment and our often cherished beliefs about religion and politics, about the glories of technological progress, about equality and individualism.

Strauss’s grand reifications of Athens and Jerusalem, of Ancients and Moderns, do not, finally, lead the careful reader to simple, competing categories. Every declaration is deceptively simple, pointing to mind-bending subtleties and to knowledge that comes in the form of awareness of insoluble problems. We late moderns who live in liberal democracies, who accept and employ the language of rights, the vague but powerful definitions of individualism, the seeming justice of modern equality—we late moderns find from Strauss no simple answer to the challenges of our time. This is to his credit (if not always to the credit of his followers) and to our benefit. We do find that the dominant public conversation about religion and politics, about the fate of European civilization, about the threat by competing civilizations, is largely vacuous and rests on competing assertions that suffer from a profound provincialism. The deepest benefit from reading Tanguay and, in turn, reading Strauss, is not to discover the answer, but to develop a cosmopolitanism that makes one immune to the pompous certainty of contemporary thinkers across the political spectrum.

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