The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

Masks of Mastery: Richard Kennington on Modern Origins
Richard L. Velkley - 01/01/08

When Richard Kennington arrived at Cornell University in the fall of 1967 as guest professor in the Government Department and began to lecture on political philosophy and Descartes' Discourse on Method, the effect on his colleagues and students was one of delight and shock. Here was a relatively unknown scholar of remarkable depth and learning, investigating questions of the first importance with a thorough and unforced mastery of the history of philosophy. His lectures put one directly in the presence of the thought of the great philosophers, removing one from the ever-louder noise of modern life.

I attended those Cornell lectures as a very green freshman. Later I came to see more clearly what moved Kennington philosophically. In graduate seminars at the Pennsylvania State University on Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's Metaphysics, Descartes' Meditations, Spinoza's Ethics, and the metaphysical and dynamical treatises of Leibniz, a large issue was at stake in Kennington's interpretations: what has been called the "crisis of European civilization" which he, like Husserl, Heidegger, and Leo Strauss, understood as the crisis of philosophy. For Kennington, the heart of this crisis was the loss of the Socratic question, "Who is the philosopher?" Other teachers and writers said more than Kennington about relativism, nihilism, scientism, unbridled egalitarianism, and the dangers of global technology. He also discussed these manifest problems, but showed that the crisis of which they are symptoms has a mostly hidden root, made discernible through careful reading of the great philosophers.

Kennington's reflection on the quarrel between ancients and moderns sought to illuminate the origin of modern philosophy, in which he noted a perplexing ambiguity: while founded by genuine philosophers, the new kind of thinking endangered the existence of philosophy. Relativism, scientism, nihilism are consequences of modern philosophy's self-subordination to the spheres of "practice" and history; but these are non-philosophic offspring of philosophy. An adequate account of modern philosophy's origin and fate must do justice to the philosophic intentions of the founders. It must examine the answers of the founders of modernity to the question, "Who is the philosopher?"

Accordingly, the investigation of the emergence in the seventeenth century of new principles of knowledge and nature must have regard for the new accounts of the end of philosophy. Francis Bacon wrote that "the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking of the last or farthest end of human knowledge." He also claimed that his "interpretation of nature" is a kind of logic that differs from the traditional logic "in the end aimed at, in the order of demonstration, and in the starting point of inquiry."1 My discussion begins with two parts on Kennington's accounts of the modern determination of philosophy's end and the modern mode of theoretical analysis. However, it is necessary to revisit these themes in the following three parts, taking into account a closer consideration of the problematic relation between philosophy and politics in the modern founders—Bacon and Descartes—to whom Kennington devoted most attention.

The End of Philosophy

Kennington showed that Bacon's argument about the end followed in crucial respects Machiavelli, on whose decisive import for modernity Kennington agreed with Leo Strauss. Here I adduce a remark of Seth Benardete, who writes that "Richard Kennington took to heart in everything he thought Leo Strauss' remark, 'The problem inherent in the surface of things and only in the surface of things is the heart of things,' for he realized that Strauss had merely formulated what was already there in Plato's use of eidos, and which Heidegger in turn uncovered in his interpretation of 'phenomenology.'"2

Strauss' remark on the "problem inherent in the surface"—which occurs in his book on Machiavelli—refers fundamentally to the natural tension between philosophy and practical life. This inheres in the surface of things because the philosopher naturally appears strange to practical life. But this appearance has been rendered trivial or been simply submerged by modern philosophy, which has created an artificial harmony between the philosopher and practical life. The recovery of this appearance, the natural eidos of the philosopher, requires historical studies in order to penetrate the layer of artifice distorting that appearance. For assistance in this effort, let us turn to Strauss' Thoughts on Machiavelli:

Machiavelli's philosophizing . . . remains on the whole within the limits set by the city qua closed to philosophy. Accepting the ends of the demos as beyond appeal, he seeks for the best means conducive to those ends. Through his effort philosophy becomes salutary in the sense in which the demos understands, or may understand, the salutary. He achieves the decisive turn toward the notion of philosophy according to which its purpose is to relieve man's estate or to increase man's power or to guide man toward the rational society, the bond and the end of which is enlightened self-interest or the comfortable self-preservation of its members. The cave becomes "the substance." By supplying all men with the goods which they desire, by being the obvious benefactress of all men, philosophy (or science) ceases to be suspect or alien.3

The passage states that Machiavelli's thought is not limited to the horizon of the city, but "remains on the whole" within it. Machiavelli is aware of the claims of the classic philosophers that man's highest perfection is a way of life transcending the city, the life of philosophic contemplation, and that "the worth of the city ultimately depends on its openness, or deference" to that life.4 He rejects those claims, but does not therewith reject philosophy as such; rather he initiates a new philosophy whose practical fruits, but not founding reasonings, the demos can readily grasp as beneficial. The benefit to the philosopher is the anticipation of a reward: respectability, even glory, will be granted to him for his benefaction—an expectation held in opposition to the classical and premodern view that philosophy will never cease to be alien to most human beings.Since philosophy is the sustained openness to the wonderful and strange, the coincidence of philosophy and political power can only be an event of utmost strangeness, highly unlikely if not simply impossible. The ancient philosophic best regimes exist only in speech or imagination. These are the object of the derision of Machiavelli, Bacon, and Descartes, who would render the coincidence of philosophy and political power not only likely but even assured. This coincidence is the defining feature of all modern politics, whether liberal or illiberal.

In aiming at universalizable benefits, philosophy as "Enlightenment" must remove from the center of philosophy the sustained openness to the wondrous which cannot be universalized. Yet if the modern founders are seeking to overcome the alienness or strangeness of philosophy, they must first be aware of it. They must admit that the philosopher's passion is somehow unusual. In this awareness they still are linked to the ancients. Their success in overcoming the rift between philosophy and non-philosophy would mean, however, the demise of that awareness. They would found a condition, therefore, in which their act of founding would not be possible. The success of modernity renders its origin unintelligible to its beneficiaries. This is the heart of the present crisis.

Kennington uncovered the continuation of the Machiavellian project in Bacon, Descartes, and later philosophers. He exposed how the modern turn gives philosophy a function that religion had previously performed: of answering to the universal hopes of man by supplying a theodicy. Philosophy cannot secure itself as the true benefactor of humanity without supplanting its rival, revealed and traditional faiths, with new forms of faith.5 Critics of modern science and the mastery of nature, from Rousseau through Heidegger, have not usually seen the need to extend their criticism to this account of philosophy's responsibility. Of them Kennington writes, "Since all philosophic attempts to save humanity from the Baconian technological goal are themselves humanitarian, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they remain Baconian in principle."6 Later modern philosophy did not recover the question "Who is the philosopher?" but presumed the truth of the early modern answer.

The New Mode of Analysis

Kennington showed how the new principles of knowledge, nature and being—in sum, the modern approach to metaphysics—must be examined in the light of this transformation of philosophy's end. Here, he significantly extended the reflections on the origins of modern mathematical philosophy and science in Husserl and Jacob Klein. The modern approach to knowledge radically changes the meaning of the dialectical ascent from experience to first principles and the explanatory descent from principles to experience. It abolishes the premodern distinction between what is more knowable for us (the appearance with which our dialectical ascent to causes begins) and what is more knowable by nature (the causes themselves).7

In the modern procedure, or method, the given appearance is distrusted, and something immediately certain to the mind, but not ultimate in things, is elicited from experience. (One can think of Descartes' eliciting of "extension" from inspection of the wax.) This certainty is then employed as foundational principle.8 The goal of this procedure is to replace the given appearance with another order—the order of "clear and distinct ideas" or "sense-impressions" and (later) their categorical structure—that can serve as the basis for a non-aporetic science. The procedure is initially skeptical, but ultimately dogmatic. The typical foundation is the mathematical form of natural law, which replaces the heterogeneity of the beings with a system of homogeneous abstractions. Science as thus turning away from the diversity of beings as they present themselves is not chiefly or wholly speculative in purpose. The aim (in various forms) is mastery; progress in mastering the phenomena on the basis of indubitable certainties offers no true advance of insight into the nature of things; science is no longer a liberal discipline in the classical sense.9 The modern founders judged that men of practical bon sens, motivated by acquisition and mastery, would find the new principles congenial, as grounding sciences that promise greater certainty and utility than previous philosophy could afford. Apodictic foundations, without knowledge of things in themselves, permit unlimited increase in power and secure the primacy of the practical. In Kant's formula, the transcendental logic of ordinary experience is also the logical foundation of metaphysics, which legislates the limits of speculative reason's competence and allows practical postulations to fill the place of metaphysical insight. The telos of "critique" is to guarantee lasting harmony between philosophy and practical life.10Premodern philosophy is more open to dialectic and aporia than modern. It dwells on the formal appearances first for us, not in order to have a foundation for mastery, but in order to uncover problems that cannot be resolved on the level of the first appearances. This discovery is the heart of liberation from the "cave" of opinion. In Socratic philosophy, one cannot speak of an unproblematic realism of the appearances or eide. In fact, one has to say that the being of things, or the eide, is not really grasped until one sees the inherent perplexity in being. Kennington in his readings of Plato and Aristotle emphasized the role of the aporetic in these philosophers. In particular he emphasized the problematic relation between intelligible structure and causality.11 This problematic relation is bound up with the erotic nature of the soul. In Kennington's account modern nature unifies intelligible structure and causality at the price of abandoning the erotic quest for the ultimate grounds.

Yet modern nature is not purely a construct of human reason. Kennington writes, "The moderns shared with the ancient tradition the assumption that philosophy must begin with a non-arbitrary reflection on experience, i.e., with analysis."12 He therefore opposed the common tendency of students of Strauss to characterize modern knowledge solely in terms of Hobbes' nominalistic-constructive procedure. "I believe that the example of Hobbes has misled us. If Hobbes maintains that we can know only what we make, then we cannot have theoretical knowledge of nature, but we may know enough to master nature. But the case of Bacon is different."13

Bacon has a partial or qualified ascent from experience, one that is bedeviled by the problem of return to its experiential starting-point. He seeks a more secure theoretical ascent from experience toward its causes.14 The new mode of ascent is based on a distrust of the immediate starting-point in sense-experience, unlike the ancient ascent which sought to preserve the articulation of that starting-point. Bacon charges the ancients with uncritically accepting the heterogeneity of species evident to the senses as a reliable pointer toward the first causes, the forms or ideas. The ancients, "leaping" to the highest causes, precipitately ignored intermediate steps in their ascent. Their starting-point and their order of demonstration are inseparable from their anthropomorphic and religion-informed view of the end, according to which nature is ordered toward human happiness. Bacon, writing of "two ways of contemplation,"15 does not reject contemplation as such, but the ancient mode of contemplation that is turned toward the uncovering of final causes. His theoretical ascent conjoins a new kind of contemplation with a new kind of action: nature will disclose its true order only when it is placed under constraint rather than observed "working freely." Methodical constraint, or experiment, uncovers "laws of action" that cut across the diversity of kinds. Such laws or simple natures, such as heat, magnetism and gravitation, are operative in the same manner wherever found, on the earth or in celestial bodies. The certainty of the law is inseparable from its mode of discovery, the experiment enabling humans to produce the simple nature. Thus are understanding and power conjoined in a philosophy promising "to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe."16

The new notion of a homogeneous law of nature does not, however, make a claim to ultimacy in nature. Rather it is a stage in a process of methodically controlled ascent, in which higher laws subsume lower. Bacon is not convinced that a highest law or summa lex will ever be found. But a law is not less certain for its lack of ultimacy in the natural order. The Baconian turn initiates the typical modern position, found in Locke, Newton, Kant, and Einstein, that the order of nature's laws has certainty for us without our knowing its grounds in things themselves.

This and other features of Bacon's theoretical ascent hold with needed modifications for other early moderns. Descartes sought mathematical versions of the homogeneous laws of nature; his search begins, as does Bacon's, with a critique of sense-experience as unreliable.17 In light of the goal of mathematical science, the critique is more radical. Instead of moving in Baconian fashion away from evident kinds to underlying laws concealed beneath primary experience, Descartes replaces the immediate availability of the deceptive senses with another immediate datum, the clear and distinct notion of extension, which grounds homogeneous knowledge of bodies. Kennington notes that

The Cartesian departure from the experience of heterogeneous kinds is compensated by the universal immediacy by which concepts are manifested in the experience of bodies; the abiding difficulty of this procedure is the return to the experience of heterogeneous kinds. It is a question whether Descartes did not pay a heavy price for this immediacy: extension is not a true ultimate, or not that metaphysical essence of body that can account for the properties, even of homogeneous bodies. Descartes did not seek to determine the ultimate divisibility of extension, or those ultimate parts which could explain the resistance, impenetrability or antitypia, required of his laws of mechanics. He was content to postulate three grades of fineness of material parts. It is probable that this lack of metaphysical ultimacy did not disturb Descartes: extension, figure and motion could be identified with the conceptual objects of his analytic geometry.18

Descartes' difficulty does not end there. The abstraction from kinds makes extremely questionable for him, as it does for Bacon, that the human telos for the new science can be described by that science. Kennington observes,

[Bacon's] correction of the ancient way, which is the conjoining of contemplation with action . . . leaves Bacon with a great problem, precisely in the realm of practice. The "action" with which theory is combined is limited to the production that is feasible through knowledge of the laws of nature. It excludes knowledge of the ends or goods of human life that would guide the uses of that production.19

The new method gives no account of particular beings, such as humans and their ends or goals. Thus in his statements on those ends Bacon relies on prescientific thought about the good, including some elements of ancient moral teaching.

Descartes' mathematicized improvement on Baconian natural law suffers a similar fate when Descartes tries to give a scientific account of the ends of knowledge. His mathematical turn "necessarily introduces an unprecedented gulf between 'means-knowledge' and 'end-knowledge.'"20 When scientific method considers what is intelligible in the soul, it severs the "I," as bearer of clear and distinct thinking, from the body as the ground of life and motion, thus dissolving the ancient soul as principle of both thought and life. This is the birth of the modern self. Yet Descartes acknowledges that what is separable for purposes of intellection must in reality be closely joined to the body for the ends of life and action. The cognitively autonomous "I" is bound to the body by a practically indispensable "teaching of nature" that the pleasant is the good and to be pursued. The metaphysical dualism of mind and body can be only a "methodological dualism."

I cannot reproduce here Kennington's subtle discussion of Descartes' reflections on these matters in the Sixth Meditation.21 Nor can I discuss in the present context his thoughts on The Passions of the Soul, the work wherein Descartes attempts to approach wisdom about the human whole (knowledge of the use and enjoyment of the passions), the ultimate object of philosophy. In this attempt Descartes overtly abandons the dualist substance-doctrine, which enjoys an exoteric (theological-apologetic) status in the Meditations. The treatise on the passions is centrally concerned with generosity, the passion for mastery that replaces wonder as what moves the philosopher. Descartes's horizon of thought still includes an awareness of the distinctiveness of the philosopher, necessarily presupposed by his founding of new sciences. Even so, his scientific principles exist in unresolved tension with the quality of that awareness. Descartes' problem is full of portent for later modernity. As modernity advances, the problem of the "self" deepens, as the "self" (or the "subject") becomes an unknowable "logical function" in Kant and disappears altogether in Heidegger. Kennington's inquiries in this area are among his greatest contributions to the understanding of modernity.

The Question of Mastery Reconsidered

In the remainder I will indicate how a deeper level of the analysis of this tension can be reached through further reflection on the relation of philosophy to politics. Kennington notes that Descartes' founding of modern philosophy "appears to stand in splendid isolation from the older modern political tradition of Machiavelli," and this appearance suggests that "modern philosophy and modern political philosophy are separate in origin and perhaps divergent in intention."22

Kennington's studies of early modern philosophers, as we have already seen, sought to remove that appearance of separateness by means of the concept of "mastery" derived from Machiavelli. All the same, Kennington saw that the transposition of mastery from its political form in Machiavelli to its transpolitical form in several modern philosophers has problematic features. He notes that "the scholarly judgment is that 'the individual' is the dominant notion of modern political philosophy, and 'epistemology' of modern philosophy."23 The former is connected with unconditional rights and freedom as the realization of selfhood; the latter is connected with the priority of method in science and the demand for "foundations" of knowledge. The dominance of each notion is "somehow neutral to the vicissitudes of 'metaphysics'."

Then Kennington remarks: "In general, the connection of these two dominant concerns has never been established."24 This failure relates to the fact that "the grounding of human activity in the good has proved beyond the powers of the activity of epistemology," which brings to mind, once more, the difficulty of self-accounting in Bacon and Descartes. The difficulty leads eventually to the prevailing scholarly blindness to the original connection between epistemology and practical philosophy—a blindness manifest in the refusal to read the metaphysics of the Meditations in light of the secular apologetic of the more practically explicit, and hence more comprehensive, Discourse on Method.

It was Kennington's judgment that Leo Strauss surpassed all others in grasping the nature of the dependence of the two domains; yet Kennington expressed reservations about his account. The conventional scholarly judgment is a distorted reflection of the truth that the purposes of Bacon and Descartes in a fashion transcend the purely practical—or at least the practical in its public and humanitarian form. In other words, the "individuality" of concern to these philosophers is crucially a concern with the best life, the life of the philosophic few. In Kennington's reading, Strauss proposes a seamless move from the Machiavellian endorsement of individuality to the Hobbesian methodological turn at the price of underestimating the importance of that philosophic concern, or perhaps even of denying its existence.Kennington summarizes Strauss' argument in his essay "Strauss's Natural Right and History." Machiavelli brings into being "the modern individual" through his emancipation of political life from all superhuman reference. Treating "men as they are and not as they ought to be" and rejecting all "ideals of human perfection," he calls for an individual "who does not belong to any whole."25 Political philosophy becomes politicized in this radical autonomy of the political; all philosophy then becomes politicized when the Machiavellian concern with "effectiveness," the placing of politics on the low ground of the passions, is transferred to the account of knowledge. In pursuit of the "actualization of wisdom," Hobbes eliminates on the plane of natural philosophy all possible orientation toward the superhuman whole. He achieves this through a fusion of Epicurean materialism and Platonic mathematics resulting in a non-metaphysical, or methodological, materialism. The fusion is based on the principle that the first grounds of knowledge are only human constructs, or that we know only what we make. Philosophy, formerly the attempt to grasp the eternal, becomes without residue the mastery of chance or fortune.

In Strauss' estimation, the Baconian-Cartesian dedication of natural philosophy to a new, universal, transpolitical project of mastery, the "relief of man's estate," is only a further application of the same Machiavellian political doctrine. Kennington ascribes the following thought to Strauss: "How then is the goal of philosophy to be understood? It cannot be essentially different from the goal of politics; it differs as only the teacher of politics from the practitioner; it becomes a higher form of politics."26 In the essay from which I cite this passage, Kennington expresses no dissent from Strauss' account of the post-Machiavellian tradition.

But this conception of the relation between the modern good, or emancipated individuality, and modern truth, or metaphysical neutrality, leaves Kennington with some questions. Does the liberation of politics from the superhuman sufficiently justify the dedication of philosophy to practical goals? How could it do so, unless the liberation were accompanied by evidence of the complete futility of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise, as inquiry into first principles of the whole? In Kennington's view Machiavelli did not provide such evidence, nor did Bacon and Descartes discover it in their own reflections.

Kennington did not agree with a fairly widespread opinion among students of Strauss that the early modern philosophers found in the irrefutability of the omnipotent deity the fatal obstacle to all theoretical assertions about nature. I shall have to limit myself to mentioning Kennington's well-known and superbly argued reading of the evil genius in the Meditations, as replacing the omnipotent deity as ratio dubitandi, whereby Descartes shows that the alleged "universal doubt" is not universal but restricted to the bodily and sensible.27 The finite evil genius, which cannot call the truths of logic and mathematics into question, is the highest power that philosophic reason can summon, and the only one that Descartes employs in his laying of foundations. More generally, according to Kennington only the persisting confidence of Bacon and Descartes in some form of theoretical inquiry—and thus of the uniqueness of the philosophic life—can account for the strange transformation of the radically political conception of human life in Machiavelli into the universalist, humanitarian Enlightenment, with its demotion of the political.Kennington agreed with Strauss that Bacon and Descartes took from Machiavelli his dark description of our pre-scientific experience of the world—nature as unfriendly to human purposes, as radically non-teleological, and thus calling for mastery. But Machiavelli retained a residue of "ancient" belief in the goodness of political life which was abandoned by these later thinkers. If for Machiavelli philosophy can make itself almost wholly at home in political life—in direct contradiction to the Socratic account of its permanent fate—philosophy for Bacon and Descartes can make itself at home in a world in which politics is subordinated to the advancement of science dedicated to mastery. It is Kennington's intent to argue that Bacon and Descartes sought to retain some independence of the philosophic life from politics; they did not accept the Machiavellian (and perhaps Hobbesian) fusion of the two. The central term in Kennington's account of the Enlightenment relation between the philosopher and society is "contract": a harmonious coordination of freedom for the philosopher in return for the material—that is bodily—benefits for society that the philosopher has made possible. Rather paradoxically, the element of theoretical ambition and confidence in Bacon and Descartes—hence a residue of nature's goodness on the theoretical plane—leads toward an artificial overhauling of the political realm that even Machiavelli would have found immoderate.28

The Taming of Eros

Kennington's reservation is openly stated in an essay entitled "Bacon's Reform of Nature," wherein he asks, "Is mastery of nature the purpose governing reason in modernity?" He then observes that the discussion among competent observers divides into two camps. One group defends the theoretical purity of modern science, and the other group, which is said to include Nietzsche, Scheler, Heidegger, Strauss, and Löwith, "does not hesitate to affirm that [modern rationalism's] goals are Baconian in character."29 Although distancing Strauss from Nietzsche's extremism, Kennington implies that Strauss agrees with Nietzsche's dictum that "science—the transformation of nature into concepts for the purpose of mastery of nature—belongs under the rubric 'means.'" But difficulties for this approach emerge from a consideration of Bacon's writings, as they shed light on the question, "How, out of the two traditions grounding the West, biblical religion and classical Greek philosophy, there arose one new goal of universal mastery?"30

It is necessary to give the end of mastery its more precise Baconian formulation. Bacon's highest purpose, in Kennington's account, is to render philosophy exempt from the vicissitudes of fortune and time. Since philosophy must forever be an open-ended inquiry, and remains dependent on mortal beings for its pursuit, that exemption has to take the form of assured progress. Philosophical inquiry needs to be remodeled on the mechanical arts that have made irreversible progress. Yet this is not sufficient; the city of man must be eternalized as the condition for such progress, by means of an art that releases political life from the generative-destructive cycles of nature. The creation of the Kingdom of Man within the Kingdom of Nature initiates history as linear progress.31

The foremost vicissitude that philosophy must conquer is its incorporation into religion, unforeseen by ancient philosophy. The ancients lacked a practical program to prevent such incorporation, and moreover, in Bacon's view the teleological benevolence of nature in ancient philosophy began the process of incorporation.32 Bacon's primary charge against Aristotle is about his "divinization of nature," the source of traditional universal teleology. On the other hand, Bacon is not content to propose Democritean materialism, for that is just as ill-equipped to allow appearances to elicit perplexity leading to the uncovering of general properties or laws, or the crucial "intermediate" steps in the ascent to first causes.33 All the ancient alternatives are defective.

But Bacon and other moderns failed to see that universal teleology is not the true thought of Plato and Aristotle. The Socratic teleology of the theoretical life neither requires nor points to the existence of such a teleology.34 For Bacon, the incorporation of philosophy into the universal teleology of Christian providence offers two possibilities for the human future: true philosophy can be permanently suppressed, or the incorporation can be exploited in such a way as to end definitively the conditions for suppression. In working for the second, Bacon and Descartes disclose that the meaning of anti-theological ire is anti-teleological ire.35 The teleological tendency of the human mind, or the natural "cave" of the mind, is the enemy of philosophic discovery.36 Piety or revelation does not in itself pose a theoretical problem for philosophy. But religion is "the thing which has most power over men's minds," Bacon writes,37 and through this power it has made the possibility of non-teleological philosophy invisible. The instauration of the new anti-teleology has to invest itself with a similar power, and that means it must acquire the protection of a universal goal. That goal is indeed another teleology—one of freedom from natural teleology—and it eventually adopts the names of natural right, Enlightenment, and philosophy of history. The employment of certain elements of Christian providence, for example the praise of "charity," is purely for the self-rescuing of philosophy.

It is Kennington's startling claim that Bacon's concern is to reinterpret, not reject, the contemplative life. The new account of contemplation opposes the premise of nature's goodness, which it regards as common to biblical religion and Greek philosophy. It employs a method that protects the mind against its tendency to assume nature's benevolence. Even so, the philosophic life is described as godlike; Bacon and Descartes point directly to the ancient precedents for this; the earliest Cartesian writing is entitled Olympica.38 What renders this life godlike is not worldly honor but the highest deed of which the human mind is capable: that of making the highest human activity, philosophy, impervious to chance.

Here is where the immense utility of Machiavellian politics proves itself, although it is perhaps a utility distant from Machiavelli's own concerns. The meaning of Machiavellian thought for Bacon and Descartes is not Machiavelli's project of the repoliticization of man, requiring the fusion of politics with philosophy. Nor is it simply that his project provides a powerful weapon in the war against the religious powers. In an amazing transformation, the Machiavellian moral teaching becomes a new form of philosophic self-discipline. The emancipation of the mind from belief in natural benevolence requires a new habituation, indeed a training in warfare against the eros for the supersensible. Machiavelli began that war with his instruction in the wisdom of Chiron; the force of subhuman necessity was set against the longing for the superhuman.39 By rendering incredible the ancient moral and intellectual virtues, this wisdom opens to Bacon and Descartes a new source of enduring vitality for philosophy.

But for Bacon and Descartes that vitality assumes a transpolitical character: the methodical constraint on the wayward eros of the philosophic mind, which is constrained by the concern with power.40 That concern compels the mind to concentrate on what is knowable with certainty, and so thwarts the precipitous flight to first causes. Descartes speaks of the resolution that steadies the will when confronted with the distracting effect of wonder.41 Subhuman necessity, the necessities of the body, can be brought into a remarkable alliance with philosophic striving. The advancement of knowledge, with its assured continuation for all time, depends on directing the mind away from pure knowing; only impure knowing brings forward the truly intelligible, that which conforms to the mind's power of knowing. The erotic anticipation of the harmony of mind and being only leads to phantasms, to complete disjunction of mind and being. The primary beneficiary of the project of extending human power is the philosopher qua philosopher.

The humanitarianism of the new science is therefore doubly masked. One mask is the moral mask, the appearance of the philosopher as obedient to a law of justice or charity in his benefaction. The other mask is something akin to philosophic self-hypnosis, or the conscious employment of the cunning of nature: the philosopher gives himself the secondary end of power in order to promote the primary end of knowledge. What is strange here—and Kennington saw that philosophy is always strange—is the inauguration of an immoderate practical project for the attaining of moderation in philosophy: the taming of eros. How this move may bear some resemblance to Socrates' turn to speeches after his being blinded by the vision of Anaxagorean teleology I cannot discuss.

The Artificial Whole of Philosophy and Politics

Kennington claims that Bacon's grounds for rejecting the classical Greek account of philosophy were not the same as Machiavelli's.42 The Baconian concern with an individuality emancipated from teleology has a transpolitical dimension: the preservation of philosophy's independence as grounded in the philosopher's unique character or selfhood. Hence the Machiavellian political mastery, resting on a pre-scientific account of norms, becomes the Baconian universal politics of science, indifferent to regime, and employing a non-normative scientific method as means to achieve its ends. The gulf between normative reflection on heterogeneity and non-normative, technical manipulation of the homogeneous emerges out of this philosophic sense of individuality. The malleability of nature, implicit in the technical pursuit of mastery, has roots in Machiavelli, and his emphasis on bodily goods also points to humanity united on the lowest plane. But Bacon thought that Machiavelli did not grasp that art, and not politics, is the greatest benefactor.

Bacon appeals to the judgment of antiquity that founders of cities receive only heroic honors, whereas inventors of arts win divine glory.43 Political life is limited in time and space, but the arts are limitless in both respects. The arts combine power and beneficence more effectively than any empire. Yet art has a defect: it must be given an end or, to be more precise, the productive arts that extend power have need of a highest architectonic and legislative art to direct them toward coherent goals. Yet here also the artifactual is prominent, as both Bacon and Descartes employ the simile of architecture to describe this highest art. A double fusion is at work—that of politics and art for demotic concerns of mastery (bodily goods) and that of philosophy and art for the method of attaining mastery. And although the latter appears to serve only the former, the philosopher has non-demotic goods in view as well.

The two fusions can never be perfectly one with each other, since the demotic and the philosophic can have only contractual relations. Yet art appears to achieve, for the first time in human history, the perfect whole, since the ancient disparity between the necessities that generate political life and the highest goods which are its true end—the split between genesis and telos—appears to be overcome. But this unity comes at a price. The fusion of politics and art requires violating the city's foundation in opinion, as art takes the place of the divine. The reversal of the Fall is the intent of the new charity, from which divine blessing and grace are absent.44 And the completion of philosophic eros in the fusion of philosophy and art proves to be Aristophanic, since the mind limits its satisfaction to its own operations. The split between the methodology of homogeneity and the heterogeneous human goods that motivate its creation betrays the necessary incompleteness of this satisfaction. This is a new version of the split between genesis and telos, which was only papered over by the philosophic rhetoric of universal benefaction.

What I find especially interesting in this account of the origins of modernity is Kennington's exposure of how the early moderns attempt to exploit that split between genesis (or necessity) and telos (or the good) for the sake of furthering philosophy, by transforming its erotic quest into self-mastery. Like the ancient erotic quest it replaces, the new mode of life is not divine, but demonic or quasi-divine. It builds on acknowledged human defect, since wisdom is the daughter of time (as Bacon writes, following Bruno), and progress in certainty is gained by renouncing the knowledge of anything as a whole. Yet it is genuinely philosophic, since it reflects on human deficiency in the light of the highest ambitions. That art becomes the clue to the relation between the human starting-point and divine aspiration entails a recovery, perhaps unwitting, of Socratic questions. The philosopher is unable to ignore how his questioning emerges from, and is shaped by, the realm of necessity—to which nature provides only partial responses. There is no philosophizing without the unresolved tension between the high and the low. The modern gamble is that this tension can be reshaped as a progressive dialectic, rather than remain an ever-renewed puzzling over the unexpected twists in the unfolding of human problems.

Kennington—here also closely following Strauss—was much concerned with how this gamble itself unraveled in unanticipated ways in the course of modernity. His account of the problematic link between individuality and methodology further strengthens the analysis Strauss offers of the emergence of historicism in chapter one of Natural Right and History.45 Strauss speaks of two presuppositions of the historical turn, the belief in progress and the supreme value of the local and particular. The former is based on the methodological insistence on homogeneity; the latter derives from the good, individuality, that methodology is meant to promote. When Rousseau argues that progress and history do not produce the desired good, there emerges the gulf between reason and nature, or means and end, which prepares for historicism. In the thought of the Historical School, progressive methodology is retained as the critique of all transcendence or metaphysics, and the good of individuality is preserved as the primacy of the historical particular (the nation, people, or culture). They combine in the doctrine that all thought has a non-arbitrary basis in particular historical conditions; but again the unification is inherently unstable. The critique of transcendence and so the historicist principle cannot be other than transhistorical dicta, thus an unwelcome homogeneity persists in tension with the vaunted heterogeneity. The deepest resolution to this difficulty was sought once more on the plane of art, but this time the poetic art. Here the tendency of individuality to elude the grasp of homogeneous methodology becomes a virtue, since there exists an art that is able to create and articulate a non-aggregative wholeness in the poetic work. This art, as practiced by the poetic genius, masters unanticipated insight with speech or image, thus creating a beautiful or sublime whole whose "aesthetic ideas" provoke inexhaustible reflection.46 The radically particular—the heroic individual, people, or culture at the peak of humanity—eludes reason, but not the speech and articulation of the inspired thinker-poet.

But the question cannot be evaded whether the thinker-poet is able to achieve coherence between the activity of questioning, or his sense of Being as aporia, and his prophetic disclosure that the human is at home in the world of poetic language. Kennington saw in this romantic and historicist turn of late modernity the confirmation of his suspicion that the split between homogeneity and heterogeneity is essential to the human condition, and an insuperable barrier to modern efforts to achieve self-sufficiency through the arts. That permanent split forever generates the quest for a teleology that would resolve it. The fate of modernity thus illuminates the truth that teleology is as inescapable as it is elusive. It is the nature of the philosopher to uncover and explicate this truth, in the face of the powers of tradition and history that conceal it.

Richard L. Velkley
The Catholic University of America


  1. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (London: J. M. Dent, 1915), 34; New Organon, "Plan of the Great Instauration."
    See Richard Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery of Nature," in S. F. Spicker, ed., Organism, Medicine and Metaphysics (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1978), 201-223; "Bacon's Critique of Ancient Philosophy in New Organon, I," in D. Dahlstrom, ed., Nature and Scientific Method (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 235-251; "Bacon's Reform of Nature," in J. C. McCarthy, ed., Modern Enlightenment and the Rule of Reason (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998),40–54.
  2. These remarks are from a preface Seth Benardete supplied for two letters written by Kennington to Benardete and published as Kennington, "Two Philosophical Letters," The Review of Metaphysics 53, no. 3 (March, 2000), 531–539.
  3. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe: Free Press, 1958), 296.
  4. Strauss, Thoughts, 296.
  5. "Only seventeenth century philosophy laid down the principles of the modern type of political society which became the agent of technological 'progress'—by merging the goals of philosophy and politics in what we have called 'syncretic philosophy' . . . . But syncretic philosophy cannot take responsibility for the material and spiritual well–being of society without confronting the necessity of society for the over-arching framework of belief which is always, if in varying degree and form, a 'theodicy' . . . . No premodern philosopher believed it possible or necessary to accept and discharge the responsibility for supplying a theodicy to humanity, as distinct from the sect of philosophers." Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery," 221–22.
  6. "What is properly called 'Baconian' is the assumption of philosophy or science of the care and responsibility for the material and spiritual well-being of humanity, and not a narrow concern with material technology. Even those rare modern philosophers who seek to re-assert the ancient speculative goal, or seek to combat the mastery of nature in one or all forms, typically show themselves members of the 'party of humanity' by proposing societies that are founded in universal rights and not in the rarity of human excellence; or in the 'inevitable' progress toward just social forms; or in some redemption of humanity from the nihilisms of the age." Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery," 206. It may be questioned whether Rousseau and Nietzsche, who raise again the ancient question, and whose philosophies reveal the conflict between the ancient and the modern answers, did in the end embrace "redemptive" views of philosophy's goal.
  7. Aristotle, Physics 184a17–22.
  8. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, II.
  9. "This knowledge is not the less science than that which exhibits the nature of the thing itself." Descartes, Regulae, Rule VIII, cited in Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery," 219.
  10. Richard Velkley, "On Kant's Socratism," The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Richard Kennington, ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985), 87–105.
  11. Socrates in the Republic and Phaedo lacks an account of how the good is a cause; he does not have a teleological science. The improvement on Socrates by Timaeus' cosmology takes the form of a "likely story." The central difficulty for teleology, which Timaeus solves only apparently, is the inclusion of the erotic soul within the finished order of the cosmos. See Seth Benardete, "On the Timaeus," in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 376–395, especially 381–382. For many years Kennington and Benardete discussed the problems of Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy and their ramifications for modern philosophy.
  12. Kennington, "Analytic and Synthetic Methods in Spinoza's Ethics," in R. Kennington, ed., The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1980), 309.
  13. Kennington, "Bacon's Concept of Mastery of Nature," (unpublished lecture, 1988). Kennington here quotes Bacon's assertion that "those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one."
  14. Kennington, "Bacon's Critique," passim.
  15. Francis Bacon, New Organon, "Author's Preface."
  16. Ibid., I, 129.
  17. Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery," passim.
  18. Kennington, "Analytic and Synthetic," 310.
  19. Kennington, "Bacon's Critique," 248–49.
  20. Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery," 212.
  21. Kennington, "The 'Teaching of Nature' in Descartes' Soul Doctrine," The Review of Metaphysics 26, no. 1 (March, 1972), 86–117; "Rene Descartes," History of Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 421–439.
  22. Kennington, "Rene Descartes," 421.
  23. Kennington, "Strauss's Natural Right and History," The Review of Metaphysics 35, no. 1 (September, 1981), 83.
  24. Ibid., 83.
  25. Ibid., 83.
  26. Ibid., 81.
  27. Kennington, "The Finitude of Descartes' Evil Genius," Journal of the History of Ideas, 32, no. 3 (July–September, 1971), 441–446.
  28. Kennington, "Bacon's Reform," 53.
  29. Ibid., 41.
  30. Ibid., 42.
  31. Ibid., 52–54. See also, "Howard White and the Baconian Politics of Enlightenment" (unpublished lecture).
  32. Kennington, "Bacon's Concept."
  33. Bacon, New Organon, I, 57; I, 67.
  34. Kennington, "Final Causality and Modern Natural Right" (unpublished lecture).
  35. Ibid.
  36. Kennington, "Bacon's Reform," 47–51.
  37. Bacon, New Organon, I, 89.
  38. Kennington, "Bacon's Critique," 251; "Descartes's Olympica," Social Research 28 (1961), 171–204.
  39. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 18.
  40. Kennington, "Bacon's Critique," 240–241; "Bacon's Concept."
  41. Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, articles 70–78.
  42. Kennington, "Bacon's Humanitarian Revision of Machiavelli" (unpublished lecture).
  43. Bacon, New Organon, I, 129.
  44. Kennington, "Blumenberg and the Legitimacy of the Modern Age," in The Ambiguous Legacy of the Enlightenment, William A. Rusher, ed. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1995), 22–37.
  45. Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 9–34.
  46. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, sections 46–50.
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