The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 18, 2018

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

A review of Daniel Tanguay’s Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 272 pages, $30.00.

The great cultural and civilizational narratives are back. In the books and articles that mark this new stage in the great conversation of and about western civilization, we encounter the old and grand reifications of “the West,” of “Modernity,” of the “Enlightenment.” In the hands of most authors and commentators, our most profound reifications are hopelessly thin and superficial, unintentional caricatures of both our history and ourselves. I sometimes employ this intellectual shorthand when my thinking is particularly murky, but I fear that some others never penetrate deeply enough to notice that their erudition rests on ponderous categories. We risk profound misunderstandings of each other, and the events we seek to analyze, because the words we use are too rich with competing meanings.

Nonetheless, the redoubt to the big categories of our political and philosophical life suggests that both careful and superficial observers of our time detect a serious challenge to, or shift in, our civilization. The ominous threat of Islamic terrorism and the questions about a possible clash of civilizations pose important and even pressing questions on some observers, including concerns about the spiritual health of western civilization. While some have worried that an increasingly secular Europe has lost its will to defend itself, others worry that reanimated Christianity in America poses a threat as dire as fundamentalist Islam. Even away from the intellectual heat over Islam and the West, cultural divides over global warming, science and human life, capital punishment, the nature and role of the family, and so much more have taken on a strange urgency, as though America and Europe are facing a cultural tipping point and soon all may become hopeless.

One particularly pressing question facing us (judging from the both the volume and tone of recent books on the subject) concerns the relationship of religion to the regime and even of the place for religious faith in the modern world. We are all familiar with the popular evangelical atheists of our time who seem as deeply frightened by religious belief as they are ignorant of the complexity of both theologies and humans. Unlike earlier laments about religious belief in America (one thinks of Walter Lippmann and Joseph Wood Krutch), today’s secular Jeremiahs seem less adrift from the existential comforts of religion than taking umbrage at the fact that others cannot see the most obvious truth of our scientific age. From disillusionment to aggressive claims to knowledge, it seems that the public face of atheism today is much threatened by religious beliefs.

One of the stories many intellectuals tell about our civilization and its future is that it is leading, progressively, toward secularism, scientific management, and expansive personal freedoms. The newest version of this narrative reverses older progressive story-lines that understood the United States to be the future, the paradigmatic liberal society and state. Recently Post-Christian Europe has represented the future, the way of enlightened democracy that blends expansive tolerance for personal choices with a comforting and professional state apparatus that provides just and equitable distribution of goods and services. European advances seemed evident to many observers in such things as supplying universal healthcare, banning capital punishment, organizing Europe toward a post-national identity, and a peace-loving citizenry that is liberated from the oppressive superstitions of religion.

By contrast, the United States seems trapped in an outdated moral/religious order. To make matters more galling still, America during the last three decades has become more religious, more conservative, during the same time that the nation has become the imperial colossus of our age. American intellectuals who tell this story are alternatively angered by the nation’s government and embarrassed by its citizens. American liberal or progressive writers have recently presented their progressive message in a reactionary language. Focused primarily (because of heightened anger and because of political expediency) on the Bush administration, the primary story-line of these thinkers it that America has been hijacked by religious (Christian) extremists (along with an assortment of temporary allies) and that the primary task of the reasonable class of politicians and thinkers is to return the nation to its older course, its traditional ways, its natural path toward the European (universal) model. The future lies in recovering our past, or at least some conception of our past. Most of these reactionary progressives, whose books litter the local Barnes and Noble, appear blind to the irony.

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.

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.

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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