Conservatism and Skepticism—Part 2
Where Leo Strauss’ most politically engaged admirers on the right depart from their teacher
In Part 1 of this post, I began the process of explaining how and why Leo Strauss, an enormously important figure for the contemporary American right, combined philosophical skepticism with a rhetoric of conservative moralism.
To recap: Philosophy emerges, according to Strauss, through dialectical questioning of prevailing dogmatic opinions about virtue, justice, nobility, honor, love, friendship, the divine, and a range of other moral, political, and religious views. This is a process Plato described using a famous allegory, in which a potential philosopher comes to doubt the veracity of shadows cast on the wall of a cave, manages to liberate himself from its confines, and emerges from the darkness to gaze upon real-life three-dimensional objects in the light of the sun.
Yet modernity poses a distinctive problem for this account of philosophy’s genesis. Modern men and women are encouraged to believe their civilization has already liberated itself from confinement in the cave of illusion. Instead of enlightenment being a process enacted from scratch by every would-be philosopher, we are typically taught that all of us are part of a culture-wide, multi-generational, unilinear process of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, with none of us starting from scratch in our efforts to understand the world. We begin our individual pursuits of knowledge mid-stream, picking up from the exertions of those who preceded us, contributing to the collective effort, and then passing on our discoveries to the next generation. We call this process “progress.”
Evidence in support of this view is all around us. We have the wonders of modern technology and medicine; civilizations of the past did not. We know truths about the natural world revealed by modern science; those who lived in the past did not. We recognize the individual rights of all human beings everywhere; those who lived in prior ages did not. In all these ways and many more, we assume ourselves to be already enlightened long before we ever entertain taking up philosophy, which now starts out from the supposedly solid ground of knowledge in all of these areas.
But Strauss didn’t accept the validity of this understanding of philosophy’s starting point. He didn’t believe we had already liberated ourselves from the cave. From the standpoint of Socratic skepticism, every moral-political world is a cave, even ours. But one thing that makes our cave distinctive is that it explicitly denies it is a cave; one of our most distinctive dogmas is to believe we have left dogmatism behind—or perhaps that we’re in an ongoing collective process of ever-greater liberation from it. This makes the dogmatism of our cave uniquely difficult to detect and dislodge. This contention led Strauss to suggest that modern men and women reside in a second, deeper, artificially constructed “cave beneath the cave.”
Two Stages of Philosophizing
Under such conditions, philosophizing in the skeptical mode practiced by Socrates now requires a two-step process. First, would-be philosophers must engage in a historical or archeological recovery of pre-philosophical political and moral opinion as a means of learning to think about politics, morality, and religion in “natural” terms, without the progressive ideological overlay inherited from the 18th-century Enlightenment. This is what one Straussian has described as a process of “becoming naïve again.” Strauss did not conceive of this process as an imposition, but one that reveals what is already there in the political-moral world but denied, obscured, or covered over by modern categories of thought.
Strauss believed that the first step of philosophizing under modern conditions must be an ascent out of the cave beneath the cave by training ourselves to see our (half-concealed) political and moral commitments with pre-modern, “natural” eyes. We need to see and acknowledge our pre-philosophical attachment or attraction to honor, nobility, justice, piety, courage, and other classical ideals. This will tend to move the would-be philosopher, at first, in a more conservative direction—attempting to forthrightly articulate a comprehensive, consistent, non-contradictory vision of moral virtue.
Only then can the second stage of philosophical education (liberation from the natural cave) begin: subjecting these forthrightly expressed moral opinions to precisely the same kind of dialectical critique that Socrates deployed in the Platonic dialogues. In this way, it’s possible to reach the same skeptical end point that Socrates did, albeit by way of a more indirect and circuitous path.
The Politics of Moral Desperation
This account of Strauss’ thought helps us to see that his politically committed conservative students—whether they were cheerleaders for the Iraq War two decades ago or eagerly fight on the side of Donald Trump today—are only partially loyal to Strauss’ project. These admirers are drawn to Strauss’ moralistic rhetoric and delight in ascending out of the artificial cave beneath the cave to the natural cave in which "naïve" moral-political categories are regularly invoked without irony. But unlike Strauss himself, they’re inclined to stay there, thinking about politics and even proposing policies in terms of virtue and vice, honor and dishonor, courage and prudence.
Until quite recently, most scholars who follow Strauss in this partial way have contented themselves with producing edifying studies of great statesmen, especially the American founders, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, who supposedly exemplified classical political virtues in their speeches and deeds. The admiration is the furthest thing from cynical. And Strauss shared it, at least to an extent. He treated the move up to the natural cave as an ascent, and so he considered a choice to devote one’s life to wisely governing the cave to be closer to the truth than (and clearly preferable to) many other options. This was especially so in comparison to whiling away one’s days in the cave beneath the cave, doubly ignorant, not only in thrall to unexamined opinions but complacently mistaking this situation for something like philosophical wisdom. Better at least to rise up to the natural cave and study the lives, actions, and thoughts of the people who strove for political excellence—or strive to emulate them in one’s own political activity.
But what about the Trump-champions at Claremont and elsewhere, who tend to be more actively, and aggressively, political than earlier generations of Straussians? As I noted in Part 1, I plan to examine them in greater detail in future posts. But for now I’ll simply offer the tentative suggestion that their behavior is precisely what one would expect to see from true-believing, unskeptical moralists when they encounter what they take to be evidence that virtue (as they understand it) is on the verge of some final defeat in the political world.
A sense of desperation about the political fate of moral truth can inspire a panicked response that seems to excuse the abandonment of ordinary restraints on tactics, with whatever works becoming the overriding principle. Once that happens, the desperate moralist might begin wildly exaggerating the threat in order to motivate an overwhelming response. He might go further, to embrace ominous conspiracies, intentionally spreading politically advantageous bullshit and outright lies, and even hyping the wisdom of constitutional brinksmanship in order to gain or hold onto power against the claims of fellow citizens, who now appear to be mortal enemies of simple righteousness and common sense.
All of these extreme responses can follow from the fear that moral truth is about to wink out of existence in the world, or is perhaps on the verge of extinction in “the best regime” possible on Earth. I think this explains a good part of what we see at Claremont and some other Straussian redoubts these days.
The Higher Road
But for Strauss himself, the fate of moral virtue in the world, and even politics as such, wasn’t the ultimate or highest concern. It’s significant that, despite his considerable admiration for great statesmen, especially Churchill, Strauss never produced a book-length study of any political actor—and chose to devote his last four books to dense meditations on Socrates as he was portrayed in the writings of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato.
A parallel with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics might prove clarifying. The first nine books of that classic of ancient moral philosophy seem oriented toward an affirmation of moral virtue as the aim and substance of the best life for a human being. But then, in its final book, Aristotle veers somewhat unexpectedly into a discussion of philosophical contemplation as a necessary (extra-moral) complement of the moral life.
In a similar way, Strauss’s work as a whole both discloses and refines the naïve outlook on morality that prevails in the natural cave and treats the dialectical examination of that outlook as a necessary path out of the cave altogether. For modern men and women hoping to lead a fully philosophical life, neither stage in this two-step process can be skipped—though that is precisely what Straussians who throw themselves fully into politics (and none more shamelessly than those who devote their days to boosting the demagogue-conman Donald Trump) routinely do.
The Secret of the Sphinx
Exactly where Strauss thought philosophy ended up as it ascended out of the natural cave is, surprisingly, a topic rarely addressed in detail even in the expanding scholarly literature on his work, though there has been a growing awareness of just how skeptical he really was. In a remarkable passage from a posthumously published 1948 lecture, Strauss describes his understanding of philosophy in the following terms:
Philosophy stands or falls by the possibility of suspense of judgment regarding the most fundamental questions. That is to say, philosophy is as such skeptical: in the original meaning of the term. Skepsis means looking at things, considering things. Philosophy is concerned with understanding reality in all its complexity…. For the philosopher, full understanding of a problem is infinitely more important than any mere answer…. Philosophy in its original sense is disputative rather than decisive. Disputation is possible only for people who are not concerned with decisions, who are not in a rush, for whom nothing is urgent except disputation.
In notes to the lecture, Strauss even goes so far as to declare that “whoever is incapable of suspending his judgment … of living in such suspense, whoever fails to know that doubt is a good pillow for a well-constructed head, cannot be a philosopher.”
This way of describing philosophical skepticism can make it sound like studied indecisiveness—a state of intellectual indecision that some ancient skeptics of the Pyrrhonian school claimed could produce an experience of enduring tranquility (ataraxia). And indeed, more than one reader has come away from Strauss’ books feeling like they terminate in open-ended paradoxes, delivering far less than they promise, with the author failing to make good on his talk of fixed eternal verities. Instead of clearly articulating universal philosophical truths, Strauss often seems to favor elliptical formulations and riddles. Could it be that this was because he thought philosophy culminated not in knowledge but in endless disputation, bottomless doubt, and perplexing aporia? Was he, as one particularly severe critic once claimed, a “Sphinx without a secret”?
I don’t think so. Although the willingness to subject pre-philosophical moral and political opinions to doubt is a crucial, necessary condition of leading a philosophical life, it is not the end of the story for Strauss. Philosophy aims for and achieves knowledge—albeit knowledge that from the standpoint of dogmatic pre-philosophical opinion is radically skeptical. It is knowledge of our ignorance of many of the things pre-philosophical opinion presumes to know but in fact does not.
But then where is this elusive, skeptical knowledge in Strauss’ books? Why do so many fail to find it, including so many of those who engage in politics in his name? Because Strauss refrains from spelling it out for his readers—which means that the books of his maturity were written in the way he thought so many books prior to the last two centuries had been composed: esoterically.
Learning to Think for Oneself
In his own account of esoteric writing, Strauss emphasizes two reasons why philosophers prior to the modern period adopted a rhetoric of intentional misdirection or deliberate obscurity in writing their texts. First, they wished to avoid persecution—and above all the fate of Socrates, who was put to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of ancient Athens. Second, they wished to protect certain unsound but socially salubrious beliefs from the acids of philosophical skepticism. Neither motivation applies to Strauss, who lived and wrote most of his books in the United States, which protects the right to free speech and fosters a freewheeling culture filled with writers and critics openly questioning moral and religious pieties.
But as Arthur Melzer points out in his excellent book on philosophical esotericism, there is an additional reason why philosophers of the past chose to refrain from forthrightly spelling out their most fully developed views: pedagogy. Just as a skilled teacher will sometimes avoid spoonfeeding promising students out of the conviction that’s they will learn far more by figuring things out independently, so a philosopher hoping to lead people to the skeptical life of philosophy will often pose problems and riddles, drop hints, and construct puzzles in his text, leaving it up to the most motivated and careful readers to think things through and fill in the gaps on their own.
Strauss’ writings, at least from the early 1940s on, are written in precisely this way. They state many things explicitly, especially arguments and formulations that set the reader on the distinctive philosophical path Strauss thought was required under modern conditions—provocations designed to alert readers to their bondage in the cave beneath the cave, and careful instruction (gleaned through historical studies of philosophical texts) in how morality and politics appear within the natural cave.
But then things become murkier, with Strauss weaving webs of paradoxes and merely gesturing obliquely toward solutions. It is these hints that attentive readers must follow on their own if they wish to accompany Strauss up and out of the natural cave itself. When these hints, sprinkled throughout Strauss’ corpus, are pieced together, a coherent and cogent picture begins to emerge of how a skeptical philosopher liberates himself from the cave—and how the world appears to him once he's made it outside to lead a fully skeptical life.
The True Straussians
The Straussians who come closest to following in their teacher’s footsteps are therefore those who view politics with a measure of ironic distance and devote the bulk of their writing, teaching, and thinking to reflecting seriously but skeptically on political life, and on what lies beyond it.
These aren’t the Straussians who write bestselling polemics, found inside-the-beltway magazines, or land jobs in presidential administrations, let alone those who foolishly aspire to help incite coups or whisper in the ears of would-be tyrants. They’re the ones who teach, write about, and follow the intellectual example of the greatest philosophers of the past—cultivating a small circle of morally earnest but fearlessly open-minded friends and students who will help one another to break free from the bonds of the cave in which all of us begin our efforts at achieving a modicum of human wisdom.
Reviving and keeping this vision of a philosophically skeptical life alive in our time, and for all time, is Leo Strauss’ greatest and most admirable legacy.
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