Posted: February 2, 2017
n his published works Leo Strauss repeatedly depicts himself as a mere student or interpreter of the true philosophers. He did the same in comments to students, whom he prohibited from writing on his own works. In a lecture on Plato’s Gorgias he went so far as to refer to himself and his fellows as “essentially mediocre men.”
It is hard to imagine thinkers such as Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre or, in our own day, Jacques Derrida or Martha Nussbaum evincing similar humility. That said, Strauss was famous for irony. On this point, his restraint recalls Socrates’ observation at the beginning of Plato’s Sophist that philosophers appear sometimes as sophists, sometimes as statesmen, and sometimes as completely mad. Strauss’s student Seth Benardete comments on this passage, “It would be very easy to discern the false philosopher if only he proclaimed himself to be a philosopher.”
Heinrich Meier, director of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation and professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, holds that Strauss is a philosopher who deserves and rewards the same pondering, “day and night,” as other philosophers. Meier, the world’s foremost Strauss scholar, came to Strauss’s work through his own reading rather than as a member of Strauss’s “school,” making his perspective unique. As such, he is well positioned to say of Strauss what the man would not say of himself. And Meier’s calling out of Strauss as a philosopher is not merely a correction of the historical ledger. It contains an understanding of what it means to be a philosopher, an understanding that Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Revealed Religion shares and explores with great subtly and daring.
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This exploration begins for Meier with political philosophy. The first chapter of three in this book asks, “Why Political Philosophy?” (In almost exactly the same form it serves as the concluding chapter in Meier’s 2006 book, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem.) Meier takes his orientation from what he sees as Aristophanes’ friendly critique of the pre-Socratic Socrates: he 1) lacks self-knowledge; 2) cannot defend philosophy politically; 3) cannot defend philosophy rationally; and 4) lacks knowledge of political things. Meier argues that Socrates responds by his “turn,” which leads him to question not just the political things but more specifically the things that human beings believe “noble and good,” or morality.
This questioning produces a political defense of philosophy, as in Socrates’ jocular self-portrayal as the gadfly stinging the sleepy horse of Athens with the query, “What is virtue?” It also requires relentless examination of morality’s relation to revelation or “theologico-political claims,” the refutation of which justifies, nay, makes necessary philosophy. Meier calls this moment “the decisive insight inherent in the Socratic turn.” Together these moments in Socrates’ response originate “political” philosophy and make it “the part of philosophy in which the whole of philosophy is in question” and, thereby, the locus of the philosopher’s self-knowledge. The “political” in political philosophy indicates the inquiry’s context rather than its content. The aim is less to understand political matters, though this is a beneficial byproduct, than to comprehend and effect the grounding of philosophy itself.
Different political situations will require that different philosophers give unequal weight to these moments in political philosophy. But the core structure or dynamic, according to Meier, remains consistent. The remaining two chapters seek to demonstrate this claim. Through a close reading of Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli, Chapter Two offers a dense and careful argument befitting Strauss’s dense, careful book. Implicitly seconding the judgment of others (such as Steven Lenzner in these pages; see “Guide for the Perplexed,” Spring 2007), Meier shows that its title and epistle dedicatory are among the characteristics indicating that Thoughts on Machiavelli holds a uniquely high place in Strauss’s work. Significantly, it is the only book of Strauss’s maturity that is neither a commentary nor a collection of lectures or articles.
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One of Strauss’s great contributions to understanding Machiavelli and other thinkers is his attentiveness to how great writers allow themselves to be misunderstood. Meier shows that Strauss does the same thing. Strauss allows readers to conclude that we must sharply distinguish “modern” from “classical” political philosophy, with Machiavelli as the pivot point, the founder of the modern enterprise. Machiavelli, it would seem, almost single-handedly “lowered the bar” not just of expectations for politics but also of understanding human things. Above all, he demanded that man be understood not in the light of his “high” capacities but from the perspective of his “low” origins, thereby paving the way for Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s “state of nature” teachings, as well as the reductionism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. Machiavelli was the instigator of a movement, the first “youth movement,” of aspiring princes who would conquer nature, reclaim the Garden of Eden on earth, and make revealed religion irrelevant.
As powerful as this teaching is, Meier argues that it does not represent Strauss’s true thought. Instead, Meier claims, Strauss read Machiavelli’s calls for “good arms” as a call for “the young,” who wish to know, to provide themselves with good reasons to defend their life, i.e., the life of philosophy. The antagonist is revelation but the fight is on behalf of the elite, not the masses. The battle is private, not public.
Accordingly, the “culmination” of Machiavelli and Strauss’s insights concern the status of the Biblical God and the supposed virtue of humility. Christian humility seems most opposed to the classical virtue of magnanimity or greatness of soul. Our world is heir to two conflicting tradi