The crisis of modernity reveals itself in the fact … that modern western man no longer knows what he wants—that he no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, right and wrong. –Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was a German-Jewish political philosopher who, like earlier conservatives and later postmodernists, challenged the central contention of the Enlightenment: that reason alone justifies belief. He grew up in what was at that time an eastern province of the German Empire, served briefly toward the end of the First World War, and emigrated to France, then Britain, and finally the United States, for a combination of professional and political reasons. By the time the Second World War broke out, he was at the University of Chicago, where he spent the remainder of his career.
In his works Natural Right and History (1950) and “The Three Waves of Modernity” (1975), Strauss argued that “the crisis of modernity is … the crisis of modern political philosophy.” That is, political philosophy, for the ancients, consisted of an ideal to which the community strove to conform, as we find for instance in Plato’s Republic, in the books of Luke and Acts, in the Torah, and in the Qur’an, whose authors strove to explain what the good community, and the good individual within it, consisted of, and what types of challenges they faced. The failure to realize this community was understood as a deviation from the natural order of things, to which humankind, to the extent that it was wise and virtuous, of course submitted.
Not so Machiavelli, with whom Strauss identified the first “wave of modernity.” For Machiavelli, as later for Hobbes, political philosophy consisted in the study of the actual behavior of actual people, on the assumption that this study would yield the knowledge by which they might be manipulated. The emphasis thereby shifted from the ideal to the practical, and from submission to the natural order to control over it. Similarly, Aristotle’s view, broadly shared throughout antiquity, that the best political order was the one that best encouraged the exercise of virtue was stood on its head. Politics no longer existed for the sake of virtue, but virtue for the sake of politics. Hence virtue cannot constrain politics, for it is subordinate to it—politics establishes virtue, not the other way around, from which it followed that the prince was of course justified in doing whatever he thought expedient for the preservation of his power, for without power there was no community, and without community there was no virtue. Machiavelli’s problem then becomes the acquisition and exercise of power, and that means not the elucidation of an ideal or the project of making people wise and virtuous, but the establishment of effective institutions. Those being in place, even foolish and vicious people can be taught to cooperate, for those institutions can bend to their will those who can be bent and destroy or exclude all the rest.
This shift in attitude is not unrelated to the emergence of empirical science, or, as historians sometimes refer to it, the Baconian Project. Francis Bacon argued that knowledge was power, which is to say that the object of inquiry is of course to get power, a view that was by no means obvious to the ancients. This view, Strauss noted, implies that nature is in some sense an enemy, and Bacon himself used shockingly violent and gendered language to describe what he thought he was doing. At any rate, a radical disjunction and antipathy was posited between humankind and nature.
Rousseau was the paradigmatic thinker of the second wave, who carried this separation further by positing that virtue, reason, human nature, and the like are artifacts of history. Rousseau might have felt some considerable nostalgia for the noble savage, but he did not recognize him as a fellow human being, for he lacked a civilization, and that was, for Rousseau, what makes a human being. Since the “general will” was to be the highest law for the community, and (expressly) not the product of any one person’s views (that would be divine-right monarchy), that left only the contingency of history as a source for the law. But it was not, for that, any less forceful, for there simply was nothing outside the general will on which that law could justly be based, and the revolt of individuals from that law would simply be the abolition of human society and a return to savagery. When Kant argued that the criteria for ethics was whether one could, rationally, wish that everyone should act according to such a maxim, he was developing Rousseau’s insight. Naturally, not everyone will recognize this—they are out of step with the general will and pursue instead their own particular interests, and thereby cut themselves off from the community.
It was left for Nietzsche, the representative intellectual of the third wave of modernity, to recognize that since history was not going anywhere in particular and was constituted in large part by accidents and follies, it could not serve as an ultimate source of purpose or meaning. Aristotle tells us we must conform to nature; Machiavelli that we must conform to the sovereign; Rousseau that we must conform to the general will. Nietzsche wanted to know Why should we? God is dead, natural law is a pretense, and most people are fools. In what sense, can any of this be binding? The problem, according to Nietzsche, isn’t that people aren’t submissive enough, it’s that they’re too submissive, for they adhere to a silly herd morality when they should be developing their own potential through struggle and conflict. What people need to do is stop fantasizing about peace, justice, and reason, and make a heroic leap toward the self. Then they will find that their purpose lies in the fulfillment of the will to power, the will to overpower, and, again, there is nothing outside of this.
Thus ethics and reason have undergone three devolutions over the last five hundred years: from given facts of nature to something found within the whole of the community, then to something found in some members of the community, and finally to something found in the self. We are left at last with the view that ethics and reason simply are what we individually decide that they are—which is, in effect, the abolition of ethics and reason. Relativism and nihilism are not, in Strauss’s view, distortions of the Enlightenment ideal, but their logical and necessary culmination. Each of these waves has had its characteristic political movement: liberalism, communism, and fascism, respectively. For Strauss the superiority of liberalism to communism and fascism lies precisely in its heavy residue of premodern thought, for at the time it was formulated, reason in the Enlightenment sense—Reason with a capital “R”—was as yet undeveloped. The unreasonable faith in Reason—that it could serve alone as the justification for every belief and institution, law, and custom—had not then had time enough to discover its own inadequacies.
Yet the view that reason alone is inadequate to the task it has been burdened with is not the view that it is worthless. Strauss himself was, after all, a philosopher. Further, reason, in the sense of checking to make sure one’s ideas are consistent and in tolerable conformity to the known facts of the universe, was hardly the invention of Machiavelli or Voltaire. Reason in that sense was known to Plato, Aquinas, and Maimonides, and they made good use of it. The difference between them and Machiavelli or Voltaire is that they recognized the limitations of reason, and had the good sense not to blather its secrets to the mob. As Strauss explains in Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), all previous philosophy had been written in a dual language. The explicit, or vulgar, text was intended for the crowd, and it treated their sensibilities with delicacy. The implicit, or esoteric, text was intended for the initiated, and it dealt with the truth of the matter.
The reason was not simply fear of persecution, though it was that too. It was also because philosophers recognized that the purposes of politics and philosophy were at odds. That is, politics seeks to build a community, and in order to do that it requires answers to basic questions that are both conclusive and binding. People act because they believe, from which it follows that questioning the belief undermines the act. But this is just what philosophy does. Of its nature it does not answer our questions, but rather questions our answers. It’s no accident that Socrates spent all his time asking people questions: that’s what philosophy is. And neither is it any accident that the Athenians had him put to death for impiety—he actually was undermining the social order, and his accusers recognized that. Once philosophy has disposed of the beliefs that hold society together, there is nothing left but force and threat of force. But plainly it is less effective to threaten and intimidate people into acting a certain way. What one wants is for people to believe that they should act a certain way, and do it on their own initiative, for there cannot be a police officer on every corner, and we all know that liars, thieves, and murderers occasionally do quite well for themselves. It is not simply a theoretical question; after all, philosophers are members of society as well, and ought to recognize, if anyone can, that it is not in their interests to destabilize it.
Thus reason, if it is reasonable, will recognize its limits and come to terms with revelation, or in other words with ultimate answers, which are not within the power of reason to either evaluate or replace. Is it absurd to believe that Moses talked to a burning bush, or that Christ rose from the dead? Certainly. But absurd things (like quantum entanglement and the career of Kim Kardashian, for instance) do happen, and Strauss isn’t saying that we have to believe these things. He’s saying that we don’t know that they didn’t happen, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter since there is no reason to think that the demolition of an absurd belief will lead to its replacement with a rational one. It may lead, after all, to only a different absurdity. On balance then, we’re wise not to challenge these beliefs publicly, for they have a long and proven track record of upholding precisely the types of beliefs that Enlightenment rationality has so consistently undermined. The proper relationship between reason and revelation, or, in other words, between Athens and Jerusalem, is, for Strauss, creative tension, not the futile attempt of one to destroy the other.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.