Saturday 6 August 2016

Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

Leo Strauss is a German American political philosopher of Jewish extraction. His two great questions are God and politics, and as a young man he was fascinated by Nietzsche. One of the great influences on him was Heidegger, whose student he was.

Strauss may be described as a student of modernity, which he traces back to Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli, he says, initiated the first wave of modernity by inaugurating the disconnect between statecraft and 'soulcraft', from a state founded on virtue and the good to a state founded on the practical, on what works and is effective. When we today say "let's be practical," perhaps we are unwittingly echoing Machiavelli - but perhaps, on the other hand, we are merely displaying, in certain situations, the general bias of common sense.

Machiavelli's disconnect is furthered by the Cartesian cogito, with its centering of the truth question on the isolated subject, and its rejection of all authority, including the religious. Bacon appealed explicitly to Machiavelli, and in different ways the influence continues in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel. Rousseau, according to Strauss, began the second wave of modernity, with his emphasis on feeling and originality (he calls this 'expressive individualism').

Strauss re-originated political philosophy by returning to the premoderns or ancients. Plato and Aristotle asked: What is the right way to live? What do we look up to? What do we bow down to? What is the best regime?

As a Jew, Strauss respected and studied the Bible, even though he was atheist. But in the end, when it came to a choice between belief and reason, he leans towards reason and philosophy.

See Frederick G. Lawrence, “Philosophy, History, and Apocalypse in Voegelin, Strauss, and Girard,” Politics and Apocalypse, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. Robert Hamerton-Kelly (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2007).

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