Thursday, July 11, 2013

Leo Strauss 'Solving' Problem of the Vulgar & the Learned

Victor Gourevitch, who is the William Griffin Professor (emeritus) of Philosophy and a student of Leo Strauss and translated Jean-Jacques Rousseau into English, claimed last year “I don’t know how I fit into this program; Rousseau was a conservative, not a revolutionary.”. In the same piece Gourevitch sheds light on his understanding of this supposed 'conservatism' of Rousseau:
“Rousseau thought that the ideal form of government was a democracy of the aristocracy. He would be opposed to all trends in liberal thought today: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness . . . ”
This 'democracy of the aristocracy' reminds us immediately of Leo Strauss's book On Tyranny edited by Victor Gourevitch in which Strauss referred to the right of the superior to rule as "the tyrannical teaching" of his beloved ancients.
Stephen B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University, points out how important Leo Strauss was in reviving serious interest in Rousseau:
'At a time when Rousseau was dismissed as either a crank outside the philosophical canon or as a dangerous obscurantist responsible for the radical politics of the French Revolution, Strauss helped to revive a serious interest in his philosophical thought'
 Leo Strauss begins his book City and Man with this phrase:
'Its is not self-forgetting and painloving antiquarianism nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of classical antiquity. We are impelled to so by the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West.'

If we believe Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss's goal has been the antithetical opposite of reconciling the vulgar and the learned (the central problem of Scottish philosophy, Davie 1976):
'Shadia B. Drury claims in her book on Leo  Strauss is not as obscure or as esoteric as his admirers pretend. There are certain incontestable themes in his work. The most fundamental theme is the distinction between the ancients and the moderns - a distinction that informs all his work. According to Strauss, ancient philosophers (such as Plato) were wise and wily, but modern philosophers (such as Locke and other liberals) were foolish and vulgar. The wise ancients thought that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty'
Peter Minowitz wrote the book Straussohobia to attack Drury's understanding of Leo Strauss's work. Peter Minowitz is associate professor of political science at Santa Clara University and author of Profits, Priests, and Princes: Adam Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion. Would be useful, in this context, to compare his views on Adam Smith with those of Flavio Comim who wrote The Scottish Tradition in Economics and the Role of Common Sense in Adam Smith's Though.  In an interview on his book Peter Minowitz claims:
'He (Leo Strauss) also underscores the classical view that the best feasible regime is an aristocracy characterized by the rule of law (recall his praise for “the cause of constitutionalism”).'
Maarten Muns has this chilling Strauss quote:
'It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule. The unwise multitude must recognise the wise as wise and obey them freely because of their wisdom'

Leo Strauss sees the Platonic model as an Utopia(!) but claims the best solution is:
'an aristocracy which is strengthened and protected by the admixture of monarchic and democratic institutions'

This sounds a lot like the Rousseau interpretation of Victor Gourevitch.

Leo Strauss's definition of Freedom:
'Civilization needs religion in order to flourish, but philosophy presupposes complete freedom from the restraints that religion must necessarily impose on thought'
Clearly antithetical to John Witherspoon's on liberty:
"There is not a single instance in history," declared Rev. John Witherspoon in 1776, "in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage."
Maarten Muns concludes (free translation from Dutch) 'Strauss was without doubt a conservative thinker who didn't have much respect for democracy'.

In my view his 'solution' for the central problem of Scottish philosophy (reconciling the vulgar and the learned) is clearly inferior to the aim for thoughtleadership of Princeton during the 18th century.
The central idea of Straussians of 'returning to the source of western civilisation' as summarized by Irving Kristol clearly isn't compatible with Witherspoon's approach to the classics:
'he (Leo Strauss) turns one's intellectual universe upside down. Suddenly one realized that one had been looking at the history of WEstern political thought the wrong end of the telescope'
 The claim that reason and revelation are incompatible and the tensions between the classics and the moderns clash fundamentally with what John Witherspoon teaches in his lectures on eloquence and moral philosophy:
'Those who sought a return to the classics wanted colleges to return to their traditional role of instilling the classical knowledge essential to a scholarly gentleman, while Witherspoon was more committed to the ideal of the college graduate as a public leader who was prepared to speak to the political problems of contemporary life.'
Witherspoon rejects the closely related assumption that an enlightened individual can understand what is best for society because his Calvinism led him to view human understanding as itself highly fallible.'
This whole idea of 'returning to the source of western civilisation' both ignores/ minimzes the Madness of Mankind and is at the same time antithetical to the gospel, as summarized in the conclusion of Samuel Finley's sermon:
'let it ever be a small matter to be judged weak and foolish to a mad world, provided allways that you are wise to salvation'
Robert Hunt comes to similar conclusions.

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