Leo Strauss and the Possibility of Philosophy

Article excerpt

I

NINETEEN NINETY-NINE WAS THE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY of the birth of Leo Strauss. It is a pleasure and an obligation for a former student to accept an invitation to reflect in public on the thought of that extraordinary man. I say "obligation" because Strauss, despite or perhaps because of the apparent lucidity of his best-known work, is not at all easy to understand. His friends and admirers are rightly compelled to present his teaching in its deepest and most beautiful form. Like many another charismatic teacher and subtle writer, he has been praised and vilified for what are too often the wrong reasons. One wants to set the record straight. But this is as it happens not a simple task, since Strauss's understanding of the nature of philosophy is aporetic, and there is good reason to suppose that his very formulation of this aporia is itself aporetic.

To put this in another way, Strauss articulated a public teaching that was not necessarily in conflict with his private views on philosophy, but which served as an ambiguous surface to still more ambiguous depths. Strauss takes his bearings in part from Nietzsche's analysis of the defects of late modernity, and still more fundamentally, from Heidegger's attempt to return to the origin of western philosophy by a destruction of its history. But Strauss differs sharply with his two teachers on the nature and the destination of that destruction. He defends modern liberalism in a way that is both invigorated and obscured by a rhetoric derived from the ancients (and medievals). At a theoretical level, he seeks to return, not to the archaic Greeks (as Nietzsche does) or to the aboriginal moment just prior to the fateful beginning of the Greek epoch in the history of being (as Heidegger does), but to the pretheoretical dimension of Greek political experience and common sense. The vigor derived from the return to the common roots of political life, undistorted in the texts of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle by twenty-five hundred years of theoretical construction, is obscured if not in fact diminished by a stubborn theoretical problem. The pretheoretical experience to which Strauss returns is precisely the precondition of the emergence of Greek, and so western European, theory. If we think this through, the following dilemma arises. Either the truth of Greek pretheoretical experience is available in principle at any time, and so a return to the Greeks is superfluous; or else Strauss advocates the historicist thesis that our Greek heksis has predisposed us to search for the origin of philosophy in the pretheoretical understanding of the Greeks themselves.

If then we put to one side for the moment all questions of political doctrine and scholarly interpretations, the central fact about the thought of Leo Strauss is his confrontation with Heidegger on the nature of philosophy (a point to which I will return at greater length). For reasons which I have just indicated, Heidegger's "return" is too radical, because it directs us back to a moment that is outside our history, and poses in prophetic terms (the only terms suitable to the enterprise) that we make a different choice, not just a radically different choice but one that can be made only after we have pulled up our roots. I will not comment here upon the content of Heidegger's prophetic vision of "the other way," except to say that it is not as free of western elements as he seems to believe. This to one side, the very attractiveness of the Heideggerian return must rest upon his interpretation of Western philosophy, and thus not only of its origins among the Greeks but its ostensible distortion by Platonism throughout its subsequent history.

The first step in assessing the merit of Heidegger's wish to return to the origin is then to consider his interpretation of Platonism. We cannot enter into the trance-like atmosphere of the Beitrage without having worked our way through the Nietzsche lectures, to say nothing of other central texts in the Heideggerian corpus. …