Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Words without Desire: Strauss, Hegel, and Political Violence

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Words without Desire: Strauss, Hegel, and Political Violence

Article excerpt

IN HIS PUBLISHED WRITINGS and correspondence, Leo Strauss blames Hegel for turning modern philosophy towards historicism, towards the doctrine that truth and the standards of theoretical speculation are historically situated and therefore dependent on the local, finite intellectual procedures of a given culture. This embrace of a form of relativism has, Strauss insists, pernicious consequences; for by rejecting philosophy's relationship to timeless norms and its struggle to define and articulate the fundamental problems of humanity's conflicted estate, historicism destroys the possibility of dialectic as it is defined in its classical, Platonic sense: instead of seeing the exchange of speech (logoi) as an attempt to attain the first things of nature (archai phusei), a glimpse of the natural whole, it degenerates into purposeless banter; eloquence and linguistic sophistication are employed merely to gain the recognition of one's interlocutor; words become mere play. For Strauss, the "bacchanalian swirl" of modern dialectic--a phrase which Hegel uses in the Phenomenology of the Spirit--is furious and dramatic, but ultimately vapid; without grounds or standards, without the consensus among the philosophical elite concerning the obvious problems of natural, pretheoretieal consciousness, dialectic has nothing to determine, or rather, it indiscriminately determines (bestimmen) everything. Strauss thus agrees with Steven B. Smith that the negative work of Hegelian dialectic, its task of destruction and restoration, is "more likely to lead to the intensification of feelings of estrangement and anomie" than to help the collective mind of humanity discover and understand its fate. (1) Strauss maintains that once eternal standards and the prospect of

disembodied truth become unhinged, philosophy can neither be erotically mad, as in Plato, or purposely circumspect. Rather, it is merely insane, the movements of a mind without content.

Strauss's cure for the disease of modernity is a return to classical rationalism. This return, which clearly contains a penitential aspect, a resumption (teshuvah) of the correct path, requires that modern philosophy abandon its assumptions about intellectual progress and open itself up to the possibility that ancient thought is true. (2) Strauss believes that the recovery of a classical conception of reason can assist modern philosophy in two ways: first, it will reveal that the fundamental premise of historicism, that is, that all thought is relative to time, makes historicism itself obsolete: the doctrine of historicism excludes any definitive judgments about the nature of history; and second, only classical reason can distinguish between the legacy of "Athens" (that is, philosophy and reason) and that of "Jerusalem" (that is, revelation and law); if modern thought continues to insist on the melding of philosophy and revelation, then murderous regimes like the Third Reich will periodically arise. Only from the perspective of classical reason can one disentangle the infinite, restless, and politically destructive demand of philosophy to seek the whole from the immediate, finite needs of the polis; that is, only from the perspective of reason is the difference between philosophy and revelation evident. But how, according to Strauss, is this recuperation of reason possible? Similar to Heidegger, Strauss sees the causes of modern social and political disintegration in a misreading of classical texts. If one reads better, more openly, and free of the prejudices of relativism, reason will reveal itself. Hermeneutics, a proper hermeneutics, will save us. (3)

Strauss's diagnosis of modernity and his proposed solution depend on the ability of modern reason to properly interpret its historical situation. However, Strauss's own description of modernity's hermeneutical predicament seems to deny reason precisely this diagnostic power. Taking his cue from Maimonides' assertion that, in addition to the three natural impediments (namely, arrogance, the difficulty of the subject, and stupidity) that block or disrupt human understanding, tradition is a fourth, unnatural barrier that keeps humanity in ignorance, Strauss claims that modern philosophy must clear away the sedimentary residue which successive interpretive traditions leave on the mind. …

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