The Theologico-Political Problem

I’ve been reading a lot of Leo Strauss and Strausseans lately. The novel I’m working on is told from the perspective of the son of a famous (fictional) Straussean academic, and his inherited Strausseanism, his oddly philosophical way of seeing the world, shapes the narrative. Anyway, it’s a weird thing to pickle in, Strausseanism, if you’re not disposed to believe in it, and I need to get a few thoughts off my chest.

I find that I’ve badly underrated Strauss as a subtle and stimulating thinker about the down-and-dirty reality of politics. Yet the preoccupations that divides Strausseans are bizarre, and seem to be based on the worst in Strauss. The best one can say for the so-called “theologico-political problem,” which Strauss a couple times said was the central theme of his work, is that he’s up to some kind of sophistical mischief he expects his brighter readers to see through. But even when you see through it, what you see is crazy.

Strauss is intoxicatingly romantic about PHILOSOPHY. For reasons that remain obscure to me, Strauss suspects, if he does not quite believe, that the philosophic life, the life of unrelenting rational inquiry, best exemplified by Socrates, is the best human life according to nature. I like this thought a great deal. I feel the draw. I may even irrationally believe it. But the only way I can make sense of the idea is to dwell on the mystery of reason. That reason actually can, as a matter of fact, infer through a rigorously tortuous chain the existence of the Higgs particle, or get very close to estimating the frequency of the cosmic background radiation – well, that’s stupendous. The fact that pure(ish) reason ever works so well is the greatest of all mysteries. How does it work? How could natural selection, that great force of the merely adequate kludge, leave us with these mystifying powers? Nobody knows! It puts me in a very heady Aristotelian mood. Reason seems very unlikely and very special and it’s not so hard to imagine that the point of it is just to participate in, or even to constitute, the thought that thinks itself thinking, which is just what the Aristotelean universe is, what God is. It’s an idea so beautiful it makes me hyperventilate. Bring the salts. If I thought this was strictly, literally true, then I might be tempted to say that that’s what we’re for – to be that through which the cosmos achieves self-conscioussness, the window inside the whole onto the whole, and that therefore the life of reason is the life that is naturally right, every other mode of human existence a bit disappointing, a failure to live up to our grand, cosmic telos. Swoon.

But Strauss isn’t this romantic about philosophy. He slags on modernity, because he’s a man of his time, a German post-modern critic of the power of Enlightment reason. All his alarmed warnings about the nihilism implicit in “positivism” and “historicism” do not add up to any great confidence in the reliability of reason to arrive at significant truth. Strauss has no time for Plato’s forms. He has no time for Aristotle’s divine theoria. His beloved reason, the only hope held out against the Heideggerian abyss, is a modest reason. His rationalism is Socratic rationalism. He believes in the power of reason to find the flaws in convention, to debunk the dogmas of the folk, but not to to do much to establish any big useful facts beyond the fact of our ignorance. It’s the life of skeptical, debunking Socratic reason that Strauss suspects is the best answer to the question how to live, the one endorsed in some sense by nature. No doubt I’m missing something profoundly important and of the utmost gravity, but I really don’t get it.

I get and very much like the skeptical, anti-theoretical thrust of Strauss. I like his deep wariness of ideal theorizing, his exhortations to pay attention to the political life we are always already living. He’s right to see reasoning with others about about how to live as an inherently political activity. He’s right to insist on honoring the distinctive excellences of those sensitive to the texture of real political life and expert in its ceaseless negotations. He’s right that social scientific theories about politics are less politically valuable then good political judgment, and that people who think they’re going to govern “scientifically” are dangerously stupid. (Paraphrasing, here.) And, yes, when philosophy is merely a handmaiden to the dogmas of our age, pursued under the “ecumenical supervision” of the universities, it is profoundly compromised. To be a philosopher is not to have a job you clock in and out of. To be a philosopher is simply to be, philosophically, always. Right! But the Socratic life is the one very best life? The naturally right, life? Nope. Nope. I’ve read and read and never quite follow how we end up there. I mean, I think this is a great life, beyond wonderful. But nope.

Anyway, Strausseans are strangely obsessed with this idea that the philosophical life, so construed, is the best human life, full stop, and are therefore obsessed with the tension between the best life, which is in the business of exposing bullshit, and the political life, which is built on it. (Under certain conditions, then, philosophers will need to be discreet and hide what they really think. It’s amazing that this was ever a controversial idea!) The tensions between philosophy and politics is real, and it’s easy to see. But then there’s a parallel obsession with the putative tension between reason and revelation – the life of philosophy and the life of faith, Athens and Jerusalem. What’s the problem? Well, Strauss says reason can’t rule out the possibility of bona fide revelation, and therefore can’t rule out that scripture contains the truth about how to live. The philosopher can’t so sure he’s living the best human life, because there’s the Bible. Say what now? This is nuts.

First, that reason can’t disprove the possibility of revelation without begging the question against it isn’t what you really ought to be worried about if you’re a Straussean worried about establishing the claim that the life of Socratic rationalism is the best human life. You ought to be worried that the Straussean case for philosophy as the best way of life, if it’s not simply missing, is very hard to credit. Anyway, Strauss’s arguments to the effect that reason can’t rule out revelation are just bad. His smarter acolytes see that they’re bad, and assume the whole business is exoteric squid ink intended to leave religion open as an option for those who require its consolations, and thereby to maintain a buffer of goodwill for secretly atheistical Socratic philosophers who might otherwise experience the hemlock wrath of a superstitious public. The funner but perhaps less plausible interpretation is that, in this hollow, Godless age, Strauss’s “secret” atheism is actually the exoteric doctrine, and that the really real hidden esoteric teaching is that divine law is the only truly authoritative law. Edgier, I think. The boring, safe, middle-ground view is that there’s really a problem after all, and there’s something nourishing about inhabiting the irreconcilable tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Live the tension! Teach the controversy!

In any case, the supposed stalemate between Athens and Jerusalem – neither being able to rule out the authority of the other – seems largely an artifact of putting a weak conception of reason, verging on global skepticism, next to a quite strong prior conviction about the likelihood of the existence of God. Start with a stronger, more authoritative notion of reason, a weaker prior probability of divine communications, or both, and the supposed problem dissolves.

Now, if you don’t think that the advent of modernity was some sort of disaster that threatens to hasten the eschaton, it’s going to seem fairly obvious that, since the enlightenment, there have been a multitude of advances in the various methods of reason, and that this has led us to learn a great deal more about our world than we used to know, to excellent practical effect. Cures to diseases, men in space, countless incremental innovations in material production leading to a vast reduction in suffering and early death. Etc. Here Strauss types will grumble about modernity’s “lowering of sights” and harumph some evidentially arbitrary, completely speculative claims about the loss of the noble and virtuous and the “high,” and maybe make some noises about the forgetting of nature, and what is truly in accordance with nature, in the quest to conquer nature by reducing it to a collection of mechanisms. Yadda yadda. It’s all smokescreen. None of it changes that we’ve gotten a great deal better at knowing things, or that reason in its several guises is the way we’ve achieved this. Strausseans moan about the emptiness of a politics aimed at “the relief of man’s estate,” but the fact is that man’s estate has been greatly relieved, and reason is why. This ought to win for reason some real positive authority, and not just Socratic debunking authority.

Revelation has made no such strides in establishing its authority as a way of knowing. Conflict between sects in doctrine and religious law raises an ancient, obvious, and ongoing problem that weighs heavily against the credbility of revelation as a source of knowledge. Even if one takes up an epistemology that gives a lot of weight to personal religious experience, such that it can count as evidence of the supernatural, and can establish the rational permissibility of religious belief, that won’t get you too far. It will remain that revelation does little to no work in our best and most authoritative accounts of the physical and human world. In cultures where the epistemic authority of rational methods are widely recognized, even people of faith tend to accept anthropological, cultural, and psychlogical explanations, rather than religious explanations, of other people’s religions. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that, given the well-demonstrated epistemic authority of the methods of applied reason, it is not irrational to adopt an ontology that contains no god and therfore no revelation. If you happened to think that the life of reason is the best human life, a modest, moderately naturalistic worldview is all you really need to not worry about the possibility that, really, the Bible contains the real answer about the best way to live. You don’t need to “prove” the impossibility of revelation, as Strauss sometimes said. You don’t need to be in possession of a comprehensive true account of “the whole” that excludes god, as Strauss sometimes said. You just need it to be the case that it’s not irrational to adopt a partial account of “the whole” according to which the best explanation of the content of scripture is not supernatural.

Suppose that it’s the case that you, personally, believe that (a) the existence of God is at least as likely as not. Furthermore, (b) you take divine revelation to be at least as likely as any other explanation for the contents of scripture. However, (c) you take the authority of reason so seriously, that you suspect that living according to the dictates of reason alone is the best human life. Additionally, you take it be the case that (d) reason and revelation cannot possibly be reconciled. Now, if (a), (b), (c), and (d) are true of you, then you’ve got Strauss’s Athen-Jerusalem problem. But how likely is (a) and (b) in light of (c)? If you start with (c), Strauss’s problem is unlikely to arise for you. No devoted rationalist who’s not already Mormon, for example, thinks that divine revelation is remotely likely as an explanation of the contents of the Book of Mormon. Its existence, the vague, remote logical possibility that the Book of Mormon is more than a human artifact, is not a challenge and a rebuke to your commitment to Socratic reason and philosophy. There is no fruitful “tension” here between reason and revelation to dwell within or draw upon as a source of intellectual inspiration and moral deepening. Now, if you start with (a) and (b), temporally, logically, and your idea of reason is already wrapped up in the idea of yourself as a divine creation and reason as a divine endowment, then (c) might remain plausible. You might be a Thomist. You might be Harry Jaffa. But then you have to give up (d). You’d never think (d) in the first place. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s even possible, as a psychological matter, to get all these propositions in one’s head at once. Even if it’s possible, it’s hard to see how this sort of thing could be the general condition of mankind.

I think probably it’s true that Strauss intended the problems inherent in this stuff to point to some deeper teaching. But it’s not just that the framing of the exoteric problem is specious, it’s that if you can really see what’s really wrong with it, you ought to be able to see that the esoteric interpretative options Strauss’s followers lose friends fighting over inherit the same basic problem, which is that, in the light of reason, neither socratic rationalism nor adherence to divine law look like very good answers to the question of how to live. What are these people doing?

Okay. Feel better now. Back to noveling. Back to living the tension.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center