skip to Main Content

Reflections on the Strauss-Voegelin Correspondence

Reflections On The Strauss-Voegelin Correspondence

The fascinating correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin raises more questions than it answers, if merely taken by itself.l To be sure, a number of extremely valuable debates arise between the two writers, especially in the letters of 1949 through 1951. Often, however, the exchange gives only straws in the wind and a sense of agreements and disagreements, but much that unites and much that separates them ultimately remains obscure. To account adequately for everything would require a review of the correspondence in the context of the entire corpus of the technical writing and teaching of both men. That large task cannot be undertaken on this occasion, although some tentative suggestions will be ventured by way of conclusion. Since this correspondence is an exchange between the two giants of political philosophy of our time, there should be no doubt of its importance and great intrinsic interest.

The tone of the exchange, stretching over the three decades from 1934 to 1964, is respectful and even warm to the extent of polite friendliness. It is a bit stiff, formal and civil, thawing eventually to “Mr. Strauss” and “Mr. Voegelin,” never to Leo and Eric, but this does not inhibit a lively and frank discussion. Most of the efforts to define the intellectual relationship between the two men are made by Strauss, and these almost always point up differences. It is of some moment that only five of the fifty-one surviving letters presented herein were written after Voegelin published the first three volumes of Order and History (1956 and 1957), perhaps a significant fact. Moreover, Strauss makes little or no comment to Voegelin about what he has written on the basis of a profound study of the Bible — specifically of the Hebrew Old Testament — in Israel and Revelation,2 his meticulous interpre­tation of the pre-Socratics that displays a philosophical and theoretical mastery of the some fifty-five Greek authors considered in The World of the Polis, or about the close textual analysis and interpretation given of the principal political writings of Plato and Aristotle as powerfully presented in the third of these volumes.

Of course, there are gaps from missing letters, but this is mainly a problem for the correspondence during the years down to 1953 or so; and it is extremely unlikely that a discussion of Order and History has disappeared.3 There is the relocation (which could have played a part in disrupting the correspondence) as the Voegelins moved from Baton Rouge to Munich in 1958. There he began a new phase of his career in Germany by establishing the Political Science Institute through his appointment to the chair in that discipline left vacant at the University of Munich since the death of Max Weber. But the silence is significant, no matter what allowances are made. And apart from rare occasions such as the present one, when the matter is directly raised (or the annual meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society when panels were devoted to the relationship in 1989 and 1990), the silence continues virtually into the present by latter-day Straussian scholars. Thus, a 1989 recall of critical exchanges with Strauss mentions Alexandre Kojeve, C. B. Macpherson, Raymond Aron, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Löwith, and Arnaldo Momigliana but passes over Voegelin — surely classi­fied with Strauss as another “maverick” taking on the “authorities” and on much the same ground, i.e., an insistence of the indispensability of classical philosophy for a rational understanding of the human condition per se, not least of all of the contemporary world and its crisis.4

The silence may be the most important aspect for consideration. How is the silence to be interpreted? Perhaps these letters point toward an answer. A preliminary answer must be that Voegelin’s publication of the initial volumes of Order and History finally put a period to the relationship that had been declining since his 1951 Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago, published as The New Science of Politics.5 So, the further question to be wondered about is exactly why? To which the preliminary plausible answer must be that — from the perspectives of both men — persuasion had reached its limits, and there was little more to be said between them because of fundamental disagreement.

Voegelin and Strauss

The air of mutual respect that pervades the correspondence is founded partly on common civility and Old World manners and partly on a recognition of the seriousness of each other’s scholarship, with a sense that their exchanges constitute a conversation between spoudaioi. There is strong general agreement about the defectiveness of modern philosophy and the science of man from Machiavelli and Hobbes onward. Both see this as requiring a return to the Greeks, and Strauss remarks that radical doubt of all of the dogmas of the past three or four centuries is the beginning of wisdom. Voegelin more often than not is conciliatory, obliging, even deferential, seemingly intent on coaxing as much candor and insight as he can from his guarded correspondent. Clearly enough, sparring is going on, as each writer tests the other in various ways. There is eagerness for rapport, especially from Voegelin’s side, but caution, wariness, and dubiousness, especially from Strauss’s side. Now and then an issue becomes transparent for disagreement, the debate is joined, and sparks fly.

Thus, with enthusiasm Voegelin embraces Strauss’s principle of under­standing a thinker as he understood himself. And how is that? Voegelin, in characteristic fashion, elaborates the principle to mean that the con­scientious interpreter has “to restore the experiences that have led to the creation of certain concepts and symbols; or: [since symbols] have become opaque . . . they must be made luminous again by penetrating to the experiences they express.” “We are in very much greater agreement . . . than I first supposed,” Voegelin concludes.6 Still, Strauss remains silent on the key question of how and in what sense philosophy can be said to be experientially anchored.

That silence, however, is broken by an alarmed and indignant outburst provoked by Voegelin’s use of the term existential in the Gorgias essay. Strauss writes:

“In his critique of Plato, Heidegger tries to find the way by rejecting philosophy and metaphysics as such . . . [But] insofar as I am serious and there are questions, I look for the “objective” truth. The sophist is a man to whom truth does not matter. . . . The passion for knowledge that moves the Platonic dialogue, this highest mania, cannot be understood within Kierkegaard’s concept of “existence,” and [the attempt to do so] must be rejected as a radical illusion. . . . The question Plato or existentialism is today the ontological question — about “intellectuals” we (you and I) do not need to waste words, unless it were about how they finally have to be interpreted, namely, within Platonic or existentialist philosophy.”7

Clearly, Voegelin struck a nerve. Strauss seems mollified by Voegelin’s conciliatory explanation that existentialism (which he has no wish to defend) is not intended and that ontology is, indeed, centrally important. “I swear, I am not straying on existentialist paths; we are in agreement also on the question of ontology.” However, Voegelin presses the point:

“The truth of ontology (including in particular philosophical anthropology) is not a datum that can be recognized by anyone at any time. Ontological knowledge emerges in the process of history and biographically in the process of the individual person’s life under certain conditions of education, social context, personal inclina­tion, and spiritual conditioning. Episteme is not just a function of understanding, it is also in the Aristotelian sense, a dianoetic arete. For this noncognitive aspect of episteme I use the term “existential.” . . . A history of political ideas, in particular, should investi­gate the process in which “truth” becomes socially effective or is hindered in such effectiveness. You see, it does not have to do with a negation or relativization of ontology, but rather with the correlation between perception in the cognitive and existential sense; this correlation is for me the theme of ‘history.'”8

To this Strauss responds with worries of why Voegelin puts “truth” in quotation marks. “Is truth only ‘so-called truth,’ the illusion of a respective period?” The closest classical equivalent to existential he believes is practical, understood as the contradiction of theoretical “If I am not totally mistaken,” Strauss goes on, “the root of all modern darkness from the seventeenth century on is the obscuring of the difference between theory and praxis.” An intervening letter from Voegelin is lost, but it apparently allayed Strauss’s worst fears. He writes:

“The question is whether there is a pure grasp of truth as an essential human possibility, quite regardless of what the conditions and actualization of this possibility are, or whether there is not such a grasp as an essential possibility. When you say ‘only at such and such a time did that order of the soul emerge,’ you leave open the question whether this order of the soul is the natural telos of Man or a “coincidence”; that it also could not have, emerged, does that deprive it of the status of a telos? However that may be, it seems to me, nonetheless, that we are in more fundamental agreement than I believed.”9

Strauss’s questions go unanswered in this context. At an earlier place, Strauss writes of “the science established by Plato and Aristotle: the postulate of an exact ethics and politics in Plato; Aristotle’s adhering to the ideal of exactness despite the abandonment of its application to the human things; the necessarily higher ranking of physics over ethics and politics, at least for Aristotle and his successors.”10

Whether the exactness of the theoretical sciences, in contrast to the practical ones, equates with the pure grasp of truth as possibility for Strauss remains unclear, and he seems to leave it “open.” At a later place, he speaks of his Walgreen Lectures, published as Natural Right and History, as presenting the “problem of natural right as an unsolved problem,” thus holding out the conception of philosophy itself as “an uncompletable ascent.” Philosophy on the classical model is disclosed as an unsuspected third way to the conventional alternatives of choosing between “positivism-relativism-pragmatism and Neo-Thomism,” whereby it is shown that the consequences of one’s ignorance is “that one must strive after knowledge.”11

A not dissimilar third way is disclosed by Voegelin from his study of the same sources. The paradigm of true philosophy is provided by Plato and Aristotle. But underlying classical philosophy itself, by Voegelin’s reading, is faith in the divine cosmos as the primal experience articulated in myth and differentiated through noesis in philosophy. It may be true that classical philosophy is “ahistorical” in that it is a loving search of the heights and depths of reality, to discern the process and structure of being, by the spiritually sensitive man who seeks abiding truth. But the modern derailment of philosophy from Descartes to Hegel (which Voegelin considers as a unit) deforms this questing dimension of philosophizing by transforming the uncompletable ascent described as the love of wisdom in Plato into the possession of exact truth as the system of science.12 “I would permit myself a correction to your formulation,” therefore, Voegelin writes:

“that ‘all earlier philosophy’ was unhistorical. Philosophy [deformed into] the system, from Descartes to Hegel, seems to me to form a unity, insofar as the idea of a philosophical, closed ‘system’ dominates. However, the idea of ‘system,’ of the possible exhaus­tive penetration of the mystery of the cosmos and its existence by the intellect, is itself a Gnostic phenomenon, a drawing in of eternity into the time of the individual thinker. I would therefore restrict your comment to philosophy in the Platonic-Aristotelian sense . . . . With regard to the ‘second thesis’ of your letter, that philosophy is radically independent of faith, . . . I do not see how you get around the historical fact of the beginning of philosophy in the attitude of faith of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides.”13

The Refusal of Strauss to Address the Experiential Basis of Philosophy

Now to the crux of the disagreement between the two writers: Strauss, in his letter of 25 August 1950, had written that this second thesis was “the root of our disagreement,” and in this he was not wrong. In response to Voegelin’s asserted “historical fact,” Strauss flatly denies it and adds: “Whatever noein might mean, it is certainly not pistis in some sense. On this point Heidegger . . . is simply right.”14

This becomes the “one point where our paths separate,” Strauss states, although Voegelin reads Philos­ophy and Law (1935; English translation, 1987) and finds that Strauss had in that earlier book held a view much like his own. But this, too, Strauss denies. The “classics are the Greeks and not the Bible,” he argues. “The classics demonstrated that truly human life is a life dedicated to science, knowledge, and the search for it.” “I believe still today,” writes Strauss, “that the theioi nomoi is the common ground of the Bible and philosophy — humanly speaking. But I would specify that, in any event, it is the problem of the multitude of theioi nomoi that leads to the diametri­cally opposed solutions of the Bible on the one hand and of philosophy on the other.”15

The sharp contrast between a Middle Ages based on revelation and a classical antiquity not so grounded, according to Strauss, leads him to this further statement:

“There is a double reason not to obscure this essential difference in any way. First, it is in the interest of revelation, which is by no means merely natural knowledge. Secondly, for the sake of human knowledge, episteme. You yourself have said that science matters very much to you. For me, it matters a great deal to understand it as such. . . . The classics demonstrated that truly human life is a life dedicated to science, knowledge, and the search for it . . . . Every synthesis is actually an option either for Jerusalem or for Athens.”

“Well, you speak of the religious foundation of classical philoso­phy. I would not do so.”16

Of course, “religious foundation” was not part of Voegelin’s speech either, but words put in his mouth by Strauss.17 He passes over the matter, however, and his responsive analysis qualifies the sharp distinction be­tween “human knowledge and revealed knowledge” by noticing that the latter is human insofar as it is the knowledge of concrete persons who experience it as stemming from a divine source and (while pointedly rejecting psychologizing explanations, i.e., Feuerbach’s and Marx’s), he arrives at the following important formulations.

Revelation, then, is humanly debatable because it, like all knowl­edge, is human knowledge . . . . It distinguishes itself from “mere” human knowledge in that the experience of the contents of revealed knowledge is of “being addressed” by God. And through this experience of “being addressed,” the essential contents of revealed knowledge are given: (1) a man who understands himself in his “mere” humanness in contrast to a transcendental being; (2) a world-transcendent Being who is experienced as the highest reality in contrast to all worldly being; (3) a Being who “addresses,” and therefore is a person, namely, God; (4) a man who can be addressed by this Being and who thereby stands in a relation of openness to Him. In this sense I would venture the formulation: the fact of revelation is its content.18

This sense of revelation as the experience of divine presence19 is shown to require the development of self-reflective consciousness whereby the man separates himself clearly from the divine, the movement from compactness toward differentiation, a “process in which man dedivinized himself and realized the humanity of his spiritual life.”20 This achievement of Greek philosophy is absorbed by Christianity in the early centuries. The erotic orientation toward divine Being of man in Plato meets with no response, however, in contrast with the amicitia of Thomas — a contrast familiar from the New Science of Politics but qualified by Voegelin in later work so as to take account of his subsequent understanding of both reason and revelation in Hellenic philosophy, as suggested below.21

Strauss’s response is to appeal to Christian dogma, rather than enter into a discussion that appeals to experiential analysis, which Voegelin is steadily stressing. The former suggests that there may yet be a common ground between himself and Voegelin, if only the latter accepts dogma in the Catholic sense, “because [he writes] my distinction between revelation and human knowledge to which you object is in harmony with the Catholic teaching. But I do not believe that you accept the Catholic teaching.”22 By this is meant the clear doctrinal distinctions reflected by the dichotomies natural human knowledge and supernatural revelation, reason and faith, science and religion, in particular — and again Strauss is right.

Because, just as Voegelin has here discerned the human element in revelation and the presence of revelatory experience (faith) as undergirding Greek philosophy from its pre-Socratic beginnings through its climax in Plato and Aristotle, so also he is moving in the direction that takes him, in the decades ahead, to an analysis of reason (nous and noesis) in classical philosophy that greatly widens our understanding of it and attributes the notion of merely “natural reason” to a misunderstanding fostered by the medieval Christian philosophers.23 The human reality of philosophy no less than of Judaic and Christian revelation is the metaxy or participatory reality of the In-Between of divine-human encounter, to hint at the later formulations.

How closely faith and reason verge can instructively be seen from a passage from Voegelin’s Candler Lectures of 1967, entitled “The Drama of Humanity,” where he was able to enumerate ten meanings of Reason in Plato and Aristotle, as follows.

Reason is:

1. the consciousness of existing from a Ground, an awareness filled with content and not empty. Reason is thereby the instrument for handling world-immanent reality. Rebellion against reason since the eighteenth century creates a void in this dimension that must then be filled by substitutes

2.  the transcendence of human existence, thereby establishing the poles of consciousness: immanent-transcendent

3.  the creative Ground of existence which attracts man to itself

4.  the sensorium whereby man understands himself to exist from a Ground

5.  the articulation of this understanding through universal ideas

6.  the perseverance through lifetime of concern about one’s relation to the Ground, generative of existential virtue: phronesis (wisdom, prudence), philia (friendship), and athanatizein (to immortalize human existence)

7. the effort to order existence by the insight gained through understanding the self to be existentially linked to the Ground and attuned to it: the major intellectual operation of so translating consequences of this insight as to form daily habits in accordance with it

8.  the persuasive effort to induce conscious participation of the self, and other men’s conscious participation, in transcendent reason (Plato’s peitho). The problem of communicating and propagating the truth of being

9.  the constituent of man through his participation in (the reason of) the Ground; or the constituent force in man qua human through participation in the divine Nous which is his specific essence

10.  the constituent of society as the Homonoia or “like-mindedness” of Everyman in a community formed through recognition of the reason common to all men. In Aristotle, if love within the community is not based upon regard for the divinity of reason in the other man, then the political friendship (philia politike) on which a well-ordered community depends cannot exist. The source of the Christian notion of “human dignity” is the common divinity in all men. Nietzsche perceived that if that is surrendered then there is no reason to love anybody, one consequence of which is the loss of the sense and force of obligation in society and, hence, of its cohesiveness

If any of the enumerated components of reason is lost, imbalanced constructions result which eventuate in psychological and social breakdowns and disintegrations. As is suggested by this listing of the meanings of reason in Plato and Aristotle, noetic reason is philosophic or scientific reason, an activity of the conscious­ness articulated out of experience in a variety of interrelated symbolisms and symbolic forms.24

In his Aquinas Lecture of 1975, entitled “The Beginning and the Beyond,” Voegelin characterizes the relationships between philosophy and revelation in this way:

“The dichotomies of Faith and Reason, Religion and Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics can no longer be used as ultimate terms of reference when we have to deal with experiences of divine reality, with their rich diversification in the ethnic cultures of antiquity, with their interpretation in the cultures of the ecumenic empires, with the transition of consciousness from the truth of the intra-cosmic gods to the truth of the divine Beyond, with the contemporary expansion of the horizon to the global ecumene. We can no longer ignore that the symbols of “Faith” express the responsive quest of man just as much as the revelatory appeal, and that the symbols of “Philosophy” express the revelatory appeal just as much as the responsive quest.”

“We must further acknowledge that the medieval tension between Faith and Reason derives from the origins of these symbols in the two different ethnic cultures of Israel and Hellas, that in the consciousness of Israelite prophets and Hellenic philosophers the differentiating experience of the divine Beyond was respectively focused on the revelatory appeal and the human quest, and that the two types of consciousness had to face new problems when the political events of the Ecumenic Age cut them loose from their moorings in the ethnic cultures and forced their confrontation under the multicivilizational conditions of an ecumenic empire.”25

Had Leo Strauss lived to read these words, it seems likely that his reaction might have been much as it was in his ironic letter of 4 June 1951: “Said in one sentence — I believe that philosophy in the Platonic sense is possible and necessary — you believe that philosophy understood in this sense was made obsolete by revelation. God knows who is right.”

Sharing the Quest But With Different Assumptions

One has the familiar sense of ships passing in the night, after this review of some of the salient passages in the correspondence. Is there more to it than that? What conclusions can be drawn, however tentatively?

“The restraining sentiment to be remembered as a kind of motto of civility for whatever one concludes about the debate under consideration may be taken from a remark Strauss made to Voegelin: ‘. . . the agreement in our intentions . . . so long as we have to combat the presently reigning idiocy, is of greater significance than the differences [between us], which I also would not wish to deny.'”26

That said, some of the differences can be noted, on the assumption that the agreements have become clear enough by now. What lies behind the basic disagreement is expressed already in 1942 by Strauss and is accurate for the entire subsequent relationship with Voegelin:

“The impossibility of grounding science on religious faith . . . . Now, you will say . . . that the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of science was put to rest through Christianity and the discovery of history. I am not quite persuaded of that.”27

Behind these formulations stand two philosophers both victimized and appalled by the deculturation and banality of modernity, who devoted their lives to the recovery of true philosophy, Strauss on the basis of the medieval Arabic and Jewish philosophy of Averroës, Alfarabi, and Maimonides; Voegelin by a far-reaching critical revision of the medieval Christian philosophy of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Eckhart. This is not to question that from their divergent perspectives, both men took classical philosophy and the science of man and being it achieved with utmost seriousness, or that each deeply, even fervently, believed his interpretation to be both true to the texts and in accord with the “real” self-understanding Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had of the philosopher’s calling. It is entirely understandable that a “nonbeliever,” as Strauss termed himself, and a mystic philosopher in the Christian tradition would not see eye to eye about ultimate things.

How, indeed, could it be otherwise? And both Strauss and Voegelin believed that they avoided religious dogma out of devotion to the quest for the truth of being, one in the name of ancient rationalism, the other in the name of the fundamental experiences and their noetic and pneumatic articulation through several modes of symbolization. Thus, to Voegelin the core problem of all philosophy was the problem of transcendence — meaning not the immanent transcendence of Husserl and of the nature-based philosophy of Strauss, but the transcendence of divine Being. His definition is given at the beginning of Order and History in the following words and are taken as true to philosophy as Plato perfected it:

Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order. The Logos of being is the object proper of philosophical inquiry; and the search for truth concerning the order of being cannot be conducted without diagnosing the modes of existence in untruth. The truth of order has to be gained and regained in the perpetual struggle against the fall from it; and the movement toward truth starts from a man’s awareness of his existence in untruth. The diagnostic and therapeutic functions are inseparable in philosophy as a form of existence. And ever since Plato, in the disorder of his time, discovered the connection, philosophical inquiry has been one of the means of establishing islands of order in the disorder of the age. Order and History is a philosophical inquiry concerning the order of human existence in society and history. Perhaps it will have its remedial effect — in the modest measure that, in the passionate course of events, is allowed to Philosophy.28

As one recent commentator has remarked after surveying the Voegelinian corpus, “Voegelin adumbrates a philosophy of spiritual ascent, of which there are famous examples, such as Plotinus, Plato, St. Bonaventura, and Meister Eckhart.”29 If the understanding of reason is so expanded as to reassert the participatory and intuitive dimensions of classical philosophy’s Nous, the understanding of faith and revelation also is reevaluated — and it emphatically is not creedal, doctrinal, or dogmatic faith that is at issue in Voegelin’s work. In reflectively groping toward his later (1975) formula­tion of the matter quoted at the end of the preceding section, he finds in Strauss’s Philosophy and Law (1930) substantial agreement with his own understanding of the fundamental experience of the divine cosmos as the background of all experiences of order:

“I have the impression that you have retreated from an understanding of the prophetic (religious) founda­tion of philosophizing (with which I would heartily agree) to a theory of episteme, and that you refuse to see the problem of episteme in connection with experience, out of which it emerges.”

Almost sorrowfully, Voegelin continues, “Why you do this, I do not know. And how this position can work . . . I cannot predict.”30

As noticed earlier, Strauss acknowledges that “the law has primacy” and that “I basically still stand on the same ground” as fifteen years before, but with deeper understanding. “I believe still today that the theioi nomoi is the common ground of the Bible and philosophy — humanly speaking.” But the multitude of divine laws so confuse things as to lead to solutions diametrically opposed to one another in the Bible and in philosophy. He rejects any blending of the two, contending that every “synthesis is actually an option either for Jerusalem or for Athens.”31 For Voegelin, the theoretization of this problem by Augustine is essentially valid for an understanding of the relationship of science (especially metaphysics) and revelation.

Revealed knowledge is, in the building of human knowledge, that knowledge of the pregivens of perception (sapientia, closely related to the Aristotelian nous as distinguished from episteme). To these pregivens belongs the experience of man of himself as esse, nosse, velle, the inseparable primal experience: I am a knowing and willing being; I know myself as being and willing; I will myself as a being and a knowing human. (For Augustine in the worldly sphere, the symbol of the trinity: the Father — Being; the Son — the recogniz­able order; the Spirit — the process of being in history). To these pregivens belongs further the being of God beyond time (in the just characterized dimensions of creation, order, and dynamic) and the human knowledge of this being through “revelation.” Within this knowledge pregiven by sapientia stirs the philosophic episteme.32

Strauss remains adamant, however, in seeing this as a problem tradi­tionally comprehensible in terms of faith and knowledge, but not of universal faith, and as a particularly Christian, and by extension, a Jewish, problem. Hence, the problem is not a universal-human one but “presup­poses a specific faith, which philosophy as philosophy does not and cannot do. Here and here alone it seems to me lies the divergence between us — also in the mere historical.”33 The richness and subtlety of the debate does not lend itself to adequate summary. The prefiguration of the out­come is Strauss’s early reaction: “What you wrote about Plato and Aristotle naturally interested me quite directly . . . . I do not hold this interpreta­tion to be correct. But it is toweringly superior to nearly all that one gets to read about Plato and Aristotle.”34

The gentleness and civility of Strauss himself, it must be said, is not always emulated by all who identify with his cause, and the silence that descended on these correspondents after publication of the initial volumes of Order and History was briefly if stridently shattered by a long essay in The Review of Metaphysics in which Voegelin’s whole interpretation of Hellenic philosophy was resoundingly rejected (for, among other reasons) as existentialist, theologico-historicist, Christian, fideistic and not scientific, empiricist, mystical, Toynbeean, Thomistic, too concerned with experience and too little concerned with reason, theological, politically neglectful, egalitarian, liberal, reductionist in seeing Plato’s myths as revelation, oblivious to the tension between theory and practice, inverting the classic philosophic theory of the relationship between being and history (historicism, again), blocking instead of fostering access to Greek philosophy because of Christian assumptions in quasi-Hegelian dress. “Voegelin is forced by his commitments both to reject Hellenism and at the same time to preserve it in unrecognizable form.” “He excludes the possibility of a non-empiricist and non-mystical philosophy.” “It is not easy,” the author patronizingly sighs, “to make such a judgment of what may well be a devout man’s life work.”35 After this blast, there was little more that could usefully be said. Silence reigned.

Behind Strauss and Spinoza Stood the Averroists

In modern philosophy the hard line drawn between religion and philoso­phy is exemplified in Spinoza’s attitude as expressed in Tractatus theologicopoliticus (1670) where the principle is laid down as follows: “Between faith or theology, and philosophy, there is no connection, nor affinity. I think no one will dispute the fact who has knowledge of the aim and foundations of the two subjects, for they are as wide apart as the poles.” “Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith . . . looks for nothing but obedience and piety. Again, philosophy is based on axioms which must be sought from nature alone.”36

“The core of Strauss’s thought is the famous ‘theological-political problem,’ a problem which he would say ‘remained the theme of my studies’ from a very early time.”37 Strauss’s gloss on the quoted Spinoza passage suggests that the philosopher who knows truth must refrain from expressing it out of both convenience and, more so, duty. If truth requires one not to accommodate opinions to the Bible, piety requires the opposite, “i.e., that one should give one’s own opinions a Biblical appearance. If true religion or faith, which according to him requires not so much true dogmas as pious ones, were endangered by his Biblical criticism, Spinoza would have decided to be absolutely silent about this subject.” But, of course, to thicken this tangle, the rule of speaking “ad captum vulgi” means so as to satisfy the dominant opinion of the multitude, which in Spinoza’s situation was that of a secularist Jew speaking to a Protestant Christian community.38

It was Spinoza’s intention to emancipate philosophy from its position as mere handmaid of scripture. “In his effort to emancipate philosophy from its ancillary position, he goes to the very root of the problem — the belief in revelation. By denying revelation, he reduces Scripture to the status of the works of the Greek poets, and as a result of this he revives the classical conception of Greek philosophers as to the relation between popular beliefs and philosophic thought.”39  Behind Spinoza and Strauss stand the great Spanish Islamic philosophers of the medieval period who insisted upon philosophy as a purely rational enterprise based on Aristotle and steering a middle way, one infected neither by dogmatic religion nor by traditional mysticism — to take the case of Averroes, the great twelfth-century falasifa Ibn Rushd. It may be useful to recall that Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles is the Western Christian “comprehensive systematic work against the Arabic-Aristotelian philosophy. In 1270, thirteen Averroistic propositions were condemned by Étienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, and the year 1277 brought the sweeping condemnation of 219 propositions, including besides the Aver­roistic proper, several of Thomas Aquinas which seemed equally danger­ous.”40

By the Averroist tradition, philosophy is considered to be “the systematic application of demonstrative reasoning to the world.” Such philosophy starts from indubitable first principles and cannot be empirical, since philosophy is conceived as a demonstrative science and there can be no indubitable premises about any part of the world as experienced, much less about the whole cosmos.41 Philosophers are capable of arriving at truth directly and, thus, at the highest level, have no need of scripture or revelation — a teaching that necessitates discretion in communication. As a thoroughly rationalistic enterprise, not mysticism but only philosophy allows union with the divine, since that union requires knowledge of the theoretical sciences.42 There are levels of human nature and levels of discourse and truth to match. “For the natures of men are on different levels with respect to [their paths to] assent. One of them comes to assent through demonstration; another comes to assent through dialectical arguments, just as firmly as the demonstrative man through demonstration, since his nature does not contain any greater capacity; while another comes to assent through rhetorical arguments, again just as firmly as the demonstrative man through demonstrative arguments.”43

Ibn Rushd iden­tifies the elite (philosophers) as those who are taught by demonstrative argument, the theologians (a mere subclass of the masses) as those suitable for dialectic, and the masses themselves as those who can understand only through imaginative and persuasive language. Farabi names only two classes, the elite and the masses.44  This view, of course, requires secret or artful teaching and caution of philosophers. Thus, Farabi endorses Plato’s techniques of concealment and Aristotle’s methods. They “used different methods but had the same purpose of concealment; there is much abbreviation and omission in Aristotle’s scientific works, and this is deliberate. . . . Different expressions of truth suit different levels of understanding. . . . Zeno said: ‘My teacher Aristotle reported a saying of his teacher Plato: “The summit of knowledge is too lofty for every bird to fly to’.”45

Finally, there is the agreement of the greatest Jewish philoso­pher, Maimonides, who writes of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created heaven and earth”): “It has been treated with metaphors in order that the uneducated may comprehend it according to the measure of their faculties and the feebleness of their apprehension, while educated persons may take it in a different sense.”46 Strauss’s embrace of this paradigm of philosophy is stated in many ways, such as the following from his 1962 preface to the English translation of Spinoza’s Critique of Religion: “I began . . . to wonder whether the self-destruction of reason was not the inevitable outcome of modern rationalism as distinguished from premodern rationalism, especially Jewish-medieval rationalism and its classical (Aris­totelian and Platonic) foundation.”47

Voegelin’s attitude toward this model of philosophizing — and hence toward the Straussian approach to philosophy to the degree it is indebted to this model, a matter to be more fully ascertained than I can attempt here — is suggested by his study of Siger de Brabant, a Latin Averroist. The notions of the grades of human nature and levels of communication just noticed, Voegelin finds, show “the inclination to treat the non-philosophical man as an inferior brand and even to compare him to animals, an attitude which seems to crop up as soon as the Christian insight into the equal spiritual dignity of all men is abandoned.”

Along with the elitist idea, which may be confined to “the intellectual sphere of the vita philosophi . . . [comes also] the liberal idea of the educated man as a social type superior to the uneducated common man, the vilis homo . . . . The bourgeois implications are obvious, for the ideal of intellectual life is coupled with the idea that the man of substance is morally superior to the poor man.”48  More generally, then, Voegelin remarks of the falasifa that “philosophy had become in the Arab environment, more so than it was with Aristotle, a form of life for an intellectual elite. “49Philosophy did not mean for them a branch of science, but signified an integral attitude towards the world based on a “book,” much as the integral attitude of the orthodox Muslim would be based on the Koran.

The sectarian implication is beyond doubt; the falasifa represent a religious movement, differing in its social structure and content of doctrine from other Islamic sects, but substantially of the same type . . . .The great Arabic philosophical discussions did not center in the Organon or Physics of Aristotle, but were concerned with the twelfth book of Metaphysics and the third book of De Anima as transmitted by the Commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias . . . . The keystone of the canon was the so-called Theology of Aristotle, an abridged paraphrase of the last three books of the Enneads of Plotinus.

The Neo-Platonic mysticism and the Commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias to De Anima were the dynamic center of Arabic philosophy, furnishing the principles of  interpretation for the comments on Aristotelian works proper. They made possible the evolution of the idea of the Active Intellect as an emanation from God arousing to activity the passive intellect of man. The aim of human life is in this system the achievement of the complete union, the ittisal, of the human intellect with the Active Intellect. Behind the dry technical formula of the oneness of the Active Intellect in all human beings, lie a mystical experience and a well-developed religious attitude giving their meaning to the theoretical issues.

The clash between Faith and Reason in the thirteenth century is at bottom a clash between two religions, between Christianity and the intellectual mysticism of the falasifa. . . . It was this mythical Aristotle who dominated the falasifa and through their mediation became known to the West. It was not primarily the content of his work that created the disturbance; the Aristotelian results could be assimilated, as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas have demonstrated. The danger was the mythical Aristotle as a new spiritual authority of equal rank with the Christian revelation and tradition. The Aristotle who was a regula in natura et exemplar could be a model requiring the conformance of man in the same sense in which the Christ of St. Francis could be the standard of conformance for the Christian.50

The gulf that separates Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss and some of the possible reasons for it by now have become more evident, even if the heart of their rival modes of philosophy remains to be explored. That is a task readers must undertake for themselves, if they are drawn to pursue the quest for truth in the loving search of the Ground called Philosophy.

 

Notes

 1. As Ernest L. Fortin puts it: “What do we learn from the correspondence that we did not already know or could not know from other sources about Strauss’s or Voegelin’s thought? Not much, I suspect. Both authors have written extensively elsewhere on the subjects with which they deal here. There is nevertheless in the letters a certain bluntness or candor that would have been out of place in a piece written for publication . . . . Not surprisingly, neither one appears to have learned much from the other or to have budged in any way from his position” (Fortin, “Men of Letters: The Little-Known Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin,” Crisis [March 1991], 36).

2. There is mention by Voegelin in his letter of 10 June 1953, that he is “working on the Israelite chapter in [his] History” and “greatly regretted that [they] have no opportunity to speak occasionally.” Strauss in his letter of 23 June 1953, responds that “the problem of history in the Old Testament” is “one of the most complex problems in intellectual history . . . perhaps the Utopian plan would be to devote about ten years to the solution of this problem.” He says not a word in subsequent correspondence about the long book on the subject published in 1956 as Israel and Revelation. Voegelin’s lamentation about his command of Hebrew in the June 10 letter seems to have been partly modesty, since W. F. Albright in reviewing Israel and Revelation makes a point of noting that “his use of Hebrew is almost impeccable” (Theological Studies 22 [1961]: 275; see also the review by James B. Pritchard in The American Historical Review 63 [1957-58]: 640-41).

3. I say this on the basis of Voegelin’s careful habit of retaining carbon copies of his own letters and dutifully keeping a file of letters received. It is nearly inconceivable that an exchange with Strauss on Order and History, or any part of it, would have escaped this methodical practice. On the other hand, there appears to be no extant letter from Voegelin regarding Strauss’s own Walgreen Lectures of 1949, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), after publication, despite a series of eager queries scattered through his earlier letters about when the book would appear. These materials now are organized in the Eric Voegelin Archive at Hoover Institution Library (box 38.34; on microfilm reel 37.1), the source of forty of the fifty-one letters published in this collection. The two men continued to exchange publications, as can be seen from the very last letter (that of 7 September 1964) in which Voegelin thanks Strauss for his apparently having had his publisher send him a copy of The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964).

4. Thomas L. Pangle, ed., The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduc­tion to the Thought of Leo Strauss; Essays and Lectures by Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), ix. Voegelin’s name does not appear in the index to the volume. The only reference to Voegelin made by Strauss in print that I can think of is his comment that the former’s 1949 review of the latter’s study of Xenophon’s Hiero was one of only two critiques from which “one could learn anything,” the other being by Kojeve. Voegelin then is identified as “one of the leading contemporary historians of political thought” — not as a political philosopher, a matter of consequence in the world of esoteric communication inhabited by such a careful writer as Strauss. See Strauss, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” in What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959), 96-103, on Voegelin at 96 [see pages 49-57 in this volume]; cf. Voegelin to Strauss, 14 January 1949, Letter 20; Strauss to Voegelin, 15 April 1949, Letter 25; Strauss to Voegelin, 8 August 1950, Letter 31; and Voegelin to Strauss, 21 August 1950, Letter 32, herein.

On exoteric and esoteric writing, see Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, 1ll.: The Free Press, 1952); see also Strauss, “Exoteric Teaching,” Interpre­tation: A journal of Political Philosophy 14 (1986): 51-59, reprinted in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Pangle, 63-71. Receipt of Persecution and the Art of Writing is acknowledged by Voegelin in his letter of 5 August 1952, and the subject matter is referred to subsequently; the article from which the book grew, published in Social Research in 1941, was called to Voegelin’s attention in Strauss’s letter of 13 February 1943. There is no direct suggestion by Voegelin that Strauss himself engages in esoteric writing, but he shows interest in the subject and understands its ramifica­tions, as hyperbolic remarks about John Locke intimate in his letter of 15 April 1953 (apparently never sent), and the letter of 20 April 1953, covering the same ground more circumspectly (see the editors’ note to Letter 42). Strauss responds by commend­ing Voegelin for his acuity regarding types of esotericism (letter of 29 April 1953, penultimate paragraph).

An evenhanded discussion of Strauss’s own employment of this technique in his writing is given in Bernard Susser, “Leo Strauss: The Ancient as Modem,” Political Studies 36 (1988): 497-514 at 509; contrast the scathing denunciation of Strauss’s “secret art of writing” (among other things) by Stephen Holmes in “Truths for Philosophers Alone?” Times Literary Supplement (1-7 December 1989), 1319-20, 1322-24, ending in his declaration that Strauss “was no philosopher.” Cf. the response by Thomas L. Pangle, ibid. (5-11 January 1990), 11.

5. Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952); Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 1, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), vols. 2 and 3, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957). For a bibliography of Voegelin’s publications through 1980, see Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution: A Bibliographical Introduction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); also Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, eds., The Philosophy of Order: Essays on History, Consciousness, and Politics (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1980). The essay by Helmut R. Wagner in the latter volume is particularly pertinent for understanding the Strauss-Voegelin relationship and the debt of both men to Husserl, as discussed in Letters 6, 9, 10, and 11 herein; it is entitled “Agreement in Discord: Alfred Schütz and Eric Voegelin,” 74-90. An irregularly updated Bibliography of Works by and about Eric Voegelin is published by the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University.

6. Voegelin to Strauss, 12 March 1949.

7. Strauss to Voegelin, 17 December 1949. The essay in question is Voegelin’s “The Philosophy of Existence,” Review of Politics 11 (1949): 477-98; it is included in revised form in Order and History, vol. 3, ch. 2.

8. Voegelin to Strauss, 2 January 1950.

9. Strauss to Voegelin, 10 April 1950.

10. Strauss to Voegelin, 24 November 1942.

11. Strauss to Voegelin, 10 December 1950.

12. The contrast between love of wisdom as the form of classical philosophy and the system of science, with particular attention to Hegel, as a deformation of modern philosophy, commanded Voegelin’s attention repeatedly throughout the rest of his life, one may note. See Voegelin, The World of the Polis, 16-19; Voegelin, “Hegel: A Study in Sorcery [1971],” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 213-55, and cf. 89-91, 300; and Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 5, In Search of Order, intro. by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 48-70 and passim.

13. Voegelin to Strauss, 4 December 1950.

14. Strauss to Voegelin, 10 December 1950.

15.  Strauss to Voegelin, 25 February 1951.

16. Ibid.

17. On the point, see the instructive discussion of the transformation of the “living order of Israel” into “the ‘religion of the book'” in Voegelin, Order and History 1:376-79; also 120, 288, 381; cf. ibid. 2:218-19. On nous and pistis in Plato’s Republic see ibid. 3:113-14.

18. Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951.

19. See the recent analysis of this defining theme by Paul Caringella, “Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence,” in Ellis Sandoz, ed., Eric Voegelin’s Significance for the Modem Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 174-206.

20. Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951.

21. Cf. Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 76-80. For the later work, especially pertinent are the essays reprinted in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Sandoz, including “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” 52-94 [reprinted in the present volume]; “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” 115-33; “Reason: The Classic Experience,” 265-91; “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation,” 315-75; and “Quod Deus Dicitur,” 376-94. Of capital importance for the matters at hand also is Eric Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 28, What Is History: And Other Late Unpublished Writings, eds. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 173-232.

22. Strauss to Voegelin, 4 June 1951.

23. See the works cited in the previous note, especially Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond,” in Collected Works 28:210-11, for the present point. The relationship of noesis and pistis is analyzed in ibid. 12:273-74. That, and in what respects, Voegelin’s position leaves him vulnerable on multiple grounds to being charged with the so-called “Modernist” heresy condemned by Roman Catholicism is observed and discussed by Fortin, “Men of Letters,” Crisis, 34-35. Voegelin long ago understood this problem quite clearly himself, as is explicit in his letter to Alfred Schütz, 1 January 1953: “All that I have said about the problem of ‘essential Christianity’ is . . . untenable from the Catholic standpoint and would have to be classified as a variant of that Modernism which has been condemned as a heresy” (reprinted in Opitz and Sebba, eds., The Philosophy of Order, 457). On the meaning and extent of the heresy Modernism, see Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: Study Edition (Minneapolis, Minn.: Winston Press, 1981), 55-56, 218-23, 644-55. On his concern for Christian orthodoxy, on the other hand, see Voegelin, “Response to Professor Altizer’s ‘A New History and a New but Ancient God?'” in Collected Works 12:292-95; also “Quod Deus Dicitur,” ibid., 376-83.

24. Quoted from Ellis Sandoz, “The Philosophical Science of Politics Beyond Behavioralism,” in George J. Graham and George W. Carey, eds., The Post Behavioral Era (New York: McKay, 1972), 301-2. This same volume, interestingly enough, included Leo Strauss’s essay entitled “Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Our Time,” 217-42. The Candler Lectures remained otherwise unpublished, but Voegelin’s work along the lines indicated by the enumeration of nous’s meaning in classical philosophy reached its finished form in the previously cited essay, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” Collected Works 12:265-91.

25. Voegelin, Collected Works 28:210-11. For the references to “Ecumenic Age” and related matters, see Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 4, The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 114-70.

26. Strauss to Voegelin, 17 March 1949.

27. Strauss to Voegelin, 24 November 1942.

28. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, xiv. For the express statement that transcendence is the “decisive problem of philosophy,” see Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik (Munich: R. Piper Verlag, 1966), 36, 46-48; the first page references a line in Voegelin’s letter to Alfred Schütz of 17-20 September 1943, which Voegelin invites Strauss to get from Schütz and read if he is interested and which Strauss, then, reads and reacts to (Letters 10 and 11, herein).

29. Paul G. Kuntz, “Voegelin’s Experiences of Order Out of Disorder,” in Sandoz, ed., Eric Voegelin’ s Significance for the Modem Mind, 138.

30. Voegelin to Strauss, 21 February 1951, Letter 36. Thus, already in 1957 Voegelin wrote of the meaning of Nous:”. . . even in Aristotle it still has an amplitude of meaning from intellection to faith” (Order and History, vol. II, Plato and Aristotle, 208).

31. Strauss to Voegelin, 25 February 1951, Letter 37. The medieval roots of the primacy of law in Strauss’s thought are carefully explored in Hillel Fradkin, “Philosophy and Law: Leo Strauss as a Student of Medieval Jewish Thought,” Review of Politics 53 (Winter 1991): 40-52, esp. 49-52.

32. Voegelin to Strauss, 22 April 1951, Letter 38.

33. Strauss to Voegelin, 4 June 1951, Letter 39. For “mere historical,” see Letter 35.

34. Strauss to Voegelin, 20 December 1942, Letter 5.

35. Stanley Rosen, “Order and History,” Review of Metaphysics 12 (December 1958): 258, 268, 276, and passim. The reader is helpfully directed to “a definitive discussion [of the relation between religion and philosophy], with full references,” namely Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (ibid., 267n.).

36. Benedict de Spinoza, Writings on Political Philosophy, ed. A.G.A. Balz, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1937), 16.

37. Steven B. Smith, “Leo Strauss: Between Athens and Jerusalem,” Review of Politics 53 (Winter 1991): 78. Strauss’s early study of Spinoza’s Tractatus was written between 1925 and 1928 and published as Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Gründlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft: Untersuchungen zu Spinozas Theologisch-Politischem Traktat (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1930; English translation 1965). As he remarks to Voegelin, “Hula was telling me that you are interested in Arabic political philosophy. That was once my speciality” (20 February 1943, Letter 7). Strauss recurs to a comparison of Averroes with Husserl’s treatment of Aristotle’s De Anima, book 3, and to his medieval studies, including Maimonides and his “Essay on the Law of the Kuzari” on 11 October 1943, Letter 11.

38. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 142-201 at 168, 178.

39. Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), 1:163. For Spinoza’s “grand assault on traditional philosophy,” see ibid. 2:160-64. Cf. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 188-91.

40. Voegelin, “Siger de Brabant,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4 (June 1944): 511.

41. George F. Hourani, Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy [a translation of Ibn Rushd’s Decisive Treatise] (London: Luzac, 1961), 20-21.

42. Ibid., 27-28.

43. Ibid., 49 [The Decisive Treatise, 6.17-21], cf. 92. In this work the judge and philosopher Averroes defends philosophy on the basis of Law, which is to say politically. Thus, “if teleological study of the world is philosophy, and if the Law commands such a study, then the Law commands philosophy,” a sentence that stands as the summary of chapter 1 (ibid., 44; cf. 83 n. 7).

44. Ibid., 92.

45. Ibid., 106.

46. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedlaender, 2d ed. (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1904), 4.

47.  Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, trans. E. M. Sinclair (New York: Schocken, 1965), 31; also reprinted in Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 257.

48. Voegelin, “Siger de Brabant,” 520.

49. Ibid., 512.

50, Ibid., 514-16.

 

This excerpt is from Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-64 (University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Ellis SandozEllis Sandoz

Ellis Sandoz

Ellis Sandoz was the Hermann Moyse Jr. Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University, former Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies, and founder of the Eric Voegelin Society. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books.

Back To Top