skip to Main Content

The Jagellonian Conference on Leo Strauss

The Jagellonian Conference On Leo Strauss

Modernity and What Has Been Lost. Considerations on the Legacy of Leo StraussPawel Armada and Arkadiusz Górnisiewicz, eds. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press / Krakow, The Jagellonian University Press, 2012.


Modernity and What Has Been Lost is the title of a conference on Leo Strauss held at the Jagellonian University in Krakow in June 2009. The eleven papers of this conference, albeit of unequal quality, are nonetheless a good introduction to the thought of Leo Strauss. More particularly, they are interesting as an attempt to highlight the relevance of Strauss in regard to the present situation of Eastern Europe, especially of Poland.

The provocative yet quite conventional title of the book unfortunately tends to hide the true originality of the project, which emerged from the personal experience of the two organizers. They express their undertaking rather naïvely as being the result of a process in which they encountered some questions about main tenets and sources of what can be called the modern way of life, and began to seek possible answers in books offering wisdom. We may, moreover, have felt ourselves witnesses to a great political and social change: it seemed that in our country the “process of transformation” had been by and large completed as Poland finally joined the European Union in 2004 (p. 8).

These are the two foci of the book. On the one hand, Strauss’s thought is considered as an attempt to grasp the question “how to live”–more precisely, the question of the possibility of leading a philosophical life in modern times. On the other hand, Strauss makes it possible to question the political transformation which occurred in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the USSR and the progressive integration into the European Union. Consequently, the book seems to address first and foremost the young generation and as such is an original and remarkably lively account of Strauss’s philosophy.

Contributor Heinrich Meier opens the book with a personal essay on the question “Why Leo Strauss?” This opening essay is broadly addressed to potential Strauss readers and outlines four answers to this question. The core of these answers lies in the conception of philosophy as a “way of life,” which implies first that a philosopher’s chosen path, even before his writings, can by itself teach us something. Philosophy ultimately is based upon “the encounter of kindred natures,” which is “the ultimate prerequisite of the hermeneutic openness Strauss demands.” (22)

The philosophical anthropology implied by this “prerequisite”–the problematic distinction between the few potential philosophers and the masses–is not further developed by Meier. However, the conception of philosophy as first and foremost a distinctive and all-inclusive “way of life” forces the philosophers to face different and competing answers to the question “how to live?” or, more precisely, the question of political obligations and divine commandments. Therefore, political philosophy in a very broad sense must be at the center of philosophy inasmuch as the central questions of political philosophy–such as “the questions of the best political order, of the right life, of just rule . . .”–are tightly linked to other questions of the nature of man (23).

Political philosophy is, according to Meier, “the part of philosophy in which the whole of philosophy is at stake.” Although Meier does not question this view, he stresses a “fundamental” opposition, one between philosophy and revelation, i.e. the “theologico-political problem” (24). According to Meier–and to Strauss–there is indeed “no more powerful objection to philosophical life imaginable than the objection that appeals to faith in the omnipotent God and his commendment or law” (24). This would have been the right place to discuss the polemical conception of philosophy developed by Strauss as well as the opponent he needs to justify it, namely “religion” or “faith,” whose understanding is far from being unquestionable. According to Eric Voegelin, philosophy begins precisely with the “faith” of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides (Letter from Voegelin to Strauss, 1950/12/04, and the whole correpondence) and remains continuously articulated, after Plato and Aristotle, especially in the philosophy of Augustine and Thomas.

In this respect, revelation is not the “more powerful objection to philosophical life,” but a further articulation of the same experience. Strauss’s insistence on the compulsory aspect of religion, on “law,” and not of the possibility of its noetic articulation in philosophy and theology, shows the narrowness of his understanding, perhaps excessively focussed on Judaism. Regrettably, this prominent and problematic theme of Strauss’s thought remains vague both in the whole book and in Meier’s paper.

By contrast, Daniel Tanguay offers a more precise and interesting contextualization of Strauss’s oeuvre within the “Renouveau de la philosophie politique” in France. By stressing the opposition between the understanding of “political philosophy” in this contemporary “renouveau” and what Strauss understood, Tanguay regrettably forgets the rediscovery not only of Strauss, but also of Raymond Aron or Eric Voegelin during his last years–actually their reaction against the one-sided focus of the “Renouveau” and the “institutionalization” of the new political philosophy.

However, by doing so, Tanguay highlights the subversive potential of Strauss’s thought, based upon the reassertion of the questions “What is the best regime?” and “What is the best life?” (34)  On the contrary, modern political thought blurs the essential distinction between the legitimate and the best regimes. According to Strauss, “Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau [have] been more interested in defining the conditions of legitimacy of a regime than in the quest of the best regime,”  and this position was to be reinforced by what he calls the “doctrinairism” of modern political thought (35).

In such a context, the question of the best regime can only be proferred in opposition to the modern understanding of political philosophy as a “theory of democracy,” whose only role would be “to build some sort of philosophical fondations for this a priori,” an understanding especially prevalent among American academics, but also increasingly apparent in the current ominous expansion of Demokratiewissenschaft in Germany (35). As Tanguay stresses, the violent rejection of Strauss for having posed the question of the best regime recalls the dangers threatening political philosophy, especially in the context of democracy, which is paradoxically “the regime most favorable to philosophy” and tends therefore to be unquestionably considered as the best and last regime (37).

A good example of this is Richard Rorty’s essay “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” which Tanguay interestingly contrasts with Strauss’s point of view. According to Rorty, the question “What is the best life?” does not require any philosophical anthropology, but “only history and sociology” (39).  Democracy prevails because of its “historical efficiency,” an answer which highlights Rorty’s historicism (39). It does not mean that this contemporary political philosophy has completely forgotten the question of human nature, but, as Tanguay rightly points out, it subsumes this question under the higher importance of prevailing opinions and particular historical conditions, namely Western–or even American–democracy.

In this regard, Arkadiusz Górnisiewicz’s emphasis on the projects of Leo Strauss and Karl Löwith is particularly relevant. As he points out, “they shared the insight that men need eternity in order to withstand the flux of time and aimed to restore the right place to eternity, which has come into oblivion” (106). Löwith’s so-called “secularization thesis” and Strauss’s metaphor of the second cave represent a parallel attempt to overcome historicism and “undermine the predominant historical consciousness of our times” (105).

In fact, Löwith’s critical understanding of Western historical consciousness as the continuation of a temporalized Christian eschatology and the political consequences of this process in Heidegger’s and Carl Schmitt’s “occasional decisionism” helps reestablish the idea of eternity as the “central focus of philosophy” (106). For Löwith this leads to the reenactment of the idea of cosmos as an orderly totality, which enables the development of a radical ahistorical point of view. According to Strauss, the primary task of philosophy is to find a way out of the “second cave” represented by modernity.  As Górnisiewicz points out, his rejuvenation of the notion of natural right can be seen as a parallel attempt to “undermine the predominant historical consciousness” (105).

However, these similarities should not hide the fundamental differences between Strauss’s and Löwith’s perspectives. For Strauss, philosophy as originally political philosophy undermines the predominant historicism on the political level.  Namely, the answer to the “need of eternity” is probably to be found in the reactivation of the “natural rights,” whereas for Löwith this answer cannot be found in “natural rights” and even less at the political level, the preponderance of which is already part of the historicist point of view, but instead at a “trans-political” level, in a renewal of a cosmological understanding of the world (109). Gaining a more precise view of the important differences between Strauss and Löwith regarding historicism would require considering their correspondence, especially in the 1940s, which is lacking in Górnisiewicz’s text.

But such an undermining of the dominant position demands a particular “art of writing,” especially in the context not of physical oppression, but of the dilution of thought into a mere opinion or belief, according to the dominant historicist and relativist paradigm. Namely, philosophy as a “whole way of life” can only enter into conflict with “the reigning paradigm in academia,” the one of “cultural studies,” i.e. “theoretically sophisticated versions of historicism” (136).  Therefore, Till Kinzel’s brief account on the importance of Leo Strauss for the 21st century is particularly interesting.

According to Kinzel, Strauss’s “art of writing” could be reactivated against the current dissolution of thought into merely a form of “discourse” and the idea that it is truly impossible to understand an author. Indeed, for Kinzel, “Leo Strauss’ rediscovery of philosophical esotericism . . . is identical with the refutation of historicism, of the view that all people, including the philosophers, are sons of their times” (138). This modern view has to be understood, in Strauss’s perspective, as a second cave, below the first cave in Plato’s allegory. Given this even worse situation of philosophy in modern times, the way out of the second cave has to be reconsidered and achieved even before thinking about a path leading to the light.

The only possibility to do so is “lesendes Lernen” (143), learning by reading, which requires an “artificial” introduction to philosophy which might be unnecessary in more fortunate times. It consists mainly in reading old books and requires “elaborate historical studies” (143)–such as Strauss’s. Because the art of writing is highly conditioned by the historical context, it is directly linked to the understanding of philosophy as genuinely political philosophy. As Kinzel rightly points out, the task of education regarding philosophy as political philosophy is therefore first and foremost to teach the art of reading, the “form of action in behalf of philosophy” (145). This would be the first step out of the “second cave.” But Kinzel does not explicitly explain why philosophy should be political philosophy.

According to Jürgen Gebhardt, the answer to this question can be found in the point of convergence between Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and Hannah Arendt, namely the “platonic” character of their thought. Gebhardt’s argument is allusive rather than persuasive, because the broad comparison it makes tends to obscure the fundamental differences among the philosophers. However, it does seem possible, following Gebhardt, to explain their understanding of philosophy as political philosophy by referring to their “platonic” attitude: “each thinker’s response constitutes a paradigm of order grounded on a conception of representative humanity in the sense of the reflexive paradigm of the platonic city” (84).

They were not “public intellectuals” who wanted to act directly and change society, but were–even Arendt–“informed by a theoretical vision,” so that philosophy being “in the world but not of the world”  is always both theoretical and, as a “theoretical vision modeled upon Plato’s image of the city,” practical, i.e., it is political philosophy (91). Hence, this conception of philosophy modeled upon a platonic paradigm implies not only understanding philosophy as a way of life, but more precisely as political philosophy.

In his paper on Leo Strauss as Erzieher, Pawel Armada highlights the “inevitable conflict between politics and philosophy” as an important part of Strauss’s oeuvre. (73)  What is “first for us” is the “cave,” i.e. the political community, the prephilosophic city, and the search for a way out of the cave, led by the Socratic philosophers, the “Erzieher” (74). As one of them, Leo Strauss could provide, according to Armada:

“some cure for an overwhelming, if not easily expressed in the language of scholarship, lack of seriousness or a strong feeling of senselessness that appears to pervade political life in the society which has finally “replaced virtue by trade” (75).

However, a careful reader may regret the inability to put this feeling, which is perhaps more than the topos of a pessimistic reactionary attitude it seems to be, into words befitting the language of scholarship.

The Straussian way out of the cave implies asking the question of the “natural conditions of human living,” as opposed to current “unnatural” conditions. (80)  In Strauss’s perspective, these natural conditions cannot be found in a “world-state,” but only within “closed-societies.” This “natural horizon of politics,” Armada writes, is “a need for political truth, the truth of a particular community, however moderated by a rational enterprise of the Socratic philosophy” (82). However, the “rational enterprise of the Socratic philosophy” is not really in the center of Armada’s perspective, but rather instead, a call for “the prophet of our city” capable of showing a way–which he does not undefiney–out of the modern feeling of senselessness. (82) This feeling seems to be linked to the dissolution of “closed societies” into a “world-state’” which suggests considering the context of the European Union.

This underlying concern, the questioning of the “modern project,” is given a more explicit treatment in Emmanuel Patard’s interesting text on the dialogue between Strauss and Kojève, where the opposition between two views on modernity seems to be concentrated (112). Whereas Kojève still stood for the “modern project” and even played an important role in the development of a “universal and homogeneous state”–the European Union–as a both a bureaucrat and counsellor, in the dialogue between Strauss and Kojève, Strauss argues in favour of the “classical view.” In this sense, philosophy is, according to Strauss, the “quest for the eternal order” and therefore presupposes that there is such an eternal order. This was offered in opposition to Kojève’s unterstanding of eternity as nothing but the “totality of historical, i.e., finite time” (112). In the Straussian view, philosophy is enabled by a “pre-philosophical ‘glimpse of the eternal order,’” but remains, as a process toward wisdom, an “uncompletable ascent” (123). Hence, education plays a major part in this conception of political philosophy as an unending process.

Indirectly, this is precisely the concern developed by David Janssens in his article on Leo Strauss on Philosophy and Poetry.  According to Janssens, the “quarrel” between philosophy and poetry in Strauss’s work did not play an important part in his scholarship, despite its prominence in Plato’s Republic.  Although Strauss did not at first really focus on this quarrel, he progressively came to see that “ancient philosophy was fundamentally indebted to ancient poetry, not only as regards form, but also with regard to content” (53).

For example, there is, according to Janssens, evidence that Strauss’s understanding of Homer also made him aware of the importance of the political dimension of the Socratic pursuit of nature (62), or even that Lucretius “has a better understanding than the philosopher of man’s profound attachment to the world” (64).  Not a quarrel, but even a “union” between philosophy and poetry is at stake here, in some cases, and can be discovered by whoever is aware of the importance of the art of writing (64). In today’s politics, philosophic poetry as well as poetic philosophy are still able to draw attention to the mysteriousness of being, not in spite of a concrete oppression, but in spite of “the hold that our views, opinions and prejudices exercise on us” (70).  Hence, the major aim of Strauss’s philosophy would be, according to Janssens, to “recover the primacy of theoretical reason,” against the predominance of practical reason in modernity (70).

Once again, the challenge philosophy must accept is first and foremost “pedagogical” (71).  Education is the answer to the “political question par excellence,” namely “how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license,”(71) so that Janssens even claims that Strauss’s “political” thought is “a-political as its core” (70). Political philosophy becomes pedagogical philosophy. However, a precise form of education is at stake here, the education of philosophers. Whether this education is possible or not in a definite society is in turn a political question, so that philosophy as “pedagogical” philosophy cannot simply avoid being political.  That is why the philosopher needs a certain form of “cosmetics,” as put forward in Laurence Lampert’s essay on Strauss’s “Gynaikologia,” i.e. Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse.

What Socrates learns from Isomachos’ wife is namely “that a certain womanly obedience is necessary for the inner freedom indispensable to philosophy, and that the limit on her outward freedom does not preclude a kind of rule over her apparent ruler” (170). According to Lampert, Strauss emphasizes the importance of teaching as “cosmetics,” a method aiming at ruling over the society’s ruler, so that “it preserves the pleasure garden of philosophy in the midst of the city of the gentlemen while opening it to those naturally suited to enter” (170). In his esoteric reading of Strauss’s Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse, Lampert shows the unity of the pedagogical and political concern in Strauss’s work. Moreover, this keen application of Strauss’s reading method on Strauss himself illustrates well what the philosopher’s pupil can achieve, and sets as such an appropriate end to the book’s appraisal of  Leo Strauss’s importance for education.

Despite its disparate composition, Modernity and What Has Been Lost offers to the patient and careful reader an interesting account of Leo Strauss, and more generally, an account of philosophy as both a way of life and of why it is political. Moreover, the editors’ decision to stress the educative value of Strauss’s work in the light of a certain skepticism emerging in Eastern Europe concerning the European Union is original and could have been more emphasized in the papers. One regrets the somewhat uncritical tone of the book, and one especially regrets the surprising failure to address the relationship between philosophy and another “way of life”–another answer to “senselessness”–namely, religion.  Indeed, the question of religion seems unavoidable not only in the context of Strauss’s work, but it would have been most relevant at this first conference on Strauss in Poland.

Bruno Godefroy

Bruno Godefroy is a graduate student of Philosophy at Lyon III University.

Back To Top