Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt on the Good Society

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De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt. Le retour du politique en philosophie. Sylvie Courtine-Denamy. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, “La Nuit Surveillée” series, 2014.


As we review this work,[1] we must not forget the circumstances in which it was written: Sylvie Courtine-Denamy underwent arduous treatment for the cancer that took her life in October 2014, before she was able to read through the first proofs of her manuscript. This book appears necessarily as a kind of testament. It is also a summary of the work that she undertook during her life as a researcher, which dealt not so much with philosophical doctrines as with how philosophical thought is able to confront the substantive questions of existence, such as the Jewish condition, the status of women, exile, extreme political crises, etc. It is based in particular on a comparison made between three philosophers that have for many years been counted among her preferred interlocutors, and which she contributed widely to publicizing in France through her translations of their texts[2] and commentaries on their works. In this regard, the bibliography at the end of the volume might have included, in addition to her books, the numerous articles that she wrote dealing with² their works[3].

The three thinkers in question – Leo Strauss (1899-1973), Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) – all shared, in the first place, the distinction of having been Germanic philosophers belonging to the same generation, exiled from their country (Germany for Arendt and Strauss, Austria for Voegelin) during the Nazi period and having emigrated to the United States, where their thought left a lasting impression. The dialogue that Sylvie Courtine-Denamy establishes between them is based on other similarities, in particular on their shared subject of inquiry: the task of diagnosing the current crisis, demonstrating its historical origins and furnishing the general outline of a therapy. For these three thinkers, totalitarianism is not simply an “accident” of history. Still less does it represent a return to an archaic, pre-modern past: it involves, in one way or another, the process of modernity, and in return provides a prism for interpreting that process. Without identifying themselves as “conservatives,” a reductive label that has on occasion been applied to them, but which each of them rejected (pp. 10-25), it must be said that all three have become, in some way and despite their best efforts, major intellectual figures of so-called “conservative” thought across the Atlantic (their reception in Europe being far more varied and heterogeneous in political terms).

The question of the “good society” acts as the guiding principle for this confrontation. This question has been obscured within modern political philosophy, for which society is not defined – as was the case for Plato or Aristotle – by its orientation towards the good, but instead as a modus vivendi, effected on the basis of a rational calculation between individuals animated exclusively by the selfishness of their passions. Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt all attempted to analyze the causes and consequences of that occultation. All three also asked themselves how the ancient ideal of the good society could be revived in our time, by overcoming the chronological barrier separating our epoch from that of the ancients. In the event, this question of the “good society” is only presented in the conclusion of Courtine-Denamy’s book (pp. 291-309), the remainder of the work being devoted instead to the worst forms of society – to totalitarianism, and especially Nazi totalitarianism, in its most terrible face, i.e. murderous antisemitism. The title might appear to be misleading in that regard. However, the occultation of the question of the “good society” is, for the three thinkers, related to that of the causes of totalitarianism. The field of analysis that they have opened up cannot be considered in abstracto, but must be related to the context in which it is developed, namely that of confronting an extreme political crisis.

A word about Courtine-Denamy’s method. It involves starting with substantial questions (Judaism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, the definition of totalitarianism, the genealogy of modernity, etc.) while in each case constructing the comparison between the thought of Strauss, Arendt and Voegelin, based on the juxtaposition of micro-level analyses. The passing back and forth that this involves is carried out to the detriment of a continuous analysis, focused on the internal logic of each philosophy. This is, however, a fully conscious choice by Courtine-Denamy, who attempts the difficult task of reconstructing a “trialogue” (according to the neologism employed by Nicolas de Cues) that never in fact took place. The ideas of the three authors are generally presented in succession, in an order that changes according to the subject being addressed and, more specifically, causes the thinking of one of them to be highlighted in particular. Certain chapters allow paired comparisons to be drawn, occasionally based on an actual dialogue (Voegelin and Arendt on totalitarianism as a “political religion”, Voegelin and Strauss on the question of “good” tyranny, etc.). The impression that one retains of this expository order is that of an extremely free narrative, whose stream of logic is sometimes difficult to follow from one chapter to another (especially in the second part, in which there are successive studies of nihilism, tyranny, anti-Semitism, the relationship between religion and politics, modern political utopias and Marxism), but whose clear and penetrating writing is quite welcome, far removed as it is from the dull, sterile scholastic disputes associated with the arguments that currently inform many of the so-called “normative” works of moral and political philosophy.

The pleasure of reading this work is further enhanced by the fact that Courtine-Denamy never separates the analysis of doctrines from the recounting of decisive biographical episodes, relying not only on the great works of Strauss, Arendt and Voegelin, but also on their correspondence, their autobiographical narratives where they exist, or those of other thinkers with whom they were in contact. This bears witness not to a particular taste for the anecdotal, but rather to a determination not to separate the development of the philosophy from actual intellectual experience (the confrontation with a moral and social crisis, political and religious commitment, etc.). This is a constant feature of the works of Courtine-Denamy, which in one sense links her approach to philosophy to that of someone like Henri Gouhier. I am thinking in particular of the well informed presentations on the circumstances of exile experienced by the three thinkers (pp. 35-37 for Voegelin, pp. 59-65 for Arendt, pp. 80-83 for Strauss) or of the texts that they had chosen to be read out at their funerals: Jn, 12:24-25 and I Jn, 2:15-16 for Voegelin (p. 52), Ps 90 for Arendt (pp. 72-73)[4], Ps 160 for Strauss (pp. 104-105).

This approach also involves the task of removing and collating information that will prove extremely useful in general. Thus we find the unpublished translation of the first (unsent) version, dated 8 April 1951, of a letter from Hannah Arendt to Voegelin, recently edited by Peter Baehr (pp. 158-164), and also an analysis of the Loose Notes on “The New Science of Politics” by Leo Strauss (211-215), edited and translated by Emmanuel Patard in his thesis, and disseminated to a wider public for the first time.

The work is structured in three parts. The first (“In the Shadow of the Apocalypse”) addresses the relationship of the three thinkers to Jewishness, Judaism and Zionism. This section gives rise to a comparison between the two authors of Jewish origin, Strauss and Arendt, drawing particular attention to the differences present in their attachment to Zionism: a secular and political Zionism, open to the world for Arendt (p. 67), who bewails Israel’s movement towards nationalism and assesses the significance of the confrontations with the Palestinians (pp. 89-90); a Zionism centered on divine revelation, which cannot be reduced to any historicized form according to Strauss (p. 92), who then finds himself in the paradoxical position of rejecting any compromise between faith and reason (the critique of Rosenzweig, accused of transforming Judaism into a system of philosophy, p. 96) while claiming to be an atheist out of integrity (pp. 95, 100-101, 103) and accepting the distress caused by this rupture (the “I feel very unwell” mentioned in the Souvenirs of Hans Jonas, pp. 93-94; see also p. 103).

Although Voegelin was not of Jewish descent (he was a Lutheran by his father and his mother was a Catholic), a chapter has nevertheless been devoted to him in this part, taking into account the solidarity shown by a thinker who had gone into exile “as though he were Jewish”, in the words of Reinhold Knoll (p. 33). Moreover, starting with his early research, published at the beginning of the 1930s, Voegelin took an interest in the origins of racism and anti-Semitism. Later, during the 1950s, he produced the first significant study of the political theology of Israel (pp. 43-48), seeing the Mosaic revelation as the fulfilment of a “leap in being” equivalent to those effected later by Greek philosophy and Christian theology. We may appreciate the remarks made by Courtine-Denamy, informed by her reading of the documents in the Voegelin Archives at the Hoover Institute, on Voegelin’s anti-Nazi activism at the beginning of the 1930s, his position at that time being relatively close to that of the German Catholic philosopher Aloïs Dempf or that of the Austrian satirical writer Karl Kraus.

The second part is devoted to the confrontation between the three thinkers and the “terrible”. Courtine-Denamy analyzes their respective interpretations of the totalitarian phenomenon. According to Strauss, totalitarianism is best characterized by its nihilistic rejection of the values of the liberal society, which for Strauss were themselves nihilistic (p. 116). For Arendt totalitarianism results from the loss of the pluralist dimension that the political entails, a loss related to the confusing of the fields of thought and action (pp. 161-162). Voegelin, for his part, interprets the phenomenon using the category of “gnosticism”, which he established during the 1950s (pp. 151-158 and 190-194). This part of the book also includes comparative analyses of Voegelin and Arendt on the causes of anti-Semitism, as well as a presentation of their respective positions on Marxist utopia. For Strauss, the latter represents the belief in the possibility of a “good tyranny” (pp. 183-184); it results from gnostic activism according to Voegelin, which seeks to transform mankind by abolishing the limits of the conditio humana (p. 186); for Arendt, it is caught in the contradiction that consists of wishing to make mankind, understood as animal laborans, the author of a society in which work is abolished (p. 200), a contradiction that results from the blurring of labour, work and action (p. 198-199) and the projection of the category of work onto the political (p. 203).

The third part (“Modernity without restraint”) analyzes the interpretation that has been offered by each of the three thinkers regarding the “question of modernity”. For Leo Strauss, modernity is characterized by the depoliticization of philosophy, a depoliticization of which Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism (an event symptomatic, in the opinion of the three philosophers, of the sickness of modern philosophy, pp. 274-289) constitutes a sort of refutation by its absurdity. Voegelin highlights the fact that the process of modernity started in reality at the beginning of the Middle Ages and that it has only intensified since the Renaissance – a picture of continuity disputed by Arendt (as it would also be by Blumenberg, pp. 219-221), who saw in the contemporary crisis an absolutely unprecedented situation. Courtine-Denamy relies on the analyses made by the three thinkers of two emblematic figures of this modernity – Machiavelli (pp. 223-236) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (pp. 236-248). Despite their differing diagnoses, all three thinkers agree in their criticism of the hegemony of the new science over the social sciences, of the resultant neutralizing of values as well as of the historicist relativism that occults the relationship of political thought with an eternal truth.

The conclusion of the work presents, in a somewhat terse fashion, the constructive face of the project undertaken by the three thinkers. We cannot reduce their critique of modernity to a “nostalgia” for an order that has been irredeemably lost. Each one seeks to reflect on the possibility of reviving the “good society” within contemporary conditions, not indeed by a process of returning, but by a sort of translation that must take into account the specific circumstances created by the age of the technical and of political liberalism. Nor is it a matter of constructing an additional utopia, in the form of a secularized eschatology, but of carrying out a realistic and pragmatic analysis of the possibilities presented in our time. Each of these thinkers thus accepts the gesture of immanence inaugurated by modernity, while warning against the temptation provided by a modernity “without restraint” of seeking to push this gesture to its nihilistic extreme. Thus, for all three thinkers it is a question of conceiving a “restrained” modernity, through the restoration of a “life of reason” (p. 296 sq.), in the sense of the ratio of the classical authors, while creating a place for reflective thought, liberated from the trusteeship of the activist and productivist schemata of human thought. Courtine-Denamy concludes significantly (all the more so when one reflects that these are her last sentences), in the wake of Arendt, by contrasting the “thanatopolitics” of totalitarianism with a “politics of life” (p. 309).

The reader will of necessity ask, on concluding his/her reading of this fine book, with which of the three thinkers Sylvie Courtine-Denamy most closely identifies herself. However, one of the great qualities of this work is to be found precisely in the empathy demonstrated by its author for the philosophers whose thought she expounds. Courtine-Denamy avoids, in particular, intellectually comfortable and anachronistic moralizing judgements, which are so easy to make when dealing with the Nazi period. This does not, however, mean that she falls into the opposite error of complacency. Accordingly, she identifies the sympathy expressed by Leo Strauss, during the early 1930s, for the Mussolini regime, as well as his regret at being unable to return to Germany in 1933 (pp. 80-82).

This work thus appears to be a sort of mirror of its author, a mirror that reflects a complex portrait, impossible to summarize in a general attitude or with a few elements of doctrine. From Voegelin, Courtine-Denamy seems to have retained the impasses to which the secular turn in modern thought have led. However, from Hannah Arendt, she has also learned that the relieving of our modernity cannot be carried out simply by returning to the religious, which would not address the unprecedented nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. In fact, when viewed from this perspective, it would appear that Courtine-Denamy finds her reflection, at least partially, in the portrait that Hans Jonas painted of Leo Strauss, distressed at being unable to conceive of a Judaism that might be described as purely secular, without being able, for reasons of philosophical integrity, to subscribe to religious orthodoxy or accept some form of compromise between faith and reason. In order to establish a resistance force against the corruption of mankind and society, the spiritual must today undoubtedly follow more tortuous and risky paths.



[1] A French version of this article is to be published in the journal Commentaire (no 151, Autumn 2015).

[2] For L. Strauss, Correspondance entre L. Strauss et E. Voegelin (Vrin, 2004). For H. Arendt: Qu’est-ce que la politique? (Le Seuil, 1995, republ. 2001); Journal de pensée (Le Seuil, 2004), Écrits juifs (Fayard, 2011), Eichmann était d’une bêtise révoltante (interviews and correspondence with J. Fest) (Fayard, 2013). For E. Voegelin, La nouvelle science du politique (Le Seuil, 1999), Réflexions autobiographiques (Bayard, 2004), Race et État (Vrin, 2007), Ordre et histoire I: Israël et la Révélation (Le Cerf, 2012).

[3] These studies are too numerous (especially those on Hannah Arendt) to be mentioned here. We would refer the reader to the page of Sylvie Courtine-Denamy at CEVIPOF:

[4] It was Psalm 90 that Sylvie Courtine-Denamy chose for her own funeral.

Thierry Gontier

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Thierry Gontier is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the Université de Lyon Jean Moulin–Lyon III in France. He is author of several books, with the latest being "Voegelin: symboles du politique" (Michalon, 2008) and "Pietro Pomponazzi entre traditions et innovations" (B.R. Grüner, 2009).