An expanded version of six lectures Leo Strauss delivered at The University of Chicago in October, 1949, under the auspices of the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation, the collection of essays in book form as Natural Right and History was first published in 1950. At that time in the history of The United States, the entire western world, and other locations on earth influenced by the philosophy and theory of the West, Strauss argued that the intellectual crisis in which these parts of the world found themselves was intricately connected to the value relativism brought about through historicism or the historical approach. The intellectual crisis of the West was also due to the emergence of the purported distinction between facts and values which underlay the movement of social science positivism in the universities, the locus of the intellectual ideas that underpinned an entire civilization.
Strauss’s lectures were delivered just a few years after the end of World War II and the struggle against the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan, and also during the era in which the sharp division between the capitalist and democratic West and the communist and totalitarian East was taking shape in the form of the Cold War. Strauss’s project in the essay was to search for a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. Writing in an age characterized by both the grim realization of man’s inhumanity toward man through the Holocaust and World War II, and also in a time in which the destruction of the world itself through a nuclear conflict between the American led West and the Soviet led Eastern Block was an ever present possibility, Strauss claimed that over and above these political crises was an intellectual crisis. These political crises held the potential to destroy not only one’s faith in humanity, but also humanity’s very survival itself, and these political crises were not entirely unrelated to an intellectual, moral, and spiritual crisis. Is there any foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics, or must we be forced to solemnly embrace and learn to survive with the nihilism which was the ultimate conclusion any thinking person would be led to after embracing historicism, and also positivism, both of which logically paved the way for value relativism and the resulting nihilism?
One can more fully appreciate the salience and crucial importance of this question in the year 1949 when one considers how recent in historical memory was the Nazis’ project to rid the world of Jews and Judaism, and also to impose their version of totalitarian fascism on the Europe which had been the fount of the intellectual ideas and ferment which had shaped and formed the West through centuries of intellectual and philosophical development. Of crucial importance for Strauss was the link between value relativism and the resulting nihilism on the one hand, and the Nazi project on the other, which was the ultimate result of the Nazis’ adoption of Nietzsche’s will to power as the core of their fanatical political project and faith. The connections between the atrocities of World War II and the moral, spiritual, and intellectual crisis of Strauss’s time cannot be overstated, since he believed there was a direct line from value relativism and Nietzsche’s will to power, the warrior ethic, and the polemical assault against the Judeo-Christian tradition, all of which contributed to the calamity of a World War II which left over fifty million dead and fully one third of all the Jews in the world exterminated.
At the same time that Strauss identified the link between relativism and the rise of Hitler in the twentieth century, he also cautioned against the logical fallacy of argumentum ad Hitlerum, a modern version of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominum. In essence, Strauss contended that one is not justified in rejecting a philosophical contention or position simply because this contention or position was adhered to by Hitler or other Nazis. All philosophical positions must be evaluated and measured according to their own merits, and not simply by consideration of the ethical qualities or lack thereof of the people who adhere to the philosophical position in question.
If the prevalence of the doubt of the existence of a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics was accurately identified by Strauss as the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century, what then is the intellectual crisis we face now in the current era here as we stand near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century? A great number of ideas, movements, political and ethical, lead to the dilemmas which can be viewed as the crises of our time. The current state of violent conflict and war which has gripped such a large swath of the Middle East leads one to propose that the crisis of our time is the confrontation between the American led West and the overlapping radicalism of the Arab and Muslim worlds. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, the decades-long struggle against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the transformation of the hope and optimism of the Arab Spring into the bitter and deadly conflicts of the long Arab Winter, all potentially qualify as parts of the crises of our time. The seemingly innumerable rivalries and conflicts between competing religious sects, clan based identities, and nation states have thrown that region of the world into a kind of violent tumult which may also be viewed as part of the crises of our time.
Related to the wars in the Middle East is the global spread of terrorism from that region of the world into other regions, and particularly to the United States and Western Europe. In addition, the plight of millions of refugees who have poured into Europe in order to escape deadly wars and conflict must be considered a grave crisis. The presence of these refugee populations in Western Europe, in addition to the presence of millions of other economic migrants form North Africa and the Middle East, has led to political tensions due in part to the failure of these populations to successfully integrate into their newfound home cultures and societies in Europe. Violence and terrorism have risen there, as has the equally nefarious racial and religious intolerance against these migrants in the form of a far right and nationalist backlash.
The far right backlash against migrants in Europe leads one to consider its relationship to the current resurgence of a kind of racial tribalism and its primary foe of identity politics in the United States, both of which have helped to give us the election of Donald Trump as US president. Trump, the great disrupter, oversees a more divided country and a more divided world. The salience of the sense of political chaos and disorder which emerges from Trump’s daily tweets should not be underestimated, as the President of the United States is leader not just of the most powerful country on earth, but is also the leader of the entire Western world. Trump’s chaotic violations of previously well-established norms of international relations and policies such as free trade, and also his project to withdraw America from its long established role as leader of the free world in order to pursue a policy of America Frist, have brought into question the notions of the orderly political and economic consensus which has for so many decades underpinned the liberal democratic order. Related to all of this is the assault against the so called neo-liberal and democratic consensus by opponents on both the far right and the far left in the worlds of academia as well as the world of politics, casting serious doubt about the effectiveness and inherent fairness or justice of the global political and economic order.
The economic anxiety in the United States and Europe brought about by the fear of a rising and in fact already risen China is another species of economic and political threat which potentially qualifies as a central component of the crises of our time. In the same geopolitical neighborhood is the resurgence and multiplication of the dangers ever present on the divided Korean peninsula, a conflict made more crucial by the existence of nuclear arsenals in the possession of numerous parties to the dispute. The related issue of nuclear proliferation and the danger that someday, and perhaps someday soon, a terrorist organization will obtain possession of a nuclear device and use it with disastrous consequences also qualifies as a contender for the designation of crisis of our time.
Other conflicts and issues surrounding the problems of global warming and the ever quickening pace of environmental degradation also qualify as a significant crisis. Significant transformation of the earth’s climate and environment, brought about by human activity, have the potential to destroy most of our natural world, and also can lead to massive disruptions of human civilization, making much of the globe uninhabitable and unable to produce the requisite amount of food required to sustain the world’s billions of people.
One could go on in this fashion of course in order to identify still more problems and issues, political, economic, and ethical, which could qualify as the most crucial and pressing crises of our time. Perhaps it is not possible to make the same bold statement Strauss made in the middle of the previous century and declare that there is one clearly identifiable and overarching crisis in which we find ourselves and which defines our time. As a political theorist and political philosopher, Strauss focused on the shape and dimensions of an intellectual crisis rather than on the political and economic practicalities originating and derived from this intellectual crisis. Even though it is not possible today to proceed as Strauss did at mid-century and identify a single idea, concept, or thought encapsulating the intellectual crisis of our current time, it will not be an altogether pointless project today to reexamine the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century as Strauss understood it. Perhaps by revisiting Strauss’s analysis in Natural Right and History we will reestablish in our minds the crucial importance of the project of political philosophy in the current era, an age in which a great number of our intellectuals and academics cast doubt on the entire attempt to identify any idea or concept or system of ethics and politics which would qualify as the “truth”. Although we may fail where Strauss succeeded, by focusing on his analysis of historicism we can draw relevant conclusions from it which will assist us in understanding the ethical and political dilemmas of our own time.
I will now turn to a close reading and careful examination of the first chapter of Natural Right and History, Natural Right and the Historical Approach. The point of this examination is to both review and clarify the origins of the value relativism which is the predominant view held by intellectuals today both in and out of the university. Since it is this value relativism which Strauss identified as the intellectual crisis of his time, I hope through this review and close reading, to determine whether or not we, who must continue to contend with this same value relativism nearly seventy years after Strauss delivered his lecture on the subject, can identify any links between this viewpoint which is now generally accepted doctrine (at least in our universities) and the crisis or crises of our own time.
Natural Right claims to be a right that is discernable by human reason and should be universally acknowledged. However, the attack on natural right in the name of history contends that natural right as one timeless and universal standard to guide human action does not exist. There can be no natural right if there are no immutable and timeless universal standards and principles of justice. Those who attack natural right in the name of history contend that all principles of justice are mutable. There are an indefinite variety of notions of right or justice rather than one universal standard (Strauss 9).
In Strauss’s view, this line of attack on natural right is irrelevant because the consent of all humankind is not required as a necessary condition of the existence of natural right. Since comprehension of the concept of natural right requires the cultivation of reason, we should not expect natural right to be known universally, and certainly not among the great mass of humanity who have not devoted themselves to the cultivation of reason (9). The fact that all principles of justice have been denied somewhere or at some time by some people, does not lead necessarily to the conclusion that any of these denials of natural right were justified or reasonable (9).
The knowledge that different notions of justice have obtained at different times and in different nations is not a modern discovery. This knowledge was available and accepted among ancient philosophers. Modernity’s discovery of an even greater number of notions of natural right does not alter the key contention that the realization of the variety of notions of natural right is the incentive for the quest for natural right (10).
In order to reject natural right in the name of history, a philosophical critique of the possibility or knowability of natural right is required. Historical evidence does not suffice, on its own, for such a rejection. The view that the variety of notions of natural right is evidence of the non-existence of a universally and timeless natural right is not a modern view. This view is called “conventionalism” and it is as old as philosophy. Conventionalism must be distinguished from the nineteenth and twentieth century attack on natural right in the name of “the historical sense” or the “historical consciousness” (10).
According to conventionalism, nature is the standard and norm and is of higher dignity than convention or the fiat of society. Conventionalism assumed that the distinction between nature and convention is the most fundamental of all distinctions (11). Right and justice have no basis but some kind of agreement or convention among the members of a given society which is fundamentally arbitrary in its basis and based on the explicit and implicit decisions of such a society. Such an agreement is against nature, and while it may make civilized life and peace among the members of the society possible, this is something very different from the establishment of truth (11).
The modern historical view differs from the conventional view because it rejects the premise that nature is of higher dignity than any works of man (11). Nature as a norm is a mythical premise according to the modern historical view. Either everything is equally natural or else there is a basic dualism between the realm of nature and the realm of freedom or history (11). According to the second view, the world of human beings and human creativity is exalted above nature. In the human realm of history, right and wrong are not fundamentally arbitrary, but instead have an intelligible variety and sequence which can be discovered by the historian as acts of freedom, with freedom being fundamentally different from arbitrariness (11).
Conventionalism, which differs from the modern view, is a particular form of classical philosophy. Classical opponents regarding the issue of conventionalism agreed on the most fundamental points. The distinction between nature and convention is fundamental and this distinction is implied by the very idea of philosophy itself (11-12).
Philosophy was viewed metaphorically as the ascending from the cave or world of opinion to the light and sun, which is to say to the truth and knowledge (12). Opinion is variable and therefore must be stabilized by social fiat in order for human beings to be able to live together in peace. This transforms opinion into the authoritative public dogma. To engage in philosophy thus means to ascend from public dogma to private knowledge (12). In order to discover the all-comprehensive truth or the eternal order, public dogma will not suffice. Conventionalism is based on the fundamental premise that the idea of philosophy is the attempt to grasp the eternal which is not comprehensible within the confines of the public dogma (15).
The modern opponents of natural right reject precisely this classical definition of the goal and purpose of philosophy. According to the modern opponents of natural right, all human thought is historical and consequently incapable of grasping anything eternal (12). According to the ancients, philosophizing means to leave the cave of opinion and dogma. According to those who Strauss referred to as “our contemporaries” all philosophizing essentially belongs to a “historical world,” “culture,” or “civilization.” This is what Plato had called the cave where the shackled prisoners live in ignorance of the light of philosophy. Strauss called the view of his contemporaries “historicism” (12).
The contemporary rejection of natural right in the name of history is based on a philosophic critique of the possibility or knowability of natural right, rather than being based on historical evidence. This philosophic critique is not limited to a critique of natural right or moral principles in general. It goes far beyond this and is in reality a critique of human thought as such (12). Nevertheless, the critique of natural right played an important role in the formation of historicism (12).
When historicism originally emerged in the nineteenth century, the belief in knowledge or at least the divination of the eternal was central to this intellectual movement. In the early twentieth century the mature form of historicism emerged in a new form which undermined the belief in the eternal or the possibility of knowledge of the eternal (12-13). What had originated as a subterraneous movement came to dominate the social sciences in broad daylight (13).
The historical school emerged in reaction to the cataclysm of the French Revolution and to the natural right doctrines which had made the French Revolution possible. This means that the historical school was not purely theoretical in character and was instead a direct response to tumultuous political realities (13). The founders of the historical school understood that the embrace of any universal or abstract principles leads to, of necessity, a revolutionary, disturbing, and unsettling effect in the realm of thought. The revolutionary character of such thought has the potential to endorse both a conservative and a revolutionary politics or course of action (13). This is because universal principles force people to judge the established order in the light of the natural or rational order, and in most cases, reality, the here and now of politics is likely to fall short of the standards derived from a universal and unchangeable norm (13). One is prevented from whole heartedly embracing or accepting the social order that has been allotted to one by fate (13-14). One becomes alienated from one’s place on earth and becomes both a stranger to other men, and even a stranger on earth (14).
Ironically, by denying the significance, if not the existence, of universal norms, the conservatives who founded the historical school only furthered and sharpened the revolutionary cause of their adversaries (14). Natural right was directed against both the unnatural or conventional and the supra-natural or other worldly (14). According to the advocates of revolution, the natural is always individual, but the uniform is unnatural or conventional. The purpose of revolution was to liberate the individual or enable the individual to liberate himself so that he could pursue not merely happiness, but his own unique and individual version of happiness (14). This natural right of each individual was a right uniformly belonging to every man as man. But uniformity was conceived to be unnatural and hence bad. This led to the problem that it was impossible to individualize rights in full accordance with the natural diversity of individuals (14).
The only rights which were neither incompatible with social life nor uniform were “historical rights” such as the rights of Englishmen in contradistinction to the rights of man (14). Viewing rights as having a local and temporal variety was a safe and solid middle ground between anti-social individualism and unnatural universality. Men like Rousseau, in their radicalizing tendency, asserted that the local and the temporal have a higher value than the universal due to the charm and inwardness of the local and temporal (14-15). Such revolutionists directed their efforts against all other worldliness or transcendence, concepts which were not primarily the preserve of revealed religion, but which were implied in the original meaning of political philosophy as the quest for the natural or best political order (15).
By denying the significance, if not the existence of universal norms, the historical school destroyed the only solid basis of all efforts to transcend the actual (15). A more extreme form of worldliness than even the French radicalism of the eighteenth century, the historical school sought to make humankind absolutely at home in “this world” (15). A depreciation of universal principles in favor of historical principles was pursued due to the belief that abstract or universal principles make most people potentially homeless and are not sufficient to guide wise action or a truly human life (15-16).
Historical studies assumed the existence of folk minds which sprung from nations or ethnic groups which are natural units, and combined this view with the assumption of the existence of general laws of historical evolution (16). When the conflict emerged between the assumptions underlying historical studies and the requirements of a genuine historical understanding, the infancy of historicism came to its end and these assumptions were abandoned (16).
Historicism then appeared as a particular form of positivism. Positivism contended that theology and metaphysics were superseded once and for all by positive science which identified genuine knowledge of reality with knowledge supplied by the empirical sciences, with the term “empirical” being defined in terms of the procedures of the natural sciences (16). There then emerged a contrast between the manner in which historical subjects were treated by positivism proper, and the manner in which they were treated by historians who really proceeded empirically (16-17).
In the interests of preserving the scientific character of empirical knowledge, it became necessary for historians to insist that the methods of natural science were not to be considered authoritative for historical studies (17). The conclusions of scientific psychology and sociology were viewed as trivial compared to the work of the great historians (17). The only empirical and solid knowledge of man as man and his greatness and misery, of what is truly human, was thought to derive from the work of historians (17). Since all human pursuits start from and return to man, a history divorced from all dubious or metaphysical assumptions became the highest authority with a higher dignity than all other studies of reality (17).
But history proved to be utterly unable to keep the promise held out by the historical school (17). Universal or abstract principles were discredited with the hope that historical studies would reveal particular or concrete standards. However, the unbiased historian had to confess that it was not possible to derive any norms from history. Essentially no objective norms remained (17). The historical school obscured the fact that particular or historical standards can become authoritative only on the basis of a universal principle which imposes on the individual an obligation to embrace the standards suggested by tradition or the situation which molded him (17). This obligation to embrace the standards set by tradition becomes impossible once one realizes that all standards suggested by history as such are fundamentally ambiguous and therefore unfit to be considered standards (17-18).
To the unbiased historian, the historical process revealed itself as the meaningless web spun by what men did, produced, and thought no more than by unmitigated chance and fate. History was no more than a tale told by an idiot (18). All that remained were subjective standards and the free choice of the individual. What was no longer possible was the belief in an objective distinction between good and bad choices (18). Historicism culminated in nihilism. The attempt to make humanity absolutely at home in this world failed, and resulted in humanity becoming absolutely homeless (18).
Some of the classical philosophers had also seen the historical process as meaningless or non-existence, so historicism’s insight was not a novel view (18). The failure of historicism to live up to its claim to supply human life with more solid guidance then the pre-historicist thought of the past had done, did not destroy the prestige of the alleged theoretical insight due to historicism (18). By adhering to universal and unchangeable principles, humankind had concealed from itself the true situation of humankind. Historical studies came to be concerned with the variable and unique rather than with the permanent and universal (18).
According to historicism, since all human thought belongs to specific historical situations, all human thought is bound to perish with the situation to which it belongs and to be then superseded by new, unpredictable thoughts (19). Historicism presents this view and itself as an obvious fact with much evidence to support it. But if it is so obvious, how could it have escaped the notice of the most thoughtful minds of the past (19)? The popularity of a trend does not mean necessarily that it is true. Only an impartial analysis of the view in question can teach us anything regarding the worth of the view and hence, the meaning of historical change (19). We must not be dazzled by the victory or stunned by the defeat of this view as we critique it. The solidity of the historicist view must be based on philosophy. What is required is a philosophical analysis of the view that all human thought depends ultimately on fickle and dark fate and not on evident principles accessible to human beings as human beings (19). A “critique of reason” is required. Should one conclude that all metaphysical and ethical views are untenable regarding their claims to be true, one is left with the task of presenting, as history, a history of ideas, which is not a very important task when compared to the task of philosophy (20).
The philosophical analysis underlying historicism also purports to prove that the positive sciences rest on metaphysical foundations (20). The skepticism underlying the thought of Hume and Kant differs from historical skepticism in the following manner. According to true skeptics, all assertions are uncertain and therefore essentially arbitrary. In contrast, historicism contends that assertions confined within the horizon of a historical period are not entirely arbitrary. Within certain limits genuine knowledge is possible. A critique of human thought in the tradition of historicism leads to the articulation of what is called “the experience of history” (20). According to Strauss, no competent thinker of our age would regard as simply true the complete teaching of any thinker of the past (20). Earlier thinkers took things for granted which must not be taken for granted and did not know certain facts or possibilities which were discovered in a later age (20). In fact, all thought up to now has proved to be in need of radical revision or to be incomplete or limited. Every advance in thought in one direction was purchased at the price of a retrogression of thought in another respect (20-21). Instead of real progress, there was simply a change from one type of limitation to another type of limitation (21). The historical approach is based on the “discovery” that human thought is essentially limited in such a way that these very limitations differ from historical situation to historical situation. The limitations characteristic of the thought of a given epoch cannot be overcome by any human effort. Consequently there can be no final or universally valid view of the whole, and in particular of the whole of human life. The thought of another age is in some way inaccessible to us no matter how carefully we attempt to study the great works of the past (21). Because we are unable to discover the limitation of human thought of another age, it does not make sense to conceive of these limitations in terms of social, economic, and other conditions. The limitations of human thought are set by fate and are not capable of comprehension in the terms of knowable and analyzable phenomena.
The historicist argument appears to have a certain plausibility which can be accounted for by the preponderance of dogmatism in the past (22). On the one hand we ought to welcome historicism as an ally in our fight against dogmatism. On the other hand we must confront the possibility that historicism is the guise in which dogmatism likes to appear in our age (22).
The contention that historicism makes possible a bird’s eye view of the history of thought was implied by the combined influence of the belief in necessary progress and the impossibility of returning to the past, as well the belief in the supreme value of diversity or uniqueness which led to the belief in the equal right of all epochs and civilizations (22).
Do these observations entitle one to assert that the acquisition of new important insights requires the forgetting of earlier insights, and must one assume that earlier thinkers could not have thought of possibilities which come to be the center of attention in later ages? Strauss’s answer to this question is that history does not legitimize the historicist inference. Instead, history seems to prove that all human thought, and certainly all philosophic thought, is concerned with the same fundamental problems (23). There consequently is an unchanging framework which persists in all changes of human knowledge of both facts and principles (23-24). Because the fundamental problems persist through all historical change, human thought is capable of transcending its historical limitation of not being able to grasp something trans-historical. This would be true even if all attempts to solve these problems are doomed to fail due to the “historicity” of “all” human thought (24).
To regard the eternal questions as fundamentally unanswerable would amount to regarding the cause of natural right as hopeless. If human thought is not capable of solving the problem of the principles of justice in a genuine and hence universally valid manner, there cannot be any natural right (24). Historicism itself claims to be universal and its thesis is that historicism is not an isolated assertion. This means it claims to present a view of the essential structure of human life which has the same historical character or pretensions as any natural right doctrine (24). Historicism asserts that all human thought or beliefs are historical and hence deservedly destined to vanish. But since historicism itself is a human thought, it too can only be of temporary validity. It cannot be simply true. Thus to assert the historicist thesis means to doubt it and thereby to transcend it (25). The fundamental problem is that historicism claims to be a truth that has come to stay, a truth valid for all thought and for all time, leading to the contention that history has reached its end (25). Historicism thrives on the fact that it inconsistently exempts itself from its own verdict about all human thought (25). These problems led Strauss to contend that the historicist thesis is self-contradictory or absurd (25).
The radical historicist refuses to admit the trans-historical character of the historicist thesis (26).Simultaneously he recognizes the absurdity of unqualified historicism as a theoretical thesis (26). A trans-historical, theoretical, or objective analysis of the various comprehensive views or “historical worlds” or cultures is not possible. This denial was decisively prepared by Nietzsche’s attack on nineteenth century historicism which claimed to be a theoretical view (26). According to Nietzsche, the theoretical relativity of all comprehensive views makes life itself impossible because this relativity destroys the protecting atmosphere in which life or culture or action alone is possible (26).
In response to the danger to human life resulting from relativism, Nietzsche proposed two alternatives. First was to restore the Platonic notion of the noble delusion through an esoteric theoretical analysis of life. The second alternative was to deny the possibility of theory itself, and to conceive of thought as subservient to or dependent on life or fate. Nietzsche’s successors chose the second alternative, though it is debatable whether Nietzsche himself did the same (26).
One may state the resulting thesis of radical historicism as follows. All understanding, all knowledge, however limited and scientific presupposes a frame of reference. This frame of reference is a horizon of time, a comprehensive view within which understanding and knowing take place (26). One is confronted with the alternatives of competing comprehensive views, and one must choose one because one cannot live without the rational guidance it provides. This choice has no support but itself. It is not supported by any objective or theoretical certainty. Only the choice of it distinguishes it from nothingness and the complete absence of meaning (27). But even this amount of choice is a fiction. A single comprehensive view is imposed on us by fate and we really do not choose among competing alternatives. The horizon within which all our understanding and orientation takes place is produced by the fate of the individual of the society in which he happens to live (27). We are free in the sense that we are free either to choose in anguish the world view and standards imposed on us by fate, or else to lose ourselves in illusory security or despair (27). This illusion and anguish express a fundamental experience which, by its nature, is incapable of adequate expression on the level of non-committed or detached thought (27).
Natural right doctrine, in contrast, claims that the fundamentals of justice are, in principle, accessible to man as man as self-evident truths (28). Radical historicism denies this and asserts that the basic insight into the essential limitation of all human thought is not self-evident, and even inaccessible to human beings. Instead of being the result of the progress and labor of human thought, this insight is an unforeseeable gift of unfathomable fate (28). Furthermore it is only due to fate that the essential dependence of thought on fate is realized now, and was not realized in earlier times (28). Radical historicism exempts itself from its own verdict, claiming to merely mirror the character of historical reality or to be true to the facts. If this view is self-contradictory, this is due not to the limitations of historicism, but to the shortcomings of reality (29).
Hegel’s assumption that he had discovered an absolute moment in history is essential to historicism (29). Hegel taught that every philosophy is the conceptual expression of the spirit of its time. By ascribing absolute character to his own time, he maintained that his own system of philosophy was the absolute truth. This contention led him to claim that his own time was the end of history and hence the absolute moment (29). In this absolute moment the fundamental riddles of human life had been fully solved. Hegel believed he had discovered the essential character of human life, the end of history, by which he meant the end of the history of thought (29).
According to Strauss, historicism stands and falls by the denial of the possibility of theoretical metaphysics and philosophical ethics or natural right. Historicism stands or falls by the denial of the solubility of the fundamental riddles (29). According to historicism, therefore, the absolute moment must be the moment in which the insoluble character of the fundamental delusion of the human mind has been dispelled (29).
Historicism goes beyond skepticism and leads one to conclude that philosophy is absurd. It assumes that philosophy, in the full and original sense of the term, which is to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole, is not only incapable of reaching its goal, but is fundamentally absurd. Philosophy is absurd because the very idea of philosophy is based on dogmatic and arbitrary premises which are only historical and therefore relative (30). Because the attempt to replace opinion by knowledge itself rests on mere opinions, philosophy is absurd (30).
Historicism’s critique of philosophy is expressed as follows. What is called the whole is always incomplete and therefore not truly whole. The whole is essentially changing in such a manner that its future is not predictable. The whole as it is in itself is sought by philosophy, but philosophy can never grasp it and it remains unintelligible. Human thought depends on something that cannot be anticipated or that can never be an object truly known by a subject. “To be” in the highest sense cannot mean, or does not necessarily mean “to be always” (31).
Natural right in contrast to historicism presupposes the possibility of philosophy in the full and original meaning of the term (31). The “experience of history” does not negate the evidence of those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are the bottom of the philosophical contention that there is a natural right (31-32). The “experience of history” does not replace the view that the fundamental problems, such as the problems of justice, persist and retain their identity in all historical change. This is true regardless of how the fundamental issues are obscured by the temporary denial of their relevance and the provisional quality of all human solutions to the fundamental problems. By grasping these problems as problems, the human mind liberates itself from its historical limitations (32). No more than this is required to justify philosophy in the original Socratic sense. Philosophy is the knowledge that one does not know. It is knowledge of what one does not know, or the awareness of the fundamental problems, and hence the fundamental alternatives regarding their solutions that are coeval with human thought (32).
In order to revive our belief in natural right, the problem of historicism must be considered from the point of view of classical philosophy, which is non-historicist thought in its pure form (33). We must strive to understand classical philosophy exactly as it understood itself, and not in the way it is understood on the basis of historicism (31). We also need a non-historicist understanding of non-historicist philosophy. Just as crucial is a non-historicist understanding of historicism. This entails an understanding of the origins of historicism that does not take the soundness of historicism for granted (33).
It is altogether possible that historicism is an invention, an arbitrary interpretation of phenomena which had been interpreted more adequately before the emergence of the “historical consciousness” than afterwards. Strauss raises the question of whether what is called the “discovery” of history is not in fact, an artificial and makeshift solution to a problem that arises only on the basis of questionable premises (33). Strauss’s approach to this task starts with the contention that “history” throughout the ages has meant primarily political history. The discovery of history therefore is not the work of philosophy in general, but is rather the work of political philosophy. It was eighteenth century political philosophy that led to the emergence of the historical school. The political philosophy of the eighteenth century was the doctrine of natural right. Historicism is the ultimate result of the crises of natural right which emerged from the modern interpretation of natural right in the eighteenth century.
Originally, philosophy was the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and consequently it was a pure source of human inspiration. Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has become a weapon and instrument. This politicization of philosophy was the work of intellectuals who denounced the treason of the intellectuals. The politicization of philosophy consists in the difference between, on the one hand intellectuals, and on the other hand philosophers. This difference in antiquity was known as the difference between gentlemen and philosophers, and also the difference between sophists or rhetoricians and philosophers. In the intellectual crisis of Strauss’s time, these distinctions became blurred and finally disappeared (34).
Of course our time here in the year 2018 is not identical to the year 1949 when Strauss delivered the lectures which have been the inspiration for my attempts to revisit Strauss’s critique of historicism. The attempt to identify the links between the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century and the numerous political, economic, social, ethical, and even environmental crises of our current time will require arguments and analysis which unfortunately necessarily extend beyond the scope of this essay. However, by way of conclusion, I will attempt to elucidate at least some of the connections between one of the central disputes of our time and the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century as Strauss defined it.
Scholars who focus on the work of Leo Strauss with sympathy cannot be faulted for their dismay at the manner in which Strauss’s legacy has been distorted and misrepresented in the popular media, often by writers and pundits who have read few, if any, of Strauss’s major works. The inaccurate distortion of this legacy has come about to a great extent due to the observation, mainly by those on the left, that a number of the architects of the US military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other political hot spots in the Middle East were known to have been either students of Leo Strauss, or else considered themselves to be adherents of some of the particular insights relevant to the fields of international relations and foreign policy which they believed emerged from the study of Strauss’s political theory. Related to these phenomena is the seemingly intractable conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians and the fact that not all, but at least some of the underlying causes of political conflict, terrorism, violence, and war in many parts of the Middle East can be traced to the Israel-Palestine conflict. How does what we learn from Strauss’s critique of historicism enable us to evaluate the bitter and acrimonious debate within academia and also in the wider political realm and popular media concerning this tragic and seemingly insolvable conflict?
On college and university campuses across the United States, Israel’s defenders are pitted against advocates of the BDS movement in a debate in which the later routinely call into question the very right of Israel to exist. Sadly for those of us, like me, who continue to see the need for Zionism as the most fundamental bulwark against anti-Semitism and the violence it inspires against Jewish men, women, and children in Israel, Europe, and around the world, university administrators and faculty have shown great reticence to publically come to the aid of the Israeli and Zionist cause. This is due in part to the fact that many in the academic world actually agree with the objectives and methods of the BDS movement. Another reason why too few have come out openly in defense of Israel and Zionism is directly related to the issues clarified by the critique of historicism presented in Natural Right and History.
Many of those who refuse to defend Israel and Zionism against the BDS led campaign to attack the very right of Israel to exist, claim that it is not possible to determine which party to the dispute is more responsible than the other for the worst abuses of human rights and indeed of life. Instead of taking one side or the other, they insist that the conflict be viewed as one between clashing historical narratives and versions of history. As Strauss has taught us, the historical school contends that it is impossible to pass judgement concerning the deeds and misdeeds of divergent and diverse historical actors. All movements, all causes, all cultures and peoples are to be viewed as equal in their diverse and divergent claims to justice and its deserts. Strauss’s critique of historicism, if it teaches us anything about the contemporary crisis in the Middle East, teaches us that the intractable nature of the conflict is at least to some extent due to our purported inability to cast judgement on the parties to the conflict and their competing and therefore equal narratives. This indecision and inability to firmly support action and policy in the name of right and justice as objective and universal truths is exactly the kind of hesitation and ambivalence concerning ethical and political questions which Strauss accurately identified as the intellectual crisis of his time. Unfortunately this indecision remains salient in our own time with nefarious consequences for both the peoples of the Middle East and the defenders of Israel and Zionism who are bullied, intimidated, and silenced by the BDS movement on campus.
Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1950, 1953, 1965.