In his fascinating post last week on common sense, Tim quoted (via an earlier post of mine) the Ford administration’s intellectual-in-residence and Leo Strauss student Robert Goldwin on why Goldwin hated being called an “intellectual”:
There is something fishy about the word ‘intellectual.’ …I think of ‘intellectuals’ as people who have a real distaste, sometimes even contempt, for the common sense approach, which is fundamentally the political approach.
Reencountering this quotation in the context of Tim’s post, I immediately thought that I ought to write something for the blog about the Straussians and the idea of common sense. This is, for reasons that I hope to make clear below, a complicated, interesting, and important topic, which sheds valuable light on the relationship of Strauss’s thought to the larger world of American conservatism, as well as on the place of a kind of intellectual populism in an essentially aristocratic brand of political philosophy.
As luck would have it, yesterday the New York Times Book Review published a review by Harry Jaffa of Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins new translation of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics which provides the perfect starting point for this discussion.*
As most readers of this blog probably know, Harry Jaffa is one of Leo Strauss’s first–and most famous–students. Having studied with Strauss at the New School in the 1940s (before Strauss left for the University of Chicago at the end of that decade), Jaffa went on to write extensively about American political thought, especially Lincoln, and to work for the ’64 Goldwater campaign (for which he penned Goldwater’s famous convention speech). Jaffa, whose academic home was long Claremont Men’s College and the Claremont Graduate School (and more recently the nearby conservative thinktank, the Claremont Institute, which he helped to create), is the founder of the so-called West Coast Straussians, who have a distinctive take on the Straussian legacy, which is evident in this review.**
However distinctive Jaffa and the West Coasters’ take on Strauss’s views can be, Jaffa’s statement in his review of the role of common sense in political philosophy is pretty typical of Strauss and his followers’ stated views:
In his great essay “On Classical Political Philosophy,” Strauss emphasizes the continuity between pre- philosophic political speech and its refinement by classical political philosophy. It is part of the order of nature (and of nature’s God) that pre- philosophic speech supply the matter, and philosophic speech the form, of perfected political speech, much as the chisel of the sculptor uncovers the form of the statue within the block of marble. Before the “Ethics” men knew that courage was a virtue, and that it meant overcoming fear in the face of danger. Aristotle says nothing different from this, but he also distinguishes true virtue from its specious simulacra. The false appearance of courage may result, for instance, from overconfidence in one’s skill or strength, or from one’s failure to recognize the skill or strength of his opponents. The accurate assessment of one’s own superiority of strength or skill, which means one really has no reason to fear an approaching conflict, is another false appearance of courage. A false courage may also result from a passion that blinds someone to the reality of the danger he faces. In short, the appearance of courage may be mistaken for actual courage whenever the rational component of virtue is lacking.
The existence of politics before political philosophy is what makes political philosophy possible. Politics is inherently controversial because human beings are passionately attached to their opinions by interests that have nothing to do with the truth. But because philosophers — properly so called — have no interest other than the truth, they alone can bring to bear the canon of reason that will transform the conflict of opinion that otherwise dominates the political world.
In many ways, this vision is hardly unique to the Straussians. Indeed, it very closely resembles the relationship of philosophy to common sense that Max Weismann, co-founder with Mortimer Adler of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, attributed to both George Santayana and Adler himself in the comment thread on Tim’s common sense post:
Philosophy thus conceived is a development of the insights already possessed by the man of common sense in the light of common experience; it is a development that adds clarifying analytical distinctions, the precise definition of terms, the reinforcement of systematic reasoning, and the critical exploration of problems to which no satisfactory solution is yet available. The philosophical knowledge achieved by these additions confirms, even as it elaborates, the commonsense wisdom one need not be a philosopher to possess.
If you read these two accounts carefully, you may notice the most important difference between them (and in many ways the source of Adler’s deep disagreement with, and apparently strong dislike of, Strauss): while Weismann (describing Santayana and Adler’s views) refers to philosophy as a method, Jaffa refers to philosophers. From what I know of Adler (and Tim can correct me if I’m wrong), he would have thought that anyone might learn the techniques of “systematic reasoning” that make philosophical knowledge out of the raw materials of common sense. But Strauss and his students fundamentally believe that only a very few people are fit to be philosophers.
Indeed, Strauss has a fundamentally hierarchical view of humanity that deeply marks his metaphilosophical and metapolitical ideas–though at various times a more democratic message appears on the surface of his works.
But Strauss’s view of political philosophy as the refinement of common-sense opinions forms the foundation of a populist (or at least pseudo-populist) strain in Straussian thought. It’s most prominent in Strauss and his students’ blistering critique of quantitative political science, which received its most thorough airing in Herbert Storing (ed.), Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962). In his epilogue to this volume, Strauss constantly contrasts the “old political science” (i.e. classical political philosophy), which used as its basis “common sense” (and, to be clear, Strauss repeatedly deploys this term) understandings of things political, with the “new political science,” which attempts to substitute quantifiable data for these common sense understandings.***
The results of this substitution, according to Strauss, are intellectually and politically disastrous. The new political science leads academics to understand politics less well than the common man. The relative and particular aspects of political life are absolutized, while the enduring and absolute are ignored. The new political philosophy is “vulgarian” and relativistic in its refusal to consider the noble and the good. Despite its claims to openness, it is entirely dogmatic. And, what’s worst of all, in the midst of the Cold War, its refusal to take seriously the primary task of the old political science–distinguishing the different regimes from each other–makes the new political science represent a grave and present danger to the Republic. “Only a great fool,” Strauss concludes,
would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes particular to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless, one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.
Strauss’s thought is deeply undemocratic in many ways that reflect its origins in strains of Weimar conservative thought that, at first blush, might seem very foreign to American political discourse. But in claiming that common sense understandings of politics should lie at the foundation of political science and that, by dogmatically rejecting common sense, the dominant academic figures in political science threatened not only the American way of life, but also Western civilization in toto, Strauss created a whole set of elective affinities between his ideas and broader strains of American conservatism.
Strauss and his students’ ideas about the common-sense basis of proper political thought and the supposed abandonment of common sense by American academics resonated with both populist anti-intellectualism and the more sophisticated critique of the New Class that were roiling on the right in the 1960s and beyond.
* I should mention two other interesting posts that have gone up at other sites about this review: 1) Brian Leiter, one of the major gatekeepers in the world of academic philosophy and a passionate anti-Straussian, is appalled that the Times didn’t ask an Aristotle specialist rather than “a card-carrying member of the Strauss cult” to review the book, and quotes a philosophy grad student who adds that Jaffa (dishonestly, in this student’s view) never mentions that this is a translation by Straussians and primarily aimed at Straussians. (As a student of the controversies over Strauss, I’m fascinated by what Jaffa does and doesn’t mention in this review. Leo Strauss, whose name for decades was virtually unmentioned by his students, is highlighted in this review by name from the start…though his connection to the book in question remains, as Leiter’s grad student notes, entirely unspecified.); 2) The political theorist Alan Gilbert, one of the most intellectually sophisticated anti-Straussians, sees the review–for good reason IMO–as an only-slightly-veiled attack on New York’s recent law instituting marriage equality. (Though they approvingly link to each other, Leiter and Gilbert are two very different sorts of academic anti-Straussians. Leiter, following Myles Burnyeat, believes that Strauss and his followers are intellectually empty ideologues and charlatans, who completely misunderstand the great works of political philosophy. Gilbert, on the other hand, sees Strauss as intellectually brilliant but dangerous, a literal fascist–who would have been a Nazi if he weren’t Jewish–who hoped to transplant fascism to these shores. Moreover, Gilbert essentially thinks that Strauss got Plato right and that Plato, like Strauss, promoted a tyrannical political vision.)
** Depending on whom you ask, Jaffa and his West Coast followers arrived at their views either by choosing a reasonable, if controversial, method of resolving a fundamental tension in Strauss’s work (the view of Catherine and Michael Zuckert), by utterly misunderstanding Strauss (Alan Gilbert), or by being systematically and intentionally misled by Strauss himself (Shadia Drury). The distinctly West Coast aspect of the review is Jaffa’s notion that Strauss endorses the nearly total consilience of philosophical reason and Biblical revelation, of Athens and Jerusalem:
But what is the West? And what is its crisis? According to Strauss (and many others), the West is the civilization constituted at its core by the coming together of classical philosophy and biblical revelation. The vitality of Western civilization results from the interplay of these alternative principles, though each contains within itself what claims to be exclusive and irrefutable authority. Symbolic of this authority are Athens and Jerusalem. In “The Second World War,” Churchill remarks that everything valuable in modern life and thought is an inheritance from these ancient cities. The debunking both of Socratic skepticism (“the unexamined life is not worth living”) and of biblical faith (“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) has led to the crisis of the West, a chaos of moral relativism and philosophic nihilism in which every lifestyle, no matter how corrupt or degenerate, can be said to be as good as any other.
In their brilliant and highly readable “Interpretive Essay” Bartlett and Collins suggest, without positively asserting, that Aristotle offers a solution to the problem, or crisis, of human well-being. But they seem to doubt whether it can meet the challenge of the God of Abraham. But these two principles are not adversarial in all respects. Indeed, much of Strauss’s work is a radical attack — made with the greatest intellectual competence — against the latter- day enemies of both the Bible and a Socratic Aristotle. Strauss maintained that Athens and Jerusalem, while disagreeing on the ultimate good, disagree very little, if at all, on what constitutes a morality both good in itself and the pathway to a higher good.
Aristotle’s greatness of soul (magnanimity) may seem to resemble pride, the greatest of sins described in the biblical canon. But Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the “Ethics” offers proof against theological negativism. And in the “Summa Contra Gentiles,”Thomas made the case for sacred doctrine on the basis of Aristotelian premises. It is an assumption of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature that the highest good of each species is accessible to all, or nearly all, its members. For man the highest good is wisdom. But since few if any human beings attain it, Aristotle’s nature requires a supernatural correlate: the afterlife. Whatever one thinks of this argument, it points to a dialectical friendship between Athens and Jerusalem.
Strauss certainly appears to attack the “latter-day enemies” of both the Bible and classical philosophy. But he repeatedly insists that the two, while mutually irrefutable, essentially contradict each other. Either human reason is sufficient or revelation trumps reason. Insisting, as the Thomistic tradition and Jaffa do, that the two can be reconciled is a project doomed to failure according to Strauss. Here’s perhaps Strauss’s most famous statement of this view in Natural Right and History (pp. 74-75):
For both philosophy and the Bible proclaim something as the one thing needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite of that proclaimed by philosophy: a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight. In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis, however impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed, more or less subtly but in any event surely, to the other: philosophy, which means to be the queen, must be made the handmaid of revelation or vice versa.
(This passage, incidentally, suggests that Strauss is being ironic when he suggests on the opening page of the introduction to The City and Man that political philosophy might be “the indispensible handmaid of theology.”)
Strauss is, as Michael and Catherine Zuckert put it, a thinker of polarities. And the West Coast Straussians tend to resolve these polarities in ways that Strauss (and others of his students) are much more loath to do.
*** Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics is long out of print, but those interested can find Strauss’s “An Epilogue” reproduced in two collections of Strauss essays, Liberalism Ancient & Modern and Introduction to Political Philosophy.