On the Catholic Appreciation of Leo Strauss

“Strauss embraced classical philosophy over religious faith, not as a system of set doctrines, but as a ‘way of life’ following the model of Socrates, featuring a Socratic ignorance and a searching (zetetic) or erotic skepticism. In this view, the philosopher lives happily with merely human wisdom, not because he has refuted divine wisdom, but because he simply does not understand it or experience it; he treats religion like a band of light beyond the visible spectrum and suspends judgment about biblical revelation.”   ∼ Robert Kraynak, in Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers, 2018.

The publication of Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers by the Catholic University of America Press, a collection of essays by several distinguished scholars, is a manifestation of the Catholic mind at its best. In dealing with Leo Strauss, a man of formidable insight and thorough scholarship, we need to know the Hebrew Bible and the various schools of Jewish thought; we need to know how Islam with its thinkers is related to Jerusalem; we also need to know modern philosophy—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Kojève, as well as St. Thomas and the dimensions of Christian revelation in both its Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Above all, Strauss takes us back to Plato and Aristotle as well as to the Epicurean post-Aristotelians. These latter—the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Cynics—are often neglected. Father Charles N. R. McCoy, one of the most penetrating commentators on Strauss, taught us much about the relation of modern thought, not just to Plato and Aristotle, but to the post-Aristotelians, Bradley Lewis’s chapter on McCoy, sometime chairman of the politics department at Catholic University, is most insightful. Of all the Catholic commentators on Strauss, McCoy is the one who is most respectful of Strauss, while, at the same time, the one who is most critical of the completeness of Strauss’s political philosophy.

“Strauss’s methods are those of a great humanist scholar,” Lewis observes:

 

He was far more than an intellectual historian in the usual sense because he took so seriously the claims of the thinkers he studied to be the truth and put those claims through their paces in a way that few scholars have ever done. However, his methods were always akin to Socrates’s turn to logic; his philosophical quest was always a search for the truth of things in, as his students used to like to say, old books. McCoy’s interest in the history of political philosophy was rather different. Philosophy for McCoy was a systematic enterprise aimed at stating with increasing precision the truths of things. His history of political philosophy is not aimed at discovering the permanent horizon of fundamental problems, but at stating how the structure of political thought was discovered and explicated only to be progressively repudiated with the direst practical consequences.

McCoy always seemed to me to be the one thinker and student of Strauss most conscious of how his mentor’s respectful yet hands-off attitude toward revelation—especially the Catholic view of it, had a negative effect on his thinking.

Leo Strauss (d. 1973) was a German Jewish scholar who came to the United States, as did many others, including Catholics like Jacques Maritain and Heinrich Rommen, because of the turmoil of World War II Europe. He became a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. In that capacity, through a series of some fifteen dense, tightly argued books, Strauss took the measure of what he called “the modern project” and found it lacking. Strauss is sometimes, at a stretch, said to be the father of neo-conservatism. He is certainly, along with Eric Voegelin, responsible for the revival of interest in the whole Western tradition, especially its beginnings and their pertinence to today’s political and moral problems. Strauss’s books, like The City and Man, What Is Political Philosophy?, Thoughts on Machiavelli, and Natural Right and History, need to be read and re-read.

Readers of Strauss know of the East Coast and the West Coast Straussians. These schools, as it were, follow the path of the many students who were students of Strauss. Perhaps the most famous are Allan Bloom, whose commentary on Plato’s Republic and whose book Closing of the American Mind are rightly held in high esteem, and Harry Jaffa, himself a man of remarkable energy. Jaffa represented, at the Claremont Graduate School, a Strauss more concerned with statesmanship than metaphysics; Lincoln and Churchill were often studied in the light of Thucydides and Plato.

II.

Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers was edited by Goeffrey Vaughan who teaches at Assumption College. Father Ernest Fortin, A.A., originally taught at Assumption until he became the chairman of the theology department at Boston College. Fortin was certainly the most well-known Catholic commentator on Strauss. Some thought him “too Straussian”; others thought him just about on-target. The chapter on Fortin and Strauss, written by Douglas Kries at Gonzaga University, is most valuable. Fortin was very critical of what came to be known as “Catholic Social Thought,” with its often uncritical acceptance of modern “human rights,” as if that phrase had no ideological overtones. One can say, without too much exaggeration, that, except for Benedict XVI’s contribution, Catholic Social Thought does not fully understand political philosophy. It seemed to accept value-free sociology as if that, too, were a neutral discipline in lieu of a serious understanding of political philosophy and its relation to revelation and philosophy itself. Reading Pope Francis’s encyclical and exhortations is almost like reading everything that Fortin worried about.

“Fortin’s concern was rather to engage a number of medievalist scholars, especially Catholic ones, who were arguing and had been arguing for some decades that the transition from the natural law of Thomas Aquinas and his followers to modern natural rights or human rights was one of continuity rather than discontinuity,” Kries writes. “These scholars, according to Fortin, had run together premodern thinking with modern thought, teleological thinking with non-teleological thinking, natural law with natural rights.” The obvious result of this confusion was to find that upholding the natural rights of the unborn ran smack up against the claim and practice of the civil law in many countries where abortion was a “human right.” A careful reading of Hobbes would explain why this confusion was possible.

III.

The book is divided into three general parts: 1) the issue of natural rights, 2) Strauss’s relation to Catholic concerns, and 3) Strauss’s understanding of Christianity, politics, and philosophy. In the first section, in addition to Kraynak, Lewis, and Kries, Geoffrey Vaughn writes on Strauss and the natural law, while Marc Guerra relates Strauss to the thought of Benedict XVI, especially on his understanding of modernity and creation. “To believe in the primacy of Logos, Benedict explains, is to believe in ‘the primacy of the particular,’ rather than the universal. Yet it is also to believe in the ‘primacy of freedom as against the primacy of cosmic necessity,’” Guerra writes. “Catholicism argues that we live in a world that is created, sustained, and governed by a God who both stands outside the world and enters into the world he created. Such a God revealed himself both as ‘I am’ and as ‘the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he freely acts out of love for his creation….’”

Anyone who has read Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life will realize that the issues brought up by Strauss often find their clearest Catholic response in this book.

Gladden Pippin’s essay comes to grips with three thinkers—Passerin d’Entrèves, McCoy, and Yves Simon—who considered the issues of classical thought in a way that found Strauss helpful but not definitive. “D’Entrèves, McCoy, and Simon highlight the same changed relationships between philosophy and society that Strauss noticed, but with a greater focus on the effects of that change on the ordinary citizen of modern politics.” Like the classical authors, Strauss was often accused of elitism. But the question of what to do with the aristocrats was already found in Aristotle and in the American founders. The whole hypothesis of the mixed regime centered on the rightful place of experience and knowledge in any polity.

Carson Holloway’s chapter on how to reconcile Strauss and Catholicism, along with Gary Glenn’s fascinating chapter on what Catholics might learn about Catholicism from reading Strauss, deserves much attention. Brian Benestad’s analysis of historicism serves the vital function of spelling out the implications of this most widespread issue, one that Strauss treated with great care. The three essays on Strauss and Christianity by Giulio De Ligio, James Stoner, and Ralph Hancock respectively take us to the theoretical roots that separate Strauss from Catholic thinkers but which, at the same time, show how what they have in common represents a rich area for future studies in political philosophy.

I was especially struck by the following comment by De Ligio about the difference between what belongs to politics and what belongs to philosophy.

The understanding of politics would then prefigure nothing less than the “deeper meaning” of political philosophy. Political philosophy refers not so much to a subject matter—political life—but to a manner of treatment that in the praise of the philosophical life, or in the examination of the alternatives which lead to absolute truth and which are the only things which are truly worthy of study: “We have to choose between philosophy and the Bible.”

The main difference between Strauss and a Catholic mind is that the choice is not “between” philosophy and the Bible, but includes both.

The well-known French philosopher, Philippe Bénéton, relates Strauss to Pascal and his wager. Reflecting on Strauss’s choice of philosophy rather than the Bible, itself a kind of elitism, Bénéton writes: “It is surprising that Strauss presents his alternative as the drama of the human soul. True philosophers, he says, are extremely rare. What then about mankind in general? The difference between Strauss and Pascal is related to the fact that the first gives primacy to the mind and the second to the heart.” It is perhaps not surprising that the purpose of revelation is to save all men, while the object of philosophy is to know the truth.

To this latter concern, sensed by both Bénéton and De Ligio, James Stoner’s brief comment on why Strauss sticks to political philosophy rather than philosophy itself seems illuminating: “If one cannot know the whole of nature, but only the longing in the soul of man for wisdom, then it is the ordering of the soul that commands our attention.”

This well-presented book brings us to the central issue that the work of Strauss leaves Catholics with, namely, how are classical thought, and revelation (both Jewish and Christian) able to exist together in a coherent, non-contradictory whole that, in its truth, illuminates modern thought and politics in terms of ultimate things. This is, as I say, scholarship at its best.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

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