While rereading some of the Ancient Texts of the former blog known as JAG, we ran across this, which deserves serious reconsideration.
Paleo-Straussianism, Part I: Metaphysics and Epistemology
[EDITORS’ NOTE: Like many of our recent posts, this began in a somewhat less ambitious vein and then grew in the writing. It is now the first part of what is currently projected to be a three-part series on “Paleo-Straussianism,” our attempt to apply the philosophic insights of Leo Strauss (which he derived from the great works of the Western tradition) to the urgencies of our time. “Paleo-Straussianism” is grounded in reason (and hence “Straussian”) but also respectful of country, community, and tradition (hence “paleo”). We hesitate, out of humility, to call Paleo-Straussianism a “philosophy”; we refuse, out of pride, to call it “ideology.” So let us call it an “approach”—to politics and to thinking about politics. Part One explores the necessary underlying metaphysical and epistemological premises. Part Two will lay out the tenets. Part three will offer specifics on the program.]
Introduction, Intent, and Context
We offer here something like a philosophic manifesto, not merely as a foundation for Trumpism and the Greatness Agenda, but also for our times and going forward, until such time as the times change and a new approach is necessary. We’re aware that many will dismiss the phrase “philosophic manifesto” as oxymoronic. We’re not wedded to the phrase itself. If you can do better, have at it. But we’re prepared to defend the concept, in ways that we hope will become clear in what follows.
Since James Atlas’ idiotic 2003 piece blaming Leo Strauss for the Iraq War, Strauss has come to be identified with neo-conservatism. (Atlas got the idea from the considerably more idiotic Shadia Drury, but nobody reads her. Atlas’ New York Times perch was necessary to take the meme viral.) This is, to be blunt, absurd. The most that can be said on that score is that Strauss influenced many neoconservatives—some personally, others through his students and books. But Strauss also influenced a lot of liberals, centrists, other types of conservatives, unclassifiables, and apolitical academics. Perhaps his greatest philosophic friend was a Stalinist. The philosophic mind he admired the most belonged to a Nazi. And his closest personal friend in the world never wrote a word about politics at all.
Still and all, Strauss-as-world-bestriding-neocon is a meme almost unquestioned throughout the intellectual sphere and on the non-Straussian right. We intend these remarks to demolish that interpretation once and for all and—we hope—to persuade the reasonable, patriotic anti-Straussians of the American right to rethink their opposition. To the extent that we all care about the West and love America, Strauss is an—the—indispensable guide for their theoretical and spiritual defense.
This essay is not intended to be a defense of Strauss or a refutation of the many calumnies his reputation has suffered since Atlas’ libel. For those interested, we do not hesitate to recommend the work of Peter Minowitz. Rather, we intend to sketch the outlines of a positive account of the nature of politics and of the intellectual needs of our time in fighting the regnant corruption and decay. While our understanding of the world has been heavily influenced by Strauss, we don’t consider what follows to be scholarship on Strauss or an interpretation of his work. There are plenty of those available, if of varying reliability. Which is why we emphatically point interested readers to consult Strauss’ work for themselves. That said, we can’t avoid interpretation in spots because Strauss’ oeuvre is so massive and complex. If you read something with which you disagree, by all means, correct us. But please don’t complain that we “left this or that that out.” Of course we’re leaving a lot out. Strauss could not possibly be adequately summarized in one post, no matter how long.
We, the editors of JAG, identify ourselves as both Straussian and conservative. But not “orthodox” Straussian (if such a thing can be said to exist, given the multiplicity of interpretations of Strauss’ thought). And definitely not neo-conservative, in the sense of believing it’s desirable or possible for America to democratize the world (we do, however, genuinely respect the original neo-cons and their approach to social science). Neither, however, are we paleo-conservatives in the strict sense. While we find much useful in some of their thought, we disagree with them in important respects, which we hope will be made clear below. Still, in the decisive respects in which we break with both neo-conservatism and orthodox Straussiansim, we believe we do so in a broadly “paleo” direction.
We also hope to begin the process of healing some very old and deep wounds dividing us Straussians (or some of us) and the paloes. As we have noted, the paleos got some big things right long before some of us woke up. Since our policy differences have all but disappeared—either because we’ve moved in their direction, or else were clear-headed enough not to have fallen into neo-error in the first place—our remaining disagreements are philosophical. Part of the purpose of this essay (and its sequels) is to similarly close the gap on the theoretical level. That might be a pipe dream on the order of Christian Reunification, but it’s worth a try. (If it works out, we should all cherish the irony that the allegedly “divisive” Trump is the force that brought our two formerly warring factions together.) Hence “Paleo-Straussianism.”
Our intent is not to found a school or a movement or a new ideology, but simply to present the truth as we see it. Strauss himself was unimpressed by mere “originality” in thought, preferring instead depth and truth. Hence, in attempting to re-present old truths, we are acting faithfully to the example of past philosophers who reinterpreted philosophy according to the necessities and tastes of their times. No, we’re not putting ourselves in that elite company. We’re only saying that there’s precedent for what we’re trying to do: not invent something new, but restate an old (and true) teaching in ways and words that speak directly to our times.
And in our times, it’s helpful to give one’s thought a name. “The Truth” is not very descriptive and, besides, a little hubristic. “Paleo-Straussian” is reasonably accurate, somewhat provocative because seemingly oxymoronic (though not really, as we hope to demonstrate), and gets the main flavors across. So it will do.
Why Philosophy Matters
There are three fundamental bases that shape the direction and tenor of any politics: force, self-interest and public opinion. All politics not based on sheer force (and no politics is, or can be, based solely on force; that’s why tyrants have propaganda ministries) is grounded to some extent in public opinion. Public opinion and self-interest often coincide. Human beings naturally seek to preserve their lives, and public opinion generally holds that self-defense is justified. Humans generally seek to better their material circumstances, and public opinion generally holds that self-betterment is salutary if done in the right way and according to certain rules. And so on. Public opinion can also act as a check on self-interest (“I want that, but I know it’s bad for me”; or: “To get what I want in such and such way would be wrong”). And public opinion sometimes serves to rationalize self-interest (“I deserve this!”). Therefore, while public opinion is not always decisive in shaping politics, it always plays a role.
That part of public opinion which does not arise from our innate perception of our self-interest is ultimately reducible to two sources: religion and philosophy. In the modern West, as religious belief has faded, the influence of philosophy on public opinion has grown. The most important reason things are so out of whack—so screwy—right now is because public opinion is a mess.
But, hold on—we need to make a fresh distinction. Elite opinion is a mess. There are, roughly speaking, two public opinions in 2016 America: elite opinion and mass-middle opinion. Mass-middle opinion turns out to be reasonably sensible: it’s rising up against elite opinion in defense of its own self-interest, innate patriotism and in-group cohesion with fellow citizens.
Elite opinion today is a near-perfect example of public opinion reinforcing self-interest. Elite opinion—which is mass-marketed to, and thus followed by, the lower orders and the fringes—is an ideology tailored to justify ongoing elite privilege and the policies that support it. To reinforce its authority, elite opinion/ideology follows “philosophy,” which we put in quotes because the “philosophy” it follows is bad and has no right to that name. “Ideas have consequences.” Some of the more immediate causes harming America today—mass immigration and mass outsourcing—began life as bad ideas. And bad ideas arise from bad philosophy. Garbage in, garbage out.
Mass-middle opinion, on the other hand, while it probably does not realize this and mostly doesn’t care, actually has a sound basis in good philosophy. The struggle between sound mass-middle opinion and corrupt elite opinion is thus on some level a philosophic struggle. The elites have been winning—in a rout—in part because they have the “intelligentsia” (sub-philosophic foot soldiers) on their side while the “conservative” intelligentsia is both ineffectual and daft because its ideas are also based on bad philosophy.
Hence, to set things right in America and in the West generally requires good philosophy. That is not the sufficient condition for renewal, but it is a necessary one.
Why, Specifically, “Epistemology” Matters
Before we state the tenets of Paleo-Straussianism, we believe it is necessary to explain how and why we believe those tenets are true. That is, we must state the basis for our beliefs before we state our beliefs.
This is crucial, especially when explaining something as “insubstantial” and debatable as politics. Men disagree about the good. It is part of the nature of the good that it cannot be “known” or “proved” in the same way that, say, mathematics can be known or proved. The good always remains a matter of controversy precisely because of its insubstantial-ness, imprecision and, you might say, invisibility.
Yet we believe that rational investigation yields the probable conclusion that the good is real. It exists both as a part of nature and as coeval with nature. Moreover, it is rationally, if not fully, knowable. Rational investigation into the good is—aside from consulting sacred Scripture—how man endeavors to answer the question “How should I live?” I.e., what is right and what is wrong? And why?
Our enemies will challenge us to “prove” that our program is true. And when we can’t, to their satisfaction, they will dismiss it as false. Some of our friends, allies, and potential allies will ask, in less bombastic terms: What do we hold to be the basis for what we assert? How and why do we think we know what we claim to know? Without such an accounting, they will not accept our program—nor should they. Hence this first installment.
Some others will simply be interested in the program itself and find all this dull. We understand. You have our permission to stop now and skip the rest. (It’s not short.) We nonetheless maintain that it needs to be said and remain available. Replacing bad philosophy with good philosophy requires sound epistemology—a rational understanding that justice exists by nature, and of why it is both possible and necessary to understand politics rationally. That is what this post intends to establish.
We here define philosophy as quest for wisdom about the highest or most important or most permanent things. Philosophy seeks to replace opinion about the highest things with knowledge of the highest things. While philosophy is in principle interested in and open to all forms of knowledge, it tries to focus its energies on knowledge of the highest and most important subjects: the nature of being, the origin and purpose of the universe and the world, the nature of man, etc. Philosophy, in other words, is the quest for knowledge and as such is in the final analysis no different than “science.” We reject (while understanding the reasons behind) the ghettoization of philosophy as a purely arcane academic discipline and prefer philosophy as originally meant: the search for truth.
In philosophic epistemology, we may say (roughly speaking) that the hierarchy of thought runs upward from error, to opinion, to right opinion, to knowledge, and finally to wisdom. Right opinion is a true opinion insufficiently understood by, and this not strictly “known” to, the person who holds it. For instance, if a math professor were to write a complex equation on the white board and then tell you that the answer is “4,” you would have right opinion but not knowledge. Knowledge is when you know how to solve the equation yourself. But knowledge can be about anything. We can know trivial things. Wisdom is knowledge of the highest things, and in particular, of the broad nature and scope of the whole—the physical and spiritual worlds and man’s place within them. Wisdom does not require knowledge of every detail. Wisdom, as it were, specializes in greatness.
Philosophy takes for granted that truth exists and is knowable—that opinion can replaced by knowledge. Philosophy assumes this, first, because this seems to be borne out by experience. We see and experience repeating patterns every day in every aspect of our lives, from gravity to human behaviors. It’s possible that we may wake up one day and find that gravity no longer operates, or has become a repellent rather than attractive force—philosophy always remains open to all possibilities and never rules anything out—but to live our lives or base our decisions on this possibility would be stupid. Philosophy as originally meant stands against stupidity, and in particular against airy-fairy idiocy along the lines of “Maybe today is the day gravity stops working.” Maybe—there’s no way for man to know for sure. But since we’ve been experiencing it the same way for all of recorded history, it makes more sense to try to understand it as it actually operates, consider that “true” and act accordingly. The second reason philosophy assumes that truth exists is because, if it didn’t, philosophy wouldn’t have anything to do. A philosopher who denies the existence of truth is like an ichthyologist who denies the existence of fish.
Philosophy is excellent at refuting untruth and sussing out errors and contradictions in received opinion. It is slightly less effective, but hardly impotent, at discerning truth itself. Or at the very least, at discerning things that have a high—almost overwhelming—probability of being true, even if final, irrefutable proof of their truth is never available.
Philosophy is a quest because this final proof, this final wisdom—full knowledge—of the highest things appears to be impossible, or at least has not been attained in the ~2,500 years or so that philosophy has been active. Also, defining philosophy as a “quest” is necessary to induce, and keep at the forefront, a certain humility that prevents the endeavor from decaying into rigid ideology. (The dangers of which, in a small and decidedly non-philosophic way, can be seen in the current ossification of official “conservatism,” as this Journal has expended much effort to point out.)
The obverse danger is of course that no question is ever considered answered, no issue settled, and so thought can never serve as a basis for or guide to action. Action will still take place, of course, but uninformed by reason. Which, let us be clear, is how action happens most of the time, in most places. But the great achievements of civilization tend to be informed by thought. And the closer that thought conforms to the truth, the better the outcomes of said action will be. Hence philosophy has a responsibility not to endlessly chase its tail, but to at least try to discern and communicate the truth. Strauss once corrected Hegel’s admonition that “philosophy must beware of wishing to be edifying” by pointing out that philosophy “is of necessity edifying.”
Still, there is no getting around this essentially insoluble problem. If philosophy considers itself wise, it becomes closed to alternatives and dismissive of refutations of its possible errors. It becomes ideology. But if philosophy forever remains “knowledge of ignorance” then it will forever remain aloof from human life and human concerns, its hands in the air shrugging that it has nothing to say about elementary things that all ordinary citizens take for granted. Just as it does not know whether gravity is a force of attraction or repulsion, it cannot say whether murder and rapine are good or bad.
The only way for philosophy to deal with this problem is to never lose sight of it and to resist going too far in the direction either of rigid certainly or myopic doubt. Strauss’ name for the ancient philosophers’ solution to this problem is “zetetic skepticism.” That is, a longing skepticism that accepts no doctrine or authority but also that is open to the possibility of truth—including eternal truth—and that always seeks that truth or at the very least progress toward its understanding. Zetetic skepticism is not a dogmatic skepticism that insists nothing can be known or that there is no reality. It is rather an open-minded skepticism that accepts nothing as fully final, not because there is no reality, but because of the inherent limitations of the human mind. Think of it like a long road to a distant destination. We all start at the same point. It’s possible that no one is ever able to reach the final destination (wisdom). But progress along the road is possible and the philosopher is the human type who will travel the furthest because he is best equipped for the journey and it is what he prioritizes (longs for most) in life. (This, we believe, is the meaning of Plato’s Theaetetus.)
Thus far, we believe, we have not departed from any Straussian orthodoxy.
“Political Philosophy” Defined
Among Straussians, there are essentially two definitions of political philosophy. The first is the endeavor to replace opinion about political things with knowledge of political things. In other words, political philosophy is just philosophy—the investigation of truth—applied to politics.
The second definition relates to the philosopher’s relationship to the political community—both the actual community in which he lives, and to philosophy’s relationship to all political communities as such. Recall what was said above about philosophy’s ruthless excellence at demonstrating the errors and contradictions, and thus the untenability, of so much received opinion. But as Strauss wrote, “opinion is the element of society.” There can be no society, no politics, no living-together without some shared common opinion. To the extent that the philosopher undermines belief in that common opinion, he undermines the basis of society. He also, not incidentally, puts himself in danger, as the fate of Socrates shows. Steve Sailer, perhaps the closest thing the blogosphere has to a political philosopher, enjoys pointing out the error at the heart of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” parable. In real life, the little child—whom we may analogize to the philosopher—would be torn limb from limb for exposing everyone’s ignorance.
Strauss is perhaps most famous (or infamous) for his “alleged” discovery of esoteric writing—that is, of “hidden” or “between the lines” communication in philosophic books. We put “alleged” in quotes because we think the case that philosophers actually did practice esotericism is irrefutable and the deniers akin to flat-earthers at this point. We challenge anyone to read Meltzer’s thorough explanation with an open mind and not be convinced. Even Sailer, long a Strauss-scoffer, had to admit that there’s something there.
This second definition of “political philosophy” covers the various ways that philosophers color and shade and present their philosophy so as to avoid either harming society or bringing persecution onto themselves.
Now, Strauss offers both definitions, writes that both are true, and holds that #1 is more fundamental and more important than #2. On this, we’re with Strauss. Some of his followers, however, argue that this is just Strauss’ “exoteric” or “surface” teaching and that if you read Strauss carefully enough, you will see that reason #1 is just a fig leaf in which Strauss does not believe and that he really thinks the whole meaning of political philosophy is just definition #2. We believe we’ve read Strauss reasonably carefully and we’ve not found reason to adopt this view.
The reason this seemingly esoteric debate matters is because of what the second answer (definition #1 is phony and #2 is the only one that matters) implies about politics. In brief, it assumes either that there is no content in politics that can be investigated rationally or that politics doesn’t matter, is too trivial to interest the philosopher. Or both.
Strauss explicitly rejects this view. He argues that philosophy must be on guard against both “visionary expectations from politics” and “unmanly contempt for politics.” We suppose that one could read the warning against “unmanly contempt” very narrowly as not inconsistent with a dismissal of politics as irrelevant or meaningless. Yet Strauss himself was concerned throughout his life with actual politics, from the rise of the Nazis, through the Cold War, to the establishment and survival of Israel, to the health of America and of the West. So we are at least faithful to his example in actually caring about actual politics.
Some Straussians will admit that philosophers must care about politics, but only on narrow grounds and for self-interested reasons. Philosophy cannot take place in a vacuum or amidst anarchy; it requires civilization, which in turn requires that sensible men pay attention to politics in order to establish or maintain civilization. Neglect of politics is bad for philosophy. This is one meaning, at least, of Shakespeare’s Tempest: Prospero’s obsession with alchemy and magic represents the philosopher’s wish to be left alone to pursue his studies. Like the philosophers described in Plato’s Republic (VII 519c-521a), Prospero does not wish to rule. But neglect of politics ends in disaster for Prospero, as it would—and arguably has—for philosophy. We agree with this argument even if we do not think it necessarily exhausts the reasons why philosophy does or should or must care about politics.
The “Metaphysics” of Politics
You might wonder where this is going. You came here for a manifesto, and here you are, 3,500 words in, and very little has been said about the content of politics, except the assertion that it exists. Instead, you’ve had to suffer through all this epistemology. What the hell?
It’s important. Every important modern error about politics, morality, justice, right and wrong &c. originates from an ontological-epistemological mistake. It might have been a well-intentioned mistake, but it was nonetheless a mistake.
The truth—or, at least the overwhelmingly probable truth—is that right and wrong, justice and injustice, exist by nature. That is, the question—How should I live?—is answerable through reasoned investigation. The ancient Greek philosophers concluded this after a long, intensive dialectical investigation into common opinion and human nature. The Roman philosophers agreed. The early Christian philosophers—even as they fought a spiritual war against pagan religion and some aspects of pagan philosophy—also agreed. They also, crucially, argued that this particular conclusion of pagan philosophy—natural right—accords with Scripture and God’s design of the material world. The early modern philosophers rejected (to say the least) the religious aspect of medieval philosophy and also changed some crucial ontological and epistemological premises. But they still agreed that right and wrong, justice and injustice, exist by nature. They just thought they had found a different, and better—more reliable—mechanism for securing right and justice.
By the time we get to later modern philosophy, philosophy is either completely wrong about what constitutes political justice or else no longer has any confidence that justice exists by nature or that man can derive guidance on how he should live through reasoned investigation. With results of which we are all painfully aware—up to and including the mess we are in today, when some even deny the existence of the fundamental natural categories “male” and “female” and punish those who insist that reality is real.
How this happened is a matter of controversy, even within the Straussian world. We shall state what we believe to be Strauss’s explanation and our interpretation of it, in full awareness that some of our teachers may not agree. They are encouraged to write rebuttals, which we shall gladly post.
The early modern philosophers found philosophy in a state of ossification and decay, captive to religious authority (Christianity, specifically). Since the essence of philosophy is to question everything and to accept no intellectual authority, the survival of philosophy required breaking free of religious (monastic) supervision. The early moderns also argued that Christian man had become listless and fatalistic, too dependent on his belief in God and the afterlife to do anything notable or strong or life-affirming in this world. Whether that fatalism resulted from Christianity itself or merely from a decayed, mistaken interpretation is an important question. You can find early moderns on both sides of the issue, but honesty compels us to admit that, in our view, most of them take the former position. Hence the early moderns rebelled against Christianity both to liberate philosophy and (as they saw it) to liberate mankind.
Thinking the matter through more deeply, the early moderns concluded that it was no accident or happenstance that philosophy had been captured by religion. Something in the ancient doctrine lent itself to takeover by a universalist faith. They argued that ancient philosophy’s high-minded idealism (in Plato especially, but in the other ancients as well) was ideally suited to assimilation into the Christian worldview (or even perhaps served as an inspiration for Christianity itself). They concluded that the only solution was to banish such high-minded abstractions from thought and give philosophy a firmer basis. In words of Churchill that Strauss liked to quote, the moderns “built on low but solid ground.”
We believe that Strauss concluded that this banishing of all higher abstractions from philosophy eventually, and inevitably, produced the nihilism and various Progressive anti-nature errors of our age. To put this in the simplest terms we know how, in his Physics, Aristotle argues that all beings arise from four causes:
- Material: what it’s made of; the material cause of a chair is wood
- Efficient: how it comes into being: a carpenter makes a chair
- Formal: the plan or design or nature of the being; in the case of a chair, you might say the sketch from which the carpenter begins
- Final: the purpose of the thing; a chair exists to be sat on.
Crucially, for Aristotle, man himself is the product of all four causes. He is not just a collection of atoms or a clever ape. He is distinguished from the other animals (and the other non-divine beings) by the possession of reason or speech (logos). As such, man has not merely a material cause (flesh and blood) and an efficient cause (sex and gestation). He also has both a formal and a final cause. His nature is teleological, pointing toward and end or purpose: the development and perfection (to the extent possible) of what is naturally unique about him as distinct from the other beings; i.e., of his reason. Man is the only non-divine being aware of the mysteriousness of being, of his place within the whole, and capable of reflecting on his place within the whole, of asking “Why?” and “What should I do?” It is not difficult to see how this idea was easily incorporated into Biblical religion (which holds that man is “made in the image of God”) or how Aquinas was able to use Aristotle for eminently Christian purposes.
But for the early moderns, this idea had to go because it had been taken over by religion and, what’s more, was in their view eminently susceptible to being taken over by religion. (This is, at root, the meaning of Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses.”)
The early moderns nonetheless did not abandon normative teachings. They still posited “shoulds” and “oughts,” declared some things right and others wrong, and tried to construct a positive program for man to live by (centering mostly on man’s desire for security and material plenty). But, Strauss argues, once cut off from the metaphysical understanding of man as a teleological being, modernity’s apparently “low but solid” foundation turned to quicksand. Modernity progressively degenerated into the current impasse, which Strauss argues can only be overcome by a return to ancient modes of thinking.
This is a phrase of Strauss’ coinage that he used only once, in a lecture published well after his death. It is in many ways the key to his thought.
“Noetic heterogeneity” originates with the so-called “Socratic turn” or “Socrates’ Second Sailing”—that is, Socrates’ turn away from investigating the natural things (the heavens and the digestive tracts of gnats, if you remember Aristophanes’ Clouds) and toward the human things, morality and politics: the “how should I live?” questions. Essentially, Socrates hit a wall in his investigation of nature—he took it as far as he could take it with the tools available. But more fundamentally, he realized that even with better tools, the investigation itself could yield only so much—you find the cause of phenomenon X, which turns out to be phenomenon Y, which in turn is caused by phenomenon Z—and so on. It’s like the old joke about the universe resting on the back of a turtle, who standing on another turtle, and so on. It’s turtles all the way down! Just as we may run out of letters in the alphabet, or turtles, even with the right tools, investigating nature, we eventually run out of causes and reach some fundamental “given” that has no discernable cause. What are the turtles standing on?
Socrates was the first to figure this out. Eventually, no matter how far back, somewhere there is a wall the human mind can’t scale—a given that we must simply accept. Modern science has pushed out our view of the wall, of the stack of turtles. A leading ecclesiastic is alleged to have said of Galileo’s telescope that “If it confirms Aristotle it is redundant; if it contradicts him it is false.” Strauss liked to say that Aristotle would have been the first to look through the telescope. Similarly, if Socrates were alive today, he would spend as much time as necessary working with particle accelerators and talking to Stephen Hawking. But eventually those studies would cease to bear fruit, just as his investigations into nature 2,500 years ago hit that wall. He would find some unexplainable cause and be forced to conclude “That’s just the way it is.”. Aristotle called this given the “unmoved mover” or “thought thinking itself” and accorded it the place of God in his cosmology.
Science hasn’t solved the mystery of what the turtles standing on. And, of course, it makes no attempt to investigate why the turtles are here or what—if anything—we’re supposed to do about it. Those are values and science, as we shall see, deals in facts.
In any case, after hitting that wall, Socrates dusted himself off and turned his mind in other directions. Specifically, to the investigation of man as a being with a nature that can be investigated and understood without precise knowledge of its origin or cause. Indeed, that cause itself may be interesting but it does not in the final analysis determine the nature of the being caused by the cause. The (or a) cause of our chair is carpentry but that doesn’t define the chair or tell you what it’s for—any more than DNA or water molecules or even your parents fully define who or what YOU are.
Noetic heterogeneity is then Strauss’s term for the fundamental incompatibility or incommensurability between the two basic kinds of knowledge: knowledge of natural things, or what we call “science,” and knowledge of moral and political things. You might call it a sort of Relativity v. Quantum Mechanics for philosophy. General relativity explains the big things—gravity, light, the mechanics of the planets and galaxies and so on—very well. Quantum Mechanics describes the very small things—sub-atomic particles—very well. The problem is that, thus far, they have proved incommensurable. Though there is hope on this score in that, both pertaining to physical science, all the scientists believe the apparent gap will someday be closed.
But the philosophic conception of noetic heterogeneity holds that the disconnect between how to approach the intelligibility of the human things versus the physical things is permanent—a part of nature. There will be no “Grand Unification Theory” that squares the circle, that allows us to measure man the way we measure planet orbits. Although some political scientists will never give up hope for that kind of breakthrough, they should. The fundamental mysteriousness of Being will never completely go away.
It’s tempting to call this the “is-ought” distinction, also known (from Weber) as the “fact-value” distinction. What “is” is a fact, a truth, a given. The computer I’m typing on is an “is,” a fact. That I am typing is at best an “ought,” and perhaps only a mere “value”—just something I want to do. According to this view, every “ought” is at root just a preference. The implicit assumption therefore that no “ought” can ever be an “is”; it cannot be a fact; it cannot be true. There are no moral facts. That murder is wrong is not a fact in the same way that gravity is a fact. In other words, morality is held to be not real, or at the very least less real, because it has no substance, no visibility, no clock-work reliability. Only a madman denies gravity, but reasonable men can disagree about morality.
Now, certainly morality cannot be measured in the same way gravity can be measured. But Aristotle and the other ancients (and Strauss) did not conclude from this that nothing can be known about morality (or politics, which is really just the highest practical expression of morality) through rational investigation. They did not conclude that morality and politics have no nature, no existence, no being. They concluded rather the opposite—that morality and politics do exist and do have natures, ones that are inexorably tied to the nature of man. But they also concluded that, given the fundamental difference between the nature of the soul and the nature of the physical world, each must be investigated in different ways. And, while knowledge of (or progress in knowledge of) both is possible, in the final analysis, each cannot be known or understood in the same way.
“Noetic heterogeneity” is then a two-word phrase to summarize the idea that the natural, material world and the human world are two distinct fields of knowledge that require differing approaches to understand, and the approach appropriate to one doesn’t work well on the other. Scientific measurement doesn’t yield much in the understanding of man, morality and politics, whereas dialectical investigation will get you nowhere in physics. Also, greater precision is possible in studying the latter than the former. Aristotle makes this point (three times) near the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics (1094b11-27, 1095a30-1095b14, 1098a20-1098b8).
At the core of noetic heterogeneity is the notion that the human things can’t be known with the same precision as the natural things. Demanding “proof” is either an intellectual mistake or a cop-out or a rhetorical blunderbuss—at any rate, doing so is based on a misunderstanding of the inquiry and of the thing being examined. Even modern natural science admits that nothing is ever “proved.” All knowledge is provisional and subject to revision. The scientist qua scientist never stops questioning even his own theories—especially his own theories, if he’s intellectually honest. Which is to say, insofar as he is a good scientist.
The Fundamental Alternatives
In the end, regarding the human things (morality and politics especially), because nothing can ever be “proved,” all that philosophy or any thought can do is understand the fundamental alternatives and then come to a “preference” for which seem truer. This preference is not arbitrary or based solely on desires and tastes. It is supposed to be informed by reason. After examining the alternatives thoroughly, and as it were tallying a list of “pros and cons” of each alternative, the philosopher naturally will come to see some alternatives as more likely than others. Note that we said more likely; not more likable. The truth can be ugly. Also, sometimes the arguments for one alternative are so manifestly superior to (and/or more numerous than) those for the other side that there is no contest. Sometimes the case is a very close call.
To state baldly the fundamental alternatives here under consideration: either justice and morality exist by nature or they do not. Either the “ought”—the “should”—of morality has a grounding in nature, or it does not. If we wish to truthfully, rationally, consistently, non-delusionally and non-arbitrarily say that “this is right” and “that is wrong” then justice must exist by nature. In philosophy, this idea is called “natural right.” Either it exists or it doesn’t. Its content will be explored in the sequel. For now, let us confront this fundamental alternative.
Having examined all the arguments for and against natural right (many of them summarized in this post), we long ago concluded that its truth is far more probable than its falsehood. Human nature does seem to us to be teleological, to aim at some good (happiness), which can only be achieved through virtue. We mention, for the sake of completeness, that some Straussians believe that the argument for human teleology in Aristotle (and elsewhere) is “exoteric,” that is, purely for public consumption and not meant to be believed by wise readers. We’ve considered their case and concluded that it, too, is less probable than the alternative. Another, slightly more sophisticated argument holds that there is a natural ground for morality, but that it is very narrow. In sum, since philosophy is the highest way of life for man (the conclusion of the ancient philosophers, which we will not attempt to summarize here), and since (as noted) philosophy requires civilization, and civilization requires morality, then morality is necessary for the way of life that nature has set above all other options as the highest. It’s not hard to see how this idea is incompatible with the rejection of human teleology as “exoteric.” The possibility of ranking the ends of human life requires some kind of human teleology. In any case, even if one accepts this latter argument, one has still accepted the existence of natural right.
Let’s be blunt about what the rejection of natural right means. It means that nothing is true and everything is permitted—what Nietzsche called the “formula for nihilism.” The seeming terribleness of this teaching does not make it, ipso facto, false. We simply assert that those who wish to reject natural right but deny the terror—and praise goodness and condemn badness, however they may see each—are incoherent. Allan Bloom dismissed this pose as “nihilism with a happy ending.” Nihilism may be true, but it does not have a happy ending.
Humans being to some extent creatures of passion, our “preference” for some philosophic alternative will indeed sometimes be just that—our preference. For instance, I personally don’t want morality to be false; I don’t want nothing to be true and everything to be permitted. Hence my bias may influence why I believe that morality to be true. Strictly according to standards of philosophic or intellectual honesty, that’s not a good reason to believe something—though, like any sane person, I would rather live among the deluded-but-moral than among intellectually honest crooks.
However, we must all do the best we can to see past our prejudices and examine the fundamental alternatives honestly. We must never let our preference stop our reasoned investigation into those alternatives, or close our minds to the possibility of change. Our preference may indeed never change. But our minds must be open to the possibility of change, of revision based on a deeper understanding. Leo Strauss’ most famous book is Natural Right and History, which makes the case for the existence of natural right over and against regnant modern theories that deny its existence. In a preface written nearly two decades after that book’s original publication, Strauss wrote that “Nothing I have [since] learned has shaken my inclination to prefer ‘natural right,’ especially in its classic form, to the reigning relativism, positivist or historicist.” Nor has anything (yet) shaken ours.
Against Paleo Anti-Reason
Paleo-conservatives are suspicious—even dismissive—of reason in morality and politics for reasons similar to those that impelled the early modern philosophers to reject the ancients’ high-minded abstractions. They don’t like where it leads.
In particular, they target the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence—which they conflate with other, less sober and non-American Enlightenment rhetoric. We have written of the paleo/alt-right dismissal of what they call “propositionism.” We will have more to say on this topic in what is to come—including how the political theory of the American Founding differs significantly, in ways the paleos ought to favor, from that of the broader Enlightenment.
For now, we make two broader points. Recall the point discussed above about a change in Western thought that began in early modernity. Indeed, “modernity” is that change—or the name for the product of it. Strauss was the first to show that modernity arose as a conscious break with all prior thought and not as a mere development of history. Strauss, no less than the paleos, is a consistent critic of the Enlightenment. He is not, however, a critic of reason or rationalism because he sees that the superior, original form—the classical form—of rationalism is both true and still viable in our time. Its restoration is even urgent, given the exhaustion of radical modernity. In other words, paleo suspicions about “reason” in politics are properly directed at Enlightenment excesses, but not against reason itself. Reason and the Enlightenment are not the same. Indeed, Strauss shows the ways in which the Enlightenment was itself unreasonable!
Second, and more important, we believe the paleo “anti-reason” position is internally inconsistent. Perhaps the greatest work of paleo-conservative scholarship is M. E. Brafford’s A Better Guide Than Reason. The title itself signals the contradiction. Whenever anyone speaks of “better”—or “good” or “superior” or “progress” and so on and on—he is implicitly relying on some conception of a rationally-knowable idea of the good, which is inseparable from natural right. Otherwise, Bradford’s title says only “a guide I like more than reason.” Is that what he means? Merely that he prefers something to reason but admits that his preference is just a preference with no grounding in reality, no objective basis in nature, no reason for believing in beyond an act of will? We think that’s not what he means, that he genuinely believes that some things are better than others, some good simply, and so on. What he really objects to, then, is not reason but a facile rationalism that often uses abstractions to reach perverse—and unreasonable—conclusions, and push perverse ideological crusades to achieve perverse outcomes. We object to that, too.
In the book, Bradford argues that among these “better guides” are religion, custom, tradition, patriotism, fellow-feeling, and so on. We agree that these are all better guides than rigid, egg-headed, out-of-touch rationalism—which, to repeat, is what we think Bradford really means when he says “reason.” We wholly agree that Bradford’s pantheon of good things—security, liberty, family, country, and virtue among them—which these “better guides” can help create or preserve are indeed good things. But there is no better guide than reason for understanding that and why they are good things, and how to preserve them. The whole existence of the concept and possibility of “better” and “worse” depends on the existence of the good as an integral part of—as coeval with—nature. They only way man can know of “better” and “worse” and tell them apart is through the exercise of his reason.
Only through an objective framework can we judge the relative merits of two approaches for addressing a particular issue—one proposed by (say) custom and the other by “rationalism.” Bradford follows Burke (as do we) in believing that tradition is often sounder than the latest idea cooked up by some brilliant intellectual, and that long-held custom should not be changed or overturned lightly. Or to make the point one more time in a slightly different way, if in the approach to issue A, some long-established custom is more effective at producing the desired outcome than the latest intellectual fad, however brilliant, that’s because the custom is itself more reasonable than the fad. Not because custom is inherently superior to reason, but because reasonable custom is superior to unreasonable “rationalism.”
The only way to judge the relative merits of any proposed solutions to any problem—the only way to judge better and worse—is through reason itself. Just not through a shrunken or corrupted or narrow “rationalism” acting in the name of reason. We join Bradford and all the paleos in rejecting that. We hope we can persuade them to stop their rejection of “reason” there and embrace right-reason.
For Paleo Anti-Hubris
The white-hatted cousin of paleo anti-reason is paleo anti-hubris. Here the paleos are on very strong ground. But not ground unfamiliar or alien to Strauss.
We may use the 2003 Iraq War as the most illustrative example. The paleos saw right through that one from the beginning. The neocons notoriously did not. Which is ironic, given that there are (or were) no paleo-Straussians. But there were (and are) many, many Straussian neocons.
A core teaching that Strauss gleans from political philosophy, recall, is that the philosopher must be on guard against “visionary expectations from politics.” Such as … oh, I don’t know … believing that American power could democratize the Arab-Muslim world.
But back to philosophy. Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s Republic was controversial among philosophy professors and classicists from the get-go and has only slowly, and grudgingly, gained acceptance among non-Straussian scholars. In brief, Strauss argues that Socrates’ “city in speech” is not presented seriously as the “ideal state”—that is, a government that is actually meant to be implemented. Rather, in the course of educating two noble youths, Socrates forces them to think through what justice would demand if separated and abstracted from all other considerations. One lesson is that to focus on a part at the expense of the whole—even a part as important as justice—leads in a radical, and impractical (to say the least), direction.
At least the Republic has a happy ending. When the conversation is over, everyone goes home and the justice-obsessed youth are never heard from again. In 2016 America, the “justice”-obsessed youth go online to agitate for World War T and get dissenters fired and hounded from public life. Socrates succeeded in teaching Glaucon and Adeimantus something. Our youth appear to be uneducable.
In any event, for Strauss, Plato’s Republic—and all of pre-modern philosophy, for that matter—is fundamentally anti-utopian. It is thus somewhat mysterious how those neocons who believe they follow Strauss manage to forget or overlook this lesson. Paleo anti-hubris—or caution or circumspection—by contrast appears to be perfectly in keeping with Strauss’s revival of classical moderation.
One other important point on which we believe Strauss and the paleos agree, if for different reasons: Men should not heedlessly or enthusiastically seek to overturn tradition—even traditions that seem, and perhaps are, not fully rational. Man is the natural being most capable of reason but he is not, in the mass, wholly rational. Few men ever are and most men never are. There is a necessary and inexpugnable irrational element to human life and longing. It is irrational to expect that this can ever be “cured” or banished. At best it may be controlled—controlled best by the self-control of the best souls, and in others by religion, community, the prospect of unwelcome consequences (including shame), and even (whispered to the conservatives!) by government. These latter elements the paleos intuit are more effective at cultivating the good than even the most reasonable lectures, and they’re of course right. Aristotle says that virtuous action arises not from reasoned instruction but from habituation (Nicomachean Ethics I 4, II 1).
The fear of unintended consequences should check the minds of all would-be reformers. But taken too far, it can act to induce the same paralysis risked by excessive philosophic doubt. The relative risks must always be weighed and considered, and—again—our only guide in this endeavor is reason. Note that we said guide not standard. Sometimes—perhaps most times—all things considered, it is better (that is, more reasonable) to let a sub-rational tradition stand than to try to impose reason by force. In the first usage (that we know of) of a well-known phrase, Plutarch writes in his life of Marius of what we would call an “elective surgery” that the great general had for his varicose veins. Without anesthetic or any restraints, Marius silently and stoically endured the knife on one leg. But when the physician reached for the other, Marius stopped him, with the words “the cure is worse than the disease.”
One must also consider the “matter.” Some men, at some times in some places, are more susceptible to rational correction than others. Indeed, for Strauss, a fundamental difference between ancient and modern philosophy is that the former warns that man—that politics—can never be fully rationalized, whereas the latter disdains this ancient moderation as timid resignation. One of Strauss’ greatest achievements was to show how modernity gets wrong, and oversells, the malleability of man. That is surely a warning the paleos can appreciate.
Perhaps Strauss’ most notable “public” act (if we may be allowed to stretch that phrase to include the rareified back-and-forth between two philosophers) was his debate with Kojeve. To oversimplify considerably, Strauss takes the side of the ancients and moderation while Kojeve argues for modernity and universalism. Kojeve foresees, and looks forward to, the emergence of the “universal and homogeneous state”—a prospect that must fill every paleo with horror. Strauss attacks that prospect as destructive of humanity and defends human differences as essential to humanity and, ultimately, to philosophy itself. For Strauss, in politics the regime is fundamental and regimes are fundamentally specific: a regime shapes the way of life of a people, its people, not all people. Regimes are amenable to improvement based on a transcendent rational standard, but within limits, and the division of humanity into peoples is both natural and desirable. Or, in Trumpian terms, “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”*
Finally, we reiterate that, whatever terminology some paleos may use, their praise of caution and custom is not anti-rational but eminently rational. Salutary paleo anti-hubris contradicts irrational paleo anti-reason.
* Yes, we know that the Westphalian nation-state is not identical to the ancient polis Strauss discusses directly in On Tyranny. But in the “Restatement” Strauss considerably elides this distinction in order to bring his discussion into the present day and contend with Kojeve on his own ground. The fundamental political alternative in the ancient world was free cities or universal empire (cf. Herodotus VII 8). That of the modern world is nation-state or universal-and-homogenous-state. Not so wildly different.
A Final Word on Religion and Science
Strauss was famous for his insistence on the ultimate incommensurably between religion and philosophy, reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem. He also insisted that neither could achieve the final refutation of the other. Some Straussians believe that insistence, too, was “exoteric.” We don’t. Some Straussians also make little attempt to hide their contempt for religion. We are not among them. Insofar as we are students of philosophy, we are neither enemies nor dismissers of the faithful but friends. Or at least we intend to be.
It is not our purpose to evangelize for philosophy nor to endorse some synthesis of reason and faith. We agree with Strauss that, at the highest level of thought, the two are indeed incommensurable. However, this does not mean that no religious believer can possibly accept a philosophic account of natural right. The same God who created nature, and man within nature, created natural right. The nature of man and natural right are inseparable. This would be true whatever man’s origins. It surely makes sense that the morality inherent in the natural world created by God comports with the morality prescribed in Scripture.
Similarly, belief in evolution does not require the abandonment of natural right. The core requirements of natural right are, to repeat, logos and teleology. It doesn’t matter whether these result from creation or evolution. So long as they exist—so long as they can in principle exist—natural right exists. For further insight on this theme, we refer you Larry Arnhart’s blog.
We leave you, for now, with the following. In the middle of World War II, Mortimer Adler was teaching “Great Books” courses at the University of Chicago’s adult education program in the Loop. The students were all women, the men being at war. At one session, Adler walked the ladies through Aristotle’s analysis of logos and the essence of what it means to be human, as distinct from a beast or a god. Then he asked, “Suppose right now that door opened, and in walked a gorilla who could discuss this idea with us rationally. Would he be a man?”
To which one of the ladies responded, “You know, Professor Adler, times are tough!”
Coming Eventually: the tenets of Paleo-Straussianism