Harry Jaffa At The Claremont Institute: ‘Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy’

Full piece here. (passed along by a reader).

According to Jaffa:

“Strauss’s critique of modern philosophy, as it seemed to me, was directed above all towards overcoming what he often called the self-destruction of reason, so that the authority equally of classical philosophy and the Bible, with respect to virtue and morality, might be restored. This restoration, I am convinced, is also nothing less than the restoration of the perspective of the American Founding.”

Is this analysis unnecessarily drawing philosophy into the political realm as Strauss was careful to argue against?  As Jaffa might argue:  is it freeing philosophy and religion from the passion of politics?…or at least from one of the main targets, which is the fusion of reason and revelation into states that can sink into potential tyranny these past few hundred years?

Here’s a quote from a letter Jaffa received (included at the link), which I think attempts to highlight one of the roles of Plato’s metaphysics (providing a metaphysical foundation for moral instruction and knowledge):

“In Plato (and still more in Aristotle) one can see the philosophers replacing the poets (and/or the sophists) — and the gods of the poets (and/or the sophists) — as the source of a non-contradictory moral instruction. Of course, the philosophers will not rule directly but through the new breed of sophists and poets resulting from their influence upon education; or, as in the case of Aristotle, through the gentlemen whose education they will supervise. But the God of the Bible is immune to Plato’s critique of paganism, for reasons I have already (I think) made sufficiently clear.”

Does the analysis lean too heavily on philosophical idealism?  Can Plato do all that heavy lifting for our times, or is that asking too much of philosophy as well?

Also On This Site:  A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”Via An Emailer: Some Criticism Of Leo Strauss?

Nussbaum is a deep thinker, drawing on Aristotle among others, how would the analysis above see her?:    From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum

From Bloggingheads: Adam Frank And Eliezer Yudkowsky Discuss The Epistemology Of Science When revelation and reason go hand in hand?  Should math be non-instrumental, and free of such Platonisms?

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10 thoughts on “Harry Jaffa At The Claremont Institute: ‘Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy’

  1. Note that in the second quote, Jaffa also says that the philosophers replace the poets as purveyors of moral instruction. I think in the last analysis this is quite political. Strauss might say in places that philosophy and politics ought not to be entwined, but that raises a few questions:

    1) Is there a natural right in politics? Furthermore, if there is, is it something desirable?

    2) Assuming that we answer “yes” to the first two questions, we might then ask what other than philosophy – meaning first of all political philosophy – could bring this naturally right order into being.

  2. Thag,thanks for reading and commenting.

    I should have been more clear, as the 2nd quote is from a student who attended one of Jaffa’s lectures. I think Plato was quite serious about the moral decay that poets/artists can bring about in the Republic, and his metaphysics is, in part, trying to lay a foundation for moral instruction and knowledge that looks elsewhere to provide that foundation. Of course, there much debate about this, and good disagreement even with his own student, Aristotle. We’re still talking and thinking about it today.

    Is there a natural right in politics? Do you mean a right some people have to lead others, at times? He who has most knowledge about a subject? He who has grasped the forms and gone out into the sunlight from the Cave? He who has been on the mountaintop? He who has talked with God? He who has discovered the most fundamental laws of the universe?

    I think Strauss saw his project as a way to combat the dangers of post Enlightenment thought, and provide another way out around Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, The Fascists and even relativism. IT’s compelling, but I have my doubts of course, and Plato’s idealism has its own drawbacks and dangers, including the all too familiar philosopher-king hopes.

    Jaffa may following Strauss and creating space for the reason/revelation project, but what are the downsides of this?

    “Naturally right order” is a little scary to me, and exactly the kind of idealism that can be used to justify all manner of tyranny…I’m not sure if the reason/revelation problem is accurately represented by Jaffa, nor Strauss’s doubts about what philosphy can do.

  3. Thag, I’m probably butchering Strauss as I’m so unfamiliar with him. Here’ s quote from Wikipedia:

    “Strauss constantly stressed the importance of two dichotomies in political philosophy: Athens and Jerusalem (Reason vs. Revelation) and Ancient versus Modern. The “Ancients” were the Socratic philosophers and their intellectual heirs, and the “Moderns” start with Niccolò Machiavelli. The contrast between Ancients and Moderns was understood to be related to the unresolvable tension between Reason and Revelation. The Socratics, reacting to the first Greek philosophers, brought philosophy back to earth, and hence back to the marketplace, making it more political.
    The Moderns reacted to the dominance of revelation in medieval society by promoting the possibilities of Reason very strongly. They objected the merger of natural right and natural theology proposed by Thomas Aquinas which resulted in the vulnerability of natural right to theological disputes along with Aquinas’ moral rigidity highlighted by the prohibition of divorce and birth control.[15] Thomas Hobbes, under the influence of Francis Bacon, re-oriented political thought to what was most solid but most low in man, setting a precedent for John Locke and the later economic approach to political thought, such as, initially, in David Hume and Adam Smith.”

  4. Absolutely. ‘Natural right’ is a quite elusive term, and could be taken to mean any of the things you mention, but I think the place the classics would start from is this: If we observe nature, can we discern a political order which reflects it? Is man at home in pre-civil or civil society? Is man even at home in this world?

    I take Jaffa, when he says that we find these very philosophical premises in the American Founding, to mean that reason and revelation are set against each other: neither has a direct title to rule in America, and this manifests itself in the separation of church and state. Those secularists who believe that religion is the foundation of all evil don’t have any idea of just the kind of horrors unassisted human reason can bring about.

    In other words, we have not only to worry about those who would try to combine reason and revelation in one awesome power, but we have to also worry about those who would denigrate the one and esteem the other. By maintaining that reason and revelation could not be reconciled, Strauss, followed by Jaffa, put in place a system which would provide ‘checks’ against both prophets and scientists.

  5. chr1: I think I commented on here again last night, but I don’t see it up. I am at work right now but could respond to your post later.

  6. Thag,thanks for responding again.

    I find Strauss’s solution to the problems and project of the Enlightenment to be quite compelling. Reason alone, or militant secularism, or those who would banish religion from daily life, from the State (as they grow the state), and the horrors of Communism once enacted, or dangers of socialism, or the older European system that drove those seeking religious freedom to the new world, or those always busy arranging human society according to their ideal plans, or scientists sure of their vision and naive of politics, is always worth pointing out. There is a tension in the founding between governance and the religious leaders of the colonies, and potentially between reason/revelation.

    Are we merely oberserving Nature, or as Kant might have us, arranging it as well? Aside from Kant’s transcendental idealism and his project for reason, I think we are stuck discussing nature as it is by understanding its laws. Nature is strange, and I can’t really know ultimately what it is, but I can quite well predict how it will behave according to those laws, and if it doesn’t, I’d better think again.

    I like the idea that there is an alternative, or a kind of return to the classics, and the Socratics, as a corrective to much discussed above, but I suppose I’m a little skeptical of those who begin to talk about the ideal political order or the natural right to political order. Couldn’t the natural right be used by those who would lead us to tyranny…or even simple aristocracy? The well educated and the well-born endlessly discuss the natural right as we repeat some of Europe’s worst mistakes?

    There wasn’t organized Christianity in the Socratic world, and some of Plato’s idealism was wrapped up in Christian metaphysics later on (by Augustine in earnest). Also, the democracy he lived in was much more hierarchical than we have today. Was there a form non-religious revelation back then (i.e. Pythagorean cult), or was that reason too on this analysis?

  7. If you get the chance, refer to Strauss’ Natural Right and History p 140-141. He addresses there precisely your concern about classical natural right’s relation to the potential for tyranny:

    It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule. It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise wishes of the unwise; hence the wise rulers ought not to be responsible to their unwise subjects…this solution, which at first glance seems to be the only just solution for a society in which there are wise men, is, as a rule, impracticable. The few wise cannot rule the many unwise by force. The unwise multitude must recognize the wise as wise and obey them freely because of their wisdom. But the ability of the wise to persuade the unwise is extremely limited. . . . Therefore it is extremely unlikely that the conditions required for the rule of wise will ever be met.What is more likely to happen is that an unwise man, appealing to the natural right of wisdom and catering to the lowest desires of the many, will persuade the multitude of his right: the prospects of tyranny are brighter than those of the rule of the wise. This being the case, the natural right ofthe wise must be questioned, and
    the indispensable requirement for wisdom must be qualified by the requirement for consent. The political problem consists in reconciling the requirement for wisdom with the requirement for consent (emphasis added).

  8. Thag, thanks for responding and the clarification. It’s time I read Strauss more closely.

    Also, I should say of Kant, not “arranging,” but rather what we can know has already been arraanged by our onboard apparatus.

  9. Thanks, and it has been great going back and forth on this! I had to read Critique of Pure Reason in undergrad, and I found it to be one of the most tedious things ever! But yes, I think that that is right. Our experience in this world is fundamentally shaped by the way we impose on space and time (indeed, we create space and time) and therefore we get in the way of ourselves ever experiencing the so-called ‘thing-in-itself.’

  10. Thag,

    Tedious is right.

    I would just shy away from “creation” as it involves a conscious act. Time and space may be preconditions of us even having intelligible experience in the first place, as Kant makes the argument.

    Thanks again.

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