There has been a tradition of scholarship on Leo Strauss that has emphasized his philosophical kinship with Nietzsche. some have used this comparison as means to criticize Strauss’ project as esoterically nihilistic (cf. Shadia Drury) and others have assimilated Strauss‘ thought into Nietzsche’s with approval (Lawrence Lampert). Strauss was obviously intoxicated with Nietzsche’s thinking; famously, or infamously, he claimed: “I am by no means a Nietzsche expert; I can only say that Nietzsche so dominated and bewitched me between my twenty-second and thirtieth years, that I literally believed everything I understood of him”. While it’s often the case that comparative studies of the two focus on the possibility that they shared nihilistic conclusions, I’m going to try to distinguish the two on the basis of their views of Christianity in light of the fundamental problems posed by modernity.
Let’s start with Nietzsche. Nietzsche famously announces the problem of modern nihilism in Judeo-Christian terms: the “Death of God” signifies the double problem that science has sundered the connection between reason and goodness and has undercut the metaphysical support for our purposive meaning as human beings. Now that we can no longer in good conscience believe in God or the moral tradition he ontologically underwrites, man is confronted by the abyss of his own radical insignificance. Nihilism itself is not necessarily bad—in a note from 1887 Nietzsche distinguished between a “passive” and an “active” nihilism, the former which is identical to “decadence” and the latter which is a “masterful force of destruction”. In fact, the onslaught of nihilism presents a grand historical opportunity since it “purifies” us—this is how Nietzsche can happily classify the eternal return, the core of his response to the modern crisis, as the “most extreme form of nihilism”. The discovery that Being is nothing other than Becoming, or to put it in the language of physics, that rest is nothing other than a disguised version of motion, is the precondition for the recognition of the “Innocence” of Becoming, or the moral indifference of the cosmos to man.
The problem for Nietzsche is a resuscitation of man in light of the self-abnegating consequences of the Enlightenment—he has to somehow combine the fact of radical cosmic insignificance with radical self-celebration. The problem is not to devise some “individualistic morality” but to ground an aristocratic “rank ordering” of human beings. The difficulty of this project can be seen in the obvious contradiction between what is usually considered the twin pillars of his thought—the will to power and the eternal return of the same. The will to power emphasizes the fact of human choice which seems eliminated by the determinism of the eternal return; as Karl Lowith puts it, Nietzsche attempts to combine cosmological completeness with individual creativity. As becomes clear in his later writing, the will to power is almost entirely exoteric unless one reinterprets it only as a statement about the reduction of world to the random fluctuations of force—the reinterpretation of Being as Becoming necessarily destroys not just the act of willing but the willful agent behind all creativity. Nietzsche understands that a radically impersonal cosmos cannot account for the existence of real personal beings, and is not content to simply accept the free human being as a mysterious accident. As Nietzsche points out himself, the intellectual “probity” paradoxically inherited from Christianity requires that the ruthless logic of radical skepticism be carried to its final conclusion: the rejection of both a personal God and of genuine freedom.
The problem of Christianity for Nietzsche is essentially the same as the problem of Platonism at its core—Christianity is a “decayed Platonism” or “Platonism for the masses”. One synoptic way of encapsulating the many problems Nietzsche identifies with Christianity is to look at it through the lens of temporality-Christianity devalues human life by relocating all value in eternity. To put this in quasi-Hegelian terms, the meaning of all individual existence is a function of the individual’s participation in the Absolute. The challenge for Nietzsche is that the positing of the Superman as the height of human existence seems to contradict his intransigent opposition to any Idealism that creates dualistic split between “what is” and “what should be”—Nietzsche wants to combine the striving for better that necessarily accompanies the legitimacy of any natural hierarchy without negating our actual historical existence or introducing a trans-historical frame of reference. The trick of the eternal return is to declare the historical actuality of the future and therefore retain its immanence—the Superman is not an ideal but rather a real figure who has been and will be willed again. The eternal return, then, is a repudiation of the Christian view of eternity that results in “other-worldliness”—Nietzsche demands an eternity that maintains the unity of time and of this world.
For all his often incendiary rhetoric vilifying both Christianity and religion, Nietzsche makes clear his respect for it a profoundly spiritual expression of the will to power that has, in many ways, elevated mankind. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche mocks the modern scholar as inferior to the religious type he characteristically condemns and in The Gay Science notes that the Enlightenment struggle versus the Kingdom of Darkness was often the struggle of small-souled versus deeper, more impressive men. Nietzsche borrows from Christianity its themes of self-transformation and redemption, and attempts to substitute the divine Creation of the cosmos with the self-creation of man. Still, such willful creativity can only be a dream and in the absence of any stable or ordered conception of Being metaphysics must be replaced by rhetoric or art. The highest being for Nietzsche is not the philosopher who pensively contemplates eternity or the saint who worships God but the poet-warrior, a “Ceasar with the soul of Christ”, who basks in his own contingent and historical particularity and deifies himself. So while Christianity understands its doctrine as the truth Nietzsche understands his own revolution as a salutary myth—the difference, from Nietzche’s perspective, is that his lie ennobles rather than debases human life and that he offers it with eyes wide open.
Nietzsche borrows from Christianity those parts of humanity that are destroyed by the victory of Enlightenment science, or as he puts it elsewhere, the victory of scientific method over science. The freedom and greatness of the individual and the enormous significance assigned to personal creation are all vitiated by the reduction of man to matter in the infinite void—what began as the quest for mastery consummates itself in self-effacement. Nietzsche’s project is the transformation of this stultifying nihilism into the requisite condition for the transvaluation of all values—he disingenuously presents chance, which is the rhetorical mask for necessity, as the ground of creative freedom. For Nietzsche, creation is necessarily preceded by destruction, and his reckless and revolutionary poetry aims to hasten the demise of the modern project to usher in a new age, and maybe even new Gods. It might be the case, though, that Nietzsche is even more dependent on Christianity than he supposes, and maybe more modern as well: a pair of central criticisms offered by Strauss.
At the heart of modern nihilism, for Nietzsche, is the problem presented by the ascendancy of the modern scientific project-the mathematization of matter or the arbitrary formalization of material structure conceals the real chaos of Being. The Kantian split between phenomena and noumena, and the dualism of primary and secondary qualities, creates an unbridgeable gulf between the world as it exists and the world as we experience it. To paraphrase Nietzsche, science is generous with the “how” of but thrifty with the “why”—human life is reduced to a dream without any dreamers.
One criticism of Nietzsche’s project is that it repeats the central problem of modernity as he diagnoses it—the contradiction between the will to power and the eternal return or the tension between an exaltation of creativity and the inescapable fact of determinism produces an intractable dualism. Nietzsche’s articulation of the eternal return presents a less than convincing solution to this dualism by combining impersonal eternity with personal will—the metaphysical necessity of eternity is willed by man over and over. However, the will to power is a poetic fiction versus a philosophical explanation so Nietzsche really accepts the nihilistic conclusions modernity draws. What is distinctively modern about Nietzsche’s perspective is that he simply accepts the impossibility that human freedom and purpose could be grounded in Being.
Nevertheless, the decadent nihilism of modernity has lost confidence in its own foundations and so it has ceased to nourish human nobility—the original project of the “mastery and possession of nature” has resulted in the debasement of man. Nietzsche’s real solution is not to reject the philosophical core of modern dualism but to mask the despair it generates with a rhetorical dualism between the exoteric doctrine of noble freedom and the esoteric truth of meaningless necessity. Nietzsche uses the eternal return both to counter the nihilism produced by Enlightenment science and to conceal his deeper and even deadlier version.
Strauss seems to criticize Nietzsche on the twin grounds that his project is both too Christian and too modern—it turns out that for Strauss these two criticisms are very closely related to one another since in certain key respects modernity is an intensification of what can be found in Christianity. First, Strauss argues that Nietzsche’s understanding of Plato is unduly influenced by Christian categories. According to Strauss, Nietzsche explicitly presents himself as the “antagonist” of Plato while simultaneously failing to appreciate the great resemblance between his “philosopher of the future” and Plato’s Socrates.
Also, at the end of Socrates and Aristophanes, Strauss suggests that Nietzsche failed to make an adequate distinction between Plato’s Socrates and Aristophanes’ Socrates because he also failed to make a distinction between the appearance of Socrates’ religious asceticism and reality of philosophical moderation. What Nietzsche interprets as a genuinely austere religious morality Strauss sees as the moderation practically necessary for and in the service of the life of philosophy. The source of Nietzsche’s misunderstanding, according to Strauss, is Nietzsche’s failure to recover a non-Christian reading of Plato that properly distinguishes between Plato, the real Socrates, and the literary presentation of Socrates by Plato—Nietzsche still clings to the traditional division between Socrates the moralist and Plato the philosopher of the Ideas. On the basis of Farabi’s reading of Plato, which excludes any mention of the either the ideas or the immortal soul, Strauss was able to recover a more primitive understanding of Plato’s work before its calcification into Christian Platonism. Strauss goes even further than this, suggesting (in Philosophy and Law) that Nietzsche’s insistence that the existence of God and possibility of revelation be rejected by intellectual “probity” is more evidence of his failure to extricate himself from the traditional morality of the Bible.
Strauss also contends that Nietzsche’s conception of philosophy is far too modern. While Strauss concedes that Nietzsche has “spoken of the philosopher as nobly as anyone ever has” it’s also the case that Nietzsche errs in presenting Socrates, the philosopher par excellence, as a practical reformer or statesman more concerned with a transformation of the world than its comprehension. It is precisely this notion of theory as praxis, the precursor to the reconstitution of philosophy as technology, that makes Socrates the “vortex of world history” (The Birth of Tragedy). Still, in addition to this transformative design, or the understanding of Socrates’ conception of philosophy as yet another expression of the will to power, Nietzsche lists as Socrates’ “fundamental error” the “invention of the pure mind and of the good in itself”. Strauss counters Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates—that his activity is unknowingly an expression of the will to power and that it is essentially dogmatic—by attempting to recover the zetetic or non-doctrinal understanding of Platonic philosophy as a way of life. Whereas Nietzsche both criticizes the effects of technology and encourages the application of its essential premises to the task of philosophy, Strauss follows Plato in identifying the political withdrawl of the philosopher, his basic reluctance to rule, as the support for the trans-erotic or trans-political character oh philosophy, properly understood. Instead of the poet-warrior who reorders the political world through a rhetoric of revolution Strauss esteems the aristocratic philosopher who prefers the contemplative participation in eternity made possible by a rhetoric of moderation.
There seems to be a connection between Strauss’ criticisms of Nietzsche as both too modern and too Christian given an important philosophical kinship between the two. Nietzsche’s dogmatic atheism is paradoxically too Christian in that it still depends on an intellectual “probity” grounded in scriptural morality and too modern since based on the circular demand that revelation justify itself before the tribunal of reason, assuming rather than demonstrating its superiority. Initially, then, Strauss ostensibly criticizes Nietzsche for failing to appreciate the tension between reason and revelation since his superman” must unite in himself Jerusalem and Athens on the highest level”. However, following Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, it seems that the fundamental split is better captured as between those who affirm the Eternity of the cosmos and those who believe in its Creation. For Nietzsche, eternity is the enemy of creation but is a necessary postulate to avoid the Idealism of Christianity/Platonism and modern science. Nietzsche’s epistemological perspectivism and emphasis on creation seem to entail a hyper-personalization of logos or the replacement of reason as the central faculty by the will. By way of contrast, Strauss’ understanding of philosophy as the passive contemplation of eternity both prioritizes and depersonalizes logos at the same time.
For Strauss, the problem of technology at the crux of modernity can be understood as the prioritization of the will over the intellect, or of practice over theory, which ultimately has the political consequence of undermining moderation or prudence based on a recognition of human limitation. The nature of Platonic philosophy, which emphasizes our radical contingency and epistemological limitations in light of eternity, diminishes the hopes for can be accomplished on the basis of History. This is why Strauss finds a connection between Heidegger’s “explicit renunciation of the very notion of eternity” or his “contempt” for the “permanent characteristics of humanity” and an utter failure of political responsibility. Likewise, Strauss draws a genealogical line between Nietzsche’s celebration of the will and fascism. The danger of Historicism, or of the reckless liberation of the human will, is what Strauss sometimes refers to as “modern utopianism” which hubristically denies the natural political ends of man and therefore his natural limits. By way of contrast, “ancient utopianism” which takes its bearings by what is highest in man, understands the limits to the actualization of our grandest political hopes.
One can begin to see why, according to Strauss, Christian eternity is a less effective guarantor of political moderation than the classical version in his brief account of Aquinas’ natural law in Natural Right and History. The problem with natural law is twofold: first, its “universally obligatory” character frees it from the “hesitations and ambiguities” which could “recover” for statesmanship its necessary “latitude”. In other words, Strauss seems to accept the Machiavellian critique that Thomistic natural law is too rigid to accommodate the sensitivity to circumstance that typifies genuine prudence and therefore it has a kinship to political fanaticism.
Even more importantly, natural law has the consequence of undermining Strauss’ argument for the aristocratic philosopher as the highest human type. Natural law posits both intellectual and moral perfection as the essential ends of man; however, according to the classical view, intellectual virtue is higher than moral virtue and the actualization of the former is independent of the latter. In order to rescue the superiority of moral virtue, Thomas must argue that the natural end of man is “insufficient” and therefore “points beyond itself” to the divine law; the problem of natural law is that it isn’t all that natural and is therefore “inseparable” from both “natural theology” and “biblical revelation”. Strauss even suggests that the “absorption of natural law by theology” explains if not justifies the modern reaction against it. Still, the greater importance of moral virtue in relation to intellectual virtue has the consequence that the “end of man cannot consist in philosophic investigation” and that, therefore, the philosopher cannot represent the height of human existence.
Strauss certainly understood that the Christian emphasis on our personal importance falls short of the modern celebration of the individual will. In fact, Strauss compares the Bible to classical philosophy with respect to its recommendation of political humility; from the Biblical perspective, man is “not given rule over the whole” and “he has been assigned a place” understood in terms of his “obedience to the divinely established order”. Nevertheless, the Christian emphasis on our unique personal significance and the irreducibly personal nature of logos combined with the rigidity of natural law provides a recipe for something dangerously similar to “modern utopianism”. In fact, not only does the Thomistic synthesis of reason and revelation undermine the ultimate superiority of the philosophic life it also trades our effacement before an impersonal eternity for our aggrandizement as the peak of creation made in the image of a personal God.
For Strauss, the return to nature, or to put it in the Husserlian terms he sometimes employs, the return to the things themselves, is meant as an antidote the modern scientific dualism that trades lived political experience for empty abstraction. Still, Strauss’ insistence that the “dignity of the mind” is “the true ground of the dignity of man” produces an abstraction of its own —the separation of logos from eros, or the radical distinction between the self-sufficiency of philosophy from the moral and material conditions of its exercise, splits man into two incompatible parts. Strauss appropriates Platonic rhetoric to exaggerate the cave like darkness of political life to temper the brutal immoderation of modern politics—the price of securing the greatness of the aristocratic philosopher is the hyperbolic diminution of everyone else. Even the establishment of the philosopher’s greatness is a questionable victory since he realizes it in his participation in eternal necessity, in the stark recognition of his own contingency. Both Nietzsche and Strauss seem to offer versions of Spinoza’s view that freedom comes from knowledge of determinism. Strauss defeats the modern dualism between man as politically and scientifically understood but only to establish a new one between man as the only part of the cosmos mysteriously and freely open to the truth about the whole and a cosmos, supposedly the “home of the human mind”, that is indifferent to his openness.
Ivan Kenneally is a writer for Daily Witness.
Category: Books & Culture
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