Best known for his Neocon disciples and his theory of hidden, esoteric meanings in ancient texts, Strauss studied under Heidegger and, in the climate of a crisis of rationalism and the decline of European civilisation, absorbed the master's belief that the answers lay in a return to the Classics, and a pre-Modern way of life. Unlike Heidegger, though, who found succor in a type of Existentialism, and later in a mystical turn away from society, Strauss engaged with political philosophy, seeing in the pressing questions of our time an iteration of the ancient question of what consists the good life. Strauss sees the two constituent traditions of Western culture, Athens and Jerusalem - rationalism and Biblical morality - as engaged in an ongoing dialectic tension in which each can learn from and enrich the other. In the modern-day crisis of rationalism, then, he sees the result of too-great reliance on the power of Science, the detached, disinterested observation of nature. Applying this methodology in the social sciences, without the backgrounded rubric of values - Biblical morality had been discredited and finally torn down by Nietzsche, while the philsophical branch of Ethics was seen as irrelevant to science - had led us to moral relativism, and Strauss relentlessly assaults his fellow social scientists for their attempts to circumvent this inevitable conclusion. Fiery, erudite and gripping, Strauss strings together his argument, in this collection of ten assorted essays, from close readings of Thucydides and Xenophon, from Lukács and Isaiah Berlin, and from allcorners of the social sciences. Whether or not one accepts all of his ideas, he is required reading for anyone interested in Classical or medieval philosophy, or in modern-day questions of liberalism, pluralism and democratic values. I 1 The cautious relativism of modern social science rejects any chauvinist claims of the Western tradition as provincialism. Thus, social scientists only apply a quasi-moral relativism, and the resolution of this - between the embrace of Western values, or complete rejection of absolutism - is the most pressing philosophical issue in the social sciences. 3 Strauss picks up the "value question": if the scientific method is the only rational way to proceed in the social sciences, and if science can never answer value ("ought") questions, then how do we avoid moral relativism? Heidegger found the answer in existentialism - reducing the human experience to the fleeting, lived experience (Plato and Aristotle found the highest value in that which is always - Heidegger found it specifically in that which is mortal), turning objective into the false and misleading, and the subjective into the true (unlike Kant's transcendental subjectivity, Heidegger's system doesn't claim that there is hidden truth in the objective). 5 Thence the famous Straussian distinction between exoteric and esoteric meaning - it becomes clear that ancient philosophers believed in political instruction as a medium for teaching the idea of the good, through simplified, 'exoteric' forms. Living the good life is ultimately outside the cave of politics, but the polis must be lead to virtue through more accessible routes. Contrary to Plato's view of the philosopher's role being outside of politics, Thucydides sees his role as to lead: he prefers the dynamic creativity of conflict to the placid rest. Thus Plato's history (book III of the Laws) is essentially fatalistic, while Thucydides sees a small margin of human agency. And for centuries history was seen as synonymous with political history, and the goal of social science to describe the best society - a special case of philosophy. (Strauss quotes Hegel to the effect that Aristophanes cannot be understood without appreciation of his essential comedy.) Aristophanes seeks both to edify, and to teach; his plays have a social lesson (the value of the pastoral life), but even this lesson is humourous in its frankness. Hegel, the greatest modern scholar of Aristoph, sees in his plays the triumph of a radical subjectivity which lampoons the expectations of society. The realisation that philosophy must also address the human race is the origin of political science. The later Socrates, as presented by Plato and Xenophon, was the first philosopher to realise this. His Socrates understands noetic heterogeneity, the essential difference between the political and the true good. Xenophon distinguishes political wisdom from the philosophical - it is different, and, if not superior, certainly primary. (Xenophon's modern reputation is as a supporter of oligarchy over democracy.) We now move on to Plato, and the central tension between philosophy and poetry. (interim summary: Aristoph: poetry> philosophy> politics; Xenophon: philosophy =/= politics) iv) In the republic, Plato's Socrat claims that the wise must rule a city founded and logic, not myth (since if the basis is myth, the problematic behaviour of the gods arises), enforced by a noble lie. (Something about the theory of the forms, and the heterogeneity of matter being represented in the city, and the identity of the part with the whole - I didn't quite follow it.) v) Having grasped the significance of the Idea, by which reality can be understood, Plato stands for political philosophy against the Sophists, in whose materialist conception of the world there is no room for rigid values. Ultimately, though, its goal is different: Plato sees finding the truth as the goal of life. Post-Enlightenment, dazzled by the successes of science, people rejected the Bible's truth, while continuing to subscribe to its moral norms - until Nietzsche. Ultimately, Strauss claims, rationality begs the question in its critique of religion (on rational grounds, which cannot ever judge the revelatory), and religion is unable to refute philosophy (the true, Eros-driven search for the rational good life; not the neutered handmaid of Christianity that is "religious philosophy").
Our goals in that class were narrow, and generally the lesson plan revolved on Heidegger's work (whom the professor regarded as the creator, and only worthy purveyor, of modern existentialism)and Strauss' response to it. While Heidegger is a mind without equal in modern philosophy, Strauss holds his own in this introductory work.
Leo Strauss was a German-American philosopher and philologist of ancient Greek text.