Straussian Witchcraft and the Need for Devils' Advocates.

Author:Millerman, Michael

Although I have been an earnest admirer of Leo Strauss since I first started reading his books, and although I have for some time held certain Straussians in the highest regard, in this essay I argue that Straussians have a tendency to bewitch themselves with words and phrases from the master's lexicon in ways that are preposterous. Despite the solemn gravity with which they are employed, the terms "knowledge of the whole" and "knowledge of the part," for instance, are upon closer inspection nearly vapid mantras. What if Straussians were to find some new devils and devils' advocates to wrestle, in case they have become too familiar with their usual familiars and lost a bit of edge?

Straussian defined.

What is a Straussian?

I define a Straussian as someone for whom Leo Strauss is an authoritative interpreter of canonical texts in the history of political philosophy. For Straussians, regard for Strauss in this respect implies, or at any rate is often enough accompanied by, a large degree of sympathy towards several themes: (1) a conflict between ancients and moderns, with a preference for the ancients, Plato and Aristotle, in particular; (2) tension between reason and revelation as among other things the source for the vitality of the West; (3) disjunction between the philosopher, who as a philosopher is above the law, and the city or political community, which is as such structured by and dependent on law; and (4) esoteric writing as a strategy among philosophers to protect themselves from the city and the city from themselves, and to entice potential philosophers to the philosophical life by showing some skin between the lines to those few who have eyes to see; (5) opposition to positivism, scientific social science, and historicism, especially.

Someone can have deep respect and admiration for Strauss without being a Straussian by contesting the importance of some or all of these themes. But generally speaking, a Straussian will think that these themes are indispensable for understanding political philosophy and its history. On the other hand, Straussians may disagree about whether preference for the ancients is finally justified or whether Strauss did or did not resolve the tension between reason and revelation personally in favor of one or the other. A Straussian does not necessarily count herself as among the privileged few who write esoterically, who transcend the law, and so on. But it is only natural that among Straussians there are some who do.

Jargon for the "initiated."

Buzzwords and Bewitching Phrases

Since Straussians see Strauss as an authoritative interpreter of canonical texts and usually share a high regard for the aforementioned themes, it sometimes happens, predictably enough, that they use the same buzzwords. That is not particular to them. It is a feature of any school of thought, probably. Each has its own jargon, consisting of words that are not mere "common sense," but that may have special meaning for the "initiated," i.e., for the members of the school who are more or less familiar with the ways in which those words have been presented and interpreted in the relevant body of texts. Sometimes the jargon is or appears to be so artificial and jarring that it is obvious that the meaning is not available to the uninitiated. The word "beyng" (Seyn) among Heideggerians is an example of that. (1) If you have not read any Heidegger, that word must jump off the page as technical jargon. Other times, the buzzwords are not apparently artificial, but an avid reader of the texts of that school is sure to feel a particular "buzz" around the words due to their accumulated semantic import. For instance, because Strauss wrote that careful writers can work "miracles" using small words such as "seems" or "appears," those words are, to Straussians, imbued with a particular significance that they presumably lack among general readers. (2) They are buzzwords without coming across as technical jargon.

Straussian "buzz phrases."

I am not so much concerned with such words as "seems" or "appears," though. Although there are one or two simple buzzwords I will come back to later, right now it is "buzz phrases" that I want to mention. The kinds of phrases that I have in mind are well-known and well-worn tropes in the Straussian semantic universe. A decent Straussian can be expected to know that somewhere Strauss wrote that "the problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things." (3) And often, when they write their own books and articles, Straussians will repeat that phrase and follow its injunction by sticking to what they take to be the surface of things in the matter at hand. I suspect that the kind of criticism I am making in this article using a few such phrases could be extended, at least as an exercise, to all of the mantras, pieties, and verbal ticks of the Straussian mind and pen, among others. I read recently a self-proclaimed Straussian making fun of this kind of habit when he wrote along the following lines: "I suppose, or as we Straussians like to say, I am inclined to believe..." (4) In this case, the author identifies the phrase "I am inclined to believe" as a sort of verbal tick or buzz phrase, and he distances himself from it, though not from Straussianism in general.

Not because I think they are the most important of the lot, but because they recently caught my attention while reading Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy by the Zuckerts, I want to pick on a couple of phrases that I think have a bewitching effect. (5) The phrases are "knowledge of the whole" and "knowledge of the part." They are very significant phrases, as I will try to show in a moment. I confess that these and other phrases have bewitched me for a long time. It is only because they have recently started to occur to me as jarring that I have noticed that something strange might have been going on all the while. (6)

Noetic Heterogeneity

According to Strauss, one of Socrates's great discoveries concerns--get ready for a very nice bit of insider's jargon--noetic heterogeneity. That means that if you are a thinker trying to think the broadest and most fundamental thoughts--i.e., a philosopher--you cannot but be struck by the fact that the whole consists of distinct parts. There is not just one thing to know: that would be noetic homogeneity. Some philosophers thought that they could know the whole by knowing the root from which everything emerged. They were really concerned to get a handle on that one thing. Strauss seems to see Heidegger as obsessed with being like that. The better way, Strauss thinks, is to recognize noetic heterogeneity. If you want to know the whole, your best bet is to know the parts--because the whole is manifestly comprised of parts. So when Socrates asks his "what is X" questions, he is inquiring into the parts. He asks, "what is Justice," "what is Courage," and so on. A philosopher of noetic homogeneity would not ask those questions unless she thought that everything is justice, or courage (or water, or fire, or being, or some X). (7)

Philosophers and citizens.

In the context of Straussianism, the significance of noetic heterogeneity is that it allows us to distinguish the domain of the political as a part of the whole. Heidegger, Strauss once wrote, failed to reflect on tyranny because all he did was talk about being. (8) But if you admit noetic heterogeneity, then the philosopher, who wants comprehensive knowledge, is eventually led to reflect on what it is to philosophize, and part of what it is to philosophize, at least from the perspective of Socratic philosophy, which Strauss championed, is to reflect on what it is to be a philosopher among non-philosophers, i.e., a thinker among citizens guided primarily by custom, opinion, and law, and hence to reflect on politics in its own right, and thus on tyranny, too, of course. What emerges from the philosopher's examination of the philosophical life that is of importance to the argument here is that politics is, as Strauss puts it, a part of the whole that is open to the whole, and a part of the whole about which the philosopher can have knowledge through gaining knowledge of its essential limits. (9) All of that is eventually related to the argument that the philosopher, however radical her thought, should be moderate in her actions, including in her writing (hence: esoteric writing). It would not make sense to collapse the political into the philosophical through some obsession with noetic homogeneity, because true knowledge (and sanity) means knowing that the whole consists of parts (at least in part!); and to know the part called politics is to know that, though it opens to philosophy, it is also distinct from it and in important ways incompatible with it. (10)

Politics and philosophy differentiated.

But Strauss did not think that knowledge of the part was the last word. According to the Zuckerts, though he first asserts that knowledge of the part is only possible against the backdrop of knowledge of the whole, he also argues that knowledge of the whole is unattainable, yet he does so without concluding that knowledge of the part is likewise unattainable. His arguments about the possibility of knowing the whole and knowing the parts are not altogether stable or clear. Now, I will present some of the difficulties as they are discussed by the Zuckerts. Then, I will discuss why I think that all this talk about knowledge of the part and knowledge of the whole is a little bewitching.

Knowledge of the Part, Knowledge of the Whole

The Zuckerts' discussion touches upon at least seven propositions that Strauss makes concerning knowledge of the whole and knowledge of the part:

Seven propositions regarding knowledge.

Proposition 1. Knowledge of the part requires knowledge of the whole. In this semantic universe, that means, for instance, that you cannot know what justice is if you do...

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