Of Trees, Roots, and Fruit: Leo Strauss and the Rescue of the West
June 16, 2014
Early in the morning, as he went on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly? ” they asked.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. ”
The base of the tree of Western Civilization consists of two roots that produce a unique tension and energy in its intellectual life uncommon to any other world tradition. These two roots are classical Greek philosophy and Biblical faith. Greek philosophy is based on rational truth, whereas Biblical faith is based on revealed truth. These two influences resemble each other in that each proclaims to know the Truth and that to arrange one’s life according to that Truth leads to the attainment of the best way of life. Yet, because of the nature of Reason and Revelation, Greek philosophy and Biblical faith are diametrically opposed in the precise manner that they establish their authority in these matters. Therefore, because of their doctrines of the best way of life, their differing first principles of what that is and how to attain it, and the importance of the subject of which they speak, these roots have had a powerful influence throughout history. Much of the intellectual energy of Western Civilization has been focused on the attempt to reconcile the two.
There is one consideration, however, that makes this question even more urgent. The West currently in a crisis; it no longer really believes in itself. This crisis is the result of the relatively recent influence of thought—generally called Modernity—that is in conflict with these two pre-modern roots. First, this thought replaced the original roots with its own forms. Then, due to both circumstances and the eventual barrenness of the tree these grafted roots produced, Modernity came into question. What, then, are we as modern Western men to do with ourselves? How can we resolve this two-fold conflict raging within us? One man who saw and understood this conflict was Leo Strauss, a contemporary political philosopher. Furthermore he was a way out of this problem that both brings the West back to a state of health and fruitfulness and gives modern man the purposefulness that he has been lacking for so long. To understand his solution, we must first turn to his analysis of the problem. And to do that, we must first turn to Modernity.
Progress and Modernity
Strauss begins by pointing out the urgency of the problem of Reason and Revelation by putting it in its current context. It is not “self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism or self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism” which makes the study of the basis of Western Civilization important, but “the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West.”1 So what, then, is the nature of the crisis of the West, as Strauss understands it? It is “identical with the climactic crisis of the idea of progress.” So what then is the idea of progress? It is here that we must begin. 1
The idea of progress, briefly outlined, begins with the assumption that the history of human thought as a whole is a progressive development from ignorance to enlightenment. This intellectual progress causes proportional social progress, leading from barbarism, rudeness, and scarcity to a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.2 The engine of this progressive is unlimited, and finally, after man has progressed above a certain ceiling of social development, he cannot fall below, either intellectually or socially. 1
This is a radical departure from pre-modern forms of the west, specifically Biblical Faith and Greek philosophy. Biblically, the beginning is perfect and precedes a Fall; man was perfect in the beginning and our elders are superior in comparison to us now.3 The Golden Age has already existed and has passed and cannot be regained. 1 In regard to the Greeks, and especially Plato, the intellectual project, the philosophical project, is primarily a quest for knowledge, of which I will say more below, and that quest for knowledge, of which I will say more below, and that quest is fundamentally and necessarily incomplete. So in this sense, the Greeks can be said to have had an understanding of progress, but they depart from modernity in regard to social progress.4 Simply because some people philosophize, a group that is very small, does not mean that they will want to rule or have the power to rule. This is the core of Plato’s political problem: the radical disjunction between those who are wise and those who hold political power. To resolve this problem, it would be necessary to institute philosopher kings, or to insure that those who rule are influenced by philosophers, a very rare possibility as Plato understood it. 1
It is insufficient to look only at this idea of progress to understand the crisis of the West. Progress is only a representative part of a larger whole, what Strauss calls Modernity. First of all, Modernity is not simply defined as a chronological period: all things in our modern are not part of Modernity, for some pre-modern traditions still exist. Modernity is a philosophy or idea, or perhaps more precisely, and ideology.5 We may make this distinction by first understanding philosophy in its classical sense as a quest for the Truth through rational discourse. Ideology, on the other hand, claims to be a teaching not superior in truth to any other ideology except by force or will. 1 Modernity, then, has degenerated into an ideology because it has ceased offering an argument, a reason, ofr its own existence. But we will speak more of this below. Of Modernity, there are two distinct yet related parts, which can be called Modern Science, or modern natural science, and History, or modern historical awareness.6 Modern Science and History can be said to be the means by which progress is attained, or in other words, they are not strictly contemplative disciples, but are used in the pursuit of social progress: the relief o man’s condition, the increase of man’s power, and the institution of man as the master and owner of nature through its conquest. 6 So let us now turn to a deeper exploration of these two prongs of Modernity.
Modern Science, as understood by Modernity, is the project of man to understand, and thus control, his world through unlimited technological progress. This characterizes the anthropocentric character of modern natural science, and indeed, of Modernity as a whole. Contrast this with the theocentric character of the Bible and the cosmocentric character of Greek philosophy, where nature is not something to be controlled, but something to be followed.7 These two traditions presuppose a teleological conception of man’s world; everything tends towards some end. Modern Science, however, is decidedly non-teleological. Indeed, any claim of a teleology would contradict Modern Science’s claim to infinite progress. Since teleology teaches that everything that is tends towards some end, it implies some form of eventual completion. The notion of completion contradicts the notion of infinite progress; thus Modern Science cannot claim a teleology while remaining internally consistent. 1
In Modern Science, everything comes from man. Truth, meaning, order, and beauty are creations of man’s thought, and not something discovered and taken from a standard in Nature. A good example of this kind of change in our thought is that what we once called the imitative arts are now referred to as the creative arts. Past artists understood themselves as attempting to imitate—to follow, if you will—an idea of beauty taken from Nature; present artists understand themselves as the creator of new and original standards of what art can be. Past compliments to artists praised their ability at imitating beauty; present compliments extol the artist’s creativity and originality.8
Related to this anthropocentric character in Modernity is the change in human affairs from a moral orientation of duties to rights. In pre-modern times, men acted justly towards one another out of a sense of duty while any rights one had were derived from those duties; in present times, men require other men to act justly towards themselves because of their rights, and duties are derived from those rights. These rights were developed out of the project to base political life on the lowest common denominator: the passions. The passion of self-preservation was the starting point for the determination of all political rights. The fulfillment of these rights then was to be what comprised virtue—making virtue equivalent to the fulfillment of passion. The next step was to define freedom as the greatest use of one’s virtue, which ultimately meant that freedom meant the freest use of one’s passions. Thus the passions of man were emancipated from the pre-modern and moderating influence of reason. The conception of the good life, therefore, becomes not a following of a pattern of the natural good, but the actual creation of the pattern itself. To come back to where we started, man has no abiding nature, but makes himself and acquires his own humanity. 1
Turning to the second prong, History, as understood by Modernity, is something generally known as the modern historical perspective. It presupposes that History acts in a rational fashion and is heading in a rational direction. This progressive development of History is not the result of individual achievements of great men, but simply due to the general historical process towards which things tend. As a result of this outlook, it is virtuous to do what is conducive to these progressive trends and immoral to resist these trends. Thus the old moral distinctions of “good” and “bad” are replaced by “progressive” and “reactionary.”9 The highest praise of a man, at least in Hegelian terms, is that he is a “world-historical individual,” a man who saw whither the flow of history was going and made great sacrifices to see it move more rapidly. 1 This movement of history is unstoppable; it compels all men to follow its flow. As a result, no man can rise above his historical perspective, but is only a product of the times in which he lives.10
An outgrowth of this historical perspective is the study of “cultures.” This is an attempt to apply the rigors of the scientific method so successful in modern natural science to the study of history. Thus the historian becomes a scientist and studies the peoples of the past and present in the same way that an astronomer would study the heavens or a geologist would study the earth. These groups of peoples are considered as objects—things entirely outside of and unrelated to the modern historian. Furthermore, these groups are all considered with an understanding that no matter what particular characteristics they may manifest, they are all moral equivalents. This is to say that they are considered apart from their morality. The historian sees himself as trying to be an impartial and objective observer in his study. He must not distort. These cultures may or may not understand themselves as cultures, but that is of no matter. Neither do animals studied by zoologists. The important thing is that the historian thinks he understands the cultures he is studying better than they understand themselves. 1
Why is the historian able to do this? Because he lives in the highest culture at the End of History. The highest culture is the one that has achieved full consciousness, that understands itself and all else in the fullest way possible. In Hegelian terms, the Owl of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, only flies at dusk. In other words, wisdom or knowledge is something attained not simply as a result of intellectual work but through the historical process. The end of history brings about the completion of knowledge. When it arrives, the highest possibilities of man are exhausted; the high human tasks are gone; the fundamental riddles of the human experience are solved.11
Seeing Modernity as these two elements, and seeing the idea of progress as an outgrowth of Modernity, we can now see how Modernity came to be in crisis. To put it generally, modern natural science succeeded while the modern historical perspective failed. Western man stands as a colossus of great power. He has learned to control, if not all, a significant portion of his world. He strides the globe like no man in no previous time in regard to his technological abilities. Yet, modern man is a blind giant; he has nothing upon which to base his decisions about how to use his massive power. 1 Because of the great success of Modern Science, it has come to be regarded as authoritative, as the perfection of human understanding. In that sense it has replaced philosophy. The scientific method and its distinction between facts and values has also destroyed the notion of a distinction between “good” and “bad.”12 “Good” and “bad” were then replaced by the distinction between “progressive” and “reactionary.” But then the idea of progress became doubtful because of the barbarism of the twentieth century. World War I, Nazism, Fascism, Communism, and the ultimate possibility of nuclear annihilation prompted men to reconsider if there was a certain plateau, below which mankind could not sink, after a certain degree of social progress. When it began to appear that historical trends could be ambiguous, modern man was left with no rational standard of values on which to fall back. Facts cannot, do not, teach one values. 1 Mass confusion resulted.13
Yet this was no accident, for Modernity carried within itself the seeds that would bear the fruit of its own destruction. The new understanding of human affairs as ultimately based on immoderate passion without any rational conception of good or bad, and the reliance on the historical process for the attainment of the best way of life instead of individual intentions and achievements, led directly to these developments. 1 For a fuller critique of Modernity and its progeny, Strauss turns to the premier critic of all things modern, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche and Unbelief
As stated above, Modernity replaced the previous traditions of Western Civilization with its own forms. For example, modern rationalism replaced traditional Biblical theology with deism, pantheism, and atheism. Yet it still tried to preserve the traditional Biblical morality of justice, goodness, charity, and the like. Nietzsche, although no proponent of the Judeo-Christian God, saw a problem with this. It is impossible to preserve Biblical morality without Biblical faith. This was what was behind Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead.”14 The West was trying to preserve the form without the content, and as a result, created hollow men. If Biblical faith was to be rejected, then Biblical morality must also go and be replaced with something altogether different; Nietzsche called it the creation of new gods, which means the creation of new beliefs. 1 This creation, this forcing of a new structure of morality upon society, is basically his conception of the “Will to Power.”15 The other root of the west, Greek philosophy, was replaced by Modern Science. It was stated above that Modern Science, due to its successes, has come to be regarded as the highest perfection of man’s understanding of the world. 1 For an example of Nietzsche’s criticism of Modern Science, let us turn to the Modern idea of the study of “culture.” According to the study of culture there is an unlimited number of cultures. Nietzsche plays with this idea and assumes that there are 1,001 cultures, just like the 1,001 Arabian Nights. The account of cultures, then, is like a series of exciting stories. Thus spoke Zarathustra the speech “Of 1,000 Goals and One,” a speech which includes both the Greek and the Hebrews, as well as others.16 The goals of all of these cultures are different. As an objective observer of these cultures, Nietzsche is respectful of all of them, yet holds them all of equal weight. Since each goal is different from all the others, Nietzsche is not subject to any of them.
The problem, though, with the scientific study of culture is that according to the study of culture’s understanding of itself, just as it cannot make a moral judgment on the best culture, it cannot make a moral judgment on itself. Its lack of standards of good and bad prevent it form giving an account of itself. As a result, even scientific concepts become “culture bound.” There is a contradiction between the claimed objectivity of Modern Science and its actual subjectivity.17 Thus the Scientific interpretation of the world cannot be held as authoritative after all and according to itself. All choices then become ultimately nonrational or irrational. Modern Science, too, is only Will to Power. 2Thus Nietzsche waits for the one goal, the new goal, the universal goal: the goal of the Overman.18
The problem with Modernity as Nietzsche sees it, is that it refuses to recognize its Will to Power but claims to have some inherent goodness. Yet I cannot judge its goodness, for it has abandoned the traditional standard of good and bad for a standard based on the progressive and the reactionary. The only real basis for such a claim of goodness, then, can be through the Will to Power, but Modernity has lost its Will. It has chosen, instead, to degenerate into a nihilism where cannibalism can be as justifiable, or as unjustifiable, as Christian piety. It tries to hold onto its belief in progress while lacking faith in that belief. This is the core of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Modernity: it has become uncertain of its purpose. An uncertain purpose leads to an uncertain future, and an uncertain future leads to despair and degradation, such as we have see in the Twentieth Century. A society cannot lose faith in its purpose without becoming completely confused. . 1
Biblical Faith and Greek Philosophy
Strauss does not recommend that we, as a result of our confusion and crisis, await the arrival of the Overman to give us a new purpose. That tree need not be planted. Indeed, we have among us, in our memories—nay, our memories of memories—a purpose better than the false one presented by modernity or possibly presented by the Overman. Strauss advocated the return to an understanding of Western Civilization’s pre-modern integrity, to its roots. Strauss describes these roots metaphorically as Jerusalem and Athens, according to the birthplace of these two ways of life that form the original roots of what we know as Western Civilization.
Western man became what he is and is what he is through the coming together of Biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.19
Here is where the key to the solution of our present troubles rests, somewhere in these two cities, in a proper understanding of Biblical faith and Greek thought. Yet within this solution is another problem, for the natures of these two roots are fundamentally in radical disagreement with each other. So we must seek an understanding of the resulting tension before we can “illuminate our trackless way.” . 1
This tension is a product of the radical disagreement over “the one thing needful” for the good life set forth in each of these two roots. For the residents of Athens, the one thing needful is a “life of autonomous understanding” or a life of philosophy, and for the residents of Jerusalem, that one thing is a “life of obedient love” or a life of faith. These two things are really very incompatible, despite efforts to harmonize the two, for how can one be both autonomous and obedient at the same time? The closest approximation of harmonization that can be made is the use of one as subservient to the other, for philosophy can use obedient love and faith can use reason, but each rebels against this servitude as each is understood as it understands itself. Thus there is no true harmonization possible between the two. The conflict is indeed radical.20
There are, however, realms of human life that both philosophy and faith agree upon. There is an implicit agreement between these two roots in their opposition to Modernity and Progress as outlined above, as well as a very explicit agreement within these ways of life in regard to the issue of morality. More precisely, Strauss states that both Athens and Jerusalem agree in regard to the content, the importance, and the ultimate insufficiency of morality for the attainment of the good life, and they disagree in regard to what supplants or completes morality, and ultimately, as to the basis of morality. . 1
As evidence concerning the agreement on the content of morality, Strauss offers as proof the similarity of the content of Plato’s Laws and the Ten Commandments. God or the gods are to be worshiped, and not man. Justice is the highest virtue, and justice is understood as obedience to a law that is comprehensive in regard to not only things civil, penal, and constitutional, but also moral and religious. In such a context, justice then becomes a form of humility, for it is humbling to bow to a law that so affects every aspect of human life. Law and justice, in this way, become divine law and divine justice. Governments constituted under these precepts are then fundamentally theocratic. From this standpoint, it can be seen how both Greek philosophy and Biblical faith also agree on the importance of morality due to morality’s comprehensive and divine underpinnings.21
We may now proceed to the agreement on the ultimate insufficiency of morality. Since morality is understood by both of these traditions as equitable with justice, the problem of morality is the problem of justice: the misery of the just and the prosperity of the wicked. 1 Each tradition solves this problem in a radically different manner, and we are brought to their disagreement as to what supplements or completes morality.22
At base, this disagreement can be understood as a disagreement as to the beginning and content of wisdom. For both traditions, wisdom is what completes morality; the most virtuous human being is both moral and wise. Yet wisdom is defined very differently by each. For Greek philosophy, the beginning of wisdom is wonder, and for Biblical faith, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. . 1 This can best be seen in regard to the Aristotelian gentleman, a man very rare in the Bible. Briefly, the gentleman is one who is magnanimous. Magnanimity, quickly outlined, is concerned with a man’s conviction of his own worth. The magnanimous man is one who is completely virtuous, and is fully aware of that fact. A result of this complete self-knowledge is a lack of shame, pity, or guilt. This self-knowledge is the Greek conception of wisdom as obtained through understanding and contemplation.23 In contrast, the most virtuous man in a Biblical sense is the penitent man, the humble man. He is not convinced of his own worth, but convicted instead of his shame, pity, and guilt. 1 This conception of self-knowledge is the Biblical form of wisdom as derived from a proper fear of God.24 The philosopher lives in a state above fear and trembling, as well as hope, whereas the man of faith lives constantly in a state of fear and trembling, and especially hope. 1
Finally, we come to the difference between Greek philosophy and Biblical faith in regard to the fundamental basis of morality. We can in a preliminary fashion state that this conflict is one between the Biblical conception of divine omnipotence and the Greek conception of nature. Or in other words, it is a conflict between the first thing as a personal being in the case of faith and as an impersonal necessity in the case of philosophy. This can be demonstrated in looking at each tradition’s understanding of the cosmos. The Greeks teach the eternity of either cosmos or chaos, whereas Biblical faith teaches creation out of nothing. The concept of the cosmos as created out of nothing is the highest example of divine omnipotence; it is the greatest miracle. Divine omnipotence is entirely incompatible with Greek philosophy due to the fact that although this type of religious experience is underlined and understood by the Bible, it remains questionable in Greek philosophy due to the inquiring nature of philosophy.25
Furthermore, the idea of nature as impersonal necessity is a concept totally foreign to the Bible; there is no equivalent word of nature in Old Testament Hebrew. 1 It is because of this lack of the idea of nature that men of faith can believe that men’s conduct towards each other can undergo a change more radical than the Greek philosophers ever conceived.26 So at its foundation, this problem of the tension between the basis of morality in these two traditions cannot be understood from within these two traditions due to the radical difference between nature and divine omnipotence. Therefore, in order to understand this difference between Greek philosophy and Biblical thought, Strauss recommends that we go back behind the discovery of nature to an understanding of its pre-philosophic equivalent, and in doing so, come to a purely historical view of this antagonism. 1
Strauss notes that among pre-philosophical ways of life, including the Bible and pre-Socratic Greek sources, it was universal to talk not of the nature of things, but of the “custom” or “way” of particular things. Thus barking and tail-wagging is the way of dogs, menstruation is the way of women, just as not eating pork is the way of the Jews and not drinking wine is he way of the Moslems. Of all these “ways,” there is one way that becomes of central importance to a people, that being the way of that people. Thus we move from the ways of many things to “our way” is the right way. Why? Because it is the way that we have always done things. In this manner, “our way” becomes the “ancestral way” and the ancestral is always then the “good way” or the “right way.” Since the ancestral is good, this implies that the ancestors were superior to us. For this to be true, the ancestors must then have been gods, sons of gods, pupils of gods, or dwelled near the gods. Thus the “right way” is equitable with divine law. 27 We see here a point of agreement between these two traditions that I discussed above as to the agreement on the content and importance of morality as a divine law. But it is at this point that the two traditions begin to separate, and this separation occurs in differing solutions to the problematic character of divine law.
First, the divine law is problematic because of the variety of contradictory divine laws. At this point, every people has its own divine law. In each code of this type there are universals, especially in regard to the first things, and it is a fact that many of these universals conflict with and contradict each other. One people’s divine laws praise what another’s absolutely condemn. One people conducts human sacrifices, another forbids it. The burial practices of one tribe are a horror to another. 1 Because of the variety and conflicting character of the various now allegedly divine codes, it becomes of the first importance to transcend this whole realm and either find one’s bearing independently of the ancestral or realize that the ancestral and the good are two fundamentally different things despite occasional coincidences between them. So we are brought to where we need to make a choice between two fundamental alternatives, one that becomes the character of Greek philosophy and the other that becomes the character of Biblical faith.28
Each choice rests upon the question of how to find one’s bearings in the cosmos. The Greek answer to this question is that we have to discover the first things on the basis of inquiry, which in turn becomes a quest. 1 This presupposes two things. The first is that this inquiry, this quest, must be done on the basis of personal observation, seeing with one’s own eyes, so to speak, and not from mere hearsay. It should be noted here that all divine codes, including the Biblical account, are basically hearsay. Strauss provides a metaphor of the Socratic traveler who, traveling about the different cities of the world and noticing the many different and conflicting ways of life, is forced to ask the question of which way is the right way. This he does on the basis of his observations, and thus makes way for the distinction of the good as determined by solely human means. He begins to replace the arbitrary distinctions of the ancestral which differ from tribe to tribe with distinctions made on the basis of what is common to all men. Thus man as man discovers the nature of all men apart form tribal concerns.29
The second presupposition of Greek inquiry is that one must make a distinction between things manmade and things not made by man: the distinction between convention and nature. 1 In this way, this quest for the first things becomes the philosophical or scientific analysis of the cosmos. Divine law is thus replaced by a natural order as the process of inquiry discovers that natural order. Philosophy is then the demonstration of the natural order of the cosmos. Divine law is only the starting point for this process, and it is abandoned in the process of this quest, and if any sort of divine law is professed, it is only for the education of the may, as in the project for education proposed in Plato’s Republic.30 Thus we see that the basis for the philosophic way of life is the truths of the nature of the cosmos as discovered by man with man’s reason.
We may now turn to the Biblical answer to this question of how to find one’s bearing in the universe in light of the conflicting and numerous divine codes. Biblical faith, unlike Greek philosophy, still professes that there is one particular divine law that is true everywhere and for all people, and that all other codes that claim to be divine are false an only mere creations of man. From this presupposition, then, Biblical faith proceeds to make its case by fulfilling the necessary conditions to be met if its claim that it is the one divine law is true. These are that God must be a personal God; the first cause of all things, all creation, must be God; God must be omnipotent, not controlled and not controllable and therefore cannot be known in the strictest sense of the word, for to know something is to have the power to control it. Therefore, God’s essence is not knowable, or in the language of the Bible, man cannot know God’s face.30
The most radical formulation of this is the Old Testament name for God, the divine name God told the Israelites, Yahweh, which literally translated means, “I shall be what I shall be.” 1 The core remains inaccessible to man; God is what he will be, is always becoming. Thus God remains a free god.31 It should be noted here that this is the opposite of the Greek conception of essence, where something is what it was what it will be for all time. His is evident in Plato’s conception of a god who is simple and hence unchangeable. 1 But if the Biblical God is unknowable, then how can man trust him? The Biblical response is that God has made promises to man that he means to keep. It is, in the language of the Bible, the principle of the covenant.32 God allows himself and his ways to be known by revealing them to man, who in turn, trusts God to keep the covenant. 1 This is the core, the basis, of faith: God’s revelations and his truths to man.
Reason and Revelation
Finally, in considering the tensions between the life of philosophical inquiry and the life of faith, Strauss points us towards one final consideration that exists in both Greek philosophy and Biblical faith and helps bring into focus this fundamental tension between Revelation and Reason: the possibility that it is bad to devote oneself to philosophical rebellion against God.33 We see this concept developed most fully in the Biblical account of creation. 1 Comprehensive knowledge of the complete cosmos, such as that quested after by philosophy, is knowledge of the good and represented by the forbidden fruit of good and evil of the Garden of Eden. Such knowledge is forbidden. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of such fruit, yet they, seeking to be like God in his knowledge of these greatest things, disobeyed God, and were therefore punished. It is not hard to draw a connection to the philosophical project, which also seeks such knowledge, and see how such a project would bring with it the wrath of God. Furthermore, knowledge of the arts and crafts, knowledge of civilization, is also discouraged in the early pages of Genesis. Strauss offers a few examples. The first farmer, Cain, commits the first murder, whereupon he founds the first city.34 Also, it is the city of Babel and its desire to reach the heavens by way of a great tower that incurs the wrath of God. 1 So it seems that civilization and the arts that go with it, such as agriculture and architecture, are not the project of righteous men. It is the nomad shepherd Abel to whom God reveals himself.35
Yet Strauss points out that this is not the Bible’s last word on the subject of civilization and knowledge. The account of Cain and his descendants who lived in rebellion against God show how they were the ones who practiced the civilized arts. Yet later on in the Biblical account we see how these arts are used in the holy city of Jerusalem and in the adorning of the temple. 1 Another clearer example of this change is God’s prohibition of the establishment of a king for the nation of Israel.36 Fundamentally, the institution of human kingship is bad, as well as the city and its arts and knowledge, but it later becomes possible through divine intervention that these things that originated out of human rebellion become useful and good when used in the service of God. The same is true for human knowledge; dedicated to the service of God, it is a good thing, but used apart from God, it is rebellion. Indeed, the idea of man freely choosing to be obedient to God, to enter into his covenant, requires that man be given such understanding. Yet using this rational capacity outside of the service of God, such as done in philosophical inquiry, results in condemnation. 1 Indeed, the original emancipation of knowledge from this subservient function was the birth of philosophy, such as suggested by Strauss, quoting Cicero’s description of Socrates as “the first who called philosophy down from heaven and forced it to make inquiries about life and manners and good and bad things.”37
Yet in the face of this criticism of Biblical faith of a life of philosophical inquiry, philosophy provides a response. This response begins with pointing out one obfuscation of the idea of philosophy, being that philosophy has come to be equated with the completed philosophic system. 1 In other words, the quest of philosophy has come to be confused with the object of that quest. To part the clouds of this obfuscation and bring philosophy back into the light of day, Strauss points us to Socrates.
Socrates in his Apology states that he is ignorant of the greatest things, meaning the divine things, yet has knowledge of human wisdom. Human wisdom for Socrates means an imperfect wisdom, and thus his project: to question men about their opinions and try to come to a greater understanding of this human wisdom.38 Reconsider the example of the Socratic traveler above. This is philosophy as primarily a quest, a seeking, and not as something completed. 1 To put it another way, philosophy, as understood by Socrates, is a quest for universal knowledge of the whole. This quest would not be needed, however, if that completed knowledge were readily available. The very lack of such knowledge does not mean, though, that men do not have some thoughts or opinions of what that knowledge might be. That is why Socrates’ project was to question men about their opinions to see if they met the test of human reason. In doing this, he was attempting to replace mere opinion with knowledge. This, then, is the task of philosophy and the nature of its quest: the quest for knowledge of the total nature of all things, knowledge of the whole.39
Now, again, philosophy is in its essence not the possession of truth of the whole, but only its quest. The philosopher is one who, like Socrates, claims that “he knows that he knows nothing;” this knowledge is of his own ignorance and the ignorance of his fellows drives him to seek the answers to the most important questions with all his energy. He cannot ignore these questions because they are difficult or appear unanswerable without betraying his calling to become a philosopher. It may be that it is not possible to discern the answers to the questions and thus ever pass the primary stage of discussion and disputation by reaching the final stage of decision. 1 Contrast this with the manner in which the Biblical prophets carried out their mission of addressing their people or sometimes even all the peoples of the earth and deliver the revealed word of God, whether it be of damnation or salvation, without question or dispute. Socrates would call such men orators, while he engages in conversations with one man, asking him questions.40
The question can then be raised “Why does not Socrates, knowing that his human wisdom is incomplete, go on to divine wisdom?” Socrates’ answer is that because he has chosen the life of a philosopher, ha cannot assent to anything that is not evident to him, anything that does not stand up to his personal observations and rational inquiry. 1 It can be here noted that divine revelation refuses to be put to this standard. God has chosen to remain in the realms of twilight as far as men are concerned unless he chooses to reveal knowledge to them.41 Furthermore, revelation states that it is foolishness to man. 1 Just because it is foolishness to men, however, does not mean that it is foolishness to God; thus it is simply a mystery.42 Revelation therefore remains for the philosopher nothing more than an unproven, unevident possibility. Socrates does not then reject Revelation, but suspends judgment on it. 1
There is a problem here, for the question of rebellion against God is a matter of the utmost importance, a matter of life and death, one could say. The philosopher solves this problem through his understanding of philosophy as a way of life, which means that philosophy can not lead up to the insight that another way of life apart from the philosophic is the best one. Again, philosophy is a quest for knowledge regarding the whole, and because it is a quest, it can never become wisdom. Problems are always more evident than solutions; all solutions are questionable. This is why, then, the right way of life cannot be fully established except by a comprehensive understanding the nature of the whole. The right way of life can not be established metaphysically except by a completed metaphysics. The right way of life therefore remains questionable.43 However, because all solutions are uncertain according to philosophy, and because of the very ignorance of the most important things, this quest for such knowledge, such a completed metaphysics , is the most important activity. Therefore, Socrates says, A life devoted to that quest is the right way of life. 1
Thus the decisive difference between Greek philosophy and Biblical faith: each puts itself forward as the best way of life and the true way of life, each foundation is antithetical, even damning, to the other, and due to the basis of the establishment of each way of life as the best, it is impossible for one to refute the other on its own terms. It is here that we can seek most clearly the fundamental distinction between Greek philosophy and Biblical faith: the reliance of the Greeks on Reason and the reliance of the Bible on Revelation as the guide to the best way of life. Philosophy can only accept that which is demonstrable through rational inquiry, so the truths that could only be revealed by a divine power are inaccessible to the philosopher as philosopher. Faith refuses to acknowledge the definitive power of rational inquiry, but only accepts the truths of the cosmos on the basis of God’s revealed word.44
To see this more clearly, we may again look to Socrates and the prophets. The prophets tell men what would not nor could not to men on their own, for men cannot foresee the future with only their unassisted human reason. The prophets speak authoritatively on the humanly unforeseeable. Socrates, on the other hand, claims only to have opinions; his opinions were derived from his own rational process and are equally available to any other man with Socrates’ rational faculties. 1 Also, compare the account of the binding of Isaac in the story of Abraham with that of Socrates’ commission as a philosopher.45 Both events were divinely commanded as well as unintelligible to human reason. Abraham’s response was immediate obedience, whereas Socrates’ response was seeking an understanding of an unintelligible command of the Delphic Oracle, who speaks the word of Apollo, through rational discourse. And finally, consider Plato’s conception of gods and the God of the Hebrews. Plato’s gods can be, and are by Plato, ascertained through human reason, whereas the one God of the Hebrews chooses to manifest himself only to the Hebrews. 1 And so we have this fundamental, insoluble conflict that continues to this day.46
Reason v. Revelation
Strauss points to some of the details of this conflict to demonstrate further this fundamentally insoluble problem at the base of Western civilization. He first turns to the arguments for Revelation over those of classical philosophy and Reason.
Of this argument, Strauss notes that there are two basic points. The first is of the personal religious experience and the second is the inadequacy of any non-believing position. The primary problem of the argument from religious experience is that such an interpretation is fundamentally man based; it is no longer an example of God’s action, but the human interpretation of that action on which the argument is based. Interpretations of this kind differ widely among the proponents of revealed religion in general, such as the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Thus it becomes necessary to find some higher ground than this fundamentally human one on which to base the argument. 1 As for the second point, of the inadequacy of any non-believing position compared to the revealed one, it is very convincing in regard to Modernity which is already in a crisis from within. However, this point is very weak insofar as it tries to defeat classical philosophy, for no present-day arguments have an adequate understanding of the nature of classical philosophy as a quest for knowledge of the whole instead of an already completed understanding.47
Thus Strauss turns to more traditional arguments presented in favor of Revelation, all of which are based on miracles. The existence of miracles proves the existence of Revelation, for the two are fundamentally the same type of action. Yet there is a difficulty in this argument as well. First of all, we do not yet have a complete understanding of nature as far as unassisted human reason is concerned, so we have no real basis on which to decide what is supernatural. What appears to be a supernatural event may only be an aspect of nature that we do not yet understand. All the miracles that
are important , at least to the Jew or Protestant, took place in a pre-scientific age. So, scientifically, at least, we cannot establish the true supernatural nature of apparently miraculous events. Furthermore, none of the observers and recorders of such miracles can be called an objective observer. To emphasize this point, Strauss presents the biblical event of Baal. 1 Both parties, whether or not they believed in God or Baal, presupposed the divine action. To one, such as a classical philosopher, who questions this fundamental point, the alleged presence of miracles proves nothing. In other words, Miracles do not establish faith, they presuppose it.48
Strauss states that a “much more impressive” line of argument is the one based on the intrinsic quality of Revelation: the revealed law is the best of all laws. This fundamentally means that the revealed law agrees with the rational standard of the best law. This prompts the question of whether that law is actually the result of reason, for if we have a rational standard of the best law to judge the value of an allegedly revealed law, how do we know with any confidence that that allegedly revealed law is not the product of a man’s reason? The reply is that this allegedly revealed law has knowledge that is in excess of what man could know with his unassisted reason; the revealed law is supra-rational. Consider the Old-Testament prophets who proclaimed things no man could know, things concerning future times. Yet the difficulty here in the classical view is that the “supra” has to be proven, and it cannot. What unassisted reason sees is only a non-rational element not supported by Reason. Thus this element could as much be irrational supra-natural. Consider the problem of false prophets. Therefore, Revelation still remains only a possibility to the philosopher. 1
More precisely, any revealed law is either all rational, and thus possibly the product of unassisted reason, or there is some part of it that is not rational, and thus as possibly the product of human unreason as it is possibly the product of some divine super-reason. In other words, Revelation is either a brute fact or a meaningful fact. If it is only a brute fact, then human experience cannot relate to it and Revelation becomes a curiosity not important to man. If it is a meaningful fact, then that means that it is necessary knowledge with which to solve some fundamental problem of man. In this case alleged Revelation could be the product of Reason as an attempt by man to solve this same problem. Therefore, it is impossible for Reason, for philosophy, to assent to Revelation as Revelation understands itself.49
All this proves that it is impossible for unassisted reason to understand divine revelation; Reason cannot prove the impossibility of Revelation. So at this point, we must assume that Revelation is a fact not accessible to unassisted reason, and furthermore, is ultimately not meant to be accessible to Reason. If such knowledge as Revelation proclaims could be ascertained solely by Reason, then there would no longer be need for faith at all, and thus no need for obedience, for free surrender to God. This makes the refutation of proofs rejecting Revelation irrelevant. Reconsider the prophets of Baal. These men were not philosophers; they were not beyond fear and trembling such as philosophers are. Philosophy is guilty of begging the question. 1 The nature of philosophy requires everything to be established by Reason in the light of day, yet Revelation scoffs at such a requirement God has decided to dwell in the mists, so to speak. His ways are decidedly not the ways of man. His knowledge is secret.50 As a result, Strauss states that Philosophy wins the argument so long as it only defends itself against attacks by theologians on philosophy using the structure of philosophy. Philosophy looses, however, when it takes the offensive and attempts to refute even Revelation itself. 1
Strauss then turns to the arguments of Modernity’s Reason against Revelation. As stated above, the two elements of modernity are Modern Science and the Modern Historical perspective. Each of these two elements has its own tack to this problem.
The Argument of Modern Science can best be exemplified by its claim that the actual geological age of the Earth is much older than the age discerned from the Biblical account. The fundamental difficulty with this point is that geology, as do all natural sciences, assumes the fact that all events are naturally caused, a fact that is denied by the Bible. The Bible has no conception of nature and God could certainly cause things to act in decidedly unnatural ways, at least from our modern perspective. Biblically, the world and its creation are miraculous events; in a way, the world is the miracle, created out of nothing. Modern Science begs the question for its argument amounts to this: miracles cannot happen because miraculous things are impossible. The argument from Modern History and more specifically Modern Historical criticism of the text of the Bible, is that the Bible itself is internally inconsistent; it contains repetitions and other apparent deficiencies. The difficulty here is fundamentally the same as the one above. The Bible claims itself that it is a miraculous thing, the inspired word of God. Such inspiration is a type of miracle and apparent inconsistencies are only mysteries to the human mind. From Modern History’s point of view, such miracles are impossible. It, too, begs the question.51
In order for these arguments from Modernity to hold water, unassisted human reason must prove the impossibility of miracles. Of such a proof, there are two possibilities. The first is a proof that an all-powerful God does not exist. This presupposes a completed knowledge of the whole, which Modernity cannot claim to possess. The second is the proof that miracles are incompatible with the nature of God. This presupposes a completed knowledge of God, which according to the Biblical understanding is absurd. As explained above, God’s nature is incomprehensible to man; God has chosen not to reveal his total nature. So, again, we come to the problem of the lack of a completed system of the nature of the whole. Without such a system, philosophy cannot, and has not, refuted Revelation. 1
Turning to the argument in favor of Reason and Greek philosophy, Revelation cannot claim to have defeated Reason. Revelation still only remains an unevident, unproven possibility to the philosopher. Furthermore, the philosopher can live untragically, that is, without damnation, as he understands himself. So the problem in its simplest formulation is that “all alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations in philosophy presuppose faith in revelation.”52
We now come to the final consideration, the crux of the matter regarding the tension between Reason and Revelation, Greek philosophy and Biblical faith. If all that has come before is true, then philosophy must admit the possibility of Revelation, for unassisted human reason cannot inexorably refute Revelation. If Reason grants the possibility of Revelation, even if it only remains a possibility and not conclusive, then it must also grant the possibility that philosophy is not necessarily and evidently the true account of what is the right way of life. In Strauss’ words, “The quest for evident and necessary knowledge rests itself on an unevident premise.” 1 This means that the decision to philosophize is an act of will.53 In other words, philosophy is based on faith, just as is revealed religion. The ultimate foundation is a faith in Reason. 1
It is here that we come back to our beginnings, the crisis of the West. The West has long received its purpose from Modernity, that purpose being progress. When the West lost faith in progress, it lost faith in its purpose, and a society cannot loose faith in its purpose without becoming “completely bewildered.”54 In other words, Modernity cannot provide an argument for its own goodness, for a determination of the good and the bad is something ascertained from either Reason or Revelation. This is why modern man is such a “blind Giant.” 1 Since each is based on faith, a faithless philosophy cannot give a reason for its own existence. Any society caught up in such a philosophy is then in trouble. The crisis of the West is a loss of faith.55
Here Strauss points us towards his solution to the crisis and the problem. This problem is mainly a political problem, and the basis of politics is Reason. So the solution to a political problem would be through the means of Reason. 1 As Strauss states,
It is not sufficient for everyone to obey and listen to the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. In order to propagate that message to the heathen, nay, in order to understand it as clearly and as fully as is humanly possible, one must also consider to what extent man could discern the outlines of that City if left to himself, to the proper exercise of his own powers. But in our age it is much less urgent to show that political philosophy is the indispensable handmaid of theology than to show that political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and of human affairs….56
Not everyone can live in Jerusalem, the Faithful City. 1 Not everyone can ascribe to Biblical revelation; certainly the heathen can not with their worship of other gods, and certainly the philosophers, the residents of Athens, cannot with their unbelief in Revelation. It thus becomes necessary to find common ground in order to promote that for which the Faithful City stands: justice. 1 That ground is Reason, man’s “own powers,” which are what allow him to “discern the outlines of that City” to some extent. The question between Reason and Revelation in this light becomes less important for our present concerns. It is more important to bring back our faith in Reason than to decide between and Revelation. This is why political philosophy becomes the solution to the crisis of the West.
To look at it another way, consider the following statement from Strauss.
I share the hope in America and the faith in America, but I am compelled to add that that faith and that hope cannot be of the same character as that faith and that hope which a Jew has in regard to Judaism and which the Christian has in regard to Christianity. No one claims that the faith in America and the hope for America are based on explicit divine promises.58
America as a nation is explicitly founded on Reason, on “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” 1 America is an experiment to decide if “societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they re forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”59 The best solutions to political problems are based on Reason. In this way do they become universal and compelling to all men, for not all men believe in Revelation, but all men have rational faculties. In short, to solve the crisis of the West, Reason must be rescued.
How is this rescue to take place? Strauss points to his project when he says that we must consider this antagonism of Reason and Revelation, of Greek philosophy and Biblical faith, of Athens and Jerusalem, in action. This history of Western Civilization heretofore has been the conflict of thinking beings over this problem, over the best way of life. 1 This conflict has produced a kind of energy that has kept this civilization alive in a way unlike any other civilization where such fundamental questions about human life have not been raised. The key here is that in this civilization, the fundamental riddle which confronts man, at least western man, has not been solved. It follows that there are then still high human tasks to be undertaken, the attempt to solve this riddle. This means, then, that man’s highest possibilities have not been exhausted. As long as this question is still pursued and is not solved—and it seems doubtful considering the difficulties discussed above—then the West cannot, will not, decline.60
We as Western men, then, ought to live this conflict. Theologians must defend their way of life on the basis of Revelation and philosophers must defend their way of life on the basis of philosophical inquiry, and not the other way around. Each must examine the other thoroughly, keeping each other honest, and keeping each other on his toes, so to speak. No man can fight for both sides, or even fight for a third side that claims to be a synthesis of both or transcends both; there can be no Overman. In Strauss’ words, “every one of us can be and ought to be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy.” 1 In so doing we preserve faith in faith, and for the political man, faith in Reason.