Harald Bluhm

Die Ordnung der Ordnung. Das politische Philosophieren von Leo Strauss

Une critique de Dick Howard

Date de parution : 1er septembre 2007

Broché : 370 pages
Editeur : Akademie-Verlag
langue : allemand
ISBN-10 : 3050043741
ISBN-13 : 978-3050043746
Prix :49,80 euros

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As the Evil Empire showed signs of exhaustion before finally disappearing with barely a whimper, normative political theory became increasingly important because political decisions and democratic choices could no longer be justified simply by opposition to the enemy : they’re bad so we must be good. At the same time, many on the critical left turned from a socio-economic critique of capitalism to discover political philosophy in the work of Hannah Arendt. In so doing, they were unconsciously making a similar discovery to that of a critical right which rejected the consensus liberalism of the placid 1950s and discovered the interest of political philosophy in the work of Leo Strauss. This parallel makes Harald Bluhm’s Die Ordnung der Ordnung more than what he calls a “recontextualization” of a political philosophy that insisted on the purity of the philosophical calling even while it constantly kept its eyes pealed critically on the political world. Bluhm takes Strauss at his philosophical word ; but he also shows the paradoxes, evasions and acrobatics that give the word its real power. Strauss denies that he has an original political philosophy, claiming to offer only modest commentary on the true (i.e., classical) philosophers ; yet it is this very lack of a doctrine that made possible the creation of a Strauss School—one which, today, for the same reason, is subject to splits among followers who are left without a doctrine to routinize the master’s charisma. As Bluhm’s subtitle implies, Strauss teaches philosophizing, which he takes to be identical with philosophy [1].

The Straussians came to have real political influence even while they pursued their philosophical project [2]. This two-fronted orientation can be seen in the “Manifesto” of the Strauss School, the 1962 Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, which stakes claim to the field in its entirety. Strauss denounces elegantly contemporary political scientists as “not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful.” And while their political science is not “Neronian,” Strauss continues dryly, “one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts : it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.” This attack is typical ; its justification is the unspoken and thus irrefutable assumption that the author knows what the real questions are. Further, because the Essays are not a political philosophy, they cannot be criticized ; they are only to “lead to political philosophy.” When his claims were criticized as “intemperate” by a review, Strauss’s rebuttal is revealing of his hard-nosed stance : “in scholarship at any rate intransigence—i.e., the habit of refusing to make concessions for the sake of peace and comity—is not fanatism.” This battle-cry dates from 1963, just before “the conscience of a conservative,” Barry Goldwater, won his party’s presidential nomination while explaining that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” [3] While Goldwater was not a Straussian, his challenge to the liberal American consensus was based on a political critique. If the left today is trying to mount a similar challenge, it is worth looking at Strauss’s achievement to better understand how this was possible, and at what intellectual and political price.

Strauss’s political success is due to the paradoxical fact that for him philosophy is basically unpolitical. He proposes no systematic theory of political processes, institutions or actors ; and he offers no solutions to problems of political order, nor does he present a political ethics. His basic insight is that philosophy—which is the privilege of the happy few who can achieve the freedom needed to live the vita contemplativa—must concern itself with politics not for political but for philosophical reasons : in order to protect itself from threats to its very existence. This simple intuition can be understood by any undergraduate who has had to explain the trial of Socrates. Its modern translation takes the Straussian from the classroom to a Pentagon that takes as its mission the defense of the free world. The philosopher in government does not seek power or influence for the sake of some interest or project ; the dirty work of politics is necessary only to protect the freedom that makes possible the life of philosophical contemplation. Who could object to such modesty ?

This simple structure explains also the Straussians’ academic politics. Philosophical freedom is assumed to represent a threat to modern mediocrity (or to mediocre political science unable to probe beneath positivist or relativist banalities) ; in order to protect itself, it must develop specific techniques, of which the most important is the distinction between its exoteric self-presentation and its esoteric self-understanding. The exoteric has a double function ; it has to convince the non-initiates that philosophy is no threat at the same time that it preserves the pre-conditions of the philosophical enterprise so that, eventually, new recruits will come to recognize the need to renew the esoteric project. These new recruits are not drawn to the exoteric doctrine ; they know (or are taught) to read between the lines in order to decipher the esoteric teaching. This is the message of Strauss’s famous essay on “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” It is also the justification of Strauss’s claim to enact only the modest role of commentator and interpreter of the classic texts whose dialogue is the esoteric content of Philosophy writ large. The difficulty, as Bluhm points out, is that this claim supposes that the philosopher has complete control over both sides of his teaching—which is hardly the case of a true dialogue. More than that, this assumption permits the interpreter to impose a reading of a text on the basis of selective evidence without having to justify that interpretation or defend it against other readings. The reader of Strauss is always astonished by his manner of seizing a tiny detail in a text in order to explode it into the key that unlocks the esoteric doctrine. That is why, as Bluhm notes, a crucial essay such as Strauss’s reading of Machiavelli, which is the break-through to his mature method, has found little interest or even debate outside the devotees of the school [4].

But what is this philosophy that the Straussians want to protect ? The exoteric answer is well-known ; it is the classical heritage that must be protected from the modern decadence that began with Machiavelli and was developed in the enlightenment and in the modern schools of natural law. Bluhm points out that this begs too many questions. What fits and what does not fit into the classical heritage ? Plato, of course ; but only the Republic ? The Republic and The Statesman ? What about The Laws ? The arbitrariness of the commentator cannot be excluded [5]. The same questions hold for the moderns. In the case of modern natural law, why do the positive contribution of Hegel or the critical observations of Hume find no place in Strauss’s Natural Right and History ? The answer of course is that Strauss is reconstructing the esoteric kernel from the exoteric shell ; for his task is not to present the history of political philosophy [6] or even to offer his own vision of it. But if the task of the commentator is merely to “lead to political philosophy,” this neglects the challenge of explaining the decline that led to the dominance of a modernity that is the object of Strauss’s mounting and repeated scorn. Rather than diagnose the illness, which might in turn suggest a remedy, the simple commentator simply describes the price that is paid for the decline. This position is coherent if not politically convincing. To suggest that there might be a remedy within modernity would imply that the wisdom of the classics is not of itself sufficient ; it would give modernity more credit than Strauss allows it to bear.

Despite Strauss’s insistence on the purity of philosophy and its freedom, Bluhm’s recontextualization of his work shows that he did not think in thin air. For example, the return to Xenophon’s Hiero (not usually considered part of the classical corpus) to illustrate the analysis of On Tyranny has to be understood as an implicit critique of post-war political science’s attempt at a value-free analysis of totalitarianism. For Strauss, such modern aspects of totalitarianism as the role of ideology and use of technology do not affect the basic concept—which may be why he decided to include in the second edition of On Tyranny his debate with Alexander Kojève, the long-time friend, whose brutal explanation of the need for the philosopher to cooperate with the modern tyrant can be read as cynical support for Stalinism. In the same way, Bluhm points out that Strauss’s reconstruction of modern natural law across the work of Hobbes, Weber and Machiavelli is in fact a continuation of his earlier critique of the insufficiently radical account in Carl Schmitt’s definition of the concept of the political as control over the state of exception—a definition that could serve as one justification for the Nazi assumption of power. Strauss’s critique implies, in turn, that he assumes that there is a “normal” political order that Schmitt’s appeal to the exception neglects. But Strauss can never offer his own account of it, since that would entail doing political theory rather than the esoteric task of “philosophizing.”

This question of order cannot be ignored, particularly in modern democratic societies which are constantly threatened by their own individualist defense of subjective rights. Indeed, this was the rock on which Weimar’s republic came to grief, as Bluhm illustrates by means of a comparison of Strauss with Arendt and Voegelin, who shared his recognition that the problem of order cannot be solved by institutional remedies because it is not an empirical but a political problem, a problem of defining the political. In this context, Strauss’s insistence on the purity of philosophy (as philosophizing) acquires its political relevance. With the birth of philosophy [7] a qualitative measure (or value : truth) against which empirical orders have to be justified emerges. This is the “order of order” in Bluhm’s title. It is not the order of (plural) orders that is at issue here ; that is why Strauss’s philosophizing—and his critique of the modern “decline” (Verfall) from the classical model—does not entail the proposal of remedies. There is no need to adapt various political orders to a unique standard, creating a kind of relative equality among them such that different Cities could, each in its own way, be a manifestation of that single qualitative order. That is the error of modern historicism, as Strauss never ceases to remind us.

The “order of orders” seems to play a double role for Strauss. On the one hand, it stands as a kind of normative or metaphysical horizon that recedes constantly as the philosopher tries to approach it ; but it never moves so far away that it ceases to attract the ardent effort involved in philosophizing. Precisely this status explains why Strauss knows that he can never propose remedies for the fallen political world whose decline and crisis, paradoxically, he is able to analyze just because of his access to this normative horizon of order. The error of modernity is its hubristic belief that it can cure itself by making immanent the transcendent. On the other hand, the order of orders has an apparently non-political translation insofar as the freedom entailed in philosophizing is now expressed in the form of those classical virtues that teach the individual how to comport himself within a society composed not only of free (esoteric and philosophical) individuals but also of the unfree condemned to live in the (exoteric) shadow world of opinion. It is these virtues (which are taught also by revelation) that give to the esoteric teaching of philosophy what can be called its non-political political role—which Bluhm suggests we label “existential,” even though Strauss understands it in terms of the classical notions of virtue that are opposed to modern subjective individualism. Philosophy, like classical virtue, is political in a context marked by the decline and crisis of the political.

It is in this context that the emergence of the Straussian school can be understood. Both subjective and objective grounds can be suggested. The lure of the esoteric initiation through the guidance of a Master-Teacher, along with the self-certainty and interpretative freedom that goes with it, are joined to the exoteric task of maintaining a recruitable group of youth on whom the future can draw—for example, by establishing a “canon” of certified texts and interpretations that are good enough for the general member of society at the same time that they preserve the possibility of discovering the esoteric evidence by those able to see what is before their eyes. This canonical project is encouraged by the fact that Strauss preached no doctrine and proposed neither a concrete analysis of the present nor a project for the future. That stance meant at first that failure was impossible ; unity was preserved as long as the master remained present. Since the school was based only on commentaries, interpretations could multiply harmlessly because disagreement concerned only an interpretation, not a theory [8]. But this same subjective unity opens the possibility of division when the weight of external, objective conditions imposes itself. At first, the American academic focus on political theory as a domain distinct from the broader field of political science favored unity (which explains why a Strauss school took hold only in the US). Further, the rise of a neo-conservative politics that could legitimate its politics by appeal to Straussian rhetorical denunciations of the liberal justification of relativism, historicism, and subjective individualism added to its American appeal. But this same practical success was not unambiguous. Its American roots could come back to haunt it, as divisions emerged concerning the question whether the American founding maintained sufficient classical elements to save its liberal democracy from itself, or whether American democracy too will suffer the decline typical of modern polities [9].

The re-emergence of political philosophy after 1989 will have to meet the normative challenge posed by Strauss. Bluhm’s contextualizing criticisms of Strauss’s works will be useful but his general thesis is even more important. The political effects of Strauss’s theory are based on his own unpolitical presuppositions (i.e., his stress on philosophizing), which make these political effects immune from counter-attack. By distinguishing a realm of truth and freedom from the quotidien world of compromise and constraint, Strauss guarantees himself an endless field for criticism while at the same time protecting himself from criticism. The objects of his criticism can never defend themselves because they are by definition situated on a different plane. And Strauss can never be challenged to produce his own positive political or institutional proposals because he has ruled this out by definition : the philosophical Word can never become Flesh, neither in Jerusalem nor in Athens. Or, if philosophy does descend, it seats itself in the individual, whom it teaches the ancient virtues of communal life that prepare those who are capable of it for the free living of the philosopher. Strauss’s positive views are expressed negatively, which means they cannot be attacked even while they provide the subjective basis for the unity of a school that must differentiate itself from those outside. One has to admire the system that built this fortress. But, as with any political project, its cost must also be evaluated.

Bluhm does not offer a frontal challenge, although he points to many inconsistencies in the structure, and slippages among its elements. At a more general level, he insists that a normative political theory must be empirically informed, that it should include diagnoses and therapies even while applying the esoteric depth hermeneutics so well developed among the Straussians. He points out that the step by which the school constituted itself against the stance of the empirical political scientists is also the premise that prevents it from making any contribution to political theory as it is commonly understood. But perhaps, Bluhm suggests in his conclusion, the battle among such all-inclusive visions of political theory has ended ; some might say that the old Weimar and Cold War expectation that political theory could have decisive political results is an anachronism. But, he continues, there is something that makes one uneasy in the present calm. Without romanticizing past debates nor reawakening the old claims, one should learn from their willingness to take themselves seriously. Can one say, for example of the Rawlsian proceduralists, that their normative claims carry the kind of philosophical—or “existential”—weight claimed by the Straussians ? Finally, we should return to that left that, as we saw at the outset, has realized the need for political theory. Rather than taking themselves seriously (as the Straussians tend to do), the participants in such a left will have to take seriously their own political responsibility. Indeed, they will have to recognize that the notion of political responsibility is a pleonasm. That is the lesson that emerges from this account of Strauss’s unpolitical philosophical politics. The Strauss school does not understand that all responsibility is political, I am responsible to others—and only for that (perhaps “exoteric”) reason, am I in the end responsible to myself.

Une critique de Dick Howard

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[1] Bluhm notes that such philosophizing, the repeated questioning that Strauss calls “zetetic” –a term taken from Sextus Empiricus—is typical also of the work of Hannah Arendt. Both no doubt drew on Heidegger.

[2] The directly political role of the Straussians is studied by Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1997). Her first chapter treats “Straussians in Washington,” while the final (5th) chapter treats “Neoconservatism : A Straussian Legacy.” For the strictly philosophical development between the two, Bluhm’s book is far more sophisticated and complete

[3] I am relying here on Bluhm’s reconstruction, at pp. 308-310. The allusion to Goldwater is mine.

[4] Ibid, pp. 191f.

[5] This vagueness might explain why, at least in my copies, Strauss’s books contain only nominal indexes ; no attempt is made to bind together objective concepts or external referents.

[6] Commenting on Sabine’s History of Political Philosophy, Strauss asks why one would want to present a history of error ? Cited in Bluhm, op. cit., p. 312, n. 181.

[7] And with that of revealed religion, which Strauss struggled to make compatible by reconciling “Athens and Jerusalem,” a theme to which I can only allude here.

[8] This may explain the continued friendship of Strauss and Kojève, despite their opposed views on the present-day implications of the tyrant and his relation to the philosopher : both were working within a framework marked by a supposed decline of the true philosophical project.

[9] Drury, op. cit., devotes a chapter to “American Applications of Straussian Philosophy.” Bluhm’s final chapter treats the same issues, but is less concerned with “applications” than with philosophical argument.

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