Monday, May 30, 2005


The Waltz parties at St. John's College clearly reflect the Straussian influence.

Being a passable ballroom dancer, I am posting the first of several letters to my friend Ali Schwab on Leo Strauss's The City and Man in an attempt to summarize the argument. So far, it's worked well as a means of remembering and absorbing the book.

Dear Ali,

You asked me to give you the Cliff's Notes of Leo
Strauss's The City And Man, and I promised to do so as soon as I understood
it. Well, I've read the introduction, and the first of the three essays --
on Aristotle's Politics -- so here it is.

The main point of the
introduction is that it is proper and necessary to read ancient political
philosophers. This is because only by doing so can we achieve the proper
historical perspective, and also understand the presuppositions of modern social

This is necessary, to Strauss, because the West is
in a crisis. This crisis comes from the lack of a clear thing the West
stands for, which is critical for the West because it is a culture that once
stood for universal enlightenment and freedom. But in the age of Communism
-- not a Western movement because it is combined with "Eastern despotism" --
however much of a universal standard the West claims, it must exist in practice
as one of two competing cultures. (Strauss compares this situation to
Christianity and Islam in time past.)

The problem is that social
science as understood now cannot make value judgments, because of the fact-value
distinction, the difference between empirical judgements about what is, which
are supposed to be universal and verifiable, and values, which are supposed to
be subjective. Because of this, science -- empirical knowledge -- cannot
say, alone, how man ought live.

Political philosophy, meanwhile,
has decayed into ideology,which is shown by the fact that the study of political
philosophy has been replaced by the study of the history of political
philosophy. Logic, claiming the place of political philosophy, enforces
the separation of facts from values.

The other part of political
philosophy has been coopted by political science, the study of man's political
behavior and the forming of universal laws to describe it. Here, though,
we must study many political climates, different times and places, to grasp the
universals common to all.

And political science must be concerned
not merely with institutions, but ideologies as well, insofar as they influence
the actions of men. And an important species of ideology is the teaching
of a political philosophy. The historian, then, must understand these
teachings to understand how they affect men. To do so, he must understand
them on their own terms, which comprises understanding his own presuppositions,
those of political science, and social science as a whole. So the history
of political philosophy is the discipline concerned with the presuppositions --
the modern ones -- at the root of modern social science.

And these
presupositions are the latest result of a history of thought originating in
classical political philosophy, modified into modern political philosophy, and
then into modern social science.

So we must approach
classical political philosophy tentatively but "seriously, i.e. without
squinting at our present predicament." Only we can answer our own,
contemporary problems, many of which are unknown to classical thinkers, but
classical thought might be a better starting-point.

Finally, just
as political science must understand classical thinkers on their own terms, and
not in modern terms, we must aproach political things in general with an
understanding of the citizen's and legislator's perspective, rather than the
scientist's, to understand them at all adequately. And Aristotle's
politics is to be examined especially because it is a complete and
conscious articulation of the common sense view of things. (Common
sense, though, is a modern term, contrasted with science, which, as Strauss will
argue, is foreign to Aristotle's conception of things, since he believes in
natural good.

Let me know how clear that is. If you'd like,
I'll continue with the Politics.

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