Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Leo Strauss and the Basis of Our Political Understanding

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From Guest Blogger Ryan Berg

I posted recently about ancient political philosophy and its relevance in the debate raging about “fairness” in the Bush tax cuts.  An article about Leo Strauss, renowned University of Chicago political theorist, in the Wall Street Journal stroked my curiosity on this topic.  The article chronicles recent attempts to catalogue Strauss’ lectures, his relationship with his students, and his love of political philosophy.  This is a refreshing view, given that most people specialize, in school and otherwise, in current events.  However, enthusiasm for current affairs can be as narrowing as it can be invigorating.

When we “major” in current affairs, as it were, we fail to understand the alternative political decisions that no longer appear on the table; how we arrived at a particular political place or set of political issues; or even the deeper and more permanent issues that underlie our current debates.  It is dubious to argue that specializing in current affairs is liberal and freeing.  It may be even deeply illiberal, given that a current affairs education may trap us in ways of understanding the world in “presentist” terms.

Philosophy, by contrast, especially political philosophy (since so much of what we do is political), can provide a form of liberation that is foreclosed to those who specialize in current events.  An education in philosophy does not eviscerate our ability to become influential or knowledgeable about current events.  Political philosophy does not relegate us to denizens of the ivory tower, but engenders a deeper understanding of daily activity in the political realm.  Specializing in current affairs over political philosophy misses the forest for the trees.

This is what strikes me as one of Strauss’ greatest achievements and his lasting importance in the field of political philosophy and liberal education.  Strauss railed against “historicism,” the belief that all thought is relative to its time and place.  “This tenet still infects political science today, causing students excruciating boredom in their [typically, required] classes on political theory.  Why should students care about Plato if they’re taught that his philosophy is obsolete?”  The University of Chicago core curriculum—in which Straus and Allan Bloom were instrumental—shows us that the Classics are of lasting importance.

In early political philosophy, Socrates initiates many discussions with his fellow citizens, challenging their conventional understandings of basic ideas.  Like an artist, Socrates has the uncanny ability to make the familiar seem unfamiliar.  By doing so, he helps the citizens of Athens move beyond conventional understandings and contributes to the possibility of thinking differently and more expansively.  In other words, Socrates helps them become more fully human because he allows the citizens of Athens to see that their inherited assumptions do not constitute the full horizon of the human experience.

Strauss advocated for core courses in the traditional academic disciplines, rather than trendy academic focuses.  He believed in instilling his students with the essentials of academic knowledge and character development.  This approach teaches students not what to think, but how to think, reason, and promote a common cultural conversation.  The overall aim of Strauss’ approach is exposure to history’s finest thinkers.  From this, students gain access to the enduring value of the works of genius as models for their own discovery.

Details of fact change constantly; therefore, Strauss believed in pedagogy of principles.  We maintain the word “professors” because we assume they have something to “profess” or instill in us.  Foremost, students are human and Strauss stood for an education geared toward human life first, and second, if at all, vocational training.  His method focuses intensely on the development of rational thought, largely unattainable by second-hand information in textbooks.  Rather, learning takes place through the development of conceptual thinking and judgment by means of a directed reading list of profound, aesthetic, and meaningful “Great Books” of the Western canon.  The Great Books often comprise what Strauss and others referred to as “the Great Conversation” of Western Civilization with regard to central human questions.

Strauss defended vociferously this style of education for all humans and all types of vocations.  He defended the study of the Classics, not just as an intellectual exercise for those capable, but of essential and last importance to the human person, in any time and place.  It is virtuous to seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake; “intellectual pragmatism” is specious at best.  Moreover, Strauss knew that these Classics were the basis of a good life.  Once they become available, we would all do ourselves good to revisit his lectures.


Written by Russell S.

August 27, 2010 at 8:08 pm

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