How Political is Philosophy?
Essays Society Philosophy

How Political is Philosophy?

Alex Priou

A Response to Michael Millerman

Writing on Leo Strauss’s critique of Martin Heidegger is a daunting affair, so elusive are the figures to be discussed and so one-sided was their conversation.[1] Michael Millerman is to be commended, therefore, for his remarkably lucid and accessible articulation of this conversation, as well as the thought-provokingly original insights he offers. Thought-provoking they are indeed, as they provoked me into thinking and then into writing up some of my thoughts. As should become clear, Millerman acknowledges but sidesteps an issue that I take to be fundamental to his subject. But I should also note that I present the following not in the mood of spirited critique. Such critique seeks not to further but to end discussion. Rather, my sole aim is to persuade Millerman to address this issue, primarily out of interest in what he has said so far and in what he might have to say about the questions he acknowledges yet sets aside.

It is best to begin by laying out as succinctly as possible what seems to be the centerpiece of Millerman’s essay: his discussion of Heidegger and Strauss’s distinctive interpretations of Plato’s so-called theory of the forms—more specifically, the version of that theory found in the Republic. For Heidegger, the central difficulty of that teaching concerns the ontological status of the idea or form of the good. On the one hand, the idea of the good is said to be beyond being; but on the other, it is an idea, that is, one of those beings, which are said to be most of all. For Heidegger, this contradiction reflects a crucial mistake on Plato’s part: he mistook what grounds the beings for one of the beings. “What Heidegger would like us to turn our attention to. . . was, as it were, the ‘beyond’ part of ‘beyond being,’ in contrast to Plato’s emphasis on the ‘being’ part.” Heidegger is thus resolute in his attempt to understand Being not as a being but as what makes possible our encounter and engagement with beings and, because it makes that engagement possible and even quite powerful, is so readily forgotten. Yet on Strauss’s reading, Millerman maintains, the ideas do not have this ontological status but are rather restricted to the moral-political realm, that is, they are necessary to sound politics: “political moderation needs the ideas and therefore the political presentation of man’s highest intellectual perfection must be couched in terms of them.”[2] Heidegger’s mistake, therefore, was not philosophic but political in character. “Heidegger, however irrefutably brilliant Strauss and we might think his philosophical inquiries are, also appears in all his talk of ‘beyng’ and ‘being’ to overlook questions of morality and justice.” Heidegger’s mistake, then, was to bypass too quickly the moral-political realm, a mistake Millerman calls “disqualifying.” “But the disqualification,” Millerman cautions, “is moral and political. It is not philosophical.”

On Millerman’s account, the moral-political disqualification appears to have to do with how openly Heidegger expressed the immoderate, erotic impulse driving the philosopher. Moderation, it would seem, is the exoteric garb, beneath which lurks what Socrates calls a divine madness in the Phaedrus. In Millerman’s words,

“There is reason to wonder about the philosophical status of moderation in Strauss’s teaching. Strauss has more patience than is commonly known for the erotic immoderation of private philosophical thinking, but he has even less patience than I have suggested for public immoderation.”

As Strauss once put it, “In practical matters there is a right of the first occupant: what is established must be respected. In theoretical matters this cannot be.”[3] Millerman is more hesitant here than one would expect, given the above, though perhaps he wishes to draw a distinction between political and philosophical moderation. Certain it is that restraining one’s appetites is quite different from humbly admitting one does not, or may not, know. Still, we wonder whether the moral and the philosophic, or the exoteric and the esoteric, can be so easily separated from one another. This brings us to what I take to be the fundamental issue latent in Millerman’s essay, a question he seems to me to want to answer without explicitly raising it for his reader: How political is philosophy? Or, in what sense is political philosophy political?

The latency of this question is most evident at that moment when Millerman narrows the scope of his inquiry to his desired focus. According to the classical natural right teaching, Millerman argues, human nature admits of two perfections, the one moral and the other intellectual. Millerman then separates the latter from the former:

“Strauss was especially concerned with the issue of intellectual perfection, which is private, and its relationship to moral perfection, which is social or political. Many commentators on Strauss focus on this part of his thought. That is fair: it is central. But it is also fair to limit ourselves to his understanding of intellectual perfection, or philosophy.”

Straussians, it seems to me, tend to focus on the relationship between intellectual and moral perfection—or excellence, as I prefer to call it—because intellectual excellence emerges specifically through testing the claim of morality to provide the complete human good. As Millerman goes on to say, “Strauss often characterizes philosophy as the quest to replace opinions about the whole or all things with knowledge about the whole or all things.” These opinions about the whole include such beliefs as support popular morality, say, belief in a providential god, who rewards justice with good and injustice with bad, or belief in historical progress toward greater and greater moral and scientific perfection. Can we understand in what intellectual excellence consists without first confronting the particular moral and political beliefs of our time? Is not part of the problem of moral excellence that in certain cases it claims also to be intellectual excellence, that it asserts that wisdom begins not in wonder but in fear of the Lord or that the peak of history is Absolute Knowing? That is, in separating intellectual excellence from its moral-political counterpart, do we not risk understanding it in a purely formal—that is to say, purely theoretical—way? Do we understand philosophy as a purified idea, as another idealism, rather than as a way of life, as Strauss himself understood it?

A brief reflection on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics should suffice as an example. After the introductory first book, Aristotle appears to divide his work into two main parts: books two through five treat moral excellence, while from book six on Aristotle concerns himself with intellectual excellence. The division is not so neat as it first appears, however. It becomes increasingly apparent that the standard by which moral action is to be judged is, in the end, practical wisdom, an intellectual virtue. And the treatment of intellectual virtue is not free of all moral trappings, even much later in Aristotle’s lauded discussion of friendship. The overall impression one gets from reading the Ethics, then, is that moral excellence needs intellectual excellence to be complete, while intellectual excellence tends to depart from, or at least have alternative grounds to, moral excellence. Conversely, however, intellectual excellence cannot detach itself from its moral counterpart as easily as it might like, with shades of the city always threatening to intrude upon our thinking unbeknownst to us. The two are uneasy bedfellows, but bedfellows they are nonetheless.

Allow me to approach this same question from the perspective of Strauss’s famous—or infamous—distinction between exoteric and esoteric teachings. Writing of the “trans-historical set of problems shared by all political philosophers,” Millerman says,

“This trans-historical dimension forms a continuous thread running under the surface of the apparently historically conditioned configurations of political philosophy. Exoterically, perhaps, philosophy appears historical. Esoterically, it isn’t.”

The distinction between exoteric and esoteric teachings is thus a useful defensive weapon against Heidegger’s historicism. But can the esoteric ever be entirely separated from the exoteric? Can the exoteric, in turn, be reduced to a merely public teaching, beneath which lies “the trans-historical dimension”? Or is the exoteric teaching part and parcel of the esoteric teaching? That is, are the conditions which give rise to a thought altogether separable from the thought itself? In his exposition of the forgotten art of writing, Strauss constructs an example, in which an historian in a totalitarian country appears to endorse the state-sponsored views of the history of religion, while subtly charming more open readers to liberalism and disgusting them with the virulence of their holy books. It would be correct to say that this author’s endorsement of the official doctrine of the state is merely exoteric. Yet it would not be correct to say that the charm of liberalism to him and his readers is separable from their discovery of the falsity of the official doctrine.[4] More to the point, however, Strauss remarks, as Millerman has reminded us, that philosophy is “the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole.”[5] But as Millerman also notes, it does not culminate in the possession of wisdom. Accordingly, wouldn’t philosophy always remain an attempt and therefore in some manner always be concerned with opinion, even when it pays what appears to be merely exoteric lip-service to it?

The above line of questioning can be restated more concisely in the form of a syllogism. If Strauss agreed with Heidegger philosophically but disagreed with him morally and politically; if, too, their agreement concerns the understanding of philosophy as an immoderate quest or attempt to achieve knowledge of the whole or, to use Heidegger’s term, “beyng”; yet if, in addition, this quest or attempt does not culminate in the possession of wisdom, so that philosophy is always concerned with opinions about the whole, and necessarily so; then does it not follow that part of philosophy is ascertaining which opinions to begin from and therefore, contra Millerman, that Heidegger’s moral and political shortcomings constitute a philosophic shortcoming? Put more simply, don’t elements of Heidegger’s existential analytic, elements like resoluteness, fallenness, authenticity, and—perhaps most importantly—disclosure and dispensation, reflect unawares the moral-political realm he too hastily disregarded? And, therefore, wouldn’t Heidegger have made a philosophic misstep, inasmuch as he would have harbored hopes for philosophy ill-grounded in the very nature of human existence, in Dasein, that most famous of Heideggerean terms? If so, then Strauss’s moral-political critique would be a philosophic one, as well.

This line of questioning would seem to run afoul of a crucial fact that is central to Millerman’s argument, and rightly so: “Strauss suggested that he had not refuted Heidegger (he said ‘refutations’ of great thinkers are not worth the paper they’re written on), because, like all great thinkers, Heidegger has not been understood well enough to refute.” To be clear, I do not think a moral-political critique constitutes a philosophic refutation. Philosophic refutation seems precluded in this case by virtue of the great agreement between Strauss and Heidegger as to the immoderation of philosophy, though I would add that their respective self-understandings of this immoderation would likely have been revealingly divergent, as would the immoderation itself. Millerman seems to support this view when he claims that Strauss’s suggestion is based on an understanding of “the essence of philosophy,” an understanding that seems to me quite sound. Continuing, Millerman writes, “It is also an open question whether it belongs to the essence of philosophy as such not to be subject to refutation, as Heidegger himself believed.” It is at this point that Millerman appears to me to touch upon the very heart of his subject matter, though he immediately backs away, remarking that “we need not enter into that question here.” This is puzzling and unfortunate, I think. For it would follow that it is not philosophy but opinion that is subject to refutation and that such refutation, when it gives rise to perplexity, may further give rise to the dialectical inquiry that is philosophy. On this account, Strauss’s critique of Heidegger would not constitute a refutation, such that Heidegger is to be banished from the ranks of the philosophers. Such critique would rather be inseparable from his status as a philosopher.

I’ll close by returning to the fundamental issue latent in Millerman’s essay, namely, How political is philosophy? Or in what sense is political philosophy political? Can the political merely be noticed then set aside, as one turns to “beyng” instead? Or is the analysis of political life more extended? If the latter, then is it ever set aside, so that one may at some point in the future set aside political philosophy and proceed to metaphysics on its own? Or does political life remain the site of philosophic inquiry into the whole, the proper forest, to use Millerman’s image, in which the lightning bolt of being strikes? Political life has ever remained a perennial danger to philosophy. It is the reason many thoughtful objectors, as in Strauss’s example above, have felt the need to conceal their thoughts. But as Strauss also noted, thought, too, suffers from the threat of political persecution or compulsion.[6] This more insidious danger, the danger to thought, seems to require constantly returning to the shades of the city, lest they influence our thinking unbeknownst to us. It also seems to be what informs Strauss’s critique of Heidegger. Of course, dangerous as this threat may be, still we must not fight or flee it entirely, as it is not without its peculiar pleasure. Perhaps some such observation informs the philosopher’s moderation and immoderation alike. For without that danger, philosophy could not be pleasant. It could not even be.[7]

  1. There’s no evidence that Heidegger was aware of Strauss’s critique. That it was so often veiled or indirect, as with Natural Right and History, wouldn’t have helped. Gadamer apparently hoped to bring them into dialogue, but that never happened. In any case, Heidegger never responded. ↩︎

  2. Emphasis in original. ↩︎

  3. Leo Strauss, On Plato’s Symposium, ed. Seth Benardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 1. ↩︎

  4. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 24–25. It should be remarked that Strauss’s example is thoroughgoingly modern. The centrality of liberalism, the commitment to political enlightenment, and even the term “totalitarianism” (as opposed to “tyranny”) all point to this fact. Ancient esoterism is not at issue here. Compare Seth Benardete, The Argument of the Action, ed. Ronna Burger and Michael Davis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 409. On the relationship between a thought and its conditions, see Leo Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Correspondence Concerning Warheit und Methode,” Independent Journal of Philosophy 2 (1978), 5–6. ↩︎

  5. Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 11 (emphasis mine). ↩︎

  6. Leo Strauss, Persecution, 22. ↩︎

  7. A final, not unrelated question. Millerman writes that Strauss rescued the classical natural right teaching from “unjustified oblivion,” which is only to say that the oblivion is thus far unjustified. But does Millerman believe there are grounds on which the oblivion might be justified? ↩︎

Featured Image: Photo by Jonas Kaiser via Unsplash.

Alex Priou is an instructor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides, as well as a number of articles on the history of philosophy. His academic work can be found here. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.