The Thought of Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss, the godfather not of the neo-cons but of the Straussians, earned his rightful place in the history of political philosophy by making that history a matter of such concentrated and profound inquiry that it is doubtful whether his feat will be approximated again before a few centuries more have passed. Not least among the many treasures he unearthed in his studies was the possibility that it remains viable for us today to recover the classical alternative to modern historicism that Strauss called natural right. We need this alternative because without it we have lost our political moorings. We stand today before an abyss.
It is part of Strauss’s teaching that the first modern political philosophers effected a deliberate break from the classical tradition of political philosophy by lowering the standard of political life from the life of excellence (Plato & Aristotle) to the life of glory (Machiavelli) and then security (Hobbes & Locke) or comfortable self-preservation. These changes were not inevitable. They do not reflect either the onward march of progress or the growth of the desert. They are philosophical acts of political founding. Their downstream effects may have followed with a measure of predictability and can be evaluated, so that, for instance, once the bar was lowered it was only a matter of time before the neutralizations and depoliticizations of politics Carl Schmitt discussed would become widespread and threaten man’s status on earth as a serious being. Strauss, in short, foresaw the bad consequences of the modern teachings and believed that careful study of the classical alternative could prove helpful to us in our distress.
That alternative needed Strauss’s defense. Historicism and scientism, the dominant modern trends, had made it impossible to take seriously the claims of old thinkers like Plato to have discovered the truth about political things–they therefore destroyed the possibility of political philosophy. For the scientists or positivists, there cannot be a truth about matters of “value,” while for the historicists there cannot be a truth for all time. Plato, in this account, is a product of his culture, and at most we can learn from him about what the ancient Greeks thought, but not about the trans-historical questions such as what is man, what is the good life, and what is the best regime or political order. Strauss showed that scientism and historicism had not adequately overcome the possibility that the classical teaching was simply true. He traced the genesis of the historical attitude itself and sought to correct some of the misunderstandings that lend weight to the historicist thesis.
For instance, Strauss observed that defenders of historicism found evidence for their approach in the fact that older authors share the beliefs that are prevalent in their societies. If a thinker believes a set of beliefs that happen to prevail at the time he is writing, and if it can be shown that those beliefs constrain what can appear to him as a problem or solution, then the historicist thesis of the relativity of thought to time might appear persuasive. Strauss, however, demonstrated that political philosophers often pay lip service to the prevailing beliefs of their time in order to give the impression of orthodoxy, while at the same time employing an art of writing to indicate their own heterodox beliefs—between the lines, as it were. Strauss provided ample, indisputable evidence from the history of political philosophy for this way of writing, and his followers have provided even more.
What he accomplished with this line of argumentation was to show that the initial impression that authors are sons of their time was not proof for historicism. At most, it was proof of esotericism, which indicates a trans-historical set of problems shared by all political philosophers, including the tension between philosophy and the political community and the risk of persecution philosophers face when they communicate their thoughts publicly, as everyone does who writes. 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.
Classical natural right is Strauss’s name for the alternative he recovered and saved from unjustified oblivion. Classical natural right teaches that the best life and the best political order should take their orientation from what is best in man, from the perfection of his nature. There are two such perfections, two peaks: moral and intellectual. There is no technology or approach that can guarantee the actualization of these perfections. The best life and best political order, modelled on these perfections, is not a dream. Its actualization is possible, but it is unlikely; it depends on chance. Modern political philosophy sought to conquer chance and to make sure that the social models it preferred could be actualized through political technologies.
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. The best life, the life that strives for the perfection of our intellect, is the life of the philosopher. Strauss often characterizes philosophy as the quest to replace opinions about the whole or all things with knowledge about the whole or all things. Philosophy is first and foremost the quest for wisdom, rather than the possession of wisdom. Strauss once had a famous debate with Alexandre Kojeve, who argued that at some point in history–in Hegel’s books, specifically–the quest for wisdom becomes the possession of wisdom and the philosopher becomes the wise man. Strauss disagreed, and you should read that debate for the details (see On Tyranny). The point here is that Strauss characterized philosophy as a quest for knowledge of all things, or even as a quest for knowledge of the essences of all things. He uses a few different formulations in a few different places, but that is the most consistent one.
The main issue I want to raise now is what Martin Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy means for Strauss’s project, since Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy differs cardinally from Strauss’s, and Heidegger is not just some Tom, Dick or Harry for Strauss. There have been suggestions that Strauss’s book Natural Right and History is really something like Strauss’s response to Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), for instance. Strauss himself stated his indebtedness to Heidegger and his high praise for Heidegger in the clearest possible terms: Heidegger made possible a return to the roots of the Western tradition through his penetrating studies of the thinkers of the first beginning of philosophy, showing that they had not been refuted because they had not been understood, not by a long shot. That discovery allowed Strauss to return to the roots of the tradition of political philosophy, without which his project is unthinkable. Importantly, 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. 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, but we need not enter into that question here. It is enough to see that Heidegger presented for Strauss an unrefuted and genuine alternative to philosophy understood as the quest for knowledge of the essences of the natures of all things. Heidegger’s thinking, by contrast, stands or falls with the view that philosophy is not fundamentally an inquiry into beings (“all things”), but rather a leap into what he called the clearing-concealing truth of beyng. I will try to explain that now.
The simplest way I know to explain what Heidegger means while preserving reference to Strauss’s project is through the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic. The freed prisoner who exits the cave eventually sees the most beingful beings themselves, the ideas. Earlier, he had seen semblances, images, comparatively unreal realities–not nothing, but not the most beingful beings. Plato calls the most beingful beings the ideas, and this point is so fundamental that Heidegger writes hundreds of pages across many volumes examining it, ultimately identifying this discussion in the Republic as the most fateful occurrence in the history of Western philosophy. The most beingful beings are there for intellectual perception. Intellectual perception is like the eye, the ideas are like the things seen. And the sun is the source of the light that yokes seer and seen.
Strauss wrote in a few key places, including in Natural Right and History, that what he called nature is equivalent to what Plato called the ideas. That suggests that the defence of classical right is in some important way related in general to the presentation of the ideas in Plato. But this is precisely where we can locate a decisive gap between Strauss and Heidegger, for the following reason. Plato–Socrates, to be precise–calls the sun “the idea of the good.” He also says that it is “beyond being.” But that produces a contradiction. The ideas are the most beingful beings. And the sun in the allegory of the cave indicates that which is beyond being. So why is it called an idea? Somehow, calling it an idea drags it back into being and makes it a being–perhaps the highest being, but still a being. In a nutshell, that is the whole problem.
What Heidegger would like us to turn our attention to, what he believes did not become a question for Plato or for the philosophers who came in his wake, all the way to Nietzsche, was, as it were, the “beyond” part of “beyond being,” in contrast to Plato’s emphasis on the “being” part. That is not quite precise, but it is a helpful first step. It indicates that Heidegger was concerned about the way that beings and their interpretation in terms of being as that which empowers them, explains them, or creates them (in later theological thought) kept our attention from something more fundamental, something prior to the ontological difference between beings and being.
In Heideggerian jargon, that more fundamental something “is” the self-concealing clearing (we can’t quite say that it “is” something since it is not one of the beings and is not being understood as that which is common to them–Heidegger says not that it “is” but that it “essentially occurs,”–west in German). I will guess that that is not comprehensible, so let me resort to an image. Imagine that you are lighting up a room full of things with a light bulb connected to a dark and itself unillumined device. You would be forgiven for “forgetting” that device in the brightness of the illuminated space, where your eyes are attracted first to the things lit up and perhaps also to the light itself. But, you will agree, the source of the lighting is not unimportant, especially not if this image is meant to symbolize the human situation. The source of the lighting is “self-concealing,” because it stays out of the light, and, stretching past the analogy, its staying away from or “refusing” itself creates the open space that can be lit up in the first place and in which beings can appear. That second bit is what Heidegger calls “clearing.” This unillumined device, by staying away, clears an open space for us where beings can be. And–things get a little weird here for the uninitiated–we are that space (Dasein). But this clearing-concealing dimension that is somehow related to ourselves understood as Dasein–all of that is out of the picture in Plato. We’re not looking at the unilluminated device. The cave allegory puts the emphasis on the ideas, the things illuminated, even when discussing the source of light, the sun, as the idea of the Good.
Part of the difficulty with understanding Heidegger in terms of Plato's cave allegory, though it is important to do so, is that Heidegger's approach takes us beyond the metaphor of light. For that reason, it could be helpful to restate his position in terms that are closer to the language he uses. Heidegger prefers to talk about the ground of our existence, the site and the moment when we experience, shelter, and preserve the clearing-concealing of beyng. Who we are is not like an individual point but like a line or a circle: we are stretched out temporally from our "always-already having-been" to our "being-towards-death," and we are spatial because for Heidegger, seen from the perspective of the question of the meaning of being, we just are the open space where beyng comes to be. We belong to it, and it needs us, like a lightning strike needs a forest for a conflagration. We are not a something. We are more like a someplace where beyng can burn. And philosophy should be primarily concerned not with the somethings that are but with the someplace that we are and with the fire that burns.
I offer a third and final image. Let there be two arrows pointing up, one on top of the other. Next to them are two arrows pointing down in the same way. The first upward arrow is "truth A" as the "clearing-concealing" that configures the space of Dasein. The second upward arrow is "truth B" as Dasein's true statements about the beings that appear in the open space. The top downward arrow suggests that we must need to return from our focus on beings, including our self-interpretation in terms of the world that we take care of, to a sounder understanding of ourselves as Dasein. The bottom downward arrow shows that we must then turn from Dasein to beyng as the ground of our existence.
Taken as a whole, these images help depict Heidegger’s vision. The first image suggests that there is something that does not come to light but that is a precondition for the coming to the light—Heidegger thinks this has eluded us. The whole history of philosophy is a history of this eluding. The possibility of another beginning depends on recognizing that something eluded us and steadfastly questioning the significance of that “refusal,” “abandonment,” or staying away. The second set of images conveys human existence as an open space that receives the impress, imprint, or gift of beyng. We are sheltering and preserving beyng. We are the forest. Beyng sets us alight. The third image of the four arrows shows why “truth” can mean both “something true about a being” and “the clearing-concealing of beyng,” and how one depends on the other.
If we take a step back, we can summarize the problem as follows. For Strauss, philosophy fundamentally has something to do with “beings,” with “all the things,” with “natures,” and with “essences.” For Heidegger, however, philosophy goes further behind the curtain to that which is more original than beings, which is not one of the things, which is the precondition for there being beings and for our standing amidst them, exposed to the elusive ground of our own existence. More original than beings is the clearing-concealing of beyng. That’s Heidegger’s focal point. But what does that mean for Strauss’s project of recovering classical natural right?
Strauss, recall, did not believe that he had a refutation of Heidegger. Heidegger, though, presents a genuine philosophical alternative to Strauss’s notion of philosophy, which is part and parcel of his defence of classical natural right. How, then, can Strauss hold his ground against Heidegger? What is the meaning of Heidegger for Strauss’s understanding of intellectual perfection if there is more to philosophy than the quest for knowledge of the natures or essence of all things?
I believe the key is to see the recovery of classical natural right not only, or perhaps not primarily, in philosophical terms but in political terms (which brings us back to the issue of the two peaks or perfections). Although Strauss is what I call a philosophical supremacist, seeing man’s perfection in philosophy, his defence of the classical alternative is not premised on the superiority, to put it starkly, of Plato’s philosophy to Heidegger’s. Heidegger’s philosophy could even be superior, but Strauss would still defend classical natural right. The reason is that, for Strauss, political moderation needs the ideas and therefore the political presentation of man’s highest intellect perfection must be couched in terms of them.
Scientism and historicism, and even the best of Heideggerianism do not seem to provide man with standards for political judgment. Scientism pretends that we cannot have knowledge of the ends of human life or judge among competing “values.” Historicism believes standards shift from time to time and place to place and thus makes it harder to judge political life soundly, as compared to the classics. 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–a point he himself is explicit about when he writes that the “knowing seriousness” appropriate to philosophy as he understands it “no longer concerns itself with good and bad, decline and recovery of the tradition, amiability and violence.” 
In On Tyranny, Strauss and Kojeve agree that Heidegger’s approach blinds him to problems like the problem of tyranny. That is disqualifying. But the disqualification is moral and political. It is not philosophical. At least, 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. It is safe to say that it will remain an open question whether it is possible to combine Heidegger’s genuine insights with the most pressing issue for modern man: lacking standards, we face an abyss. Strauss’s accomplishment in recovering the classical standard may be our only hope.
Michael Millerman is a writer, editor and researcher in Toronto. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto. Michael's first book Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political is forthcoming. You can find his interviews, courses, lectures and other publications at michaelmillerman.ca. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.