Understanding the Modern World

Ideas have consequences
Richard M. Weaver

Leo Strauss died in 1973. He thus attested to the first indications that there was something very wrong with modern Western societies. He also understood that those problems weren’t of recent occurrence as most people saw –and continue to see– them. A trip through Strauss’ work would show that the damage to our culture and society didn’t start with the progressivism of Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson. And, just as important, it would also show that the passivity of Europe and the liberal half of America facing the barbarian invasion isn’t the fault of leaders like Merkel and Obama. What it would certainly show is the protracted, multifaceted process of self-destruction of our civilization.

Following Strauss and agreeing with Richard M. Weaver’s famous book, I believe that what we know as the modern Western world is the result of a combination of powerful ideas acting through time and space, ideas that begot a Western culture and produced its particular political and social reality. In other words, there is a causal connection between the thought of the early modern philosophers and modernity as it has evolved through time. We lazily say “it’s the left” or “it’s due to our education system” in order to explain our dysfunctional world. Most conservative intellectuals go back a few decades, to early progressivism, but stop there. To practically all of us, the cause of everything that occurs coexists with its effects. Our problems are either unexplained aberrations or consequences of something bad that has been with us for at most a century, called “progressivism.” If it didn’t exist, everything would be right again as in the old times. According to Strauss, our dire state of affairs isn’t an aberration or a distortion but the necessary development of modernity, the result of centuries of corrosion by the acid of all those ideas slowly but surely acting on its societal material.

To understand the modern world we have to go back to the insights of the most powerful Western minds since the Enlightenment: Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and the markers each one of those thinkers planted in a fertile ground. That understanding would be the history of those thinkers’ ideas and the movements triggered by those ideas. It would be the history of the modern break with ancient Greece, Rome and Jerusalem, the history of capitalism, science and technology, and the combined consequences of all those episodes upon our modern lives. It would be the history of the developed Western world, but also of Japan, South Korea and Singapore and the future history of China, India and other Asian countries, because they have also fallen under the unavoidable and lethal spell of modernity.

Contrary to what his supporters and critics maintain, the main thrust of Strauss’ personal journey wasn’t a theoretical concern, but a loud warning of the coming demise of the West. That’s why he begins his The Three Waves of Modernity essay with Oswald Spengler’s famous announcement. “Crisis” is a constant theme and a central, almost repetitive warning throughout his entire work: a “Crisis of Our Time” or a “Crisis of the West” provoked by the successive, combined, incremental and persistent effects of what he saw as three revolutions in modern thinking since the Enlightenment. The theme is there from 1952 in the beautiful essay Progress or Return? (appropriately subtitled The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization), to 1954 in What is Political Philosophy?, to 1959 in The Three Waves of Modernity, to 1962 in The City and Man, and to 1964 in The Crisis of our Time and The Crisis of Political Philosophy.

What is political philosophy good for if it doesn’t shine a bright light on real, concrete human problems? After all, it is supposed to be political philosophy. Why, as practically all the students and critics of Strauss do, think of him as only caring about returning to the ancients, about returning, as Plato said, to “cities in speech”? Why not see in Strauss a thinker concerned about the ravages of modernity on Western societies?

Most philosophers fly high above the ground and thus see an enormous but vague and opaque whole from up high. As a political philosopher, Leo Strauss flew low to the ground and thus saw the several streams and their confluence into a bigger river on their common way to the ocean. He could see deep and wide but unlike so many others, he also understood the practical cultural, social and political problems of his time. That’s why his writings are particularly attractive to me. I discovered Strauss late in life, but in human affairs I have learned more from him than from all the other thinkers I studied. I particularly admire his vindication of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics, and the closeness of some of his arguments with those of Alasdair MacIntyre: “Strauss … shares with the communitarians a non-metaphysical structuring of human sociality which is fundamentally teleological” (Neil G. Robertson).

This “idealist” essay, as far away from Marxism as can be, is my humble gift to his memory. Although it is a restatement of a previous essay, I have tried to avoid repeating what I wrote there. For those readers interested in more detail, Strauss’ The Three Waves of Modernity can be found here, with good alternative explanations by Daniel Halverson here and by ‘SPL Contributor’ here. Neil G. Robertson’s essay above is a wider, deeper and more critical take on Strauss and early modern political thought.

A Faustian Bargain

The modern project was the most complete break imaginable with everything that preceded it. God; religion; the eternal; nature (as a model and restraining order); natural law (the ‘rule and measure’ of nature); the natural sociality of man; virtue as the highest good; the formation of character; practical wisdom; the difference between good and evil; reason; absolute truth; objective fact; duty (with right only as its derivative) were all thrown overboard one after the other. Some principles were just discarded, some were replaced: man is the new god, an individual, asocial being whose humanity is created by his own will acting through history; nature is an alien to be conquered and mastered to “relieve man’s estate;” morality is about passions (fear, want); rights (self-preservation, acquisition) are therefore the basic moral facts; not virtue but liberty, and then equality, is the highest good; truth is relative, historically conditioned, subjective or even an illusion; reason is first elevated, later it is rejected. Man’s solitude, anguish and nihilism are the logical and necessary end points of the process.

Oversimplifying, the process can be resumed as follows: Man is the center of the universe, his passions are unleashed with liberty as their conduit and satisfied with a right corresponding to each passion. This was both the seed and the engine of the crisis we’re living today, a ticking bomb even if its ticks would be measured in decades instead of seconds. The modern thinkers tried to contain and channel those passions with strong institutions, the same ones that are under siege today and have proven to be insufficient for the enormity of the job. Meanwhile, the West Coast Straussians write about liberalism’s pristine, non-modern —even Aristotelian— founding, and conservatives talk on how to recover the lost innocence. Sorry, we can’t convince the genie to go back into his bottle.

Man is part of nature and cannot escape the realm of necessity without consequences. The realm of liberty doesn’t allow man to excel simply because he doesn’t need to, because he doesn’t have to survive under the pressure of necessity and because he doesn’t have anybody or anything higher than himself to emulate or pursue. Leaving behind the realm of necessity therefore means no more Mozarts, Beethovens or Rembrandts:

It would seem that the realm of freedom, if brought to its perfection, will be the realm of homunculi produced in test tubes by homunculi, if it will not be, as is more likely, the earth of “the last man,” of the one herd without a shepherd. For, to quote Machiavelli, “as has been written by some moral philosophers, men’s hands and tongue, two most noble instruments for ennobling him, would not have done their work perfectly nor would they have carried the works of men to the height to which they are seen to have been carried, if they had not been driven on by necessity”: the jump from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom will be the inglorious death of the very possibility of human excellence. (Leo Strauss – On Heidegger – Relativism, p. 148)

Machiavelli and Hobbes thought the ancients were utopians who aimed too high and couldn’t actualize their political ideas, so they lowered their sights, constrained their horizon, and led to a simplification of morals and politics that allowed the abandonment of most classical principles as shown above. They did “take their bearings from how men really live, but also from the extreme case” on how civil society works:

The status of morality must be lowered; morality is nothing but fear-inspired peaceableness. The moral law or the natural law is understood as derivative from the right of nature, the right of self-preservation; the fundamental moral fact is a right, not a duty. This new spirit became the spirit of the modern era, including our own age. (PPP, 212)

Hobbes invented a “state of nature” out of whole cloth —an idea entirely alien to the Bible and to ancient Greece— where man was an individual at war with all others —rejecting anthropological facts such as parenting, family, tribe, reason, speech and thus sociality. Hobbes “could not assert the primacy of natural rights without asserting that the individual is in every respect prior to civil society.” (NRH, 183).

Virtue is reduced to peaceableness. “Those forms of human excellence which have no direct or unambiguous relation to peaceableness —courage, temperance, magnanimity, liberality, to say nothing of wisdom— cease to be virtues in the strict sense … If the only unconditional moral fact is the natural right of each to his self-preservation, and therefore all obligations to others arise from contract, justice becomes identical with the habit of fulfilling one’s contracts. Justice no longer consists in complying with standards that are independent of human will. All material principles of justice —the rules of commutative and distributive justice or of the Second Table of the Decalogue— cease to have intrinsic validity.” (NRH, 187) This clearly shows the extreme break with the classics as expressed above.

Rousseau followed with a “history” created out of Hobbes’ new conception of nature and its contradictions: “What is characteristically human is not the gift of nature but is the outcome of what man did, or was forced to do, in order to overcome or to change nature: man’s humanity is the product of the historical process.” (NRH, 274). “The concept of history, i.e., of the historical process as a single process in which man becomes human without intending it, is a consequence of Rousseau’s radicalization of the Hobbesean concept of the state of nature.” (TWM, 90)

Rousseau’s concept of history destroys any conception of the eternal: instead of a solid, permanent human nature, man is thought to be utterly malleable. His successors, Kant and Hegel, would later link Rousseau’s historical process with his doctrine of the “general will” to give us the germ of revolution, Marxism, socialism, and progressive social engineering.

Locke logically expands on and goes beyond Hobbes, by showing that “if everyone has by nature the right to preserve himself, he necessarily has the right to the means required for his self-preservation.” (NRH, 185) and that “the desire for happiness and the pursuit of happiness have the character of an absolute right, of a natural right … while there is no innate natural duty … Reason further teaches that, since all men are equal in regard to the desire, and hence to the right, of self-preservation, they are equal in the decisive respect, notwithstanding any natural inequalities in other respects.” (NRH, 226-228). Locke is well known as the philosopher of acquisition, of property, of capitalism. This is how Strauss concludes his chapter on Locke:

“Locke is a hedonist: ‘That which is properly good or bad, is nothing but barely pleasure or pain.’ But his is a peculiar hedonism: ‘The greatest happiness consists’ not in enjoying the greatest pleasures but ‘in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures’ … hedonism becomes utilitarianism or political hedonism … Life is the joyless quest for joy.” (NRH, 249-251, my emphasis)

After all this optimism there came Nietzsche: “the sentiment of existence [is] the experience of terror and anguish rather than of harmony and peace, and it is the sentiment of historic existence as necessarily tragic; the human problem is indeed insoluble as a social problem, as Rousseau had said, but there is no escape from the human to nature; there is no possibility of genuine happiness, the highest of which man is capable has nothing to do with happiness.” Contrary to what Hegel thought, there is no end or peak of history; the historical process is unfinished and unfinishable, and the belief in its rationality or progressiveness is baseless (TWM, 95). “All known ideals had claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason. The historical insight destroys that claim and therewith all known ideals.” According to Nietzsche, “the end has come for man as the was hitherto; what will come is either the Over-man or the Last-man. The last man, the lowest and most decayed man, the herd man without any ideals and aspirations, but well fed, well clothed, well housed, well medicated by ordinary physicians and by psychiatrists is Marx’s man of the future seen from an anti-Marxist point of view.” (TWM, 97).

The opportunity of Nietzsche’s Over-men came and went in the 1940s; we are left with his Last men.

The main problem with liberalism is not the weakening of its institutions, the sapping of its democracy, or its inability to stop globalist oligarchy. It is the utter failure of the assumptions of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the early modern philosophers, a failure we carry upon our shoulders. They thought their ideas would bring about a bright new world in which universal education would make humans equal and interchangeable and able to govern themselves and find happiness, a world in which political problems would become technical problems that experts versed in the new political science would easily solve. Nothing of that appears to be the case. What we find at the end of the development of modernity is the amorphous, contradictory and mostly subconscious mixture of beliefs and behaviors that are the consequence of Strauss’ three waves, the result we call modern liberalism: an absurd combination of positivism, historicism, optimistic belief in blind progress (“the right side of history”); a belief in progressive vs reactionary in place of good vs bad; of subjective “values” instead of objective virtues or principles; where our nihilism forces us to be tolerant of all beliefs, no matter how intolerant they are, and our belief in equality guides us to accept all cultures (except our own). We can even decide what “gender” we have by pure subjective will, against any biological and physical fact.

Good examples of this dark picture are modern European men, who can’t even defend their women from the barbarians, and Swedish “feminist” government officials who strongly oppose President Trump but meekly wear hijabs when facing Iranian mullahs.

Finally, what I detailed in my previous essay about demographic suicide is patent in today’s Japan, where even sex is disappearing as a social factor. Please watch the recent video “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese.”

Vladimir Dorta, 02/23/2017

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Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (PPP), University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (NRH), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971.

Leo Strauss, The Three Waves of Modernity (TWM), An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, Hilail Gildin, Ed., Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1989.

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