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Strauss and Voegelin on Athens Jerusalem and Rome
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-07-01 05:27:26
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In the middle of the 20th century there appeared on the American academic stage two giants of political philosophy: Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. They were both German- born Americans who had escaped Nazi Germany and had an ongoing scholarly correspondence which spanned thirty years (1934-1964). The correspondence was edited and published by Professor Ellis Sardoz in his The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin and makes for some fascinating philosophical reading. It inspired the writing of this piece which is nothing else but an attempt at condensing the valuable insights of Professor Sardoz on this intriguing scholarly relationship and correspondence.

The first salient fact to note, according to Professor Sardoz, is that after 1956 only five of the fifty-one surviving letters of the correspondence were written, and then there was  a mysterious silence. What had happened in 1956 is that Voegelin had published the first three volumes of his Order and History (1956 and 1957), the book by which he is best known. Moreover, Strauss makes little or no comment to Voegelin about what he has written on the basis of a profound study of the Bible — specifically of the Hebrew Old Testament — in Israel and Revelation and his meticulous interpre¬tation of the pre-Socratics. There seems to be however a strong general agreement between the two men about the defectiveness of modern philosophy and the science of man from Machiavelli and Hobbes onward. Both see this flaw as requiring a return to the Greeks.

Thus  Voegelin readily accepts Strauss's principle of under¬standing a thinker as he understood himself. As per Sardoz, this is how Voegelin understood this principle: the con¬scientious interpreter has "to restore the experiences that have led to the creation of certain concepts and symbols; or: [since symbols] have become opaque . . . they must be made luminous again by penetrating to the experiences they express." Worth noting here is that Voegelin has been reading Vico in the original and is greatly influenced by him and the importance he assigns to symbols and myths to explain his historical corsi and ricorsi.  Strauss who is now teaching Vico at the University of Chicago reducing Vico’s historicism to Platonism and thus, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, remains strangely silent on the key question of how and in what sense philosophy can be said to be experientially anchored in practical historical action: that while man makes history, the reverse is also true: history makes man.

At one point of the correspondence Strauss writes to Voegelin:"If I am not totally mistaken, the root of all modern darkness from the seventeenth century on is the obscuring of the difference between theory and praxis." And with such a statement we come to what Sardoz sees as the crux of the disagreement. In response to Voegelin's asserted "historical fact," Strauss flatly denies it and adds: "Whatever noein might mean, it is certainly not pistis in some sense. On this point Heidegger . . . is simply right."  This becomes the "one point where our paths separate," Strauss states, although Voegelin reads Philosophy and Law (1935; English translation, 1987) and finds that Strauss had in that earlier book held a view much like his own. But this, too, Strauss denies. The "classics are the Greeks and not the Bible," he argues. "The classics demonstrated that truly human life is a life dedicated to science, knowledge, and the search for it." The sharp contrast between a Middle Ages based on revelation and a classical antiquity not so grounded, according to Strauss, leads him to this further statement: “There is a double reason not to obscure this essential difference in any way. First, it is in the interest of revelation, which is by no means merely natural knowledge. Secondly, for the sake of human knowledge, episteme. You yourself have said that science matters very much to you. For me, it matters a great deal to understand it as such. . . . The classics demonstrated that truly human life is a life dedicated to science, knowledge, and the search for it . . . . Every synthesis is actually an option either for Jerusalem or for Athens. Well, you speak of the religious foundation of classical philosophy. I would not do so.” Sardoz observes here that  "religious foundation" was not part of Voegelin's speech either, but words put in his mouth by Strauss.  Revelation, then, is humanly debatable because it, like all knowl-edge, is human knowledge . . . . It distinguishes itself from "mere" human knowledge in that the experience of the contents of revealed knowledge is of "being addressed" by God. And through this experience of "being addressed," the essential contents of revealed knowledge are given: (1) a man who understands himself in his "mere" humanness in contrast to a transcendental being; (2) a world-transcendent Being who is experienced as the highest reality in contrast to all worldly being; (3) a Being who "addresses," and therefore is a person, namely, God; (4) a man who can be addressed by this Being and who thereby stands in a relation of openness to Him. In this sense I would venture the formulation: the fact of revelation is its content.

This sense of revelation as the experience of divine presence 19 is shown to require the development of self-reflective consciousness whereby the man separates himself clearly from the divine, the movement from compactness toward differentiation, a "process in which man dedivinized himself and realized the humanity of his spiritual life." 20 This achievement of Greek philosophy is absorbed by Christianity in the early centuries. The erotic orientation toward divine Being of man in Plato meets with no response, however, in contrast with the amicitia of Thomas — a contrast familiar from the New Science of Politics but qualified by Voegelin in later work so as to take account of his subsequent understanding of both reason and revelation in Hellenic philosophy, as suggested below.

Strauss's response is to appeal to Christian dogma, rather than enter into a discussion that appeals to experiential analysis, which Voegelin is steadily stressing. The former suggests that there may yet be a common ground between himself and Voegelin, if only the latter accepts dogma in the Catholic sense, "because [he writes] my distinction between revelation and human knowledge to which you object is in harmony with the Catholic teaching. But I do not believe that you accept the Catholic teaching."22 By this is meant the clear doctrinal distinctions reflected by the dichotomies natural human knowledge and supernatural revelation, reason and faith, science and religion, in particular — and again Strauss is right. Because, just as Voegelin has here discerned the human element in revelation and the presence of revelatory experience (faith) as undergirding Greek philosophy from its pre-Socratic beginnings through its climax in Plato and Aristotle, so also he is moving in the direction that takes him, in the decades ahead, to an analysis of reason (nous and noesis) in classical philosophy that greatly widens our understanding of it and attributes the notion of merely "natural reason" to a misunderstanding fostered by the medieval Christian philosophers. 23 The human reality of philosophy no less than of Judaic and Christian revelation is the metaxy or participatory reality of the In-Between of divine-human encounter, to hint at the later formulations.

How closely faith and reason verge can instructively be seen from a passage from Voegelin's Candler Lectures of 1967, entitled "The Drama of Humanity," where he was able to enumerate ten meanings of Reason in Plato and Aristotle, as follows.

Reason is:
1. the consciousness of existing from a Ground, an awareness filled with content and not empty. Reason is thereby the instrument for handling world-immanent reality. Rebellion against reason since the eighteenth century creates a void in this dimension that must then be filled by substitutes

2.  the transcendence of human existence, thereby establishing the poles of consciousness: immanent-transcendent

3.  the creative Ground of existence which attracts man to itself

4.  the sensorium whereby man understands himself to exist from a Ground

5.  the articulation of this understanding through universal ideas

6.  the perseverance through lifetime of concern about one's relation to the Ground, generative of existential virtue: phronesis (wisdom, prudence), philia (friendship), and athanatizein (to immortalize human existence)

7. the effort to order existence by the insight gained through understanding the self to be existentially linked to the Ground and attuned to it: the major intellectual operation of so translating consequences of this insight as to form daily habits in accordance with it

8.  the persuasive effort to induce conscious participation of the self, and other men's conscious participation, in transcendent reason (Plato's peitho). The problem of communicating and propagating the truth of being

9.  the constituent of man through his participation in (the reason of) the Ground; or the constituent force in man qua human through participation in the divine Nous which is his specific essence

10.  the constituent of society as the Homonoia or "like-mindedness" of Everyman in a community formed through recognition of the reason common to all men. In Aristotle, if love within the community is not based upon regard for the divinity of reason in the other man, then the political friendship (philia politike) on which a well-ordered community depends cannot exist. The source of the Christian notion of "human dignity" is the common divinity in all men. Nietzsche perceived that if that is surrendered then there is no reason to love anybody, one consequence of which is the loss of the sense and force of obligation in society and, hence, of its cohesiveness

If any of the enumerated components of reason is lost, imbalanced constructions result which eventuate in psychological and social breakdowns and disintegrations. As is suggested by this listing of the meanings of reason in Plato and Aristotle, noetic reason is philosophic or scientific reason, an activity of the consciousness articulated out of experience in a variety of interrelated symbolisms and symbolic forms.

In his Aquinas Lecture of 1975, entitled "The Beginning and the Beyond," Voegelin characterizes the relationships between philosophy and revelation in this way: “The dichotomies of Faith and Reason, Religion and Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics can no longer be used as ultimate terms of reference when we have to deal with experiences of divine reality, with their rich diversification in the ethnic cultures of antiquity, with their interpretation in the cultures of the ecumenic empires, with the transition of consciousness from the truth of the intra-cosmic gods to the truth of the divine Beyond, with the contemporary expansion of the horizon to the global ecumene. We can no longer ignore that the symbols of ‘Faith’ express the responsive quest of man just as much as the revelatory appeal, and that the symbols of ‘Philosophy’ express the revelatory appeal just as much as the responsive quest. We must further acknowledge that the medieval tension between Faith and Reason derives from the origins of these symbols in the two different ethnic cultures of Israel and Hellas, that in the consciousness of Israelite prophets and Hellenic philosophers the differentiating experience of the divine Beyond was respectively focused on the revelatory appeal and the human quest, and that the two types of consciousness had to face new problems when the political events of the Ecumenic Age cut them loose from their moorings in the ethnic cultures and forced their confrontation under the multicivilizational conditions of an ecumenic empire.”

What lies behind this basic disagreement is expressed already in 1942 by Strauss and is accurate for the entire subsequent relationship with Voegelin is "The impossibility of grounding science on religious faith . . . . Now, you will say . . . that the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of science was put to rest through Christianity and the discovery of history. I am not quite persuaded of that." The divergence between orginative assumptions could not be more pronounced.  Sardoz aptly says that one has the familiar sense of ships passing in the night.

Sardoz goes on to note that “behind these formulations stand two philosophers both victimized and appalled by the deculturation and banality of modernity, who devoted their lives to the recovery of true philosophy, Strauss on the basis of the medieval Arabic and Jewish philosophy of Averroës, Alfarabi, and Maimonides; Voegelin by a far-reaching critical revision of the medieval Christian philosophy of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Eckhart….both men took classical philosophy and the science of man and being it achieved with utmost seriousness, … each deeply, even fervently, believed his interpretation to be both true to the texts and in accord with the "real" self-understanding Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had of the philosopher's calling. It is entirely understandable that a ‘nonbeliever,’ as Strauss termed himself, and a mystic philosopher in the Christian tradition would not see eye to eye about ultimate things.”

Thus, to Voegelin (as well as to Vico) the core problem of all philosophy was the problem of transcendence — meaning not the immanent transcendence of Husserl and of the nature-based philosophy of Strauss, but the transcendence of divine Being which operates immanently within history, a paradox of the first order. His definition is given at the beginning of Order and History: “…Order and History is a philosophical inquiry concerning the order of human existence in society and history. Perhaps it will have its remedial effect — in the modest measure that, in the passionate course of events, is allowed to Philosophy.” Voegelin’s Vichian roots are quite evident in that passage

As has been remarked on the Voegelinian corpus, "Voegelin adumbrates a philosophy of spiritual ascent, of which there are famous examples, such as Plotinus, Plato, St. Bonaventura, and Meister Eckhart." If the understanding of reason is so expanded as to reassert the participatory and intuitive dimensions of classical philosophy's Nous, the understanding of faith and revelation also is reevaluated — and it emphatically is not creedal, doctrinal, or dogmatic faith that is at issue in Voegelin's work. In reflectively groping toward his later (1975) formula¬tion of the matter quoted at the end of the preceding section, he finds in Strauss's Philosophy and Law (1930) substantial agreement with his own understanding of the fundamental experience of the divine cosmos as the background of all experiences of order.”

As noticed earlier, Strauss rejects any blending of the two, contending that every "synthesis is actually an option either for Jerusalem or for Athens." For Voegelin, the theoretization of this problem by Augustine is essentially valid for an understanding of the relationship of science (especially metaphysics) and revelation. Revealed knowledge is, in the building of human knowledge, that knowledge of the pregivens of perception (sapientia, closely related to the Aristotelian nous as distinguished from episteme). To these pregivens belongs the experience of man of himself as esse, nosse, velle, the inseparable primal experience: I am a knowing and willing being; I know myself as being and willing; I will myself as a being and a knowing human. To these pregivens belongs further the being of God beyond time (in the just characterized dimensions of creation, order, and dynamic) and the human knowledge of this being through "revelation." Within this knowledge pregiven by sapientia stirs the philosophic episteme.

For Strauss however this is a problem tradi¬tionally comprehensible in terms of faith and knowledge, but not of universal faith, and as a particularly Christian, and by extension, a Jewish, problem. Hence, the problem is not a universal-human one but "presupposes a specific faith, which philosophy as philosophy does not and cannot do. Here and here alone it seems to me lies the divergence between us — also in the mere historical.” After this categorical statement silence reigned supreme. There was nothing else to be said.

Finally we come to some intriguing insights of Professor Sardoz as he reflects on the exchange between Strauss and Voegelin, and it is basically that behind Spinoza and Strauss there are the Averroists. In modern philosophy the hard line drawn between religion and philosophy is exemplified in Spinoza's attitude as expressed in Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) where the principle is laid down as follows: "Between faith or theology, and philosophy, there is no connection, nor affinity. I think no one will dispute the fact who has knowledge of the aim and foundations of the two subjects, for they are as wide apart as the poles." "Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith . . . looks for nothing but obedience and piety. Again, philosophy is based on axioms which must be sought from nature alone."

"The core of Strauss's thought is the famous 'theological-political problem,' a problem which he would say 'remained the theme of my studies' from a very early time." Strauss's gloss on the quoted Spinoza passage suggests that the philosopher who knows truth must refrain from expressing it out of both convenience and, more so, duty. Sardoz goes one: “If truth requires one not to accommodate opinions to the Bible, piety requires the opposite, i.e., that one should give one's own opinions a Biblical appearance. If true religion or faith, which according to him requires not so much true dogmas as pious ones, were endangered by his Biblical criticism, Spinoza would have decided to be absolutely silent about this subject." But, of course, to thicken this tangle, the rule of speaking "ad captum vulgi" means so as to satisfy the dominant opinion of the multitude, which in Spinoza's situation was that of a secularist Jew speaking to a Protestant Christian community. It was Spinoza's intention to emancipate philosophy from its position as mere handmaid of scripture. "In his effort to emancipate philosophy from its ancillary position, he goes to the very root of the problem — the belief in revelation. By denying revelation, he reduces Scripture to the status of the works of the Greek poets, and as a result of this he revives the classical conception of Greek philosophers as to the relation between popular beliefs and philosophic thought."

And who stands behind Spinoza and Strauss? None other than the great Spanish Islamic philosophers of the medieval period who insisted upon philosophy as a purely rational enterprise based on Aristotle and steering a middle way, one infected neither by dogmatic religion nor by traditional mysticism — to take the case of Averroes, the great twelfth-century falasifa Ibn Rushd. It may be useful to recall that Thomas Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles is the Western Christian "comprehensive systematic work against the Arabic-Aristotelian philosophy. In 1270, thirteen Averroistic propositions were condemned by Étienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, and the year 1277 brought the sweeping condemnation of 219 propositions, including besides the Averroistic proper, several of Thomas Aquinas which seemed equally dangerous."

The Averroist tradition considers philosophy be "the systematic application of demonstrative reasoning to the world." Such philosophy starts from indubitable first principles and cannot be empirical, since philosophy is conceived as a demonstrative science and there can be no indubitable premises about any part of the world as experienced, much less about the whole cosmos. Philosophers are capable of arriving at truth directly and, thus, at the highest level, have no need of scripture or revelation in communication. As a thoroughly rationalistic enterprise, not mysticism but only philosophy allows union with the divine, since that union requires knowledge of the theoretical sciences. Ibn Rushd iden¬tifies the elite (philosophers) as those who are taught by demonstrative argument, the theologians (a mere subclass of the masses) as those suitable for dialectic, and the masses themselves as those who can understand only through imaginative and persuasive language. Farabi names only two classes, the elite and the masses.

All of this is strangely reminiscent of the esoteric in Strauss which is the hermeneutic reserved for the knowing elites and the exoteric, or the understanding of the masses. This view, of course, requires secret or artful teaching and caution of philosophers. Thus, Farabi endorses Plato's techniques of concealment and Aristotle's methods. They "used different methods but had the same purpose of concealment; there is much abbreviation and omission in Aristotle's scientific works, and this is deliberate. . . . Different expressions of truth suit different levels of understanding. . . . Zeno said: 'My teacher Aristotle reported a saying of his teacher Plato: "The summit of knowledge is too lofty for every bird to fly to'."

Finally says Sandoz, there is the agreement of the greatest Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, who writes of Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning God created heaven and earth"): "It has been treated with metaphors in order that the uneducated may comprehend it according to the measure of their faculties and the feebleness of their apprehension, while educated persons may take it in a different sense." Strauss's embrace of this paradigm of philosophy is stated in many ways, such as the following from his 1962 preface to the English translation of Spinoza's Critique of Religion: "I began . . . to wonder whether the self-destruction of reason was not the inevitable outcome of modern rationalism as distinguished from premodern rationalism, especially Jewish-medieval rationalism and its classical (Aristotelian and Platonic) foundation." Voegelin finds this elitist “inclination to treat the non-philosophical man as an inferior brand and even to compare him to animals, an attitude which seems to crop up as soon as the Christian insight into the equal spiritual dignity of all men is abandoned." Along with the elitist idea, which may be confined to "the intellectual sphere of the vita philosophi . . . [comes also, so writes Voegelin] the liberal idea of the educated man as a social type superior to the uneducated common man, the vilis homo . . . . The bourgeois implications are obvious, for the ideal of intellectual life is coupled with the idea that the man of substance is morally superior to the poor man."

More generally, then, Voegelin remarks of the falasifa that "philosophy had become in the Arab environment, more so than it was with Aristotle, a form of life for an intellectual elite. " Philosophy did not mean for them a branch of science, but signified an integral attitude towards the world based on a "book," much as the integral attitude of the orthodox Muslim would be based on the Koran.” So one ends up with the orthodoxy of the philosopher, complete with saints’ relics, or manuscripts “for your eyes only” passed around in Straussian circles.

The sectarian implication is beyond doubt insists Sardoz; the falasifa represent a religious movement, differing in its social structure and content of doctrine from other Islamic sects, but substantially of the same type . . . .The great Arabic philosophical discussions did not center in the Organon or Physics of Aristotle, but were concerned with the twelfth book of Metaphysics and the third book of De Anima as transmitted by the Commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias . . . . The keystone of the canon was the so-called Theology of Aristotle, an abridged paraphrase of the last three books of the Enneads of Plotinus.

Sardoz concludes with this lucid insight: “The clash between Faith and Reason in the thirteenth century is at bottom a clash between two religions, between Christianity and the intellectual mysticism of the falasifa. . . . It was this mythical Aristotle who dominated the falasifa and through their mediation became known to the West. It was not primarily the content of his work that created the disturbance; the Aristotelian results could be assimilated, as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas have demonstrated. The danger was the mythical Aristotle as a new spiritual authority of equal rank with the Christian revelation and tradition [emphasis mine]. The Aristotle who was a regula in natura et exemplar could be a model requiring the conformance of man in the same sense in which the Christ of St. Francis could be the standard of conformance for the Christian.”

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Emanuel Paparella2011-07-01 11:25:39
I’d like to attach a footnote in the way of a modest final reflection . It is not mentioned by Professor Sardoz but it seems important to me. As was my experience when I attended a Catholic College in Brooklyn (St. Francis College) to major in philosophy there, a good number of philosophy professors in Catholic colleges in the 60s were enthusiastically reading and even teaching the philosophy of Strauss with its esoteric approach to the interpretation of the Greek classics while ignoring the more properly Judeo-Christian exoteric approach of Voegelin. I became better aware of this puzzling phenomenon when I discovered Vico and was reminded of it again in surveying the correspondence briefly described in the above piece. In reading Vico I realized how diametrically different was his interpretation by the two political philosophers. In my opinion it was Voegelin who had the correct interpretation of Vico’s philosophical approach, while Strauss and his cohorts have subsumed Vico to their philosophy, have attempted to make him a Platonist of sort, dismissive of the world of history and contingency and in the process have deemphasized what is most unique about Vico, his historicism, thus ending up with an unfortunate distortion. The correspondence as described by Professor Sardoz more than confirms that suspricion.

Bob Griffin, Ph.D.2011-07-01 18:09:58
Prerequisite to a discussion of interpretation (hermeneutics) levels is a study of Plato's "Phaedrus".
A follow up transformation of Plato's "levels of interpretation" for Christian traditions will be learned by reading St.Augustine.
Seems to me such a basic study could be a valuable seminar for you students.

Emanuel Paparella2011-07-02 13:19:26
Indeed Dr. Griffin, the advice to return to primary sources when surveying and teaching the history of ideas is always a relevant one. That was the point of the comment I attached as a p.s. at the end of the Voegelin-Strauss piece: for if one reads carefully what Voegelin and Strauss had to say on Vico one will soon wonder how is it possible that two eminent scholars proud of their objectivity could arrive at such divergent interpretations of the same thinker. Then one begins to wonder if Vico’s philosophy is being subsumed to another pet philosophy and thus robbed of its own originality.

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