A large portion of the academy is in love with the idea that random bits of information can create shortcuts to accomplishment or make an effective case – to be blunt, they hold that knowledge is power.
If knowledge is power, then going through a little bit of biographical information and doing some conjectures about why one uses a certain method is enough to dismiss the results of that method. The results of reading a text much the way Leo Strauss read texts, for me, are rather simple: one sees philosophers across the centuries in dialogue with each other and concerned with certain timeless questions.
For philosophers today, those questions aren’t the same as the ones we have today – i.e. questions about certainty in the sciences and the grounding of ethics – because they seem to have more political import and use a rhetoric dense with classical allusion. They seem to be human questions that take other minds seriously just because those minds offer an opinion, and they thus deny the necessity of progress in order to say our past matters just as much as our own voices. Consequently philosophy now seems to read its own questions into the works of the past, instead of looking for what questions others may have had, or looking for the most significant question possible (ultimately, that last criterion is how this debate is resolved).
Most complaints about Strauss do not come from analytic philosophy, though, as much as the classics or political science. I feel most complaints about Strauss are from conspiracy theory nutjobs, so I don’t usually feel compelled to post on this.
But I was thinking the other day about my own conspiracy theories, and I realized that the difference between someone who is defined by conspiracy theory and another who is rational but might have one or two really nutty ideas is the question of power. The former holds that knowledge is power to such a degree that the holding of power must mean someone knows all, or sees all, on this Earth and is culpable for everything.
Whereas the latter group tends toward the Socratic teaching that virtue is knowledge. Yes, mistakes are made, but knowledge is used for the sake of seeing what is just and what is good for oneself, before any judgments are made on others. The ultimate problem with character assassination is why it works rhetorically – it helps us feel we can put others down just by imagining them to be something that they might not be at all. Truth is purely imaginary as the knowledge that is power is the conspiracy theory holding complete control over one’s mind.
But an attempt to use knowledge for the sake of virtue and vice versa pushes the quest for Truth another direction. Other opinions become more important than one’s own, and one even looks for other questions, as opposed to thinking that one has identified an ill and can crush that evil.