A Preliminary Response to Catherine Zuckert’s analysis of “Political Philosophy and History”

Thanks to Joe Connole, with whom I am co-authoring a larger article on this topic.

Articles discussed in this post:

Leo Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History” in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 56-77.

Catherine Zuckert, “Political Philosophy and History” in Leo Strauss’ Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading What Is Political Philosophy?, ed. Rafael Major. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 43-64.

Let’s just be honest. Leo Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” (1949) is boring. Initially, one might also consider it tendentious. Once upon a time, philosophers discussed and debated the best regime, the “standard of good and bad in politics” (Zuckert 43). But now a specter called “historicism” haunts academic and popular notions of politics. It is more dangerous to political philosophy than “positivism,” which rejects the human things in favor of scientific certitude, as “science is good” is not a proposition all times and places accept (43). Historicism argues that “good and bad vary according to time and place” (43). That relativism threatens to destroy our ability to seriously debate what is good or what is bad, thus making political philosophy impossible.

That does describe the first few pages of Strauss’ essay, which to be fair becomes more detailed and nuanced later. However, if one feels that one’s own approach to serious questions is in danger of being stereotyped, labeled “political philosophy” or “positivism” or “historicism,” I don’t blame you. It’s easy to talk about how we acquiesce to convention, but the truth is that we sometimes struggle to accept things that are both true and conventionally held. Moreover, the belief in progress underlying historicism isn’t some waste of time. For example, we believe in religious freedom, women having rights, and people not being slaves. Not all times have held that, and they should be looked down upon for those failures. “The modern prejudice in favor of progress” is an important one (58).

Still, there are a number of worthwhile questions in Strauss’ essay. They’re just a bit tricky to find, for while the surface of things is the heart of things, that may not strictly be true in this case. Zuckert performs an admirable service in rigorously working with the surface. She breaks his “Political Philosophy and History” into its various sections, identifying six distinct parts. She does her best to elaborate important references Strauss makes but passes over quickly. And she builds context where it is hard for a more casual reader to imagine what exactly is being addressed. In performing these very necessary tasks, a central theme emerges: Strauss turns out to be very subtle about how history relates to philosophy. Claims by serious practitioners of historicism are understood and accounted for in his understanding of political philosophy. See pages 48-49 of Zuckert’s essay, especially the mentions of Skinner and Pocock.

But that debate is far too technical to be of use to most people, including those who are serious about their studies and much more. Again, to restate the above: whatever views people hold, they don’t hold them because they really enjoy being conformists. To be fair to Zuckert and Strauss, they don’t malign anyone in their articles. They are writing with a view to how political philosophy and history relate in terms of academic theories and disciplines. There just happens to be a lot more at stake, implicit in their arguments. Dodging these issues by sticking to the surface and keeping things narrow is problematic, to say the least. The deep concern is how much we believe in progress and what the limits of that are. Ancient and medieval thinkers, including some of the greatest moral and philosophic minds, did not assume progress and had quite a bit to say that’s important. “Historicism” as discussed in the essay is ultimately trivial. The real question is why we are drawn to something like it – or, as I’m leaving open, why we, even now, are not always drawn.

To be sure, Zuckert structures her analysis the way she does because she sees Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” fitting into the volume What Is Political Philosophy? as a whole. This means she has to restate the surface to a large extent so we readers can keep our place in the narrative. This leads, though, to her taking at face value some claims of Strauss that are questionable. In the very first paragraph, Strauss outlines the traditional view of political philosophy and history. They raise distinctly different questions, but “this does not mean that political philosophy is absolutely independent of history.” He continues:

Without the experience of the variety of political institutions and convictions in different countries and at different times, the questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order could never have been raised. And after they have been raised, only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things. (Strauss 56-57)

So we need “experience” of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times to ask about the nature of politics. We need that kind of experience to ask about what is “best” or “just.” These claims are simply not tenable. To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice. From that point, one might find everything about one’s own order questionable. Moreover, books like the Republic don’t treat a number of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times in order to try to understand the nature of politics. It looks like that if one simply exaggerates the features of one’s own regime, one can easily see what principles it advocates at the expense of others. One can use one’s imagination – I know, shocking. To say Socrates or Glaucon couldn’t have conceived of a guardian class without Sparta is preposterous.

Strauss also claims that “only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things.” It’s actually pretty easy to see that some “specific features” are not quite natural. We start disliking them, we see them as ridiculous. We might specifically attack them as unnatural, not caring a whit about history, but feeling ourselves oppressed or arbitrarily treated.

Zuckert, at least for her essay, takes Strauss literally in the above passage. Her comment pushes an unironic, serious reading of it. This is what she has to say about the very sentences critiqued above:

Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, we thus see at the outset of this essay, Strauss does not deny the importance of historical knowledge for the study of political philosophy. He merely, if emphatically, insists that historical and philosophical knowledge are not the same. (Zuckert 45)

However, as far as I can tell, Strauss has put these arguments forth to provoke us. This is the “traditional” – i.e. lazy – view of how political philosophy and history relate. It is only the beginning of Strauss’ argument, which may depend on its esoteric elements more than a coherent surface. Zuckert is well aware of this, but she wants the surface to stand on its own. Unfortunately, if one takes the surface too literally, one can’t do basic things for a text like determine an internal speaker or audience. To be too literal is to intentionally blind oneself. It does seem that Strauss is keen on addressing a certain audience in “Political Philosophy and History,” an audience that is more or less anti-communist, traditionalist, prone to thinking that Plato and Locke have more in common than Plato and Rousseau, or especially Plato and Nietzsche. And right now, I’m thinking he wants to teach that audience that the history of political philosophy, his own project, is a philosophic endeavor solely because of “historicism.” This is quite a radical thesis for someone more traditionally minded. I think Zuckert would concur, but what’s funny is that two different things might be meant by the same conclusion. A lot of people – not Catherine Zuckert – seem to think that you need to know the history of political philosophy well in order to say anything wise or thoughtful about our world. I don’t know about that, and I really don’t want to sign off on anything that would suggest it.