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Leo Strauss: A Comparative Essay of Two Lectures

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This paper analyzes two texts, both byLeo Strauss. In the lecture What is Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss gives the definition of political philosophy and analyzes its effect on the society. In the latter text, Leo Strauss presents an analysis of “Classical Political Philosophy”. He presents the Athenian, Spartan and Cretan societies. These provide a background understanding of what classical political philosophy embraces.

Leo Strauss stresses that the definition of philosophy is not easy. However, we see the effects of it in the society every day. He starts by emphasizing that political actions aim at preservation or change. He states that preservation helps to prevent things from going worse while changing helps to make things better than they are at that moment. He then says that some thought of bad or worse guides political action (343). He says that both of the thoughts imply thought of good for the people or the society. Philosophy is a quest for knowledge. According to Strauss, all political actions aim at knowledge of the good. This implies good of the society and life. The knowledge that men want to acquire to make the society or life good gives birth to political philosophy. We call it political philosophy because it forms a part of the entire class of philosophy. He then defines political philosophy as the quest. Leo Strauss also defines political philosophy as the attempt to learn the nature of political issues, and political order (Strauss, 1988 p. 345). This is because political philosophy should strive to do justice to the society. This can only be possible if the society sets true standards. Political philosophy sets these standards.

Political philosophy also presents ideas of political situations. For instance, one cannot know about war if he/she does not have a notion about it. Similarly, one cannot see a policeman as a policeman until he/she thinks about law, government and the like. These thoughts present the idea of political philosophy; or rather political philosophy presents these ideas.

However, recent times have seen changes in political philosophy. Strauss says that political philosophy has undergone decay. There has been controversy and disagreement over the subject matter of political philosophy. The only thing that political scientists agree on is the essential nature of studying the history of political philosophy. Some philosophers in the last forty years have written work that sharply contrasts the work of Hermann Cohen. These philosophers include Husserl, Heidegger, Whitehead and Bergson. Many people now discredit political philosophy.

The difference is that scholars have divided political philosophy into different branches. Initially, people could study it as one, just like political science. Currently, one can make a distinction between a non-philosophical political science and a non-scientific political philosophy. This takes away all the honesty and dignity of political philosophy.

Scholars have also done harm to political philosophy by taking away large segments of what belonged to it and shifted them to economics, social psychology and sociology. Political philosophy is almost nonexistent. Only historians study it. The reason for this change, as many people say, is that political science is unscientific or is unhistorical, or it is both (Strauss, 1988, p. 346). Leo stresses says that the objection that political philosophy is unscientific is as a result of modern day positivism. Positivism has changed. It is not as it was when Auguste Comte discovered it. Utilitarianism, evolutionism and neo-Kantianism have modified significantly. Social science positivism has also stated that there is a significant difference between facts and values. It states that only factual statements are within the scope of science. Scientific social science is not competent to pronounce value judgments. Leo objects to this by saying that science focuses more on emancipation from moral judgments. He says that the social scientists have an option of choosing truth or not. This brings the difference since political philosophy is after the establishment of truth.  He mentions some of the reasons he feels to speak against the school of social science.

Firstly, he says that it is not possible to study social phenomena without making value judgments. Leo compares a social scientist with a man who sees no reason for despising people whose horizon is limited to their consumption of food, and their digestion may be a tolerable econometrist. Such a man cannot say anything positive about the character of human society (Strauss, 1988, p. 349).

Leo insists that political science must have values. He goes on to explain that political science presupposes that there is a difference between political  and non- political things. At this point, it becomes necessary to define what things are political. Political science would have to raise this question and give an adequate answer. The author states that it is difficult to define the word political relating to a country, without the understanding what constitutes this society.  Moreover, defining a society requires understanding of its purpose. By defining a state with reference to its purpose, one must judge political actions and institutions. This brings us back to political philosophy.

Secondly, the rejection of value judgments bases its foundation on the assumption that the conflicts between different values or value systems are essentially insoluble for human reason (Strauss, 1988, P. 351). Leo states that no one has ever proven this assumption. Solving this would require comprehensive evaluation of reason. Instead, currently there are sketchy observations, which assume they can prove that this or that conflict is insoluble. He accepts that there are those conflicts that are insoluble by human reason. However, he gives examples of certain situations that are solvable by human reasons. For instance, he alludes to the example of Jezebel in the Bible. He says that it would not be difficult to state that the dispute between Naboth and Jezebel was inexcusable. This is because we can judge who of these two people was more justified than the other. Thirdly, Leo mentions that the assumption that scientific knowledge is the highest form of knowledge is a depiction of lack of pre-scientific knowledge (Strauss, 1988, p. 352). In addition, Leo says that positivism necessarily transforms itself into historicism (Strauss, 1988 p. 354). He states that social science is in danger of mistaking strange things of the mid twentieth century in the United States for the essential character of human society. Positivism avoids this danger by researching into the cross-cultures where it studies other cultures, both present and past. However, in its effort to study these cultures, it misses the crucial meaning of these other cultures. This is because it interprets these other cultures through a conceptual scheme that originates from the modern, westernized society. The conceptual scheme can only fit this culture, not all. Leo emphasizes that social science can only avoid this danger by understanding cultures. People can only understand Science of society through historical understanding.

This is where the concept of historicism clearly appears. It is an antagonist of political philosophy. Leo states some of the differences between historicism and positivism. One is that it does not specify the distinction between facts and values. Secondly, it objects to the authoritative nature of modern science. Thirdly, it does not regard historical processes as progressive and reasonable. Finally, it objects to the significance of the thesis of evolutionists. It does this by stating that the evolution of man from non-man cannot make intelligible man’s humanity (Strauss, 1988, p. 355).

Classical Political Philosophy

Leo starts by defining classical political philosophy. He says this is the classic branch of political philosophy. The main characteristics of classical are noble simplicity and quiet grandeur. Classical political philosophy is nontraditional. Political philosophy was not in existence at the time. It hindered later studies by acting as a screen between the philosophers and the political situation at the time.

Classical political philosophers saw politics with an immense degree of freshness and directness. They have basic information. They study details surrounding laws of a land. Their driving force is to learn about new cultures. They are not after any challenge with opposing cultures at all. They learn to appreciate other people’s cultures.

Classical philosophers also look at things in an informed way. They are bright people who extract information that they require with ease. They are able to interact with people of different cultures. For instance, the foreign Athenian can analyze the laws presiding over the land of Cretans and Spartans without imposing any superiority. The quest of seeking for knowledge guides him.

The classical philosopher interacts effectively with the statesman. They learn from him. One crucial thing that they must do is to learn how to speak that language. This conveniently closes all communication barriers. Unlike the political philosopher, they learn a system as if they were a part of it. The foreign Athenian is a perfect example of this undertaking. He can speak the foreign language and can live with the statesmen as well.

The classical political philosopher uses both theory and skill to make a conclusion about anything. For one, he is quite informed about the culture he wants to study already. When he asks about homosexuality among the Spartans and the Cretans, he is confident about this. He knows it is something that goes on in this land. This opposes the views of the political philosopher. Sometimes, westernization guides the latter so much that he loses relevance.

“Classical Political Philosophy”analyzes primary issues as they are. It does not veer off unlike political philosophy, which gives politics some estrangement. The Athenian visitor only studied crucial factors relating to political developments in the foreign land. He restricts himself to this and does not go off the topic. He questions about the codes of the land. He shares ideas with the statesmen and learns as much as possible.

Plato’s laws illustrate the character of classical political philosophy excellently. The laws are a conversation between an old Athenian stranger, and an old Cretan and an old Spartan. This conversation introduces a belief that Cretan laws came from Zeus who instructed his son Minos. Minos was the Cretan legislator. The conversation leads us to an Athenian who questions the idea of homosexuality in the Cretan and Spartan systems. He states this as if it is a wrong procedure for the system to allow. However, the Spartan does not defend the idea of homosexuality. He turns to the Athenian and questions him about their excessive drinking habits. The Athenian defends their drinking and says that as long as drinking wine happens in banquets, it is good for education. This is because people are able to interact. The classical philosopher hence allows criticism. He goes ahead to defend it.

The classical philosopher shows respect to all types of political alignments and systems. He understands that this is a code that gods commanded. He does not seem to pretend that his culture is better than that of other people. This explains why an Athenian can travel all the way to Sparta and still maintain a conversation with these people. He does this without cause for alarm.

The classical philosopher is not a philanthropist unlike the political philosopher. He defends his culture like a patriot. He does not defend it as if his works are humanitarian, or as if he is offering aid. He defends his culture wittingly. His goals are clear. He has come to learn as much as possible from the foreign land.

The guiding theme of political philosophy is a regime; while the guiding theme of classical political philosophy is the laws. This is a significant difference. Regime is the order that gives society its character. This means that the classical philosopher concentrates on the laws governing a land. He does not focus attention on the regime that controls the land.

Classical philosophers are law abiding citizens. They should follow the law to the latter. This explains why it is such an immense mistake not to follow any given code in the law of the land. This is what critiques describe as undemocratic. The city of Athens sentences Socrates for refusal to accept that the gods worshipped in Athens exist.

Classical philosophers understand the law. They believe the law is natural. However, this may not be strong since the classical philosophers aim at seeking laws. They look into new ways of doing things. This is a significant difference between the classical philosopher and the political philosopher. The classical philosopher studies political systems with an intention to bring change. He focuses his mind and energy on comparing laws between different cultures. For instance, the Athenian induces the Spartan and the Cretan to a conversation where they discuss laws of their land. This means that the Spartan and Cretan have drunk wine through their speech and contemplation.

Critiques of classical philosophy say that it does not allow democracy. The system is universal, a code that all people should follow. This is the reason why the city of Athens charges Socrates with impiety when he refuses to believe that the gods worshipped in the city of Athens exist. This leads to his death at the age of 70.

The question of the best regime guides classical political philosophy. There are various regimes at the time. Leo mentions the Athenian, Spartan and Cretan regime. Each of these regimes is unique in its own way. The Athenian travels to Sparta so that he could learn about this regime. Classical philosophy thus inquires about the best regime.

Leo argues against each of these stating that it would imply that the classical philosophers were not blind to the advantages of democracy. For instance, Plato makes it clear that democracy is essential to any society. He says the principle of democracy is freedom for all people. Classics rejected democracy since they believed that in a human society virtue was more essential than freedom. When Socrates goes against the law by objecting existence of gods, the city of Athens is angry with him. They feel that he is not upholding virtue, an essential principle that guided the Athenian citizens.

Leo states that freedom is ambiguous as a term. It does not specify if it is freedom for good or freedom for evil. Virtue comes through education, and this requires leisure from both parents and children. Leisure on the other hand, requires wealth. Aristotle states that there is always a minority of the rich and a majority of poor people. This is a strange coincidence that will last forever due to scarcity of natural resources. Democracy is, therefore, a rule of the uneducated considering it is a rule of the majority. Leo stresses that no one in their right mind would like to live in such a government.

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