Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Alex Knepper on Strauss & Christianity

Alex Knepper gained notoriety as a very young, bright writer a number of years back. He has since gone on to get his Master's Degree degree from St. John's College, one of the places that specializes in studying the thought of Leo Strauss, along with Strauss' followers and critics.

This is what he posted on Facebook today:
There is a criticism that the Straussian account of the history of ideas willfully denies Christianity a place at its table. Of course Strauss believes that an artful writer knows how to communicate with silence. And the relative silence of the Straussian account of the history on Christianity, of which it is hardly ignorant, surely testifies to its antagonism toward it. Insofar as there is an elusive or storytelling element to any historical account*, the storyteller can consciously arrange his presentation to suit his preferences and goals, without deceiving himself about what he is doing. Strauss, in choosing to write out certain elements of thought in history, is always silently opining on how he thinks Christianity ought to be viewed: as a great and horrible tragedy inflicted on Europe which all true philosophy has always fought to overturn. Christianity's foreground presence in the works of many philosophers -- say, Locke -- speaks merely to their historical situation and is not indicative of their true opinions. Such philosophers invoked Christian doctrine in a way that weaponizes it against itself, in a conscious attempt to undermine it for the long-term. Strauss, and Straussians perhaps, seem to believe that the time has passed in which the threat of Christian persecution is so great that it requires that kind of appeasement any longer, and we are now freed to speak of philosophers' true intentions without genuflecting to the conventions of the common people of the time. (Whether liberals in 2018 demand genuflection from true philosophers is another question.) 
h/t Jon Rowe

This is the original comment I left that led to Knepper's thought and hat tip:
Some of my interlocutors who think the Straussian history of ideas inadequate like to play this game where they demonstrate more authentically Christian sources for "good" ideas that Locke gave the Anglo-Enlightenment. They usually trace the ideas to obscure medieval Catholic thought (i.e., "the schoolmen").   
I think we can do something similar with Rousseau's egalitarianism. A lot of Whig opposition "republicans" like Harrington. Those who used biblical language for redistribution under the auspices of agrarian laws. Even the term Utopia -- an island where both wealth and poverty were abolished -- comes from Catholic Thomas Moore.
This was Alex's original comment to which I responded:
The difference between European liberalism and American liberalism can, with only a bit of exaggeration, be explained by reference to the fact that the American Founders just barely missed the emergence of Rousseau on the scene. They built a regime fundamentally grounded and fixed in the thought of John Locke and various contemporaries (eg, Montesquieu), which has since then absorbed only a refracted view of everything which has dialectically proceeded from Rousseau. Hence, for instance, the otherwise near-inexplicable fact that the thought of Herbert Spencer resonated with Americans more than that of his contemporary Marx. Certainly much so-called 'continental' philosophy and political theory remains totally elusive to Americans. 
This is not to say that Rousseau would necessarily be more pleased with Europe in 2018 than with America: Rousseau was not above playing with the fire of populism, the popular denigration of the arts and sciences, or the glorification of militarism; there is no necessary support for a larger welfare state in Rousseau, no necessary support for liberal internationalism, no necessary support for multiculturalism -- the list goes on (though we can be sure that he considered himself part of a spiritual 'elite' exempt from ordinary laws and customs) -- but merely that, as a regime built on fixed ideas, America receives the insights of Rousseau and everything proceeding from his thought, or at any rate what it represents, through a refracted lens and hence will never see eye-to-eye with 'the continent.' 


Tom Van Dyke said...

obscure medieval Catholic thought (i.e., "the schoolmen")

It quite points to the bias and failure of our modern academy that Scholastic thought could ever be described as "obscure"! It was the apex of Western [synonymous with "Christian"] thought for at least 250 years before the Reformation, and if one looks closely, endured despite it.

As for Leo Strauss, the locution "history of ideas" is misleading. Strauss was interested only in philosophy, and he drives around Aquinas's considerable edifice--and natural law--because he considers it inextricable from theology and revelation. But the American founding was built on natural law and fundamental equality and thus liberty as natural rights. Strauss is unhelpful here.

Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all Men saw, nor lay more approv'd Foundations, than, That Man is naturally free; That he cannot justly be depriv'd of that Liberty without cause, and that he does not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.---Algernon Sidney, c. 1650

Alex Knepper said...

"History of ideas" is Strauss' term; he remarks in NRH that 'for a time' we must become students of the history of ideas.

As for me, myself, personally...I think there is good reason to think that Aquinas was more heterodox than Catholics like to claim

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice to hear from you, Alex.

Theology is not what Strauss means by "ideas." Indeed, it is in NRH that Strauss dismisses Aquinas and natural law as requiring belief in the Bible. The philosopher has nothing to add or detract from revelation, so Strauss disregards it in his study of "ideas."

And he has a point. Strauss's study of "natural right" is actually incompatible with Christianity's assertion of the fundamental equality of man.

As for Aquinas, we are speaking of the larger body of Scholastics, the "Schoolmen." Suarez, de Vitoria and Bellarmine are of far more influence on political philosophy.