In my first response to Peter Minowitz, I stressed Will Altman’s question: why did a theorist who spent his life unraveling the “theological-political predicament” never discuss the liberal solution: the separation of church and state?” As my last post on Ross Douthat’s and Pope Benedict’s authoritarian Catholic attack on Islam underlines here, freedom of conscience along with the abolition of slavery are foundation points for well-stated modern liberalism (and modern conservatism and radicalism). This is an intensely practical and important public issue, now and for the foreseeable future. The issue turns especially on the anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism accompanying American (and Israeli) belligerence toward Arabs. Obama has made some start in altering this belligerence. In a great shift, his foreign policy at least recognizes Palestinians and Iranians as human. But the pressures to wage war and the ideological atmosphere that supports it are present in the words of the New York Times this week or in those of the think-tank experts who advise war (see here). The principle underlying religious toleration – that where these differences do not harm others, each person is deserving of respect for their comprehensive or conscientious views rather than belittling or oppression – is crucial not just to a decent plural democratic regime, but to human survival.
In interviewing Peter about his book Straussophobia, Scott Horton reiterated this question: why did Strauss never discuss toleration as a principle of liberalism? In writing to me, Peter himself emphasized the importance of equal freedom of conscience: “A compelling virtue of liberalism, obviously, is that it protects every ‘orientation’ from totalitarian oppression by other orientations.” His inability for several weeks even to find a mention in Strauss of this theme is striking. For his interview with Scott, Peter finally did come up with one from 1924, but, as he did not see, Strauss mentioned toleration only to criticize it (see here).
In the comments on my response to Peter here, AZ (I don’t know AZ and hope he will contact me directly) cautiously found a point in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern in which Strauss appears to back religious diversity as an antidote to conformity:
“I'm not sure that its right to say that Strauss never refers to separation of church and state at all. There are a few relevant remarks in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, especially on p. 265 (‘only a qualifiedly secularist, that is, a qualifiedly religious, state which respects equally religious and nonreligious people can be counted upon to contain within itself the remedy against the ill of conformism’). But of course most of the thinkers whom Strauss wrote about did not endorse any such separation.”
But as I will now demonstrate, unsurprisingly in a practitioner of hidden writing, Liberalism Ancient and Modern is, in fact, anti-liberal and signals at least an openness to and perhaps even a hope in nuclear war. Parallel Peter’s case for the 1924 essay, AZ’s extraction of this sentence about toleration ensuring diversity ignores the context.
First, however, Strauss chose to reflect mostly on non-liberal writers because he wasn’t a liberal. The claim that he was just working on these people on the surface or “exoterically” ignores his insights into such writings – for example into Farabi’s account of Plato in National Right and History, ch. 5, here, on how a commenter on an earlier author conveys a hidden message. The argument that Strauss was only commenting descriptively and that there was no thought or thematic direction in the commentary, no deliberate shaping to convey an esoteric meaning, needs a livelier defense than it has so far been given. Someone needs to offer, in particular, a case about Plato’s and Strauss’s barely concealed affirmations of philosopher-tyranny or in today’s idiom, commander in chief power (see Gilbert, Introduction, and “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants, Constellations, March 2009 here and here).
Second, however, AZ’s citation is particularly valuable. To elaborate on its significance, Liberalism Ancient and Modern is a late work (1968). It is the one work in which Strauss deals explicitly with the theme of liberalism, though its very long central essay is “Notes on Lucretius” and it offers no definition of modern liberalism. Further, it is from the period when many of Strauss’s defenders, notably Heinrich Meier and Catherine Zuckert, maintain that he had fully “become Strauss.” The essential changes, they claim, are that a) as a scholar, that he at last become a student of the Greeks, particularly Plato, and discovered exoteric writing, and b) politically, that he abandoned his 1933 fascism (or perhaps, as I have maintained, his sympathy for the “national revolution” in Germany here) and become a defender of constitutional democracy. Thus, if Strauss affirmed toleration even briefly and in a limited context, it would make Altman’s question a little less devastating. It would undergird what Meier and the Zuckerts think is a decisive change. One can put the theme of a sophisticated defense of Strauss’s politics this way: yes, he devoted himself to the theological-political problem; he treated it in an authoritarian or fascist vein through 1933. Nonetheless, in America, he thought some heavily qualified version of freedom of conscience did at least check the ills of conformity, and was thus, in the words of Steven Smith, “the best friend liberal democracy has ever had.”
But look at Strauss’s words themselves; the surface often belies an underlying message. Note the care in the formulation which almost takes back the seeming affirmation of separation of church and state even in the very sentence AZ cites: “only a qualifiedly secularist, that is, a qualifiedly religious, state which respects equally religious and nonreligious people can be counted upon to contain within itself the remedy against the ill of conformism." Worse yet, as AZ does not probe, he offers this point merely as a description of Dore Schary’s view, not as an endorsement of it. He immediately adds “However this may be [this doesn’t sound like an endorsement even from the point of view of preventing conformism], it is the danger caused by radical secularism in its Communist and non-Communist form which provides the incentive for the undertaking of a Protestant-Jewish Colloquium at the University of Chicago School of Theology.” The organizers had asked Strauss to write a review, the occasion for this essay on “Perspectives on the Good Society” which is the last chapter of Liberalism Ancient and Modern. In a note cited at the end of this post, Will Altman makes several other good points about how Strauss mocks Schary and indicates disagreement with this first, apparently harmless, liberal claim.*
At least the first and last chapter of a book (1 and 10) and the middle are sometimes supposed to contain clues to hidden writing, though I will focus here on the 1, 10 and 7th with a brief mention of the long middle essay on Lucretius. Strauss primarily emphasizes the dangers of secularism and is at the least wary about the supposed good of separation of church and state. Recall that Strauss admires Plato who in the Republic and the Laws celebrates a regime in which all the subjects have the same feelings, the same tastes, the same thoughts, whose eyes and ears should see and hear as one. The conformism of the last men or mass society is one thing; the conformism to “the god” which Plato’s legislator – the philosopher-tyrant – recommends quite another. The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, Strauss’s last book (1973), embroiders this theme.
In the “Preface” to Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss also takes an opportunity to endorse only a diversity of states, which need hardly be liberal, and to sneer at the petty diversities of liberalism and communism. Note that such an endorsement of diversity need not be tolerant of “enemy” states (Strauss is not tolerant of the USSR). Strauss does not even mention toleration of religions here - a matter of diversity far more appealing or essential, than say, being an anti-racist about folk cultures. Nonetheless, since black culture, for instance in jazz and spirituals and paintings is an enormous part of America and of innovations in international culture, one should praise those who looked into these matters and reject Strauss’s bigotry:
“Conservatives look with greater sympathy than liberals on the particular or particularist or the heterogeneous; at least, they are more willing than liberals to respect and perpetuate a more fundamental diversity than the one ordinarily respected or taken for granted by liberals and even by Communists, that is the diversity regarding language, folk songs, pottery and the like.” (p. vi)
One may recall Strauss’s friendly critique of Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Only states are serious and particular when they have an enemy; only war is serious. The last men are about “entertainment,” and he and Schmitt reject them. There is no change in Strauss in this sentence (or in this book) from his philosophical and political endorsement of Schmitt on these central points…
The book is called Liberalism Ancient and Modern. Why is there no discussion of what modern liberalism is here? Why is there only a theme, emphasized in the first chapter, that ancient liberalism is the study of the “greatest books” and the “greatest minds”? On the face of it, many of the greatest minds are not liberal. In addition, great minds are rare, Strauss says; one is lucky to find one even in one’s time, and one will never – perhaps Heidegger for Leo or Leo for others is covertly excepted – in a classroom. Professors of political science and philosophy are at most under-laborers for the great. But the great minds, he says, do not agree. These could represent alternatives, as the first chapter insists. Further, these alternatives are not merely Western. In India or China, great minds exist though, Strauss regrets, he does not read the languages. That, too, sounds like a liberal point. One should study a diversity of positions with an open mind as it were, and criticize them – perhaps even from the standpoint of liberalism though, again, Strauss never says what this is. Note of course that Heidegger and Nietzsche and Plato are not modern liberals. Nor are Al-Farabi or Maimonides. Why does Strauss, so careful a writer, neither define modern liberalism (he addresses it in chapter 10 only to disagree with it) nor defend the good of separation of church and state?
In chapter 10, Strauss does brings up a version of the view that I argue is central to modern liberalism but only in order to disagree with it sharply. On my account, a liberal or decently stated political theory – conservative, liberal or radical – is concerned with those economic, political and social institutions which facilitate or at least do not obstruct the pursuit of individuality by each person. She can pursue whatever course she sees fit and change that course as long as she does not fundamentally harm others. At a certain level of abstraction, this view is that of the great conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott, Hegel, Marx and anarchists. In contrast, Strauss never speaks of individuality, except in the tenth chapter where he invokes Schary’s view of it.
“According to Mr. Schary, democracy is not primarily rule of the majority, but recognition of the dignity of the individual, that is of every individual in his individuality. Only a society in which everyone can be what he is [sic- the idea of individuality stresses becoming] or can develop his unique potentialities is truly free and truly great or excellent.” Note: truly great or excellent is different from truly free and suggestive of Strauss’s elitism. “What is true of the individual is true also of the groups of which society consists, “ Strauss continues, following Schary, but without any clear connection to individuality, “and in particular of the religious groups; the freedom and excellence of this country require above all that its citizenry belong to a variety of faiths. Why this is so appears from a consideration of the ills American society suffers. Those ills can be reduced to one head: the tendency toward homogeneity or conformity” (p. 262)
But where Schary thinks America is basically healthy (p. 262), Strauss thinks it is in crisis (it suffers a paroxysm of weakness or decadence in relation to the U.S.S.R.). And Strauss, if one listens carefully to his argument, does not even endorse Schary’s opposition to conformity. This is a very general pattern in Strauss’s later books. His title suggests – or nearly suggests – a view about which a superficial (to put it in his demeaning terms) reader will have preconceptions. He then says, a little elliptically, something very different. As I have suggested, Natural Right and History is a book that seems to be about the natural rights of individuals. But Strauss takes back a powerful remark about the Declaration of Independence in the first sentence in the second sentence. Such rights, he says, are instruments of America’s power and prosperity. By p. 118, he offers an esoteric, elliptical defense of the “classical view”: inequality. That is, natural right for Strauss is the rule of the stronger or more powerful over the weak. See here. Similarly, Persecution and the Art of Writing draws its persuasiveness from a reader’s preexisting paradigms of persecution. The Catholic church burned Tycho Brahe at the stake. John Locke had to flee England for Holland. Truman-McCarthyism was an emerging horror just at that time in the United States. Socrates had been put to death by Athens. Persecution, one thinks on the surface, must be against the left and more rarely, the right. Actually, the “Right” is not much persecuted in capitalist societies, but rather protected by the state, like Hitler in Weimar Germany; as Franz Neumann’s Behemoth suggests, recall the Munich putsch and Hitler’s nine month sentence in a villa to write Mein Kampf, compared to the sentencing of workers and other leftists in 1919. In the early 1930s, Nazi sympathizers among teachers, however, could not espouse their views overtly without being fired, and of course, many differences, including those to the Right, were persecuted in the USSR.
In Persecution, Strauss shows us how some philosophers, notably Platonists like himself, use such writing to fool ordinary people, while having hidden messages, for instance about the “wise,” authoritarian rule of a philosopher for their “careful” sympathizers. But where does Strauss defend science or democratic (“leftist”) political philosophies against persecution? One may read that into the title, just as one may read natural rights into Natural Right and History, or a defense of individuality into Liberalism Ancient and Modern. But that is surface expectation or preconception or shadow. There is no such defense. This is in innovative and extremely amusing (though also sinister) method of exoteric writing practiced as far as I know only by Strauss himself (It is not Plato’s nor Hobbes’s nor Nietzsche’s nor Farabi’s). In Persecution, the hidden message may tolerate or require persecution of radicals and liberals (consider the fascism of Mussolini where Gramsci wrote his prison notebooks, let alone the National Revolution in Germany).
In his 1973 book on The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, Plato’s and Strauss’s titles suggest an interest in law and, in some sense, the rule of law. But Plato does not have such an interest (though Strauss misses the implied critique of the Athenian Stranger who was, after all a Socrates without the integrity to go to his death, who leads a drinking party of wine rather than hemlock, and warns that such parties reveal those who cannot handle drink and would do great harms as leaders; as the dialogue shows, he is himself often in his arguments about laws and tyranny untrustworthy. Plato expected his students, in this as in other dialogues, to challenge the arguments, to separate good from bad…). The surface meaning is, once again, for the careless or easily deceived reader. In an October 20, 1938 letter to Jacob Klein, intoxicated with the excitement of scholarly discovery, Strauss writes: “Nomoi [Laws]; a book about laws with the antidote [Gegengift] to Nomoi. – Gesammelte Schriften 3:559) Contrary to a dull reader’s initial expectation, that is also the theme of Strauss’s Action and Argument.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche has an apt psychological eprigram which Strauss’s exotericism invites: “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.” Those like Michael and Catherine Zuckert who believe Strauss is just the surface might take this as a warning. There is also something unkind in Strauss’s joking around about bizarre, in the case of authoritarianism and nuclear war, horrifying messages. Sympathetic readers, even some students of Strauss, take the surface, add implications which Strauss does not draw, and ignore these judgments – he is a German Jew, an exile from Hitler, he backed Churchill; he can’t be a fascist or nihilist or extreme anti-modern…Strauss tolerated and even sought misunderstanding by some of his students (it is a good cover to have students bravely shout, over and over, “the best friend liberal democracy has ever had”).
As Strauss says in his 1932 “Religioese Lage der Gegenwart,” [the religious situation of the present] following Nietzsche, he wished to stamp out liberal or secular culture as a reflection of the revolution in values brought about by the Jewish prophets. (see “Shadings; they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here – Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933,” here and “response to Charles Butterworth” here). Here, once again, are Strauss’s powerful sentences:
“The end of this struggle is the complete rejection of tradition neither merely of its answers, nor merely of its questions, but of its possibilities: the pillars on which our tradition rested; prophets and Socrates/Plato have been torn down since Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s partisanship for the kings and against the prophets, for the sophists and against Socrates – Jesus neither merely no God, nor a swindler, nor a genius, but an idiot. Rejected are the theorein and “Good-Evil” – Nietzsche, as the last enlightener.”
“Through Nietzsche, tradition has been shaken at its roots. It has completely lost its self-evident truth. We are left in this world without any authority, without any direction.” (Gesammelte Schriften 2:389; trans. Michael Zank; h/t William Altman).”
Strauss continues insistently: “and even so, the Bible: we can no longer assume that the Prophets are right; we must earnestly ask whether the kings are not right.”
Not one of the post-World War II American books by Strauss , and least of all Liberalism Ancient and Modern rejects or even inadvertently contradicts these thoughts…Except for his critique of value-freedom (a comparatively slight view in terms of the arguments made to sustain it, so that the fact that Strauss takes it slightingly does not get it in the way of his critique) and that of Schmitt whose Reaction he sharpens, Strauss does not argue well with the views of others (he tailors them to his preconceptions, notably Locke (without the toleration of the Letter concerning Toleration), Mill (no comment on the good of freedom of speech, let alone the rooting out of prejudice i.e. The Subjection of Women), Hegel and Marx.
In chapter 7 of Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss reproduces the epilogue to Herbert Storing, ed, The Scientific Study of Politics. At the conclusion of this essay, he mocks from the Right the complacency of political ‘science, while liberal society vanishes, as he sees it, into the last men:
“The crisis of liberal democracy has become concealed by a ritual which calls itself methodology or logic. This almost willful blindness to the crisis of liberal democracy is part of that crisis. No wonder then that the new political science has nothing to say against those who unhesitatingly prefer surrender, that is abandonment of liberal democracy, to war.” (p. 223).
This context of crisis does not make a comforting setting for an endorsement of separation of church and state which seems, for Strauss, to be a part of that crisis. The theme of the chapter is not how political science fails to be liberal. He actually stresses: it is. But in contrast, Strauss highlights over and over again the importance of fighting the Soviet enemy. In addition, he makes in clear that he prefers war – and the context, as in the “Restatement” in On Tyranny, nuclear war - to “acquiescence.” What happened to the argument with political science? Why in this context does he bring up repeatedly the enemy, the desire for “manly” nuclear engagement, no matter how many die? Strauss may be the only contemporary political theorist who discusses once, let alone repeatedly, his preference for likely nuclear destruction to surrender. He warns of this even in his memo to Charles Percy here. It is worth absorbing how odd and disturbing this emphasis is.
In addition, the dark concluding sentences of the Storing book and chapter 7 of Liberalism: Ancient and Modern give a purchase to understand the gradually unfolded theme of enmity:
“Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic; it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that if fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.” (p. 223)
The chasm that opens here politically and morally (let us run the risk of nuclear cataclysm, Strauss says blithely, sooner than live among the last men) is preceded by a mocking of political science’s study of small groups, particularly he quips infants; in contrast, he brings up nuclear war and Lenin:
“Just as classical physics had to be superseded by nuclear physics so that the atomic age could come in via the atomic bomb, the old political science has to be superseded by a sort of nuclear political science so that we may be enabled to cope with the extreme dangers threatening atomic man; the equivalent in political science of the nuclei is probably the most minute events in the smallest groups of humans if not in the life of infants; the small groups in question are certainly not of the kind exemplified by the small group Lenin gathered around himself in Switzerland during World War I. In making this comparison we are not oblivious of the fact that the nuclear physicists show a greater respect for classical physics than the nuclear political scientists show for classical politics.” (pp. 208-09)
Strauss sensibly contrasts supposedly value-free political science with Aristotle whose views are dramatically better formulated and more attractive. In this regard, he makes some important points (compare my Democratic Individuality, ch 1). But he recurs again and again to this theme. For ostensibly value-free political science, plainly democratic and liberal though both are unspecified by the proponents and Strauss, the distinction of the US and the Soviet Union is somehow on a continuum, merely quantitative. In contrast, Strauss again espouses the baleful theme of taking that conflict seriously to the point of nuclear war:
“The qualitatively different regimes, or kinds of regimes, and the qualitatively different purposes constituting and legitimating them by revealing themselves as the most important political things, supply the key to the understanding of all political things [i.e. for Strauss, how a regime should be organized for war] and the basis for a reasoned distinction between important and unimportant political things. The regimes and their principles pervade their societies throughout in the sense that there are no recesses of privacy which are simply impervious to that perversion, as is indicated by such expressions, coined by the new political science, as ‘the democratic personality’ [the crisis of democracy emerges in the role of mass culture and the last men, weak and unprepared to fight]. Nevertheless, there are political things which are not affected by the difference of regimes. In a society which cannot survive without an irrigation system, every regime will have to preserve that system intact. Every regime must try to preserve itself against subversion by means of force. There are both technical things and politically neutral things (things which are common to all regimes) which necessarily are the concern of political deliberation without ever being as such politically controversial [the example of how to protect against violent subversion is plainly controversial…]. The preceding remarks are a very rough sketch of the view of political things that was characteristic of the old political science. According to that view, what is most important for political science is identical with what is most important politically. To illustrate this by the present day, example, for the old–fashioned political scientists today, the most important concern is the Cold War, or the qualitative difference which amounts to a conflict between liberal democracy and communism.” (pp. 214-15)
The last sentence is particularly important. On the surface, Strauss sounds as if he endorses liberal democracy against communism. But in fact, he sees that regime, through lack of belligerence and the peace-lovingness of the “last men,” as in crisis. That this idea of Strauss’s did not lead to nuclear war or authoritarianism during the Cold War – though he hoped the US would invade Cuba and supported Nixon who strongly moved in an authoritarian direction against McGovern and the Democrats – did not mean that Strauss’s influence, his political coterie, were not trying. The move toward imperial Commander in Chief power by the neo-cons, whose ideological impact derives primarily from Straussians, illustrates the baleful working out of this theme.
Strauss also sensibly argues that political science often loses itself in the study of quantity and thus “irrelevancy.” Actually, it might be fairer to say that political science often, as in the democratic peace hypothesis, mischaracterizes the quantities and ends up doing some harm politically (it provides a figleaf for American inimicality to nonwhite democracies, for examplem as I argue here and here). But Strauss draws a belligerent conclusion; with Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, his theme is that of enmity:
“Yet we cannot forever remain blind to the fact that what claims to be a purely scientific or theoretical enterprise has grave political consequences – consequences which are so little accidental that they appeal for their own sake to the new political scientists: everyone knows what follows from the demonstration, which presupposes the begging of all important questions, that there is only a difference of degree between liberal democracy and Communism, in regard to coercion and freedom. The Is necessarily leads to an Ought, all sincere protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.” (p. 215)
Strauss’s point is well-taken, The particular politics, however, which he covertly recommends, preparation for and willingness to undergo nuclear war as well as increased authoritarianism to do this, oppose decent values: for instance, of seeking peace, of preserving the lives of millions of individuals, of upholding civil liberties like freedom of conscience as well as democracy versus Strauss’s religiously-inspired authoritarianism and cataclysm.
Strauss decries, however, not just the purported value-freedom, but the linking of political science to modern liberalism and democracy.
“Man is tacitly identified with democratic man. The new political science puts a premium on observations which can be made with the utmost frequency, and therefore by people of the meanest capacities. It therefore frequently culminates in observations made by people who are not intelligent about people who are not intelligent.” (p. 222)
Democracy and political science, he says, join in worshipping those of the “meanest capacities.” His scorn for democracy, the poor and the uneducated – veiled for the careless reader by his indictment of political science – is striking.
“While the new political science becomes ever less able to see democracy or to hold a mirror to democracy, it ever more reflects the most dangerous proclivities of democracy. It even strengthens those proclivities. By teaching in effect the quality of literally all desires [recall Plato’s discussion of democracy in Book 8 of the Republic], it teaches in effect that there is nothing of which a man ought to be ashamed; by destroying the possibility of self-contempt, it destroys with the best of intentions the possibility of self-respect.” (p. 222)
No, Mr. Strauss, democracy is the fight for the self respect of working people, of those oppressed by racism, sexism and homophobia. It is the fight for mutual respect by all citizens for one another and self-respect. Strauss’s contempt for those values, without offering any argument – he offers only the “argument” of his sneering, in the name of the “self-respect” of “the great individual,” is repulsive. Strauss continues:
“By tracing the equality of all values, by denying that there are things which are intrinsically high and others which are intrinsically low as well as by denying that there is an essential difference between man and brutes, it unwittingly contributes to the victory of the gutter.” (p. 222)
Here the last men, the poor, the result of the revolt of the prophets sketched by Nietzsche, is the “victory of the gutter.” Is this different from Strauss’s Nietzschean outburst in his 1932 Religioese Lage der Gegenwart? Actually, it is the same condescension. In any case, there is never in Strauss a single word either of appreciation of or answer to the great defenses of the democratic movements, including those that have fought against anti-semitism (for instance, the Bolsheviks in 1912 made a national campaign in defense of Beilis, a Jew accused of “ritual child murder.”). The appearance of considering differing philosophies, other points of view, is one of Strauss’s clichés (it is more real in his student Herbert Storing); the actual appreciation of any argument that supports modern and decent politics is absent. Yes, one may agree with much of his criticism of political science. Strauss sneers at but does not answer or even understand any feature of modern democratic practical argument or theory. He never gets up to making an argument.
*Will Altman sent me an interesting note in response to AZ’s example and comment:
“Strauss is attacking `Mr. Schary’ (LAM, 264-5) by showing that his determination to respect ‘religious diversity’ is shallow, hypocritical, and un-Biblical. The shallowness in question is that Schary presupposes monotheism; what about polytheism? Since Schary refers to some gods of Egypt as ‘monsters,’ he is being hypocritical. By substituting the Biblical ‘abominations’ for Schary's ‘monsters,’ LS is arguing that tolerance of such things is anti-Biblical. This is the key issue: instead of recognizing that the SOCAS [separation of church and state] is Biblical, indeed that the concept “secular” presupposes the prior existence of the unqualifiedly eternal, LS is intent on showing that only by means of a shallow, hypocritical, and un-Biblical notion of ‘religion’ do we erect a ‘qualifiedly religious’ bulwark against the enforcement of either religious or irreligious conformism. By beginning the crucial sentence with ‘it seems,’ LS withholds his support from the chosen means and certainly does not commit himself to unqualified support for the SOCAS. Of course he ostentatiously attacks Communism; this is his usual move, suggesting as it does support for Liberal Democracy. But by describing the absolute separation of the secular from the religious as ‘qualifiedly secularist, that is qualifiedly religious,’ he undermines the separation even in the process of describing it. In fact, the SOCAS is predicated on an unqualified secularism based on insights that are unqualifiedly religious (John 18:36) but keeps the two apart (Matthew 22:21). Every Platonist knows that Being is separate from Becoming and that the Idea of the Good is outside of the Cave; that's why Strauss isn't one.
Listen now to Strauss’s own words at p. 264:
“Recognition of religious diversity as Mr. Schary understood it, is not merely toleration of religions other than one’s own but respect for them. The question arises as to how far that respect can be extended. ‘We who are religiously oriented state that there is God, clearer identification than that is denied us.” Who are the ‘we’? If the `we’ are Jews or Christians, Mr. Schary admits too little; if they are religious human beings as such, he admits too much. The singular `God’ would seem to exclude the possibility of respect for Greek polytheism and still more of the polytheism of the Egyptians who had a `bizarre pantheon of their own…they invented monsters to worship.’ Can one respect a religion which worships monsters or, to use the biblical expression, abominations? Mr. Schary concluded the paragraph with the remark that `all men of decency, self-respect and goodwill are joined in a common brotherhood.’ I take it that he does not deny that men who are not ‘religiously oriented’ may be “men of decency, self-respect and good will’ and that men who lack decency, self-respect and good will and therefore refuse to join the common brotherhood do not for this reason cease to be our brothers. But under no circumstances can we be obliged to respect abominations, although it may be necessary to tolerate them.” (pp. 264-65)
Altman’s points about this passage are right, except two which are at least too abbreviated. I don’t see how Strauss fails to be a Platonist in his rejection of toleration or equal freedom of conscience. Quite the contrary, Strauss invokes the Athenian Stranger (though as Altman argues splendidly in “A Tale of Two Drinking Parties” and I agree, Plato meant his students to be critical of many of the Stranger’s arguments) and the Stranger’s affirmation of the use of a god by the philosopher-tyrant to put across his laws.
More importantly, as I emphasized in the last post here, John Rawls’s notion of a self-standing, overlapping consensus on mutual regard for the comprehensive or conscientious views of others is the basis for a decent modern regime. The latter may include religious insights (it may perhaps even flow centrally from decent ones like Martin King’s; Rawls himself had thought of becoming a Protestant minister), but it does not require them. My argument in Democratic Individuality is that we have learned historically that each of us has an equally sufficient capacity for moral personality to be treated as a free person (to pursue a life which we find fulfilling – one of eudaimonia - or decent or even fail to find happiness or fulfillment, but not harm others). Slavery, colonialism, the subjection of women, the rule of oligarchs including through parliamentary forms are – and have all historically been shown to be – odious for human beings. This point, too, requires no religious foundation.