an east coast straussian on political philosophy
Steven B. Smith interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Steven B. Smith is the political philosopher who would never call himself a philosopher but who is always brooding on the great political philosophers of the past, on why political philosophy is the oldest branch of philosophy, on why it is important, on why there are no mediocre philosophers, on the question of what makes the best regime as a fundamental question, on parochialism, Tocqueville, on the distortion of Leo Strauss’s legacy, on Strauss and Dewey, on Strauss and Maimonides, on whether Strauss was right or leftwing, and on being an East Coast Straussian. This one has a spry engine…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? In your video lecture on Plato’s Republic you say that one of the student’s will have their life changed by reading Plato. Is this what happened to you?
Steven B. Smith: I would never be so arrogant as to describe myself as a philosopher. At most I am a teacher of political philosophy. The term “philosopher” I reserve for people like Plato, Spinoza, and Hegel. At best, this is something that most of the rest of us can merely aspire to be.
My own entrée to philosophy was actually through Rousseau. Rousseau arguably has much in common with Plato so maybe this is not a surprise. I read him as an undergraduate and it’s hard for me to say why, but I fell in love with him. It had to do with Rousseau as a stylist as well as a thinker. It was not as though I was particularly attracted to any of his doctrines, but he addressed the kinds of questions that seemed important to me at the time and still do many years later. I have taught seminars on Rousseau on several occasions and he never ceases to pay dividends.
3:AM: You say that political philosophy is the oldest and most fundamental part of political science, that it is political science in its oldest or classic sense. Can you say what you mean when you say this given that it might be seen alternatively as just a sub branch of political science.
SS: Today political philosophy is simply seen as a branch of philosophy along with logic, ethics, metaphysics, and the like. In political science departments it is seen as a branch of the study of politics along with American politics, international relations, and so on. Both of these assumptions seem false to me.
Political philosophy is really the oldest branch of philosophy. Socrates confirms this in the Apology when he describes a “turn” in his thought from the study of natural phenomena to the study of the knowledge of the human being and citizen – in short a turn to the study of the political things. When Cicero said that Socrates was the first who called philosophy down from the heavens and establish it in the cities, he meant that Socrates was the first philosopher to turn to the study of the human things, of the good and bad, the right and wrong, the just and the unjust. It is this sense of the priority of the political, that is to say, of the philosopher’s relation to the city or the political environment in which he/she lives that is the central problem. This is not just a historical or sociological problem. The relation of the philosopher to the city helps us think about one of the oldest and deepest problems of philosophy, namely, the relation of theory and practice. What is the philosopher’s relation to or responsibility to the city? It is this problem that we have lost sight of.
3:AM: Your approach is to study the political philosophers of the past. So why isn’t this proof that it’s an irrelevant branch of social science – that it fails to make progress and has been left behind by new methods and techniques that make Aristotle, Hobbes et al irrelevant except as historical figures? Why don’t you agree with the historicists on this? I guess the general question here is why do you think your branch of humanities is relevant and important?
SS: This is an easy one. The idea that philosophy makes progress is characteristic of an Enlightenment trope that regards all knowledge as a form of problem solving. Once you accept this proposition, it follows that all knowledge will be assessed by its contributions to progress. A mathematician named Vieta once said that there is no problem that can’t be solved. This seems almost the opposite of the case at least for philosophy. Philosophers tend to ask only such questions as cannot be solved, the questions of one or many, of love and friendship, of justice and war. The history of philosophy is the history of a series of failed attempts to answer certain fundamental questions.
As evidence for what I’ve just said, I would argue that we continue to ask today the very same questions that were asked by the great philosophers of the past. There is no doubt that we have made great advances in certain kinds of knowledge, in the sciences, history, and economics. But when it comes to the fundamental problems of justice, the relation of the individual to society, of the proper role of authority, and the role (if any) of religion in political life – these are questions over which we continue to argue. So long as there remains disagreement – fundamental disagreement, I would add – on these kinds of questions, there will always be an incentive to study the classic works of political philosophy in order to gain clarity and perspective. I look to the thinkers of the great tradition not so much because I find their answers always compelling, but because they had a way of stating the problems with unparalleled clarity and freshness.
3:AM: You argue that political philosophy is always about a group of questions – can you say something about what these permanent questions are and why they tend to be stable constituents of our philosophical thinking in this area?
SS: I believe that an unbiased study of the history of philosophy will show that there has always been a relatively small number of questions that philosophers have dealt with. These problems provide the horizon of philosophy. One such question not asked as often as it should be is simply “why philosophy?” We live in a world where philosophy is taken for granted. Philosophers my kvetch a lot that they aren’t listened to or they are not consulted, but no one doubts the legitimacy of the activity of philosophy. The study of the history of philosophy shows this has not always been the case. When you look at the emergence of philosophy in ancient Greece, for example, you see that Plato and others first have to make the case for philosophy in a world where this kind of thinking seemed quite threatening.
To be sure, the context of philosophy has changed and philosophers adopt new idioms and styles of analysis, but this is not to say that the fundamental problems have changed. To take a more or less random example, the issues that Maimonides faced writing from within a tradition of revealed religion were quite different from Plato or Aristotle. But what Maimonides did was to adapt the writings of Plato and Aristotle – whom he had learned largely through their Arabic translators and interpreters – to his own situation living as a leader of the Jewish community in exile. The history of philosophy is replete with examples of continual adaptation to new circumstances. Part of the excitement I have always felt in studying philosophy is seeing just those moments of connection when you feel you are part of a great conversation taking place over the course of centuries and between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born.
3:AM: Why don’t you think there is such a thing as a mediocre philosopher?
SS: The word “philosopher” is for me a term of respect. One can write a bad novel and still be a novelist, but a bad philosopher seems to me a contradiction in terms. As a matter of fact, we all end up reading a lot of bad books and articles and often they can help you clarify your thinking and distinguish between what’s really worthwhile and what isn’t, but on the whole you need to keep your eye on the prize which is why I say (allowing for some overstatement) that there can be no mediocre philosophers. Life is short. Why do you want to spend it with the second raters?
3:AM: So one of the permanent questions of political life is ‘what is the best regime?’ You contend that to dissolve the idea of the regime is to dissolve politics. So are the ideals of globalization anti-politics in your view? Would the go-to guys of political philosophy be irrelevant in a world ruled by international law?
SS: This is very much my view. The study of political philosophy is the study of the regime and the diversity of regime types that have existed and still continue to exist. This goes beyond the study of formal institutions (elections, rule of law, etc), but entails the entire way of life – the habits, manners, moral sentiments – that the various regimes tend to create. In a completely globalized world, political philosophy as the analysis of the regime would simply fade away. In a deep sense Marx was right – that in a global, classless society, philosophy would “wither away.” What we call political philosophy would become a part of public administration, that is, it would be devoted to technical questions of administering to the global society. Maybe we would all have to become specialists in global public health or some other technical field. I do not deny that such a vision is possible and may even be coming into existence as we speak, but whatever else such a world would be, it would no longer be a political world in any recognizable sense of the term.
3:AM: By saying that ending regimes would end politics and thus end the relevance of political philosophy aren’t you conceding to the historicist that there is a parochialism to the great thinkers you discuss? And why doesn’t it allow someone like Ernest Gellner to contend that the regimes of Plato’s time, (small city state’s in agraria) for example, were so different from current regimes (nation states in industria) that the norms and ideals Plato presents have lost purchase?
SS: There may be some truth to this. I’ve always enjoyed reading Gellner even where I disagree. I might even agree that my views express a certain “parochialism,” although I would say a parochialism that has a lot of human history to back it up. But I would add this to the current partisans of globalization. Democracy as a regime has only made any headway in the institution of the nation state. If we mean by democracy a regime that is responsible to the people as a whole, has frequent elections, and where political leaders are held publicly accountable for their actions, it is hard for me to see this having any traction outside of some national context. A global state or a global union of states overseen by international courts and lawyers may succeed in solving all kinds of problems (literacy, health, birth control, and so on), but whatever else such an arrangement would be, it would not be a democracy. Such a society might satisfy the demand for “progress” toward certain administered ends, but this would no longer be a political society. If this is deemed “parochial,” I’m happy to accept the description.
3:AM: So why is studying the philosophy of regimes important? Who asked the best questions in this area and for you personally who gives the best answer for our contemporary understanding?
SS: The two best are without doubt Aristotle and Tocqueville. Aristotle set out the basic categories through which we can even begin to think about politics. He saw what was involved in a political regime and how to distinguish democracies from oligarchies, aristocracies, and tyrannies. He also gave classic expression to the role of the statesman tasked with both founding and preserving regimes.
Tocqueville was the most perceptive student of the emergence of democracy as the dominant form of regime type in the modern world. Tocqueville saw that in the future all regimes would increasingly seek to defend themselves against the standard of equality, this is the way that the broad tendency of history is moving. Yet rather than serving as a cheerleader for equality, he was interested in the question of what is both gained and what is lost in a democratic age. Tocqueville is at his best as a kind of moral psychologist of the democratic age. He gets into the role of the habits and sentiments of democratic men and women, sees our vanities and absurdities as well as our greatness and possibilities. Although Tocqueville is not typically studied in philosophy departments, he is to me the example of what a political philosopher should be.
3:AM: You’ve written extensively about Leo Strauss. He’s a controversial figure and someone who has been recently tied in with the political movement of the neo-Cons. You think that this is a calumny that gets him completely wrong don’t you. You argue that far from being any type of conservative or neo-Con, he is a friend of liberal democracy. Before saying what you take Strauss to be about can you comment on why and how you think Strauss’s reputation became distorted. Is it because he presents Jerusalem and Athens as incompatible alternatives in a nation, the USA, where religion is largely neo-con and vehemently opposed to Athenian secularists?
SS: It’s hard for me to say exactly why Strauss’s legacy has been distorted. This would require me to delve into the motives of people who have written negatively about him and this is really beyond my ability. Robert Alter said about my book Reading Leo Strauss in the Times that I had succeeded in returning Strauss to the rest of us. That’s good enough for me.
Regarding the Jerusalem-Athens problem, however, I think you have to admit that Strauss was basically right. This is not a left-right issue. It is an issue of facing reality. We live in a world where (for better or worse) a lot of people take religion very seriously. Their understanding of what religion is may be full of superstitions and false beliefs, but we cannot simply wish these things away. Strauss understood that the relation between religion and politics – what he termed “the theologico-political problem” – was one of those fundamental problems (maybe the most fundamental problem) that any society has to confront. He also realized that our own manner of dealing with that problem with our separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state was only one answer to that problem. Many other parts of the world see the matter quite differently. I don’t see this a “neo-Con” solution, whatever that is. I see it as a form of political realism which I think was central to Strauss’s perspective.
3:AM: Why did Strauss criticize Dewey’s progressivism? Was it because he distrusted historicism and thought modernity was moving towards nihilism? This does sound a bit conservative doesn’t it?
SS: I think Strauss saw in Dewey an American style of Hegelianism (which, of course, it is). Hegelianism meant for Strauss a form of historicist progressivism that he believed simply failed the test of experience. Remember that Strauss was a German émigré who saw in the rise of Hitlerism and Soviet Communism a fundamental challenge to the optimistic Kantian-Hegelian philosophies of history that had been so prominent for the generation in which he had been brought up. He once remarked that the worst things experienced by the great neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen were the pogroms in Russia and the Dreyfus Affair in France. He had not lived to see the horrors and catastrophes of the kind associated with Auschwitz and the Gulag. How could the optimistic historicism of Dewey begin to account for this? I think Strauss regarded this kind of progressivism as deeply naïve about the often deeper and darker well-springs of human nature. Is this conservative? Again, I would say realistic.
3:AM: How significant was Maimonides on his thinking? His recovery of an Esoteric tradition is controversial isn’t it – can you say something about this? Where did Strauss stand on the theologico-political problem we mentioned earlier – was he a citizen of Athens or Jerusalem?
SS: Maimonides, along with Plato, was probably the single most important influence on Strauss. To answer this question would take far longer than would be appropriate for this format. I think Strauss saw in Maimonides and especially in Maimonidean esotericism the model of what a philosopher should be. Maimonides is someone who stood as a mediator between the Jewish tradition based on the idea of a divinely revealed law and the Platonic or philosophical tradition based on the priority of one own reason. I hesitate to psychologize Strauss, but I think he saw himself as in something of the same situation. How do you retain a certain fidelity to tradition and yet maintain an open-minded and skeptical attitude based on one’s own critical rationality? The balance will be struck differently at different times and according to the temperament of the individual, but Strauss found in Maimonides someone who spent his life wrestling with these two alternatives. Was he ultimately a faithful Jew or a disciple of Plato? You could ask the same question of either Strauss or Maimonides and get very different answers. It was Maimonides’ awareness of the moral and psychological depth of the problem that made him for Strauss the philosopher par excellence.
3:AM: So what is a Straussian, and why is she more a fox than a hedgehog? Is the appeal for you the fact that what he liked to say when asked what he taught was, ‘Old books’ ?
SS: Strauss’s description of himself as someone who just taught “old books” was, of course, technically true but also intentionally deceptive. He did so much more. There are people who will tell you that Strauss was a “hedgehog,” that he had one big idea whether this is the claim about esoteric writing or the focus on the Jerusalem-Athens problem. I am less convinced that there is a single master key that unlocks or makes sense of all of Strauss’s works. He emphasized different problems at different times. I’m currently finishing up a book called Modernity and its Discontents that –despite the token nod to Freud in the title – is very much influenced by Strauss’s distinction between the ancients and the moderns and focuses on a number of the key critiques of modernity by a number of modern authors. Strauss taught a lot of us how to think about “modernity as a philosophical problem” as Robert Pippin has used that term. Strauss obviously did not invent the concept of modernity, but he gave the term a centrality and focus that has been extremely important for helping me understand the business of political philosophy.
3:AM: Politically, was Strauss right or leftwing? You say he was a philosopher and doesn’t endorse any political position and that he saw a constant conflict between politics and philosophy, but surely loads of philosophers take political positions nevertheless. Why can’t we read a political stance into his work? Why do you insist that he was of the East Coast rather than West Coast camp of politics? And is that where you sit yourself?
SS: Strauss was certainly never leftwing. His dispositions were always on the conservative side although he did not endorse political positions. When people both pro and con attach all kinds of political views to Strauss, I want to ask, “where did Strauss ever say this?” I’m struck that when reading Strauss – both his published works and his unpublished lectures that are now available online – how discrete he is on political topics. He never preaches, he never resorts to endorsements. He focuses virtually entirely on texts. That is extremely rare for anyone. It points to extraordinary discipline and self-control because what could have been easier and in a sense cheaper than using the enormous authority that Strauss clearly enjoyed to turn the classroom in to a vehicle for political ideology.
I’m not sure I would say that Strauss was an “East Coast Straussian” in the peculiar sense that that term has come to be used. I would only say that I am. Strauss might have looked at all of us and given up in despair!
3:AM: And finally, are there five books that will help us delve further into your philosophical world?
SS: That’s the hardest question of all. I’m going deliberately to eliminate works of traditional philosophy of the kind we’ve been discussing because we have not discussed at all my passion for literature. So I will give you works from my own top ten list that in different ways confront the modernity problem I mentioned above:
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 9th, 2014.