Spiritual Renewal and the Last Man: Leo Strauss s view of Max Weber s. Moral and Political Thought - PDF

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Spiritual Renewal and the Last Man: Leo Strauss s view of Max Weber s Moral and Political Thought Regina F. Titunik Associate Professor of Political Science University of Hawaii at Hilo Hilo, Hawaii 96720
Spiritual Renewal and the Last Man: Leo Strauss s view of Max Weber s Moral and Political Thought Regina F. Titunik Associate Professor of Political Science University of Hawaii at Hilo Hilo, Hawaii Prepared for the International Political Science Association (IPSA) 20 th World Congress, Fukuoka, Japan, 9-13 July 2006 Abstract: At the outset of his chapter entitled Natural Right and the Distinction between Facts and Values in Natural Right and History, Strauss strikingly asserts that Max Weber s ethically neutral social science leads to nihilism. This assertion is most memorably associated with Strauss s view of Max Weber. But what really interests Strauss is not reproving Weber s supposed nihilism, but disclosing the moral premise on which Weber s requirement of value-free social science is based. That is, Strauss considers Weber as a moral and political thinker. It becomes evident, as the essay progresses, that the nihilism that Weber fosters is not the hard nihilism of fascism, but rather the soft nihilism of liberal democracy. Far from abandoning the faith in natural right, as it was expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Weber, Strauss critically observes, took that ideal of natural right for granted. Strauss construes Weber s thought with great sensitivity and profundity. He goes astray, however, in supposing that Weber s liberal democratic convictions come into conflict with his apprehensions about the last man, alluded to in the concluding section of Weber s Protestant Ethic. Leo Strauss s Natural Right and History, published in 1953, is his best known work. * Not the least of the reasons for the relative notoriety of this particular book is the extensive and polemical consideration of Max Weber s thought in the chapter entitled Natural Right and the Distinction between Facts and Values. 1 In this chapter, Strauss caustically criticizes the then accepted value-free approach to the study of social phenomenon and seems to belittle its most venerable exponent. Strauss s exposition gives the appearance of disputing Weber s ethically neutral approach from a moral absolutist point of view (see Bendix 1977: 263 n. 8; Mommsen 427; Almond 1990: 21-22). But as Strauss s deceptive style of writing is increasingly recognized--as he must have expected would happen since he calls attention to his dissembling--a different view of Max Weber suggests itself. Strauss s public opposition to the idea that values cannot be rationally supported might be more properly read as an exoteric position. That is, Strauss only means to give the impression, contra Weber, that he believes it is possible to acquire valid knowledge of how human beings ought to live. According to this view, Strauss essentially agrees as to the impossibility of rationally determining what is morally right, but holds that this truth should be concealed so that citizens can wholeheartedly believe in the rightness of their way of life (Holmes 1993: 63-66, Drury 1988, 1997:12). Whatever Strauss may have really believed about acquiring rational knowledge of the right way to live--an issue I will return to below--strauss s critical investigation of Weber s thought does not primarily represent an effort to contest Weber s distinction between facts and values. Rather, throughout the essay, Strauss is occupied with disclosing the premise on which Weber s distinction was based. The main point of Strauss s exposition, as Nasser Behnegar correctly emphasizes, is to show that Weber s position regarding the impossibility of acquiring genuine knowledge of values was postulated under the impulse of a specific * All unspecified references are to this book. 1 moral preference (64, see Behnegar 2003:106-7, 114, 115, 118, 119, 130). In Strauss s view, Weber postulated the rationally insoluble conflict of ultimate values not because he had determined--or demonstrated--that such a view is scientifically or axiologically correct. Rather it was Weber s particular moral outlook that determined his value-free approach to the study of social phenomena. Consequently Strauss is interested in Weber as a moral and political thinker. That is, he is attentive to Weber s view of the way human life ought to be lived both individually and collectively. Scholars who have been influenced by a Straussian perspective are alert to Strauss s view of Weber s normative position. But, while Strauss s adherents are more attuned to his meaning, there has been a disposition to accept his verdict about Max Weber without engaging in a corresponding, scrupulous consideration of Weber s views (see Bloom 1987: 150; Pangle 1992: 39). This is the main flaw in Nasser Behnegar s otherwise excellent and meticulous study Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics (2003). Behnegar fails to raise questions about whether Strauss was correct in his understanding of Weber or openly challenge Strauss s interpretation at any point. This article attempts to ascertain Strauss s view of Weber and considers whether (or to what extent) Strauss s portrayal of Weber accords with what Weber, himself, indicated about his moral and political views. I am aware that such an endeavor encounters substantial obstacles not the least of which is Strauss s abstruse style of writing. Strauss makes it clear that he writes in a deliberately confounding manner that involves creating a salutary exoteric teaching while communicating a deeper esoteric teaching in between the lines (Strauss 1952b: 36). In addition, he doesn t simply present an interpretation of the thinkers he discusses; rather these luminaries--and lesser lights--serve as a medium through which Strauss discloses aspects of his own thought. This disclosure is not in the form of agreement or disagreement, but consists in interweaving threads of his own intricate tapestry into the 2 material on various thinkers. The difficulty in penetrating Strauss s multifaceted expositions should not, however, insulate his interpretation of a major thinker from critical analysis (Strauss 1989b, 30), though the analysis may be restricted to pointing out and interrogating some of his more obvious claims. Strauss s Initial Assertions In the introduction to Natural Right and History, Strauss poignantly asserts that the former faith of Americans in natural right, which was expressed in the Declaration of Independence, has waned to the point of extinction. Strauss indicates that the American faith in natural right has been undermined by German thought. It would not be first time, he says, gesturing toward Rome and Judea (Nietzsche 1967: 52-54) that a nation defeated on the battlefield, and as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived its conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought (2). Natural right represents the idea that there is a right way to live by nature and this knowledge is available to human reason. According to Strauss, two contemporary schools of thought have made doubtful the possibility of natural right. These two schools of thought are historicism, which views judgments about good or right as bound to a particular historical situation, and positivism, which holds that science, the only activity through which genuine knowledge is acquired, is incompetent to validate any notion of good or right. Chapter One of Natural Right and History gives attention to historicism and Chapter Two considers social science positivism and its greatest representative, Max Weber (36-80; Strauss 1959: 23). By historicism, Strauss means the view that all thought is limited by its historical circumstances. In this view, no human idea--metaphysical or ethical--can be regarded as simply true or finally universally valid, rather all thought is dependent on its historical context (19-21). In his considerations on historicism, Strauss observes that there is a paradox at the heart of the historicist view. The view that all thought is determined by historical 3 circumstances is a view that must also have been determined by historical circumstances. What is the status of the historicist insight? It seems that historicism inconsistently exempts itself from its own verdict about all human thought (25). Two solutions to this problem, which were devised by prominent historicists, are presented. First, there is the view of Hegel (and also Marx) that, while all previous thought had been determined by historical circumstances, human history has now arrived at an absolute moment when truth of the human situation has become evident because the final and rational human condition is being realized. Strauss distinguishes this Hegelian view from a second historicist view that refutes (and reviles) the idea that the contradictions of human existence have come to an end and fundamental riddles have been solved. According to this view, which Strauss refers to as radical historicism, the insight into the historicity of all thought also occurs in an absolute moment, but this a temporary insight into the character of human thought which will disappear again (27-28). The radical historicist repudiates the philosophical view that the whole is, in principle, intelligible. The idea of the intelligibility of the whole means, in the view of the radical historicist, that reality is complete in such a way that it can be predicted and mastered (30-31). The historicist counters that the ground of being is mysterious and not susceptible to mastery by rational thought (30-31, 1989b: 43). The ultimate groundlessness and mystery of all things is revealed in particular historical circumstances, but that insight is not accessible to rational thought. While the discussion of radical historicism in Natural Right and History points primarily to Martin Heidegger (see 1989b: 27-46), Strauss also sees Weber as sharing the radical historicist view in certain respects, as I will show. In the beginning of the chapter on the distinction between facts and values, Strauss explains that what distinguishes Weber s view from historicism is his notion that there are a number of timeless values (39). However, for Weber, there is no rational means of choosing one timeless value over another or to resolve the eternal conflict between irreconcilable 4 ultimate values (Weber 1946, 152). Science, in Weber s view can determine facts and their causes. In addition social science or social philosophy can provide the individual clarity about the internal consistency of value positions (42; Weber 1946, 152; Weber 1949, 54-55). But science cannot provide guidance as to which ultimate value position is choice worthy; there are no objective criteria to validate the principles in terms of which we act. The choice among absolutely heterogeneous values must be left to the free, non-rational decision of each individual (42). It is this view of the limitation of knowledge that Strauss initially and most dramatically takes issue with: I contend that Weber s thesis leads to nihilism or to the view that every preference, however evil, base, or insane, has to be judged before the tribunal of reason to be as legitimate as any other preference (42). Strauss indicates that he will follow Weber s thought step by step (42; see Strauss 1968: 203) and by doing so we will inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler (42). These vivid remarks at the beginning of Strauss s essay are most memorably associated with his view of Max Weber. But it is important to observe that Strauss does not say that Weber s thought leads to Hitler. The nihilism that Strauss sees Weber s thought leading to, in the way that he characterizes it, is reminiscent of Plato s portrayal of the democratic man in the Republic. The individual nurtured in the democratic regime, according to Plato: doesn t admit true speech or let it pass into the guardhouse, if someone says that there are some pleasures belonging to fine and good desires and some belonging to bad desires, and that the ones must be practiced and honored and the other checked and enslaved. Rather he shakes his head at all this and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis (Plato 1968: 561c; see Eden 1987: 218-9; Bloom 1987: 143). The nihilism that Weber fosters is not the hard nihilism of fascism, but rather the soft nihilism of liberal democracy. Weber s view ultimately sanctions the indiscriminate pursuit 5 of preferences characteristic of modern liberal democracy despite the fact that Weber, himself, according to Strauss, resists the descent into vulgarity (43-48; see Eden 1987). Strauss demonstrates the necessary consequence of Weber s thought through a dialectical step by step interrogation of Weber s basic suppositions. While Weber tries to affirm some standard of human excellence, as Strauss presents Weber s views in the dialogue that Strauss constructs, the logic of Weber s position drives inexorably to a lowbrow equality of all preferences (see 5, 72; Strauss 1968: ). The final formulation of Weber s ethical principle, that survives this cross-examination, is the moral command: Thou shalt have preferences an Ought whose fulfilment [sic] is fully guaranteed by the Is (47). Weber s doctrine of the difference between facts and values rationally justifies the preference for liberal democracy--contrary to what is intended by that distinction itself (Strauss 1968: 221). Hitler s shadow, then, darkens the scene beyond philistine democracy and the aimless pursuit of every whim. The worst excesses of fascism loom beyond liberal democracy for essentially two reasons. First, what Strauss often refers to as the crisis of liberalism consists in the inability of liberalism to resist intolerance. Because liberalism is committed to the tolerance of all preferences and rejects absolutist positions, it ultimately becomes insupportable absolutism to maintain that tolerance is superior to intolerance. Despite what Strauss avers at the beginning of Natural Right and History, it turns out that it was not German thought that actually undermined American liberalism in Strauss s view; rather the respect for diversity and individuality and the aversion to absolutist positions, intrinsic to liberalism, finally undermined faith in the ideals of liberalism (5). Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance or in the notion that everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands happiness; but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance (6). Intellectual adherents of liberalism--such as contemporary scientific social 6 scientists for whom Strauss reserves some particularly contemptuous invective (49, 52-53)-- are oblivious to this contradiction or indifferent to this contradiction at the heart of liberalism (49, Strauss 1968: ). When faced with resolution, single-mindedness and ruthlessness, such as confronted the German Weimar Republic in the late 1920 s and early 1930s, liberal democracy has shown itself incapable of marshalling robust resistance to these forces. As a young Jew born and raised in Germany (Strauss 1965: 1), Strauss witnessed this disintegration of the Weimar regime. Clearly Strauss was profoundly affected by these events, but it is important to observe that he did not simply generalize his particular experience and suppose that such a danger necessarily threatened all liberal democracies. Strauss s reflections on Weimar Germany indicate that he was aware of unique circumstances in German history that contributed to the weakness of the Weimar regime while there were other liberal democracies which were and remained strong notwithstanding the economic crisis of 1929 (Strauss 1965: 1). The second and more important reason, in the context of this essay, that the shadow of fascism looms beyond liberal democracy is because the regime that promotes permissiveness, equality and material prosperity appears to the philosophers who influenced fascism as degrading to the human spirit. It was this revulsion to liberal democracy that shaped the views of Nietzsche who decried those last men who have invented happiness (Nietzsche 1966a: 17). 2 Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both of whom became affiliated with the Nazi party, felt a deep aversion to the perceived spirit-enfeebling character of liberalism. The greatest crisis of liberalism may consist in the possibility that the fascist criticism is compelling (see Strauss 1989a, 98, 1989b 29): A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler (42-43). The preeminent critics of liberal democracy feared that this form of human life may well become global and enduring. Technological, bureaucratic civilization is likely to expand 7 and become ubiquitous (see Heidegger 1959: 38) bringing about complete leveling and uniformity; the unity of the human race at the lowest level (Strauss 1989b: 42). Irrespective of whether liberalism rests on an inner contradiction, the inability of liberalism to coherently resist intolerance is irrelevant from a practical point of view if there is no exigent intolerant position to resist. Anxiety about the banality of the universal, egalitarian and prosperous society as humankind s final condition is the central theme of Strauss s essay on Weber. Between the assertion about Weber s thesis leading to nihilism and the observation about fascism looming beyond where Weber leads us, Strauss writes that Weber saw this alternative for Western civilization: Either spiritual renewal ( wholly new prophets or a powerful renaissance of old thoughts and ideals ) or else mechanized petrifaction varnished by a kind of convulsive sense of self-importance, i.e., the extinction of every human possibility but that of specialists without spirit or visions and voluptuaries without heart. (42). Strauss recurs throughout the essay to Weber s prognostication about the consequences of modern capitalism at the end of the Protestant Ethic (42, 49, 62 and see 47, 39, 74). Although Talcott Parson translated letzten menschen as the last stage (Weber 1958, 182), it is well known that Weber, in fact, employed Nietzsche s metaphor of the last man preceding the exclamation about specialists without spirit (Weber 1920, 204). Thus the translation should more properly read: For [the last men] of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved. Noble Warriors or the Golden Age In Strauss s view, Weber s memorable pronouncement at the end of the Protestant Ethic indicates that he shared Nietzsche s apprehensions about the bleak prospects for humankind. Human history, for both, is moving toward a condition of dreary docility devoid of the challenges and ideals that lift human beings beyond dull animal instincts (44). Indeed Weber rejected utilitarianism and every form of eudemonism (43). He encouraged the rational 8 devotion to freely chosen ultimate values as exalting humanity far above everything merely natural or above all brutes (44, Weber 1949: 18). But the ability to consecrate oneself to something higher than oneself presupposes inner turmoil as opposed to docility and bovine contentment (Nietzsche 1966a, 17). The apparent correspondence between Weber s apprehensions and Nietzsche s is made explicit in the following observation: peace and universal happiness appeared to [Weber] to be an illegitimate or fantastic goal. Even if that goal could be reached, he thought it would not be desirable; it would be the condition of the last men who have invented happiness, against whom Nietzsche had directed his devastating criticism. (65; see 134; Weber 1946: 143). Strauss sees Weber s advocacy of power politics and the need to conquer elbow room for the nation as reflecting his fundamental conviction that peace is incompatible with a truly human life (65; cf. 228). 3 Weber s advocac