June 4, 2006


Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

The American democracy is not founded upon the emancipated man, but, quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God. It is indeed significant when, in contrast to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, American historians can say that the federal consttituion was written by men who were conscious of original sin and of the wickedness of the human heart. Earthly wielders of authority, and also the people, are directed into their proper bounds, in due consideration of man's innate longing for power and of the fact that power pertains only to god. With these ideas, which derive from Calvinism, there is combined the essentially contrary idea wich comes fromt he spirtualism of the Dissenters who took refuge in America, the idea that the kingdom of God on earth cannot be built by the authority of the state but only by the congregation of the faithful. The Church proclaims the principles of the social and political order, and the state makes available the technical means for putting them into effect. These two quite alien lines of thought converge in the demand for democracy, and it is enthusiastic spiritualism that becomes the determing factor in American thought. This explains the remarkable fact that on the European continent it has never been possible to find a Christian basis for democracy, while in the Anglo-Saxon countries democracy and democracy alone is regarded as the Christian form of the state.

And the dichotomy, of course, is why the Anglosphere and continental Europe are ultimately, at best, not allies.

MORE (via Mike Daley):
REVIEW: of Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism by Steven B. Smith (Clifford Orwin, Commentary)

Strauss rejected the notion, common among secularists, that modern thought had succeeded in refuting religious orthodoxy. Revelation, for him, remained reason’s rival, an abiding alternative to the arrangements of secular society. Though he devoted much of his prodigious interpretive talent to the writings of Spinoza, the first and greatest partisan of the atheistic Enlightenment, Strauss thought that modern philosophy had achieved at most a stand-off in its confrontation with the biblical tradition. By his lights, the sharpest insight into the tension between revelation and reason could still be found in the work of Maimonides, who in the 12th century had made the defense of Judaism his first priority even while acknowledging the power and reach of Aristotelian thought.

As Smith demonstrates in turning to “Athens,” Strauss was preoccupied not just with reason’s limits but with the tendency of modern rationalism to devour itself. The same skepticism that the philosophers had unleashed on religion eventually drew their own claims into question as well, precipitating what Strauss called, in surveying his own era, “the crisis of the West.”

In Strauss’s analysis, this crisis was no less political than theoretical, and could be seen most clearly in the work of his greatest contemporaries. It was no accident, he argued, that the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger became an avid Nazi, or that Alexandre Kojève, the Russian émigré Hegelian, paid tribute to Stalin and Mao. Smith devotes a chapter to Strauss’s relation to each of these thinkers, stressing in each case how seemingly abstruse and theoretical issues provided a key to understanding their embrace of the bloody politics of totalitarianism.

As an antidote to Heidegger and Kojève, who in their different ways had pushed modern thought to its most dangerous extremes, Strauss returned to Athens itself—that is, to classical philosophy. There he hoped to find a form of rationalism that was more compatible with political moderation and decency. In a chapter titled “Strauss’s Platonic Liberalism,” Smith describes how Strauss’s resort to the supposedly illiberal Plato in fact served to bolster the case for liberal democracy.

In The Republic, which most contemporary scholars had dismissed as a blueprint for totalitarianism, Strauss discovered instead a profound meditation on the boundaries of politics. Unlike their 20th-century counterparts, Strauss suggested, ancient thinkers recognized the unbridgeable gulf between theory and practice. If they encouraged their readers to think radically, they also encouraged them to act moderately. Here, to Strauss’s mind, was the best answer ever devised to the aspirations of modern tyranny.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2006 5:15 PM

You really want an antidote to Heidigger? Take a gander at Emanuel Levinas. (Small dosages, though, at least at first.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 5, 2006 2:35 AM