I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

Read More


Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, under the fifth proposition:

Man, who is otherwise so enamoured with unrestrained freedom, is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.  And this is indeed the most stringent of all forms of necessity, for it is imposed by men upon themselves, in that their inclinations make it impossible for them to exist side by side for long in a state of wild freedom.  But once enclosed within a precinct like that of civil union, the same inclinations have the most beneficial effect.  In the same way, trees in a forest, by seeking to deprive each other of air and sunlight, compel each other to find these by upward growth, so that they grow beautiful and straight–whereas those which put out branches at will, in freedom and in isolation from others, grow stunted, bent and twisted.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”

Socrates was put to death, but the socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination overt the whole intellectual firmament.  Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.

Far from missing the forest for the trees, there is a world of disagreement buried in this wood.

I had to go through the dreary business of cleaning out my office this week.  Aside from making clear that we need at least two extra bookcases at home, I came across the old coursework essay that served as the source of the title for my dissertation.  I quote myself:

International politics becomes an orientation of the internal self to the external political world.  It is a way of behaving, thinking and coming into knowledge that places demands on the individual qua individual, and makes no demands or assumptions about the political organization of international relations.  The international is internalized because IR becomes an account of how one comes to knowledge about international politics: IR properly understood becomes a discussion of how one relates to the international.

Perhaps I should rename my project: “The Concept of the International” just in case the Schmittean undertones weren’t clear enough in a subtitle such as “The Affect of the Political”.  The footnote in this essay where I suggest more esoteric writing is a possible solution for  escaping the flat nature of IR Theory texts brought a smile to my face.  The frankness with which a Master’s student can write!

From paragraph #171 of Natural Right & History, in the discussion of the mutability and immutability of natural right:

The Thomistic interpretation is connected with the view that there is a habitus of practical principles, a habitus which he call “conscience” or, more precisely, synderesis.  The very terms show that this view is alien to Aristotle; it is of Patristic origin.

“It is of Patristic origin” or perhaps, “it is of the Patristic, Origen”.  See his homilies on Ezekiel.  One cannot emphasize this point enough: the moral conscience is apparently not a Greek invention.  Is this invention the crisis of classic natural right? Is this what allows Thomas to so easily turn natural right into natural law? What about the comparison between the Nichomachean Ethics 1134b and Rhetoric 1.13.2?  To the Kuzari?  But first:

The doctrine of synderesis or of the conscience explains why natural law can always be duly promulgated to all men and hence be universally obligatory.  It is reasonable to assume these profound changes were due to the influence of belief in biblical revelation.  If this assumption should prove to be correct, one would be forced to wonder, however, whether the natural law as Thomas Aquinas understands it is natural law strictly speaking, i.e., a law knowable to the unassisted human mindto the human mind which is not illumined by divine revelation.  (p.163, emphasis not in original)

I’ll note only two circumstantial coincidences.  The Platonic chariot appears in a dialogue that occurs outside of the city walls.  Maimonides notes that the Account of the Chariot (III 6) implies an understanding of its audience as being outside the city: comparing two mean, one from a settle population and another from desert nomads, “the former knew that city people know in what state the ruler rides, [Isaiah] did not describe that state, but said only: I saw the ruler…whereas the people of Exile required these details [from Ezekiel].”  The biblical Chariot, like the Platonic one, is outside the city.  The biblical Chariot is a picture that is only possible outside of the Second Table, outside of the “minimum requirements for society” (NRH 158). The second circumstance: I usually write in this space in the dead of night, seeking the morning sun; at this moment, I am writing in the middle of the afternoon awaiting the evening dusk.

p.s. Origen postulates a parallel between Ezekiel and Christ on the basis of Luke 3:23, Matthew 3:13, and Luke 3:21. See the Scheck translation, p.32-3.

p.p.s. There are many, many, benefits to the current fashionable love for habitus, doxa, and field in my academic community. But much, much more resides on the surface of these concepts than their first impression admits. And the first impression is already powerful.

In 1927 Carl Schmitt published the first edition of his famous essay The Concept of the Political.  Heinrich Meier has done the world of scholarship a service in his study of the “hidden dialogue” between Schmitt and Leo Strauss that presents itself between the second edition of Begriff (1932) and the third (1933) after the publication of Strauss’s review in 1932.  Schmitt responded to a friend that Strauss’s review “cut through him a barre’s length” or some such thing.  No matter what one thinks of Strauss or Schmitt it is clear that Schmitt’s reputation has the most to gain from this hidden association.

My concern though is the equally subtle and hidden dialogue between the first and second edition of Schmitt’s Begriff.  In 1929 Hans Morgenthau wrote a dissertation on Schmitt’s book, where he argues that Schmitt’s is wrong to say that politics is to be understood as a domain but is instead to be understood as an intensity.  The vista this opens up in Schmitt’s theory is the ability to explain civil war:  any relationship between any two groups has the potential of becoming political, of becoming a battle for the good of friends and the death of enemies.  Morgenthau asserts in 1978 that Schmitt printed Morgenthau’s ideas “without lifting the veil of anonymity from the author” – Bill Scheuerman is fantastic on this particular episode in Weimar intellectual history.  What I find most fascinating is that the valorization of this violence in Schmitt’s political theory, and the return to the violence of Hobbes’s State of Nature — not as a negative standard but as the essence of politics — all of which is possible with the movement of Morgenthau’s critique from domains to instensity, is precisely the ground upon which Strauss builds his critique of Schmitt.  Therefore, the dialogue “between the lines” of the “hidden dialogue” is between Strauss and Morgenthau.  Compare the new first chapter and acknowledgments in Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, second edition.  At any rate, the good people at Palgrave have released a translation of Morgenthau’s 1933 French monograph, “The Concept of the Political”.  I look forward to reading this.  The translators note for the benefit of the great unwashed that Morgenthau is writing explicitly with Schmitt in mind, as well as Hans Kelsen’s legal positivism (a framework that is also criticized for its inability to distinguish tyranny from healthy regimes).  Where does one find this criticism?  In Strauss’s Natural Right and History, naturally (first chapter, footnote 2).  Hans Kelsen is a name that deserves more currency – Constellations has done us all a favour.  As always, books we refuse read have already been critiqued and ideas rethought by authors we ignore.  No doubt, five years from now graduate students will discover Kelsen’s nomostatics the way Columbus discovered America: already populated, full of life.  But as we’re approaching the 100th anniversary of J.J. Ruedorffer’s Grundzüge der Weltpolitik in der Gegenwart, where is Kurt Riezler’s day in the sun?

I’ve gone through Rabbi Weber’s thesis, and collected the remarks that relate to the two days he spent with Strauss in June of 1973.  Before I get to a quote, let me quickly outline why I’ve been so engrossed with this +35 year old dissertation that was never published as a book.

1) Weber hypothesizes that Strauss’s thought on Maimonides evolved, and as his understanding of Maimonides evolved so did his understanding of political philosophy generally.  Weber also reports that Strauss himself confirms this evolution in his understanding of Maimonides, with a “glimmer” first revealing itself in 1938, (though possibly as early as 1931, as Weber suggests this is the first time Strauss repeats the famous quote from Averroes).

2) Weber’s thesis focuses on the contest between “Judaism and Philosophy” rather than “Jerusalem and Athens”.  And he also views this conflict in the light of the theologico-political problem.  The primacy of the “theologico-political problem” to Strauss’s work wasn’t always as clear to his English readers as it was to his German ones.  Weber recognizes this, having read and compared the German preface to Political Philosophy of Hobbes in the German edition of 1964.

3)Weber provides (I believe) the first English translation of the introduction to Philosophie und Gesetz.  He takes as his guide for translating Strauss, Leo Strauss himself (referring to the Autobiographical preface to the Spinoza book).  I’ll provide two examples of the difference.  Adler translates, “But if one undertakes a confrontation of this kind seriously, and thus in the freedom of the question which of the two opposed rationalisms is the true rationalism, then medieval rationalism, whose “classic” for us is Maimonides, changes in the course of the investigation from a mere means of discerning more sharply the specific character of modern rationalism into the standard measured against which the latter proves to be only a semblance of rationalism” (P&L 21-2).  Compare Weber’s translation of the same sentence:  “If such a confrontation is undertaken in earnest — that is, with the question open as to which of the two opposing rationalisms is the true rationalism — then the following result ensues:  medieval rationalism — whose classic exponent for us is Maimonides — initially taken as merely an instrument for keener cognition of the distinctiveness of modern rationalism, becomes during the course of the investigation the standard, measured by which modern rationalism reveals itself to be a “pseudo-rationalism”.  Weber says he follows Strauss’s use of “pseudo-philosophy” from Persecution in order to translate “pseudo-rationalism”.  Weber provides a note referencing Strauss’s discussion of the proper “instrument” for use in sacrifices in the Averroes’ section, suggesting he has that argument in mind here.  Adler’s “mere means” obscures this (if Weber’s interpretation is right, of course).

Weber reports a comment from Strauss along the following lines: “whereas one may argue for a philosophicus Christi, the case for ‘Mosaic Philosophy’ is hardly tenable.”

I like thinking about this remark on ‘Mosaic philosophy’ very much.  Given the concomitant nature of philosophy and tyranny, consider the negative formulation of that statement.  One may argue for a tyrannicus Christi, the case for Mosaic tyranny is hardly tenable.  But if tyranny is a danger coeval with political life, the “Bible” and the laws of Moses are not political life.  But this seems like it cannot be true, especially if the Torah is The Law.  But then Strauss “heartily agrees” with a comment about the family and philosophy being inversely related.  This is another way of framing his statement from “Accounts” that a philosopher’s “first education he would usually get from his father and mother, and other relatives, that is to say, from the city” (JPCM 466).  Now this makes sense: Torah, The Law, Family, The City, are essentially equivocal.  Wait: my train of thought here assumes that politics is natural, in the same way that a family is natural.  We can abstract Law and Family from Politics, that is they can exist apart from Politics (pace Aristotle [cf.Cain/Able with Shepherds and Agriculturists]).  Is this a way to begin to “enucleate” Biblical wisdom?  I believe I have run up against one of Strauss’s famous hurdles.  But this I hope demonstrates Weber’s point about the importance Strauss gives to “attentiveness”.  

Wilfrid Laurier’s Lecture on Political Liberalism is currently my distraction of choice.  Volume II of Richard Gwyn’s Nation Maker: Sir John A. MacDonald has been sitting on my desk, ready to read, for weeks now as well.  This will be a recurring theme – piles of unread books, waiting to be cracked.  On that note, the Coffee Philosopher has a nice list of books that one should read before they’re 30.  I have only a few months left.  I am also mere hours away from my yearly sojourn through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.  Maybe this year I’ll finally understand this most philosophic and esoteric of works.


Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis is a small and important book that has been in the back of my head now for many, many months.  The cover states:  For the reader who has difficulty in finding use for miracles, the author restores them to their reasonable place as part of God’s way with man.  This is a book with seventeen chapters.  The ninth chapter bears the title “A Chapter Not Strictly Necessary”, followed by “Horrid Red Things.”  Confer “The Beast with Red Cheeks” from End of History or “Men without Chests” from Abolition of Man.  A quote:

“The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well.  In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature.  You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back.  Then at last the true landscape will become visible … The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence.”

I assume Lewis has much to teach the careful reader.

While reading Seth Benardete’s essay Socrates and Plato: The Dialectics of Eros I stumbled across the most fantastic quote.  Quote:  “…negation is always the other of the other (Sophist 258a4-5).  Philosophy therefore tends to become conspicuous at the boundaries of things, where it binds together what seems to be apart and separates what seems to be together.”  Someday soon I hope to formulate some thoughts on Being, inside/outside, and philosophy being “on the line”.  Perhaps while discussing the quid sit of securitasSecuritas is a freedom from anxiety – freedom from angst – or composure.  It is also the name of a minor Roman Goddess or personified as the “tutelary goddess of the Roman state”.  Security and Political Theology always, always, go hand in hand.  To wit: ti esti nomos?

p.s. Confer Saint Jerome’s translation of Maccabees 11:30

p.p.s. Blushing is the surface that reveals the heart of things.

p.p.p.s. Is philosophy the seaming of seemingness?