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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]

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Over the last couple of months I’ve had a couple of reviews published. Both books are excellent. And they are quite related. The first is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics for the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The second is Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace for E-International Relations. Both are published with Cambridge University Press. I want to say a couple of things that didn’t make it into the reviews for the sake of space.

First, regarding Rengger’s book. It is remarkable the extent to which just war is totally misunderstood, and the reasons causing us to misunderstand it. His point is, essentially that once politics began to question the morality of certain tactics of war, the big question of whether a war was just became displaced by the question of whether our actions were legal. This is a hugely important change because it is no longer easy or clear that we should ask whether or not to allow violence to enter politics but how and in what way politics is violent. This is quite obviously related to the question of security, which only arrives in full bloom once Machiavelli and Hobbes have had their way with the holy books. Violence is permitted too easily. Far too easily. I’m writing this post under the environment of the American Senate releasing the executive summary of its committee report on torture. The questions, “is it worth it?” or “Is it permissible?” miss the moral point. Merely posing them means some kind of moral introspection about the relationship between politics and violence has been lost.

This relationship between politics and violence is a running them in Howse’s book. Strauss, it turns out, has a great deal to say about international politics, state violence, international law, and so on. Howse covers an incredible range of material, in Strauss’s written work and in his newly available lecture transcripts. One point which I left out of the review is that using the transcripts is not as difficult as at first seems, despite their quasi-private character. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, as Strauss used it himself. In his introductory essay to Mendelssohn’s The Morning Hours and the Friends of Lessing, Strauss uses the private correspondence between Jacobi and Mendehlssohn to clear up ambiguities in the public record regarding Lessing’s “Spinozism,” that is, whether he was an atheist. Certainly if private correspondence is suitable for that weighty subject, the less private character of classroom conversations can be used for insights regarding questions of everyday political relevance.

The one thing I loved about Howse’s book is how it puts to rest any doubt that Strauss resembles the caricature usually represented in popular media. The polemical case against this has already been made by a handful of others in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, but now we have a philosophical case against this nonsense. Any writers who continue extolling that simplistic tripe demonstrate the shortcomings of their reading habits. To wit, this bizarre review by Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We leave this review learning more about Richard Wolin than either Leo Strauss or Rob Howse’s book. Though Wolin has faced criticism recently about his reviews.

Two reviews well worth reading are from Steven Smith and Benjamin Wurgaft.

Video of a dialogue on the book held at Penn State with commentary from Anne Norton is available here.

In December 1981, Gadamer did an interview with Professor Fr. Ernest Fortin at Boston College.  It was published in 1984 in Interpretation, Vol.12 No.1.   The interview’s intention is for Gadamer to speak about Leo Strauss, but is more wide ranging than that.  The opening gives us this depiction of Weimar Germany after World War One:

“The general feeling was one of disorientation.  One day  — I was only a youngster then — a number of us got tougher and asked: “What should we do?” “How can the world be reconstructed?” The answers were very different.  Some thought we ought to follow Max Weber; others; Otto von Gierke; others still, Rabindranath Tagore, who was the most popular poet in Germany immediately after World War I, thanks to some moving translations of his plays. (He was a good friend of Paul Natorp and occasionally came to Germany. I saw him once: an enormous figure with the face of a prophet. Fantastic! Natorp himself was a giant in the guise of a dwarf.) These concerns were shared by the young Leo Strauss as well. He too was looking around in search of some orientation.”

What’s interesting, from the perspective of the formal subject of the interview, is that Strauss and Gadamer do not “have their first real acquaintance” until 1933.  I learned of Tagore from this interview, and am very glad for it.  It is certainly worth a moment’s reflection that a man who could write to Gandhi to warn him about the inhumanity of his politics could have had a potential influence over the same intellectual environment in which Heidegger eventually flourished.  The especially interesting comparison though is with the Kronjurist himself, Schmitt.  I will let Tagore speak for himself:

Have you not seen, since the commencement of the existence of the Nation, that the dread of it has been the one goblin-dread with which the whole world has been trembling? Wherever there is a dark corner, there is the suspicion of its secret malevolence; and people live in a perpetual distrust of its back where it has no eyes. Every sound of a footstep, every rustle of movement in the neighbourhood, sends a thrill of terror all around. And this terror is the parent of all that is base in man’s nature. It makes one almost openly unashamed of inhumanity. Clever lies become matters of self-congratulation. Solemn pledges become a farce,—laughable for their very solemnity. The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation, that all its precautions are against it, and any new birth of its fellow in the world is always followed in its mind by the dread of a new peril. Its one wish is to trade on the feebleness of the rest of the world, like some insects that are bred in the paralysed flesh of victims kept just enough alive to make them toothsome and nutritious. Therefore it is ready to send its poisonous fluid into the vitals of the other living peoples, who, not being nations, are harmless. For this the Nation has had and still has its richest pasture in Asia. Great China, rich with her ancient wisdom and social ethics, her discipline of industry and self-control, is like a whale awakening the lust of spoil in the heart of the Nation. She is already carrying in her quivering flesh harpoons sent by the unerring aim of the Nation, the creature of science and selfishness. Her pitiful attempt to shake off her traditions of humanity, her social ideals, and spend her last exhausted resources in drilling herself into modern efficiency, is thwarted at every step by the Nation. It is tightening its financial ropes round her, trying to drag her up on the shore and cut her into pieces, and then go and offer public thanksgiving to God for supporting the one existing evil and shattering the possibility of a new one. And for all this the Nation has been claiming the gratitude of history, and all eternity for its exploitation; ordering its band of praise to be struck up from end to end of the world, declaring itself to be the salt of the earth, the flower of humanity, the blessing of God hurled with all His force upon the naked skulls of the world of No-Nations.

I know what your advice will be. You will say, form yourselves into a nation, and resist this encroachment of the Nation. But is this the true advice? that of a man to a man? Why should this be a necessity? I could well believe you if you had said, Be more good, more just, more true in your relation to man, control your greed, make your life wholesome in its simplicity and let your consciousness of the divine in humanity be more perfect in its expression. But must you say that it is not the soul, but the machine, which is of the utmost value to ourselves, and that man’s salvation depends upon his disciplining himself into a perfection of the dead rhythm of wheels and counterwheels? that machine must be pitted against machine, and nation against nation, in an endless bull-fight of politics?

You say, these machines will come into an agreement, for their mutual protection, based upon a conspiracy of fear. But will this federation of steam-boilers supply you with a soul, a soul which has her conscience and her God? What is to happen to that larger part of the world where fear will have no hand in restraining you? Whatever safety they now enjoy, those countries of No-Nation, from the unbridled license of forge and hammer and turn-screw, results from the mutual jealousy of the powers. But when, instead of being numerous separate machines, they become riveted into one organized gregariousness of gluttony, commercial and political, what remotest chance of hope will remain for those others, who have lived and suffered, have loved and worshipped, have thought deeply and worked with meekness, but whose only crime has been that they have not organized?

But, you say, “That does not matter, the unfit must go to the wall—they shall die, and this is science.”

No, for the sake of your own salvation, I say, they shall live, and this is truth. It is extremely bold of me to say so, but I assert that man’s world is a moral world, not because we blindly agree to believe it, but because it is so in truth which would be dangerous for us to ignore. And this moral nature of man cannot be divided into convenient compartments for its preservation. You cannot secure it for your home consumption with protective tariff walls, while in foreign parts making it enormously accommodating in its free trade of license.

You may continue listening to him speak for himself here.

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.