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On the Epistolary Dialogue Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


The philosophic correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, stretching over thirty years, sheds some helpful light on each of the thinkers’ philosophic positions. To be sure, only a few of the letters seem truly significant, and it would of course be a mistake to allow the rather informal and ad hoc remarks in any of the letters to eclipse either theorist's considered and matured published reflections. Moreover, the correspondence peters out in the mid-fifties, after which each thinker arguably made important modifications in his respective outlook. But the letters, or at least the most significant, do not seem careless; the principal issues addressed go to the very heart of things; and if the letters are interpreted with careful attention to the contemporary published, as well as some unpublished, writings, then, it seems to me, the engagement between the two theorists does indeed clarify some of the more obscure but weighty premises and implications of the two philosophic positions.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1991

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1. The correspondence has been assembled, transcribed, and translated from the original German by Peter Emberley of Carleton University and Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary; they are the editors of a volume entitled Faith and Political Philosophy, which will contain the complete correspondence in translation along with several comments, including a slightly different version of the following essay.

2. See Strauss's letter of 13 February 1943: “I share the enthusiasm about your essay [referring to a manuscript submitted to, but eventually not accepted for publication by, Social Research—a chapter entitled “The People of God,” from Voegelin's unfinished history of ideas]. Above all, I completely agree, that the radical doubt about the dogmas of the last three or four centuries is the beginning of every pursuit of wisdom. The frankness with which you address this preliminary question is praiseworthy in the highest degree. Only I am not sure if you proceed far enough: …”; and Voegelin's letter of 12 March 1949, reacting to Strauss's, essay “Political Philosophy and History,” in Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (1949), 3050CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and republished in What Is Political Philosophy? (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1959):Google Scholar “I have the impression, that we are in very much greater agreement than I first supposed in the direction of our work. Your main thesis—based on Hegel—that historical reflection is a peculiar requirement of modern philosophy seems completely right to me; and I view this motive also as the raison d'etre of my own historical studies. As I have only engaged myself with these questions in English, allow me my English formulation of the problem: To restore the experiences which have led to the creation of certain concepts and symbols; or: Symbols have become opaque; they must be made luminous again by penetrating to the experiences which they express.—Very fine too is your critique of the attitude that would understand the thinker better than he understood himself; and your insistence that the purpose of historical analysis is the production of meaning, as it was intended by the author.”

3. The quotations are from From Enlightenment to Revolution, ed. Hallowell, John H. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975), p. 68: as Voegelin makes clear on pp. 116–17Google Scholar, his philosophy of history draws heavily on Schelling (especially The Philosophy of Mythology and of Revelation); and, for the political implications of this posture toward history, Bergson (especially The Two Sources of Morality and Religion) —who writes “strongly under the influence of Schelling.” Yet in The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 124Google Scholar, Voegelin classifies Schelling along with Hegel as attempting an illegitimate “contemplative gnosis” in “the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence”; Voegelin must therefore be confident that his own philosophy of history avoids the overwhelming gravitational pull toward “gnostic” thinking that has tainted the historical philosophies of even his closest predecessors. For the importance, but also an indication of the gravely problematic character, of Bergson, see The New Science of Politics, pp. 6061Google Scholar on the one hand, and p. 79 on the other. In the correspondence, see especially Voegelin's letter of 9 December 1942, and Strauss's letters of 14 March 1950 and 10 April 1950. For the principles of Voegelin's, philosophy of history, see also The New Science of Politics, pp. 1 (first sentence), 7879, 8789, and especially the statement of principle on p. 125: “the substance of history is to be found on the level of experiences, not on the level of ideas” (in Strauss's annotated copy, this sentence is highlighted in the margin, with cross-references to the discussion of Augustine on pp. 87 and 89).Google Scholar

4. See The New Science of Politics, chap. 4, “Gnosticism–The Nature of Modernity,” on “the fallacious construction of history which characterizes modernity” (p. 126); and also p. 79: “Theory is bound by history in the sense of differentiating experiences. Since the maximum of differentiation was achieved through Greek philosophy and Christianity, this means concretely that theory is bound to move within the historical horizon of classic and Christian experiences. To recede from the maximum differentiation is theoretical regression … ” (Strauss highlights the quoted passages in the margin of his annotated copy.) Cf. Voegelin's letters to Strauss of 2 January 1950, and 4 December 1950; and his letter to Alfred Schuetz of 17 September 1943. See also Voegelin's critique of Hannah Arendt's historicism, or loss of a normative conception of nature, in his review of The Origins of Totalitarianism: Review of Politics 15 (1953): 6876Google Scholar, together with Arendt's response, ibid., pp. 76–85.

5. Voegelin's letter of 22 April 1951, responding to Strauss's letter of 25 February 1951.

6. Sophocles, Consider, Antigone, and Genesis 18:2333Google Scholar; see Strauss's, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 7980 and chap. 3, “The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right.”Google Scholar

7. See From Enlightenment to Revolution, p. 23: “man in search of authority cannot find it in the Church”; in the context, esp. pp. 24–25, Voegelin shows his clear awareness of the traditional, Thomistic dichotomy between “natural reason” and “faith” or revelation. See also the characterization of “the essence of Christianity” as “uncertainty,” in The New Science of Politics, p. 122. For a striking illustration of the distance between Voegelin's perspective on the problems and the perspective of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine–which in this crucial respect seems closer to that of Strauss, , see the following remark in The New Science of Politics, p. 87Google Scholar: “It is curious that both St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, while bitterly engaged in the struggle for the existential representation of Christianity, should have been almost completely blind to the nature of the issue, [to them] Nothing seemed to be at stake but the truth of Christianity versus the untruth of paganism.” (This passage is highlighted in the margin of Strauss's annotated copy.)

8. Voegelin's letter of 22 April 1951, secs. 3 and 7 of Plato discussion. It is especially striking to observe that Voegelin and Strauss agree on the importance of the Theages (and its indications about the ”esoteric” dimensions of the ”erotic” in Plato), since the Theages is a dialogue which contemporary, conventionally respectable scholarship rejects as spurious (the dialogue was never questioned in antiquity, and was in fact regarded as perhaps the best introduction to the Platonic corpus as a whole: see Albinus's Isagogē [Introduction to Plato], sec. 6, and Laertius, Diogenes, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, III 62).Google Scholar For Strauss's, understanding of the importance of the Theages, see his Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 4647.Google Scholar For Voegelin's, praise of Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1952)Google Scholar see his letter of 5 August 1952; for his approval of Strauss's interpretation of Locke, ascribing to Locke a covert teaching, see letter of 15 April 1953; for Voegelin's ascription of ”esotericism” to Voltaire, , see From Enlightenment to Revolution, pp. 2930.Google Scholar

9. On p. 122 of The New Science of Politics, Voegelin asserts that “uncertainty is the essence of Christianity.” The impressively eloquent description of the “uncertainty” he has in mind indicates how far it is from Socratic doubt, or how much the uncertainty presupposes faith: ”The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty which if gained is lost.” There is no word for ”doubt” in the Old Testament; as for the New Testament, see especially Matthew 14:31, 21:21, and 28:17; Mark 11:23; Acts 10:20 and 11:12; Romans 4:20 and 14:23. It is illuminating to juxtapose these passages with the exhortation of Plato's Athenian Stranger, speaking as lawgiver, to the young atheist (Plato Laws 888a-d): ”Lad, you are young, …. If you should be persuaded by me, you'll wait until after you have a doctrine about these matters that is as clear as it can be, and meanwhile you'll investigate (anashopeo) whether things are as we say or are otherwise, and you will inquire from others, and especially from the lawgiver. During this time you would not dare to do anything impious … ” Consider in this light Strauss's description of the ”younger ones'” reaction to his Walgreen lectures on natural right: letter of 10 December 1950.

10. Compare Strauss's, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), pp. 193ff.Google Scholar

11. Cf. Strauss's, Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” Independent Journal of Philosophy 3 (1979): 112:Google Scholar ”[The classical philosophers’] quest for the beginnings proceeds through sense perception, reasoning, and what they called noesis, which is literally translated by “understanding” or “intellect” and which we can perhaps translate a little bit more cautiously by ”awareness,” an awareness with the mind's eye as distinguished from sensible awareness. But while this awareness has certainly its biblical equivalent and even its mystical equivalent, this equivalent in the philosophic context is never divorced from sense perception and reasoning based on sense perception. In other words, philosophy never becomes oblivious of its kinship with the arts and crafts, with the knowledge used by the artisan and with this humble but solid kind of knowledge.” For a most illuminating treatment of Strauss's understanding of the meaning of Socratic ”dialectic,” see Bruell, Christopher, ”Strauss on Xenophon's Socrates,” Political Science Reviewer 14 (Fall 1984): 263318.Google Scholar

12. Discussed in Strauss's letter of 15 April 1949.

13. Voegelin's, letter of 22 April 1951, sec. 1 of Plato discussion; see also The New Science of Pblitics, pp. 7677.Google Scholar

14. Voegelin's, letter of 22 April 1951, sec. 2 of Plato discussion; see also The New Science of Politics, pp. 6166.Google Scholar

15. Voegelin's letter of 22 April 1951, sees 4–6 and 10 of Plato discussion.

16. See Strauss's, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 154Google Scholar; see also the context, for a remarkable statement of Strauss's understanding of the ”historical situation” of thought in our epoch. Cf. Strauss's letter of 10 December 1950. As Strauss repeatedly stresses, when these thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, or for that matter Thomas Aquinas) interpreted—as they constantly did—past thinkers, or when they discussed and analyzed historical events, persons, and societies, they did not do so as part of an enterprise that can be called “the history of philosophy,” or that can be classified under the modern historical sciences and disciplines. To interpret old texts philosophically—i.e., to confront and argue with them dialectically, in pursuit of the truth—is not to engage in a ”historical” study. One could also say: dialectics in the Socratic sense does not presuppose essentially, but only ”accidentally” (in our time and for the time being), historical dialectics (e.g., dialectics in the Hegelian sense). Strauss's own studies of past thinkers weave together, I believe, the historically dialectical (i.e., the preliminary or temporarily necessary) and the nonhistorically dialectical (i.e., the truly philosophic) modes of analysis of past philosophers. In some works, most notably Natural Right and History, the historical or preliminary mode tends to bulk large; in others, for example, Thoughts on Machiavelli, and to an even greater degree the late works on Socrates, the philosophic mode predominates.

17. Strauss's letter of 11 October 1943; the importance of the writings of Husserl to which Strauss refers had been signalled by Strauss's close friend Klein, Jacob, in “Phenomenology and the History of Science,” in Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl, ed. Faber, Marvin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940)Google Scholar; reprinted in Klein, Jacob, Lectures and Essays, ed. Williamson, Robert B. and Zuckerman, Elliott (Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1985);Google Scholar see esp. note 24. The ”essay on geometric evidence” to which Strauss refers is the posthumously published Die Frage nach dem Ursprung der geometrie als intentional-historisches Problem,” ed. Fink, E., Revue international de Philosophic 1:2Google Scholar; the ”essay in Philosophia” has been translated by Carr, David as Parts I and II of The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).Google Scholar

18. Strauss's letter of 10 December 1950; see also Xenophon's Socratic Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 147–50. The penultimate sentence of Farabi's most philosophic work, The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, includes the assertion that ”we do not possess metaphysical science.”Google Scholar

19. Natural Right and History, pp. 78Google Scholar; cf. ”Social Science and Humanism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Pangle, T.L. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 78.Google Scholar

20. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph, eds., History of Political Philosophy, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 296–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21. Strauss's letter of 4 June 1951; cf. Voegelin's letter of 22 April 1951.

22. Topics 101a37–b4. I am indebted to David Bolotin for drawing my attention to this passage and its importance.

23. What Is Political Philosophy? pp. 9–12, 29.

24. The Argument and the Action of Plato's LAWS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 1, 7, 27 and 38; see also the comparisons between the Republic and the Laws drawn at pp. 14, 31, 75, 113, and 128.Google Scholar