Thoughts on Strauss and Machiavelli

At the beginning of Chapter IV of Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), Leo Strauss comments that books like the Discourses and The Prince “do not reveal their full meaning as intended by the author unless one ponders over them ‘day and night’ for a long time.” The same could be said for Thoughts on Machiavelli. Heinrich Meier, in his new book, Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Revealed Religion, treats Thoughts on Machiavelli as more than just an interpretation of Niccolo Machiavelli. He treats it as a book that reveals, not incidentally, through its art of esoteric writing, the fundamental experiences of the philosophic life.

These books are concerned not with this or that political theory but with how philosophically-minded thinkers comport themselves with regard to political and practical life in general. What may look like a difference in doctrine may in fact be a difference in the ways and means that such individuals use in different situations to think the same things.

The heart of this brief but fine volume is its chapter bearing an esoteric reading of Strauss’s book, and Meier, a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, follows with microscopic care that book’s complex architecture, twists and turns, flat contradictions, omissions, occasional near-Machiavellian boldness, and rhetorical obfuscations. Warning to the reader: Meier follows all this largely by reference to the paragraph numbers of the introduction and four chapters of Strauss’s book, so it would be prudent to number these paragraphs of Thoughts on Machiavelli (use a pencil!) and have it at one’s elbow.

It will be impossible to do full justice to this work in the limited space of this review, so I’ll cut to the chase as best I can.

The author starts out with a chapter posing the question, “Why political philosophy?” We first encounter the pre-Socratic Socrates that Aristophanes presents in the Clouds. That is the Socrates who studies the material nature of things aloft and below, and is reputed to teach that heaven is a stove and men are charcoals, among other blasphemies. He is moved, it seems, by reason alone. He is also an imprudent fool and has no sense of the danger he and his students face—that is, he  seems unaware of the impiety charge previously brought against Anaxagoras. It will later be brought against him, of course.

Meier formalizes this Socrates in four points: He lacks self-knowledge and especially lacks knowledge of his dependence on the political community. He can’t argue convincingly for the philosophic life to those who might be inspired to lead that kind of life. He can’t defend it effectively against the authorities. Lastly, he lacks the poet’s understanding of politics and human nature.

From this Meier distills the “quadrilateral” determination of political philosophy that began with the Platonic Socrates’ turn to the human things: “confrontation with the political things, political defense [of philosophy], rational justification of philosophy, self-knowledge or self-examination of the philosopher.” All this has ultimately to do with the fundamental question of the right way of life—is it the life of reason alone or the life of morality and faith?

But the way these quadrilateral moments play out (the “weighting” of each of the moments) depends on differing historical conditions. In times of political persecution, the political defense will stand out, and the defensive rhetoric used on behalf of philosophy will differ in a healthy as opposed to a corrupt society and as well when philosophy becomes fashionable and hence superficial. Philosophy might present itself as either harmless or useful, or might dwell especially on its rational justification when it is “being usurped, losing its contours, or being tamed,” writes Meier.

After the Socratic Turn

We then encounter some examples of the quadrilateral after the Socratic turn.

The first is Aristotle’s attempt to assign “an independent domain of knowledge to the political things” while at the same time including the superiority of philosophy to politics within that very domain. (Later in the book, Meier notes Plato’s attempt to make philosophy look like piety, which surely provoked Aristotle to his more down-to-earth approach.)

The second is Machiavelli’s “undertaking to regain the libertas philosophandi on the path of a radicalization of philosophy.” Like Aristotle, Machiavelli tries to win allies “with the aid of a practical science.” The great threat to philosophy for Machiavelli was its capture by Christianity,  and so his spiritual warfare against it led him to “reject or avoid all notions, conceptions, and theorems deriving from the philosophic tradition that could offer the adversary a foothold” or that could “soften” future philosophers. Machiavelli even went so far as to refrain from “expressly thematizing that which the entire undertaking aims at, namely the philosophic life itself.” It would be a mistake, however, to think that Machiavelli didn’t intend both to justify philosophy and come to full self-knowledge.

There are other examples of such quadrilateral philosophical moments, including Strauss and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The last chapter of this book treats Rousseau at some length, but for the sake of the chase and following Meier, I’ll focus primarily on Strauss’s Machiavelli.

In the chapter analyzing Thoughts on Machiavelli, Meier for the most part lays out Strauss’s reading, not his own. In Meier’s view, Strauss paints a twofold picture of Machiavelli, one striking, the other subtle. This distinction wends its way through almost all of Strauss’s book and corresponds most powerfully to the ultimate schism between almost all of Thoughts on Machiavelli and its final six paragraphs, which Meier says constitute a kind of epilogue.

The striking Machiavelli is the “philosopher-warrior, philosopher prince, philosopher-craftsman” who wants to recruit the young as future captains of “an enterprise that is ruled by the absolute primacy of practice and pursues resolutely the instrumentalization of philosophy for the purpose of transformation of human living conditions, that conforms to the absolute will to rule, that relies on propaganda” to defeat Christianity and establish a stable order based on low but solid foundations.

“Many readers” of Strauss, says Meier, conclude that this anti-philosophical willingness to serve reflects Machiavelli’s hope for immortal glory; still others think it can be traced to “anti-theological ire.” Strauss’s criticism of the striking Machiavelli leads to “the widely received and generally applied formula of the Straussian doctrine about ‘ancients and moderns,’ from ‘the narrowing of the horizon’ to ‘the lowering of standards.’” Machiavelli in effect wrecks philosophy by contributing to “its suppression, the reduction of its rank, the contraction of its scope, the abandonment of its claim.” This criticism lodged by Strauss culminates, says Meier, in the “epilogue” of Thoughts on Machiavelli—those final six paragraphs—where Strauss “gathers together in the narrowest space the most important topoi of his doctrine” of Ancients and Moderns and the dire costs imposed on philosophy by the latter, in particular the “forgetting of Socrates, tragedy, and the soul.”

But Meier concludes that Strauss’s “epilogue” should be taken with a big grain of salt. It is meant for the “common understanding” and is, as he says boldly, the “most exoteric” part of the book that serves to obfuscate the “suprapolitical content” of Machiavelli’s thought that Strauss brought to light in the preceding 81 paragraphs of Thoughts on Machiavelli’s final chapter. Meier can say this because of his account of Strauss’s “subtle” Machiavelli, an account based on remarks and arguments, sometimes explicit, that Strauss makes in every part of the book except the “epilogue.”

Machiavelli’s Audience(s)

To whom and for whom does Machiavelli commit his thoughts to paper? His audience is not just young men wanting to rule for the sake of glory. Rather, says Meier, Strauss makes it clear that it includes both men of action and men whose interest is primarily “theoretical,” and that Machiavelli’s “intransigent” theoretical concern directs his counsels to the young who want foremost to understand the nature of society. Machiavelli’s addressees are two twofold: conventional and primary, with the conventional composed of peoples and princes and the primary composed of prospective philosopher-princes and philosophers as such. Many of Machiavelli’s most outrageous statements in The Prince, when properly understood, “are amusing and meant to amuse” and are aimed at the future philosophers.

Who are Machiavelli’s excellent men? Not ruthless conquerors seeking immortal glory but, says Meier, according to Strauss they are future princes and philosophers whose “knowledge of the world” leads them to know their limitations and to an equanimity and inner freedom that lead not to the conquest of chance but to independence from it. They “rise above chance,” which “will have no power over them, over their minds.” For the philosophers, such self-sufficiency “is grounded in contemplation and knowledge” of themselves. Equanimity is the result of knowledge of the world, however, so the crucial issue is whether the philosophers as such (as opposed to the philosopher-princes) have correct theoretical knowledge of the world. And that would be no less true for Machiavelli, as the teacher of both.

Meier’s Strauss shows that Machiavelli’s knowledge of the world—his awareness that it was not created miraculously ex nihilo—is traceable to the Averroists. Their teachings deny creation, providence and the immortality of the soul, and were well known to the educated in Machiavelli’s time. The question, then, is whether Machiavelli merely presupposed those teachings or worked them out for himself.

To this question Meier says Strauss responds by indicating that Machiavelli did indeed work the teachings out for himself. As regards the principle of authority, which commands obedience rather than thought, Machiavelli earned the right to question the “highest authority”—the jealous Biblical God—first by surrendering to it, that is, by taking it with absolute seriousness, and by supporting that authority “with reasons by means of his own reason.” With this license in hand, Machiavelli—in his doctrine of Fortuna—then engages in self-reflective disillusionment. His self-reflection disillusions: “the longing for purity, since it rejects belief in a moral world order; the need for security, since it rejects the belief in an intention that is the origin of the whole, that rules it and cares for all its parts, as well as the belief in a goal to which the whole is directed and in which it finds its support; and the hope of being able to control chance, which is bound up with belief in Gods but also with the thoroughgoing intelligibility of the world.”

Meier concludes that Strauss’s description of the movement of Machiavelli’s thought—from God, through Fortuna, to chance understood as non-teleological necessity—“leaves no doubt that Machiavelli does not presuppose the doctrines of the Averroists or the Aristotelians as the basis of his edifice of thought.” If we’re to accept this conclusion, the vital step in Machiavelli’s self-disillusionment would seem to be the first, since, as Strauss says in Thoughts on Machiavelli, his “analysis of morality will prove to be incompatible with a teleological cosmology.” As regards morality, Machiavelli begins, says Strauss, “with the observation of the self-contradictions inherent in what men generally and publicly praise.” A full grasp of those contradictions, it would seem, is what finally silences the call of conscience and the longing for the fully good.

According to Meier, we cannot understand Machiavelli apart from the quadrilateral determination of political philosophy since the Socratic turn. “The renewal of philosophy,” writes Meier, “is the reason Strauss puts the problem of Machiavelli on the philosophical agenda in the closest proximity to the problem of Socrates.”

Sometimes the philosophers do too good a job of defending themselves to the city. Plato defended philosophy from attacks on it by the political authorities by describing it as the highest virtue and as pleasing to the gods if not itself divine. Aristotle invented moral virtue and political science in order that philosophy seem useful to the city (to both the gentlemen and the people). Aristotle’s “easily comprehensible” distinction between acting and knowing “and a doctrinal edifice as extensive as it is elaborate” proved to be historically adaptable, and Aristotle’s  presentation of the “bios theoretikos,” so un-political and pre-Socratic in appearance, morphed into the Christian vita contemplative.

All this makes access to the philosophic life difficult, which is as it should be for all but philosophic natures. If Machiavelli was concerned to rescue philosophy from its imprisonment in the cloisters, his attack on the very tradition from which he sprang and his apparent instrumentalizing of philosophy have the same obscuring effects.

The Political Common Good and the Best Regime

Toward the end of the Machiavelli chapter, Meier comments on Strauss’s final discussion of Aristotle’s account of morality and the political common good. As Strauss describes the principle of Aristotle’s best regime, says Meier, we are tempted to think that the basic problem of politics has been solved: “Human nature, virtue, and the best regime seem to work so harmoniously that nothing suggests a conflict between society and the individual, or a necessary dissonance between the political community and the philosopher.”

Of course Machiavelli criticizes this classic best regime because, men being bad rather than good, it is imaginary. But, says Meier, “Machiavelli’s criticism holds for the exoteric teaching of Aristotle, it targets the ‘common understanding’ that that teaching takes up and expresses.” As it turns out, says Strauss, “Aristotle teaches as clearly as Machiavelli that most men are bad as well as that all men desire wealth and honor.” Meier more boldly than Strauss adds the italics. He more discreetly declines to say what Strauss says two paragraphs later about whether there has ever been such a best regime and what that fact—“that no state regards moral virtue as its end”—might tell us about what is natural to man.

Meier argues that Machiavelli had no illusions about overcoming religion. Faith lives most among the people. Might he therefore have thought that modernity—material production and consumption and commerce and political participation—could simply starve religion to death? The answer is no, for the simple reason that “the great,” no less than the people, crave “an impossible satisfaction.” The great just get the comforts of wealth, preeminence, and glory. The desire for an “impossible satisfaction” is simply common to human beings as human. That satisfaction is, no doubt, what would make possible the “immortal glory” for which Machiavelli pursued his new modes and orders. But as Meier argues, and Strauss says just before the beginning of his “epilogue,” Machiavelli was clearly aware of “the delusions of immortal glory and of the limitations of the political. Immortal glory is impossible, and what is called immortal glory depends on chance.”

As Meier reads Strauss’s “epilogue,” its complete silence about Christianity, revealed religion, and the Bible screams to the reader of all that came before in Thoughts on Machiavelli about the problem of Christianity for Machiavelli. His move from the ancients to the modernity decried in the “epilogue” was conditioned by an enemy unknown to the ancients. That enemy was a universal foreign power that had access to “the innermost domain” of citizens and demanded absolute loyalty, and it had, as we saw, cloistered philosophy. Since religion could at best be managed, rather than overcome, the means of that management had to include the “conquest of nature” that followed the philosophical conquest of Fortuna.

Machiavelli’s practical science soon became modern science and technology, and as a practical matter these powers really did come to lower the standards and narrow the horizon of human experience. Not only that, but Enlightenment propaganda that was used to defeat Christian propaganda did soften if not subdue faith in the universal jealous God. But Meier tells us throughout his book that, for Strauss, philosophy needs faith as the catalyst of the quadrilateral determination of political philosophy.

Modern technology is thus a danger to philosophy. In the figure of Martin Heidegger, says Meier in a footnote, philosophy has returned to its pre-Socratic origin. Perhaps, then, the edifying rhetoric of the “epilogue” serves as an important supplement to the philosophic art of writing.

The Rousseau chapter of Political Philosophy and the Challenges of Revealed Religion is an equally penetrating and microscopic account of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract. For Meier, Rousseau is just as much a philosopher and his intention is just as philosophic as was the case with the Italian Doctor. Like Machiavelli, Rousseau’s intention is twofold: first to break so far as is possible the political rule of Christian priests, and second to philosophize on his own, which takes place not in On the Social Contract but in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. That work by Rousseau, Meier tells us, proves on close inspection “to be a masterpiece of political philosophy.” Political philosophy often hides in strange places.

Heinrich Meier has written an important book with which one has to grapple. It is well worth the effort.