MacIntyre, Strauss, and Some Voegelin

The latest podcast episode from The Josias provides an overview and discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s most famous work, After Virtue. Joel the Host, with his guest Pater Edmund Waldstein, are generally sympathetic toward MacIntyre while also pointing out his knack for broad (though compelling) generalizations and intellectual zingers. Joel the Host, at points, indicates that he has some reservations about After Virtue, though time constraints prevent him from exploring those. What’s clear, however, is that MacIntyre’s thought is important, or at least important for a certain brand of conservative Catholic intellectual who is unwilling to double-down on Thomism and disregard MacIntyre as either unnecessary or uninteresting. Part of this may be due to the fact that MacIntyre is now himself a Catholic, which means he is “safe” compared to two other towering critics of modernity, Leo Strauss (atheistic (?) Jew) and Eric Voegelin (unorthodox (?) Protestant). Voegelin, certainly more than Strauss, had the pleasure of running in Catholic intellectual circles back in his day, though unlike Strauss, Voegelin never had the luxury of developing a school of ardent disciples to spread his good news to the four corners of Anglophone academia. Strauss, for his part, never interfaced directly with Catholics, though he acquired a number of influential Catholic students, including Frs. Ernest Fortin and James Schall. Moreover, a number of Strauss’s students went on to teach at Catholic colleges and universities, including the University of Notre Dame. Even if it requires some effort to tease out a Straussian influence on contemporary conservative Catholic thinking, it certain exists and, perhaps, warrants closer inspection.

Joel the Host and Pater Edmund make mention of Strauss in their discussion of MacIntyre, highlighting the fact that MacIntyre is ultimately a historicist while Strauss is not. (I will leave to the side any discussion of Strauss’s “true teaching”; his anti-historicism, even if a ruse, remains influential to this day.) By “historicism” I mean the idea that all modes of thought, including moral philosophy, are historically contingent, thus transitory. Even great thinkers can never escape their age and it is all but impossible to adjudicate between the ethical claims of the ancient Greeks as compared to the ethical claims of the modern Taliban. According to Pater Edmund’s reading of MacIntyre, however, it is still possible to adjudicate the claims of different historical periods and/or cultural contexts, though it remains important to recall historical context at all times. Strauss and his students would likely reject this compromise, noting that while it is clear norms and conventions shift throughout time and locale, there is always a true understanding, a true teaching, to be grasped that transcends history and culture. Besides, in Strauss’s mind, historicism per se is self-defeating insofar as it claims all modes of thought are contingent yet professes to furnish a teaching on the nature of thought that is true at all times and under all circumstances. This is why, according to Strauss, radical historicists such as Martin Heidegger are so much more difficult to wrestle with: instead of professing a universal teaching available to all men at all times and in all places, they profess a revelation available only at an absolute moment. Before Heidegger, all men were confined to a certain darkness.

I contend that Strauss’s anti-historicism, regardless of the man’s “true beliefs,” is much more congenial to the Latin Catholic intellectual tradition than MacIntyre’s soft (compromised?) historicism. That is to say, Thomists of the Strict Observance and their intellectual forebears (including St. Thomas Aquinas himself) would be far more inclined to take up with Strauss’s adherence to the possibility of pure, universal knowledge than any notion which confines thought as attaining, at best, to an expression of “truth” that is and will always be contingent on time and place. Sure, St. Thomas thought there were gaps and errors in the works of Aristotle, but he sought to correct them in the light of either later philosophical insights, or the inerrancy of revelation. Aquinas did not reduce Aristotle to a man who was doomed by the truth of history to achieve nothing more than packaging certain Athenian intellectual prejudices into his philosophy. Aristotle, right or wrong, had something to say to all men at all times and in all places, and only after a thoroughgoing understanding of his thought would it be possible to judge whether or not he delivered truths beyond doubt unto the ages of ages.

None of this is to say that Catholics should bolt to the works of Strauss and cast aside their lightly-read copies of After Virtue. There remains good reasons for not accepting Strauss at face value, particularly his attempt  to burn away all trace of metaphysics from great thinkers whom Strauss determined were trying to evade prosecution by popular prejudices. Voegelin may have more to say to Catholics today than he’s given credit for, though his body of work is exceedingly difficult to penetrate and there is very little resembling a “definitive statement” in Voegelin’s many writings. He was a man caught in a constant quest to discover the order of history, and he detested the idea that his work should be ever calcified into a “doctrine.” Rather, Voegelin hoped that his efforts would light the intellectual flames of others who would build upon, revise, and ultimately overcome his work by drawing closer to the truth as more and more materials and discoveries from around the world informed the science of politics. With rare exception, this never really happened and probably never will.

And so MacIntyre, as I said, remains a safe option for a certain style of Catholic, though not a particularly interesting one.

Least Amount of Terror, Greatest Amount of Security

In the provocative Preface to the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Leo Strauss opines that “[t]he controversy between [reason and revelation/philosophy and theology] can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest amount of security and the greatest terror.” “But,” Strauss continues, “just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, so it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”

Sitting in the background of these remarks, penned three decades after the original German publication of the Spinoza book, is the problem of Heidegger, or more generally, the problem of existentialism—both religious and atheistic. An insecure world, gripped by terror, is what existentialism wishes to both expose and relieve. That relief, however, can only come about “if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure,” or so says Strauss. Revelation offers the security of truth, but the terrifying prospect that not even all men who come to knowledge of the truth will be secure in the end. For a philosopher like Heidegger—to turn to Strauss again—“there is no security, no happy ending, no divine shepherd, hope is replaced by thinking, the longing for eternity or belief in anything eternal is understood as stemming from ‘the spirit of revenge,’ from the desire to escape from all passing-away into something that never passes away.”

In considering the state of religion today (particularly Christianity), somewhat removed from the more poignant existential concerns of early 20th century Teutonic philosophers and theologians, it is possible to say that it has come around to the idea that best way to touch men’s souls is to offer the least amount of terror and the greatest degree of security (at least as concerns his final end). This shift, which among “magisterial” Christian confessions, is in noticeable tension with their respective traditions of promoting insecurity and terror as a sure (though perhaps not the surest) path to virtue (and onward to salvation), is often castigated as “liberal,” with “liberal” too often meaning little more than “not conservative” or, rather, “not traditional.” From a certain point of view, this trend does appear to start from the reality of insecurity in this world to a hope for security in the next; terror today does not mean terror for eternity; and the God who made all things good will not tolerate His creation to be lost to sin.

There is something paralyzing about this view, at least as it concerns the time that remains before the end of all things. Granted, under conditions of radically reduced terror and unprecedentedly amplified security, the temporal plane becomes a blank canvass onto which man can lightly sketch or intricately detail his greatest hopes and fears; his basest desires and noblest instincts; and so on, and so forth. There is, broadly speaking, a “background” or “source” to which he can repair to for guidance, namely a holy book with an ostensibly inspired but contested canon that fails to provide its own proper hermeneutic, though except for those who are typically castigated as “fundamentalist,” this need not be the only source. Convention rather than nature becomes the measuring stick, with too little scrutiny being given as to where and when those conventions emerged or why. If “why” is explored at all, it is explored in a “scientific” manner, that is the manner which sociology and psychology and anthropology deem appropriate; man’s movement from cannibalism and rape to agriculture and marriage has a survival component and nothing to do with the illumination of his faculties, either from within or above.

Whether or not this all seems personally quite horrific is secondary to the truth that there are those who do indeed see it as quite horrific. Against the narrative of greatest security and least terror comes a flurry of reminders in the opposite direction, rooted—again—not in existentialist concerns per se, but a nagging sense that physical and psychic hardships of an earlier age pointed toward the truth that without the transcendent, man’s position in this world amounted to nothing. It would have been better to have never been born into a world riddled with war, famine, and pestilence if death could not bring anything except a cessation of the misery without the promise of redemption. But since not all men have an equal participation in these miseries, and by a sheer act of the will, choose to bring new miseries down upon others for their own gain, death alone cannot be the answer—it should not be the answer. This belief, rooted in what seems to be a certain “natural” instinct for justice, should be a relic of bygone ages; it seems look an entirely inappropriate basis for conversion, repentance, and (possible) salvation.

Carl Schmitt on Christianity and History

Our third remark aims at the infinite singularity of historical reality. Let us take as our departure a passage (p. 196) of [Karl] Löwith’s book [Meaning in History], where he writes that the message of the New Testament does not consist in a call to a historical deed but in a call to repentance. It is, to be sure, in general the case that history does not consist in calls to historical deeds. Rather, it is like a passage through lack, hunger, and invigorating impotence. However, in order to clarify our thought, let us juxtapose Löwith’s proposition with a different one, which is supposed to keep us from any philosophical, ethical, and other acts of leveling, and let us dare to suggest: Christianity is in its essence no morality and no doctrine. It is no penitential sermon, and no religion in the sense of comparative religious studies, but a historical event of infinite, non-appropriable, non-occupiable singularity. It is the incarnation in the Virgin Mary. The Christian Credo speaks of historical events. Pontius Pilate belongs there essentially. He is not just a pitiful creature who oddly ended up there. Christians look back on completed events and find a basic reason [Ingrund] and an archetype [Inbild]. Through the active contemplation of them, the dark meaning of our history continues to grow. The Marian image of history of a great German poet, the Christian Epimetheus by Konrad Weiss, emerged from it. In the Vienna journal Wort und Wahrheit [Word and Truth, April 1949], Friedhelm Kemp published an essay, which provides an excellent introduction in this respect. For Konrad Weiss, the merely restraining forces are not sufficient. He claims that historical circumstances are more often to be seized rather than to be restrained. One may dismiss his Marian image of history as mere historical mysticism. However, its dark truth is thereby not disconfirmed, and neither is its significance as a historical counterforce against the leveling of history to the status of universal humanity, to the museum of the past, and an exchangeable costume to conceal the bluntness of activist attempts to give meaning to the meaningless.

All of this—the great parallel, the katechon, and the Christian Epimetheus— becomes for us an ardent theme because of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History. By way of expressing this, we distinguish his book from a variety of other publications that address issues from history and the philosophy of history. We draw concrete consequences from the great impression of his critical analysis and dare to once again speak of a history that is not merely an archive of what has been, but also not a humanistic self-mirroring or a mere piece of nature circling around itself. Rather, history blows like a storm in great testimonies. It grows through strong creations, which insert the eternal into the course of time. It is a striking of roots in the space of meaning of the earth. Through scarcity and impotence, this history is the hope and honor of our existence.

– Carl Schmitt, “Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History,” Telos pg. 170 (Spring 2009) (originally published in 1950)

Lilla’s Forthcoming Shipwreck

After an eight year hiatus, Mark Lilla has a new book coming out this September, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. (Apparently a post at Columbia University comes packaged with a less demanding publication schedule than one might expect from Lilla’s former home, the University of Chicago.) Here’s the description:

A sense that history has taken a catastrophic course and attempts to recover a lost philosophical or religious tradition characterize the twentieth-century intellectuals whose work Mark Lilla investigates in The Shipwrecked Mind. From Franz Rosenzweig, who sought to lead assimilated Jews back to the sources of Jewish tradition, to Leo Strauss, who tried to recover the Socratic tradition in philosophy, to Eric Voegelin, who wrote a multivolume universal history to explain human consciousness, to the rediscovery of Saint Paul by former Marxists, Lilla traces the craving for theological-political mythmaking, for grand—if imaginary—historical narratives that explain why we feel shipwrecked in a decadent present and how we can escape it. In the 2015 attacks in Paris and their aftermath, he finds political nostalgia on both sides: the terrorists’ longing for a glorious Muslim past that they hoped to recreate in a modern caliphate and the cultural pessimism of French intellectuals worried about the decline of France. Reactionary illusions of a lost golden age, Lilla argues, continue to have potent effects in our own time.

Anyone who has kept tabs on Lilla’s output at the New York Review of Books won’t be terribly surprised by the list of thinkers Lilla chooses to examine nor his interest with France. With respect to Rosenzweig, Strauss, Voegelin, and more recent critical theorists enamored with St. Paul (e.g., Badiou and Agamben), Lilla has penned essay-sized reviews of their works over the last decade, meticulously noting how each offers an ostensible “escape” from late modernity through a return to some semi-utopian past. The problem posed for Lilla is that “escape” may not really be what the thinkers he considers were after, particularly Voegelin and Strauss who, despite appearing to superficially romanticize the past, always had their eyes set on the future. They weren’t seeking to escape modernity an its various iterations; they wanted to overcome them, and they believed — in very distinct ways — that those who came before had managed to chart a pathway beyond. That’s not exactly a new thought, mind you. Roll back the clock more than half-a-millennium and one finds any number of medieval philosophers and theologians casting a long gaze back at pagan thought in order to both unlock some of the most pressing puzzles of their times and, to a possibly more limited extent, overcome the limitations of their age. No, neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor Moses Maimonides thought a “better future” lay in a more “glorious past”; but both were broad enough in their respective thinking to know that that the past, or more specifically a particular past and the great minds it produced, still had much to say well over 1,000 years after the fall of classical civilization.

Of course, Lilla deserves a fair hearing, but “fair” doesn’t mean “blind.” Recall, for instance, that Lilla’s last scholarly effort, The Stillborn God, was rightly panned for its radically incomplete treatment of religion and politics for choosing to omit Catholic thought altogether. And notice that once again Lilla seems to be intentionally side-stepping Catholicism, choosing instead to focus on secularized Jewish, atheistic, and religiously ambiguous figures (e.g., Voegelin). Could it be that this time out Lilla is giving quiet credit to Catholicism for producing thinkers who were not “political reactionaries” in his limited, polemical, sense? If only that were true. However, anyone who has perused Lilla’s hard-hitting critique of Brad Gegory’s The Unintended Reformation knows full well that Lilla believes Catholics are quit capable of engaging in their own form of historical (and hysterical) myth making in order to both critique modernity and, in some sense, escape it.

Maybe he’s right. Contemporary Catholicism is shot through with a very amateurish form of myth making, one that posits a glorious Catholic age in the not-so-distant past while suggesting, nay, advocating that the resurrection of certain pieties, to say nothing of liturgical forms, will help usher it back into existence or, absent that, protect “the remnant” from the pathologies and temptations of the present age. Then there is that other, most liberal, form of myth making, the one that claims that every renovation, innovation, or flat-out insurrection against anything and everything recognizably Catholic from within the Church herself has some sort of historical antecedent, a connection with a more “pristine age” of Christianity where love and mercy flowed freely and the intolerance of dogmatization and legalistic thinking had no place whatsoever. What are the political consequences of this dueling myth making? I doubt Lilla knows, or cares.

Remarks on Dialogue, Engagement, and Aquinas

There is a certain line of contemporary Catholic apologetic, more superficial than substantive, which has become fashionable in recent decades and runs generally like this: Because the Fathers of the Church, and later medieval giants such as St. Thomas Aquinas, drank from the wells of pagan philosophy, it is permissible, indeed laudable, for today’s Catholics to “engage” or “dialogue” with non-Catholic—even non-Christian or secular—“thought.” I use the term “thought” here loosely because oftentimes the “engagement” or “dialogue” being encouraged has more to do with religious-cultural traditions rather than any product of natural reason. That fact alone is more than sufficient to distinguish what St. Thomas was doing with the Corpus Aristotelicum from what certain fashionable Catholics have tried to do with, say, Buddhism or Vodun. Sticking with the realm of thought for a moment, it is necessary to note that even up until relatively recent times the Catholic “engagement” (or one might say “critique”) with non-Catholic (atheistic) philosophy was carried out in defense of the Faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition rather than a questionable attempt to artificially graft on some “alien wisdom.” Fr. Erich Przywara’s complex, and still widely misunderstood (or perhaps just underappreciated), critical engagement with Martin Heidegger comes quickly to mind. The Scholastic pushback against Modernism, which at best is only superficially Christian, is another example.

The New Yorker Goes Theocrat

Never in my life did I think I would read this in The New Yorker:

It’s a shame that there is no provision in the Constitution of the United States that would permit Pope Francis to serve as the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Or, for that matter, that there’s no way for him to lead the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.


“Does Christianity Need Metaphysics?” That’s the question Remi Brague and Jean-Luc Marion purportedly set out to answer during this talk at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago. I confess that on first viewing I became so lost that I was sure they were both doing metaphysics. Perhaps you, dear readers, will have an easier time with their accents than I.

A Few Comments on Straussianism

Over the past year I have written very little on Leo Strauss, “Straussianism,” and related matters. That’s quite a departure from the way things “used to be.” I was once accused of never writing about anything other than Strauss, with an occasional interruption to discuss Eric Voegelin, Carl Schmitt, or the latest article I had read on Russian Orthodox “Old Believers.” Times have changed and so has my thinking. Though I would not cast my distancing from Strauss in as dramatic or stark terms as my distancing from libertarianism, I have started to realize how seldom I think in what might be called “Straussian Categories” these days. For instance, the so-called “historical sense” bothers me very little, and I am neither suspicious of, nor hostile toward, attempts to examine the genealogy of ideas and texts as interpretive aides. And while I was never a strong adherent to Strauss’s rightly controversial “exoteric/esoteric” thesis, I am now deeply incredulous toward the notion that the history of philosophy is really just the history of an ambiguous conversation about the existence of God (or gods) that was carried out across the Western world by a half-dozen intellectual giants. Sure, there is a lot more to Straussianism than all of that, but not as much as some people seem to think.