Monday, May 12, 2003

Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss carried on an interesting exchange of letters throughout their careers. Cornelis has posted several of these letters on Here's one on Locke from Voegelin

Dear Mr. Strauss,
Many thanks for your offprints of "Walker's Machiavelli" and "Locke's Doctrine of Natural Right" . . . The Locke piece interested me greatly . . I have a slight uneasiness in light of your handling of Locke as a representative of natural law . . . I ask myself can . . . Locke be treated as a philosopher of natural right? And even more: Is Locke still a philosopher?

Lockean reason.

[The Lockean ratio is actually opinion, no longer participation in the ratio divina. With that, the question arises, essentially for the whole Age of Reason, whether a ratio that, unlike the classical and Christian, does not derive its authority from its share in divine being is still in any sense a ratio? For Locke, it is clear on the strength of your excellent study that it is no longer that. In the concrete realization he must drop the swindle of ratio, and in the last instance refer to desire.

The deliberate destruction of spiritual substance occurs throughout Locke's political work. In three places it becomes decisively visible. You have dealt with two of them. The first act of destruction concerns ratio. The second, man as imago Dei. From this second destruction, the specific Lockean idea of man as "proprietor of his own person" should follow, on which the theory of ownership through incorporation of work into natural matter is based. This definition of the essence of man as property of oneself always seemed to me to be one of the most terrible atrocities in the so-called history of philosophy--and one perhaps not yet sufficiently noticed. The third act of destruction comes in the Letter on Toleration, on the occasion of a separation from a church community. Locke askes himself if, on such an occasion, conflicts over property could ensue that would make necessary the intervention of the state. He answers in the negative for the following reasons: the sole question of property could emerge from contributions to provisions that are consumed during the sacrament of communion. The contributions are too trifling to lead to a suit under common law. This conception of communion as a consumption of staples that cost money always fascinated me as much as the conception of property of oneself. Beyond these three main points, I believe, the systematic destruction of symbols can be demonstrated as a continuous feature in Locke.

The right of concupiscentia substituted for natural right.

This destruction leads now inevitably to conflict between the language of symbol, which is still used, and the new meanings that are substituted. It is not a conflict in Locke's theory (there you are quite right; he is consistent) but instead in the verbal construction. In the Second Treatise, the conflict is expressed in the fact that Locke must try three times to establish finally a political order that he wishes to have as the right one. The three attempts are (1) the natural state of pioneer squatters with approximate economic equality ("in the beginning all the world was America"), (2) the same egalitarian state, protected by state organization, (3) the consent of inequality (through money) in the context of state organization. The ultimate stage will then be protected by the new definition of consent by the fact of residency and by the exclusion of a state-run social policy. This final protection could refer, in a concrete historical sense, to the attempts of the politics of the Stuarts (Stafford and Laud) to protect the farmers of N. England and the slaves in Bermuda against extreme exploitation by the landlords and merchants, the attempts that were the material motive for revolt of the upper classes against Charles I.

It is a brutal ideological construction to support the position of the Enlgish upper class, to which Locke belonged through his social relations. The construction is consistent, insofar as the concupiscentia is maintained from the beginning as the driving motive; it is inconsistent, insofar as the introduction of the vocabulary of natural right forces a repeated redefinition in the concept of nature.

Lockean camouflage

And this leads, now, to the problem on which you have for so many years worked: the camouflage of the philosopher who wishes to protect the uncomfortable theories against the conventional protests. If I understand you correctly, you see also in Locke such an effort at camouflage--and I believe you are right. But only then, when you considerably extend the problem of philosophic camouflage.

I mean the following: you follow completely legitimate problem when you state that philosophers (I think for example about your Arabic studies) take precautionary measures to protect their philosophizing against disturbance by the unqualified. But: Is an ideological constructor, who brutally destroys every philosophical problem area in order to justify the political status quo, a philosopher? Is this not precisely the opposite case of a nihilistic destroyer, who wishes to cover his work of destruction from the attentiveness of the qualified? What difference, I ask myself, actually exists between Locke and that series of types that Camus deals with in L'Homme révolté? Isn't that which may still appear as camouflage of a philosopher already the bad conscience of a "modern" man, who doesn't quite dare to declare the knavery that he actually intends; and so he hides it not only from others but also from himself, by the ample use of a conventional vocabulary? That possibility recalls the words of Karl Kraus; such a person knows already what he wants, only subconsciously. What is the political philosophy of Locke other than the roguery of which Anatole France in the Ile des Pengouins makes fun: the majesty of the law that forbids eaully the poor and the rich to steal. Finally, when one considers the development from Locke to Marx, what is this Lockean ideal picture of political order but the picture of bourgeois society that Marx believed he had to produce with laborious research and had to unmask. If England had not in fact been better than Locke, and had not again elevated itself through the Wesleyan Reformation, this nasty caricature of human order would have brought about some interesting revolutions.

Excuse the length of this letter. But when it comes to Locke, my heart runs over. He is for me one of the most repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of humanity. But back to our technical problem: it seems questionable to me, at least where it concerns Locke's political work, whether it still falls within the area of philosophizing; and following from that, it seems questionable whether the substance of Locke's political work becomes accessible by attending to the question of philosophical camouflage. Perhaps what is involved is a phenomenon of completely different order; Locke was one of the first very great cases of spiritual pathology, whose adequate treatment would require a different conceptual apparatus.

And on Karl Popper:
Leo Strauss: May I ask you to let me know sometime what you think of Mr. Popper. He gave a lecture here, on the task of socioal philosophy, that was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out, lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think "rationally," although it passed itself off as "rationalism"--it was very bad. I cannot imagine reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his produtions. Could you say something to me about that--if you wish, I will keep it to myself.
Dear Mr. Strauss, The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the "open society and its enemies" is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right to say that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and to publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances.

1. The expressions "closed [society]" and "open society" are taken from Bergson's Deux Sources. Without explaining the difficulties that induced Bergson to create these concepts, Popper takes the terms because they sound good to him[he] comments in passing that in Bergson they had a "religious" meaning, but that he will use the concept of the open society closer to Graham Walas's "great society" or that of Walter Lippmann. Perhaps I am oversensitive about such things, but I do not believe that respectable philosophers such as Bergson develop their concepts for the sole purpose that the coffeehouse scum might have something to botch. There also arises the relevant problem: if Bergson's theory of open society is philosphically and historically tenable (which I in fact believe), then Popper's idea of the open society is ideological rubbish . . .

2. The impertinent disregard for the achievements in his particular problem area, which makes itself evident with respect to Bergson, runs through the whole work. When one reads the deliberations on Plato or Hegel, one has the impression that Popper is quite unfamiliar with the literature on the subject--even though he occasionally cites an author. In some cases, as for example Hegel, I would believe that he has never seen a work like Rosenzweig's Hegel and the State. In other cases, where he cites works without appearing to have perceived their contents, another factor is added:

3. Popper is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato. Reading is of no use to him; he is too lacking in knowledge to understand what the author says. Through this emerge terrible things, as when he translates Hegel's "Germanic world" as "German world" and draws conclusions form this mistranslation regarding Hegel's German nationalist propaganda.

. . . Briefly and in sum: Popper's book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.

It would not be suitable to show this letter to the unqualified. Where it concerns its factual contents, I would see it as a violation of the vocational duty you identified, to support this scandal through silence.

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