Leo Strauss, Pagan Science, and the American Color Line
I know Leo Strauss is a tired subject, but I must put in my own two cents.
I’m not going to get into some textual interpretation of Leo Strauss. What he represents is fairly clear: a Likudnik philosopher. Frankly, I’m less interested in Leo Strauss himself, as much as what appeal he has to the intelligentsia of the Anglo-American conservative movement.
I’ll be the first one to say that I love Leo Strauss’ work and he helped me understand many things.
Reading his books helped make me a better reader. I had no idea that there was any value in the ‘classics’. I really thought there was nothing to be learned. I just figured that those people lived a zillion years ago, in such squalor, they had slavery, and they were pagans: what the heck do we have to learn from them? Didn’t we already know everything that they knew and far more?
Leo Strauss and one of my Anglo-American professors showed me that you have to understand things from their point-of-view, and that it can in fact be enlightening to read Greek pagan philosophers.
Problems with Pagan Science and History
Still, it’s important to note that many of those pagan philosophers had all this theoretical knowledge, but they didn’t really use their privilege to help people.
They had an aristocratic bias: science was for leisure, not for any practical purpose to help common people. Their society was a more or less stagnant slave society. No one really seriously considered the prospect of sustained economic growth and general prosperity. Euclid may have may have put together a brilliant book of geometric proofs in Ptolemaic Egypt, but the pagan Greeks never built any pyramids. The pagan philosophers didn’t put their logos into any effectual material reality.
The Greek pagan way of life was one of relative material poverty, bloody conflict, rape and pillage, enslaving one’s captives, and various pleasure seeking. But these pagans never really made any material progress. In fact, they have no concept of progress. They seem to have no concept that human life could be in any way be fundamentally different from the one that they see around them.
They had no conception that if human beings put their brains to the task that they could build an entirely different world, even if it took many centuries.
Moreover, and not unrelated, the pagans had a long discredited natural philosophy, which had an overly static concept of nature, including human nature. Needless to say, the pagan Geocentric cosmology is completely wrong and has also long been discredited in favor of the Heliocentric model. Overall, the whole worldview of pagan science is demonstrably ‘off the mark’, and has been discredited for centuries by both Christianity and Mathematical Physics.
There’s was in some respects a vain philosophy, a vain science, and one shouldn’t romanticize them. They didn’t even have proper methods for verifying their scientific hypotheses and conclusions. The pagans were very clever rhetoricians and great poets. But according to the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in Against Appion, the Greek cities kept very poor records, so many of the pagan histories are actually somewhat spurious.
Josephus claims that many pagan historians were more concerned with their literary style and artistry than the accuracy of their historical accounts. In contrast, Josephus says that the Jews had a far better and more accurate record keeping system, and consequently Jewish histories are more accurate than their pagan Greek counterparts. I find Josephus’ view credible, given the older and probably more sophisticated tradition of Jewish scholarship in his time (1st century A. D.).
Furthermore, Josephus asserts that during his time, the Egyptians had the oldest and most accurate record keeping system in the world, and that it went back many centuries. Back to the days of Moses and beyond. Of course, same as today, some of the more ancient histories possessed by the Egyptians, had become mixed with legend.
Josephus’s account of the Egyptian histories/legends is based on no longer fully extant texts, written by ethnic Egyptian Priests/historians, who wrote in the Greek language. According to Josephus, their purpose was to correct certain misconceptions of Egyptian history propagated by spurious Greek histories.
The fragments of the various Egyptian histories that Josephus cites are not entirely consistent on the matter, but the basic shared account is the following:
Moses was a well-known historical and even legendary figure in Ptolemaic Egypt, and ethnic Egyptian parents would tell stories to their children about him. According to the Egyptian histories/legends, Moses was not a Hebrew, but instead was an ethnic Egyptian High Priest, a high-born Aristocrat whose given name was Osiris. The reigning Pharaoh of Egypt became mad and delusional, and began to implement extraordinarily brutal and tyrannical policies, based on his delusional visions. Osiris was also persecuted by Pharaoh, and was tossed into the quarry pits with the slaves. Osiris appears to in fact have been made a slave by the mad Pharaoh, along with other Egyptian Aristocrats who had fallen out of favor with the Egyptian regime, for some reason or another.
Osiris found this situation unacceptable, so he decides to take action to remove the mad Pharaoh and his tyrannical regime. He forges a new identity in the slaves by giving them a new religion and new set of laws. He changes his name to Moses to signify his own mental shift, his own new identity as founder and leader of this new people.
Subsequently, Moses decides to forge a political/military alliance with a foreign nation, the Hyksos. These people had formerly invaded Egypt and conquered it. The Hyksos in fact reigned as a Pharaonic dynasty for centuries, until they were chased out. This alliance of Egyptian slaves and Hyksos effectively chases Pharaoh and his regime out of Egypt and into Ethiopia for a dozen or so years.
The situation only changes when Pharaoh’s son Ramses is old enough to take control of the Egyptian army. With the help of the Ethiopian regime and its military, Ramses effectively chases ‘the Moses alliance’ out of Egypt, perhaps as far as Babylon or even Persia. This is not clear, nor is what happens subsequently. This effectively ends Josephus’ account of the Egyptian histories of Moses and the Exodus narrative, making use of the Greek language texts available to him.
The ancient Egyptians kept their historical records in their religious temples, so when the Coptic Church sought to purify Egypt of ancestral religious elements in the late 4th century A. D., these religious temples were destroyed, and the records with it. Consequently, much of what we know of these traditional Egyptian narratives comes through fragments and quotations from Jewish and Coptic Christian historians of the early Christian period, like Flavius Josephus.
Christian and Pagan Science
The ancient Egyptians had their own problems and should also not be romanticized.
Although they were by far the most advanced and oldest civilization of their time, when the Greeks and ultimately the Romans encountered them, they were on their last legs. They had a brutal caste system that appeared to be holding them back. It kept them in a kind of stasis, and created an unbelievably vain, decadent, and corrupt aristocratic ruling caste. The ancient Egyptian social system clearly needed a major overhaul and reforms, but despite their advanced applied sciences, for whatever reason, they were not able to do implement such social reforms.
This Egyptian social system may have functioned more effectively at one time in the distant past, but it was now producing a wretched leadership. Egyptian aristocrats commonly engaged in incest. Brothers and sisters in the Royal Family commonly intermarried to maintain the bloodline. After so many conquests of their land by foreign invaders over millennia, they had been shaken to their core. They were clearly a shadow of their former selves when the Greeks and Romans met them.
Christianity is the inflection point here, because it introduces on a mass scale a new model of the universe to the Western world. It differs from pagan science in many respects. For one, it lacks the aristocratic bias of pagan science, and is in fact anti-caste in its message: the meek shall inherit the earth. Knowledge is judged according to the “fruits” that it produces. Vain philosophy and speculation is discouraged.
Another important and related distinction between the Christian model and the model of pagan science is that they have a fundamentally different conception of nature or physis. The pagan philosophers believed that nature was good, and that the best life was one that was lived according to nature. The pagans believed in the natural life.
According to the Christian model, human beings are fallen and human nature is evil. In fact, according to this model, human nature itself is the problem. It is the primary source of human misery, and is something that needs to be overcome. The best life is not the life lived according to nature, but instead the model life is of a being who effectively conquers the evil inherent in human nature. The highest model of human life requires the conquest of nature, epitomized by the doctrine of resurrection. In Christianity, we see the concept of the logos incarnated into material reality or human flesh, the conception of Christ.
This is a very different natural philosophy from pagan science, and it forms the basis for the western model of natural or physical science to this day. According to this model, nature, including human nature, is far more pliable than previously thought by the pagan philosophers. It has a fundamentally different conception of human beings and human potential. The Christian model of nature is more dynamic than the pagan natural philosophy, which is basically static.
Christianity came under attack from the very beginning, both from the Roman political authorities, but also from the pagan philosophers. In order to defend the Christian doctrine from the attacks of the pagan philosophers, theology was developed. The early Christian theologians actually used rhetorical techniques and arguments learned from the pagan philosophers to defend the Christian doctrine.
In time, and perhaps inevitably, pagan science became incorporated into the Western Church’s theology, particularly Neo-Platonism, and eventually Neo-Aristotelianism. Many of the vanities characteristic of the pagan esoteric philosophy schools began to remerge in the Western Church. Speculation about irrelevant subjects increasingly became the norm in abstruse medieval scholasticism.
There were undoubtedly great Christian philosophers, but the schools were filled with these pointless exercises. The Western Church also reinforced a stagnant and corrupt caste system, and the Church’s leadership became increasingly corrupt, and unable to effectively serve its mission. They increasingly only came to serve themselves and their familial interests. The whole Western social order, including the Church and its schools clearly needed major reforms.
In the Protestant Reformation and Mathematical Physics we see the attempt made by savants to purify the Church’s theology and scholastic sciences, respectively, of pagan science. Science wouldn’t be all vain speculation in cloistered monasteries anymore. It would return to the Christian concept of the ‘conquest of nature’. This would be employed to create material progress in the ‘relief of men’s estates’, to make life tangibly better for average people. Science should possess the Christian virtue of charity, ‘spirit of generosity’, seeking to benefit all mankind.
The pagan philosophers knew mathematics and geometry but it was primarily speculative. Their cosmology and concepts of nature were deeply flawed. They didn’t use proper methods for verifying their assertions or conclusions. Modern Science insists on a proper verification method. But the medieval Islamic men of science also had a verification method which improved upon the pagan philosophers, and these Muslim thinkers also improved upon pagan mathematics.
The major insight of Western Modern Science is the realization that one cannot adequately describe the cosmos using human language or logos, but can only do so using mathematical language. Building on this revelation, Copernicus was able to mathematically describe a Heliocentric cosmology, which in time smashed the pagan Geocentric cosmology of the medieval Western Church, and with it the Medieval Christo-pagan conception of Heaven and Hell. This Christo-pagan conception is most famously and poetically represented in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Mathematical Physics is the great innovation of Western Science, starting with Copernicus and culminating in Isaac Newton, in its classical incarnation. It reveals something hidden in the pagan science infused medieval Church doctrine:
The true Christian cosmology is in fact a Heliocentric cosmology.
The Dual Character of the Anglo-American Life
The American way of life is very much a product of this Reformation worldview. There has traditionally existed a ‘Protestant ethic’, in which one is not to remain idle praying for a pie-in-the-sky hereafter, but is to work to build a better life on earth, through intergenerational progress. One generation building upon what the previous generations have created. Material prosperity is seen as a product of hard work and intergenerational virtue. Traditionally, the strictly speculative sciences have been far less valued than the practical application of new ideas and methods, which bring a tangible material benefit to the larger society.
Its political institutions contain within them the Reformation conception of the equality of men, not in their skills and talents, but in what is most important. Consequently all have ‘equal rights’ or ‘equality before the law’. The American Republic was designed to incorporate knowledge of the mistakes made by political societies of the past. Both the failures and instabilities well known in ancient republics and democracies, as well as the tyranny inherit in so many aristocratic and monarchical regimes of the past. The Founders claimed that they had learned from reading about these mistakes and had incorporated this knowledge into the US Constitution.
The American Founding was in every way viewed to be a step forward in the progress of mankind.
The American way of life is rooted in this modern western notion of progress, and this is its fundamental motor. However, the Anglo-American Civilization has also had a more stagnant Christo-pagan minority faction. Slavery had long since vanished from England and Europe, so American Negro Slavery was really a relic from a pagan era. Slavery is itself the social institution most characteristic of the pagan way of life.
You see this in the works of such ante-bellum Anglo-Southern social thinkers, like John Calhoun: the use of Aristotle to justify American Negro Slavery. Calhoun uses Aristotle’s conception of nature, to justify the enslavement of blacks, claiming they are ‘inferior by nature’, ‘slaves by nature’. As we stated, the pagan philosophers had an aristocratic bias, and lived in a world where slavery was the norm. Of course, Aristotle’s conception of nature had long been discredited both by the Protestant Reformation and Mathematical Physics, but Calhoun has a Christo-Pagan worldview. The Anglo-Southern social thinkers literally used wholly discredited pagan natural philosophy to justify their aberrant regime.
This appears to the source of Anglo-American ‘white identitarianism’: some kind of ancestral Germanic paganism, most eloquently articulated and defended using discredited and antiquated Greek pagan sciences and their equally discredited conceptions of human nature and cosmology. The Anglo-North also had a ‘white identity’, but they generally didn’t lose sight of the larger goal of American progress. This is what was lost sight of in the Anglo-South, principally owing to the curse of the long entrenched slave system: they allowed their pagan social system to interfere with Anglo-Protestant progress. Again and again, they have had to be dragged ‘kicking and screaming’ forward by their more progressive and powerful cousins in the Anglo-North.
Blacks got by far the worst of this, but the vast majority of whites also suffered in this stagnant Southern Christo-pagan society, compared to their kindred in the progressive industrialized North. Well into the 1930s, black and white Southern sharecroppers were picking cotton with the same methods and technology that the slaves had used in the early 1800s. Meanwhile, in 1915 Detroit, Henry Ford released the Model T. The Empire State Building had been built in Manhattan, and Southerners were still doing things like they had a century back, with minor modification for emancipation.
And it was all because of the color-caste system rooting in the cursed institution. Cotton harvesting technology didn’t improve until the New Deal capital investments of the late 1930s. The South didn’t even have any professional sports teams before the Civil Rights legislation in 1964-65, except the Houston Astros and Dallas Cowboys. It wasn’t viewed as a favorable residence for industry and capital investment until the end of Jim Crow. This has held it back.
And it still holds them back. They often don’t properly invest in the education and development of their citizens owing to this. And this may increasingly become true for the country overall, when it comes to the color line, as the fraction of the white majority decreases into a plurality.
The Interest of Anglo-American Conservatives in Leo Strauss
When it comes it pinpointing why Anglo-American intellectuals take an interest in Leo Strauss, I believe that the reasons are basically twofold: 1) Strauss is a philosophically sophisticated modern conservative social thinker; 2) Leo Strauss’ use of pagan science introduces a well-articulated pagan conception of human nature, which fits well with a color-caste ideology.
Leo Strauss is a highly illiberal thinker, with a seeming disdain for liberal democracy, so this makes his work problematic from the standpoint of American social thought within the respectable political spectrum. Similarly, the work of historical fiction that he calls his ‘history of political philosophy’ attempts to cast dispersions and doubt about the wisdom of the very Anglo-Reformation project on which the United States was founded. This is also problematic.
During the de jure era of the American color caste, there developed a tradition of Anglo-American letters that used a combination of pagan and modern science to justify the color-caste system. We spoke of John Calhoun’s Anglo-Aristotelianism, but sometimes modern scientific techniques were employed to give the arguments more ‘legitimacy’, like measuring skull sizes of different ‘races’, and other such nonsense.
The pseudo-scientific method of justifying the color-caste system still survives in the use of IQ tests. These tests are primarily a measure of one’s language skills, both literate and mathematical. Of course, if one tests a population that has historically been both isolated and functionally illiterate, they will do poorly, but these realities are not incorporated in the reasoning of some of these charlatans. Instead, what we have is a veneer of ‘mathematical social physics’, which is actually a thinly veiled disguise to slip a long discredited pagan concept of nature into his philosophy. This is turn is utilized in order to justify the color-caste system.
My advice is to get to work on trying to effectively make reforms in the present day de facto color-caste system, instead of trying to use the discredited pagan natural philosophy to justify it.
China is rising. They eliminated their caste system long ago, and have raised four hundred million former Chinese peasants out of destitute poverty and starvation, since the end of the Cold War. In contrast, we have gutted our industrial base without replacing it with suitable and comparable jobs. The surplus gains from increased productivity afforded our country by scientific innovations are not effectively ‘relieving the estates’ of the vast majority of American citizens, but are being gobbled up a privileged few. The public educational system is declining, as is funding for mass education, at the primary, secondary, and University level. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Chinese brains are being educated and awakened.
The Chinese are making progress, while the United States seems to be regressing. We need to change directions.
In my view, I seriously think Leo Strauss’ whole philosophy has been discredited for centuries. If you look at the natural philosophy and cosmology that forms the basis of the pagan political philosophy to which he wishes us to return, they have long been discredited by both Christianity and Mathematical Physics. Neither do I believe that the histories that Strauss provides in his works stand up to close examination.
Leo Strauss’ work is good for learning how to read more closely and between the lines, how to read ‘old books’. And he demonstrates the value of reading the ‘great books’ convincingly. But his notion of returning to pagan political philosophy is untenable. The very foundations of this philosophy have been discredited for millennia. Moreover, it is antithetical to the Western notion of progress generally, and the Anglo-American notion of progress, specifically.
One question that might be worth exploring is: Should the 20th century revolution in Mathematical Physics and Natural Philosophy, in the form of the Theories of the General Relativity and Quantum Physics, change the way we view human nature? What are the consequences that that would have for political philosophy in the 21st century? That is more along the lines we should be thinking, instead of trying to return to long discredited pagan science.
That’s really why Leo Strauss is ‘off the mark’. His whole philosophical project is going backwards instead of forwards.