Don’t miss Nathan Pinkoski’s response, “Leo Strauss and the Pursuit of Knowledge: A Reply to Paul DeHart.”

In classical Christian thought, philosophy and theology (or special revelation) are essentially related to each other. Justin Martyr famously maintained that because Christ is the logos of God, those who followed reason before Christ were really following Christ himself. For classical Christian thought, the object of faith is the divine reason by which the world was made and the very ground of intelligibility. In his reflections on the nature of political philosophy and its contrast to political theology, the twentieth-century German émigré Leo Strauss rends asunder what Christian revelation binds together. But I submit that the Straussian choice—either faith or philosophy—presents a false dichotomy.

In the first part of his famous essay “What Is Political Philosophy?” (there is more than one published version; I draw upon the one contained in this collection) Strauss advances a framework for thinking about political philosophy, political theology, and their relation. He casts the relation of philosophy and theology as oppositional: philosophy versus theology, reason versus revelation. In his view, these are mutually exclusive modes of inquiry (or, if you will, ways of life).

I think that Strauss is badly wrong on this front, due to deep flaws in his conception of philosophy, which, I maintain, is fundamentally incoherent. Because of this incoherence, Strauss fails to show any fundamental tension between reason and revelation. Ultimately, Strauss valorizes opinion over knowledge, leaving us trapped in an epistemic cave from which we can never escape.

In this essay, I will argue, contra Strauss, that “Christian philosophy” or “philosophical theology” is a perfectly intelligible notion. Or, at the very least, no one should be dissuaded from participating in such enterprises on account of anything Strauss had to say about reason and revelation.

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Are Philosophy and Theology Mutually Exclusive?

Although Strauss treats philosophy and theology across other writings, the basic framework laid out in “What Is Political Philosophy?” holds in all of them (especially in lectures such as “Reason and Revelation”). According to Strauss, political philosophy must be distinguished from both political thought and political theology.

For Strauss, political thought serves as something like a genus of which political philosophy is a species. Thus, “all political philosophy is political thought but not all political thought is political philosophy.” Political thought refers to “reflection on, or the exposition of political ideas,” to notions “concerning the political fundamentals.” Moreover, “Political thought is . . . indifferent to the distinction between opinion and knowledge.” By way of contrast, political philosophy “is the conscious, coherent and relentless effort to replace opinions about the political fundamentals by knowledge regarding them.” Thus, “Political thought may not be more, and may not even intend to be more, than the expounding or defense of a firmly held conviction or of an invigorating myth.”

Strauss goes on: “it is essential to political philosophy to be set in motion, and be kept in motion by the disquieting awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction, or belief, and knowledge. . . . the political philosopher is primarily interested in, or attached to, the truth.” But what Strauss means by interest in or attachment to the truth is not yet clear.

Strauss rejects the idea that political theology and political philosophy can overlap. In his view, political philosophy is limited to “unassisted” human reason whereas theology depends upon special revelation from God (“By political theology we understand political teachings which are based on divine revelation,” he writes). To the degree one depends upon special revelation, one is not confined to unassisted reason and so is not doing political philosophy. To the degree that one relies upon unassisted human reason, one is (necessarily) not relying on revelation and so is not doing theology. The relation between political theology and political philosophy (and given what else he says in the essay, between theology and philosophy as such) is one of mutual exclusion—indeed, of mutual opposition.

What then are we to make of Strauss’s famous claim that faith/revelation/theology, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other, are mutually irrefutable? First, his claim concerning mutual irrefutability presupposes the claim concerning mutual exclusivity. It only makes sense to hold that revelation and philosophy cannot refute each other if they are mutually exclusive. Second, there is at least some equivocation in Strauss’s assertion of mutual irrefutability. Strauss at one point claims that the “possibility of refutation of revelation” is “implied in Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy” if one understands “their whole teaching” (though Strauss says he “cannot claim to have achieved this”). Third, in parsing out how faith and philosophy are mutually irrefutable, in notes for a lecture delivered to theologians in 1948, he says “there is only one way” for faith “[t]o exclude the possibility of refutation” by philosophy: “that faith has no basis whatever in human knowledge of actual things” (see “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation” in the Appendix to this volume). So Strauss’s claim that revelation and philosophy cannot refute each other depends upon a conception of faith as the rejection of reason and knowledge.

That, I submit, is not how Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, or—as a number of scholars have argued—Plato saw things. So we are compelled to ask whether Strauss or these others are finally right.

Strauss on Philosophy as the Quest for Truth—Not the Possession of It

Recall that Strauss claims that political philosophy is “the attempt to replace opinion about the nature of political things by knowledge of the nature of political things.” He understands this as the implication of a prior claim: that political philosophy is a “branch” of philosophy. What then does he mean by philosophy?

Strauss says “Philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but the quest for the truth. The distinctive trait of the philosopher is that ‘he knows that he knows nothing.’” Knowledge of his ignorance impels the philosopher to strive for the attainment of knowledge. But central to his understanding of philosophy qua philosophy is the denial that it is possession of truth. It is, as it were, the quest for truth without the possession of it. Indeed, Strauss writes, “It may be that as regards the possible answers to these questions, the pros and cons will always be in a more or less even balance, and therefore that philosophy will never go beyond the stage of discussion or disputation and will never reach the stage of decision.”

Central to Strauss’s account of philosophy, then, is the claim that the philosopher knows that he knows nothing. And just here is where the problem emerges. For the claim that one knows that he knows nothing is utterly unintelligible. It is in fact impossible for anyone to know that he knows nothing. If the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, then he knows it. In which case, he knows something. In which case, it is not the case that the philosopher knows nothing (precisely because he knows that he knows nothing and therefore knows something). So if the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, then, necessarily, it is not the case that he knows nothing.

In the language of philosophy, the Straussian account of philosophy is self-referentially incoherent. If knowledge of fundamental truths is impossible to achieve, no one could ever know such knowledge was impossible. Moreover, since the philosopher cannot know that he knows nothing, he can at best only believe it. By cutting philosophy off from knowledge of the truth, Strauss relegates philosophy and claims as to what constitutes philosophy to the realm of mere opinion, to shadows cast upon the wall of the cave.

Philosophy as Love of Wisdom and Openness to Revelation

Strauss, of course, has attempted to define philosophy in light of Socrates’ claim in Plato’s Apology. Yet it seems clear from Plato’s dialogue that Socrates would not have accepted Strauss’s claim that “philosophy is essentially not the possession of truth.” Socrates claimed to know that it is never just to commit injustice, for instance, and that virtue and care for the right tendency of the soul are the most important things.

One might try to reply on Strauss’s behalf that while Strauss claims that the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, the focus of this claim is upon the answers to fundamental questions. Perhaps Strauss thinks that while we don’t know the answers to the most important questions, the philosopher can know what the fundamental questions are as well as the possible answers to those questions and the pros and cons associated with each possible answer. But if that’s what Strauss thinks, then it is not really the case that the philosopher knows that he knows nothing. That claim turns out to be a metaphor, perhaps. Yet, even on this interpretation of Strauss, the claim would nevertheless be false. To know what the fundamental questions are—the possible answers, the pros and cons associated with each answer—is still to know something. Indeed, it’s to know quite a lot. Moreover, how can one know what the fundamental questions and their possible answers are without knowing some things—some fundamental things—that are not merely questions? This seems entirely impossible. Strauss gives us no argument for thinking this can be so. He presents an opinion and asks us simply to believe.

Indeed, if the philosopher knows that he knows nothing (an incoherent proposition as we’ve already seen), then no one can know that philosophy in general or political philosophy in particular is what Strauss says it is. If anyone knew Strauss’s conception of philosophy (and political philosophy) to be true, then he’d know it. In which case the conception would deny itself—it would be false on its own terms. Consequently, the Straussian conception of philosophy in general and of political philosophy in particular can only ever be a matter of opinion. Nothing more.

If Strauss is right, it’s hard to see how philosophers have escaped the cave. They seem just as chained to their posts—just as stuck with only belief and opinion—as anyone else. Strauss’s account of philosophy entombs it in a cave from which it cannot escape.

But why conceive of philosophy in this way? Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Love of wisdom certainly includes pursuing truth, but it can also include knowledge or possession of truth (which is to be distinguished from knowledge or possession of the whole truth). Indeed, wisdom was understood by Plato and Aristotle as a perfection with respect to knowledge. And knowledge as such involves possession of truth.

If philosophy, as the love of wisdom, is openness to and the pursuit of truth, then philosophy should be open to all truth, whatever its source. On such an understanding, philosophy would of course be open to truths attainable by reason without the assistance of special revelation. But it would also be open to truth delivered by special revelation. Philosophy as love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth should remain open to revelation as the fulfillment of its quest. That is, if there is special revelation about the highest things, then philosophy would be teleologically ordered to it. The matter turns entirely on the truth about whether such revelation exists. As Alvin Plantinga rightly insists, when it comes to knowledge and religious belief there is no de jure question about what in principle can be known apart from the de facto question of what is true. Strauss fell into the modernist trap of supposing otherwise.

Strauss’s Epistemology

Strauss’s account of philosophy clearly presupposes a certain account of epistemology, yet he never spells it out. On what sort of epistemology would one say that matters of revelation are not matters of philosophical investigation and so not objects of knowledge?

The only epistemology on offer with such an implication is called strong foundationalism. It finds its preeminent spokesperson in John Locke. Within this modernist epistemology, something can be said to be known only if it is self-evident, necessary, incorrigible, or derived necessarily from that which is. This epistemic edifice has been described as a noetic structure. One can see immediately how special revelation is opposed to knowledge given an epistemic method of this sort. On Christian revelation, for instance, some revelatory claims are not self-evident, necessary, incorrigible, or derivable from anything that is. Think, for example, of the claim that Jesus of Nazareth died and was bodily raised from the dead. Other claims (that God is three persons but one being, for instance) are not self-evident or necessary to human reason, even though they are per se nota and necessary in themselves.

But why should anyone accept such an account of what it is we know? Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have demonstrated (in essays by each in this volume) that strong epistemic foundationalism is, like Strauss’s conception of philosophy, self-referentially incoherent. It presupposes its own denial. After all, the claim that we know only that which is self-evident, necessary, incorrigible, or necessarily derived from that which is self-evident, necessary, or incorrigible is itself neither self-evident, nor necessary, nor incorrigible, nor is it derived from anything that is.

Given the self-referential incoherence of strong epistemic foundationalism, there is no a priori reason for discounting claims of revelation as potential items of knowledge, which is what Strauss tries to do. But if the claims of revelation are potentially matters of knowledge, then they are also open to philosophical investigation, insofar as philosophical investigation is the love and pursuit of truth. In short, Strauss’s account of philosophy and revelation seems to depend for its intelligibility on an account of knowledge—upon an epistemic method and a noetic structure—that is itself ultimately unintelligible.

The failure of Strauss’s account of philosophy is not a failure of philosophy itself. It is merely a failure of Straussian philosophy. In truth, the dichotomy of faith and theology is foreign both in antiquity and in Christian thought. It is a modern invention. Christianity holds that certain truths of special revelation cannot be adduced by human reason acting on its own. But philosophy is rightly understood as the reasonable exploration of truth, wherever it might be found.