In a typically sarcastic comment to my earlier post about John Howard and Straussian neoconservatism, my partner jen sardonically questioned why I hadn’t included a reference to Derrida in a post that fearlessly embraced rambling irrelevance in just about every other way.
Well, I’ve got news for her. I can’t quite stretch to Strauss and Derrida in the same post, but I can do almost as well. I was reading an article recently by Peter Levine that asserted Leo Strauss was a closet Nietzschean\Heideggerian. I was even going to write a post about it at the time but got bored before I could put fingers to keyboard. But jen’s comment provides a perfect opportunity to recycle the relevant passage with a minimum of effort or thought:
Strauss, a lifelong admirer of Heidegger, agrees with him that Nietzsche may have faltered in the end and produced merely a new, dogmatic version of metaphysics with his doctrine of the Will to Power. (This seems untrue to me, since the Will to Power was merely Nietzsche’s exoteric doctrine.) But Strauss describes Heidegger’s “existentialism” as an “attempt to free Nietzsche’s alleged overcoming of relativism from the consequences of [Nietzsche's] relapse into metaphysics or of his recourse to nature.” Thus, according to Strauss, Heideggerian philosophy is simply a more consistent version of Nietzscheanism. Heidegger was a nihilist: in other words, he was a relativist with “angst. ” Strauss summarizes Heidegger’s position as a Nietzschean discovery of nihilism, reached through a recognition of relativism, and arriving at last at the following point:
The fundamental phenomenon, the only phenomenon that is not hypothetical, is the abyss of freedom: the fact that man is compelled to choose groundlessly; the fundamental experience, i.e., an experience more fundamental than every science, is the experience of the objective groundlessness of all principles of thought and action, the experience of othingness.
Thus even historical scholarship rests, ultimately, on a groundless choice to pursue a certain kind of arbitrary procedure. “Rationalism itself rests on nonrational, unevident assumptions; in spite of its seemingly overwhelming power, rationalism is hollow.”‘” Strauss’ article ends almost as soon as he has invoked Heidegger’s name, and before he has given any exposition of Heidegger’s positive doctrines. “I can allude here only to one point,” he writes, “to Heidegger’s teaching regarding historical truth.” About even this
he says practically nothing, except that, for Heidegger, “true understanding of a thinker is understanding him creatively, i.e., understanding him differently from the way he understood himself.” This is the key to Strauss’ own philosophy, which consists almost entirely of creative (mis)readings of thinkers from the past. Thus Strauss owes much to Heidegger, whose ideas are “of the greatest importance to man as man.’ Heidegger, he claims, “surpasses in speculative intelligence all his contemporaries and is at the same time intellectually the counterpart to what Hitler was politically [i.e., a nihilist]“” Strauss is a nihilist too, esoterically; his only insight is a knowledge of the Nietzschean\Heideggerian abyss. But he wants to turn back from this spectre of groundlessness, ubermenschlich, to produce a comforting illusion for the herd. Yet in order that this myth should not to be a mere Romantic fabrication, it must at the same time reveal the secret of nihilism to those clever enough to follow Strauss’ hints. Strauss’ vehicle for preaching this double-edged message is the deliberate misinterpretation of past philosophers, whom (just like Heidegger) he “understands creatively.”
In fact, while we’re playing a game of chucking lots of modern philosophers into the same cooking pot, it occurs to me (and I’m sure it’s not an original insight, but I haven’t read widely enough to know who has suggested it previously) that Strauss was also in effect a closet Sartrean existentialist, but his commitment/leap of faith into the abyss was towards the authoritarian right rather than the left.
And rolling along with that spirit of philosophical free association, I also found this article which accessibly compares Heidegger and Sartre:
The Marxism of Sartre and the Naziism of Heidegger are sufficient to prove that Existentialism, which already denies any reality to moral principles, can randomly be associated with any sort of politics. Oddly, what it seems less conspicuously to be associated with is liberal and free market politics, which were despised, not just by Sartre and Heidegger, but by most other Existentialist figures and their spiritual descendants. One might think that this is because intellectuals find private life and hard work boring; but then, after the “Myth of Sisyphus,” one might think that any mundane task could be valorized into the most important thing ever. The truth seems to be that Existentialists never really believed that life was as meaningless as the task of Sisyphus. They actually demanded a real world of meaning vast beyond the confines of ordinary life. Thus, Marxism probably appealed to Sartre because of its pretence that it was scientific and about facts, and, as it happens, Heidegger did not really have the classical Existentialist belief in the meaninglessness of the world. The “uncoverings” of Being made for real value, however “terrible,” which means that Adolf Hitler gave real meaning to the world.
It also launches itself with a typically po mo reference to an extract from Woody Allen’s movie Play It Again, Sam, which is utterly irrelevant to this post, but centrally important to the phenomenology of Mark Bahnisch’s current quest for true lurv on the Internet:
WOODY ALLEN: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.
WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.
WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]
That’s why luvmuffin is the wise philosopher’s counter-intuitive choice. Women who combine ditzy sensuality with a cutting, fearless intellect aren’t thick on the ground. In fact jen is the only one I’ve ever found. But I suppose it can’t hurt to be an optimist.