Friday, April 17, 2015
In City Journal, Jerry Weinberger reviews Arthur M. Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.
As Strauss discovered, the Enlightenment conspiracy to rationalize the world aimed not simply to defang meddlesome prelates. Its thinkers, confronted with their inability to refute the claims of faith and revelation, turned to a “Napoleonic strategy” to laugh them out of the world and to use material prosperity and rational calculation to bludgeon the religious impulse. They wanted to force the harmony of theory and practice, philosophy and politics, by subordinating politics to philosophy. The rationalistic, Procrustean bed of the French Revolution, however, provoked the counter-Enlightenment, exemplified by Burke and the German Historical School that praised custom and local tradition over reason’s calculation. And later, Heidegger’s existentialism described the claims of such rational calculation as a massive attempt to hide from the groundlessness and especially the fatefulness of life. For Heidegger, genuine thinking required grasping resolutely the brute fact of what you are, not what you ought to be. The paradoxical result, says Melzer, was again to harmonize philosophy and politics, but this time by subordinating philosophy to the arbitrariness of political life.
The modern Enlightenment project of Napoleonic conquest really was dogmatic, as Heidegger argued. But classical rationalism was not, as Heidegger failed to see. It was inquiring and skeptical and involved living both within the “mysterious nature of the whole” and the “fundamental and enduring problems” of human life. Classical rationalism held “that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation.” For Strauss, says Melzer, nothing more than the permanence of the fundamental problems is needed to legitimize reason as classical philosophy understood it.
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