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Note on Leo Strauss' Interpretation of Rousseau

Note on Leo Strauss' Interpretation of Rousseau

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Published by hgildin
Observations on the development of Strauss' understanding of Rousseau.
Observations on the development of Strauss' understanding of Rousseau.

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Published by: hgildin on Jun 22, 2012
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A Note on Leo Strauss' Interpretation of RousseauHilail GildinLeo Strauss published two articles on Rousseau's political philosophy.The second of these became Chapter 6, Section A, of Natural Right andHistory. Both are concerned with Rousseau's political philosophy as awhole and they attempt to show that Rousseau is justified in claiming histeaching to be coherent in spite of the bewildering variety of arrestinglylucid and violently opposed assertions that one finds in his writings.Although the scope of both articles is comprehensive, a different writing by Rousseau stands at the center of each of them. The first article—“On theIntention of Rousseau”—is a study of Rousseau's thought as reflected, forthe most part, in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts.
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In the laterarticle, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality occupies the center.Several prominent British scholars in the 70's drew attention to the impor-tance of Strauss' contribution to the study of Rousseau. (This point de-serves to be made in the light of attempts by some to create the impressionthat, in England at least, nothing that Strauss wrote after his 1936 book onHobbes was taken seriously by anyone who counted.) In 1972, MauriceCranston and Richard S. Peters published a collection of critical essays onHobbes and Rousseau. Their Introduction draws attention to the change inattitude towards Rousseau as a political philosopher since the years priorto the second world war. “Whereas it was the fashion before the war” todismiss Rousseau “as a sinister romantic, a forerunner of fascism and of communism, he has more recently been read with greater respect.” Citingwith approval a lead article of the TLS in June 1970, Cranston and Peters
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In the following, references to “On the Intention of Rousseau” will make use of the abbreviation IR. The article was reprinted in Hobbes and Rousseau, ed. byMaurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters (Garden City, New York: Doubleday &Company, Anchor Books, 1972). Page references will be to that collection. LeoStrauss’ Natural right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952)will be referred to by the abbreviation NRH, and his What Is PoliticalPhilosophy? (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959) by the abbreviation WIPP.1
 
suggest that this change “might be dated from two publishing events:Bertrand de Jouvenel's edition of Du Contrat Social, which came out inGeneva in 1947, and Leo Strauss' essay on Rousseau's ‘Discours sur lesSciences et les Arts,’ which appeared about the same time in SocialResearch, New York.” The editors go on to speak of “the new tradition of Rousseau scholarship initiated by Jouvenel and Strauss” (Hobbes andRousseau, pp. 2-3).The first of the two articles by Strauss seeks to establish that Rousseaurecovered the classical idea of philosophy or science, an important part of which is the classical understanding of the relation between science andsociety. Strauss traces the central difficulties which confront the seriousstudent of Rousseau's teaching to Rousseau's effort “to preserve the clas-sical idea of philosophy on the basis of modern natural science” (IR 290).The analysis of Rousseau in Natural Right and History retains these resultsto the extent of literally incorporating parts of them within itself. The latertreatment also traces the gravest difficulties in Rousseau to the fact that“his Socratic wisdom is ultimately based on . . . a particular kind of theoretical science, namely, modern natural science” (NRH 263). Strauss'later analysis makes two important advances over his previous one.Rousseau is seen, in a broader horizon, as the political philosopher inwhose thought “the first crisis of modernity occurred” (NRH 252).Moreover, Strauss no longer maintains that, according to Rousseau,genuine philosophy is the highest human possibility, although it remainsindispensable for what Rousseau is now held to maintain that highestpossibility to be. One can understand the development of Strauss' inter-pretation of Rousseau on the basis of Strauss' deepened understanding of modern political philosophy and of his continued study of Rousseau'swritings. Nothing extraneous to these is needed to understand that devel-opment.The thoughtful reader of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts is bound to be bewildered by the contradictions to be found in it. On the onehand, Rousseau attacks learning as harmful to the city and to virtue. Onthe other, he enthusiastically praises philosophy or science and its out-
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standing representatives. According to Strauss, this difficulty (as well asothers) is overcome once one realizes that Rousseau in attacking science is,as he himself declares, attacking the Enlightenment's understanding of it,and in particular the Enlightenment's understanding of the relation between philosophy and society. He opposes the belief that the popular-ization and diffusion of philosophic knowledge is essential to a sound po-litical order and tends to bring such an order about. He adopts the classi-cal view according to which there is a disproportion rather than a harmony between philosophy and society. Strauss suggests at one point that inRousseau this disproportion is intensified into an opposition (IR 289).According to Strauss' earlier article, Rousseau's attack on theEnlightenment arises not only out of a concern with what is good for a freesociety but even more out of a concern with what is good for genuinephilosophy. “Everyone will admit that in the Discours Rousseau attacksthe Enlightenment in the interest of society. What is commonly overlookedis the fact that he attacks the Enlightenment in the interest of philosophy orscience as well. In fact, since he considers science superior in dignity tosociety, one must say that he attacks the Enlightenment chiefly in theinterest of philosophy. When he attacks the belief that the diffusion of scientific knowledge has a salutary effect on society, he is chiefly con-cerned with the effect of that belief on science. He is shocked by the ab-surdity of philosophy having degenerated into a fashion or of the fightagainst prejudice having itself become a prejudice” (IR 268-9). In supportof his overall interpretation, Strauss not only refers to but quotes the fol-lowing important remark by Rousseau and supplies an English translationof it: “the development of enlightenment and vice always takes place inthe same ratio, not in the individuals, but in the peoples—a distinctionwhich I have always carefully made and which none of those who has at-tacked me has ever been able to understand” (IR 264-5).In his earlier article, Strauss understands Rousseau as a defender of gen-uine philosophy who regards himself as genuine philosopher and whoregards the life of genuine philosophy as the highest life. Rousseau'sstrong praise of natural freedom points, according to Strauss, to
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