Strauss and Machiavelli

One of the interesting things I learned today was over where the break with classical philosophy began. Most people claim that Descarte was the founder of Modern Philosophy, but today it was pointed out that a good case can be made that Machiavelli was actually the one who broke with the classics first.

Leo Strauss points out in the "Three waves of modernity" that Machiavelli was the first to "get there"

Machiavelli is the first one to critize the ancients for "building to high," arguing that the perfect regime of Plato was an impossible fiction. Likewise, he was the first to challenge the notion that the conquest of nature was impossible claiming that it was so long as one follows reason.

This "first wave" of modernity, as Strauss calls it, was completed in the fields of science by Bacon and Descarte and with politics in Hobbes and Locke.

The second wave of modernity began under Rousseau, who rejected the "commercialism" that Hobbes and Locke expounded. In place of this, Rousseau laid down the principles of "historicism," which would later gain their full theoretical justification in Hegal and Kant.

Nietzche and Heidegger bring about the last wave of modernity when they come face to face with the implications of historicism. They righly point out that historicism is nihilistic, offering no grounds for human morality or purpose. Thus life is reduced to the "will to power," where the only question philosophers need to ask is "whose got the power?"

How does Strauss respond to this? He basically argues that pre-modern philosophy was better than modern philosophy, a claim conpletely contrary to modern day conventional wisdom. Machiavelli, Strauss asserts, is attacking a straw man because the ancients never claimed that the perfect city was possible. In fact, Strauss argued that Plato's Republic was a direct refutation of the perfect regime.

Harry Jaffa joined the discussion with pointing out that, in his opinion, there are only two people to understand Machiavelli correctly and to also reject him: Strauss and Shakespheare.

One other point: Jaffa claimed that one can know the "essence" of God but not the "existence" of God. I asked him if he was making a linguistic error, since Aquinas asserts exactly the opposite. He claims that he was not. According to him, it is easy to grasp the concept of God ("reason unaffected by passion") without being able to grasp his existence, a claim that must be a leap of faith (or calculated risk). He finished by saying that he thought he came up with a better "demonstration" of God than Thomas Aquinas, a claim I will have to read more about before I pass judgment. In my opinion, Aquinas' "demonstrations" are self-evident and common sense.