Historical Sickness: Strauss and Heidegger

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  • Historical Sickness:Strauss and Heidegger

    Ian LoadmanArkansas State University

    Prepared for presentation at the conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2008.

  • Martin Heidegger is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, but the import

    of his thought for political theory is not immediately evident. Many writers have attempted to

    discover a political philosophy hidden in his reflections on Being or to extrapolate one from his

    involvement with the Nazis. While these attempts have often cast light upon Heideggers

    thought they have produced a confusing variety of conclusions about his politics. Perhaps a

    more modest approach to the question of Heideggers relevance to political philosophy would be

    more fruitful. I believe that Heideggers thought is useful to political theorists when connected

    to issues that have an independent life in political thought.

    This paper examines the relevance of Heidegger, and particularly his concept of

    historicity (Geschichtlichkeit), for political thought by examining Leo Strauss's critiques of him.

    It is possible to discern three distinct critiques of Heidegger in Strauss and all three have, to

    varying degrees, been discussed in the growing secondary literature about Strauss1. They are:

    1. Historicity is nothing but a philosophically incoherent type of historicism, subject to the criticism that, either its claims cannot be applied to itself, or it posits an absolute moment in history for which objective evidence is lacking.

    2. Heideggers history of Being charts a mistaken path through the history of philosophy and an alternative reconstruction of that history both points to an alternate diagnosis of nihilism and discovers in the natural consciousness a starting point for philosophical reflection that undercuts Heideggers concentration on Being.

    3. Heideggers analysis of existence employs categories of thought that he has borrowed, unexamined, from religious thought. These categories distort the nature of his thought, allowing religious longings to take root in philosophy.

    There is a clear connection between the line of thought running from the natural consciousness

    revealed by Strausss excavations of classical political thought to his criticism of Heidegger for

    relying on religious categories, but the two criticisms do not collapse into one another as

    witnessed by the fact that a number of commentators make the second criticism while

    disagreeing among themselves over Strausss exact position on the theologico-political problem.

    While I will argue that it is the second critique that provides the basis for the deepest

    consideration of the real differences between Strauss and Heidegger, the centrality of the contest

    between philosophy and revealed religion is so crucial to Strausss conception of philosophy that

    it amply repays separate consideration. Although I will conclude that Strausss second and third


  • critiques have some bite against Heidegger, they are far from conclusive and Heideggers

    position has significant resources with which to respond to Strauss. A full consideration of

    Strausss critiques of Heidegger casts considerable light on the importance of historicity for

    political theory and on the status of history as a source of normative standards a major concern

    of contemporary political thought.

    Contrasting Heidegger and Strauss also opens a vista on the question of what philosophy

    is and can be in late modernity. Both Strauss and Heidegger are concerned to defend the dignity

    of philosophy against the claims of scientific historiography and the history-based human

    sciences.2 And both take their point of departure from what, following Nietzsche, I will call

    modernity's historical sickness. Nonetheless, they base their defenses of philosophy on

    strikingly different grounds. Strauss appeals to a conception of fundamental problems and a

    zetetic attitude toward the few typical solutions to these problems, while Heidegger finds the

    historicity of Being to be the basis for overcoming historicism. In evaluating Strauss's critiques

    of Heidegger, I will also judge which conception of the human situation provides a more

    adequate basis for the claim that philosophy is a vital and necessary form of thought. Here too I

    will conclude that Heidegger's thought has more to offer political theory than Strauss's critiques

    would lead one to expect.

    1. Historical Sickness

    Since Nietzsche's essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life"3 it has been

    a commonplace of philosophical and social thought that modernity suffers from a historical

    malady. The surfeit of history has become a burden impeding action. The source of this malady

    is, according to Nietzsche, "the demand that history be a science."4 Scientific rationality has,

    Nietzsche suggests, been pursued so far that it has coiled around and bitten its own tail. Science

    produces a "white" discourse, one without values, and one that devalues what have heretofore

    served as humanity's highest goals. Nietzsche fears that without such goals humanity is doomed

    to degenerate into a mediocre self-satisfied mass. The problem then would seem to be the need

    to find a type of knowing that, rather than impeding, promotes action. Scientific historiography

    needs to be replaced by a different relation to historical knowledge, one that promotes life. We

    seem to face a problem about the relation of theory and practice. Nietzsche initially proposes


  • two solutions to this problem: the unhistorical and the suprahistorical. He appeals both to youth,

    with its innocence born of lack of memory, and to the eternalizing power of art and religion.5

    Subsequent to "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," Nietzsche realizes

    that the hope of curing historical sickness by a once and for all redemptive teaching - whether

    the unhistorical or the suprahistorical - is a form of revenge against time. When his Zarathustra

    meditates upon the eternal return, he learns that even the last man returns eternally.6 Since even

    the last man returns, Zarathustra's teaching of the superman cannot be understood simply as

    propounding a new enduring relation of knowing to doing that will banish historical sickness.

    Rather the problem of historical sickness becomes more complicated; it becomes a matter of

    affirming the superman even though that teaching is now understood not to offer a final


    The problem then is more than simply a problem of arranging a productive relation of

    knowing and doing. Nietzsche realizes that, given the demand for truth that modern man has

    acquired, there is a deeper problem. Humanity needs goals, goals which Nietzsche, thinking of

    the hardening of the will into phenomena, does not hesitate to call appearances, or indeed

    illusions. But this need for illusion battles against the need to be true to oneself. Nietzsche

    knows, having learned his Socratic lesson despite his detestation of Socrates, that if one is to be

    true to oneself about one's goals these goals must be truly given. The problem that the historical

    malady points to is not simply the problem of how it is possible to have goals now that God is

    dead. This problem of combining knowing and doing is the easy problem, for we can imagine,

    as Nietzsche imagined, both the innocence of youth and the return to the eternal. The deeper

    problem is to discover what makes good faith good, why it is good to be true to oneself, and why

    we should not settle for bad faith, or illusion. This problem is not at the level of knowing and

    doing, but at the level of existence and meaning.

    Historical sickness is a result of the split between existence and meaning, or between

    mind and world. What I have called Nietzsche's Socratic lesson, what Nietzsche himself often

    calls the will to truth, is the demand that, even if we are to take leave of philosophy, we must do

    so philosophically. The historical malady cannot be cured simply by the construction of a new

    "noble lie." We need to know that we are philosophically entitled to our cure for modernity's

    historical sickness. Only an explanation of how existence and meaning belong together can hope

    to provide such a cure. Only an account of the human situation, and this means an account of


  • the ontological basis of the constitution of meaning, will suffice. Attempted cures at the level of

    knowing and doing merely repress the deeper problem.8 Whether Nietzsche himself overcomes

    historical sickness is unclear. Does Zarathustra succeed in remaining true to both of his

    mistresses: life and wisdom? Strauss and Heidegger attempt to find a definitive cure for

    historical sickness.

    Strauss is well known for his trenchant criticism of historicism, so the centrality of

    historical sickness to his thought is hardly surprising. What is perhaps less obvious is the

    intimate relation between the problematic of historical sickness and Strauss's own preferred

    formulation of the problem facing modernity: the question of natural right or, more broadly, of

    political philosophy.9 When properly understood, Strauss argues, "political" in political

    philosophy indicates not the subject matter of a particular branch of philosophy but the manner

    in which philosophy