I had to put Leo Strauss down for a while. Normally, I like to read a book all the way through, but two related things about Natural Right and History made me step back from it.
One was that after the first two chapters that laid out some directly original political thinking, the book delved into exploring different epochs of Western political thinking. A long chapter on ancient Greek thinking had many ideas that were quite useful to me and my current project. Same with his chapter on Hobbes. But as I moved forward?
|Is this small, unassuming man who you'd
barely notice if you bumped into him on
the street really a revolutionary? Maybe
his anonymity and the ease with which
you can dismiss him is a revolutionary's
Related to that is a curious idea about how Strauss actually wrote. The notion that Strauss is the hidden (in plain sight) Yoda of neoconservatism doesn't seem to fit with most of his writing and teaching, commentaries on the classics.
But Strauss also wrote a book on esotericism in writing, and there's a curious comment about John Locke in Natural Right and History that fits with this. Basically, Locke looks horribly inconsistent in that he wrote many books that said the Christian books of revelation contained all the moral teaching you’d need.
Yet it also wrote the Treatises on Government, two books that justify liberal democracy, at least in his prototypical theory, with entirely material and practical grounding. Christ and the Christian God are nowhere to be seen.
So Strauss talks about this idea that, in politically turbulent times, it makes no sense to speak openly and frankly about your political views if they displease the ignorant / deceived masses or the state / rulers and military.
You have to hide your true beliefs to avoid the fate of Socrates: arrested and executed for laughing in the face of popular morality and encouraging others to do so. Every open revolutionary faces the same danger: the consequences of the revolution’s failure. And most revolutions fail.
So philosophical texts that seek to change people's minds, causing a genuinely transformative social revolution, can’t do so explicitly. Readers will resist you when their views are directly challenged. And if the politically and militarily powerful of your society are directly challenged?
This weekend, I attended the JAYU Human Rights Film Festival as a representative of the Syria Film Festival. They closed this year's screenings with a film called Trials of Spring. It followed several women’s rights activists in Egypt, through the 2011 revolutions and their aftermath.
The main leader in focus was Hend Nafea. She took part in many protests against the government of Egypt: against Hosni Mubarak, the interim military government, Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Over those three years from the revolution until mid-2014, she set up organizations to provide legal aid to activists arrested by the regime, fight against a pervasive climate that permitted all intensities of violence against women. She was one of the most visible and important leaders of popular resistance to oppression from both the military and the Islamists.
|An explicit revolution will always have enemies,
because you will have already declared from the start
that you actually are revolutionaries.
In 2014, the Egyptian courts, controlled by Sisi’s military government directly, sentenced her to life in prison, so had to flee to the United States. Nafea continues to advocate and network with others working toward a democratic Egypt.
She spoke her mind explicitly, and was punished for it, like millions of others across Arab and Persian societies after the 2011 revolutions. Only Morocco and Tunisia have secured anything like democracy.
King Mohammad of Morocco was happy to transition to a constitutional monarchy, and Tunisia was lucky to have had a strong labour movement and a weak military. Everywhere else, there’s been crackdown and mass murder.
What would Strauss say? “See what you get?!” or something along those lines. Yet he was a revolutionary himself, apparently, without making a noise. His revolution would change the culture such that the autocracy would collapse naturally, without anyone knowing a thing. Before I can really understand what he means by this, I need to read more about esotericism, what kind of revolution this would be.
I have to figure out how a person can look utterly inoffensive, and yet spread idea that constitute a genuine revolution. Until I can get my hands on some books about this idea, and where Strauss engages the idea itself – giving away his key – I feel like I won’t be able to understand precisely the meaning of Strauss himself.
Until then, there’s still plenty to learn about different aspects of political philosophy. Particularly, some of his ideas about Hobbes – who's important to the Utopias project in his own right – are quite illuminating.