Leo Strauss and the Longing for Deep Answers
In this moment of overlapping biological and cultural crises in the nation, I recently found myself revisiting “German Nihilism,” an extended essay by Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss. Written in 1940, Strauss’s piece sought to answer the question of why talented young people, educated in the finest schools and steeped in the classical traditions of Western thought, might reject those traditions in favor of secular authoritarianism during the runup to World War II.
Among all of Strauss’s works, this text has aged particularly well; it offers an insightful look into why young people today, within the modern environment, often abandon the value systems—Christian or otherwise—in which they were raised. (Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But I find that Strauss’s argument substantially accords with my experience.)
According to Strauss, when faced with serious philosophical critiques of the prevailing norms of society, the professors and teachers who opposed the young men of revolutionary spirit
committed frequently a grave mistake. They believed to have refuted the No by refuting the Yes, i.e. the inconsistent, if not silly, positive assertions of the young men. But one cannot refute what one has not thoroughly understood. And many opponents did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the negation of the present world and its potentialities.
According to Strauss, in seeking to truly transmit principles across generations, it isn’t enough for an elder to critique a young person’s outlandish affirmative claim—let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the claim is “Christianity is always an oppressive force in society!”—as absurd. In response to that claim, one might marshal plenty of historical evidence about the horrors of the pre-Christian age—massive tribal warfare, widespread rape and infanticide, gladiatorial combat and so on—but none of those arguments will prove compelling in the deepest sense. That’s because, at bottom, the claim is motivated by a fundamental rejection of the prevailing status quo as wrong and oppressive. And it is no good to challenge expressions of that conviction without evaluating the conviction itself on its own merits, or understanding the factors underlying it.
Strauss goes on to explain why surface-level rebuttals proved inadequate:
As a consequence, the very refutations confirmed the [young men] in their belief; all these refutations seemed to beg the question; most of the refutations seemed to consist of pueris decantata, of repetitions of things which the young people knew already by heart. Those young men had come to doubt seriously, and not merely methodically or methodologically, the principles of modern civilisation; the great authorities of that civilisation did no longer impress them; it was evident that only such opponents would have been listened to who knew that doubt from their own experience, who through years of hard and independent thinking had overcome it.
Mere repetition of familiar maxims, Strauss explains, cannot hope to persuade those who are already familiar with those slogans and are willing to reject the premises outright. Rather, only those who possess a clear-eyed understanding of the underlying unstated questions can meaningfully speak to present concerns. What this looks like in practice, of course, will differ based on the nature of the challenge.
One phenomenon that’s proven particularly common among my friends and acquaintances has been a visceral rejection of the suffocating one-note spirituality of some varieties of American evangelicalism. By this, I mean a constant pressure to put on a happy face and reflect the “joy of the Lord,” no matter how dire or painful the circumstances. (At its worst, this involves denying the reality of clinical depression.)
Some people that I’ve known have rejected communities of faith altogether, advancing the absurd Yes—the affirmative claim—that all spiritual expressions of joy are essentially inauthentic and hypocritical. That’s clearly a false claim. But behind this Yes is a No to the status quo that they’ve inhabited: a No to the denial that the human experience is full of pain and loss and desolation and wonder and loneliness, sometimes at the same time.
And that No is a No that only someone who has also experienced real tragedy can speak to. Certainly it is not a No to the possibility of hope as such: after all, a Christianity of pure self-help, one that cannot embrace the poles of Tenebrae and Easter alike, is a Christianity that does violence to its central message. But it is a No that must be confronted over and over again in the “vale of tears” through which all human beings pass in life.
More recently, many young people have been struck by the sordid history of those claiming the “Christian” name in order to justify slavery and violent colonialism on a global scale. But it is no good to merely challenge those young people’s obviously faulty Yes claims—that all religions are merely fig leaves for large-scale violence, or (alternatively) that faiths can be defined down to whatever one prefers. Those are only surface-level expressions of deeper concerns. The true, underlying No is to the uncritical affirmation of this history as essentially orthodox rather than as aberrant and heretical. And that No can only be answered by someone unflinchingly confronting the Christian past, not (as in the case of, say, certain neo-Confederate apologists) by those inclined to water it down or explain it away.
Toward the end of his essay, Strauss cautions defenders of the classical tradition to “beware of a sense of solidarity which is not limited by discretion.” That warning is as salient now as then: not all principles or ideas flying a Christian flag are, indeed, aligned with the orthodox faith. The task of passing on the faith must—as ever—involve a careful discerning of what in our received wisdom is wheat, and what is chaff. And the willingness to do that is what ultimately leads to trust.