Theory, Practice, and Modernity: Leo Strauss on Rousseau’s Epicureanism
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Theory, Practice, and Modernity:
Leo Strauss on Rousseau’s Epicureanism
ABSTRACT:

This article reconstructs Leo Strauss’s reading of Rousseau’s Epicureanism to argue that his work is unified by an abiding concern with the problem of theory and practice. Strauss sought to clarify the distinction between theory and practice he considered a fundamental precondition of any properly philosophical reflection on political life, and he explained the pernicious obscuring of that distinction through a narrative tracing the modern modifications of classical Epicureanism. Strauss’s critical history of modern political thought is thus part of his attempt to restore the classical distinction between theory and practice to the status of a philosophical problem in modernity.

KEY WORDS:

Leo Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Epicureanism, theory and practice, modernity, history of political thought

… the root of all modern darkness from the seventeenth century on is the obscuring of the difference between theory and praxis, an obscuring that first leads to a reduction of praxis to theory (this is the meaning of so-called rationalism) and then, in retaliation, to the rejection of theory in the name of praxis that is no longer intelligible as praxis.

—Leo Strauss, letter to Eric Voegelin, March 14, 19501

I. INTRODUCTION

Since at least the time of his death in 1974, commentators have debated the continuity of Leo Strauss’s work. His student Allan Bloom, for instance, [End Page 621] memorialized Strauss by characterizing his teacher’s oeuvre as “a unified and continuous, ever deepening, investigation into the meaning and possibility of philosophy.”2 More recently, Samuel Moyn has conversely argued that Strauss’s thinking underwent a turn “from experience to law,” and Benjamin Lazier has identified a “great shift from God to nature” over Strauss’s career.3 The consistency of Strauss’s reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is similarly debated. While critical attention has been relatively limited and mostly restricted to either his 1947 article “On the Intention of Rousseau” or the account of Rousseau in 1953’s Natural Right and History (NRH),4 those who first considered the pieces together tended to emphasize their inconsistency. Like Hilail Gildin, Heinrich Meier argued that Strauss’s aim in NRH to narrate Rousseau’s position in the history of political philosophy served to obscure the conflict between the “well-ordered republic and philosophy” that Strauss had earlier revealed as Rousseau’s fundamental concern.5 On the other hand, Jonathan Marks and Victor Gourevitch have recently argued that Strauss’s reading is indeed consistent, in part by noting both the concern with historical narrative in “Intention” and the importance to NRH of the tension between philosophy and politics.6

This article argues that Strauss’s work is unified by an abiding concern with the problem of theory and practice. It does so precisely by demonstrating the consistency of his reading of Rousseau as a modern Epicurean. It [End Page 622] shows, first, that Epicureanism plays a foundational and structuring role in the historical narrative of the collapse of the distinction between theory and practice across Strauss’s oeuvre. Discussions of Strauss often emphasize one or more of the fundamental binary oppositions to which he frequently appealed: reason/revelation, ancients/moderns, nature/artifice, Athens/Jerusalem. As we will see, his account of Epicureanism both informs and is informed by these distinctions, and grounds Strauss’s identification of modern philosophy itself as modified Epicureanism. Second, this article shows that Strauss understood Rousseau’s ideas of the general will and the sentiment of existence to be instances of modern Epicureanism that ultimately served to collapse the distinction between the practical and the theoretical life. We will also see, moreover, that the binary oppositions he adduced in his analysis of Rousseau—science/society, philosophy/opinion, man/citizen—themselves resolve upon the tension between theory and practice. Strauss’s concerns converge in the historicization of modern thought that unites his work and through which he attempted to restore the classical distinction between theory and practice to the status of a problem in modernity.

Strauss understood the relationship between theory and practice as a “problem” in two interrelated ways, and he related both to Epicureanism. The first concerns the existence of moral...