This is the third of three remarkable volumes by Richard Velkley exploring the problems of freedom in modern philosophy of the last two and a half centuries. His earlier books, focused on Kant and Rousseau, took up a genealogical project that has come to completion in the present volume, with its focus on Heidegger. Velkley’s Heidegger is the final resolution of the project of German Idealism (10, 84). Heidegger intensifies Kant’s proposal that “the inquiry into the moral … can be divorced from the nature of man and … the human natural concern with happiness,” and “pushes human freedom to its limit” by “divorcing freedom from the good entirely” (89–90). Velkley has worked out a detailed and powerful view of how this modern celebration of the most extreme freedom possible for human beings leads into a moral and political abyss. Heidegger warns us of the abyss and falls into it himself when he supports tyrannical politics. Heidegger’s 1933 Rectoral Address removes every standard save intellectual courage: “Questioning, no longer a preliminary step to the answer and thus to knowledge, becomes itself the highest form of knowledge” (“Rectoral Address,” trans. Karsten Harries, Review of Metaphysics 38 : 474).
Leo Strauss figures into Velkley’s story as a thoroughly modern thinker who teetered on the edge of Heidegger’s abyss. Velkley’s Strauss discreetly but thoroughly agrees with Heidegger in rejecting any “guidance” that depends on philosophical access to a transcendent good, and accepts permanent questioning over any solution. The philosophical consummation of the book (112–14) is Velkley’s answer to the question, “What is the standard for political choices that replaces [Heidegger’s historicism] if it is not knowledge of moral-political absolutes?” Velkley’s Strauss appeals to an erotic attachment to “an awareness of permanent perplexity” (132) strong enough, it seems, to be the “antidote” (114) to any desire to take resolute action. Strauss becomes Hamlet: no wonder Velkley says that it “can strike one as paradoxical” (113) that Strauss thought he could evade the conclusions of Heidegger’s “premises” (114) this way. I think nothing Velkley says justifies his description of this alleged Straussian position as an “insight” (114), and in this respect, the book is a philosophical failure, even though it is manifestly a scholarly victory.
A great strength of the book is Velkley’s demonstration of Strauss’s systematic engagement with Heidegger throughout his entire career, particularly from Natural Right and History in 1953 through The City and Man in 1964. It is by now well known that Strauss deliberately hid his Heideggerian engagement during this decade of his most important publications, but Velkley demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that this engagement was the defining provocation of the work. In this and in other ways, Velkley has carried farther the approach of Stanley Rosen, especially in Rosen’s The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger (1993) and The Elusiveness of the Ordinary (2002). Another strength is Velkley’s retrieval of Strauss’s underlying appreciation of other modern thinkers, as philosophers engaged in authentic and indeed necessary questioning of philosophy’s claims to transcendence, an appreciation obscured by the surface of Strauss’s sharp critiques of moderns such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. Strauss’s “dialectical mode of arguing” leads him “to overstate the philosophic decline inherent in the modern turn,” says Velkley, and many scholars overlook “the philosophical-pedagogical purposes” behind Strauss’s “at times one-sided accounts of modern philosophy as ‘fallen’” (13 and 19; emphasis added).
This modern emphasis is itself rather one-sided, and underplays the Greek for the German engagements of these two thinkers. The most serious weakness in Velkley’s account of Strauss’s mature engagement with Heidegger is his almost complete disregard of Strauss’s 1947 commentary on Xenophon’s Hiero, and Strauss’s subsequent debate with Alexandre Kojěve about it. This debate was centered on an essential passage from the Rectoral Address: “For the Greeks, science is not just one cultural good among others...