Strauss’s Rousseau and the Second Wave of Modernity – Steven B. Smith

Leo Strauss’s Rousseau chapter in Natural Right and History is perhaps the most neglected aspect of the book.1 This is surprising because Strauss himself paid Rousseau the considerable compliment of taking him seriously. At a time when Rousseau was dismissed as either a crank outside the philosophical canon or as a dangerous obscurantist responsible for the radical politics of the French Revolution, Strauss helped to revive a serious interest in his philosophical thought.2

The Rousseau chapter is titled “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right” and begins: “The first crisis of modernity occurred in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” (252). The crisis initiated by Rousseau, ironically, took the form of a return to antiquity.

Rousseau, Strauss tells us, attacked modernity in the name of two classical ideas: virtue and the city, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. Rousseau appealed to the polis and the ancient conception of the citizen (as opposed to the modern state and its characteristic inhabitant, the bourgeois) and at the same time he appealed to the classical conception of natural right, however attenuated, as the standard by which society should be judged. Strauss notes that later thinkers – Kant, Fichte, Hegel – may have “clarified” Rousseau’s vision, but “one must wonder whether they preserved [its] breadth” (252).

Whether consciously intended or not, Rousseau’s movement of return had the effect of producing an even more advanced or radicalized form of modernity, its so-called “second wave”. Strauss affirms that Rousseau was not a “reactionary”. He carried out his critique of modernity on the platform that earlier modern thinkers had already created, but “jettisoned important elements of classical thought that his modern predecessors had still preserved” (252).

Among these discarded views was the claim that man is naturally social and that consequently reason and virtue are natural to humanity. For Rousseau, these were instead historical acquisitions. He was thus the first to make the decisive step toward the historicist negation of philosophy that would achieve fruition in the philosophy of history and the view that “man’s humanity is the product of the historical process” (274). This form of historicism would come to a head in Nietzsche, who was the first to apply historicism to itself, which in turn ushered in “the second crisis of modernity – the crisis of our time” (253).

Strauss recognizes that his interpretation of Rousseau faces a grave difficulty. There is an “obvious tension” in Rousseau’s thought between Rousseau, the classical citizen who accepts the complete subordination of the individual to society, and Rousseau, the promeneur solitaire who regards all authority and hence all social restraint as necessarily illegitimate.

Is freedom to be found in voluntary submission to the dictates of the general will or by listening to the voice of one’s conscience in the stillness of the passions? “He presents to his readers,” Strauss avers, “the confusing spectacle of a man who perpetually shifts back and forth between two diametrically opposed positions” (254).

How is one to make sense of this “spectacle”? Moreover, how can one reconcile Rousseau’s praise of natural man in the Second Discourse with the Rousseau who proudly signs his name “Citoyen de Genève” in the Social Contract, and how to reconcile both with the man who self-consciously rejects the claims of society in the name of the solitary life in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker? What is Strauss’s answer?

Rousseau’s Historicism
The central discussion of Strauss’s Rousseau chapter deals with the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (or the Second Discourse), which is described as “Rousseau’s most philosophic work” containing his “fundamental reflections.” The Second Discourse is presented as the work of a “philosopher” by which Strauss means that morality is regarded not as “an unquestioned or unquestionable presupposition” but as a “problem” (264). Unlike the First Discourse, which was written in part to defend morality from the dangers of the Enlightenment, the Second Discourse presents morality as an expression of the problem of man’s transition from nature to society.

It is not immediately obvious why Strauss should consider the Second Discourse as representing a crisis of natural right. The work seems to stand firmly within the tradition of modern natural right and the state of nature as elaborated by Hobbes and Locke. “Rousseau,” Strauss writes, “accepts Hobbes’s premise” and “takes it for granted that in order to establish natural right, one must return to the state of nature” (266). This premise is based upon a rejection of classical natural right.

According to the classical view, natural right is to be found in human reason that prescribes to man certain perfect duties that can only be fulfilled in society. For Hobbes, by contrast, natural right is rooted in principles prior to reason, in the passions, and these prescribe not duties but certain rights or liberties, most importantly the right to self-preservation. Strauss points to Rousseau’s transformation of the biblical Golden Rule as evidence of his acceptance of Hobbes’s thesis: not “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but “do your good with the least possible harm to others.”3

For Strauss, the genius of Rousseau was to draw radically un-Hobbesian conclusions from consistent Hobbesian premises. If the principles of natural right are truly to be found in an asocial state of nature, then it follows that the laws of nature cannot be rooted in human reason because reason, like the passions, is a product of society.

This insight forms the basis of Rousseau’s teaching of the natural goodness of man (271). Our natural goodness consists not so much in the presence of certain positive qualities but in the absence of negative ones. We are born almost completely cipher. Strauss observes in a note that Rousseau’s contention of the natural goodness of man expresses “two incompatible views.” On the one hand, while man may be born good his faults are entirely due to him alone through civilization, and civilization has its origin in pride, which is a misuse of freedom. On the other hand, our departure from the state of nature could not be the result of a misuse of freedom because man in the state of nature lacks freedom (271, note 38).

Rousseau replaces freedom with perfectibilité as the chief characteristic of natural man. Our perfectibility, which is an “almost unlimited capacity for change,” is the source not only of our “almost unlimited progress” but of our “almost unlimited degradation.” Most importantly, the idea of perfectibility lays the basis for the historicist thesis that man has no nature “which would set a limit to what he can make out of himself,” but only a history (271).

It is in the thesis of virtually limitless perfectibility that Strauss finds Rousseau’s radical subversion of previous natural right theories. Hobbes had “erroneously assumed” that natural man was a being capable of exercising choice and making contracts, but the capacity to make and keep promises cannot be at the foundation of society because it already presupposes society. The social order for Rousseau was not the result of choice but of “accidental causation.” The mind and everything specifically human developed as a response to certain wants, and as our wants developed, so did our humanity.

The Second Discourse resulted paradoxically in turning the modern natural right teaching on its head. Rousseau discovered that the natural condition of man must be one lacking virtually all recognizably human characteristics. But if this is so, it makes no sense to go back to it in order to find norms for society. Nature has become so far removed from the way in which we now live that it has become irrelevant for all practical purposes. Like the statue of Glaucus to which Rousseau refers at the beginning of the Second Discourse, mankind has become so disfigured that our natural state is all but unrecognizable.4 But if we can no longer take our bearings from nature, perhaps we can find them in history. “For a moment – [which] lasted longer than a century,” Strauss writes, “it seemed possible to seek the standards of human action in the historical process” (274).

Rousseau’s “Kantian” Turn
Rousseau’s break with the ancient and modern conceptions of natural right in turn led to an unprecedented understanding of freedom as self-legislative autonomy, a doctrine associated mostly with Kant and the German philosophy of freedom.5 Strauss cites a passage from Hegel claiming a kinship between Kant’s and Fichte’s idealism and the “anti-socialistic systems of natural right” found in the works of Hobbes and Rousseau (279). By “anti-socialistic” Hegel meant that their theories denied the crucial premise of the natural sociality of man. If man is not a social or political animal by nature, then it is not natural right but the will that forms the true bond of society.

Strauss’s reconstruction of Rousseau’s idea of freedom begins from the lowly premises of the state of nature. In Hobbes’s formulation, everyone in the state of nature is bound by a law of nature that mandates self-preservation as the highest end. All subsequent social relations are an inference from this first and primary passion. On Rousseau’s reformulation, the first and fundamental desire is something that precedes even self-preservation; it is the desire for freedom itself, the desire not to be controlled or dominated by another. It is in the desire for independence and not self-preservation that the “spirituality” of the soul can be found. “According to Rousseau,” Strauss writes, “freedom is a higher good than life” (278). Thus, it is freedom – not life, property, or security – that becomes the foundation of the social contract.

The task of the Social Contract was to find a form of society whose members obey only themselves, leaving them as free as they were in the state of nature, which was characterized by radical independence. Whereas earlier for Rousseau it was “absurd” to find a standard for man in nature, he now maintains that the state of nature can still function as a “positive standard” for society. The general will “consists in the closest approximation to the state of nature which is possible on the level of humanity” (282).6

Rousseau endowed freedom with a sacred dignity and moral absoluteness that it had previously lacked (282). No longer would freedom be regarded as subordinate to happiness or to virtue but would be conceived as an end in itself, a “creative act” that would form the basis of unconditional duties. True freedom is to be understood not as blind appetite or mere choice, but as obedience to the laws that one prescribes for oneself, and only a law that can be “generalized” and applied equally and impartially to all can be considered rational or just.7

Strauss points out that Rousseau did not take the final step of substituting the law of reason for the law of nature. The rational society would not be immediately applicable in all times and places and remains constrained by external factors, such as climate, population, and geography. This, Strauss suggests, helps to explain “the moderate character of most of Rousseau’s proposals” (277, note 44).

Strauss remains skeptical whether the purely formal mechanism of “generalization” could provide an adequate standard for justice. If consistency in willing is the measure of a law, then any policy, however extreme, could pass the test of justice so long as it is willed with sufficient resoluteness. On this account, “cannibalism is as just as its opposite.”8

The general will marks “a decisive step in the secular movement” that seeks to replace the transcendent standard of natural right with the will of society. It therefore represents the substitution of natural law with positive law. Accordingly, there can be no appeal against the popular will of society once it has acquired the aura of infallibility. “Every institution hallowed by a folk-mind,” Strauss affirms, “has to be regarded as sacred.”9 (This forms the philosophic basis of what today is called multiculturalism.)

Rousseau’s “Individualism”
The democratic state may be the closest approximation to the natural state at the level of society, but it is not the closest approximation at the level of humanity. It is the solitary – not the citizen, and not the lover – who most perfectly captures the independence of humanity in the state of nature.

Strauss is careful to distinguish between Rousseau’s solitary and the philosopher. The solitary has withdrawn from society not to think but to feel. It is not through contemplation but through sentiment that the “civilized man completes the return to the primitive state on the level of humanity” (292). Rousseau’s solitary is not a Socrates, discussing virtue every day in the agora, but is more like a Thoreau or a Tolstoy, who has retreated to the margins and thinks of himself as the conscience of society. He is like the “artist” or the “bohemian”, characterized not by philosophy or wisdom but by a superior aesthetic sense.

For Rousseau, this kind of individualism was a rare and precious human achievement, scarcely the property of the democratic everyman. Strauss strikes a Rousseauean chord in “What is Political Philosophy?” when he notes that by educating people to co-operate with one another, democracies neglect “those virtues which mature, if they do not flourish in privacy, not to say in solitude.”

In this way Rousseau seems to have reconstituted the classical distinction between the few and the many. “Only very few men are capable of finding their way back to nature,” Strauss writes. “The tension between the desire for preservation of existence and the feeling of existence expresses itself . . . in the insoluble antagonism between the large majority who in the best case will be good citizens and the minority of solitary dreamers who are the salt of the earth.”10

Strauss clearly prefers Rousseau’s frank assertion of the superiority of those few genuine individualists (“the salt of the earth”) to later efforts to democratize this ideal. But even here he expresses grave doubts about the philosophic coherence of Rousseau’s individualism. It is a freedom from society, but a freedom with no direction or no content. Rousseau’s freedom is at the source of modern complaints about anomie, alienation, and egoism.11

Rousseau’s Ambiguous Legacies
Rousseau occupies a central place in Strauss’s famous “wave hypothesis” about the development of modernity, yet his legacy cuts in different and contradictory directions. He stands as a bridge between Machiavelli and Hobbes who inaugurated the “first wave” of modernity and Nietzsche and Heidegger who brought the “third wave” to its tragic completion. As the founder of modernity’s second wave, Rousseau’s concept of perfectibilité stands at that crucial moment when modern philosophy had begun to disentangle itself entirely from the older tradition of natural right and move in the direction of historicism.

The second wave of modernity is inseparable from the philosophy of history, that is, the belief that only the “spirit of a people,” as discovered in its particular laws, mores, and institutions, can provide a concrete or “realistic” foundation for right. But what for early members of the historical school – thinkers like Burke and Herder – presented itself as a pleasing variety of “folk-minds” or national cultures was turned by later thinkers into a doctrine of unalloyed historical progress. It is the idea of history as a “meaningful process” that stands at the basis of modernity’s second wave and found expression in the philosophy of Kant, Hegel, and Marx. The legitimate or just society came to be seen as the outcome of a historical process that took the place of the natural or moral law. 12

Strauss argued that the idea of a philosophy of history would later prove to be incoherent in its own terms. Belief in the progressive realization of the just order presupposed an “absolute moment” – “the end of history” – at which point the meaning of the historical process would be realized. On this account, the right political order—whether the Kantian federation of republics, the Hegelian Vernunftstaat, or the Marxian classless society—will be realized through actions that are only incidentally directed toward those ends. In Schiller’s famous formula, copied later by Hegel, Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht or, put simply, history will judge. This deferral of reason to history is at the core of those modern ideologies according to which the just political order is an inevitable consequence of the historical process.13

Rousseau’s second wave of modernity was not only responsible for the philosophy of history, but for the philosophy of freedom. Strauss’s reading of Rousseau culminates in a doctrine of radical individualism. While at least superficially Strauss seems more concerned with the dangers of historicism and the rise of the “historical consciousness,” it is the problems associated with individualism that he claims represent Rousseau’s most important legacy for modernity. “The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns concerns eventually, and perhaps even from the beginning, the status of ‘individuality’” (323).

Strauss presents modern individualism as the most corrosive solvent of the restraints imposed by natural right. It is the decision to opt for individuality in all its dimensions that is at the root of “liberal relativism” and the inability to distinguish between the educated and the uneducated uses of freedom.

Strauss traces the philosophic foundation of the idea of individuality back to the separation of nature from the will, or the Is from the Ought. This separation in turn made possible the distinctively modern emphasis on self-legislation as the essence of freedom. Henceforth the law governing society would no longer be a natural law that determines our ends, but a rational or moral law determined by its form alone. The attempt to replace “vertical limitations” set from above with “horizontal limitations” set from within (or between) rational wills is ultimately unable to maintain a principled ground for the distinction between liberty and license.14

For Strauss, the inability of reason alone to set limits to freedom is the Achilles’ heel that gave rise to the second crisis of modernity. This second crisis, “the crisis of our time,” was inaugurated by Nietzsche, who took the Rousseauean-Kantian arguments about self-legislative reason in an even more radical direction. Freedom is the possession of creative geniuses, who are the bringers of “values” based entirely on their own will. Rather than losing themselves in Rousseau’s dreamy “sentiment of existence,” these legislative founders must learn to adopt an attitude of Redlichkeit or ruthless honesty in a world void of metaphysical comfort.15

The failure of the second wave of modernity is ultimately rooted in its belief that reason or the will can provide its own foundations for justice without reference to nature. The belief that principles of right could be derived from the will was no more plausible than the belief that they could be derived from history. Neither history nor the will can provide an adequate ground for justice.

To be sure, Strauss did not so much demonstrate this claim as assert it. His belief that second wave modernity inevitably gave rise to the third wave prevented him from engaging directly with such major figures as Kant, Fichte, Hegel, or Marx. Indeed, Strauss’s confidence that the second wave had been overtaken by the third prevented him from even considering the possibility of the current revival of theories of the rational will and human agency.

Thus, we must turn to his treatment of Rousseau, the sole representative of the second wave with whom he did engage in any depth. If Strauss was correct in this, then contemporary neo-Kantian theories of autonomy, no less than neo-Hegelian theories of mutual recognition, have built their castles on foundations of sand.16

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He is the author of many books, including Spinoza’s Book of Life (Yale, 2003) and Reading Leo Strauss (University of Chicago, 2006), and he recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss (2009). His latest book, on the political thought of Abraham Lincoln, is forthcoming in 2012 from Yale University Press.

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  1. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); all references are included in parentheses in the text. Although his treatments of such individual figures as Hobbes, Locke, Burke, and Weber have received lively and extensive commentary, his reading of Rousseau, with a few notable exceptions, has gone unappreciated. See Luc Ferry, Political Philosophy I: Rights – The New Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns, trans. Franklin Philip (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 35-51; Robert Pippin, “The Modern World of Leo Strauss,” Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Emigrés and American Political Thought after World War II, ed. Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes, and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 139-60 at 152-60; see also Heinrich Meier, “The History of Philosophy and the Intention of the Philosopher,” Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, trans. Marcus Brainard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 55-73 at 66-68.
  2. His various students – and later students of his students – went on to produce invaluable translations, editions, and commentaries on Rousseau’s works. Among works by the “first generation” of Strauss’s students, see Allan Bloom, trans. Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968); trans. Emile or on Education (New York: Basic Books, 1979); “Rousseau” in Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 39-156; Victor Gourevitch, trans. Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); trans. Rousseau, The Social Contract and other Later Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); “Rousseau on the Arts and Sciences,” The Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972): 737-54; “Rousseau’s ‘Pure’ State of Nature,” Interpretation 16 (1988): 23-59; Roger Masters, co-ed. The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Hanover: The University Press of New England, 1990-2009); The Political Philosophy of Rousseau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965); Hilail Gildin, Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: The Design of the Argument (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  3. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, 154 (38).
  4. Rousseau, Second Discourse, 124 (1).
  5. Strauss was by no means the first reader to point to a connection between Rousseau and German idealism. His own teacher Ernst Cassirer had done much to establish the Rousseau-Kant connection. See Ernst Cassirer, The Questions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. Peter Gay (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (1932) 1963); see also Cassirer, “Kant and Rousseau,” Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, trans. James Gutmann, Paul Otto Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945); for the most complete discussion of Rousseau-Kant, see Richard Velkley, Freedom and the End of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  6. Strauss says later “Rousseau sometimes called the free society as he conceived it a ‘democracy.’ Democracy is closer to the equality of the state of nature than is any other regime”. Natural Right and History, 286.
  7. Rousseau, Of the Social Contract in Later Political Writings, I, 8 (3).
  8. Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (New York: Free Press, 1959), 51. Strauss alludes to, without mentioning, Jacob Talmon’s famous thesis about “totalitarian democracy.” “One cannot emphasize too strongly,” he notes, “that Rousseau would have abhorred the totalitarianism of our day,” although he adds that this would not have prevented him from endorsing “the totalitarianism of a free society.”
  9. Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”, 51.
  10. Ibid, 53.
  11. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), II, ii, 2 (482-84).
  12. Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity,” Political Philosophy: Six Essays, ed. Hilail Gildin (Indianapolis: Pegasus/Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), 91.
  13. “The delusions of communism,” Strauss wrote in a pungent sentence “are already the delusions of Hegel and even of Kant.” Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”, 54.
  14. Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”, 51-2. Strauss’s critique recapitulates Hegel’s famous charge regarding Kant’s “empty formalism”.
  15. Leo Strauss, “Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,” Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 256.
  16. I am thinking here of the wave of philosophy initiated in the 1970s by John Rawls in America and later by Jurgen Habermas in Germany to name just the best known.