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Hobbes and the Character of Modernity

  • Shadia B. Drury

Abstract

One of the central themes of Strauss’s work is to analyze the character of ‘modernity’ and explain how it ultimately led to the ‘crisis’ of our time. If we are to understand Strauss, we must examine what he means by ‘modernity’ and by ‘crisis’. Although he does not express it this way, his view can be described as follows. A civilization is not made of oak and rock but of individuals. Its foundation is in the hearts and minds of men. Its health depends on the psychic health or depravity of its constituents. A civilization is healthy when it is inspired by an idea, a purpose and a project that animates all those within its compass. A civilization begins to decline and decay and ultimately vanishes when the individuals within it no longer believe in the idea or ideas that are its guiding light. For Strauss, ‘modernity’ is not essentially an historical or chronological category.1 It refers primarily to the set of ideas that in the last two hundred years have gained ascendancy and become the guiding light and inspiration directing Western civilization. The crisis of modern Western civilization consists in the fact that these ideas have now lost their power; we no longer believe in them. This is not altogether surprising, for the ideas that have been our guiding lights were ill-conceived from the start.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Leo Strauss, ‘Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization’, Modern Judaism, vol. 1 (1981) pp. 17–45, based on two of three public lectures delivered at the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation, University of Chicago, 5 November 1952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 10.
    Leo Strauss, ‘The Crisis of Our Time’, and The Crisis of Political Philosophy’, in Harold J. Spaeth (ed.), The Predicament of Modern Politics (Detroit, Mich.: University of Detroit Press, 1964).Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    Leo Strauss, ‘The Three Waves of Modernity’, in Hilail Gildin (ed.), Political Philosophy: Six Essays by Leo Strauss (Indianapolis, Ind., and New York: Bobbs-Merrill/Pegasus, 1975).Google Scholar
  4. 14.
    Bernard de Mandeville, Fable of the Bees, ed. F. B. Kaye (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), vol. i, p. 4;Google Scholar
  5. see also discussion of Mandeville in Arthur Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961) p. 41.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1960) p. 383.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1973) p. 43.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    R. Jordan, ‘The Revolt against Philosophy: The Spell of Popper’, in John Wild (ed.), Return to Reason (Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1953).Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    Werner Jaeger, ‘Praise of Law: The Origins of Philosophy and the Greeks’, in Paul Sayre (ed.), Interpretations of Modern Legal Philosophies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947) p. 362.Google Scholar
  10. 24.
    TM, p. 299; see also discussion of this in George Grant, ‘Tyranny and Wisdom’, in his Technology and Empire (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969).Google Scholar
  11. 31.
    For an alternate view, see J. W. Yolton, ‘Locke on the Law of Nature’, Philosophical Review, vol. 67 (1958) pp. 477–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 33.
    Strauss’s view is developed at much greater length by one of his former students — see Richard H. Cox, Locke on War and Peace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960);Google Scholar
  13. for a discussion and criticism of Cox, see John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969) esp. ch. 12; my own understanding of Locke on the matter of appropriation differs considerably from Strauss’s; see my ‘Locke and Nozick on Property’, Political Studies, vol. 30, no. 1 (March 1982) pp. 28–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 44.
    Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1958).Google Scholar
  15. 48.
    Some of the aspects of modernity to which Strauss points have been noted by other contemporary political analysts. That technology or the mastery over nature is one of the prime hallmarks of modernity is the theme of the work of writers such as George Grant, Technology and Empire, Jean Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964),Google Scholar
  16. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism and Politics (London: Methuen, 1962). Eric Voegelin also understands modernity in terms of the ‘gnostic’ project of self-salvation through technology; see The New Science of Politics (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1952). That one of the distinctive features of modernity is the shrinking of the public realm, and hence the decline of the pursuit of honor and glory in favor of the pursuit of wealth and private interests, is the central theme of the political thought of Hannah Arendt.Google Scholar
  17. The Mandevillian character of modernity has been recognized by writers such as Arthur Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature, (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961)Google Scholar
  18. condemned as the height of foolishness by writers like Patrick Devlin, in The Enforcement of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), and other critics of modern liberalism. The increasing democratization of society and the increasing proliferation of private rights and privileges is an aspect of modernity that is widely recognized.Google Scholar
  19. It is greeted by many with open arms, but treated with dismay, if not trepidation, by writers such as Ortega Y. Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932). But only Strauss links these changes to the eclipse of the esoteric philosophy of the ancients.Google Scholar

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© Shadia B. Drury 2005

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  • Shadia B. Drury

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