Thought for the Day: The City State Versus the Modern State

For those following the ongoing debates over “national conservatism,” this passage from a 1947 letter from Leo Strauss to the German philosopher Karl Lowith offers some provocative and useful thoughts (though not necessarily easy to grasp if you don’t have much background in political philosophy):

I really believe, although to you this apparently appears fantastic, that the perfect political order, as Plato and Aristotle have sketched it, is the perfect political order. Or do you believe in the world-state? If it is true that genuine unity is only possible through knowledge of the truth or through search for the truth, then there is a genuine unity of all men only on the basis of the popularized final teaching of philosophy (and naturally this does not exist) or of all men are philosophers (not Pd.D.s, etc)—which likewise is not the case. Therefore there can only be closed societies, that is, states. But if that is so, then one can show from political considerations that the small city-state is in principle superior to the large state or to the territorial-feudal state. I know very well that today it cannot be restored; but the famous atomic bombs—not to mention all the cities with a million inhabitants, gadgets, funeral homes, ‘ideologies’—show that the contemporary solution, that is, the completely modern solution, is contra naturam. Whoever concedes that Horace did not speak nonsense when he said ‘Naturam furca expelles, tamen usque recurret’ [‘You can expel nature with a pitchfork, but it will come back at you’], concedes thereby precisely the legitimacy in principle of Platonic-Aristotelian politics. Details may be disputed, although I myself might actually agree with everything that Plato and Aristotle demand (but that I only tell you).

Actually this passage sheds light on several Strauss-related controversies, but sorting these out will require a whole class period just to get started.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.