Philosophy Political Philosophy

Leo Strauss on the Three Waves of Modernity

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was one of the most important historians of political philosophy in the 20th century.  A Jewish emigre to America in the 1930s, Strauss made his name as an exegete of the classics (Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides especially; Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Maimonides among Arab-Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophers, and Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas among medieval Christians) as well as being a historian of the history of political philosophy.  For Strauss, one had to take the classic to medieval philosophers seriously, and not just discard them as historical notaries of a bygone era with nothing to teach us besides a simple intellectual edification of “having read them.”  Strauss was, beyond a great exegete of philosophical works, one of the greatest historians of comparative philosophy.

Strauss is responsible for two notable ideas in the history of Western political philosophy: The contest between Athens (Greek Rationalism) and Jerusalem (Abrahamic revelation) which was synthesized by Christianity as the thesis that underlay classical Western civilization; and the rupture (or break) in political philosophy between classics and moderns.  His essay “The Three Waves of Modernity” is his most famous essay and is generally anthologized in most textbooks that examine the history of Western political philosophy.  His most famous book, Natural Right and History (1953), deals with this subject in greater detail.  (Other important texts of his include: The City and ManOn Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero, and Socrates and Aristophanes, and On Plato’s Symposium.)

According to Strauss, the crisis of modernity is a crisis of political philosophy.  The crisis of modernity is rooted in the rupture between classical philosophical thought and modern philosophical thought, wherein classical thought was lost to modernity and its “discovery of history” which brought forth three waves of historical modernism: The first wave being liberalism; the second wave being socialism (or as Strauss calls it, communism); and the third wave proving to be fascism.  But the important aspects of Strauss’s essay is what each wave constitutes, and how each wave serves as a simultaneous progression, but reaction, to the preceding waves.  This is what culminates in fascism being the great “anti-movement” as Ernst Nolte—the greatest 20th century historian of fascism described it—insofar that it was anti-liberal and anti-communist, but deeply modern.

Premodern Philosophy

Strauss assumes that the reader is deeply familiar with the history of philosophy and political philosophy in particular so he intersplices his essay with commentary on Biblical and Greek conceptions of man and the political.  Since this is important to set up the contrast with modernity I will summarize the impetus of classical philosophy.  First, man has a telos which his being/existence is aimed towards and this telos is genuine happiness.  Second, to consummate this happiness (and man’s perfection or, in Biblical language, sanctification) man must live in accord with his nature.  Third, this means that man has a fixed nature and end to which he exists for and moves toward.  Fourth, classical political philosophy is about virtue—something to strive for which is integrally related to man’s sanctified perfection and happiness.  Fifth, man exists in an ordered web of nature—a hierarchal and preordained Cosmos—which he has a definite place within this web and hierarchy of nature.  Sixth, man—through his God-ordained rationality—has the capability to know right from wrong and truth from falsity and therefore live in accord with right and truth which are contingent to deriving his happiness through fulfillment of his nature.

This classical view of man is offered to Western civilization in two competing traditions: The tradition of Greek rationalism (beginning with Plato) and Abrahamic religion.  The synthetic tradition which merged classical Greek thought with Abrahamic revelation was Christianity (specifically Catholicism).  The importance of Catholicism integrating Greek thought with Biblical revelation is important at the end of the essay because, as Strauss makes clear, and as almost all historians of philosophy have known and observed, the secularization and disenchantment of the world beings “with the Reformation, continued by the Enlightenment, and completed in the postrevolutionary state.”  With the rise of Protestantism there begins the rupture of the classics and moderns as Protestantism sheds Greek philosophy to return to a purer Biblical faith which subverts Catholic integrationism—and once the Bible stands alone without the support of classical philosophy it is the only contestant against the new science which overthrows the Bible and brings us to the disenchanted world of our present predicament without the ability to return to the classics (at least in ostentatiously Protestant cultures and countries).

The First Wave: Liberalism (Control over Nature)

The heart of Strauss’s consequential essay is his reading of the three waves of modernity, where they begin, and what they entail.  The first wave is what we generally call liberalism.  Its progenitors are Machiavelli and Francis Bacon, with Machiavelli receiving the most attention in Strauss’s commentary.  The first wave’s chief philosopher, however, is Thomas Hobbes—and this tradition of the first wave is carried forth by the heirs of Machiavelli, Bacon, and Hobbes, namely the “classical liberal” philosophers like Locke, Spinoza, and Mill.

Part of the rise of the first wave of modernity is the emergence of Baconian-Newtonian New Science which sees everything through the prism of cause and effect and the attempt to make all legitimate knowledge as the knowledge of material cause and effect.  But science cannot answer the meaningful “why” questions about life, politics, and morality because that is not a question of cause and effect.  This is basic philosophy 101 to anyone who has ever taken a basic course in the history of philosophy or the philosophy of science.  And, initially, science did not portend to seek to answer that question—unlike scientists of the present who seek to answer a fundamentally metaphysical and philosophical question through a method alien to metaphysical and philosophical inquiry. As Strauss writes concerning the rise of the new science in the first wave and its impact on epistemology, “all knowledge which deserves the name is scientific knowledge; but scientific knowledge cannot validate judgments.”

There are three identifiable problems with the first wave.  One of those problems is that the crisis of modernity as rooted in the first wave is the scientistic and economistic approach to the world (liberalism) is cut-off from value judgements.  We cannot answer the questions of right and wrong and truth and falsity (metaphysically, ontologically, or ethically) through the methodology of the first wave.  The result of this is we spiral down into a permissive nihilism and relativism where we cannot agree on the good, true, and beautiful which results in the atomization of society through the relativization of ethics.

Furthermore, the first wave is technocratic in its politics.  This is a direct derivative of the cause and effect mentality that undergirds liberalism.  If there is a “problem” it was “caused” by something and this cause and be “solved” by policy prescription.  Thus, politics is a matter of solving a problem—like a mathematical equation; once solved we will live in a world of perpetual peace and consumption.  (First Wave liberalism is not democratic whatsoever, in fact, democracy probably threatens technocracy.)

The second identifiable problem with the first wave is the ethical implications of this permissive nihilism that results from the new science cutting us off from value judgements and the ability to know right and wrong and truth from falsity.  (New science knowledge is only about material cause and effect, mind you.)  Beginning with Machiavelli, but reaching fruition with Hobbes, Strauss articulates the view that a problem—ethically—with the first wave is that it lowers the bar with regards to ethical life and political life.  Per Strauss, the essence of Machiavellian and Hobbesian realism was, “One must start from how men do live; one must lower one’s sights.”  Whereas the classical tradition was about virtue, and therefore striving to virtue, modern political philosophy was about self-preservation and only about self-preservation.

Because classical political philosophy accepted nature as an ordered Cosmos with a natural hierarchy, classical thought did not deny self-preservation as a motivating concern in human life.  But in the hierarchy of life and goals in classical thought, self-preservation occupied the lowest order of the Cosmic hierarchy.  There are many things more important than self-preservation: family, service to one’s community or country, sacrifice for others, etc.  All of which would constitute man fulfilling his nature through ascent.  Modern philosophy, in denying an ordered Cosmos and hierarchy, ruled out all possibility of duties and obligations to others.  Thus, modern philosophy reduces human life to self-preservation and the pleasurable that is gained through self-preservation.

The third problem identified within the first wave is the conquest of nature ethos.  The culmination of instrumentalism, new science, and natural disenchantment, as well as man’s lust for pleasure, is that he seeks dominance over nature.  The result is the materialization and industrialization of society to control the natural world (which man is separated from thanks to Baconian anthropology) to bring about the maximization of our hedonistic impulses through use of earthly goods and materials that need to be brought under our control.  In bringing the world under our dominion man ascends over nature:

The purpose of science is reinterpreted: propter potentiam, for the relief of man’s estate, for the conquest of nature, for the maximum control, the systematic control of the natural conditions of human life.  Conquest of nature implies that nature is the enemy, a chaos to be reduced to order; everything good is due to man’s labor rather than to nature’s gift: nature supplies only the almost worthless materials.  Accordingly the political society is in no way natural.

This necessarily leads to the sterilization and artificiality of life.  The view that politics is a social construction for the instrumental end of peaceable consumption and bodily pleasure (through consumption, contentment with material goods and belongings, and a well-fed stomach—which is the promise of capitalism irrespective of whether one thinks capitalism fulfills this promise sufficiently).  As Strauss concludes with the first wave, “I can here only assert that the increased emphasis on economics is a consequence of this.  Eventually we arrive at the view that universal affluence and peace is the necessary and sufficient condition of perfect justice.”

And is this not the dream of liberals on the left and liberals on the right?  An affluent and peaceful society enjoying the spoils of its material exploits in universal peace?  Was this not the aim laid out by Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza—those venerable “classical liberal” fathers of the seventeenth century?  And in Strauss we see what we all know today—liberalism (the first wave) reduces everything to a matter of economism.  Politics becomes about economics because economics is about hedonistic comfort and pleasure, because economics is the main instrument of our self-preservation, which science, politics, and community (even religion) all become subservient to and serve.  Politics becomes about who can best serve our economic interests.  Science is utilized for economic advancement.  Communities provide for everyone’s economic well-being.  And religion is reduced to “social justice” and the redistribution of wealth because that is what is needed in an affluent society to arrive at justice.

At the end of day, the key legacy of the first wave is that man controls nature for his own material satisfaction.  The logical ramification of this outlook is mechanistic, utilitarian, capitalism.  In the first wave there emerges the utopian dream of remaking the world for man’s consumeristic and materialistic satisfaction.

 The Second Wave: Socialism/Communism (Control over Man)

The second wave of modernity, Strauss argues, begins with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau is modern because he embraces the modern project.  What makes Rousseau stand out in comparison to the philosophers associated with the first wave is that he rejects the first wave’s cut-throat economism.  Rousseau deplores the commercialist, capitalist, “trade and money” mentality of first wave republics.

Rousseau, of course, blamed man’s miserableness on the first wave which logically entailed his animosity toward utilitarian science, capitalism, and commercialism; all of the things that have resulted in man’s enslavement.  But what is important to catch from Strauss’s prognostication of Rousseau is that Rousseau “protested in the name of virtue, of the genuine, nonutilitarian virtue of the classical republics.”  Rousseau weaponized virtue and the genuine—compassion and virtue—to overcome the cut-throat commercialism and capitalism of liberalism.  He was, nevertheless, a thorough going modern individual who embraced the belief that man had control over nature—thus continuing the project of the first wave and extending it to a new direction: control over man.

In the Social Contract, Rousseau’s general will enforces virtue over all members of society.  This is possible because man is naturally good and uncorrupted in his original state of nature.  The driving impetus of political Rousseauianism (which is socialism) is the use of the state to make men virtuous through economic redistribution.  All that Rousseau does is offer a more benign form of economism, a kinder and more compassionate road to universal affluence and peace which constitute justice from the modern predisposition.

Rousseau is the antithesis, or reaction, to the first wave.  But all Rousseau offers is a reinterpretation of the project started by the first wave and concludes that man’s base desires can be controlled and made to be virtuous (again; just as he was in the state of nature).  Thus, Rousseau’s second wave logically leads us to socialism as that kinder and more compassionate economistic outlook of life.

Furthermore, and most importantly, Rousseau is the first to understand the “concept of history, i.e., of the historical process as a single process in which man becomes human without intending it, it is a consequence of Rousseau’s radicalization of the Hobbesian account of the state of nature.”  This is an important discovery because this is what leads to Marx’s dialectical historicism and materialism, as well as the phenomena of “scientific socialism” where History would prove the triumph of socialism over capitalism as the system that would produce universal affluence and peace and, therefore, justice.

Because the movement of history is through the general will, and the general will cannot err, what is to be is what ought to be.  Thus, the ends justify the means.  The result of Rousseau’s reinterpretation of the modern project and his discovery of history as a historical process leads to Jacobinal revolution—even if this was an accident as Strauss acknowledges at the end of history.  “Revolution” in the modern political sense of the term, the progressing of society forward to its destined conclusion by any means necessary, is the logic contained within Rousseau’s historicism and reevaluation of the ought-is dialectic.

What is, is what ought to be.  What is?  Egalitarian affluence and peace which is what justice is.  This is what History is.  Our society is not that, yet.  But our society ought to be that.  Ergo, we should do whatever is necessary to achieve that end goal.  Therefore, man is to be used to achieve this universal affluence and peace.  Man is to be controlled to achieve this end state of universal affluence and peace, which is what justice is.  Rather than nature being the object of instrumental use, man is the object of instrumental use in the second wave.  The second wave’s political manifestation, as Strauss states, is communism.  (The first wave’s political manifestation is liberal capitalism).

What the second wave does, according to Strauss, is alter the crisis of the first wave as a crisis of man.  Man is spoiled, corrupted, and selfish; obsessed with money and commercial interests.  The essence of the second wave is exerting control over man, to remake man to for the dream of consummating that universally affluent, peace, and just society which is threatened by man’s greed.

Dialectically, socialism is the antithesis to liberalism.  But both share the fundamental modern predisposition to economism.  Socialism and liberalism are mortal enemies; conservatism is less the mortal enemy as it is the bygone reflection and attitudes of the now distant past.  The real battle is economic: Liberalism’s celebration and promotion of the individual economic actor vs. Socialism’s promotion of the economic collective.  Both, however, share the same end: universal affluence and peace.  The difference between the two is the means to that end.  Liberalism sees the individual, the entrepreneur, industry, and the conquest of nature as that which will lead to universal affluence and peace.  Socialism sees the wrangling in of man’s external pursuits unleashed by liberalism, control over the individual, the entrepreneur, businesses and industry, etc., as that which will allow the dividends of those spoils to be distributed equitably.  (Hence why orthodox socialism always maintained the necessity of capitalism first.)

The Third Wave: Fascism (Perpetual Struggle: Control of Nature and Man)

Turning to the third wave, the chief intellectual of the third wave was Friedrich Nietzsche.  The defining sentimentality of the third wave was “the experience of terror and anguish rather than of harmony and peace, and it is the sentiment of historical existence as necessarily tragic.”  As such, it is no surprise that Nietzsche was the embodied representative of the third wave.

Man’s anguish, in the third wave which was undergirded by Romanticism, stemmed from his realization of his separation from Nature and the Cosmos.  The romantic man yearned for a return to nature but recognized that this return to nature was impossible.  This constituted his restless striving and alienation.  Man’s anguish was that he desired to be part of nature but knew he could not be part of nature—man was above nature, a controller of nature (as the first wave achieved) and held in his hands, his power, to obliterate nature for his own gratification.  Tempted by such power man naturally does so.

Man’s terror was the haunting realization that he could also be used as an instrument of statism and other’s malevolent desires.  The end result of the sentimentality of terror was struggle and striving.  There is a further terror that man cannot go back to a state of being before the temptation of power over nature and man.  History has cast thrown man into his current state of being.

Of all the philosophers who were keen to realize man’s modern predicament, according to Strauss, it was Nietzsche.  Nietzsche understood that man could not be genuinely happy because his nature was not aimed at happiness.  Nietzsche understood the relativization and eventual descent into nihilism would cause man great terror and anguish in the world of ethics and societal behavioralism.  In this realization of his modern predicament man would either ascend to his freedom as constant and perpetual creator of his own values (the Overman) or accept the herd life, a life “without any ideals and aspirations, but well fed, well clothed, well housed, well medicated by ordinary physicians and by psychiatrists.”

It is important to remember that Nietzsche, unlike illiterate Wikipedia and TV consumers of his, did not believe we were devolving backward.  Nietzsche’s radical historicism and Hegelianism was that this moment of rupture was necessary for (some) men to embrace their freedom as perpetual creator of their own values (self-overcoming); this is the impetus of his treatises the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil – that moral norms are a form of non-freedom where man grows content in moral customs and ceases to create his (moral) values to temporarily live by before creating ever newer values in the perpetual struggle of self-overcoming.  Those that achieved this would take their place as the natural aristocrats of the voided hierarchy that is the Cosmos.  Those that would not, and many would not, would become the herd that is the Last Men and eventually die.  Lastly, Nietzsche’s philosophy is deeply individualist.  It is up to you to be the Overman or embrace the ease of the Last Man ethos.  In this momentous moment of liberation man either chooses nihilism (and becomes the Last Man) or freedom (and becomes the Overman).

Nietzsche’s rejection of the Last Man is founded on his opposition to lifeless economism, which is not only what liberal capitalism (the first wave) seeks, but also what Marxism (the manifestation of the second wave) also seeks.  “The last man, the lowest and most decayed man, the herd man without any ideals and aspirations, but well fed, well clothed, well housed, well medicated by ordinary physicians and by psychiatrists is Marx’s man of the future seen from an anti-Marxist point of view.”  But not all people would be Overmen as already mentioned, only the genuine aristocrats who, in their constant and perpetual self-overcoming, situate themselves in the ordered hierarchal Cosmos of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  The rest of world situate themselves beneath the Overman in a literal race to the bottom: that race to the lowest and most decayed way of living without ideals and aspirations.  (And this is what the first wave of modernity began by lowering the bar of life to self-preservation and only self-preservation.)

The politicization of Nietzsche, which is an abuse of Nietzsche’s philosophy by Strauss’s own admission, results in fascism.  Fascism saw History as civilizational struggle—wherein some civilizations would be Overmen civilizations and other civilizations would be Last Man civilizations.  And this is what civilization had to avoid: complacency, hedonism, and the herd mentality without ideals and aspirations.  When civilization would grow impotent and weak the fascists, the literal overmen, would seize power and ensure civilization’s survival.

Struggle is the defining feature of the third wave; but the third wave’s arrival at the end of history constituted its own historicism.  History had shown the third wave what Hegel had hoped he had come to know: the end of history.  What is the end of history to the third wave?  It is not the utopia of universal affluence and peace and justice envisioned by the first and second wave (through either technocratic capitalist or socialist lenses).  It is the Faustian struggle against decadence, the endless striving for life and redemption wherein life and redemption is found in the struggle.

This is why Strauss begins his essay by discussing Oswald Spengler’s famous two volume work The Decline of the West.  The West, for Spengler, originated in the medieval (and thus romantic, and therefore modern).  The West was not classical, e.g. pre-medieval.  Spengler described, in his great work, the Faustian man of Western civilization, that perpetually terrorized and anguished man for having made his deal with the devil, but constantly striving for redemption and life in spite of his inevitable future.  Western civilization, Faustian civilization, is the civilization that knows the impossibility of the modern predicament but nevertheless strives to overcome it.  It is the embrace, through politicization, of the Sisyphean struggle.  Spengler was asserting that Western man, Western civilization, would come to know that the only reality of the world was the reality of struggle.  There is no affluence, no perpetual peace, and no justice over the horizon.  What awaits man is his inevitable death.  And we either embrace death as the Last Man or meet death having lived the life of the Overman—the life of Faust.  (Note, Strauss’s inclusion of Goethe’s Faust and Spengler’s Decline of the West is part of his running esoteric commentary on the nature of poetry as something divinely received rather than “creative,” poetry, not philosophy, is often the first of the human literary and intellectual endeavors to realize – in its mad way – the realities of the world we find ourselves in.)

As Strauss notes, Nietzsche’s natural man is cruel, struggling against himself, nature, and other men.  Man, in the third wave, realizes he has control over nature and control over other men (if only he wills himself above nature and above the herd).  Thus, while the third wave rejected the economistic utopianism of the first and second waves, it also embraced the projects of the first and second waves: the control over nature (first wave) and the control over other men (second wave).  Anyone who has read Arnold Gehlen’s Man: His Nature and Place in the World, knows that the heart of fascist anthropology and historicism is man’s ascent above nature and above the weaker men of the world (who are the subhuman individuals of Rousseau’s state of nature, and therefore not really even human at all).

There is no utopia over the horizon in fascism.  This is the greatest and most ignorant lie spewed against fascism that fascism has a built in utopian ideal.  Fascism sees no utopia at the end of history.  The end of history is perpetual struggle and self-overcoming (or in fascism’s case, national overcoming).  While fascism does share an “end of history” it is not one ending in a rosy and sunshine filled place.  The supposed anti-nihilism of the third wave ironically exhausted itself in nihilism from Strauss’s perspective thought because it was the great movement of rebellion with no end in sight.

Where liberalism and socialism are the dialectical necessities of each other, fascism is the outlier because it rejects the economism of liberalism and socialism.  Fascism is more than just economics.  Those who argue that fascism is a mixture of liberalism, socialism, communism, conservatism, etc., know nothing of fascism.  Fascism is defined by its glorification of struggle, the cult of redemptive violence (associated with struggle), and man’s alienated struggle against nature and against other men (especially decadent men).  Fascism’s association with the first two waves are, as Strauss notes, its inheritance of the modern project of control over nature and control over man reinterpreted as struggle against nature and struggle against man.

Conclusion: What is the Crisis of Modernity?

Strauss’s essay includes the nagging question about the crisis of modernity.  What is the crisis of modernity?  Ignorance is the crisis of modernity.  Folly and ignorance has led man to forget the classical and Biblical foundations of Western civilization and the alternative view that I outlined in the first section concerning human nature and politics.  In separating ourselves from the Athenian and Jersualemite foundations of the West, contra Spengler’s assertion that Greco-Roman-Christian civilization was classical (or Magian, as it relates to Christianity from Spengler’s perspective), man is lost in the three waves and seemingly lost and unable to return to nature which is the promise of the classical and biblical accounts.  (We’re also cut off from the wisdom of ancient texts as we begin to see allegorical works as literal and within the mindset of material cause and effect; perhaps one only need to look at the New Atheists for perfect proof of this.)

Intuitively, however, we all know the three waves are a problem.  The problem with this intuitive and instinctual dilemma is that Strauss worries that the crisis of modernity will necessarily lead to a revitalization of the third wave—of fascism.  Terrorized and anguished man will turn to the concept of heroic struggle and the bastardization of Nietzsche’s individualist philosophy into a collectivized and politicized philosophy that launches an all-out war against liberalism and socialism—the two mainstays of modernity—leading to repeat of 1939-1945.

The crisis of modernity is not simply ignorance though.  The ignorance of society leads to more dangerous problems: the crisis of right and wrong, truth and falsity, natural law, and human nature. Modernity rejects the idea of absolute right and absolute truth, it rejects the concept of natural law and human nature.  Everything is malleable.  Everything is permitted.  We cannot know right from wrong, or truth from falsity.  In a world like that why wouldn’t people embrace the Last Man ethos?  In other words, cut off from nature, where we cannot make appeals to nature anymore, either an appeal to have a relationship with nature (in life) or human nature, cut off from right and wrong, truth from falsity, and natural law, we have no ideals to strive for.

Our world is quickly becoming one absent of duties and obligations.  Our world is quickly becoming an objectified planet of instrumental use for the purpose of peaceable consumption and human affluence, which constitutes the fulfillment of justice from the modern point of view.  And this is all a problem because, for Strauss, we all reduce ourselves to bare animals and a-political hedonists at the end of the day (Epicureans).

Strauss’s hope is that liberal society had not permanently destroyed the possibility of recovering classical premodern Western thought.  Communism’s war against the past and religion prevent it from ever being able to recover and rejuvenate its society with the wisdom of classical and Biblical thought.  Fascism’s war against everything, and its embrace of perpetual struggle, is antithetical to classical and Biblical philosophy and thought—therefore fascism is also a dead end.  The reason why communism and fascism also fail to appreciate classical thought is because of their historicism and fascism’s embrace of the tragic and nihilistic.  The past is worthless because History’s revelatory hand is all that matters.  Thus, the possibility of recovering classical and Biblical thought is uniquely open in liberal societies.

Strauss did not think that the first wave had a conception of History as did the second and third waves.  Liberalism may have an optimism regarding human nature and the prospects of a peaceable life of hedonism, but the first wave had not conceived itself as the end of history.  The discovery of History came later.  Had Strauss lived through the 1990s he may have changed his view on that matter.

This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, July 9, 2018.


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    1. I find Strauss, and various “Straussians,” very on point for understanding political philosophy. After all, I’m indebted to latter day Straussians as I’m networked with them and am an editor at VoegelinView (who was also influenced by Strauss). I recommend all of his works, from the classics to modern readings of Nietzsche and Heidegger.


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