In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss laid out his case against Max Weber. According to Strauss, Weber had thrown up an unassailable wall between facts and values. Characteristic of the modern world, Weber thought people, history, government, and religion ought to be analyzed without passing judgment on them. This perfect secularizing withheld the analyst from participation in morals, and crowned him king and judge of all below him.
Strauss’s reply: the sociologist “cannot understand without a conceptual framework or frame of reference.” Weber was fooling himself, as well as countless readers. There is a similarity with the postmoderns in Strauss’s criticism of Weberian modernism, insisting that the concepts or paradigms or mentalities are inherent in human existence. But Strauss affirmed the search for values, and made a positive place for them in social analysis. “Is it not the plain duty of the social scientist truthfully and faithfully to present social phenomena? … Do we know petrification or emptiness when we see it?”
To be fair to Max Weber, he was no academic punching bag. Weber knew that any rationalistic science or philosophy had at its roots an assumption of values, which it could not account for. The issue is simply that Facts and Values are “heterogeneous problems” (see the lecture, “Science as a Vocation”). Or, as he put it more explicitly, science is “alien to God.” For Weber to define himself as an academic, a rationalist, he sensed that his methods could deal only with the former and never the latter.
So how do you know values? How do you choose them? Weber is clear: there is no way. That is why it is a choice. “[L[ife is about the incompatibility of ultimate possible attitudes and hence the inability ever to resolve the conflicts between them. Hence the necessity of deciding between them …” The only way to meet the challenges of the day is to man up and have the courage to choose. Strauss’s insistence, though, is that we are built to want the answers. And you can’t really analyze social reality without doing so as we know that reality in social life. That is, the beginning of science or philosophy is a natural understanding of things “as they present themselves in social reality.” Weber wants a lockbox, never having to prove that he values academics, but simply explaining that he does. Strauss dissents: we must talk about the original values because it’s impossible to understand anything without knowing what they are.
Jerusalem and Athens
Strauss brings in a problem here, though. People really do disagree about the ways to know those values. This is not so much about the division between religions or between philosophies, which Weber felt so strongly, but the division between philosophy, as such, and divine revelation, as such. This problem was known namely to medieval theologians as “Jerusalem and Athens,” and Strauss famously came back to it in an essay by that title. Of course, the scholastics had claimed to solve the problem by using Aristotle. Strauss, though, sided with the Augustinians who preceded St. Thomas. That is, you will be forced to choose, at some point, between the two cities, Athens and Jerusalem.
The point comes out most clearly in a Strauss essay called, “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy.” Amicable as the title may sound, Strauss proposes no reconciliation between the two. “The very life of Western civilization is the life between two codes, a fundamental tension … No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian or, for that matter, a third which is beyond the conflict between philosophy and theology, or a synthesis of both.” Perhaps more pointedly, Strauss understands that for a philosophy, there can never be an “absolute sacredness.” Nothing in nature warrants it. And this means not only different conclusions, but different methods. According to this schema, the Thomistic synthesis is false: philosophy is not simply an unperfected form of theology because, without the foundations of revelation, philosophy will always proceed in a wholly different manner than theology. Philosophy or science (which are not different in the Greek, or German, use of the words) may never be able to disprove religion, but that is only because the former proceed from the very assumption that there is no answer from a “revealed” source. Weber, incidentally, taught the same thing. As soon as revelation is accepted as an answer, science ends, because it stops seeking out material, non-divine causes.
Do Strauss and Weber then agree?
Against both Weber and the postmoderns-to-come (the lectures underpinning Natural Right were given in 1949), Strauss truly believes that values can be known. Weber thinks that all values are always in conflict. For Strauss, rather, the conflict is only between two means. And people may be justified in choosing revelation, but Strauss himself shies from this possibility. This choice would entail an experience that sympathized with divine revelation, of which Strauss himself seems to acknowledge he has not had: he “cannot be orthodox.” Therefore, he will find values based on “such experiences as can be had by all men at all times in broad daylight.” And thence begins Strauss’s search for human nature and Natural Law.
There is, then, an experiential core to knowledge of values, as far as accessibility goes. This is a core that Strauss is happy to acknowledge as long as he can assert a common nature, and therefore common experience.
Weber’s mistake, to this author, is to declare an absolute distinction between the epistemology that gives us our “first principles” and the hard logic that proceeds from these. Nevertheless, we have seen that Strauss himself is willing to make a distinction between “kinds” of knowledge that are irreconcilable.
The same man, though, gives us a possible way out by going back to experiences upon which we build our paths, or towers as they may be, of knowledge. Sociologically, not only meaning but experience can be communicated. The discussion of even particular experience can enable and propagate that experience itself. Somewhere it is said, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Weber wants these experiences in a lockbox, individualized to each person’s unique and mysterious “daemon.” But while we might even have different experiences, we have the same nature or structure with which to process, and therefore communicate, them.
The temple of the one true God may only be in Jerusalem, but the question is not whether it is different from Athens, but whether the path to make it there is communicable, and whether that conversation might inspire another’s pilgrimage. Put otherwise: of what good is knowledge that is not submission, and what submission does not inspire?
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.