Friday, November 7, 2008

The German Scholar and American Diplomat at the Beginning of NRH

Strauss begins NRH with a passage from the Declaration of Independence, and he then quotes an "American diplomat," like so:

"A generation ago, an American diplomat could still say that 'the natural and the divine foundation of the rights of self-evident to all Americans.'"

This "American diplomat" was probably David Jayne Hill. The quote may have been taken from an introduction Hill wrote to this book:

Hughes, Charles Evans. The Pathway of Peace: Representative Addresses Delivered during His Term As Secretary of State (1921-1925) . New York: Harper & Brothers, 1925.

Hill (not Hughes) was an ambassador in Berlin from 1908 to 1911, when Strauss would have been between the ages of 9 and 12. Strauss's colleague and friend Kurt Riezler was the German foreign secretary beginning in 1909, so he would have known D.J. Hill.

Hill was working with Andrew Carnegie to build a "palace of peace." This is a representative passage:

"Almost all great advances in the life of humanity have come silently and gradually, like the dawn; and it is only rarely that the glory of a new day has suddenly burst upon the world. The future is likely to be very much like the past in this respect, but the improvement of mankind has for its guarantee the principle of evolution, which is the law of the Universe. We have, therefore, a permanent ground for faith in the good that is to come; even in the darkest hour we may be as certain of it as we are of the laws of logic and their final sway over human action."

In the text of NRH, Strauss then cites a German scholar, Ernst Troeltsch, who is counterpoised to the "American diplomat." Here is the passage about Troeltsch:

"At about the same time a German scholar could still describe the difference between German thought and that of Western Europe and the United States by saying that the West still attached decisive importance to natural right, while in Germany, the very terms "natural right" and "humanity" "have now become almost incomprehensible . . . and have lost altogether their original life and color." While abandoning the idea of natural right and through abandoning it, he continued, German thought has "created the historical sense," and thus was led eventually to unqualified relativism." NRH, 1-2.

Here is a related passage from the work by Troeltsch that Strauss quotes:

"In the first place, the contrast of 'conservative' and 'revolutionary' is one which has to be banished from the whole problem. It has only come into existence as the result of recent complications: it is only in German thought that it is regarded as fundamental; and the reason why we take that view is that the modern democratic movement--which flows inevitably from the increase of population and the education of the masses--has only just begun to assert itself among us, and has done so in a series of revolutions. In its own nature, and apart from these temporary conditions, democracy may well assume a conservative form. American democracy, in its political and social aspects, tends to issue in the strictest conservatism; it regards its principles as the eternal and divine commands of morality and law."

The question is, then, why does Strauss place Troeltsch and Hill side by side in this way? Hill is not just any American diplomat, he was the American diplomat in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I. And Troeltsch was not just any German scholar, he was, like Strauss, a former neo-Kantian.

Here are some thoughts on who Ernst Troeltsch was:

"Ernst Troeltsch was profoundly influenced by the same Max Weber that Strauss, in this very work, so ably criticizes. Weber and Troeltsch lived together in the same house in Heidelberg for thirteen years. The essay from which Strauss quotes was one of Troeltsch's last, written in 1920. It is a comparison of German thought, which by then was in the grip of radical historicism, and Anglo-American thought, which still at that time believed in what Troeltsch always called "natural law." What Strauss does not tell the reader is that by 1920, having first given up on traditional Christianity and then on Kantianism as a substitute, Troeltsch was a convinced historicist who could brilliantly describe the difference between German historicism and the thought of the Declaration but could give no cogent argument defending the Declaration against historicism. Does this intellectual journey imply something about Strauss's own with respect to Judaism? Troeltsch tried to find an answer to historicism but having, in his own view, failed, he conceded and embraced a version of historicism borrowed from Dilthey. Perhaps the quotation points to a conclusion. It is better to be silent about one's failures and offer instead the rhetoric of virtue. It is better not to let the skeptical cat out of the bag."

Who is the conservative, Hill or Troeltsch? Judging by Troeltsch's criteria, Hill is the "conservative" in the American context, in which democracy takes a conservative form. It is safe to say that Strauss does not identify himself with either Hill or Troeltsch.

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