Strauss’s Phases of Human Thought

I realized that Leo Strauss seems to distinguish five phases of development within human thought. These can map to historical eras, and Strauss often does attempt to illustrate them in this way, but they are more sort of existential modes than historical periods. They won’t correspond exactly to historical periods, and they won’t always move predictably in the sequence outlined. Still, they are useful for understanding how and why different groups will thing or speak in particular ways.

The Cave. This is humanity’s original and default way of thinking. It is something like superstition. It wishes to explain the whole world in ways that bring order and comfort and meaning, and through social cooperation and competition a given group will come to inhabit a shared cave, a shared horizon.

The Cave and the Philosopher. Out of a given cave, certain people or small groups will find their way out into the light, into philosophy, into a sense of the meaning and importance of nature as nature. The philosophers who emerge in this way will look back to the cave and its inhabitants, and will understand the cave and the caves more completely than any of those inhabitants is able to.

Political Philosophy. The phase of political philosophy follows on the inevitable tensions and clashes between the philosophers on the one hand and the inhabitants of the cave (often referred to in the singular simply as “the city”) on the other. In this stage, the philosophers have come to grasp their responsibility to the city and their dependence on it, and have worked out ways to draw out potential new philosophers from the cave while causing minimal harm either to the city or to the philosophic community.

The Cave Beneath the Cave. A new sort of cave forms in the attempt at enlightenment, at bringing those in the cave into a greater awareness of and acceptance for philosophy. The city cannot understand philosophy as it is, and so must attach itself to a shadowy misunderstanding of philosophy. In this way they leave their original cave only to enter a new cave, and this time, their cave is a deeper one, further from the light of genuine philosophy. Convincing themselves that they have already exited the cave of superstition and have attained the full benefits of philosophy (or that apparently more successful portion of philosophy which is natural science), they are stuck behind new and stronger barriers which separate them from philosophy itself.

The Reading of Old Books. To exit from the deeper cave calls especially for a study of old books, the study of accounts of philosophy that predate the attempts at enlightenment. It is only in scrutinizing the original conflicts and negotiations between the philosophers and the caves that we are enabled to recognize the inadequacy of our deeper cave, and to find the genuine alternatives that are available to us and obscured from us. If “Straussianism” can be said to mean anything, perhaps it refers to this.

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