Posted: October 13, 2004
In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art—and I am an artist or nothing—one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Take the art of writing. The artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work. I assure you that the necessity which I describe is my constant concern when we are engaged in an enterprise.
—Nero Wolfe, The League of Frightened Men
Readers of this journal know it to be sympathetic both to the well-written detective story and to the thought of Leo Strauss. What they may not be aware of is the importance of the former for the latter. For Strauss's occasional statements and allusions to the detective and detective story provide useful clues to the reader intent on unraveling his teaching. In what follows I will examine the most important of those passages with a view to showing their significance for Strauss's self-understanding as a student of Machiavelli.
Strauss's most prominent invocation of the detective occurs in his "narrative" account of modern political philosophy in the essay "What Is Political Philosophy?" In the midst of discussing Thomas Hobbes's mitigation of Machiavelli's teaching—a mitigation necessitated by "the revolting character" of the latter—Strauss analogizes: "If you wish, you may compare Hobbes to Sherlock Holmes and Machiavelli to Professor Moriarty. For certainly Hobbes took justice much more seriously than Machiavelli had done." Strauss's reference is to Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," the only Doyle story where Moriarty appears on stage, in which Holmes's confrontation with his great nemesis apparently leads to their mutual destruction at Reichenbach Falls. In its context, Strauss's analogy is disconcerting: for his analysis of Machiavelli and Hobbes suggests that whatever their apparent differences, the two thinkers shared a fundamental kinship. Is Sherlock Holmes essentially no different from Professor Moriarty? Strauss's very formulation seems to do an injustice to justice: from the point of view of justice, is it not an outrage to reduce the difference between the champion of justice and the embodiment of criminality to the question of relative "seriousness"?
"The Final Problem" is perhaps the most famous work of mystery fiction ever written, certainly the most famous detective story. It begins with a harried Holmes arriving unexpectedly one Friday evening at the door of his friend, chronicler, and nominal colleague, Dr. Watson. Holmes, uncharacteristically, is afraid: "I think you know me well enough, Watson, to understand that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time, it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you." Holmes, we learn, has spent the preceding six months investigating Professor Moriarty's criminal organization, which he had pledged his "whole energy to exposing and breaking up." And success is near; yet for reasons he doesn't disclose, Holmes's efforts cannot bear fruit until the weekend has passed. The professor is onto the fact that Holmes is onto him. Moriarty intends, by any means necessary, to see that Holmes doesn't complete his self-assigned task. In fact, as the story opens, we learn that Holmes had already survived three attempts on his life that very day.
In response to an unspoken question of Watson's, Holmes begins his explanation. When his supposition that Watson had never before heard of Professor Moriarty proves correct, Holmes responds: "'Aye, there's the genius and the wonder of the thing!' he cried. 'The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That's what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime.'" Holmes proceeds to describe the good professor. In so doing, he provides one of the most memorable passages in modern literature, one highlighted by this characterization:
He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted..., a man to be removed—the word is passed to the professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught.... But the central power which uses the agent is never—never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up.
But the professor was fenced round with safeguards so cunningly devised that, do what I would, it seemed impossible to get evidence which would convict in a court of law. You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.
As befits a worthy opponent, Moriarty returns Holmes's admiration: "'It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, but I assure you that it really would.'" From the point of view of the intellect, Holmes and Moriarty appear as the flip sides of a single coin. Could this be the reason Strauss distinguished their attitudes towards justice in terms merely of seriousness?
At any rate, readers of Thoughts on Machiavelli—Strauss's greatest work—cannot but be reminded of the portrait that Strauss there paints of Machiavelli's conspiratorial founding of modernity. In Thoughts, Machiavelli is presented as the hitherto unsuspected head of a criminal conspiracy of "the young" formed with, and animated by, the intention of breaking Christianity's pernicious hold on political life. In the very first sentence of Thoughts's introduction, Strauss seems to profess himself "inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil." Yet it soon becomes apparent that Strauss's initial condemnation is provisional. He proceeds to give an account of Machiavelli's teaching over the next 289 pages that leaves no doubt in the reader's mind of Machiavelli's philosophic and literary greatness. In Strauss's account the thinker and author Machiavelli proves to be at the rank of Plato, Maimonides, and Aristophanes. In the introduction Strauss "repeats" his initial profession in such a manner that indicates that he is animated by anything but enmity against Machiavelli: "We are in sympathy with the simple opinion about Machiavelli, not only because it is wholesome, but above all because a failure to take that opinion seriously prevents one from doing justice to what is truly admirable in Machiavelli: the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision and the graceful subtlety of his speech" (emphasis added).
* * *
Strauss's allusion to "the final problem" in "What is Political Philosophy?" helps to explain another, most perplexing comment of his that treats detective fiction. That comment occurs in the Hobbes sub-chapter of Natural Right and History, in a context identical to that of his explicit invocation of Holmes and Moriarty—namely, a discussion of the relation between Machiavelli's and Hobbes's teachings. Strauss writes that for Hobbes "death insofar as man can do something about it, i.e., death insofar as it can be avoided or avenged, supplies the ultimate guidance." To this claim Strauss affixes a paradoxical note that at first reads as little more than a throwaway line: "One would have to start from here to understand the role the detective story plays in present-day moral orientation." Both Strauss's comment and his note are problematic. To begin with, there is a difficulty presented by the notion that Hobbes intends to guide us by "death insofar as it can be...avenged." "Vengeance" for Hobbes is a dirty word, one he rarely employs and never with a positive connotation. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the chief intention of his teaching on the state of nature and the problems caused by pride or "glorying" is to eliminate the taste for vengeance. Rather than clarifying things, Strauss's note seems needlessly to complicate them by invoking "the detective story" and contemporary "moral orientation."
Rather than helping to epitomize the effectual truth of Hobbesian morality, the detective novel in fact shows something of an inchoate anti-Hobbesian longing: readers of detective stories admire those characters who are willing to risk their own lives for the sake of justice and honor. Though there are notable exceptions, most literary detectives show a sovereign indifference to their own self-preservation, often pursuing villains at outrageous risks to themselves. Nor is their purpose the avoidance of others' death: as a rule, by the time a case reaches the detective, the murder has already taken place; moreover, if serving justice requires a few more violent deaths, detectives are more than willing to let the chips, and bodies, fall where they may. So far from being guided by the desire to avoid violent death, it is not at all unusual for their investigations to become incitements to it. Thus we have a twofold statement meant to apply equally to Hobbes and "the detective story," that applies to neither simply.
Nonetheless, Strauss's invocation of Holmes and Moriarty in "What Is Political Philosophy?" offers us a possible solution; for however inadequate Strauss's description may be in regard to the typical detective novel, it captures precisely what may be said to be for Strauss "the detective story": "The Final Problem." There, to repeat, we see an admittedly frightened Holmes seeking to stave off his own death while avenging countless others. This analysis can even be taken a step further. Perceptive readers of Strauss such as Alexandre Kojève and Willmoore Kendall analogized Strauss's scholarly method to that of a detective—a comparison with which Strauss showed no inclination to quibble. Kendall, in particular, noted that Strauss's diagnosis of the development of modernity reads as if it were a detective story, one in which Machiavelli emerges as the chief suspect. In 1960, Kendall wrote: "The 'master-mind' of the crime came to light only with the publication, last year, of Thoughts on Machiavelli. Only then did we learn that we were not dealing with a criminal but with a criminal syndicate; worse still, with a criminal syndicate that develops in each generation a new master-mind who carries the crime a little further and gives it a new 'twist.'" In this light, one must consider the possibility that Strauss's peculiar footnote refers not only to "The Final Problem" but as well to his own "detective story"—i.e., his detection and narration of the origin and history of modern political philosophy. One may say that Strauss began to tell that story inNatural Right and History and brought it to its culmination in Thoughts on Machiavell.
This is not to say that the analogy between Strauss-Machiavelli and Holmes-Moriarty is meant to apply in every respect: Strauss is not a Holmes, nor is Machiavelli a Moriarty. The analogy extends only so far as Strauss's provisional identification of himself as an opponent or enemy of Machiavelli extends: for in that guise Strauss appears as a champion of justice against the "teacher of evil" Machiavelli. Yet Strauss, unlike Holmes, does not allow his practical opposition to Machiavellianism to diminish his appreciation of Machiavelli's philosophic greatness. Whereas Holmes states, "My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill," his "horror" ultimately trumps his admiration: Holmes would be willing to sacrifice his life to end Moriarty's. There is no sense of horror in Strauss's account of Machiavelli, and his admiration for Machiavelli is all but unlimited. Moreover, by Strauss's account Machiavelli was not motivated by base or wicked ends: the practical aim of Strauss's Machiavelli was to end the criminal inhumanity of "the present religion" by establishing on as firm a ground as possible "a perpetual republic" informed by his true and rational understanding of human things. One might even go further and say that in a—if not the—most important respect there is no difference whatsoever between Strauss and his Machiavelli: "The core of his being was his thought about man, about the condition of man and about human affairs."
Once one is alerted to the importance of the theme of the detective for Strauss's studies on Machiavelli, one is able to shed some light on other perplexing passages in Thoughts on Machiavell. I will restrict myself here to treating Strauss's striking indictment of Machiavelli for the crime of blasphemy. In a justly famous analysis, Strauss demonstrated how Machiavelli in a most subtle and ingenious manner made the suggestion in the 26th chapter of Book One of the Discourses on Livy that God was a tyrant. In proffering his charges, Strauss seems to admit no mitigation:
Someone might say in defense of Machiavelli that he does not speak of God in the incriminated passage or that the blasphemy is so well concealed as to be non-existent for the majority of readers. Over against this one might well urge that a concealed blasphemy is worse than an open blasphemy.... By concealing the blasphemy Machiavelli compels the reader to think the blasphemy by himself and thus to become Machiavelli's accomplice. One cannot compare the situation of the reader of Machiavelli with that of a judge or a prosecutor who likewise rethinks criminal or forbidden thoughts in order to bring the accused to justice and thus establishes a kind of intimacy with the criminal without however incurring the slightest suspicion of thus becoming an accomplice and without having for a moment a sense of guilt. For the criminal does not desire and invite this kind of intimacy but rather dislikes it. Machiavelli on the other hand is anxious to establish this intimacy if only with a certain kind of reader whom he calls "the young."
Strauss thus adopts the tone and manner of a prosecuting attorney in a situation that he confesses is resistant to such a comparison. Is there a better comparison Strauss for some reason prefers not to employ? As soon as one raises this question, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that Strauss's non-analogy omits precisely that re-thinker of criminal thoughts whose activity most resembles his own, that is, the detective. Strauss in fact had called attention to this resemblance in the concluding paragraph of his essay, "On a Forgotten Kind of Writing":
M. Kojève, comparing my method to that of the detective, asserted that there is this difference: that my method cannot lead up to the confession of the criminal. My answer is twofold: I know of cases where the criminal confessed posthumously after having made sure that the detective would not condemn him; and I would be happy if there were suspicion of crime where up to now there has only been implicit faith in perfect innocence.
Why did Strauss fail to mention the detective in a passage that in more ways than one demands it? Perhaps the reason is his wish at the same time to preserve the appearance of enmity for Machiavelli while indicating that whatever their differences as a philosopher he is by necessity Machiavelli's friend. For, as we saw above, in the most interesting cases matching detective and criminal mastermind, there is a considerable degree of mutual admiration. To name but the most obvious consideration, no one has ever done more to establish the greatness of Machiavelli the philosopher than Strauss. Not only did Machiavelli invite the intimacy he shared with his reasonable friend, but Strauss more than graciously accepted his invitation. Though one should always view a philosopher's correspondence with a skeptical eye, there is no reason on the basis of his writings on Machiavelli to doubt in the main the sincerity of what Strauss wrote in 1953 to Eric Voegelin: "I begin lentissime to write a small book on Machiavelli. I can't help loving him—in spite of his errors." Of course that "small" book turned out to be in more than one sense his greatest one, Thoughts on Machiavelli, to the writing of which he devoted five years almost exclusively. Given his admiration for Machiavelli's employment of what Strauss termed "manifest blunders," one might even say that Strauss loved Machiavelli in part because of his errors.
I do not wish to deny that there are important differences that Strauss has with Machiavelli: Strauss is not a Machiavellian. That being said, in contrast to what many scholars believe, I do not think it easy to say of what the essential differences between Strauss and Machiavelli consist. When scholars discuss Strauss's Machiavelli they typically rest satisfied with the formulaic criticisms gleaned from Strauss's most rhetorically charged passages. Even such a thoughtful observer as Arnaldo Momigliano was led to describe Strauss as "the author of one of the most elaborate and minute condemnations of the immoralism and atheism of Machiavelli." (In passing it is worth noting that Strauss nowhere inThoughts explicitly ascribes atheism to Machiavelli, let alone damns him for it.) Those highly rhetorical passages—such asThoughts's opening or the brief summation of Machiavelli's teaching in What Is Political Philosophy?'s title essay—tend to occur in passages that serve as introductions and conclusions or are otherwise manifestly provisional, and they become essentially misleading if they are not so regarded.
In order to begin to get a handle on Strauss's genuine, non-polemical criticism of Machiavelli, I believe it is more helpful to focus on Strauss's obtrusive praise of Machiavelli, rather than his obtrusive criticisms. Strauss regarded as "truly admirable in Machiavelli," to repeat, "the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision and the graceful subtlety of his speech." If one asks what are the corresponding qualities of the classical thinkers Strauss treated, one begins to get a sense of what he terms in On Tyranny "the subtlest and indeed the decisive difference between Socratic political science and Machiavellian political science," a difference that concerns the relationship between wisdom and moderation. Whereas "the graceful subtlety of his speech" makes Machiavelli "the heir, the by no means unworthy heir, to that supreme art of writing which [the Great Tradition] manifested at its peaks," the other two truly admirable qualities Strauss identifies take on different shadings, if not forms, in the classics. Whereas Machiavelli's thought is "intrepid," the spirit which "animates" classical political philosophy "may be described as serenity or sublime serenity." Similarly, whereas Strauss praises "the grandeur of [Machiavelli's] vision," he finds a different kind of grandeur to praise in the classics, namely "the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" Winckelmann discerned in Xenophon—a description which Strauss on more than one occasion used to characterize classical thought as a whole.
One might reasonably ask, if Strauss regards himself as a kind of detective and Machiavelli is to be equated with Moriarty, would this then not entail—mutual admiration notwithstanding—that Strauss is Machiavelli's deadly enemy? The answer to this question would be "yes" only if Holmes is the literary detective upon whom Strauss modeled himself. I do not believe this to be the case. There is more than one type of detective and Strauss was known to be a great admirer of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Wolfe was in many ways the anti-Holmes: whereas Holmes lived for the pursuit of villains, Wolfe worked only to support his preferred way of life—one which is decidedly non-active. Holmes characteristically understood the low—i.e., the criminal—in light of the low. Holmes was an expert in cigarette ashes, "the tracing of footsteps," and the color and consistency of London soils. Not only was he ignorant of the whole, he was proud of his ignorance. In the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Watson relates his amazement at discovering Holmes's astronomical ignorance:
That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
'You appear to be astonished,' he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. 'Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.'
'To forget it!'
'You see,' he explained, 'I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic....'
'But the Solar System!' I protested.
'What the deuce is it to me?'
Wolfe, on the contrary, is anything but a proponent of the soul as empty attic. Of course Wolfe is not a philosopher, but more than any other fictional detective he lives an analogue of the philosophic life: he rarely works—and never by choice—and he divides the large majority of his waking hours between employment with natural beauty (his famed orchids) and reading. Moreover, he on more than one occasion makes observations that have a distinctly classical air. In The League of Frightened Men, for example, he offers a twofold reason for refusing to discuss with his confidential assistant Archie Goodwin the judgments he had formed on a novelist suspected of murder: insufficient study and, more importantly, the order of things. Wolfe remarks,
Read [his] books, and I shall be more inclined to discuss the conclusions they have led me to. But even then, of course, I would not attempt to place plain to your eyes the sights my own have discerned. God made you and me, in certain respects, quite unequal, and it would be futile to try any interference with His arrangements.
Moreover, the pictures representing "man's three resources" with which he decorates his office—"one of Socrates, one of Shakespeare, and an unwashed coal miner in oil by Sepeshy"—show Wolfe to possess an almost classical conception of human nature. I believe Strauss adopted the phrase "the art of writing" from Wolfe as well as elsewhere made use of language from the first and greatest of the Wolfe novels, Fer-de-Lance.
Perhaps what separates Wolfe and Holmes, above all, are their attitudes towards justice. Whereas for Holmes justice is the highest good, for Wolfe it is a secondary concern, albeit not a negligible one. Wolfe gave memorable voice to his not unphilosophic priorities in Fer-de-Lance; in the process of extorting $10,000 from a district attorney, Wolfe remarks: "I was just explaining to Mr. Anderson that the ingenious theory of the Barstow murder which he is trying to embrace is an offense to truth and an outrage on justice, and since I cherish the one and am on speaking terms with the other, it is my duty to show him its inadequacy." Thus whereas Holmes takes upon himself the task of pursuing Moriarty to his end, Wolfe in a later trio of novels avoids as long as possible his final confrontation with Arnold Zeck, the criminal mastermind at the head of a Moriarty-like organization. In short, Wolfe is far more detached than is Holmes; since Wolfe is far less attracted to the equation of the just and the legal than Holmes, he is able to appreciate that in certain circumstances criminal illegality can partake to no small extent of the high.
In Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe speaks with unreserved admiration of the murderer he is pursuing: "Clever is too weak a word for [his opponent]; he has his own genius. I would not ask for a better means of defeating a rainy Sunday than contemplation of the beauty of his arrangements." Had Wolfe "been able to afford the luxury of a philosophic attitude," he "would not have used at all" the evidence of the murder he had procured: "But that attitude was beyond my means, it was an affair of business."
To return to Strauss, I think one has to regard, for example, Strauss's famous declaration that "we profess ourselves inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil," as an affair of business, or primarily practical. However this may be, Strauss's disapproval of Machiavelli's crimes somehow kept company with his admiration for "the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision and the graceful subtlety of his speech." Viewed in this light, one is led to conclude that it was above all the case of Machiavelli that Strauss had in mind when he wrote in "On a Forgotten Kind of Writing": "I know of cases where the criminal confessed posthumously after having made sure that the detective would not condemn him."