Foucault, Strauss and the Noble Lie of Modernity
Throughout his intellectual career, the French philosopher Michel Foucault pursued two goals: a critique of the Enlightenment, and a ‘return’ to the Greeks. These two projects, or rather two faces of his life’s work of which the thought of Immanuel Kant seemed to him to be the clearest expression, were understood by Foucault’s sharpest observers on the left, such as Jurgen Habermas, as a new form of conservatism, following in the wake of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Foucault’s chief philosophical inspirations. Jean-Paul Sartre similarly saw Foucault as a conservative thinker, dubbing him the “last barricade of the bourgeoisie,” because he revealed Marxist pretensions to have objective knowledge of social contradictions and of a coming revolution against capitalism as merely a curious nineteenth-century variant of the Enlightenment’s misguided humanistic faith in ‘progress’. Foucault’s infamous critiques of ‘science’ (really, what he called the ‘sciences of man’, such as psychology) were only one expression of a larger critique of Marxism, liberalism, and other forms of post-Enlightenment politics.
Some on the contemporary left still understand Foucault as an enemy, recognizing him as of the principal exponents of ‘neoliberalism’. They note his importance to the transition of the French left away from Marxism and towards a vaguer, post-revolutionary political horizon less confident in the ability of authoritarian structures like disciplined socialist parties, unions, and the state to deliver emancipation, and less sure about the universal validity of human rights. Conservatives, however, in both France and the United States, have tended to see Foucault not as a grave-digger of the Marxist left and thus a potential ally for a renewal of a right no longer having to define itself in terms of anti-communism — but rather as a dangerous, reckless nihilist responsible for the rise of identity politics. This is in part the fault of a generation of American readers who, repackaging Foucault as part of an imagined ‘French theory‘, are now recirculating throughout the world a version of his ideas made compatible with woke shibboleths of gender, sexuality and race.
Over the past year, I have written a series of articles attempting to wrest Foucault’s legacy away from those who misappropriate it, and to encourage conservatives to reconsider his insights into a variety of topics. These include his critique of ‘sexual liberation‘, his suspicion of medical experts and what he called ‘biopolitics‘, and his questioning of the logic of efforts to abolish policing. These interventions are part of a broader reevaluation of liberal democracy, the characteristic form of regime that emerged out of the Enlightenment, which seems increasingly beset by an incapacity to master practical problems of public health and security, and to secure the loyalty of its citizens. Foucault, I have argued, shows us that liberal democracy is inherently vulnerable to the vicious struggles of ‘identity politics’ because its political-philosophical foundation rests on an uneasy compromise between what he called ‘historicist’ claims about particular national and ethnic groups, on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘philosophical’ claims about universal human rights.
In this and in many other respects, Foucault found common ground with Leo Strauss. Both critiqued the pretentions of the Enlightenment and its sequelae, liberalism, Marxism, and the modern social sciences. Both drew inspiration from the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger, without sharing Heidegger’s turn to fascism in the 1930s or to pseudo-mysticism in the post-war era. Both saw the relationship between historicism and philosophy as central to modern politics. And both, with many reservations, finally came to accept liberal democracy and the legacy of the Enlightenment as a necessary framework for both politics and philosophy. Without endorsing as true (and indeed while continuing to expose the incoherence of) the intellectual presuppositions of liberalism, both Foucault and Strauss came to find in it a bulwark against the totalitarian politics they abhorred, and a space in which, protected by particular forms of discursive opacity, certain individuals could pursue what Strauss described as the philosophical way of life, and what Foucault referred to as ‘ascesis’, a ‘spiritual’ discipline of self-making. Although they offered powerful criticisms of the intellectual foundations of liberal-democratic modernity, both Foucault and Strauss became what Pierre Manent, in his interpretation of Tocqueville, refers to as ‘friends of democracy’, thinkers whose private reservations about the ultimate value of our regime allow them, in an apparent paradox, to offer its leaders insights and intellectual virtues that liberal democracy’s more earnest defenders do not possess and are unable to transmit.
Providing a comprehensive Straussian reading of Foucault’s body of work, or articulating the similarities between the two thinkers’ careers, is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to offer a sketch of what I think can be gained by such an approach. Foucault is not usually read as an ‘esoteric’ writer, but his lectures offer a fertile ground for this kind of interpretative strategy, the premises of which were developed by Strauss, and reveal Foucault’s sense of how a public intellectual ought to participate in political life through the shaping of public opinion and through occasional hints to the perspicacious few.
In his 1983 lecture series at the Collège de France, The Goverment of Self and of Others, Foucault combined his two major interests — Kant and the Greeks — in a peculiar way. The first two lectures of a course ostensibly devoted to the analysis of parrhesia or ‘free speech’ in ancient Greece began with an interpretation of Kant’s 1784 essay, What is Enlightenment? Foucault did not clarify the relationship of this text to the themes of his course, and mentioned Kant only briefly in the subsequent lectures. Taken together, however, these references outline a vision of how Foucault imagined philosophy to relate to politics in our modern liberal-democratic horizon, and how the notion of modernity itself can be, no longer an object of critique as it was in Foucault’s earlier work, but a new form of the ‘noble lie’ by which philosophers shape public opinion.
The most obvious connection between What is Enlightenment? and the main theme of Foucault’s course is that, in it, Kant defends intellectuals’ freedom of speech, arguing that thinkers should have the right to express their opinions on matters of general concern, and that the exercise of this right is critical to social progress. The relationship between right and progress was central to Foucault’s analysis. Kant, he noted, was one of the first modern thinkers to link a universalist conception of human rights (the basis of liberalism) to a teleological conception of history as the perfection of this universal humanity and its movement towards a harmonious cosmopolitanism (the basis of progressivism). But such a linkage opens the problem of ‘historicism,’ of knowing ‘where’ in the imagined timeline of history one finds oneself, understood in terms of one’s proximity to the final goal.
Kant saw the Enlightenment as an ‘exit’ from humanity’s dependence on traditional structures of authority such as the Church. But, Foucault observed, this apparent exit from the cave of prejudice creates a new kind of cave around itself, one defined in temporal rather than spatial terms. As we step out of these ancient allegiances and beliefs that had bound us to specific segments of humanity rather than to the whole of our species, we now begin to understand ourselves as the product of a long series of intellectual and cultural developments, of outmoded moments of thought, and must try to understand our current ‘historical situation’, asking what it demands of us, how we should adapt old ideas to its requirements, and what possibilities for further progress it affords. In coming to see ourselves not as the members of a particular city but as members of a universal humanity, we also realize that we are bound to a particular moment in time, contingent products of changing historical circumstances.
In one of his first critiques of Kant, in the preface to his 1963 Birth of the Clinic, Foucault signaled some of the ironies of our “historical situation,” in which Kant and the Enlightenment have “doomed us historically to history.” Although the promise of Enlightenmment liberal humanism is to emancipate a universal humanity from particularistic attachments to local prejudices, pursuing such a project means becoming trapped in historicist thinking. Instead of stepping out of the cave into the light, Foucault warned, we are now “going forward in our blindness” deeper into a dark enclosure. We have only exchanged the cave of unconscious adherence local prejudice for the cave of awareness of our being bound to historical contingency.
In this early work, Foucault appears to live up to his reputation for pessimism, offering no solution for this dark assessment. But twenty years later, in his lecture on Kant’s What is Enlightenment?, he had come to understand the cave of historicism as offering a new kind of opportunity for philosophers. In his lecture notes is an illuminating passage that he decided not to read aloud to the assembled students. Here Foucault defended himself against accusations of being a ‘historicist’ and ‘nihilist’. He suggested that the point of historicism and nihilism is not to give us a true vision of the world, but to contribute to a “transformation of value systems.” We should be asking, therefore, not if Foucault was a historicist and nihilist, but what he was doing with his historicism and nihilism, what ground he is clearing for what new foundations.
With Kant’s apparent ‘exit’ from the cave of prejudice and entrance into the cave of historicism, Foucault argued, “we see that practical philosophy, or rather the philosopher… cannot avoid posing the question of how it is that he belongs to the present.” If the philosopher of the pre-modern world had to ask about the nature of his membership in the city and his attachment to its prejudices (the great theme of Strauss’ analysis of classical political philosophy), then the modern philosopher, the philosophy who lives in an age that imagines itself as a distinct temporal phase called ‘modernity’, has to ask instead about the nature of his membership in a historical moment and his beholdenness to its opinions. This ‘present’, Foucault insisted, is the ‘we’ to which the modern philosopher belongs.
Modern political philosophy, finding itself in the cave of its moment rather than the cave of its city, must make this new cave the principle “object of its reflection.” The most obvious way to understand this injunction would be, as most ‘critical theory’ has done, to say that philosophers should think more about what modernity (or post-modernity) is, adding to the enormous literature on the supposed features of our era. But Foucault would rather have us ask how the modern philosopher should live — and how he should disguise himself.
Towards the end of his lecture series, Foucault claimed that all of Western philosophy has been structured by a tension between Diogenes and Plato. The former, living in his barrel, masturbating in front of passersby, mocking the great and good, performed “philosophy’s free speech… in the public sphere, in defiance, confrontation, derision and critique of the deeds of the Prince and of political action.” His was a philosophy free to speak truth to power because the philosopher that spoke it had no power himself, no respectable membership in the city. Plato, in contrast, went to the court of Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse as an advisor, and articulated models of ideal states in his Republic and Laws. Such a philosopher who aspires to influence (or, really, to wield) power cannot speak freely in public, but only in intimate settings, in the ear of the Prince or among initiates. If he teaches in public, or writes, it will be in an esoteric mode, concealing his purposes beneath apparently acceptable and conventional ideas.
When the Enlightenment replaced the old cave of the city with the new cave of the historical situation, however, a new kind of philosopher appeared. Kant, Foucault argued, tried to bring about the unprecedented union of Diogenes and Plato, speaking truth to power in the public sphere while also covertly orienting political action. Of course, the enlightened public intellectual, who appears as the union of Diogenes’ shocking, iconoclastic rejection of contemporary pieties and Plato’s subtle, esoteric awakening of philosophical souls and education of the opinions of the holders of power, is Foucault himself. The modern philosopher seems to speak with heedless freedom, making bold critiques of our most cherished values and summoning to us overcome what Kant called our “self-imposed immaturity,” our childish dependence on traditional authority. Through this public parrhesia, however, the philosopher becomes an authority himself, shaping public opinion and guiding the decisions of elites. We might expect, in the spirit of Plato, that this philosopher will tell some noble lies.
Seth Benardete, in his book Socrates’ Second Sailing, offers an instructive interpretation of the ‘noble lie’ in Plato’s Republic. The inhabitants of the ideal city are to be told that they sprang from the soil of their city, in a myth that will “separate the city from the outside” and make all those within it “family.” Here the city is a bounded space, like cave of prejudices. While the philosopher should be liberated from the latter, he should also understand how to attach his compatriots (particularly the elites who ostensibly rule) to the former by making them “love the city,” identifying with it rather than with either their own individual interests or a universal humanity.
The modern philosopher does not speak to us of our city — nationalism, patriotism, the defense of tradition, etc. seem anachronistic in the contemporary West — but of our century, our situation, of history and progress. He speaks to us of individuals and of humanity, rather than of particular groups and traditions. He tells us that we are separated from other eras by the unbridgeable gulf of historical becoming. And what if this were his noble lie, the myth by which he incites us to love and feel membership within a particular ‘we’, a ‘modern’ West located in time rather than space?
We perhaps have not yet learned how to read a thinker who is Diogenes and Plato together, whose apparently nihilistic critiques may contain unexpected incitations to political action, and whose esoteric appeals are perhaps only beginning to be heard. To learn how Diogenes and Plato have come together in the noble lie of modernity — that is, the noble lie that there is such a thing as modernity, that we have particular obligations in light of the features of the current historical moment, as revealed to us by the philosopher who interprets it to us — we will need to bring together Foucault and Strauss. From such a vantage we can begin to see modernity, the Enlightenment and liberal democracy not so much as radically different from the world of classical political philosophy, but as manipulated (and perhaps for their own good) by the myth of their radical difference from it.
The preceding interpretation of Foucault’s lectures has suggested some of the ‘Straussian’ dimensions of his thought, and what might be gained from an ‘esoteric’ reading of his work — or rather, from following him in his own attention to the ‘esoteric’ dimensions of Kant’s What is Enlightenment? For Foucault as with Strauss, we learn how to read the author by seeing how he read others. Such a new reading of Foucault might allow us to understand him as moving, over the course of his career, towards a tactical accommodation with liberal democracy, the Enlightenment, and modernity — not because these are the best and truest structures, or even merely those we cannot in the present do without, but because they afford the modern philosopher possibilities for pursuing his private project of ‘ascesis’ while securing a minimally decent public order through the elaboration of a new ‘noble lie’.
In this lie, the philosopher no longer tells citizens and leaders, as he had in the pre-modern version, that they are bound to the conventions of their city because they sprang from its soil (while the philosopher himself, seeing through these conventions, practices his freedom beyond the sight of his fellow citizens, and tries, by imperceptible degrees of change, to reshape the content of their prejudices). Instead, the modern philosopher tells citizens they can and must liberate themselves from conventions, but, as he exhorts them to exercize their freedom and critical faculties, reminds them that the ‘historical situation’ to which they belong has certain requirements, limitations, and paths towards the desired future.
Through these ‘histories of the present’ the modern philosopher guides his supposedly liberated fellow citizens as surely as the classical philosopher guided his. The techniques of historicism, genealogy and critique, thus no longer appear as an acid corroding tradition, and with it the bonds that hold human beings together in a political community, but rather as the basis of a new and only apparently paradoxical bond, through which injunctions to liberation and autonomy enthrall those who hear them to the hidden influence of the modern philosopher.
If this is the outline of the Foucault who might emerge through a ‘Straussian’ reading, then we might also begin to consider how Foucauldian ideas could serve — indeed save — liberal democracy as those of Strauss, in the eyes of some, did in the twentieth century. There is an interpretation of Strauss that sees him as beginning his career with a series of penetrating insights into the political deficiencies of the modern liberal-democratic state, and of the philosophical deficiencies of the Enlightenment, particularly of Kant. In his 1932 commentary on Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, itself an apparently powerful attack on Kantian liberalism in theory and practice, Strauss insisted that Schmitt had not gone far enough, and was clinging to the debris of liberal humanism (Schmitt, for example, revealed his lingering liberal hope of sheltering some aspects of life from politics by implausibly suggesting, before changing his mind in light of Strauss’ criticism, that politics is a distinct ‘sphere’ of human activity that can be separated from others, rather than a degree of dangerous intensity to which any activity may rise). But, faced with Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, Strauss came to appreciate that liberalism had certain virtues — not least, the virtue of being susceptible to the influence of someone like himself.
Over the following decades, a certain version of history has it, Strauss trained two generations of students in the United States as ‘philosophers’ capable of seeing through the weaknesses and falsehoods of American modernity, while transmitting to their own students a passionate attachment to their regime and their era, coupled with certain opinions and moral orientations that liberal democracy could not otherwise provide from within the matrix of its own premises. These latter students, who became political leaders rather than philosophers, acted in the horizon of the opinions their teachers had given them, bound to them by such noble lies as the infallibility of the Founding Fathers, the genius of Lincoln, or the sacredness of human rights. This project, celebrated in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, has perhaps now come to a miserable end. But something like it may be liberal democracy’s best hope for survival in the twenty-first century.
Foucault, who like Strauss began his career by radicalizing the critiques of modernity of the German philosophical tradition, seems to have come to a similar conclusion about the role that the ‘modern philosopher’ must play. Taking Kant as a ‘founding father’ of modernity, Foucault encouraged his listeners to remain attached to the modern mission of self-emancipation through fearless critique and historicist inquiry, while suggesting, to those with ears to hear, that these exoteric summons to independence are, in fact, precisely the means by which an esoterically enlightened few might rule the multitude. The recovery of Strauss’ post-war political-philosophical agenda in America — creating an intellectual elite self-conscious about the limitations of our regime but committed to its defense and capable of attaching a new generation of rising political elites to their noble lies — may pass through Foucault.
Blake Smith is a historian of modern France, translator, and a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago.
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