Most Straussians have no idea of the importance of the economics in the writings of Leo Strauss. Although there is a variety of economic questions that come up in his writings, Strauss’s primary work on economics is his study Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse An Interpretation of the Oeconomicus. What is critical here in terms of the debate over Strauss’s work is that Strauss is contradicting and laughing at modern economic scholarship and science, whether it be Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes or Karl Marx, the great philosopher of capitalism.
What right-wing Straussians don’t realize is that modern economics is not more a science than more political science or sociology, and that the political effort to say that we ought to have world capitalism or that we ought to have a welfare state and so on is not based on anything scientific at all. These efforts are merely political movements based on the partisan loyalties of their adherents and do not consist in a knowledge of true economics or, for that matter, an understanding of politics. The basic problem with modern economics is that it is entirely materially based. Moreover, modernity over all is the only human movement which has been developed in purely material terms and is not supported by any non-material principles or a sense of a higher order. This materiality is accompanied by an intellectuality that is modeled on modern natural and experimental science and its Baconian relief of man’s estate.
The plain truth, especially about economics, if there is even a minute non-material principle beyond the material world of modern economics, then all of modern economics is designed so that it cannot truly speak to what are man’s needs and how he should acquire them. We would have to throw the pretentiousness of the Chicago School of economics as well as the Marxists, and so on, and call them sophists as that is what they are.
Strauss speaks to the heart of the matter at the beginning of his economic work: “The Great Tradition of political philosophy was originated by Socrates. Socrates is said to have disregarded the whole of nature altogether in order to devote himself entirely to the study of ethical things. His reason seems to have been that while man is not necessarily in need of knowledge of the nature of all things, he must of necessity be concerned with how he should live individually and collectively.”
Basically, it is very hard and perhaps impossible to know how the universe came to be and from what and what its constituents are, despite all that modern physics has done. But it is possible, contrary to Nietzsche, for a man to know himself and how he ought to live. Underlying this position of political philosophy is something that Strauss does not ever say openly, that the activities of man and how he ought to live are an essential part of the whole of all things, the higher order that modern economics inherently denies as do all the modern sciences. What Strauss assumes is that we do not live in a digital world, but one of analogy. Strauss says at one point that the wholeness of the whole requires the wholeness of the parts, and it is the whole that man is seeking in political philosophy. That means that if we find a whole of something it will be structured both materially and non-materially as analog of the whole whole, so to speak.
The whole of man is both his individual and collective life. The whole which man can truly know is the city and man, that tense distinction. Because any true whole must be interdependent, a unity, a one, as well as an ineffable transcendence, the interdependence of the great whole that includes the universe and all genesis and passing away; the knowledge of man and the city constitutes a knowledge of how the whole hangs together, because it is an analog of the whole.
Strauss writes: “The Oeconomicus teaches the art of the manager of the household (oikonomos). The manager of the household may be good at his work or bad at it; but the oikonomikos, i.e., the man who possesses the art of managing the household is by this very fact a good manager of the household.”
Economics is not a science; it is an art. That fact alone denies all of modern economics and its fundamental premises. The reason that today’s economists cannot adequately saves us from recessions and depressions is precisely because they are not scientists in any rigorous or less rigorous sense. Moreover, as Strauss tells us, economics is like the royal art, although the household is a smaller area of concern than being a king over a whole nation. Furthermore, this peaceful art is known by Socrates and this dialogue is his most Socratic of the Socratic dialogues that Xenophon wrote.
Rather than writing a treatise on kingship, Socrates discusses how to manage a household. The household is in effect the smallest economic unit; even a homeless person has something that is his household, even if he is carrying it with him all the time in a nomadic way. Socrates was known as a man who minded his own business, as opposed to being a politician. The economist minds his own business, while the politician minds the businesses of others. The modern economists who defy the politicians do so on that very premise, that the economist knows who everyone should mind their own business, while the politician does not. Needless to say, if economics is the royal art, then it is the highest politician, the most important and true king, the political philosopher who truly knows how to mind one’s own business. Political philosophy is the application of politics to philosophy, not just the study and knowledge of politics.
Economics, then, is about not the quantity of life, but its quality. Modern economics is solely concerned with quantity and the establishment of values based on the fungibility of the whole world. Ricardo writes, “The only qualities necessary to make a measure of value perfect are that it should itself have value [like gold, for example], and that this value be invariable.” Notice that quality is materialized. Karl Marx, the philosopher of capitalism, agreed with Ricardo and was irritated that people did not understand that. The point is that once that is done, anything can be quantified and thus the value of one thing that is $100, for example, is exactly the same as anything else that is worth $100. Quality has no meaning in this scheme of things. In a world of analogy, gold can be quality, but in the digital world it is only conventional and its worth is strictly digital.
Economics is the ideal stage to see the difference between living a life of quantity over quality or vice versa.
Because economics is an art, Strauss notes that this knowledge is transferrable, that Socrates, considered poor, could manage the household of a rich man and earn money doing it. Well, of course, he could, not because he has wealth, but knowledge. Property does not make a man; knowledge does.
Property, moreover, is defined by Socrates in a totally non-modern way. The title to property is knowledge of its use, a complete opposite of the conventionalization of property that we have today. In my favorite comparison, the title to a Cremora violin is with the person who can play it well, not with the investor who buys at auction for millions of dollars and doesn’t know how to play it. In other words, the Socratic property is based on quality, not quantity.
Needless to say, when we speak of the quality of life, we also have to speak of how a man governs his passions and his desires, being a gentleman, but that discussion cannot exist with modern economics. Modern economics, of course, assumes, especially under capitalism, that art-of-all arts, making money, is the proper end of man, and thus also assumes the more the better. It is an infinite quest without an end, all digital. There is no such thing as a gentleman, because even in the roughest sense a gentleman is a man of quality. In the reign of quantity, that is the only way to see things, because there is no higher order at work in this digital world. There is only numbers and a representation of value by numbers, whether on a piece of paper or on a hard drive on a computer somewhere. In other words, it is the reign of absolute conventionalism where everything is conventionalized. There is a vast void that dictates the experiments we make to make money, which dominate the economist’s mind. Everything is seen as usable material. The subject is a procedure. Money is the sign of representation that substitutes for value. And everything can be exchanged, including man. And, of course, in order to make money, one has to be able to create the desire in others so that they want to purchase whatever it is that is being sold. Marketing, not production, is the most important thing on earth, and the artist or laborer who makes the product is merely a slave to the market, which is so to be best when free. Modern economics is a religion with no dissenters.
The Socratic approach to economics, being based on quality, takes property and limits it to knowledge. By emphasizing this philosophical knowledge, this metaphysical knowledge, Strauss reduced modern economics to the ignorance that it is . And as we all know, Socrates knows that he knows nothing and he knows his own ignorance and the ignorance of others. The so-called market does not truly have being. Only something that is based on something real can have some kind of being. The city is also a non-being. And we can know the market and the city. Socrates knows nothing, and that knowledge alone gives him the natural right to rule both the city and the household.
As Strauss writes about this dialogue, it is clear that Xenophon’s dialogue is a great and wonderful farce, particularly the discussion between the gentleman farmer and his wife. Modern economics is an even greater farce, because it is a complete abstraction from reality. The tragic side of things is that its ignorance now tyrannizes the world, and destroying it, along with the environment that is necessary for our lives. It is just the saddest thing, moreover, to read right-wingers who call themselves Straussians or associate themselves with Strauss extolling the capitalism or the works of ephemeral economists. This praise of modern economics is totally contrary to what Strauss stood for. In fact, it is a total debauchery of Strauss, and the so-called Western Tradition of which so many right-wing Straussians wish to defend with lip service.
The alternative to modern economics is the good household management of Socrates and how he teaches it. It is probably a world that is irrevocably lost. We are so impoverished.