Leo Strauss is a very funny man. His 1941 essay, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” a mostly misunderstood work, begins with a small joke, an epigraph from History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe by Irish historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky Volume II, 1872. The quote is actually a bit famous and can be found in quotation books. Lecky’s work was an inspiration to many atheists then and probably just as many today. Lecky’s quote in context read as follows and the actual epigraph has been italicized:
By the Edict of Nantes, Henry IV., whose theological zeal was notoriously languid, solemnly established the principle of toleration. By entering into a war in which his allies were chiefly Protestants, and his enemies Catholics, Richelieu gave a new direction to the sympathies of the people, instituted lines of demarcation which were incompatible with the old spirit of sect, and prepared the way for the general secularisation of politics. The reaction which took place under Louis XIV., although it caused intolerable suffering, and, indeed, partly in consequence of that suffering, had eventually the effect of accelerating the movement. The dragonnades, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, formed the most conspicuous events of a period which was preeminently disastrous to France, and the effects of those measures upon French prosperity were so rapid and so fatal that popular indignation was roused to the highest point. The ruin of the French army, the taxation that ground the people to the dust, the paralysis of industry, the intellectual tyranny, and the almost monastic austerity of the court, had all combined to increase the discontent, and, as is often the case, the whole weight of this unpopularity was directed against each separate element of tyranny. The recoil was manifested in the wild excesses of the Regency, a period which presents, in many respects, a very striking resemblance to the reign of Charles II. in England. In both cases the reaction against an enforced austerity produced the most unbridled immorality; in both cases this was increased by the decay of those theological notions on which morality was at that time universally based; in both cases the court led the movement; and in both cases that movement eventuated in a revolution which in the order of religion produced toleration, and in the order of politics produced an organic change. That vice has often proved an emancipator of the mind, is one of the most humiliating, but, at the same time, one of the most unquestionable facts in history. It is the special evil of intolerance that it entwines itself around the holiest parts of our nature, and becomes at last so blended with the sense of duty that, as has been finely said, ‘Conscience, which restrains every other vice, becomes the prompter here.’ Two or three times in the history of mankind, its destruction has involved a complete dissolution of the moral principles by which society coheres, and the cradle of religious liberty has been rocked by the worst passions of humanity.
The entire quote is part of a longer history of persecution, mostly by Christians, against anyone who thinks differently. As in Plato, moral and political degeneration opens free inquiry.
“Persecution and the Art of Writing” is truly about the problem of how to say the truth, not just when the truth is against the social order or political regime, but how to say the truth at all. Saying the truth is not so simple as being honest about one’s expression, saying something that one believes to be the truth with some kind of sincerity with an appeal to authority. First, the requirement is that you have to know the truth and the lie, and, second, you have to be able to articulate the truth in a way that an audience, general or special, will understand the truth. To know what the truth truly is requires that the truth-seeker must have the freedom of thought, but he does not attain that freedom politically. It comes from within. The First Amendment does not create philosophers. The persecutor of truth-seeking wants the world to live in a lie.
“Persecution,” Strauss writes, “is therefore the indispensable condition for the highest efficiency of what may be called logica equine. According to the horse-drawn Parmenides, or to Gulliver’s Houyhnhnms [Lecky was an expert on Swift], one cannot say, or one cannot reasonably say ‘the thing which is not’; that is, lies are inconceivable.” We generally agree that the truth is something that relates directly to what is, what has being, and ultimately to all of what constitutes being. Non-being cannot be stated, according to the Swift’s horses, because words can only symbolize things that are. Thus, everything is true and there are no lies. Yet, if that is the case, there is no negation; hence, we must assume that there is non-being, so to speak, and to tell the whole truth we must articulate something that cannot be articulated as it is a part of the whole of things. In truth, if we cannot articulate what is not, we cannot say what is, and if we cannot articulate what is, then we live in a constant lie, but most of us don’t know that. We lie inadvertently or we live insanely.
To live a lie is to live under persecution. We persecute ourselves, and, thus, we persecute others. Socrates teaches, moreover, that error is the “true lie” in the soul (Republic 382B). The inadvertent lie is the worst of lies. So, for example, when the second Bush administration said that we were going to war with Iraq, because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it was a lie. It was something that was not. Bush managed to say something that is not. Good rulers don’t make mistakes. They never lie. They rule with true knowledge. Therefore, they can be trusted by those who are ruled by them. The problem, of course, is that practically all of political life is infected with a form of insanity where the legitimacy that truth and knowledge naturally confer frequently is never about. The natural inclination of political men who don’t know or think they know is to create a fiction that they do know and that anyone who contradicts them has no right to do so. At the heart of all political life is lying, which is one of the great teachings of Machiavelli, who did suffer from persecution in the form of torture and from the fact that none of his great works were published during his life time.
The fox Machiavelli was a truth-teller to the point of being a propagandist for lying when it is convenient and necessary to do so. “As a matter of fact, this literature [writing between the lines],” Strauss writes, would be impossible if the Socratic dictim that virtue is knowledge, and therefore that thoughtful men as such are trustworthy and not cruel, were entirely wrong.” The truth makes a man compassionate, moderate, and ethical. The lie makes for persecution and extremism, especially against thoughtful, truth-seeking men. To know the tyrant for what he is is to know not just a liar, but what is not.
“Persecution and the Art of Writing” places in the problem of telling the truth in the opposition of the truth-seeker against the political regime that is built on a mass of lies, both intentional and inadvertent, because the whole of things is both truth and lies, being and non-being, and what cannot be said both for political reasons and for metaphysical reasons. Some things can only be said to be truthful if they are in fact said indirectly or in a self-contradictory form or in a metaphor or symbol. Some of the most effective ways to speak the truth is through various fictions, because, after all, that realm of fiction gives us an incredible freedom to state the truth that doesn’t live in the social realms in which we live. Odysseus, Athena love him, is the liar of all liars, but he is a fiction. The writing between the lines that we get from thoughtful men throughout time is a telling lie, a lie that suspends itself, and its symbol is the uneasy, tense relationship of the philosopher to the city. The philosopher is never at home in the city, because the very notion that there is a city is something in speech, a fiction, a non-being, that is treated by the leaders of the city as real and having higher dignity and authority than the individual. That fiction no matter how benignly thought is too often backed up by force and the power of the many against the one or few.
“What attitude people adopt toward freedom of public discussion, depends decisively on what they think about popular education and its limits,” writes Strauss. We must ban Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn, for example, from school libraries. We must be open to “intelligent design” or that perhaps Abraham Lincoln was not as great as the President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis as the Texas school books assert. As Strauss points out, the entire effort to abolish persecution was through what we commonly call Enlightenment. “They looked forward to a time when, as a result of progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be possible, or—to exaggerate for purposes of clarification—to a time when no one would suffer any harm from hearing any truth.” Lecky is one of these Enlighteners.
But that presupposes a homogeneity of thinking or that everyone can be made to see the truth and then would become sensible and wise, a rather naturally impossible thing, a thing that is not. Either what is true becomes entirely diluted into something false or the false cannot be suspended by wise writing. Lecky’s great effort to establish ideal toleration is doomed by nature. There will always be religious or ideological people who will persecute any thought that differs from their own. The political lies or of the monotheists are the true “noble lies,” which is what most people who read Strauss do not understand. These lies are ennobled against those who hate the lie in the soul. The whole effort to be edifying for the many is done by those who have no nobility, while those who write between the lines are writing the ugly truth, both in terms of what is and what is not. The philosopher, the pack leader who loves his little puppies, writes and speaks the truth using words he knows are not true, because words cannot encompass the greatest truths of all. For the noble liars, the words can express all the truth that they believe they know, while to the thoughtful men words constantly fail, but they can fail in a way that displays the truth to other thoughtful men.
While Socrates may be ugly on the outside and beautiful on the inside, the truth is also that the noble liars of politics and religion are beautiful on the outside, but ugly inside. There can never be tolerance of free thinking, because the very nature of truth is that it is limited only to a few who know what they don’t know, while most men tragically and comically believe they know what they will never know and they will make sure the education system must accord to their ignorance and errors.
“Education, they felt, is the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question par excellence, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom that is not license,” Strauss concludes “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” That answer is the philosopher king, of course, but the other is a unity that is always a great multiplicity at the same time that is in balance and in harmony, a peaceable metaphysical state which comes when men are properly ruled. In other words, the question of education is solved by the inculcation of the greatest moderation possible. Moderation as public justice works allows free thinkers to live and to communicate with their friends, while at the same time pacifying the persecution that arises out of the extreme of noble lies that are believed to be absolutely true. The true free thinkers moderate themselves as to not upset those who don’t know. It really is not a wise thing to tell people there is no god as Mr. Lecky does, as that does not end the persecution. The opposite might actually come true instead if it goes to extremes.
When Strauss was writing “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” the world had gone to war. Strauss did something very courageous in that day to do. He noted that government views of things are not always true and cannot be accepted by thoughtful men (even in a time of emergency). Even in the worst of times, the truth is the truth and that truth is frequently ugly and frequently not noble. At a time when the world was coming apart and was degenerating, Strauss stood up gave us an example of free inquiry, an act, with a conclusion that what is needed is the truth and not lies, because truth is also a way out of war—that war that is waged inside our souls and that mere victory on the battle grounds throughout the world will never win. It is the same today at a time when we are war today on so many fronts.