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The Secret of Angels
Heidegger, Strauss, and Talmud on Fate and Freedom
“We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7)
According to the Talmud, the ability to put action before understanding is the “secret of angels.” Accepting the Torah on faith is a bigger feat than accepting it after a long process of logical reasoning. But is this true?
Philosophers tend to be concerned with “first principles,” which means building a systematic worldview on the basis of indubitable, self-evident, fundamental axioms. They lack the secret of angels. But philosophers were and are anomalous. Most people operate according to intuition and prejudice, following tradition and imitating others. In this regard, they, too, possess the secret of angels. Perhaps the secret of angels is an open secret. Or perhaps the secret is not the content (“do, then understand”), but the meta-awareness that this is how life works (ironically, an awareness that is a form of understanding, not obedience).
In the 20th century, a handful of thinkers rejected the definition of philosophy as a pure endeavor, totally self-contained. Among them were Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss.
For Heidegger, we are “thrown” into our world, and so all understanding is a response to an original condition we did not choose and cannot reason towards. Reason is at best an attempt to retrieve and clarify and reorient that which precedes us.
In The City and Man, Strauss says that philosophy and philosophers are only possible because they live in the city. It is the opinions of the people—not the knowledge of the philosopher—that enables society to exist. Those opinions are rooted in myth and superstition about the gods. The philosopher may reject these myths, but the philosopher cannot live without first being a product of them. Strauss’s story is also a story of “thrownness.” The secret of angels is that knowledge is responsive, not autonomous.
Why call the insight that knowledge is dependent a “secret of angels?” Angels lack humanity, but possess “wings of desire.” In being poor of world they observe better than we what it is to be creatures of the world. The secret of angels is the vantage on the human condition that we cannot possess, because we are too busy being human.
In Jewish tradition, angels lack free will. Angels must do what they are told, like robots. They are messengers. The secret of angels is that an element of unfreedom governs our lives, too. Fate isn’t the negation of freedom, but the foundation for it. Angels, who are all obedience, and no understanding, are anti-philosophers, who are all understanding and no obedience. Recall that in Kant, the highest form of dignity is autonomy. What Heidegger and Strauss question is this Enlightenment ideal—can we ever be or hope to be autonomous? Classical liberalism—which both thinkers challenge—presumes the concept of a sovereign self. The secret of angels is that selfhood is an effect of processes over which we do not have sovereignty.
How should we think about the critique of classical liberalism as it relates to Nazism? Does the embrace of “thrownness” lead inevitably to blood and soil politics, to nativism? If it does, what, besides contingency, keeps all the other critics of classical liberalism from going the same way that Heidegger did?
Proponents of feminist “care ethics” like Carol Gilligan make a similar type of claim as we find in Heidegger and Strauss. For instance, the idea that we are dependent creatures is said to be an insight lost on male philosophers, but obvious to mothers. Mothers know that to be a self is to be fundamentally obligated, as Mara Benjamin argues in her book, The Obligated Self. If child development is rooted in relationship, autonomy is something we have to grow into. The city is for Strauss what tradition is for Heidegger what the mother is for care ethics.
Nietzsche writes the self would rather will nothing than not will. But even someone as power-obsessed as Nietzsche must recognize that for the self to will anything there must be constraints on the will to induce it. An unfettered will would cancel itself out. Thus, it is impossible to be all-powerful. A most powerful being would require relationship, if only for the purpose of exerting power and having it affirmed. The secret of angels hides even in the most existentialist of thinkers.
The insight that unfreedom precedes and enables freedom is historically accurate, as well. Look at any modern liberal democracy and you’ll find a backstory of top-down rule. Monarchy is much older than democracy. Not all liberal democracies live up to their ideals. But given the reality of thrownness, this is to be expected. You can’t just remake your nature over night and annul the past without an identity crisis or a relapse. This is the Burkean insight. Sustainable changes take a long time. This is the secret of angels for which idealists and revolutionaries have no patience.
If you want to dismiss Heidegger as toxic, you will probably have to cancel Strauss, feminist care ethics, and the celebrated Jewish idea of “do, then understand.” Conversely, if you want to hold up feminist care ethics as a progressive model for righting Enlightenment wrongs, you will have to contend with the fact that it is formally Burkean, that care and dependence are arguments for putting moderation above principles.
Classical liberalism frees us from tradition, city, and mother, for better and for worse. Conservatives, by contrast, accept and affirm that choice is not the foundation for legitimacy. Some things are simply foundational, pre-legitimate.
Philosophy can revise our views on what’s legitimate, but it cannot replace the stubborn myths and stubborn bonds that make it possible in the first place.
In case you missed it, I wanted to share the premiere episode of my new podcast, Meditations with Zohar. I spoke to the polymath economist Tyler Cowen about life in the internet age, what we can learn from empty restaurants and the philosophy of Leo Strauss. If you like what you hear, and want to support, please subscribe, rate the show (5 stars), review it, and share it.