Skip to comments.The Strategist and the Philosopher: Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter (Le Monde on Neo-Cons)
Posted on 06/03/2003 3:44:38 PM PDT by Stultis
By ALAIN FRACHON and DANIEL VERNET
Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz.
Who are the neoconservatives playing a vital role in the US president's choices by the side of Christian fundamentalists? And who were their master thinkers, Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss?
It was said in the tone of sincere praise: "You are some of our country's best brains". So good, added George W. Bush, "that my government employs around twenty of you." The president was addressing the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC on February 23 (quote from an article published in Le Monde, March 20, 2003). He was paying homage to a think tank that is one of the bastions of the American neoconservative movement. He was saluting a school of thought that has marked his presidency, avowing everything he owes to an intellectual stream whose influence is now predominant. He was also acknowledging the fact of being surrounded by neoconservatives, and giving them credit for the vital role they play in his political choices.
At the outset of the 1960s, John F. Kennedy recruited professors from the center-left, from Harvard University especially. They were chosen among the "best and the brightest", in the words of the essayist David Halberstam who coined the phrase. As for President George W. Bush, he would go on to govern with precisely those who, since the Sixties, began to rebel against the then-dominant center consensus colored as it was with a hue of social democracy.
Who are they and what is their history? Who were their master thinkers? Where do the intellectual origins of Bushian neoconservatism lie?
The neoconservatives must not be confused with Christian fundamentalists who are also found in George W. Bush's entourage. They have nothing to do with the renaissance of protestant fundamentalism begun in the southern Bible Belt states, which is one of the rising powers in today's Republican Party. Neoconservatism is from the East Coast, and a little Californian as well. Those who have inspired them have an 'intellectual' profile. Often they are New Yorkers, often Jewish, having their beginnings 'on the Left'. Some still call themselves Democrats. They have their hands on literary or political reviews, not the Bible. They wear tweed blazers, not the navy blue double-breasted suits of Southern TV-evangelists. Most of the time, they profess liberal ideas on questions related to society and social trends. Their objective is neither to prohibit abortion nor to make school prayer obligatory. Their ambition lies elsewhere.
The peculiarity of the Bush administration, as Pierre Hassner explains, is to have ensured the junction of these two streams. George W. Bush has brought the neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists to co-exist. The latter are represented in government by a man like John Ashcroft, the Attorney General. The former have one of their stars in the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. George W. Bush, who led his campaign on the center-right without any very specific political anchorage, has performed a stunning and explosive ideological cocktail. It weds Wolfowitz and Ashcroft, neoconservatives and born-again Christians, planets diametrically opposed.
Ashcroft has taught at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an academically unknown college though a stronghold of Protestant fundamentalism. The kind of talk one overhears there brushes on anti-Semitism. Jewish and from a family of teachers, Wolfowitz is for his part a brilliant product of East Coast universities. He has studied with two of the most eminent professors of the 1960s. Allan Bloom, the discipline of the German-Jewish philosopher, Leo Strauss, and Albert Wohlstetter, professor of mathematics and a specialist in military strategy. These two names would end up counting. The neoconservatives have placed themselves under the tutelary shadow of the strategist and the philosopher.
'Neoconservative' is a misnomer. They have nothing in common with those striving to guarantee the established order. They reject just about all the attributes of political conservatism as it is understood in Europe. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, who became famous from his book on The End of History, insists: "In no way do the neoconservatives want to defend the order of things such as they are, i.e. founded on hierarchy, tradition and a pessimistic view of human nature" (Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2002).
As idealist-optimists convinced of the universal value of the American democratic model, they want to bring the status quo and soft consensus to an end. They believe in the power of politics to change things. On the domestic front, they have worked out the critique of the welfare state created by Democratic and Republican presidencies (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, respectively), which has belabored to resolve social problems. On foreign policy, they denounced 1970s Détente, which, they claimed, had benefited the USSR more than the West. As critics of the Sixties' balance sheet who are opposed to Henry Kissinger's diplomatic realism, they are anti-establishment. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the founders of Commentary and two of neoconservatism's New-York godfathers, come from the Left. And it was from the Left that they formulated their condemnation of Soviet communism.
In Ni Marx, ni Jesus (Neither Marx nor Jesus) (Robert Laffont, 1970), Jean-François Revel described the USA plunged in the turmoil of the 1960s social revolution. More recently, he has explained neoconservatism as a backlash, above all on the domestic front. The neoconservatives criticize the cultural and moral relativism of the Sixties in the wake of Leo Strauss. In their view, relativism culminated in the 'politically correct' movement of the 1980s.
Another high-ranking intellectual wages the battle at this point. Allan Bloom from the University of Chicago was depicted by his friend Saul Bellow in the novel Ravelstein (Which Books, 2000). In 1987 in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom assails the university community for having given everything equal merit: "Everything has become culture", he wrote. "Drug culture, Rock culture, Street Gang culture and so on without the least discrimination. The failure of culture has become culture."
For Bloom, who was an important interpreter of the classic works of literature, very much in the image of his mentor Strauss, a part of the legacy of the 1960s "ends up as contempt of Western civilization for itself," explains Jean-François Revel. "In the name of political correctness, all cultures are of equal merit. Bloom questioned the students and professors who were perfectly disposed to accept non-European cultures that often stood against liberty, while at the same time protesting with extreme harshness against Western culture to such a point as to refuse any acknowledgement of it as superior in any respect."
While political correctness gave the impression of holding the high ground, neoconservatives were making headway. Bloom's book was a major best-seller. Within US foreign policy, a true neoconservative school was taking shape. Networks were set up. In the 1970s, the Democratic Senator from Washington State, Henry Jackson (d. 1983) criticized the major treaties on nuclear disarmament. He helped shape a generation of young lions keenly interested in strategy, in which one comes across Richard Perle and William Kristol. The latter had attended Allan Bloom's lectures.
From within the administration and from without, Richard Perle would meet up with Paul Wolfowitz when they both worked for Kenneth Adelman, another contrarian of Détente policies, or Charles Fairbanks, Under-Secretary of State. In strategic matters, their guru was Albert Wohlstetter. A researcher at the RAND Corporation, Pentagon advisor and a gastronomy connoisseur nevertheless, Wohlstetter (d. 1997) was one of the fathers of the American nuclear doctrine.
More precisely, he engaged in the early attempts to reformulate the traditional doctrine that had been the basis for nuclear deterrence: the so-called MAD or "Mutual-Assured Destruction". According to that theory, as both blocs had the capacity to inflict irreparable damage onto each other, their leaders would think twice before unleashing a nuclear attack. For Wohlstetter and his students, MAD was both immoral--due to the destruction it would inflict on civilian populations--and ineffective: it would end up in a mutual neutralization of nuclear arsenals. No sane head of state, or at any rate no American president, would decide on "reciprocal suicide". To the contrary, Wohlstetter proposed "staggered deterrence", i.e. accepting limited wars that would eventually use tactical nuclear weapons with high-precision "smart" bombs capable of striking at the enemy's military apparatus.
He criticized the joint nuclear weapons control policy with Moscow. According to him, it amounted to bridling US technological creativity in order to maintain an artificial balance with the USSR.
Ronald Reagan heard him out, and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), baptized "Star Wars". It is the ancestor of the Antimissile Defense System pursued by Wohlstetter's students. They would be the partisans warmest to the idea of a unilateral renunciation of the ABM Treaty, which in their view prevented the US from developing other defense systems. And they managed to convince George W. Bush.
In Perle and Wolfowitz's tracks, one meets Elliott Abrams, these days in charge of the Middle-East at the National Security Council, and Douglas Feith, an Under-Secretary of Defense. They all share unconditional support for the policies of the State of Israel, whatever government sits in Jerusalem. This unwavering support explains how they have stoically sided with Ariel Sharon. President Ronald Reagan's two mandates (1981 and 1985) gave many of them the opportunity to exercise their first responsibilities in government.
In Washington DC, the neoconservatives have woven their web. Creativity is on their side. Throughout the years, they have marginalized intellectuals from the Democratic center and centre-left to hold a preponderant place where the ideas that dominate the political scene are forged. Among their fora are reviews such as the National Review, Commentary, the New Republic, headed for a time by the young 'Straussian' Andrew Sullivan; the Weekly Standard, once under the ownership of the Murdoch group, whose Fox News television network takes care of broadcasting the vulgarized version of neoconservative thought. Under Robert Bartley's charge, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal have also fallen into neoconservatist activism without qualms. Their hunting grounds are also the research institutes and think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute. Families play a role as well: Irving Kristol's son, the very urbane William Kristol runs the Weekly Standard; one of Norman Podhoretz's sons worked for the Reagan administration; the son of Richard Pipes--a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US in 1939 to become a Harvard University professor and one of the major critics of Soviet communism--Daniel Pipes has denounced Islamism as a new totalitarianism threatening the West.
These men are not isolationists, on the contrary. They are usually very well-educated, having vast knowledge of foreign countries whose languages they have often mastered. They share nothing with Patrick Buchanan's reactionary populism, which espouses a US retreat to deal with its domestic problems.
The neoconservatives are internationalists, partisans of a resolute US activism in the world. Their ways do not resemble those of the GRAND Old Republican party (Nixon, George Bush Sr.), trusting in the merits of a Realpolitik and caring little about the nature of the regimes with which the US was doing business to defend their interests. Someone like Kissinger, for example, is an anti-model for them. Yet they are not internationalists in the Wilsonian democratic tradition (in reference to president Woodrow Wilson, the unfortunate father of the League of Nations), that of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. The latter are deemed naive or angelic for counting on international institutions to spread democracy.
After the strategist, introducing the philosopher. There are no direct links existing between Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss (d. 1973) prior to the official emergence of neoconservatism. But within the neoconservative network, some of them have spawned bridges between the teachings of these two men, despite the fundamental difference separating their fields of research.
Either by filiation or capillary action (Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and so on), Strauss's philosophy has served as neoconservatism's theoretical substratum. Strauss hardly ever wrote on current political affairs or international relations. He was read and recognized for his immense erudition of the classical Greek texts and Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures. He was feted for the power of his interpretive method. "He grafted classical philosophy to German profundity in a country lacking a great philosophical tradition", explains Jean-Claude Casanova who was sent to study in the US by his mentor, Raymond Aron. Aron admired Strauss greatly, whom he had met in Berlin before the war. He advised many of his students, like Pierre Hassner or Pierre Manent a few years later, to turn toward him.
Leo Strauss was born in Kirchain, Hesse, in 1899 and left Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power. After a short stint in Paris and then in England, he left for New York where he taught at the New School for Social Research before founding the Committee on Social Thought in Chicago, which would become the 'Straussian' crucible.
It would be simplistic and reductive to trace back to Strauss's teaching a few principles from which the neoconservatives in George W. Bush's entourage may have drawn. After all, neoconservatism plunges its roots in traditions other than the Straussian school. But the reference to Strauss forms a pertinent background to the neoconservatism currently at work in Washington. It allows one to understand how neoconservatism is not the simple caprice of a few Hawks. It leans on theoretical bases that are perhaps debatable, though hardly mediocre. Neoconservatism sits at the crossroads of two thoughts present in Strauss' thinking.
The first is linked to his personal experience. As a young man, Strauss lived through the decay of the Weimar Republic under the converging thrusts of Communists and Nazis. From this experience, he concluded that democracy had no chance of being imposed were it to remain weak, even if that meant refusing to bolster itself against tyranny. Expansionist by nature, tyranny might have to be confronted by resorting to the use of force: "The Weimar Republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength if not greatness: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walther Rathenau, in 1922, " wrote Strauss in a foreword to Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1966, trans. 1980). "All in all, Weimar showed the spectacle of justice without force, or of a justice incapable of resorting to force."
The second thought results from his frequentation of the ancients. What is most fundamental for them, as it is for ourselves, is the kind of political regime that ends up shaping the character of people. Why had the 20th century engendered two totalitarian regimes, which Strauss preferred to call "tyrannies" in reference to Aristotle's terminology? To this question that has not ceased provoking contemporary intellectuals, Strauss answered: for modernity caused a rejection of moral values, of the virtue that is the basis for democracies, and a rejection of the European values of Reason and Civilization.
Strauss argued that this rejection had its roots in the Enlightenment. The latter produced historicism and relativism as quasi-necessities, which means as a refusal to admit the existence of a Higher Good reflected in concrete, immediate and contingent goods, but irreducible to them. This Good was an unattainable Good that is the measure for real goods.
Translated into the terms of political philosophy, the extreme consequence of this relativism was the USA-USSR convergence theory, very much in vogue during the 1960s and 1970s. It amounted to eventually acknowledging a moral equivalence between American democracy and Soviet communism. Admittedly for Leo Strauss, there exist good and bad regimes. Political thought must not be deprived of casting value judgments. Good regimes have the right--even duty--to defend themselves against evil ones. It would be simplistic to immediately transpose this idea with the "axis of Evil" denounced by George W. Bush. But it is very clear, indeed, that it proceeds from the same source.
This central notion of regime as political philosophy's matrix was developed by the Straussians who developed an interest in the Constitutional history of the United States. Strauss himself--also an admirer of the British Empire and Winston Churchill as an example of the will-driven statesman--was inclined to think that American democracy was the least-worst case of political systems. Nothing better had been found for the flourishing of mankind, even were there a tendency for special interests to replace virtue as the regime's foundations.
His students, Walter Bens, Hearvey Mansfield or Harry Jaffa, were especially the ones to fill the ranks of the American Constitutionalist school. In the institutions of the United-States they saw much more than merely the application of the thought of the US' Founding Fathers. They saw the living performance of higher principles, or indeed, for a man like Harry Jaffa, of Biblical teachings. In any case, religion, eventually civil religion, must serve as the cement to bind institutions and society. This call to religion was not foreign to Strauss. But the atheist Jew "enjoyed covering his tracks", in Georges Balandier's words. He considered religion as useful to upkeep illusions for the many, without which order could not be maintained. By contrast, the philosopher must conserve a critical spirit to address the few in a coded language as matter to be interpreted and intelligible only to a meritocracy founded on virtue.
Advocating a return to the ancients against the trappings of modernity and illusions of progress, Strauss nonetheless defended liberal democracy as the Enlightenment's daughter--and American democracy as its quintessence. A contradiction? Doubtless, but a contradiction he tackles in the tradition of other thinkers on liberalism (Montesquieu, Tocqueville). For the critique of liberalism, which runs the risk of losing itself in relativism schematically speaking: the search for Truth loses value is indispensable for its survival. For Strauss, the relativism of the Good results in an inability to react against tyranny.
This active defense of democracy and liberalism reappears in the political vulgate as one of the neoconservative's favorite themes. The nature of political regimes is much more important than all of the institutions and international arrangements to maintain world peace. The greatest threat comes from States that do not share the values of (American) democracy. Changing these regimes and working for the progress of democratic values are the surest ways to reinforcing security (of the US) and peace.
The importance of political regimes, praise for militant democracy, quasi-religious exaltation of American values and firm opposition to tyranny: any number of these themes, which are the stock and trade of the neoconservatives populating the Bush administration, may be drawn from Strauss's teachings. At times, they are reviewed and corrected by second-generation 'Straussians'. Yet one thing separates them from their putative mentor: the Messianic-tainted optimism the neoconservatives unfold to bring freedoms to the world (to the Middle East tomorrow, to Germany and Japan yesterday), as though political voluntarism could change human nature. This is yet another illusion that is perhaps good enough to spread to the masses, but by which the philosopher must not be fooled.
Still, a riddle remains: How does 'Straussism', which was first founded on an oral transmission largely tributary of the master thinker's charisma and expressed in austere books, texts on texts, come to seat its influence in a presidential administration? Pierre Manent, who directs the Raymond-Aron Research Center in Paris, puts forward the idea that the ostracism to which Leo Strauss's pupils were subject in the American university milieu propelled them toward public service, think tanks and the press. They are relatively over-represented in all of these domains.
Another--complementary--explanation holds to the intellectual void that followed the Cold War which the 'Straussians', and in their wake the neoconservatives, seemed best prepared to fill. The fall of the Berlin Wall showed they were right insofar as Reagan's strong-armed policies with respect to the USSR triggered its downfall. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks confirmed their thesis on the vulnerability of democracies faced with tyranny's diverse forms. From the war on Iraq, the neocons will be tempted to draw the conclusion that toppling "evil" regimes is possible and desirable. Faced with this temptation, calls to international law may claim moral legitimacy. What is lacking, as things stand today, are the powers of conviction and constraint.
Article originally published in Le Monde, April 16, 2003.
Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz, Ph.D., May 24, 2003. Philosopher/international relations analyst
I've been a bad boy and posted material from the lefty site CounterPunch.org (which is normally screened out by the posting engine). I'm calling your attention to this, but seeking an exemption since this is an interesing (if somewhat rambling) article about the history of conservatism. CounterPunch merely provided the translation for this Le Monde article.
However nuke the thread if you must, or feel you should.
If not for Wohlstetter, Wolfowitz claims, the Tomahawk might never have remained in the DoD arsenal.
The interview gives some fascinating insight into Wolfowitz's life and his journey through academia and beyond. For instance, Wohlstetter studied with Wolfowitz's Dad at Columbia. And Wolfowitz's Dad also taught Alan Greenspan, and introduced Greenspan to the then new field of econometrics.
It's a product of fevered minds who seem incapable of understanding that September 11th changed a lot of things and changed the way we need to approach the world. Since they refused to confront that, they looked for some kind of conspiracy theory to explain it.
I mean I took two terrific courses from Leo Strauss as a graduate student. One was on Montesquieu's spirit of the laws, which did help me understand our Constitution better. And one was on Plato's laws. The idea that this has anything to do with U.S. foreign policy is just laughable.
Yep, that's it alright.
First time I've actually heard a reporter ask an accused "Straussian" or "neo-con" if that's what he or she was.
I'd add that it's not so much the world changed, but lefties can't change. They've invested so much in "understanding" the world witnin a reflexive anti-american discourse something like Osama screaming about East Timor boggles their mindset. Rather than learn about Wahhabism and terrorism and Central Asia and such they deny its importance, even relevance. They need a master-mind to hate so they created the "Straussians." It's a deflection, an epithet announcing they found the root cause and no further education is needed.
You're not the first to say that his work is nearly inpenetrable. I've heard that from several folks, including Jonah Goldberg, who apparently studied his thought in depth at the University of Chicago. I admit frankly that I have not read him, although I have read a few long articles about him and his ideas.
I don't know of any book length summaries of his work by other authors. But it would be nice to find one, you're right.
No one would read him today (Along with accusing someone of being a fraud, that is the put-down du jour).
You might consider Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin & the Search for a Postliberal Order. Birds, a stone, and short lives.
I don't think they marginalized the Democratic center and center-left. Has anyone noticed that there is no intellectual Democratic center or center-left?
Both the more central Democrats and the neoconservatives are postmodernists, but the central Democrats are stuck in minimalism. Interestingly, it's the far left that has an intellectual agenda, and that agenda is close to structuralism.
Thanks. I will look for it. Having read a bit of Voegelin, I know he's quite difficult. He makes a suitable cohort for the famously difficult Strauss.
The "Straussians" referred to are a group of intellectuals who believe in an active projection of American values, and a belief in American exceptionalism. Their connection to Strauss himself is rather coincidental, almost like the game which purports to prove that everyone in the world is only 5 steps removed from Kevin Bacon.
They do admit that "neo-conservative" is a misnomer. American conservatism is not, at its heart, conservative on the European model. 'Neoconservative' is a misnomer. They have nothing in common with those striving to guarantee the established order. American conservatism is at its heart classic liberalism, or whigism. American conservatives are often also conservatives in the traditionalist mold, which helps to confuse the matter, but few on the left ever note the distinction, which is what helps them to misjudge both events and conservatism itself consistently and egregiously.
As they note, the conservatism of some writers assumes a tragic view of human nature, but Americans are idealist-optimists convinced of the universal value of the American democratic model. The Classic Liberalism at the heart of American conservatism is ultimately hostile to the status quo where the status quo is anti-liberal.
There is a "Straussian" current in American conservatism, but Strauss is not the source. The elements the authors attribute to Strauss are his belief that "virtue is the basis for democracies" and a hostility to moral relativism; where it intersects with politics, the belief that "relativism of the Good results in an inability to react to tyranny".
But this is not unique to Strauss.
The idea of America as a moral project is repeated over and over from the founding fathers forward. The belief in American exceptionalism, that God has uniquely blessed this country, and has uniquely charged it with a moral mission and purpose, that Americans are in effect the "other" Chosen People, is deeply embedded in the American psyche, and is reinforced continuously from a million pulpits all across the land.
The writers note the apparent contradiction of "Straussians" coexisting with fundamentalists in the current administration, but it isn't such a contradiction. Both believe that life and politics cannot be separated from morality. Both believe in American mission and purpose. And both believe, in the field of geo-politics, that coexistence with evil can only be a temporary solution to a deeper problem.
Their willingness to go after the countries that attacked us is also rooted in American character. No one accused Roosevelt of being a "Straussian" or a neo-anything when he took the American people to war to avenge an attack on a Navy base, and chased the Japanese all the way back to Tokyo, and burned their cities to the ground. No one bothered to comment on it, or to look for a deeper philosophical explanation for our reaction. What else would you do when someone threatens you in your home?
Similarly, the willingness of the Reaganites to confront the Soviet Union rather than acquiesce to its tyranny is rooted more in traditional American character, perhaps fed by the evengelical protestant tradition referred to earlier. It shouldn't have required a Strauss to tell us that a passive response to the Soviets was slow-motion suicide, or that a robust defense of our values would have consequences far beyond our shores.
In the current climate, Strauss is being credited for positions he never took on matters of Mid Eastern policy. But we have been at war with Iraq for 12 years, we have been under attack by forces emanating out of the middle east for 40 years, and it doesn't require an obscure classicist to tell us what to do about it, it only requres courage, the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and clarity of purpose.
The mystery is not that the thinkers and politicians orchestrating our almost-robust defense of the country are all within 5 steps of separation from Leo Strauss, but that the willingness to defend the country, and the willingness to distinguish good from evil, have become so remarkable. That is the mystery, that the willingness to confront Soviets and middle eastern psycho killers is considered strange.
The mystery is not that the thinkers and politicians orchestrating our almost-robust defense of the country are all within 5 steps of separation from Leo Strauss, but that the willingness to defend the country, and the willingness to distinguish good from evil, have become so remarkable. That is the mystery, that the willingness to confront Soviets and middle eastern psycho killers is considered strange.
America itself seemed headed toward embracing this "mystery" from about '68 to '79. Even the first Bush, despite a foreign policy that was much more competent than Clinton's, and occassionaly rising to the occasion (Panama, Kuwait) began our tragic vacation from history by failing to prosecute obvious changes in policy called for by the end of the Cold War.
Thank God the vacation is over.
That may be the culprit rather than Strauss. Literacy is not a guarantee of a flourishing society. I can only presume that the charge of incomprehensibility is leveled at Strauss for political reasons, having never read Hegel, or having forced to read aphorisms of Heraclitus in Greek.
What, you too! I suppose Marx and an occasional speech from Jimmy Carter is more appropriate : 0
I know the theoretical sciences pose a few challenges, and I am no---geez, guys, I didn't know physics was so comparatively easy.
I don't think anyone could successfully argue that neo-conservatives have taken over the New Republic. Rather the leftists and liberals who edit, publish, and write for the magazine discovered that leftist views didn't work or correspond to their own view of reality. In spite of the retreat from radical or laborite views, the New Republic is quite hard on neo-conservative writers.
One could call Andrew Sullivan a "neo-conservative," but not a Straussian. Sullivan went to Harvard to "get his ticket punched" and probably studied under Straussians, but his real master is Michael Oakeshott, an English philosopher of a very different stripe. More and more, "Straussianism" doesn't reflect the influence of Strauss on its supposed adherents, but simply the presence of Straussians at the elite universities where those who have power studied.
American politics and political thought are very different from the French, but I'm not so sure that Strauss himself follows the optimistic American way, rather than the pessimistic European one. Though Strauss respected the American experiment, he was steeped in the pessimism of Weimar and exile. There certainly are affinities between Strauss and America -- belief in natural law, rejection of relativism, emphasis on religion and public morality, respect for firmness and resolve, rather than weakness -- but Strauss's American disciples, especially the "West Coast" school, "Americanized his teaching.
Strauss has been maligned for believing that democracy only works when there are responsible, public spirited guardians. This would be considered a pessimistic view of popular government that doesn't go well with the desire to spread the benefits of democracy far and wide. The emphasis on religion is likewise ambivalent: I suspect that for Strauss it must have involved maintaining rites, rituals and the proper reverence for the divine, not an evangelical effort at converting and winning souls.
Anti-totalitarianism, whether in the 1930s, 1950s or 1970s, was a pessimistic stand. Certainly there was the hope of eventual victory, but the intellectuals who were most inspired by anti-communism (or earlier, anti-nazism) saw themselves as fighting a "twilight war" against the encroaching forces of darkness. If the struggle had been easier, if it had just been a matter of crushing this or that hostile regime it wouldn't have been so inspiring. Americans and Europeans were able to work together in this effort.
What's happened in the last few years is that attitudes that grew up in the difficult years of the Cold War have been adapted to a situation of greater US power. Many Europeans and some Americans don't think the dangers are as great as they were before, or that Saddam was a real threat to the West. Of course it's also true that many Europeans had little stomach for the Cold War in its later stages, but the European argument is that the rationale of maintaining the balance of power doesn't apply to recent wars, nor does the sense of the West as underdog. Their idea is that the Iraq war had less in common with the wars against fascism or communism, which could be seen as struggles against domination, and more in common with imperial wars fought for greater dominion.
The admiration for Churchill that Strauss shared with today's neo-conservatives is a worthy sentiment. But the European feeling seems to be that Saddam Hussein wasn't a threat or menace on the scale of Hitler or Stalin.
Hands up, Straussians! By Bret Stephens
If all values are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste. --
Leo Strauss -- about whom you've probably never heard -- has been dead for 30 years. You've probably never heard of him because he was a sickly and obscure professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago who wrote Xenophon's Socratic Dialogues, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, The City and Man, and other volumes that now mostly gather dust in library stacks. And even if you have heard of him, you've almost certainly never read him, because his fixations were abstruse and his prose was dense, to say the least.
For all that, I confess Strauss left a pretty considerable mark on my own way of thinking. By "confess," I mean it in the guilty sense: Strauss has been accused of being an anti-democratic elitist, a "Jewish Nazi," and -- what's worse -- the patron saint of neoconservatives who now are said to dominate Beltway thinking. "The Bush administration is rife with Straussians," James Atlas writes in The New York Times, pointing a finger at Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, erstwhile Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. And writing in the International Herald Tribune, William Pfaff sums up Strauss's teachings this way:
"[Strauss] believed that Greek classical philosophy, notably that of Plato, is more true to nature than anything that has replaced it.... He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to 'virtue' as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself....
"The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order."
ALL THIS sounds terribly sinister. It is also very far from the Strauss I read as a student at the University of Chicago.
Chicago is a school that tends to attract a larger than usual quota of geeks and oddballs. So you can imagine my enchantment with a man who wrote that "there exists a very dangerous tendency to identify the good man with the good sport, the cooperative fellow, the 'regular guy,' i.e., an overemphasis on a certain part of a social virtue and a corresponding neglect of those virtues which mature, if they do not flourish, in privacy, not to say in solitude: by educating people to cooperate with each other in a friendly spirit one does not yet educate nonconformists, people who are prepared to stand alone, to fight alone.... Democracy has not yet found a defense against the creeping conformism and the ever-increasing invasion of privacy which it fosters."
At the time -- I was 17 -- this did not strike me as a neoconservative insight: plenty of kids that age, Right-leaning, Left-leaning, or apolitical wage their own little struggles not to conform, to "stand alone." But what did strike me was the way in which Strauss dignified this impulse and brought it to bear on the boring-sounding titles I was being made to read: Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, Hobbes's Leviathan, Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, and so on. As a result, I began to pay attention. And in paying attention, I realized that what these books had to offer was more interesting, more important, more stimulating and indeed arousing than anything I had previously encountered.
This was Strauss's first gift. It was not a straightforward one. Contrary to Pfaff's claim, Strauss was not so much a Platonist as he was a Socratic. In other words, he was not chiefly interested in a doctrine, but in a premise, a method and a purpose. The premise was the philosopher's knowledge of his own ignorance. The method was a dialogical form of investigation which moved forward by sincere, not sophistical, questions. And the purpose was to discover what is "right by nature" -- that is, the things that are permanently, not provisionally, true.
The second gift followed from the first. Strauss was not doctrinal but he was a debunker of doctrine. If there were things in life that could be said to be true for everyone, then cultural or moral relativism was nonsense. If there were things that could be said to be true always, then historicism -- the conceit that what was once thought to be true was merely the product of a given historical situation -- was not only false, but self-contradictory: Wasn't "historicism" itself the product of its times?
Strauss was equally contemptuous of some of the other great intellectual fads of the day: the fact-value distinction on which modern social science rests, and which turns out to have so little explanatory power; and behavioralism, which attempts to explain human activity without reference to reason or free will. His turn to classical political philosophy was thus informed by the fact that it was free of these blinders; whatever their own limitations, the ancients, Strauss believed, saw politics "with a freshness and directness which have never been equaled."
In itself, this was not an endorsement of the ancient philosophers. Strauss perfectly appreciated the fact that the political science bequeathed to us by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke had brought into existence functional, humane and prosperous regimes such as the United States. They had done so, moreover, by rejecting the classical idea that the highest purpose of politics was to mold virtuous souls; instead, they settled on the more limited, but realizable, ambition of fashioning a politics in which one might hope in some sense to be "free." This was an immense historical achievement, and Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, knew it very well.
Strauss also knew, however, that the "moderns" of political philosophy -- from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Friedrich Nietzsche -- had also been the inspirations for Jacobinism, communism and Nazism, and thus were in some sense responsible for all the blood shed in their respective names. And he knew that even liberal democracies, the most benign of the modern regimes, were susceptible to a corrosive egalitarianism that, left unchecked, could corrode all standards, lead to a soul-deadening conformity, and pave the way to what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as "the tyranny of the majority."
Strauss's resort to the ancients, then, was never intended as an effort to overthrow the moderns, much less hold up Plato's "city in speech" as a worthy political model. His aim, rather, was to deploy the ancients as a sort of counterweight to the moderns who had tilted too far in the direction of radical skepticism, relativism and nihilism. Strauss feared that the moderns had gone too far in discounting the potential truthfulness inherent in the things people say, see, feel and believe. He feared, too, a certain smugness in the way modern regimes -- communist and liberal democratic equally -- thought of themselves: as the culmination of History with a capital "H," as regimes which did not depend on anything prior to them for their own preservation.
"It is not self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism," he wrote, "nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of classical antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West."
As Strauss saw it, it was his duty as a friend and beneficiary of liberal democracy -- and the duty of academia in general -- to preserve some critical distance from liberal democracy. This distance could only really be gained by having some sense of the entire catalogue of political alternatives available. This was a comparative politics in the broadest sense, one that included not just existing regimes but also vanished and imaginary ones. In the teachings of the ancients, Strauss found some of the ingredients he believed modern regimes lack: A Socratic concern for human excellence, a Periclean sense of grandeur, an Aristotelian insistence on moderation.
At the same time, Strauss believed that there were dangers involved in this rediscovery of political alternatives. The foundations of liberal democracy may, upon close inspection, not be quite as solid as liberal democrats would like to believe. The trick was to examine and strengthen the foundations without causing the edifice above it to collapse and -- no less importantly -- without causing it to collapse on top of those (like Strauss) who examine the foundations.
In other words, prudence was required. If the result of unfettered philosophical inquiry in a liberal democracy was to bring the house down, neither philosophy nor democracy would be well served. Strauss, though in some ways a quiet radical himself, had no patience for the brash academic radicalism that came into vogue in the late 1960s, with its sharp challenges to the moral, cultural and political orthodoxies of the day. Even if liberal democracy was based on nothing but enabling fictions (and Strauss did not believe that at all, only that it was based on incomplete truths), these were fictions that today's academics have a duty to defend. Failure to do so would only invite more oppressive regimes -- communism, in Strauss's day -- in which the freedom of inquiry would be much more severely restricted.
WRITING ABOUT Strauss in the Boston Globe, Jeet Heer argues that "if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind.... [he] emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity."
I can hardly describe myself as a scholar of Strauss, nor do I consider myself a Straussian. But I've read enough of Strauss (and of Machiavelli) to know this is the sheerest nonsense. There is no such thing as "Straussianism": not as an ideology, much less as some kind of conspiracy. There was merely a man named Leo Strauss -- a Jew, a Zionist, a classicist, a man who engaged profoundly and forcefully with the greatest issues of his day -- who taught his students that "we cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy," chiefly by "listening to the conversation between the greatest philosophers."
For bringing me into that conversation, I'm in his debt. And having spent three decades in the grave, the least Strauss deserves is to be read before he is condemned.
And then there's this piece in the NYT by his daughter:
Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a "cabal" (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles.
My father was not a politician. He taught political theory, primarily at the University of Chicago. He was a conservative insofar as he did not think that change is necessarily change for the better.
Leo Strauss believed in the intrinsic dignity of the political. He believed in and defended liberal democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best form of government that could be realized, "the last best hope." He was an enemy of any regime that aspired to global domination. He despised utopianism in our time, Nazism and Communism which is predicated on the denial of a fundamental and even noble feature of human nature: love of one's own. His heroes were Churchill and Lincoln. He was not an observant Jew, but he loved the Jewish people and he saw the establishment of Israel as essential to their survival.
To me, what characterized him above all else was his total lack of vanity and self-importance. As a result, he had no interest in honors within the academy, and was completely unsuited to political ambition. His own earliest passion, he confessed, was to spend his life raising rabbits (Flemish Giants) and reading Plato.
He was first and foremost a teacher. He did not seek to mold people in his own image. Rather, he was devoted to helping young people see the world as it is, in all its misery and splendor. The objects of his teaching were the Great Books, those works generally recognized as the foundation of a liberal education. But that alone was not a sufficient reason for reading them.
He began where good teachers should begin, from his students' received opinions, in order to scrutinize their foundation. At that time, as is still true today, academia leaned to the left; hence such questioning required an examination of the left's tenets. Had the prevailing beliefs been different, they too would have been subject to his skeptical inquiry.
Among the received opinions of the time was an unquestioned faith in progress and science combined with a queasiness regarding any kind of moral judgment, or "relativism." Many young people were confused, without a compass, with nothing substantial to admire. My father's turning them to the Great Books was thus motivated not merely by aesthetic or antiquarian interest, but by a search for an understanding of mankind's present predicament: what were its sources and what, if any, were the alternatives? The latter he found in the writings of the ancient Greeks.
Furthermore, he insistently confronted his students with the question of the "good life." For him, the choice boiled down to the life in accordance with Revelation or the life according to Reason Jerusalem versus Athens. The vitality of Western tradition, he felt, lay in the invigorating tension between the two.
My father saw reading not as a passive exercise but as taking part in an active dialogue with the great minds of the past. One had to read with great care, great respect, and try, as he always said, to "understand the author as he understood himself." Today this task, admittedly difficult and demanding, is dismissed in fashionable academia as impossible. Rather, we are told, each reader inevitably constructs his own text over which the author has no control, and the writer's intentions are irrelevant.
The fact is that Leo Strauss also recognized a multiplicity of readers, but he had enough faith in his authors to assume that they, too, recognized that they would have a diverse readership. Some of their readers, the ancients realized, would want only to find their own views and prejudices confirmed; others might be willing to open themselves to new, perhaps unconventional or unpopular, ideas. I personally think my father's rediscovery of the art of writing for different kinds of readers will be his most lasting legacy.
Although I was never a student of my father's, I sat in on a class of his in the 1960's; I think it was on Xenophon's "Cyropaedia." He was a small, unprepossessing and, truth be told, ugly man (daughters are their parents' worst critics), with none of the charisma that one associates with "great teachers." And yet there was something utterly charming. One of the students would read little chunks of the text, and my father would comment and call for discussion. What marked this class was a combination of an engagement with questions of the highest seriousness (in this case, what is the best form of government) with the laughter of intellectual play.
It was magic. If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust.
Jenny Strauss Clay is a professor of classics at the University of Virginia.
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