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Leo Strauss: Neoconservative?

Tibor R. Machan gets to grips with a perplexing thinker.

When Leo Strauss was near death, I called him in Annapolis, MD, where he had his last teaching post, at St John’s College. I said that I appreciated all he had taught me. He thanked me, and that’s the only conversation we ever had.

Yet Strauss was an important teacher to me, mainly by means of his major book, Natural Right and History (1950). I had known of Strauss and the Straussian school from when I entered Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) in the Fall of 1962, since several of his students and friends taught there, including Werner Dannhauser. In 1965-66, when I was a grad student at New York University, Dannhauser was an editor at Commentary Magazine, and he and I used to have drinks now and then and talk about politics and philosophy. But it wasn’t until I began my studies at UC Santa Barbara in the Fall of 1966 that I decided to read Strauss himself. His philosophical focus was on the ancients versus the moderns, with definite partiality to the former. Unlike analytic philosophers, who prided themselves on a narrow focus (scrutinizing such topics as what ‘like’ or ‘about’ means), Strauss seemed to appreciate the systematic approach I associated with ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (and of course with Ayn Rand).

In this essay I will first consider what Strauss’s contribution to philosophy and especially political science, comes to. Then I’ll explain Strauss’s own views, insofar as they can be identified. (There is a specific reason why there’s a problem here.) I will then go on to consider how, if at all, Leo Strauss relates to neoconservatives.

Straussian Philosophy

From the start of my awareness of his work it was quite clear to me that Strauss was philosophically enigmatic. It turned out he championed a way of doing philosophy that didn’t come right out with the sort of claims just anyone could understand. Or, putting it more precisely, he held that the most important philosophers didn’t speak simply, but were instead, deliberately duplicitous in what they said.

This idea is not itself all that mysterious. Many people familiar with Plato’s dialogues know of the idea of the ‘Noble Lie’. A somewhat reasonable version of this idea – as distinct from the plainly unreasonable one which requires governments to deceive the public – is that philosophers who are enmeshed in rather complicated and at times disturbing truths need to withhold what they know from the general public, and give support instead to various conventions people need in order to get on with their lives. For example, just suppose that it is evident, after the most painstaking philosophical consideration, that there is no God, or free will, or that the bulk of the laws in one’s country are bunk. This may not be something ready for public consumption – most ordinary men and women are too busy with their daily affairs to take time out to fully assimilate such disturbing discoveries. There is also the fact that in many societies the rulers’ rule is unjustified, but they obviously don’t wish it be broadcast that they lack legitimacy. In this case, for simple self-protection and safety, philosophers need to speak enigmatically.

These two reasons are discussed in Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952). The book certainly put readers on guard about reaching assured conclusions about what the great philosophers thought, but also about what Strauss himself thought concerning various philosophical topics. Strauss’s writings, especially about the great philosophers – his meticulous and controversial reading of Plato’s various dialogues, for example – leave one pretty much in the dark about just what Strauss himself believed, although there are other works where his themes about the relationship between the dual traditions of Judeo-Christianity and Athenian secular philosophy do appear to come through loud and clear.

So what then was Strauss’s main achievement with this approach to philosophical scholarship? What I came away with from reading Strauss, was first and foremost that diligent study of the ancient thinkers was imperative in order to get a clue to what philosophy is all about. No facile reading of Plato or Aristotle (or even Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, or Locke) would suffice – nor would reading the more popular, even prominent academic, interpreters of these thinkers. For example, Strauss would not encourage one to read Plato the way the Princeton University philosopher Gregory Vlastos did, focusing on this or that argument here and there in a dialogue. Instead, Strauss proposed that Plato needs to be read as having a grand agenda, with the dialogues as whole pieces; dramas with an overall point.

In time, after I studied Strauss further, and especially once I read his Introduction to On Tyranny, an Interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero (1968), I concluded that Strauss’s views about philosophy were even more perplexing than I had gleaned them to be. These perplexing views came to this: The philosopher is essentially embarking on a search which it is unreasonable to think one can ever complete. Just as Socrates is reported to have thought that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing, the philosopher – the true one (if such a real philosopher can be found) – cannot honestly conclude anything for sure. No one can honestly absolutely know basic, fundamental truths. Not that relativism is coherent, of course. What is honest is to claim to know nothing. Some Straussians, like Scripps College philosophy professor Harry Neumann, actually became nihilists; Neumann arguing for it in his book Liberalism.

Given the idealistic conception of knowledge that Plato appears to have promulgated, nihilism about knowledge is not surprising. If one models human knowledge on the impossible dream of final, perfect, timeless forms drawn from a formal science such as geometry, one will come to conclude that knowledge of anything, including values, is indeed impossible – ergo, nihilism and cynicism. Add to this the nearly other-worldly importance which Strauss associated with the great philosophers and the depth of profundity in philosophical work he seems to have insisted upon (evident in recent times only in, say, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which Strauss admired, despite Heidegger’s later membership of the Nazi Party and Strauss being an exiled Jew from pre-WWII Germany), and it all seems to have led him to the kind of elitism we associate with Plato in conventional interpretations of his thought. Socrates in this exalted picture comes off as beyond reason, beyond any standards of good and evil, right and wrong.

Yet Strauss did not explicitly advance views that smacked of political elitism. Not that he was praising of the modern era of political thought either. He even lumped together Hobbes and Locke on the basis of their similar fundamental metaphysics and epistemology. He appeared also to think that the natural rights tradition is misguided for taking freedom to be so vital while neglecting virtue. However, Strauss also argued that the best bet for philosophers is to promote and defend a version of classical liberalism. Philosophers must at all cost stick together, form a friendship across the ages. This is perhaps the highest, albeit a rather fruitless, way of life.

Naturally the philosopher has no taste for politics, that pedestrian, vulgar aspect of life. But just as Socrates was dragged into politics by his pupils because they knew that their city needed philosophy to have some connection with justice, so the community of philosophers must address politics: it must be politic about philosophy, prudent and protective of it. In his famous discussion, What is Political Philosophy? (1955), Strauss offers what to most readers would seem an idiosyncratic conception of this discipline. It is not concerned with being philosophical about politics, but with how to be political about philosophy – how to engage in philosophy while living in the various imperfect regimes in which we all must live.

Philosophers live most effectively – which is to say, freely – in the classical liberal polity. Strauss, in a rare passage offering his own ideas, identified the good life for man as:

“simply the life in which the requirements of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste.”
(Natural Right and History, p127)

He also stated “political freedom and especially that political freedom that justifies itself by the pursuit of human excellence... requires the highest degree of vigilance.” (p131) Finally he held: “There is no adequate solution to the problem of virtue or happiness on the political or social plane.” (On Tyranny, p194.)

If we put these three ideas together – which, it seems to me, do give expression to Strauss’ own views – we will arrive at Objectivist Libertarianism. Put plainly, this is the view that the task of politics is to protect the right to individual liberty – nothing more or less – and the achievement of virtue, human excellence or happiness, is something only the individual on his own can strive to fulfil, either alone or in personal and voluntary association with others: never by force or coercion.

Straussian Politics

Now let us turn to neoconservatism. This is a school of social-political thought originally associated with scholars and public policy writers such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. Later, neoconservatism became closely linked with such US foreign policy thinkers as Paul Wolfowitz.

The first group were characterized as neoconservative because their thinking was different from that of traditional American conservatives such as William F. Buckley and others – whose position about public affairs derives, ultimately, from the thought of Edmund Burke. What makes them conservatives is their belief in deciding on political and public policy issues based on tried and tested teachings handed down through the ages. American conservatives, of course, are a bit different from the European version in being bequeathed a radical political viewpoint by the Founders, who were influenced not so much by classical conservatives such as Burke, but by classical liberals such as Locke.

Prior to their conversion during the mid and late 60s and early 70s, the original neoconservatives had been thinkers of the left. They were, it is safe to say, social democrats, not out-and-out Marxists or similar radical socialists. Still, they believed in a top down [state sponsored] political economy. Perhaps the best work justifying their version of statism is Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). The best indication of how neoconservatives thought about political economy is Irving Kristol’s book, Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978). While Kristol & Co began to see the wisdom in the late 1960s of leaving many economic matters to the workings of the free market, they never gave up the idea of a strong central government, especially where foreign policy was concerned. This was, in part, because of their conviction that the Soviet Union was indeed an evil empire, and that the government of a free society needs to be powerful in response. They also found the New Left an undisciplined, unruly lot, too soft on Leftist tyrannies, and too lax about a worthy human social life.

But there is more. Neoconservatives have never had much sympathy for the modern version of classical liberalism, libertarianism (despite the fact that Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the first major academic work which gave philosophical credence to this school of political thought, was published by the neoconservative house, Basic Books). Neoconservatives had disdain for what they took to be the naiveté of the libertarian idea that government must be strictly limited to the protection of individual rights. They believed that many aspects of society needed leadership, so they supported the paternalist aspects of the much-more-than-minimal state.

Now I am not a full time student of neoconservatism, so some of what I will conclude, specifically about why these thinkers support an aggressive foreign policy by the United States, amounts to speculation (or possibly an educated guess). But this is also where some of what Leo Strauss and his student’s believe comes into play – at least to some extent.

Neoconservatives hold the view that ‘American’ is the best bet for the world – America’s institutional set-up is a very useful combination of modern elements, having to do with the sovereignty of individuals together with the older idea of a substantial role for government – and that this is an idea that needs to be widely promulgated. Indeed, without its promulgation there can arise and persist major threats to the countries which do embrace this set up, such as the United States of America. In short, unless the semi-free democratic society is strong, and not only ready to defend itself but also willing to go on the offensive in support of its system abroad, it will perish. The neocon view is that either you’re willing to export liberal democracy or it will be crushed by all kinds of barbaric global groups.

Now let us return to Strauss. Recall his prudential endorsement of classical liberalism as the best bet for philosophy. (Just exactly why philosophy ought to be cherished is not made clear by Strauss & Co; and their implicit or explicit nihilism calls the merit of philosophy into serious question.) Strauss’s embrace of classical liberalism – or at least a watered down version of it, as per liberal democracy – did appear to influence the neocons. They too believe – some of them because they were taught it by Strauss & Co – that their most important values are best advanced and preserved in a relatively free society, provided such a society is strong and wields power wisely, both at home and abroad.

This conviction that humanity’s best bet is a semi-free society which vigorously promotes its institutions across the globe, is very likely the legacy Strauss left the neoconservatives. And it is probably what puts neocons on the side of George W. Bush’s variety of modern conservatism – the ‘compassionate’ statist type. An expression of this view has held sway in America since the Monroe Doctrine, reinforced by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and then expanded in light of the recent annihilation of American functional borders throughout the globe by the administration of George W. Bush. As Bush put it in his 2005 Inaugural Address, “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth.” Ergo? As Tom Wolfe put it, “It is America’s destiny and duty to bring that salvation to all mankind.” The main difference in this from the standard neoconservative vision is only that neoconservatives see religion in largely sociological terms; as distinct from the likes of Bush, who is, it seems, fully faith-based in his outlook. The former, as a rule, aren’t religious or faithful.

Strauss himself struggled with the problem of what to make of the two important traditions in the West; those of Athens and Jerusalem. He clearly preferred the thinking from Athens, but he could not deny the significance of the influence from and thus the importance of Jerusalem, namely Judeo-Christianity.

Certainly no self-respecting neoconservatives would ally themselves with George W. Bush’s conservative base, the religious right and evangelical Christianity. Most neoconservatives are actually Jewish in their cultural-ethnic origins, and too sophisticated to accept notions such as being born again. Yet here too there is some accommodation. Neoconservatives have from the start insisted on the civilizing role of religion. This may be associated with Strauss’ own view that the vulgar need Noble Lies, à la one reading of Plato. The precepts of morality and other civilizing forces cannot be expected to come to most people by way of personal philosophical engagement. Certain myths are necessary to sustain morality for the bulk of us.

Thus, Straussian teachings do accord with how things have turned out on the domestic and international political fronts for the US: Vigorous defense of a version of liberal democracy; substantial support for certain elements of the free market and society, mainly regarding freedom of thought, religion and the press; and an aggressive position toward any global forces which threaten any of this. The true character of this position may be discernable from the fact that neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz had been very critical of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, accusing it of fostering detente and “Carterism without Carter”. The difference may be appreciated from the following comments from columnist Alan Bock:

The most important difference between Reagan and the neoconservatives is that Reagan was both temperamentally and politically an optimist, convinced that freedom would eventually triumph. The neoconservatives impulse – read the more substantive stuff – is deeply pessimistic, Hobbesian, seeking perils everywhere and turning to an ever-enlarged state apparatus to protect the clueless citizens. (In The Orange County Register, March 6, 2005.)

Whether Leo Strauss would favor a war such as that fought in Iraq, supported by neo-conservatives,isdoubtful – it is more reasonable to speculate that he would have wanted liberal democracy defended by means of vigorous example and diplomacy, not out and out force.

© Prof. Tibor R. Machan 2006

Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) and the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco). This essays is based on a talk given at the Atlas Society Summer Seminar in 2005.

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