November 10, 2002
FROM WHENCE COMES NEOCONSERVATISM? :
Leo Strauss and the Straussians
The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are "outmoded" and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch -- usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than "outmoded" ones.
But this is only a prelude to an even more radical challenge to modern thought: the Straussians believe that premodern philosophy is better than modern philosophy. This turns the whole "progressive" view of history topsy-turvy, and provides a very distinctive point of view, and line of criticism, about modernity. The Straussians are pre-modern and anti-modern, not in the name of religion (like the various forms of religious fundamentalism all over the world) or of tradition (like conservatives since Edmund Burke), but in the name of reason, of philosophy: an understanding of reason and philosophy different from the Enlightenment's.
The teaching of Leo Strauss is "political philosophy" in a very special sense: his primary, if not exclusive, concern is the relation of philosophy (and the philosophers themselves) to society as a whole. Moreover, he imputes this primary concern to the premodern and early modern philosophers.
The lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens' loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of all human endeavors. The resolution of this conflict is that the philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing "between the lines." Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the "Great Tradition" of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke: the message that there are no gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.
The belief that you alone have discovered "truth" is the source of much mischief.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 10, 2002 4:43 PM
So Strauss is a multiculturalist?
It must come as quite a surprise to (marginalized if even employed) political theorists of the Straussian vein that they have been "taking over political-science departments."
But that's nitpicking on my part. There are some valid observations in this essay, although I would say at best the author has only observed a handful of East Coast Straussians in action. The West Coast Straussians of the Claremont/Dallas/Ashbrook variety are nowhere to be found in this essay, and would object to the singular focus on premodernity (in the American context at least -- Ken Masugi has written on this topic). Indeed, the only "Straussian" named is Allan Bloom -- odd if the Straussians have captured so many political science departments! (Sadly, that's not the case)
And nowhere in the corpus of Strauss's writings does Strauss ever directly claim to have found the one "true hidden message" concealed by the greats. If Jahn is finding that in Strauss, is he not engaged in the very enterprise he attributes to Strauss (minus Strauss's copious footnotes and references)? That's not to say that case can't be made, but Jahn doesn't make it here (nor does Shadia Drury make it to my satisfaction, although she tries).
All of that is beside your main point, of course, which is that Straussian political theorists seem to have influenced a LOT of prominent neocons (such as Paul Wolfowitz). Might I suggest that it might not be because of Jahn's secret cabals of Straussians, but instead because Straussians, at least at the exoteric level, generally teach that truth is not relative, reality is objective, and morality is derived from nature -- and that many contemporary neocons embraced neoconservativism about the time American liberalism went postmodern (and rejected all of those tenets)? And aside from the kooky Straussian here and there, most political science departments are dominated by historicist quantitative methods types, meaning those interested in "real" politics were probably destined to find the handful of Straussians in those departments.
At least that's been my experience. :)
I don't know if he's a multiculturalist, but he sure makes a good pair of blue jeans.
Wolfowitz is a Straussian. He was an acolyte of Bloom's and even has a cameo in Ravelstein.
Exactly -- would it be entirely surprising that a young hawkish Democrat interested in politics would discover Allan Bloom and the serious study of political philosophy (as opposed to political "science")? Maybe young Wolfowitz was shaped by a sinister cabal of Straussians, or maybe he gravitated towards Straussians because, fundamentally, they were more compelling intellectually than the behavioralists and other political "scientists" ascendant at the time (and now). Then again, it may just have been that Bloom was a hell of a teacher and would have made quite an impact even if he were teaching quantum mechanics. :)
No, no, I just meant it's difficult to say Straussianism is too marginal when its adherents are helping drive global political affairs.
Ahhh.... well, they are pretty marginal in academic departments, to be sure. To be labeled a Straussian is the kiss of death in most departments. :) But statesman -- there perhaps is a different story. I do wonder just how many senior level DoD people have been influenced by a first (a direct student of Strauss) or second generation (a student of a direct student) Straussian? We know Wolfowitz, for sure. And Steve Cambone (Claremont) and JD Crouch (USC, but close ties to Claremont Institute), although those two were probably more influenced by a strategic studies prof who isn't a Straussian. Not sure about others in the upper policy branches of DoD.
I suppose I question the notion of Straussianism as an ideology as opposed to a methodology, though, especially since there are so few profs teaching now who were direct students of Strauss, and since there are serious disagreements among Straussians over just what it is they do.
Of course, there are always the secret lecture notes (and no, I'm not making that up)....
What, no secret handshake? They'll never catch up to us Masons...