October 28, 2003


Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq: Are the ideas of the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss a shaping influence on the Bush administration’s world outlook? Danny Postel interviews Shadia Drury – a leading scholarly critic of Strauss – and asks her about the connection between Plato’s dialogues, secrets and lies, and the United States-led war in Iraq. (Danny Postel, 10/16/2003, Open Democracy)

Danny Postel: The neo-conservative vision is commonly taken to be about spreading democracy and liberal values globally. And when Strauss is mentioned in the press, he is typically described as a great defender of liberal democracy against totalitarian tyranny. You’ve written, however, that Strauss had a “profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy.”

Shadia Drury: The idea that Strauss was a great defender of liberal democracy is laughable. I suppose that Strauss’s disciples consider it a noble lie. Yet many in the media have been gullible enough to believe it.

How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat? The ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born neither free nor equal. The natural human condition, they held, is not one of freedom, but of subordination – and in Strauss’s estimation they were right in thinking so.

Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the moderns was the whole point of Strauss’s most famous book, Natural Right and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature – not the natural rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe) but the natural order of domination and subordination.

The necessity of lies

Danny Postel: What is the relevance of Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s notion of the noble lie?

Shadia Drury: Strauss rarely spoke in his own name. He wrote as a commentator on the classical texts of political theory. But he was an extremely opinionated and dualistic commentator. The fundamental distinction that pervades and informs all of his work is that between the ancients and the moderns. Strauss divided the history of political thought into two camps: the ancients (like Plato) are wise and wily, whereas the moderns (like Locke and other liberals) are vulgar and foolish. Now, it seems to me eminently fair and reasonable to attribute to Strauss the ideas he attributes to his beloved ancients.

In Plato’s dialogues, everyone assumes that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece. But Strauss argues in his book The City and Man (pp. 74-5, 77, 83-4, 97, 100, 111) that Thrasymachus is Plato’s real mouthpiece (on this point, see also M.F. Burnyeat, “Sphinx without a Secret”, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]). So, we must surmise that Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato (alias Thrasymachus) that justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make the rules in their own interests and call it justice.

Leo Strauss repeatedly defends the political realism of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli (see, for example, his Natural Right and History, p. 106). This view of the world is clearly manifest in the foreign policy of the current administration in the United States.

A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons – to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.

The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the “tyrannical teaching” of his beloved ancients. It is tyrannical in the classic sense of rule above rule or in the absence of law (p. 70).

Now, the ancients were determined to keep this tyrannical teaching secret because the people are not likely to tolerate the fact that they are intended for subordination; indeed, they may very well turn their resentment against the superior few. Lies are thus necessary to protect the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.

The effect of Strauss’s teaching is to convince his acolytes that they are the natural ruling elite and the persecuted few. And it does not take much intelligence for them to surmise that they are in a situation of great danger, especially in a world devoted to the modern ideas of equal rights and freedoms. Now more than ever, the wise few must proceed cautiously and with circumspection. So, they come to the conclusion that they have a moral justification to lie in order to avoid persecution. Strauss goes so far as to say that dissembling and deception – in effect, a culture of lies – is the peculiar justice of the wise.

Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato’s concept of the noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of Plato’s noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.

In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls – meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that not all human beings are morally equal.

In contrast to this reading of Plato, Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one (Natural Right and History, p. 151). For many commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian, the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him. Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the Left's fear of Straussianism is their insistence that its elitist anti-democratic aspect is a dark and jealously guarded secret. It is, of course, the classic conservative critique of democracy that such a system is not necessarily liberal--does not protect liberty. No one was better aware of this than the Founders, who wrote a rather anti-democratic Constitution and created a Republic, based on those of ancient times, rather than a pure democracy. In order to believe the Straussian disregard for democracy to be unique to them and a secret, you not only have to ignore the Federalists themselves, but folks like de Tocqueville in the past and both the more popular writings of the neocons, like Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom, and the best writings, like Robert Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, of those the Straussians have influenced.

In fact, especially given the fact that so many neocons are Jewish, it's at least worth considering that the attempt to treat a rather open criticism of democracy as some kind of clandestine and totalitarian philosophy may be -- either intentionally or not -- based on classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Ms Drury in particular has a tendency to treat Straussianism as if she'd personally uncovered the new Protocols of the Elders of Zion or is at least its Henry Ford.

(via Political Theory):
The Leo-conservatives (GERHARD SPOERL, August 4, 2003, Der Spiegel)

Like Heidegger, [Leo] Strauss drew a radical consequence from the experiences of World War I and the constant threat to the Weimar Republic: In his view, this served as historical proof that the Enlightenment, with its positive view of human nature and its faith in progress, was an illusion. He also believed that faith in a liberal democracy as the governmental and social order of the future was invalid. And Strauss remained true to this theory until his death.

However, what displeased Strauss about Heidegger's principal work "Being and Time" (1927) was its existentialism, which abandoned any justification of morality and worshipped "death as God" (Strauss), making the philosopher from Todtnauberg susceptible to the National Socialists' nihilistic yearning for death. As a result of his conflict with Heidegger, however, Strauss developed a slightly eccentric theory, which was received with surprising enthusiasm many years later in America.

Religion is the opium of the people, but it is an indispensable opium.

As his theory goes, philosophers following in Nietzsche's footsteps could devote themselves to the question of how the death of God and the renunciation of religion impacts thought and being. But without the inner cohesiveness faith provides, states could not exist. For this reason, according to Strauss, religion serves as a binding agent in a stable social order. It is, admittedly, the opium of the people, but it is also an indispensable opium. In Strauss' view, liberal democracies such as the Weimar Republic are not viable in the long term, since they do not offer their citizens any religious and moral footings.

The practical consequence of this philosophy is fatal. According to its tenets, the elites have the right and even the obligation to manipulate the truth. Just as Plato recommends, they can take refuge in "pious lies" and in selective use of the truth.

It is precisely because of these fundamental elements of a political theory Strauss represented throughout his life that he is accused, in today's America, of having used the Nazis to study the methods of mass manipulation. And "Straussians," such as Wolfowitz and other proponents
of the Iraq war, are now suspected of simply having used the Strauss' political principles for their own purposes. When seen in this light, the partly fictitious reasons for the war against Saddam Hussein represent the philosophical heritage of an emigrant from Germany.

A conspiracy theory is developing in which Strauss is portrayed as the puppet master and the Bush administration as his puppets. The anti-Semitic overtones of this theory are obvious - Strauss as a "Nazi Jew" -, particularly as many of his students bear Jewish names: Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Harvey Mansfield, William Kristol.

Doesn't the felt necessity of morality and the necessity of God to that morality instead offer a means of rational access to faith even for the elite?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 28, 2003 8:53 PM

Is Strauss saying that religion is one of the "noble lies" that the rulers are justified in , or even obligated to telling?

Posted by: Robert D at October 28, 2003 10:29 PM

So, Abie walks into the coffee shop and finds his friend Hymie in a booth. Hymie is reading the vilest anti-semitic trash. White supremicist magazines, KKK newsletters, Nazi fliers. Abie can't believe it. He asks his friend why he's reading that filth. Hymie says, "The last couple years, the regular papers have made me nothing but depressed. Suicide bombers, anti-semitism in Europe, hatred of Israel, all of that made me feel awful. With these papers, all I read is that Jews control the worlds, we control the banks, we control the media, Israel secretly runs everything. I feel great."

I would love to believe that the government is secretly being run by a cabal of University of Chicago political philosophers. And yet, Drury out of her mind.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 28, 2003 10:31 PM

In fact, as oj is fond of pointing out, many people ARE born for subservience. Freedom is hard, and risky. In any kind of humane society, such as the American south or ancient Rome, slaves might have their freedom restricted, but they were fed and clothed. It's not hard to see why some might take that option.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 29, 2003 2:25 AM


For Machiavelli, religion was a noble lie. Strauss is a difficult case because he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He praises judaism for its rationalism and its nobility but he intimates that it is wrong. He stands up to those who would label pauline theology as unremittingly anti-judaic but he's quite harsh on christian philosophers. He connects statements in Plato's "Laws" about the gods with statements in Plato's "Laws" about punishment for criminal activity. He doesn't connect statements in Plato's dialogues about the transcendence of truth with statements about our soul's ability to access that truth. I think Stanley Rosen is correct and that Strauss was an atheist but I think Drury is a dolt who isn't capable of fully understanding the subject upon which she defecates.

Posted by: David at October 29, 2003 9:52 AM

One small comment, related to this subject. There are two parallel sayings with impications that are generally ignored. They are:

Religion is the opiate of the people.

Religion is a crutch.

They are used to casually dismiss religion as false and undeserving. However, consider how important both opiates and crutches are in reality, rather than snobbish imagination. Crutches, and walkers for those unable to use crutches, enable many people to move independently who otherwise would be dependent on others. Opiates and other pain-relievers improve life and aid healing.

Perhaps, these statements should be viewed as important benefits of religion, rather than criticism.

Posted by: Nobody at October 29, 2003 1:33 PM

There was a film from a ways back (can't remember the name) that had some cute grafitti on a wall in a kind of down-and-out-scape:

"Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals"

(I think it said)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 29, 2003 3:45 PM

How much evidence is there that Strauss had much influence on Wolfowitz? Sure, Wolfie went to the U of C, but his main mentor was not Strauss, but Albert Wohlstetter, who was also the advisor to Wolfie's buddy Ahmed Chalabi. I suspect that if Wolfie was a genuine Straussian, he wouldn't be so pollyannaish about promoting democracy in Arab countries.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at October 29, 2003 5:54 PM

Presumably, it's very important to be able to lump them all together, all the easier to be convinced that there is indisputably some (or should that be "another"?) nefarious (Jewish?) plot to rule (America and?) the world.

Otherwise, the conspiracy theory has to get a bit intricate.

"Less is more." You know....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 30, 2003 7:34 AM

"We must not forget that our political traditions are liberal as well as democratic and that we live in a liberal democracy. Liberalism and democracy are two different traditions that are not always compatible but co- exist in our political heritage. Liberalism insists on the rule of law that stands above the people and their leaders alike. The rule of law is intended to protect the liberty of individuals." -Shadia Drury

This seems the essense of Orrin's point above. Rather than leaping on someone based on one interview, it's important to consider the body of their work as represnetative of their views. It's only fair. Drury might be a leftist, but she certainly understands that Strauss was not the only one to point out the importance of limiting the popular will.

Posted by: Eric Timmons at October 31, 2003 12:39 PM