February 23, 2006

IT'S A PURITAN NATION, NOT AN INTELLECTUAL ONE:

No more heroes: Leo Strauss, father of neoconservatism, is not the fascist thinker of left-wing caricature. But neither is he a figure with whom democrats can feel comfortable. He believed in virtue rather than liberalism (Edward Skidelsky, March 2006, The Prospect)

Strauss's central theme is excellence, both moral and intellectual. Excellence is the supreme end of political life. The classical philosophers judged regimes according to their ability to foster excellence. The best regime is the one in which the best men rule. It is government by the wise. But because they constitute a small and unpopular minority, the wise must, for practical purposes, work in collaboration with the "gentlemen," or enlightened aristocracy. Gentlemen are the "political reflection" of the wise; they share their elevation of spirit and add to it wealth, savoir-faire and a "noble contempt for precision." Only a government of gentlemen can win the consent of the vulgar while at the same time remaining open to the influence of the wise.

The ancient philosophers described the best regime as one embodying "natural right." By this they meant that it is grounded not merely in custom or convention, but in the natural order of things. The idea of natural right reappears in the work of the founders of modern liberalism. But it is not quite the same idea. Whereas the ancients viewed human nature in the light of its end or perfection, the moderns, inspired by the new science of mechanics, sought out its lowest common impulse. This they discovered in the will to live, or the fear of violent death. The regime most truly in accordance with nature is, then, that which best satisfies its citizens' desire for security. It is a regime consisting of a strong secular state with a monopoly on the use of force, whose citizens enjoy rights guaranteed by law and, in some versions, a share in government. It is the regime with which we are all familiar today.

But what about the ancient concern with excellence? How does that fare in the modern liberal state? Strauss's answer is gloomy. Liberalism shifts the accent from the question "is it good?" to the question "is it within my right?" This latter question tends over time to occlude or absorb the former, so that in the end all moral problems are reduced to problems of law. Liberal theory is concerned not with virtue, but with the construction of institutions that will secure citizens their rights even in the absence of virtue. Nor is it concerned with truth. In its eyes, all opinions are of equal value, provided they do not disturb the peace. Ultimately, liberalism degenerates into relativism, a standpoint from which different moral and religious convictions appear as mere items on a menu. There is an inevitable if ironic progression from the original meaning of liberalism to the derogatory sense it has acquired in America today.

Liberalism expresses the mundanity of the modern age, its mistrust of heroes and ideals. In Strauss's words, it deliberately "lowers the goal" of political life to increase the chances of its attainment. But liberalism's neglect of excellence is in the long run self-destructive. No regime, not even a liberal one, is mechanically self-perpetuating. Each rests ultimately upon the wisdom and courage of its leaders. In neglecting this, liberalism jeopardises its own survival. Liberalism suffers a further, specific disadvantage in comparison with its totalitarian rivals: it extends to them a tolerance which they do not reciprocate. The collapse of the Weimar republic was confirmation for Strauss of this shortcoming. Churchill demonstrated that only the residually heroic element in liberal democracy could save it from destruction.

How can the levelling tendency of the modern age be counteracted? How can greatness be restored? Unlike many European conservatives, Strauss did not look to the hereditary nobility, a class non-existent in America. His was an aristocracy of spirit, not of rank. Hence the vital importance he attached to education. "Liberal education," he wrote, "is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but 'specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.'… Liberal education is the necessary endeavour to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness."

This brief summary makes it clear, I hope, that Strauss was not the "profoundly tribal and fascistic thinker" described by Drury. But neither is he a figure with whom liberal democrats can feel entirely comfortable. His support for them is at best pragmatic and provisional; it amounts to little more than the recognition that "at present democracy is the only practicable alternative to various forms of tyranny." Nowhere does Strauss acknowledge freedom or equality as intrinsic goods. Their value, for him, is instrumental; they create a space in which excellence can flourish. "We cannot forget… that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence. No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone." Strauss, in short, is an unashamed elitist, in the best tradition of the German professoriat. This in itself is enough to mark him as a fascist in the eyes of some commentators.


The fatal flaw of Straussianism and the thing that prevents it from mattering overmuch in America, was, interestingly, on display in a recent "victory" of the neocons: the Miers dust-up. The neocon objection to Ms Miers was that she was insufficiently educated and intellectual. The defense was that she'd do the right thing because of her Evangelical Christianity. The President--who neocons despise for his own lack of intellectualism--was able, in that instance, to compromise by naming a conservative Catholic with academic cred to replace her.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2006 12:14 PM
Comments

Too bad. I think Miers would have been a far better justice than Alito will ever be. He's far too much of a conventional thinker who would be afraid to color outside the lines..

Posted by: erp at February 23, 2006 12:45 PM

erp:

I don't want judges to "color outside the lines" if I am properly understanding your comment. All things considered, I expect a great amount of predictability from the judiciary.

OJ:

I am getting confused by the words. Does the writer really mean a classic (liberal) education, especially when read in conjunction with the paragraph above it?

Posted by: Rick T. at February 23, 2006 1:28 PM

Rick:

He's British, so liberal isn't pejorative.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2006 1:32 PM

OJ:

I agree with your comment but it doesn't seem to square with this:

"Liberal theory is concerned not with virtue, but with the construction of institutions that will secure citizens their rights even in the absence of virtue. Nor is it concerned with truth. In its eyes, all opinions are of equal value, provided they do not disturb the peace. Ultimately, liberalism degenerates into relativism, a standpoint from which different moral and religious convictions appear as mere items on a menu...How can the levelling tendency of the modern age be counteracted?"

Posted by: Rick T. at February 23, 2006 1:37 PM

Rick:

Recall that liberalism isn't good even at its best:

http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1264/

Liberalism is itself just a means:

http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1002

That's why the neocons/Straussians aren't particularly meaningful in the American long run.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2006 1:42 PM

Rick T. What I mean is that Alito might be a bit too cautious even for a supreme court justice.

Posted by: erp at February 23, 2006 2:38 PM

ERP, Caution in a SCJ is a desireable quality, IMHO.

Rick, My interpretation of "liberal education", as the author uses it, would be a classically broad education.

By liberlism I think he's referring to the movement that was spawned in the salons of the enlightenment and evolved beyond the French
Revolution and into modernity, which IMHO is consistent with OJ's explanations and your own thinking.

Posted by: Genecis at February 23, 2006 5:44 PM
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