July 15, 2006


Democracy's Best Friend or Antidemocratic Elitist? (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 7/10/06, NY Times)

Could any tyrant have plotted a more patient, thorough and ruthless path to power? Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who died in 1973, might have seemed just a harmless German-Jewish émigré, teaching Plato and Machiavelli at the University of Chicago. But according to recent critics, he was actually preparing an intellectual putsch, which would take place 30 years after his death and culminate in the war in Iraq.

His students and followers, these critics say, learned their lessons well and like good soldiers began a long march through a variety of institutions, seeking control. They maneuvered into foundations, institutes and departments of state and war. Then they began their shadow rule, leading the nation into foolhardy war. Presumably, their mentor gazes down from the heavens (or upward from the other place), beaming with satisfaction.

I exaggerate slightly, but this really is a theory that has taken shape in recent years in newspaper reports, magazine articles and books. Strauss has been characterized as an antidemocratic ultraconservative: the shadowy intellectual figure behind some of the men who planned the Iraq war. He has been called a cynical teacher who encouraged his students to believe in their right to rule humanity, a patron saint of neoconservatives, a believer in the use of "noble lies" to manipulate the masses. And he has been linked (with variable accuracy) to, among others, Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense; and Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In 2004, Strauss's face demonically loomed over Tim Robbins's agitprop antiwar play "Embedded," at the Public Theater in New York, as he was hailed with brutish chants. Books like "Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire" (Yale) by Anne Norton have relished telling of his baleful influence. [...]

The self-righteous fury unleashed against Leo Strauss is partly because of the sense that he sinned against one of the most sacred doctrines of democratic culture: egalitarianism.

But in the end Strauss's message does get through. What the ancients remind us is that humanity is not infinitely perfectible, that the ideal world is not ruled by reason alone, that cultural and historical variation does not mean that anything goes, that notions of egalitarianism do not guarantee virtue.

These views can sound almost trite, reduced to such propositions. But consider, then, how few societies in the past have explored such far-reaching conclusions, how few have also been able to live by them, and how much opposition such views have spurred.

Hard to believe that the fury and the sinister caricature don't owe an awful lot to his being Jewish as well as denying the Rationalist (French) faith in egalitarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 15, 2006 10:59 PM

Yeah, but they still buy his jeans.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 15, 2006 11:12 PM

I went to an "eccentric" college on the East Coast and there was an ongoing, laughable and semi-secret campaign to recruit certain students into the Straussian thing.

Posted by: Pepys at July 15, 2006 11:31 PM

Pepys: really? Do tell! Expose the conspiracy!

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 16, 2006 7:30 PM