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The Politics of Philosophy within Neo-Conservatism in the US
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-06-30 08:16:51
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To even begin to understand the mind-set of neo-conservatism in America, one needs to examine the origins of the classical, rationalistic, esoteric philosophy of the school of Leo Strauss at Chicago University, as well as its devastating critique and deconstruction by Professor Shadia Drury, dubbed by the Straussians “the bitch of Calgary.”

In a past interview, Professor Drury, who has written several books critiquing Leo Strauss, has suggested that the neo-conservative cadre who have achieved prominence in the Republican Party have come out from the school of Leo Strauss and his rationalistic ideas on the esoterism of philosophy. For her scholarly critique some of Strauss’ devotees have unceremoniously dubbed her “the bitch of Calgary.” This slander in itself supports her point that there exists a sort of cult of Leo Strauss; that some of his unpublished articles are passed around by the initiated with the label “for your eyes only,” as if they contained some kind of secret esoteric formula. They are then treasured in the manner of a saint’s relics. A bizarre but also intriguing phenomenon, considering that, outside of a narrow academic setting Strauss is hardly famous, even in intellectual circles. He was an émigré, a Jew who fled Germany during World War II and ended up teaching classical philosophy (especially Plato) at the University of Chicago. There he ran the department of philosophy as a fiefdom of sorts and acquired a veritable cadre of disciples. He wrote various books, mainly devoted to the revival of an alleged forgotten and undervalued classical political philosophy. He died some thirty years or so ago.

Shadia Drury, has made an academic career of writing anti-Straussian exposés: to wit, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), Alexandre Kojeve: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994), Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997). In these three books she analyzes the phenomenon of Straussianism and how it evolved into an academic cult of sort. She maintains that the Straussians have resurrected the anachronistic and by now antiquated “quarrel between the ancients and the moderns” in order to argue that pre-modern, that is, ancient classical philosophy is far superior to modern philosophy; in particular that of Plato. This turns the whole Hegelian "progressive" view of history topsy-turvy, providing a very distinctive point of view and line of criticism, about modernity. Straussians are anti-modern, not in the name of religion (as are various forms of religious fundamentalism in American and all over the world) or of tradition (as are classical conservatives since Edmund Burke), but in the name of reason, of philosophy: an understanding of reason and philosophy different from that of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the teaching of Leo Strauss is concerned with "political philosophy" but in a very special sense: his primary, if not exclusive, concern is the relation of philosophy and the philosophers themselves, to the polis, i.e., society as a whole. Moreover, he imputes this primary concern to the ancient classical philosophers.

For Strauss, the lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was in fact guilty as charged because it is in the nature of philosophy to be 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. As Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy teaches, it cannot help but do this since all thrusts toward truth reveals the bitter truth of the will to power. The philosopher knows that there are no gods but the people need to believe in them or social chaos will ensue. 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. It is like finding a precious pearl and hiding it under a bushel (thus also turning the biblical injunction upside-down) in order to keep it away from the dumb pigs who would devour it. So, there is a secret pearl and only the elected few know where it is and how to retrieve it. But as the saying goes: beware of what you think, you may end up saying it; and beware of what you say, you may end up doing it.

Enter Machiavelli: with him, as per Strauss, came a shift in emphasis. He was the first to deviate from the esoteric tradition that began with Plato. Hence properly speaking Machiavelli is the father of the age of Enlightenment. Machiavelli “de-moralized” political philosophy, so to speak, and thereby created "political science." Virtue, whether defined in classical or Christian terms, was dethroned, because no regime could possibly live up to its demands. Instead, a new regime could and should be created, by accepting, understanding, and harnessing men's lower, self-interested nature. Enter Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Nietzsche.

Strauss holds that the modern world is the deliberate creation (with some unintended consequences) of the modern philosophers -- namely, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress. The Enlighteners argued (though still covertly) that instead of hiding philosophy, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy: in particular, by undertaking the "project" of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications, safety, health, wealth, to ordinary men, bribing them into acquiescence to philosophy. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of liberty and equality enabling men to pursue their self-interest. The distinction between liberalism and democracy ought to be kept in mind: democracy may be tolerated as long as it is protected by the noble lies of the few and the elite which, as Churchill used to say, are the body-guards so to speak of the truth. On the other hand, Strauss held bourgeois mercantile liberalism contemptible, since it invariably leads to vulgarity and the rule of the majority, i.e., the mob.

As Straussians see it, the problem with this is that it exposed philosophy once more, and ultimately prostituted it into the service of common men, the unwashed masses of the world who have no inkling of that precious pearl called philosophy and can only sully it. The esoteric tradition was forgotten, and with it philosophy as such. At the same time, philosophy unveiled by the enlightenment philosophers ends up inadvertently exposing men to certain hard truths, (the bitter medicine, so to speak) too hard for them to bear: that there are no gods to reward good or punish evil; that no one's country is really any better than anyone else's; that one's ancestral ways are merely a convention. This leads to nihilism, epitomized by the listless, meaningless life of bourgeois man, or to dangerous experiments with new gods -- gods like the race, the ideology, the Fuehrer.

To be sure, this unique interpretation of Western history depends on the existence of a "hidden agenda" in the history of philosophy. If there was, in fact, such an esoteric tradition, it has escaped the attention of most scholars, up to Leo Strauss. Of course, that might only prove how well-hidden it was all along; which goes to show how seductive esotericism can be, once you start flirting with it, especially if you are young and foolish.

Professor Drury alerts us to several problems with Strauss’ teaching. In the first place there is this crucial question: is the philosopher (in the original, literal sense: a "lover of wisdom") really a superior type of person? He may well be, but is he also a superior being? If it is true that the laws of nature are universal, as the Straussians claim, then the difference between the philosopher and the ordinary person ought to be understood as one of degree, not one of kind. For after all, the philosopher’s impulses are the same, albeit ordered differently. No matter how rational he is, he is still a rational animal: a sexual one, for instance, and a social one. He too as a human being is affected by original sin and may at any time fall into what Vico calls the “barbarism of the intellect,” a sort of devious rationality that rationalizes what is not rationalizable and ends up making trains run on time without caring where those trains may be headed for. An angel he surely is not. His curiosity may be more fully developed, but unless his other faculties (such as that of imagination and the poetical) are at least as well developed as that of ordinary people, this one trait does not make him necessarily superior or even better, just an enfant savant of rationality who knows the laws of logic inside-out and how to play chess, or simply an elitist looking down with disdain at the “ilioti,” the dumb working stiffs that make it possible for the demigods, whom the Straussians call “the priests of the mind,” to dwell on Mount Olympus.

In the second place, the ancient philosophers did in fact believe that the philosophic life is the highest and best, but only a few are suited to it. The Straussians concur enthusiastically with that assessment, and go on to imply that the major evil of modern egalitarianism is that it makes philosophy impossible. The main difference between the Straussians and Left-wing nihilists is that the former think the "truth" of value-relativism should be known only by the few. Suffice here to say that the Straussians, too, have to introduce quasi-objective standards of judgment, covertly and unintentionally: e.g., the social utility of religion and patriotism, or things would soon become uncomfortable for them too. Surely, the very fact that society requires certain things -- communal loyalty, for instance -- in itself justifies these things: they are rooted in nature, the social nature of humanity.

Finally, there is an evident contradiction between the idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth, and the idea of philosophy as a body of esoteric lore. If the Straussian reading is correct, it would seem that the history of philosophy consists of practically nothing but pondering the relation of philosophy to civil society, rather than pondering philosophical questions themselves. All the important questions have already been answered by Plato, or declared to be unanswerable: this is what created the tension between philosophy and civil society in the first place. The rest is a footnote.

So what is there for philosophers to do if the Straussians themselves are not even philosophers, but historians of philosophy, custodians of the esoteric lore to be guarded from the vulgar masses? For indeed, this perceived need to write obscurely also tends to obscure thought. And this as per Drury is the great weakness of Strauss’ method: so careful is he to hide the point of his argument, he nearly fails to make it. Certainly he fails to support it. Strauss puts his students to such a mental effort to try to understand him that they are too exhausted at the end of it all, to make the mental effort to criticize him or read his critics, such as Shadia Drury. Besides, within a cult, even an intellectual one, to contend with the Master is to be suspected of heresy.

At the second Miami TIES Transatlantic Conference a few years ago I had a conversation with a former colleague of Strauss at the University of Chicago (Professor Emeritus of Politics George Von der Muhll—currently at the University of California, Santa Cruz) and he corroborates this assessment. He told me an interesting anecdote in regard to Strauss: he would take his chosen “disciples” to the “cenacle,” a cafe that is, and there he would hold court and dispense the precious Straussian neo-Platonic rationalistic doctrine: the students were mostly mesmerized or awed or simply intimidated by him, for none of them ever dared to openly challenge any of his philosophical assumptions.

Given this inherent secrecy and obscurity of the Straussian teaching, one would only be surprised if it did not produce conflicting interpretations. And there are, in fact, two schools of Straussians: the esoteric school and the exoteric school, but it is hard to tell which is which. It may be that the seeming exoterics are just better at hiding their esotericism, which makes them the true esoterics. Both of them challenge the prevailing relativism of twentieth-century thought, harking back to classical standards of truth and justice; but the esoterics only do so because truth and justice are socially needed and salutary myths, while the exoterics (perhaps) really do believe in truth and justice. Hard to tell in a rather secretive enigmatic and confusing intellectual climate. One begins to wonder: are we dealing with mystification or sophistry? Is this the cave man of Dante holding his own decapitated head in one of his hands as “light unto itself”?

What I find most intriguing is that the two schools are also divided on their interpretation of American history, and particularly the American Founding. Both follow Strauss's division of philosophical history into the (good) "ancients" and the (bad) "moderns." According to the esoteric version, America was wholly modern from its inception: it is entirely the creation of the "modern project" and therefore rotten at its source. The exoteric Straussians, like conservatives in general, prefer to emphasize America's continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization while rejecting the Enlightenment.

The esoterics, then, basically agree with the libertarian and (pre-1960s) liberal understanding of American history: we are a "proposition nation," liberal to the core, and conservatism is un-American. The cult of the Founding Fathers is just a salutary myth. The truth is that the Founders, under the tutelage of Hobbes and Locke, deliberately created a squalid regime ruled by self-interest, sacrificing virtue to liberty and equality, and are ultimately responsible for the philistinism, mediocrity, and deracination of contemporary America.

Both esoterics and exoterics Straussians seem to agree that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of "natural rights," on which the republic was founded. Allan Bloom, a “disciple” who wrote the famous The Closing of the American Mind, regards "natural rights" as illusory, and bourgeois society as distasteful; but they are at least preferable to the nihilism of the New Left. The question is whether the New Left was the inevitable culmination of the ideology of liberty and equality. He strongly implies that it is. His only hope seems to be the cultivation of a tiny elitist remnant to pass on the old lore through the new Dark Age in the comfort of academic halls. Now, one can argue that conservatism might or might not be un-American, but there is no doubt that this sort of quietism certainly is. Be careful of that what you say, you may end up doing it

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Jack2008-06-30 23:05:17
Great understanding you have of the American historicity...we like to define cultures and nations as either one extreme or another, far left or conservative right, while most meandor down the middle of the road. The culture changes almost un-noticed like the frog in the pot...slowly turning up the heat, unaware of it''s own assimilating surroundings. There appears to be more hope for self-actualization in an individual than in a nation.

How ironic. What a radical, revolutionary idea that of independence was for the Americans; even though the desire to be free seems a universal. Even the French caught the Democracy virus, yet to be stung again by it''s own revolutionary hero, Napoleon [self-declared Emperer]. Aw...no wonder Beethoven changed his famous "Erioica" sympohony in tribute to him, instead calling it "To a former great man". Proof to the axiom: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore, a balance ought to be sought.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-01 11:01:27
Indeed, Obama is the Man of Hope and a true patriot exactly because he is able to consider both sides of a coin before he arrives at a judgment and a decision. We have not had those kind of statesmen for a long time now. It's about time.

Marco Andreacchio2010-02-14 01:38:22
The article above advances many big claims, but supports none with even a trace of textual evidence.

The author claims that:

"Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the "Great Tradition" of philosophy."

The above claim, among many other unsupported ones, is false. (Incidentally, Strauss wrote that he learned all he knew about "exoteric" writing from Lessing.)

The article further reads: "if it is true that the laws of nature are universal, as the Straussians claim..."

In reality Strauss and all prominent Straussians DENY that there is any such thing as universal laws of nature.

Here is another claim:
"Given this inherent secrecy and obscurity of the Straussian teaching, one would only be surprised if it did not produce conflicting interpretations."

It would be helpful to recall what happened in Greece after Aristotle's departure.

On the following passage:
"The exoteric Straussians, like conservatives in general, prefer to emphasize America's continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization while rejecting the Enlightenment."

Strauss never presented himself as an anti-modern or as someone who is against the modern Enlightenment (viz. Descartes). What he did argue is that the modern Enlightenment was neither the first nor the best, and that its ambiguity is often missed by its inheritors.

A further claim:
"The esoterics, then, basically agree -...The cult of the Founding Fathers is just a salutary myth."

This is precisely what Strauss argued AGAINST. (He also argued against turning respect for the Founding Fathers into religious reverence: the US Constitution is not the Bible.)

One last comment on:
"Both esoterics and exoterics Straussians seem to agree that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of "natural rights," on which the republic was founded."

Again, the article betrays ignorance and feigned-knowledge of sources. Strauss and prominent Straussians do NOT appeal to "natural rights" (in the plural). If the article wants to claim that for Strauss "natural right" is a "myth," then its author really ought to give even one single textual reference to support his claim. In reality Strauss defended Natural Right AGAINST all those who sustained that it was a mere myth of the past (cf. e.g., opening of NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY).

For the future: before shooting, let us lend more care to discerning the nature of our target. Thank you.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

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