The Right Man? | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Right Man? 

Is Leo Strauss the secret force responsible for Regan, Gingrich, the Christian Coalition, and the Contract With America?

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A reclusive and unassuming scholar, Leo Strauss quietly taught philosophy to admiring youngsters at the University of Chicago from the mid-50s until his death in 1973. Now he's revealed to be the architect of the Christian Coalition, the spiritual author of the Contract With America, and perhaps the foremost enemy of liberalism in postwar America.

Such is the argument of Leo Strauss and the American Right, a new book by Shadia Drury, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. Strauss and his writings have, she claims, inspired much of modern conservative thought and politics, right down to the Christian Coalition's alliance with the Republican Party. She argues that it was Strauss's intent, throughout his long academic career, to create troops of right-wing pundits and intellectuals who'd be intolerant of multicultural diversity, hostile to women's rights, and willing to embrace religion as a way of inculcating a common set of values for a fragmented and weak America. An array of conservative political figures--from Robert Bork to William Bennett, Alan Keyes to Irving Kristol--are, she says, loyal Straussians, carrying out their mentor's will. She cites articles in mainstream publications that have analyzed the role of "Straussians" in American politics (Newsweek even tells of a club of "Washington Straussians" reputed to hold parties on Winston Churchill's birthday, where they drink brandy and smoke cigars in honor of Strauss's favorite politician). Drury's book, which would otherwise be viewed as a typical scholarly work, is given a sense of urgency by its claims that Strauss's ideas are shared by scores of Washingtonians. This makes her book no mere intellectual history: it is a call to arms. Drury describes herself as a "skeptical liberal"--committed to the protection of individual liberties, sympathetic though restrained, wary of radical talk--so she delights in exposing closet Straussians. For her, they are a secret party remaking American politics without anyone ever noticing the little man behind the curtain.

But it's a pretty strange set of accusations, even to be leveled against a teacher at the University of Chicago, with its Henry Moore altar to the atom bomb and professors advocating markets in babies and human organs. In his lifetime, Strauss was known--to the extent that he was known at all--as a German-Jewish philosopher who'd studied with Heidegger in the 1920s and fled to the United States after the Nazis came to power. He spent most of his life after the war at the U. of C., where he taught philosophy as a distinguished professor in political science and wrote copiously until his death. Most of his writings are detailed interpretations of philosophical texts, with a heavy emphasis on the ancient Greeks, though he also wrote about Hobbes, Maimonides, and Spinoza. Could he possibly be the secret force behind the Reagan Revolution and the Republican Party of the 1990s?

The short answer: No. But Drury isn't the first to make this claim; New York Times columnist Brent Staples, among others, has argued that Strauss somehow masterminded the rise of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. The great majority of the classicist conservatives Drury castigates as Straussians never studied with him; some, like Robert Bork, even claim never to have read his work. Perhaps his most famous student, Allan Bloom, went on to pen a popular book, The Closing of the American Mind, but blaming the rise of the right on Leo Strauss, or on some secret cabal of "Straussians," doesn't make much sense. Yet Drury's more general point--that Strauss's thought is representative of a major strain of intellectual conservatism--does deserve more serious consideration. Clearly most of these conservatives are stalwart believers in tradition; because they ostensibly draw their moral grounding from Western literature and philosophy, they might be perceived as Straussian. These scholarly conservatives shouldn't be confused with the Christian right. They're unlikely to be involved in populist politics, and you'd sooner find them editing journals or sitting on the jurist's bench than leading rallies or petitioning politicians. Strauss's work, despite some similarities, is crucially different from that of neoconservatives like Kristol or the staff of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But if we're to understand today's conservative intellectuals, it might be important to understand how they differ from Strauss.

To the lay reader Strauss's books may appear to be little more than dense scholarly commentary on one classic text or another. Drury, however, sees him as a "secular Kabbalist," a philosopher who wrote in riddles to be interpreted by an elect minority. Strauss argued that all great philosophic texts have an "exoteric" teaching, which is uplifting and edifying for the masses, and an "esoteric" teaching, which reveals the truth to the few ready to hear it. Drury treats Strauss's work in the same terms, suggesting that an esoteric, highly political teaching lies just beneath the surface reading of Plato or Hobbes. His students, she says, "have the attributes of a cult," though to the uninformed they might seem to have the attributes of, well, grad students enamored of a favorite professor. Drury claims that they always saw themselves as part of an elite vanguard whose ideas could have vast impact on the directionless masses. "Strauss was not as reclusive an intellectual as some believe," she writes. "He was convinced that ideas make the world. He also believed that it was the ascendancy of a certain set of ill-conceived ideas in the history of the West that has led to the 'barbarism we have witnessed.'...

The task at hand was to turn the tide, or reverse the trend. For that, the right kind of intellectuals were necessary, and Strauss was particularly adept in training them."

What are the "ill-conceived ideas" that Strauss believed so dangerous? Quite simply, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the classical liberal vision--first articulated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jeremy Bentham--of human society as a collection of "self-contained individual atoms with certain built-in passions and drives, each seeking above all to maximize his satisfactions and minimize his dissatisfactions, equal in this to all others, and 'naturally' recognizing no limits or right of interference with his urges," as historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it. Strauss had two points of disagreement with liberalism. First, he believed in the natural inequality of human beings. Like Plato, Strauss thought that a select few were meant to rule, based on their inborn capacities to recognize virtue and live virtuously. Second, he believed in natural standards of right and wrong. As with the ancient philosophers, Strauss held that not all desires are good, that some lives are better and more fully realized than others, and that the virtuous elite will recognize the best life for human beings while the masses remain ignorant and malleable. "Classic natural right asserts a natural inequality of man, and hence it asserts that by nature some men are the rulers of others, or that by nature some men are subordinated to others," Strauss writes when discussing Plato's idea of natural justice in Natural Right and History (1950). The natural rulers are those who understand the good life, which is devoted to that which is truly and naturally human in people, as opposed to a life guided, as Strauss suggests most are, by base animal desires.

Because the wise can see not only how best to live but what kind of life is best for each individual, it follows that the wise are the natural rulers; they will be able to rule in a way that brings out the fullest in human nature--not just in general, but for every individual being. To illustrate how rule "according to nature" is different from hubristic human laws, Strauss brings up "the famous example of the big boy who has a small coat, and a small boy who has a big coat." Obviously, though technically the big boy owns the small coat, it isn't the coat that's right for him. According to nature, he ought to own the big coat. "If the wise rule, the wise ruler will paternally assign to the two boys what they really deserve, what is good for them--to the big boy the big coat, and to the small boy the small coat," Strauss writes. "They will not give anything to anyone except what is good for him, or what he can use well, and they will take away from anyone what he cannot use well." Strauss offers no real arguments for why the elite ought to rule, nor does he suggest what process leads to the creation of an elite. We're left scratching our heads. Does the elite arrive at its privileged position of wisdom because it is a leisure class, able to devote its time to study and contemplation? Or are a lucky few simply born with the capacity for wisdom, while the rest of us are capable only of rooting in the muck? What is clear, however, is that any attempt to interfere with their rule will have malign effects: "It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule," he writes. "It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise opinions and wishes of the unwise; hence the wise rulers ought not to be responsible to their unwise subjects." The best regime would be ruled by something approximating an aristocracy.

Given his embrace of hierarchy, it's clear why Strauss objects to classical liberalism. Liberal regimes assert not only the basic equality of all human beings but the fundamental equality of human desires and philosophies, suggesting that society is naturally diverse, composed of individuals exercising their right to pursue happiness, however defined, and most likely defined in a variety of ways. This is anathema to Strauss. Writing about German sociologist Max Weber--but commenting more generally on liberal viewpoints that see all preferences as equally good--Strauss notes, "He denies to man any genuine knowledge, any science, empirical or rational, any knowledge, scientific or philosophic, of the true value system....The solution to those problems is left to the free choice, not guided by reason, of each individual. I contend that this view necessarily leads to nihilism. That is to say, to the conclusion that every preference, however evil, base or insane, would have to be judged before the tribunal of human reason as being as legitimate as every other preference." If no belief can be held to be authoritatively true, there appears to be no basis, other than expedience, for ethics. From liberalism to relativism, from relativism to nihilism, from nihilism to barbarism, the slide is inevitable.

Strauss is a careful writer. Fundamentally a scholar, he's neither dogmatic nor a polemicist. He follows his most blistering attacks on liberal society with the assurance that at certain times in history liberalism is probably the best we can hope for. He notes that it's "extremely unlikely" for philosophers to rule. They aren't inclined to it, "because their whole life is devoted to the pursuit of something which is absolutely higher in dignity than any human things--the unchangeable truth." Their frequent opposition to tradition also makes them unpopular; natural justice may mandate the sacrifice of family and friends for the good of the whole. Nonetheless, he clearly believed that some people--for reasons unknowable--are better equipped to determine how to achieve the "right life" for human beings.

Strauss's critique is similar to those of liberal thinkers during the 1950s, such as David Riesman. Both Riesman and Strauss saw modern American society as atomized, amoral, without direction, dominated by the confused and lonely masses. Yet it's hard to see Strauss's solution to modern anomie--rule by the wise--as anything but inadequate. For example, Strauss doesn't describe the "naturally right life," except to say that it isn't just following desire. He offers no explanation for why becoming "wise" is impossible for most people and why the majority are unable to devise any laws for themselves. He doesn't explain why the majority should trust the elite always to do what is best, except to say that it's axiomatic that they will; after all, the wise are the only ones who know best what to do. After reading Strauss, you begin to feel that he may have been a fine teacher--and that reading his works on the history of ideas may be worthwhile--but that widespread acclaim for his remarkably simple worldview must be the result of political calculation, perhaps even, as Drury posits, a conspiracy.

But does it follow that neoconservatism sprang from Strauss's mind to be promulgated by his brainwashed disciples in the style of The Manchurian Candidate? Drury presents Irving Kristol--the founding editor of the conservative journal The Public Interest, and father of William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, its would-be successor--as the paradigmatic neocon Straussian. This might seem a bit strange. While Kristol did coin the term "neoconservative," he never studied with Strauss, and far from being a philosopher, he's a popular political writer who makes few claims to scholarship. But it's not hard to see how Drury might draw some connections between Kristol and Strauss. Kristol's writing is far less learned, though he shares many of Strauss's anxieties about modern America. "The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism," he writes in Neoconservatism: Autobiography of an Idea, a collection of his essays. "Only liberal capitalism doesn't see nihilism as an enemy, but rather as just another splendid business opportunity." The secularization of capitalist society is, Kristol argues, sure to be its downfall. Capitalism's rise depended on precapitalist norms and beliefs--religion above all--to provide a moral education, instill a work ethic, and offer some justification for social inequities. As the older beliefs weaken, character and ethics are shaped by the market, creating irresponsible consumers for whom "nothing is denied...and the settling of all accounts is indefinitely postponed," Kristol writes. He calls for the turning away from liberal tolerance, which limits religion to private life and therefore removes religion's claim to a divine, nonrelative truth: "It is becoming clearer every day that even those who thought they were content with a religion that was a private affair are discovering that such a religion is existentially unsatisfactory."

In most other ways, Kristol's thought--and that of most other neoconservatives--differs profoundly from Strauss's. In addition to his anxieties about the decline of religious norms in the modern world, two closely linked themes unify Kristol's work: anticommunism and a belief that the mysterious workings of the market should not be tampered with by utopian, idealist social planners. In the market, Kristol sees Edmund Burke's "collected reason of ages"; we may not understand quite how it works, or why it works, but we ought to accept as a given that it works. We shouldn't ask impertinent questions. "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that individuals would be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages," wrote Burke, the first modern conservative, in explaining why French revolutionary idealism would lead to chaos. Similarly, Kristol argues that the idealists of the 20th century--who include not only the Bolsheviks but practically anybody who wants to direct any aspect of the economy--should have deferred to the inscrutable operations of the market. The "stock of reason," the human ability to plan, is meager compared to the wisdom of the thousands of individual transactions comprising the market. Strauss, on the other hand, did not think that trade was so mysterious a vehicle for good or that it embodied any special knowledge. He certainly didn't believe that a society governed by market transactions would automatically become virtuous or wise. Whatever else one says about Strauss, he's not a free-market apologist.

While Strauss and Kristol share concerns about the inability of liberal capitalism to properly socialize good bourgeois citizens, they do so for different reasons. For Strauss, liberalism's downfall is that it fails to recognize a virtuous elite; indeed, it denies both that there is a single virtuous life and that there is any kind of natural elite. Liberalism's crisis is rooted in its very foundations. But Kristol is concerned about radical elements, external to liberalism, overwhelming the fragile edifice of liberal society. The specter haunting Kristol is always that of communism, or some utopian variant, emerging from outside bourgeois society to tear down its traditions and destroy its gentlemanly ethical code. He sees communism as the antithesis of liberal society, the bearer of anticlerical fury, destroying hallowed beliefs to erect a technologically modern rationalist regime; in the attempt to create a utopia, it produces tyranny instead. The threats Kristol appears to fear most--feminism and gay rights--are logical products of liberal philosophy, but he, like most neoconservatives, never resolves this inconsistency. He remains committed to liberal capitalism while blaming the erosion of religious norms on the emergence of "hyper-libidinous consumers" and the destruction of the traditional family on the birth of wild-eyed feminism; he never acknowledges how liberal philosophy gave rise to these circumstances. For Strauss, there is no paradox, because he has no strong political commitment to liberal capitalism in the first place.

The neoconservatives appear to be more truly Straussian when it comes to relations between the sexes. Men, women, and children are thought to be linked to each other by nature, not by contract, and thus their relationships ought to be legislated in keeping with the "natural" standard of the good, instead of by mere desire or economic rationality. To the neoconservatives, promiscuity, homosexuality, having children outside of marriage, and mothers working outside of the home are all against nature and ought to be discouraged by the state. Nonetheless, when a writer like Irving Kristol makes the Straussian argument that women, for example, should possess a certain idea of the good--raising children--he justifies this on the grounds that women's obligations to their children are natural and outside of society; men are still free to pursue individual happiness in whatever way they see fit, as long as this doesn't involve having sex with other men, sleeping with many different women, or refusing to marry the women they impregnate, which would violate their "natural" responsibilities to the family.

So Strauss may have had an indirect impact on modern conservatism, but he's closer to Joseph de Maistre, aristocratic opponent of the French Revolution, than he is to Edmund Burke, its bourgeois foe--which shows how far he is from today's intellectual right. There are few contemporary thinkers willing to advocate openly the idea of a ruling elite left to its own devices with no input from the people it governs. Even thinkers who believe that the state has some role to play in developing ethical behavior rarely go so far as to claim that the central function of government is guiding people to the good life. Far from holding that people must be educated to embrace the good, the Chicago school of economics--the true parent of today's right--takes the stance that you can't argue with taste: if people want something, they should have it, especially if other people can make a buck giving it to them. Intellectuals on the right may cite Strauss, but only as a decorative touch. Scholarly conservatism is, in fact, just classical liberalism with a few footnotes.

Given the differences between Strauss and the neocons, why does Drury equate the two? Her oversight lies in her own political stance. She's quite willing to embrace the rule of a small elite: "In my view, there is nothing particularly pernicious or sinister about elitism itself....Even liberal democratic societies, such as the United States, have their elites--they elect representatives to govern, and they approve of differentials in wealth based on luck, effort and skill." Yet she devalues public life, saying that all happiness is private: "It is not the business of politics to give life meaning, mystery and magic. Art, love or religion can accomplish that, but not politics." Her objection to neoconservatism seems to be, strangely, that it isn't conservative enough: "I am a skeptical liberal, a liberal without illusions, a liberal who is painfully aware of the shortcomings of liberalism, its pretensions, its myths, its radical spirit, and its suicidal tendencies. I am a liberal who believes that the liberal spirit needs to be moderated by a conservative temper that would undermine the inflated expectations that modern men and women have of political life. A conservative temper has the effect of resigning us to the present, and even to its injustices."

Perhaps Drury would have done a better job of critiquing both Strauss and Kristol if she wasn't so resigned to "present injustices." She might have questioned whether the default option of human nature is always evil and barbarism, and she might have considered that all political action emerges from a belief that we have an ethical responsibility to realize a better social life. Instead, her critique of Strauss and Kristol is ultimately little more than a numbing hymn for liberalism, based on a fear of those who take politics seriously.

Leo Strauss and the American Right by Shadia Drury, St. Martin's Press, $35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Strauss photo courtesy University of Chicago.

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