Saturday, January 05, 2008

Origins of neoconservatism

I am naturally tempted once again to talk about the Presidential race, but since anything I say will be outdated within about 80 hours, it might be better to remain silent. Meanwhile, I promised everyone a post about Pakistan, but that, as it turns out, will wait, too. A great many new people (over 600, actually) have shown up here thanks to links from my brother Charles at and Eric Alterman at, both of whom mentioned my analysis of Bill Kristol while commenting on his appointment as a New York Times op-ed contributor. That led me this week to carry out a long-delayed resolve and begin to look into what neoconservatism is. This has been a very brief survey, based on one collection of essays by its legendary founder, Leo Strauss—but I think you will agree that Strauss’s writings do provide a lot of clues to what we have been living through for the last seven years.

The book which I secured through our local library system was Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern(Chicago, 1968.), a collection of essays. It is not an easy read. Like most modern intellectuals (Michel Foucault comes to mind), Strauss assumes an aura of authority by writing complicated sentences and posing intricate oppositions and parallels—a technique that makes him difficult to attack because he is difficult to approach, while at the same time giving those who adopt his views a sense of intellectual superiority. Yet time and time again the essence of his thought shows through, usually in comments on Plato and Aristotle, whom he clearly regards as the foundation of western thought. Here are a few examples.

One essay, “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy,” is a commentary on a man named Havelock, who attempted to discover a kind of modern liberalism within ancient Greek culture—an enterprise which Strauss rejected on both scholarly and political grounds (he clearly despised modern liberalism.) It includes the following statements:

“Closer inspection shows that there are at least three ways of life corresponding to the three kinds of men: those who understand by themselves, those who listen to the former and obey them, and those who understand neither by themselves nor by listening to others.” (p. 36) This rather striking typology, which Strauss claims to find in the works of Hesiod, seems to me to explain a great deal about the shameless political tactics of the modern Republican party in general and neoconservatives in particular. They see themselves as among the intellectual and moral elite who have achieved real understanding, and thus it makes perfect sense both to sell a war based upon weapons of mass destruction that did not exist (because, as neocon Paul Wolfowitz explained, that was the motive it was easiest to get the American bureaucracy to buy), and to accept the support of Evangelical Christians who expect Jews to be destroyed at the time of the Second Coming, since they are merely one type, and a particularly useful one, of the benighted masses. Above this passage looms the idea of an enlightened elite to whom the destinies of humankind must be consigned—a recurring theme, as we shall see.

Strauss returns to this theme just a few pages later (39), paraphrasing a passage from Plato on the Greek myth of Kronos and Zeus. ”This account, which makes use of truth, tells even today that not men, but a god or the immortal mind within us, must rule over men if the city is to be happy. Here men are indeed said to have led a blessed life under Kronos, but the conclusion from this is not that one must long for the lost age of Kronos, but that, in the decisive respect, the bliss of that age—rule of the divine—is equally possible now.” Happiness for us all depends on relying upon “the immortal mind within us,” which a few intellectuals have been fortunate enough to have the chance to cultivate. Strauss continues this discussion on the next page: “Plato knew that most men read more with their ‘imagination’ than with open-minded care and are therefore much more benefited by salutary myths than by the naked truth.” Perhaps we should stop wondering why the Bush Administration’s explanations for its policies are so self-contradictory and obviously simplistic, or why Bill Kristol, as I showed, has repeatedly been so eager to proclaim the victory of democracy in Iraq. Casting inspiring myths upon the waters is more important—especially in public—than trying to discover the truth. (I’ll come back to that point later.)

Concluding his review 30 pages later, Strauss explains why he has spent so much time attacking what seems to him such a bad book: “Books like Havelock’s are becoming ever more typical. Scholarship, which is meant to be a bulwark of civilization against barbarism, is even more frequently turned into an instrument of rebarbarization. As history suggests, scholarship is, as such, exposed to that degradation. But this time the danger is greater than ever before. For this time the danger stems from the inspiration of scholarship by what is called a philosophy. Through that philosophy the humane desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards and hence of all discipline, including philological discipline.” Granted that I might characterize a great deal of contemporary scholarship in the same way, I still recognize here a basic principle of neoconservative foreign policy—a complete intolerance for different world views and policies. To tolerate a communist or Islamic regime is a compromise with evil, which is why John Bolton liked to say, “I don’t do carrots.” It is interesting that George W. Bush, who has never been an intellectual, finds exactly this aspect of Strauss’s thought so congenial and is so eager to apply it not within academia, but on the world stage.

Strauss’s contempt for the common man emerges again in “Marsilius of Padua,” an analysis of a medieval philosopher whom he calls a Christian Aristotelian. “The problem of how to reconcile the Aristotelian principle (the men dedicated to the most noble practical activity ought to rule in their own right) with the Christian principle (the activity of the priest is more noble than that of the gentleman) could seem to have been solved in the clearest and simplest manner by the doctrine of papal plenitude of power. . . .Marsilius avoids that conclusion . . .Marsilius does not dispose of the difficulty by accepting Aristotle’s assertions according to which democracy or the rule of the vulgar is a bad regime and the farmers, artisans, and money-makers, who constitute the vulgar, are not in the strictest sense parts of the commonwealth.” (p. 189). Now I have no real credentials as an Aristotelian scholar, but I have certainly been exposed to a very different version of Aristotle’s political views—that he identified three kinds of government, rule by one man, rule by the few, and rule by the many—each of which could take either a benevolent or useful form. Monarchy could degenerate into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule. Men may differ, and I cannot be sure, if this is what Aristotle says, but I feel very strongly that it is what Thucydides thinks, it is what Rousseau thinks, and it is what I think. Strauss, however, obviously believes in rule by an elite, and neoconservatives do too. The same theme emerges yet again in the essay, “An Epilogue,” an attack on modern, as opposed to Aristotelian, political science. “Hence Aristotelian political science views political things in the perspective of the citizen. Since there is of necessity a variety of citizen perspectives, the political scientist or political philosopher must become the arbiter, the impartial judge; his perspective encompasses the partisan perspectives because he possesses a more comprehensive and a clearer grasp of man’s natural ends and their natural order than do the partisans.”(206) The idea that one’s self-identification as a “political scientist or philosopher” might become a screen for partisanship does not seem to have occurred to Strauss.

The same essay—actually an extended attack on the relativism, as Strauss saw it, of modern political science--argues repeatedly for an absolute moral code: “The denial of the common good presents itself today as a direct consequence of the distinction between facts and values according to which only factual judgments, not value judgments, can be true or objective.” Illustrating this point, he argues (p.215): “. . .everyone knows what follows from the demonstration, which presupposes the begging of all important questions, that there is only a difference of degree between liberal democracy and Communism in regard to coercion and freedom. The Is necessarily leads to an Ought, all sincere protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.” One can however accept the moral superiority and greater justice of liberal democracy (of which, as we have seen, Strauss could hardly be described as an enthusiast) while at the same time recognizing Communism as the expression of actual aspects of human nature—or rejecting attempts to stamp it out militarily as likely to do more harm than good.

It is obvious, even though it has become unfashionable to mention it, that neoconservatism bears some relationship to Zionism, even though most Jews are not neconservatives and many neoconservatives are not Jews. Judith Klinghoffer, who qualifies as a neoconservative herself, showed in a book on the Six Day War how American Jewish neoconservatism initially emerged after 1967 because that war had shown that the United States was one of Israel’s few remaining friends, and that in turn required the United States to pursue an aggressive, muscular foreign policy. And thus, I was naturaly intrigued to discover the following passage in the book’s last essay, a “Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion:” which Strauss had written in the 1920s when he was still living in Germany..

“To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism. Liberalism stands and falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. . ..The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibitions against every kind of ‘discrimination, that is, the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state. . . .There is a Jewish problem which is humanly soluble: the problem of the Western Jewish individual who or whose parents severed his connection with the Jewish community in the expectation that he would thus become a normal member of a purel liberal or of a universal human society and who is naturally perplexed when he finds no such society. The solution to his problem is return to the Jewish community, the community established by the Jewish faith and the Jewish way of life—teshubah (ordinarily rendered by “repentance”) in the most comprehensive sense.” (230-1.)

That “liberal states,” in the sense of states with modern legal systems that promise equality before the law, have not always protected the rights of Jews does not in my opinion render them hopelessly suspect. They (including the United States) have not always secured the rights of black people, women, homosexuals, or even those given to vigorous expression of their First Amendment rights either. But they have in my opinion have done the best job of protecting rights of any regimes that have existed in recent history, and their principles remain the only ones, in my opinion, that give us any hope of living together and enjoying those rights. Meanwhile, I recently took a look at a book by a prominent neocon, Elliot Abrams (for the last few years the NSC staffer responsible for the Middle East) entitled Faith or Fear: How Jews can Survive in a Christian America, which made exactly the same argument that Strauss made in the last sentence quoted above. That Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have the right to order their own lives according to laws handed down millennia ago I do not question; that this is the only way to happiness I reject.

While I have obviously only scratched the surface of the subject of the ideological origins of neoconservatism, I am struck by how easy it was to find the inspiration for much of our current foreign policy. I hope others will do a more systematic job—even though there suddenly seems to be at least a reasonable chance that we shall be following other principles in another year.

But meanwhile, this analysis gives us a new way to look at the New York Times' hiring of Kristol. The editors have repeatedly defended it on the grounds that they are offering a diversity of views. But would the views of a man who believed himself to be one of a tiny elite qualified by a proper understanding of politics to dictate to the rest of us, eager to spread myths that will secure support for his positions, and contemptuous of the average man's ability to understand the issues we face, really belong on the op-ed page of the leading newspaper of what purports to be a democracy? The answer to the question of whether that is the way Kristol sees himself, I think, can be found in his own writings. In any case, "such men are dangerous."


Roger Albin said...

What is so striking about the neocons is not only that they believe this crap but also how cluelessly incompetent they are at actually getting things done, the Iraq war being the best example. Self proclaimed elitism is a typical refuge of the second and third rate.

richard said...

Good first cut at a difficult and vexing set of political forces at work. You've come close to the center of neo-con gravity -- that liberal democracy has failed to protect minorities and only an intellectual and in some cases, religious elite can subdue the irrational forces that threaten the unprotected.

It would be useful to recognize that the early neo-con iteration came out of an authoritarian Marxist tradition but was also clearly conditioned by the Holocaust. The Straussians, if not Strauss, were driven by twin impulses: philosophic adversaries deserve no quarter and secular culture has failed to stand up to barbarism. The short historical arc of the past half-century suggests otherwise. Only a society with an indelible rule of law, an ethical free market, a robust free press and a free exchange of ideas (however crackbrained) can withstand extremism and intolerance.

Anonymous said...

I was struck by the tripartite division of mankind into those who know; those who listen to those who know; and those who don't know and don't listen. This tripartite analysis has a hoary history in Orthodox (Greek) theology, where it makes its appearance in the work of Evagrius Ponticus (4th Century) who indeed had a good classical education. In the case of Christian theology it was originally used to describe mystics with direct contact with God (yes, I know that you do not believe), those who are disciples of those mystics without having the experience themselves; and those who are scoffers. In the Christian context, this tripartite division doesn't have the radically negative connotations that you find in Strauss (whether Strauss is responsible for the negativity that you see, or your interpretation is responsible I have no idea).

This obviously doesn't have much to do with the thrust of your analysis, but it's always important to see in the history of ideas the evolution of such ideas. Here I would emphasize that in the Christian context there is no 'elitist' air such as you find in the political context--that elitist air that is discussed in Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

Merry Christmas.

A lurker

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Marco Andreacchio said...

The article above reads its conclusions into its citations, which, for instance, do NOT suggest that we should renounce liberal democracy in favor of medieval sectarianism. In the cited passages, Strauss emerges as arguing that the scholarly defense of civil freedom is "mediative" (Socratic or maieutic) rather than "foundational."
This means that the truly liberal scholar will not present himself as prophet of a political solution to the problem of injustice, but as mediator between two mutual irreducibles: legal authority and common human desires. He will thus help maintain both in creative or positive tension, instead of cancelling the two poles out into a superior "synthesis".

It is not that Strauss is unaware of the blessings of modern liberal democracies; it is rather that he finds these democracies vulnerable to being subverted by the "progressive" belief that they constitute a step toward an unfolding Final Solution to the contradiction between law/mind and desire/body--a Solution that is supposed to overcome the distinction between private and public spheres of life, by upholding law (legal standards) as instrument of particular interests, and private life as something acquiring meaning only through conventional approval.

Here, legal or moral authority is denied a "metaphysical" foundation, or rootedness in permanent features of reality. This is how law comes to be seen and "justified" as a tool in the hands of the more powerful. (Here democracy tends to be identified with collective "empowerment" through mass-competition for power.)

By the same token, Strauss argues against the "relativistic" denial that private life is rooted in standards higher than convention (think of Strauss's defence of "natural right" or of right in nature, and thus of a natural order presupposed by all merely civil order).

In short, Strauss defends democracy, not as a step toward a final (practical) solution to the problem of (in)justice, but as a problem in its own right--a problem that Strauss tries to keep alive, lest it be replaced by an utterly undemocratic solution presented as the triumph of democracy (of a democracy cut off from any standard of right and wrong beyond the demand for conformity). The upshot of Strauss's arguments would then be that unless democratic man retains self-criticism as pivot of civil life, he condemns himself to losing the very conditions of his freedom.

A previous commentator is right on the mark when bringing up the fact that traditional Christianity takes the distinction between the few and the many as cornerstone of interpretation/exegesis. Of course (as the same commentator notes) Christianity does so AGAINST the grain of what our article alleges against Leo Strauss.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Anonymous said...

It's always so sad for me to read criticisms of Leo Strauss. They are always by people who admit that they don't really understand what Strauss is trying to say and have little training in Philosophic thinking. If you find his writings difficult perhaps you should go back and reread. Or perhaps you should abandon such readings. You might as well be writing about physics or nuclear medicine because I'm sure it would be as apparent that you have no idea what you speak of.

Another characteristic of people like yourself is the cowardice it takes to attack a dead man. A scholar and professor of the highest magnitude accused of the worse kind of thing by a relatively speaking imbecile. It's so sad that a person with a forum as yourself has so little insight and cannot get the concept of someone writing about philosophic issues in a manner worthy of Philosophy as compared to a modern liberal writing authoritatively about something you have no knowledge of.

The wonderful thing for me, about Leo Strauss, is if you try to comprehend him with great effort he can teach you something. I consider myself very much a liberal and the ability to acknowledge that there may be flaws in our modern liberalism is a gift to becoming a better liberal. I have not become a neocon from reading Strauss but rather a much stronger liberal.

Mr. Strauss goes out of his way to make the philosophic reader aware that there are two distinct ways of writing, esoteric and exoteric. Without a thorough comprehension of this truth one has no chance of understanding Leo Strauss. It is obvious from your essay that you chose to ignore this truth about this great scholars writing and therefore have no understanding or qualification to criticize. Stick to what little you know in your more conventional relative existence and leave Philosophy to those who care to know things in a much more in depth way.

Paul said...

I know this is long and on an old post, but please read it - it is pertinent for anyone who might, as I did, come across this post by chance but, unlike myself, not have an experience in reading Strauss.

I don't want to lump myself in with the fixated Straussian above, and I don't want to dig up too much old ground, but I think it's worth me explaining why I think your reading of Strauss is fairly limited.

An interesting point is that in The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy, Strauss's main thrust is to do with scholarly standards - hence his emphasis on philological disposition in one of your citations. His main criticism of Havelock is that Havelock's suggested parallels between certain pre-Socratics and modern liberalism comes from his predisposition for finding such parallels. There is a pertinent paraphrasing of Freud, where Strauss mentions that what seems uncanny is in fact very often not uncanny at all. I think, in much the same way, the fact that you found the parallels "easy" to find between a 50 year old article and recent foreign policy mirrors nicely the way that Havelock found it easy to find parallels between pre-Socratic thought and modern liberal thought. You both found the links you wanted to find, whilst ignoring important differences.

As I stated earlier, Strauss's article on Havelock is a criticism of his scholarship, but also, as you identified, partly an attack on how liberal attitudes have manifested themselves in scholarly work. But it is important that we identify which parts of his writings are which.

Take, for example, the citation you make of

“Closer inspection shows that there are at least three ways of life corresponding to the three kinds of men: those who understand by themselves, those who listen to the former and obey them, and those who understand neither by themselves nor by listening to others.”

In which you say Strauss "claims" to paraphrase Hesiod, you seem to suggest that he has misappropriated him in order to, in a veiled way, put forward his own political views. This is simply incorrect, as you have not provided the context of this interpretation - a scholarly debate in which Strauss is suggesting an alternative (indeed, the mainstream) interpretation of Hesiod to Havelock's, which somehow places Hesiod's historical method in the liberal tradition.

Paul said...

In the same way, from a citation of the Kronos/Zeus myth, you've decided to extrapolate some reason lying behind foreign policy actions. Strauss is not making up the Kronos/Zeus myth, or its interpretation by Plato. This myth existed and was justified by pre- and post-Socratic philosophers. By attributing it to Strauss, you are suggesting he is using it to make a political point. He is not. He is using it to make a philological one.

You suggest that Strauss's reading of Aristotle in "Marsilius of Padua” is symbolic of his distaste for democracy. I think you have again extrapolated from a precise political historical point (which is that Marsilius does not seem to share Aristotelian fears of democracy) to it being a theoretical point that democracy always fails.

Your reading of “An Epilogue,” is fair enough, and up to you. I can't criticise you for misinterpreting Strauss - you just clearly disagree with him.

Finally, on the note of the Zionist strand in Strauss's thought, this is clearly evident in many early writings. I fail to see its importance in his later thought.

You seem to be suggesting that these early writings are important in the development of the connection between Zionism and neoconservatism, and therefore American foreign policy towards Israel. Indeed, an overall theme of your post is that Strauss is somehow significant in the development of the modern American Republican Party. There is a degree of irony in your arguments. A strong argument in The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy is to do with the nature of historical development, and whether modern liberal theories of gradualism and mass change, rather than the importance of the individual in the development of society. i.e. it is that the common man matters, because common men together drive things to happen. Your concentration on Strauss in the history of modern American right wing politics, and your comment on Kristol, suggests that you instead share a more Platonic and Straussian view of history, in which individual "great men" make a difference. The fact that this didn't occur to you whilst reading Strauss's essay, as well as your consistent failures to contextualise, suggests to me that you may not have read it in much depth, as you were too busy searching for the passages which you wanted to find.