I am naturally tempted once again to talk about the Presidential race, but since anything I say will be outdated within about 80 hours, it might be better to remain silent.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 radaronline.com and Eric Alterman at mediamatters.org, 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."