March 1, 2005

Leo Strauss Explained

Finally, the link between Straussianism and the neocons' latest foreign policy explained. Manhattan Transfer lays it out:

How had a group of people who are obviously learned in the classics of conservative political thought, including Burke, Aristotle and Plato, have come to a conclusion--that there is one just form of government, democracy, and that democratic government is equally realizable for all people, at all times--that seems so foreign to the the conservative tradition? This was the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and the progressives, not the policy of American conservatives.

To understand how the neoconservatives arrived at Wilsonianism it helps to know about how Straussians read ancient texts. In the nineteenth century the dominant method of interpreting the classics of Greece and Rome held that in order to understand these works it was necessary to know a lot about the history and culture of the society from in their authors lived. The values that informed the work were presumed to be historical, which is to say foreign to our contemporary way of thinking, and a great deal of historical knowledge was required in order to recover those values and an understanding of, say, Plato's Republic.

In the early part of the twentieth century this view was challenged by what would come to be known as post-modernism. The post-modernists pointed out that the knowledge of history necessary to understand the works of the ancients could only be derived from the works themselves. If this knowledge was necessary to understanding them, the project couldn't get started in the first place. The door to the values of the past was closed. The historicist approach was impossible.

Leo Strauss was one of those who sought to recover the value of reading very old books. His approach was not to defend the historicist method but to deny the requirement of history. Great books were timeless, in the sense that they did not require a lot of knowledge about history and culture to be understood. They could be read closely by the best minds of very different times because they had been written by thinkers who were not themselves prisoners of their age. He proposed a fellowship of thinkers that stretched across vast epochs and made reading the ancients possible.

Beneath the Straussian approach to reading was a metaphysical perspective. Understanding through the ages was possible because certain questions were permanent questions, questions that arose and applied in any age. What is the best way to live? What regime is the best? These questions remained permanent because all men shared a certain nature. In short, Strauss supported his recovery of reading with an appeal to a permanent human nature, a psychic unity stretching across generations.

The neoconservatives take this a step--a dangerous, vulgarizing step--further. If there is a universal human nature that makes reading the ancients possible in all times and all places, shouldn't this universal human nature also make democratic-capitalism possible for everyone? What seems to have happened is that the neoconservatives took the Straussian downgrade of the importance of history and culture for reading great books and applied it to the importance of history and culture for governing people.

The problem with this is that Strauss applied his way of reading only to the best readers reading the best writing of the best writers. It was highly elitist. The neoconservatives have popularized this by taking out its elitism and then applied it to an entirely different sphere of life, politics. That is, they have treated global politics as if it were philosophy, and treated entire populations as if they were philosophers. Unfortunately, philosophy is not politics and Iraq is not populated by philosophers.

Of course, much of what passes for a worldview among neocons is simply opportunistic scrambling to provide rationalizations for their actions. But this seems to explain something important about how Strauss, who valued prudence, became associated with a policy of wild imprudence.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My first order of business is a question for both "elitists" and those who hate "elitists".

(I just love the possibility of both)

So those who beg my pardon

(and not those who despise quotes and the paranthetical(and first person))

does anyone, namely the maritime captain, know if any strauss family tree has ever read this. Pardon me Steve if i step on your toes, not knowing you.

Then I also have claim that sounds like a question. Isn't he right, even if Karl Rove was wrong? Just ideally, for anyone who would have, or better, want to have dinner party, talkshow, or blog.

Thanks for your venue.

Sean Starr