Leo Strauss, I’d have answered, “Didn’t he write polkas or operas? Or was he a ne’er-do-well brother or cousin of
Johann or Richard?”
in a lengthy discussion centering on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N.
speech of September 29th and whether or not he was either a “Straussian” or
a tool of the “Straussians.” The statement by Netanyahu that precipitated the
discussion was, concerning the depredations of ISIS – “It’s
not militants. It’s not Islam. It’s militant Islam.” – in which he
makes a contentious distinction between Islam and jihadist violence in the name
of Islam. Readers know my position well enough: Islam is what Islam does – what
ISIS is doing – and has been doing for fourteen centuries.
Strauss, I investigated him and discovered some unsettling information. I had
expected to find that he was associated with the Frankfurt School, a
Marxist intellectual clique that emigrated to the U.S. from Nazi Germany in
1933. This was not the case. Shadia
Drury, a Strauss scholar, wrote in an encyclopedia entry:
(1899-1973) was a German-Jewish émigré political philosopher and historian of
political thought, who wrote some fifteen
books and eighty articles on the history of political thought from Socrates
Kirchhain, Hessen, Germany. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and
Hamburg where he came into contact with Edmund Husserl and the young Martin
Heidegger. He left Germany in 1932 and eventually settled in the USA where from
1949 to 1968 he was professor of political science at the University of
Chicago. He amassed a sizeable following of devoted students, who have played a
significant role in US academic life and government.
advocate? What influence did his devotees and disciples exert on academic life
and government? Apparently, he was a political Platonist.
that ancient philosophers understood this very well and that modern
philosophers were seriously misguided in thinking that rational self- interest
was a sufficient ground of social life. In Strauss’ view, the modern faith in
reason is at the heart of the ‘crisis of the West’. Reason has destroyed faith
and in so doing has opened the door to barbarism. Ancient philosophers
understood that reason and philosophy have a corrosive effect on the ‘city’, as
Strauss called the state. By the same token, Strauss was committed to
philosophy and had no intention of denouncing it out of hand. He therefore
argued that philosophy must be kept hidden or secret, not simply to permit
philosophers to avoid persecution, but for the sake of the people and for the
wellbeing of the city.
of esotericism led him to advance unusual interpretations of classic texts. For
example, Strauss argued that Plato wrote dialogues in order to conceal his true
thinking. And contrary to popular belief, Strauss denied that Socrates was
Plato’s mouthpiece. He thought that in the Republic Thrasymachus, not
Socrates, was Plato’s true spokesman. According to Strauss, the argument made
by Socrates was simply Plato’s exoteric teaching. In arguing that justice leads
to happiness, Socrates was displaying his sophistic skill–that is to say, his
ability to make the weaker argument appear the better.
that the Socratic argument in favor of justice could not succeed. He was
certain that Plato was wise enough to realize that Thrasymachus was right–that
justice is a function of power, and that in acting justly one serves the
interest of others and not oneself. Strauss surmised that Socrates must have
taken Thrasymachus aside and explained to him that his views were true, but too
dangerous to express publicly. In this way, Socrates managed to silence
Thrasymachus without refuting him. For Strauss, the truth is a luxury meant
only for the few who hunger for the reality behind the necessary myths and
illusions of the city.
implicitly in some places in his writing, and in others explicitly, endorsed
the notion that the elite few – meaning philosophers and select intellectuals –
have the task to rule the “masses” by instilling in them a
religious/nationalist mantra, and to act as interpreters of the “shadows” in
the caves of their consciousnesses. The elite will also manipulate the shadows
for the greater good. Lying to and deceiving the public were justified, because
reason and morality, according to Strauss, were incapable of sustaining a state
of stability in society. Drury explicates Strauss’s position:
thinkers is the relative importance of reason and revelation in human life.
Modem philosophers such as HOBBES and LOCKE, exalt reason and believe that a
political order can be founded on purely rational and secular principles. But
Strauss believed that this modern liberal project was doomed to failure. He
thought that reason cannot provide the requisite support for moral and
political life; what is needed is belief in a transcendent God who punishes the
wicked and rewards the righteous….
faith and in so doing has opened the door to barbarism. Ancient philosophers
understood that reason and philosophy have a corrosive effect on the ‘city’, as
Strauss called the state.
faith. In the West, it was eventually confined to personal beliefs and banished
from secular politics.
Thomas Hobbes, who endorsed supreme state power over everyone and everything,
never exalted reason in any realm. The state was all, the individual nothing.
See The Leviathan
for further details, and a neoconservative’s discussion of it here.)
obsession with religion as the sole foundation of society and government, Jim
Lobe of AlterNet,
in May 2003, more succinctly and directly explained Straussian politics in his
blog entry, “Leo
Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception”:
popular figure among the neoconservatives. Adherents of his ideas include
prominent figures both within and outside the administration. They include
‘Weekly Standard’ editor William Kristol; his father and indeed the godfather
of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol; the new Undersecretary of
Defense for Intelligence, Stephen Cambone, a number of senior fellows at the
American Enterprise Institute (AEI) (home to former Defense Policy Board
chairman Richard Perle and Lynne Cheney), and Gary Schmitt, the director of the
influential Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which is chaired by
Kristol the Younger.
surprising then why Strauss is so popular in an administration [George W.
Bush’s] obsessed with secrecy, especially when it comes to matters of foreign
policy. Not only did Strauss have few qualms about using deception in politics,
he saw it as a necessity. While professing deep respect for American democracy,
Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an
elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow
elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these
leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of
Calgary, Strauss believed that “those who are fit to rule are those who
realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the
right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”
Hobbes’s concept of the perfect polity – a state with absolute power – to be an
antithesis to his own conception of the workable polity. Lobe notes later on in
Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature of human beings could
only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state. “Because mankind is
intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such
governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can
only be united against other people.”
Strauss’ attitude toward foreign policy was distinctly Machiavellian.
“Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united
by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following
Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to
be manufactured (emphases added).”
war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in,” says Drury.
policy, Wag the Dog, in
which an incumbent U.S. president, on the eve of a national election, is caught
in a sex scandal and to distract the electorate from it, a fictive war is
dreamed up by a “spin doctor” with the help of a Hollywood producer. On
television, both British and American versions of “The
House of Cards” dramatize the pursuit of power by the principle characters
by posing as advocates for “social justice” and other “manufactured” causes.
in literature, in which an absolutist government keeps its populace in check and
in thrall with constant warfare, aside from lies by policy about every aspect
of the populace’s condition. In contemporary political commentary, see Daniel
Greenfield’s excellent essay, “The
Empire of Progressive Poverty” for a discussion of the mechanisms of
reducing a wealthy country into an impoverished one, with a populace dependent
on the state. Greenfield notes, and
might agree that it is a Straussian tactic, that:
rhetoric is still couched in the usual social justice rhetoric, aimed at the
poorer kleptocracies who are eager to join the line for a handout, but its
logic is poverty driven. It is not out to create wealth, but to eliminate it,
on the grounds that cheaply available food or electricity is an immoral
activity that damages the planet.
Poverty is chiefly concerned with the impoverishing of the West, to maintain
the manufactured scarcities of its water empire it has gone beyond taxation to
entirely shutting down or crippling entire branches of human activity….
is rising on the skeleton of the West, it is eating out its abundance and
preparing to lock down power, food, transportation, medical services and
countless other elements of the commercial life of the formerly free world.
lord it over the “inferior” by any means possible, including falsehoods and
manipulation, Jim Lobe lifts the veil of “transparency” from Straussian
requires “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled, according
to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says, “The people are told what
they need to know and no more.” While the elite few are capable of
absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not
cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into
nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of ‘Leo Strauss and the
American Right’ (St. Martin’s 1999)….
Strauss had a “huge contempt” for secular democracy. Nazism, he believed,
was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal nature of the Weimar
Republic. Among other neoconservatives, Irving Kristol has long argued for a
much greater role for religion in the public sphere, even suggesting that the
Founding Fathers of the American Republic made a major mistake by insisting on
the separation of church and state. And why? Because Strauss viewed religion as
absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who otherwise
would be out of control.
he stressed that religion was for the masses alone; the rulers need not be
bound by it. Indeed, it would be absurd if they were, since the truths
proclaimed by religion were “a pious fraud.” As Ronald Bailey,
science correspondent for Reason magazine points out, “Neoconservatives
are pro-religion even though they themselves may not be believers.”
of the Straussians, vis-à-vis the relationship between their relationship as a
ruling elite with the masses.
have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they’re conquering the world in
the name of liberalism and democracy,” Drury says.
answers questions about observable manifestations of Straussian politics. I
don’t agree with some of her premises, but it is an otherwise clear explanation
of how the Straussians work behind the scenes and oft times in public. The
system she describes is clearly fascist in nature, given the
government-business “partnership” in politics and public affairs.
reservation about the Straussians and Leo Strauss I have is that they reflect
the collapse of philosophy and one instance among many of the abandonment of
reason. There is much truth in the Straussian theory, but it smacks also of a conspiracy
theory. Conspiracy theories usually allege that a cabal of evil geniuses is
manipulating people, things, and events. It’s interesting how a description the
secretive Straussians meshes neatly with the description of, say, Rosicrucianism.
is a philosophical secret society said to have been founded in late medieval
Germany by Christian Rosenkreuz. It
holds a doctrine or theology “built on esoteric truths of the ancient
past”, which, “concealed from the average man, provide insight into
nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.”
“neoconservatives” who alone know “nature” and have all the answers and look to
God for guidance and possess the power to fiddle with the public’s perceptions,
then the Rosicrucian shoes fit. Shadia Drury, in her September
2003 paper, “Saving
America: Leo Strauss and the neoconservatives,” observed:
the Straussians is that they are compulsive liars. But it is not altogether
their fault. Strauss was very pre-occupied with secrecy because he was
convinced that the truth is too harsh for any society to bear; and that the
truth-bearers are likely to be persecuted by society – specially a liberal
society – because liberal democracy is about as far as one can get from the
truth as Strauss understood it.
have inherited a superiority complex as well as a persecution complex. They are
convinced that they are the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to
rule. But they are afraid to speak the truth openly, lest they are persecuted
by the vulgar many who do not wish to be ruled by them. This explains why they
are eager to misrepresent the nature of Strauss’s thought. They are afraid to
reveal that Strauss was a critic of liberalism and democracy, lest he be
regarded as an enemy of America. So, they wrap him in the American flag and
pretend that he is a champion of liberal democracy for political reasons –
their own quest for power. The result is that they run roughshod over truth as
well as democracy….
American disciples continue to complain that they are oppressed, beleaguered,
and ostracized by the liberal academy, and the equally liberal media. But
surely, these are crocodile tears.
The Straussians are the most powerful, the most organized, and the best-funded
scholars in Canada and the United States. They are the unequalled masters of
right-wing think tanks, foundations, and corporate funding. And now they have
the ear of the powerful in the White House. Nothing could have pleased Strauss
more; for he believed that intellectuals have an important role to play in
of the White House goes, it is strictly, exclusively, and transparently
receptive to Marxist theory and practice
as codified by Saul Alinsky. All the Straussians can do at the moment is react,
and not define and steer policy from behind the Oval Office throne. But if a
Republican claims that throne in 2016, the Straussians-cum-neoconservatives
will be back in business after also claiming that they duped the electorate
into electing him.
dance card, I think I’ll leave the ballroom to duck out for a smoke.