Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leo Strauss: the courage to destroy

       Peter Minowitz has been reading my posts on Strauss with interest – he is the author of the just published  Straussophobia (Lexington: July 30, 2009), criticizing Shadia Drury and others – and sent me the article which I discuss  below by W.H.F. Altman on “Leo Strauss on German Nihilism: Learning the Art of Writing,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 2007, pp.  587-614 which Peter argues against but is also challenged by (pp. 83-86). In 1941, at the New School where Strauss taught, a group of faculty were reading the former Nazi and then exile in New York Hermann Rauschning’s The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West.  Though Rauschning  had fought for Hitler, he was dismayed at the murders of the leaders of the Storm Troopers and many others in 1934.  He feared a national revolution, which despite fierce anti-Marxism, would turn, through revolutionary zeal from below, into a kind of proletarian revolution (an irrational surmise).  He opposed the occupation of Poland, appealed to the Leader, and was asked to resign.  He wanted a restoration of the rule of law.  He seems a lot like James Comey or Jack Goldsmith under Bush and Cheney, someone committed in part to reactionary, authoritarian but mainly conservative values (in the English sense of conservative if there was such a position on the Continent in the early 1940s).  He could not abide the violations of the rule of law. Rauschning deeply admires a person murdered in the Night of the Long Knives who had spoken up for similar views to Rauschning’s own, though Rohm, the leading victim, had actually wished to push the “national revolution” in a more social direction.  The New School study group occurred  before Pearl Harbor, but everyone with eyes (as Strauss sometimes puts it) had reason to be frightened.

      The faculty members asked Strauss to give a talk on the book.  What he gave them is different from the book.  He does not express admiration for Rauschning resigning or except for one cursory mention,  mourn the rule of law (“German Nihilism,” Interpretation, 1999, p.   372).  Instead, he  presents “German Nihilism” in a powerful and favorable light, even though he also uses it, creatively though bizarrely,  to speak of what was attractive in Churchill, the leader of England, the center of the decadent and to be destroyed and replaced West.  This is the most surprising and telling point in Altman’s account.  Strauss distinguishes Hitler as a “vulgar” realization of nihilism from the original post-World War I nihilists, particularly Ernst Juenger,  who hated communism (the USSR would soon to be America’s ally against the Nazis),  lived for the state of war, and followed Nietzsche.  He does not say that he was one of those young nihilists - though in his reflections on Schmitt, The Concept of the Political(1928), the hatred for entertainment and the idea that all politics and all “seriousness” stems from having an enemy, that humans divide, as he says in a 1932 letter to Schmtt , into hostile groups, that there is no common good among humans (not even the common good of a nation at war – here the influence of Juenger and Nietzsche, superimposed on his in this respect, seeming affection for  Greek philosophy shows through) and that the only good of war is for the greatness of soul of great individuals, a thought only clearly articulated in the 'Nihilism’ lecture – the  major lineaments of nihilism are plain to behold  (in the debate I had with Catherine Zuckert at the American Political Science Association 2007, see the video and commentary here, she does not recognize that Strauss himself had been a nihilist, an unintentional comment on attempts to defend Strauss on the basis of his few favorable, surface references – each quickly contradicted if one reads on – to liberal or constitutional democracy, a wish that he would be the figure he appears to them on the surface to be – ignoring the bold contradictory sentences in which Strauss himself, a man who writes between the lines, says what he really means -  and a  denial, for example,  of a letter to Loewith in which Strauss states: from the ages of 22 to 30, I agreed with every word of Nietzsche’s that I understood.  Altman points out that while Strauss never published this lecture, he did simultaneously publish the first chapter of Persecution and the Art of Writing.  He proposes that Strauss was practicing writing between the lines and that this piece is an early, not altogether, as Strauss saw it, successful example.  Altman reveals it.  He may well be right.  With the exception of my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” Constellations, 2009, here, he is the first critic, I think,  to make detailed suggestions about how Strauss himself tries his hand at hidden writing and why he needed to bury the message in American democracy, even to many of his devotees.  In any case, Altman’s argument fills in a piece of the puzzle – about Strauss seeking a nihilist authoritarianism – that I had not seen and that has not been elsewhere discussed.  Strauss names and vividly defends the young fascist current he was part of in Germany and for which he retained, always, a fierce affection, the affection of youth and the heart (if one may speak of so “manly” and heartless a movement, a movement of the worst in Germany, in this idiom).

        In “German Nihilism,” Altman stresses, Strauss admires the true nihilists for having what he emphasizes  repetitively, is a “moral” reaction to communism.  These are “decent” and intelligent young men like Ernst Juenger who hate the idea of an egalitarian world, of the vulgar concern for peace, one in which all spiritual things and “entertainments” (see Strauss’s 1928 remarks on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political) are commodified, cheapened and tamed.  This last point comes from Weber, and is an application also of the radical idea of commodity fetishism.  The Weberian and nihilist thought  is true – a striking example of commodity fetishism - but the reactionary nihilist development  of  it – murder to replace vulgarity – is far worse.  Without war, once again, there are, for Strauss, no great souls – in Zarathustra, Nietzsche says, the last men, like flea-beetles, huddle together and blink.  Only the warrior, alone in the mountains, can see the stars.  In War is a force that gives us meaning today, Christopher Hedges, addicted to war as a war reporter, almost destroying himself, gives a brilliant sense of the glittering attractions of violence, the realer than life things that happen when one risks one life, the frenzy of adrenalin.  So crazy did Hedges become, he tells us, that he got into a fight with a clerk at a Salvador airport who stabbed him in the cheek with a pen, and Hedges let the blood run down his cheek on the flight to Switzerland, to remind himself of the state he was in.  Others briefly tried civilian life, came back to new wars and were shot quickly (one died within a day he tells us).  He did not go back to the Second Iraq War, and now writes about fanatical Christian reactionaries  and the rise of an imperial American police state. Hedges is against the myth of war.  But Juenger, Strauss and the nihilists raise that myth to the sublime; they are, one might say, in another universe, a bleeding Hedges on steroids. 

      Altman traces Strauss’s increasingly favorable embroidery of and identification with the nihilists.  As Strauss suggests at one point, even the term nihilism is the gesture of an old, rigid and empty liberal  elite trapped by their intellectual capital  – men like Strauss’s own doctoral advisor Ernst Cassirer – who do not get the fierce preoccupations of Heidegger, but who need to distance from them, dispel and denounce them; they experience the young as a danger (Altman does not go into the debate with Heidegger deeply here, but Strauss describes himself as blown away by Heidegger to his friend Franz Rosensweig – compared to Heidegger, he speaks of Weber, whom he had admired for his science and for his politics as an “orphan-child” (Waisenkind).  Heidegger has no such baggage or “capital,”  His ideas are new.  He dominates, Strauss tells us, first Germany and then Europe.  He has, Strauss tells us, freedom of movement and who has freedom of movement, in ideas as in war, wins the battle (today the heritage of Strauss, devotion to what one takes the image to be in certain ways, has also built up heavy capital; William Kristol, for example has been dangerous in what he has done in the Iraq War, in praise of torture as an electoral tactic, in publicly mouthing Cheney’s thoughts, and would do so again, and yet his words last year in the New York Times about Strauss and these things, even before his enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, has revealed him as a lifeless intellectual force, something tired and going through the motions,  something among the young and ordinary to be shunned.  The capital of Straussianisms, particularly of the political variety, weighs them down  where Strauss himself was once alone and light.  What is noble in human life, Strauss insists,  is an authoritarian state like Prussia or perhaps Mussolini (the May 1933 letter to Loewith) which engages in battle and can call on subjects to sacrifice themselves.  What is noble is commitment to duty and risking death in a cause.  What is noble is courage, the courage to kill and destroy.  What is base is the tame creature who values nothing, who is for sale cheaply, a mere commodity and defiler of all noble things as if they were commodities. The last men.

       As Altman goes on to show in “German Nihilism,” Strauss invites the audience to hear and honor the nihilists’ vision and “decency,” even suggesting that the age of nihilism or in his own terms, the warrior courage of an elite of Europeans ruling the inferiors of the planet (his description in that essay and in the posthumously published and written in 1954 “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism”), will be characterized by the reappearance and triumph of this vision. In an outline for the lecture, he invokes a revelatory phrase (one that Altman does not cite but which reinforces his argument): “German nihilism is a radicalized form of German militarism.”(Interpretation, 1999, p. 355).  Denouncing Hitler (perhaps the wretched nonentity or “meskine Unwesen” of the May 1933 letter to Loewith) but not the Nazis, rhetorically confusing the young nihilists, their reactionary teachers like Heidegger, and some of the Nazis, he holds out hope for a new Europe beyond Hitler, a hope for nihilists (or at least ones like himself, disqualified by being a Jew from joining this “vulgar” enterprise)  even though it is not clear, in 1941, when the Nazis surged in Russia and the force of Soviet resistance had not yet emerged, that even the vulgar prototype would lose.  Still,  the epoch, guided by the stars of history, was there for the warriors on their mountaintops to see or seize…

        One additional exoteric or seemingly surface citation that Altman does not cite, but in which following his theme, Strauss’s admiration for even  Nazi “disinterestedness” and Juenger and dismissal only of Hitler shines through is the following:

       “I should even go one step further and say that the Nazis probably derive a disinterested pleasure from the aspect of those human qualities which enable nations to conquer.  [In Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1928) he speaks dispassionately – in a way that shocks even Carl Schmitt – of Spinoza’s throwing flies on to a web to watch how the strong (the spider in nature) devour the weak; of course Schmitt, as the leading lawyer in Germany,  exceeded this by throwing Jews – in 1936, he demanded the explicit “racial” identification of every Jew who wrote about the law -  onto the Nazis’s web]. I  am certain that the Nazis consider any pilot of a bomber or any submarine commander absolutely superior in human dignity to any traveling salesman or to any physician or to the representative of any other relatively peaceful occupation.  For a German nihilist much more intelligent and much more educated than Hitler himself  has stated: ‘What kinds of minds are those that do not know even this much that no mind can be more profound and more knowing than that of any soldier who fell at the Somme or in Flanders?  This is the standard of which we are in need.’

        It might be useful to read these sentences from Juenger aloud to take in their full force. Alone in the essay, Strauss gives the words in German so that any reader who knows German must sound out their full force.  Further, the emphases are Strauss’s –  think of his point inPersecution and the Art of Writing about the few startling sentences which reveal a writer’s true meaning -  and do not appear in the German.   He then cites Juenger, Der Arbeiter, p, 201 and elaborates:

       “The admiration of the warrior as a type, the unconditional preference given to the warrior as warrior, is however not only genuine in German nihilism, it is even its distinctive feature. Our question: in favor of what does German nihilism reject civilization as such must therefore be answered by the statement: that it rejects those principles in favor of the military virtues. This is what Mr. Rauschning must have had in mind in speaking of ‘heroic nihilism,’” (p. 21).

          Note the repetition in Strauss’s formulations, a repetition which as Altman says, leads to a sudden variance (in What is Political Philosophy, ch. 5, Strauss hails Al-Farabi’s story of a pious ascetic who is hunted by a tyrant, and appears as a drunken reveler, asked by the town watchman: who goes there?  That pious ascetic you are looking for - the ascetic slurs.  He spoke the truth, but the disguise deceives the watchman who lets him pass.   That is a way Farabi says that Plato, and he, signal hidden writing.  Strauss also tells the truth, but his literal meaning often defies the reader's expectations. 

      Strauss continues: “War is a destructive business.  And if war is more noble than peace, if war and not peace is considered the aim, the aim is for all practical purposes nothing but destruction.  There is reason for believing that the business of destroying, and killing, and torturing is a source of almost disinterested pleasure to the Nazis as such, that they derive a strong and genuine pleasure from the aspect of the strong and ruthless who subjugate, exploit and torture the weak and helpless.” 

        Note the repetition of the phrase “almost disinterested pleasure.”  Read the sentences aloud to yourself, here the repeated word torture, the admiration for strength and the warrior, and you may realize that the fact that no political Straussian of the some 30 in the Bush administration resigned over torture – unlike Alberto Mora,  the lawyer for the Navy and heroic conservative, described by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, and other conservatives – is not a coincidence {these followers do not get the depth of Strauss but the vigor of Reaction, the willingness to use and even abandonment in torture shines through).  Fukuyama criticized the bizarre failure of what he called the noble aim: the war in Iraq.  He left the neocons.  Yet he never mentions torture (on Fukuyama’s behalf, he has the most surface or superficial understanding of Strauss; he is comparatively sophisticated only about policy; perhaps someone might consult with him about whether in his courageous break with the war, he simply did not focus on torture).  The citation from Strauss is in Interpretation, 1999, pp. 368-69.

        Altman then shows how Strauss saves himself – at least for this audience - from this vividly presented nihilism by praising Winston Churchill.  This audience mostly admired English civilization and hated Hitler (there was, however, a lot of sympathy for Hitler as well as Mussolini in the American elite extending down to diplomats and professors – even so honorable a person as George Kennan, ambassador to Germany, then shared it).  Strauss conjures the nihilists for the audience, but suddenly says that the nihilists would have admire and he himself does admire Churchill for his statement that the greatest English moment, “the finest hour, “ was the nobility of sacrifice in the defeat at Flanders. It is only through the flowering of death – the core metaphor of fascists in love with death as the followers of Franco used to chant  – and of the courage to destroy or be destroyed that someone becomes admirable, a “statesman” and perhaps earns the capacity to vanquish.  Here the nihilism combines with Strauss’s imagining of a wise leader, a philosopher-tyrant (though Churchill wasn’t quite, no Platonist or Farabian or even Strauss to advise him).   Altman makes a brilliant point here about Strauss’s exotericism.  He links it to Strauss’s too easily assumed embrace of Churchill as a leader of English parliamentary democracy.  Strauss never praises parliament (unlike Churchill who sought, in war to bring tyrannical power back to the rule of parliament as soon as possible – see Clinton Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship).  Instead, he hails the magnificent statesman Churchill and indicts the “insane tyrant” Hitler.  But suppose the tyrant had not been insane.  Would the tyrant be bad?  Is Churchill perhaps the admirable tyrant and ruler of a great power, an empire extending over non-European inferiors, above the law in war?  (I elaborate this point in the debate with Catherine Zuckert here).  The message of the 1933 letter to Loewith, as Werner Dannhauser said to me having had perhaps too much to drink  on an evening many years ago at Cornell, “What’s wrong with the Nazis except the anti-semitism?”  Strauss’s admiration for Churchill is as good a point for not seeing what Strauss was up to, making the openness about reaction something one could miss, as Strauss’s Jewishness (when Morgenthau recommended Strauss at Chicago as a fellow German exile and a Jew, he might have said to himself, this guy is really reactionary, something Morgenthau probably had a sense of quite easily, but surely not a fascist, and at least, not a Nazi; after all he adores Churchill…).  In this lecture, Strauss speaks of the nihilists as young, himself as older, mature (Catherine Zuckert misses, or wants to miss Strauss’s own, just yesterday, nihilism).  Once Strauss got into hidden writing, it was easy enough for him to hide.

         At the conclusion of the essay, Strauss recurs to admiration for successful empire – again his sole reason for a nihilist admiration for Churchill – and to his beloved phrases from Caesar’s commentaries on Virgil from the 1933 letter to Loewith:

      “No one can tell what will be the outcome of this war. But this much is clear beyond any doubt: by choosing Hitler for their leader in the crucial moment, in which the question of who is to exercise military rule becomes the order of the day, the Germans ceased to have anyrightful claim to be more than a provincial nation; it is the English, and not the Germans whodeserve to be, and to remain, an imperial nation: for only the English, and not the Germans, have understood that in order to deserve to exercise imperial rule, regere imperio populos, one must have learned for a very long time to spare the vanquished and to crush the arrogant:parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.”

Here the combination of Strauss’s emphases and the unusual, repeated use of the Latin, at the very end of the essay, means to draw the subtle reader’s attention to Strauss’s theme.  Note that sparing the vanquished – those who bow down before the strong – is consistent with the nihilist’s (or Spinoza’s) disinterested pleasure in crushing the arrogant.  In discussing the passage from Virgil, Altman mentions the inclusion in the full phrase: “to preserve the custom [one might say law] of peace” but does not underline that Strauss leaves it out.  Both he and his mentor Schmitt love the phrase but alter Virgil precisely in being men of war, of admiring soldiering and death – only this is “serious,” they repeat with Juenger.  Imitating Plato, Strauss alters the sentiments even of Rome and certainly of Virgil’s Aeneid. It becomes an iron fascist text, say a Mussoliniesque one (Benito once wrote a poem of the beauty of a bomb exploding in the desert and making flowers of flesh) or better a nihilist one.

       Steve Homes has often expressed revulsion to me at Strauss’s affirmation of Heidegger over Weber, the orphan child as Strauss put it to Rosenszweig.  I share Steve’s view politically. Heidegger is an odd but brilliant philosopher and reaches some heights, for example in his writing about poetry which Weber, however brilliant the Protestant Ethic, or Science as a Vocation or Politics as a Vocation does not; he also plumbs depths of depravity, including in his treatment of his students when he became a Nazi which Weber - or Strauss - did not.  Still, I qualify Steve’s judgment with a recognition of how much Weber was also a Nietzschean (See Democratic Individuality, ch. 9-12).  One of Weber’s central political points was that responsibility in politics meant attention to  great power rivalry (he was an imperial realist, one who oriented his entire sociology as well as politics, by the standpoint of such rivalries, and his students Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss – Strauss was third generation, the follower of Schmitt, though he always retained affection for Weber - weave changes upon this central theme).  For Weber, the “have not” German empire needed to succeed against the Anglo-Saxon empire on which “the sun never sets.”   Strauss, too, elaborated this view of “the harsh realities of power politics” all his life (see the notes to my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants" here).   During World War II, Strauss said that Germany was the provincial or resentful empire (the one focused on murdering Jews, though he might have noted others as well), and he affirmed Churchill, the leader of the “civilized,” Anglo-Saxon empire. This was a difficult judgment for him as a German exile (though Weber too, despite his racism toward Poles and blacks, was a vehement opponent of anti-semitism or anti-Jewish ideology; in this, both followed Nietzsche, though the latter is, again, a complex case – the idea that Jews initiated “slave morality” – Christianity, democracy and socialism - contributes to intellectual anti-semitism perhaps even in Strauss,  however much Nietzsche detested gutter Anti-semiterei).

         What I do in my post “Leo Strauss’ Vision of a Great, anti-Modern Tyrant” here is to trace out how in On Tyranny, Strauss’s first publication in the United States (1948), Strauss translates and then comments on Xenophon’s Hiero, the wise advice of the poet Simonides to the unhappy tyrant on how to be popular or rule beneficially.  I suggest that Strauss’s respondent, Alexandre Kojeve, gives the implicit message in Strauss’s essay on the surface: that there are modern tyrants of the sort that a wise man would try to advise.  The conclusion of Strauss’s “Restatement” (also published strategically as chapter four of What is Political Philosophy?) emphasizes a nihilist revolt against a communist universal tyrant (into which the West and its liberalism are also evolving according to Strauss – here again is Rauschning’s warning this time against Strauss).  Strauss suggests that the nihilist revolt against this dead or less than human regime, possibly leading to world war – there are now nuclear weapons – will result in the return of humanity to the stone age, a desirable (for him!) new “spring” compared to the regime of the last men.  Do we not, Strauss says, enjoy the spring and the seasons even though we know winter will come again?  The destructiveness, not to say insanity, of Strauss’s vision is evident here.  Peter Minowitz suggests in his book and in correspondence that Strauss is merely proposing something hypothetical.  He does not really envision this reign triumphing, and correspondingly, the revolt.  He is not an Ernst Juenger out to bring it all down.  He has – and I agree, he really does have – an entertaining sense of humor.  But if one takes the 1933 letter, the 1941 lecture on nihilism, the publication of On Tyranny (1948) and “the Restatement” (1952) all together, that looks like a pretty considered, deliberate, well into the United States, well after the admiration for Churchill, affirmation of nihilism.   And one might add more simply: with a man who writes between the lines and “writes as he reads” or is, even in the words of the Zuckerts’, “pedagogically reserved” and obscure, how does one know that something – particularly the most vivid conclusion to a debate he sought out and held out to his students as a paradigm (Kojeve, the mantra goes, is the “modern” alternative to Strauss, the only one worth taking seriously) is “hypothetical”?  If Strauss never, ever entertained the idea of exoteric writing, let alone tried his hand at it, then Peter’s argument might have a chance. But in a man who says his leading accomplishment as a scholar is to reveal hidden writing and tis  a man who understands and writes “literally,” never says that he doesn’t do exoteric writing, and, one might add, even if Strauss were that thick  (I think that would belie Strauss’s sense of humor),  the invocation of hypotheticality  would be self-refuting.  Peter wants the contradictions and the surface not to reveal the thundering nihilist peroration that follows; if that were so, on Strauss’s account, his own writing would merely be contradictory or meaningless.

          Peter also does not take in that Kojeve had moved from supporting Stalin and Mao (in fighting the impoverishment of Chinese peasants) – he dismisses Kojeve as a Stalinist - to being an enthusiast about hidden writing and a despiser of the last men.  He does not know that Strauss sent Stanley Rosen and Allan Bloom to study with Kojeve, or that Rosen elegizes Kojeve – and the fabulous if arrogant brilliance of Kojeve – in a recent issue of Daedalus or that Kojeve kept up the conversation with Schmitt even though Strauss did not correspond with Schmitt directly after the war, or that Kojeve became an actual philosopher-counselor to DeGaulle, shaping his economic policy. 

       Further, to Altman’s portrait of Strauss, I have added my lecture at NYU and debate with Robert Howse here and Strauss’s 1963 memoranda to Senator Charles Percy, after the Cuban missile crisis, from the Strauss archives in Regenstein Library at Chicago, in which Strauss maintains the same Heideggerian vision; to answer the Soviets, one must take out Cuba as brutally as they took out Hungary.  That very likely would have produced nuclear war (it almost did during the missile crisis since the US did not know that the Soviets already had a 100 nuclear armed missiles in Cuba pointed at the East Coast 90 miles away).  In the memoradum to his advisee (as the Athenian Stranger to the Cretan Klinias in Plato’s Laws) Strauss uses the same language as in the “Restatement” to tell Percy that the US must give up liberal aspirations and the love of technology, that it must cease to try to “remedy man’s estate” and “cure” poverty.  See here and Scott Horton’s comment here.   So the continuity with the young nihilists and Heidegger extends well into the 1960s (and, for example,  to the posthumously published “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism”).  Altman’s interpretation fills in a vital piece of this story on Strauss’s affection for Juenger and what he found great in Heidegger.  It makes the Nietzsche tale of the warrior against the last men (Altman only brings up the latter part of the parable) vivid.  And Altman’s and my combined story of what Leo Strauss was up to (to mention Lenzner and Kristol’s intriguing title in the National Interest in 2003) becomes much more forceful.

      For my  “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?” Constellations 2009, adds what I figured out, based in part on Strauss’s and Farabi’s hints, about the esoteric meanings in Plato.  In the Seventh Letter, Plato describes advising the tyrant Dionysius and hints at the importance of the brief rule of his best student, Dion.  I find the messages about advising wise tyrants spread across the Laws, the Republic and the Statesman (I have since found another startling one on which I posted here in the Timaeus).  In discussing these dialogues, I develop the theme of wise authoritarianism or what has been called commander in chief power or the unitary executive and show how that message had been brought to the peak of American power in the Bush-Cheney tyranny (and in certain ways, is today being continued by the Democrats).  What Farabi emphasizes is how philosophers dress in the garb of the culture (Islam) in order to transform it. He says, for instance, of Plato that the great philosopher acted to subvert Athenian democracy in this way.  When I spoke at NYU, I didn’t see the evidence for that.  But again, I have since  found such evidence in the opening section of the Timaeus.  One must do subtle readings of the philosophers to learn from Strauss – not just rely mainly on unpublished lectures which but hint at Heidegger as Altman mainly does in this essay, and as Minowitz, in an apt criticism of a limitation on what Altman establishes,  emphasizes (even in this essay, Altman recognizes the disturbing quality of Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli and in his 2009 “The Alpine Limits of Jewish Thought,” he makes good use of Strauss’s Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws - 1973.   But one only gets to home plate by first reaching first base, and I would say Altman’s is at least a double.   My work and Altman’s together (along with Eugene Sheppard’s  and Scott Horton’s and that of many others) bring out the esoteric meaning of being a Platonist, or Farabian, or Xenophonian, or even a Maimonidean for Strauss - Steve Lenzner thinks  Strauss may be a Maimonidean, and he is a remarkably subtle interpreter of Strauss’s labyrinths), and connects his more academic writing to Strauss’s practical nihilism.  Philosophical authoritarianism, of course, looks a lot better among Medieval Arab and Jewish Platonists than it does in the young nihilists of post-World War I despair, shaped by a Nietzschean hatred of the vulgar.  Out of the detritus of what is commonly believed, the prophet of the courage to destroy stands before us and breathes…

     At pp. 83-86 of Straussophobia, Peter Minowitz, following Eugene Sheppard, also suggests that Strauss may never have given this lecture (he didn’t publish it).  If true, however, and it seems unlikely (Strauss carefully prepared the talk), that point reveals what may be a weakness in Altman’s account: as Strauss did, Altman imagines the effects on a primarily anti-fascist audience, an audience soon to be locked in a fearsome war to the death (it was not yet December 7, 1941), even though the war had not yet, as Rick says in Casablanca, “come to Brooklyn.”  Peter’s criticism also doesn’t recognize the fundamental continuity into the 1960s and 1970s of these views : the nihilism, the hidden argument in Plato even about the Laws, modernized (Jonathan Herf has an interesting book referring to fascism as Reactionary Modernism).  One note here: there are puzzling passages in Strauss’s interpretation of Plato where he suggests that Plato’s philosophical-ruler  was not quite concerned about a common good (as he saw it).  Consider again the vision that war makes for greatness of soul, for the philosophers.  That is Strauss the follower of Juenger and Schmitt and Heidegger and Nietzsche, not Plato.  That is for German anti-modern philosophers, not for even wisely authoritarian Platonists.

        Peter is concerned to criticize the connection between Strauss and the neocons as hasty belligerents: he doubts that Strauss would have recommended aggression in Iraq and the remaking the Middle East.  Perhaps so (Strauss was not a fool).  But  as Scott Horton notes here  of the material I found on Strauss’s stand toward Cuba in Regenstein, sadly, the connection down to the rhetoric seems pretty clear.  Nonetheless, that is not my point.  Instead, I trace the connections between wise authoritarianism (counsel to tyrants) and commander in chief power (and my original contribution to this wild hullabaloo, publically, about Strauss  is to have introduced both this  theme about Plato – perhaps the most striking insight I have gained from figuring out what Strauss meanderingly and in certain cases, mistakenly hints at  - and then about Strauss, and traced the aetiology of how it was carried out by Robert Goldwin and Herbert Storing through his student Gary Schmitt and then Berns’ student Mike Malbin in advising Cheney.  Cheney got legitimation for the view he was already inclined to from their writings, what he mistakenly takes to be “American law.”  Cheney and not they is the driving force, but the ideas as Weber says, still channel the tracks: unlike Churchill or Lincoln, Straussians help obliterate the House of Commons or the separation of powers of the American Constitution in a permanent “state of the exception.”    This is what Farabi recommends: the destruction of Athenian democracy by those who pretend an affection for it, garb themselves as loyal citizens.   I also emphasize other aspects of Strauss’s reactionary politics, for instance, his surprising furthering of racism for political purposes toward Palestinians and blacks (see Sotomayor, Brown V. Board of Education, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll studies, and Leo Strauss here).  The argument I am making  – that Strauss was a reactionary, an authoritarian, and in many ways a fascist or nihilist urging the courage to destroy modernity and urban civilization (he speaks with love of the rural even in ancient Greece, distaste for city folk, even though he became one of them, down through “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism”) is a stronger, more multifaceted claim.  In addition he was a patient man who, like Plato and Farabi and Machiavelli,  set in motion a reactionary politics in America beyond his lifetime. What Strauss says of Machiavelli – that he had only books to recruit an army – and is equally true of Plato in his hidden messages to his students of the future, including Strauss – is, sadly, also true of Strauss’s published writings.  That many followers do not get the fullness of the strange music does not mean that they are not following its intimations.   Strauss would have been happy for the United States to evolve in an authoritarian direction; torturing those outside might be linked only to repressing blacks and protestors inside.  He was perhaps not committed to a fascist mass movement as he says in the Restatement in On Tyranny to Kojeve; surrounding the leader with his protégés and whispering might be sufficient (but Kristol and others egg on the belligerent Evangelicals, and the calculating Palin).  On the other hand, the whole point of being an atheist lover of god, as in the Athenian Stranger, is to make laws that many (and in a modern idiom, ages) might follow.

     Perhaps as with Bush, the Nancy Pelosis and Tom Daschles of this world are welcome, for a time, shivering at the authoritarian table.  The acquiescence of the Democrats in executive power until yesterday – and tragically, even some of what Obama is doing today; may he find the courage with Lincoln at last to stand up!  – pave the way for a bipartisan abandonment of the rule of law, especially if there is another attack on American soil...But Strauss and the neocons have taken the Constitution and challenged it it so fiercely that now quite often the separation of powers and the rule of law disappear in unending “emergencies” (for four members of the Roberts Court, they do so permanently and without a trace; the Constitution hung by the thread of an 85 year old man though the final year of the Bush administration).

        On Peter’s behalf, however, I will say again that I admire Strauss as a scholar, and the fact that Strauss  combated the anti-Jewish animus of the National Review (1957) ( he  was saved from the worst features of his nihilism/political Heideggerianism or Schmittianism – joining the Nazi party or government - by the fact that he was a Jew).  His commentaries on Maimonides in 1938 in letters to his friend Jacob Kleinn (that Maimonides has a thousand satires of God and religiosity in Guide for the Perplexed more scathing than Voltaire’s, that “I am a poor devil brought to sip the soup by this devilish sorcerer of the 13th century,” and so forth, are charming, amusing and full of scholarly excitement – Charles Butterworth brought the letters to my attention, but Werner Dannhauser, in the one really telling point of his essay about Strauss’s letters, rightly insists on a dazzling intellectual awakening in these (in Svetozar Minkov, ed., Enlightening Revolutions, p. 359).  Strauss had a lovely relationship with Charles Butterworth or Seth Benardete or Stanley Rosen.   There are many other things to like about Strauss.   But we need to expose and defeat Straussianism/neoconservatism in the American establishment, where it has become a bipartisan and enormously destructive force in the recent wars, but also in the lingering threat of Obama to bring down Pakistan through belligerence, i.e. the use of drone missiles to blow up civilians, lending the Taliban American aid in fulfilling their predictions, as Bush once did Bin Laden, in the continuing threat, even under Obama, to the rule of law.  Even with the miracle of Obama's election – a great tribute to democratic initiative and the capacity for renewal of American democracy admired by millions of people around the world (everywhere except in sadly decadent. mainstream Israel) - it is unclear that the rule of law or democracy will long survive here.  Obama is very good at diplomacy as the speech in Cairo or sending Bill Clinton to rescue the two American women from North Korea shows; he is, in every respect, an unusual politician.  But as good as he is at “muddling through,” it may not be, in this situation, enough.

      One of the best points in Altman’s essay is that he answers the question: why Strauss hid from personal or out there political engagement as an exile in America.  Tracy Strong forcefully raised that issue at the APSA meeting (see the video here).  But he didn’t answer it.  Since I read the 1933 letter to Loewith and even before, I have thought: Strauss didn’t reveal his views or the letter – and Cropsey, his literary executor,  hid it, probably among others,  for 26 years after Strauss’s death and then allowed, or didn’t manage to stop publication in German - because he was a fascist even in 1948.   As a German with fascist sympathies – though unexpected ones because he was a Jew and an exile, a sophisticated nihilist but “he admires Churchill”  – he had to be cautious.   But Altman makes this point about Strauss more vividly – his admiration for nihilism and the courage to destroy lived in Strauss prophetically in 1941 when he sided with  Churchill; even then, he hailed the new age that was coming after the defeat of Hitler, one in which the vision of the nihilists would live, the last men and I think that means the moderate civilization of England and the United States, the West, would be crushed and surpassed – with unforgettable vividness.  That new age – one of authoritarianism and nihilism – has come in the United States within a hair’s breadth during the Bush-Cheney period, of triumphing.  It is only the unexpected creativity of American democracy, which has just now, for a while, provided a new start, and a hope to salvage the rule of law.

        In addition, Altman gets what is amusing and ironic about Persecution and the Art of Writing.  Many people are afraid to speak the truth when it challenges authority since the powerful might cut one’s head off.  Progressives like Locke and Paine and Marx, scientists like Galileo and Kepler and Tycho Brahe, feared to speak fully, or were burned at the stake; as theCommunist Manifesto says, with great boldness or courage: “we communists disdain to conceal our aims and ends.”  What Strauss does is to conflate this seeming usage with his idea that elite reactionaries, moving toward an anti-modern order, one based on the destruction of the last men and also of English civilization (yet he admires England at least, for a time, against Nazism, though waiting to subvert it to “wise” authoritarianism) with this decent meaning. Altman makes the apt sarcastic remark that Strauss appeals to liberals by talk of persecution when he means to persecute liberals (despite supporting his disbarred student George Anastaplo, Strauss mentioned McCarthyism favorably in classes, according to Stanley Rosen - he emailed me to that effect – and more importantly, in his complex relationships with Walter Berns and Wilmoore Kendall).  But here, Altman’s term liberal is too much a term of art: the persecution is of radicals and scientists as well as courageous liberals. Many other liberals have joined Strauss in persecuting such people, liberals of the sense of Phil Ochs’ “Love me, love me, love me, I’m a lib er al.”  And former radicals are all over the map, too.  So perhaps one should just say people of integrity.  In Bush’s America, it is conservatives like Scott Horton and Andrew Sullivan and radicals like Michael Ratner at the Center for Constitutional Rights more than liberals who stood up and still stand up under Obama for these things.  Many Democrats are silent about “state secrets” or even torture if Obama allows it.  Again, Jack Balkin’s idea of a new regime of law, consolidated by the opposition party when it comes into power, reveals all too miserably the new authoritarianism or as he calls it, the National Surveillance State.

       I will also offer five criticisms of Altman’s essay, each of which might strengthen the theme.  First, Altman accepts Strauss’s Nietzschean use of the term “moral” instead of probing it (in Strauss’s outline again: ”One of the roots of German nihilism is moralism”).   What Strauss means is that these young men do not  have an economic interest in tearing down the old order, they are thus not  vulgar or bourgeois, that they are, he repeats over and over “disinterested.” True.  But many were the pious, not time-serving inquisitors who burned Jewish teenagers at the stake (see Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, bk. 26).  Many were the dedicated Nazis and men of the courage to destroy who pulled the levers on the gas chambers. Eichmann, as Strauss shows us against Hannah Arendt, is not the only kind of Nazi.  Correcting Arendt, some are not, in their evil, simply banal. Cheney and Addington, for example, or the psychologists Mitchell and Jesson...(of course, profit and power are also to be had from evil).

         Yet one might see, high-mindedness is here a kind of dementia.  Moralism for Strauss meant that he supported and even imagined horrors, without taking in the horrible (he had, as Heidegger and Schmitt, avoided combat in World War I).  If the last men are subhuman, it really doesn’t matter that they are destroyed, like flea-beetles, as Nietzsche says.  Perhaps Strauss might have looked into the eyes of one child that he willed to destroy, and the eyes of God would shine back at him.  Perhaps he might not then have alluded to the moral features of what he – following the worst thread in Nietzsche to its darkest place and then taking leave even of Nietzsche’s “good Europeans” (see Altman’s “The Alpine Limits of Jewish Thought: Leo Strauss,  National Socialism and Judentum ohne Gott,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2009, pp. 1-46)- recommended…

       To put it briefly in academic terms, ethics as an intellectual domain answers the question: what is a minimally decent life for humans? One might even be able to say some things about what a good life is, as Aristotle suggested, though not the same things as Aristotle perhaps.  I do this in Democratic Individuality.  At least one of those things is that the lives of human beings are valuable, to each person, as Hobbes tell us, and that each of us is free.  So to call down extinguishing millions so that the Uebermensch may flourish is not moral but sad as a vision and in practice, evil.  Nietzsche was a great and original psychologist (curious that Weber, Heidegger, and Strauss got nothing of this from him).   But what he calls clashing morals are self-refuting as is the notion of a will to power – if every view is a will to power, then so is the view that every view is a will to power – and then it is hard to see what the difference is between the eternal return – though substantively there is a difference – and murdering innocents.

       Second, Altman adumbrates the view that Strauss was not just a follower of Nietzsche, whom he called fascist in tendency in “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism” but of Heidegger and “true national socialism” (the kind Heidegger kept advocating after he returned to private life in 1934 and still explicitly avowed after the war, in 1953 when as Altman points out in “Alpine Limits,” Strauss started again, after a twenty year lapse, to pay attention to Heidegger).  On Altman’s behalf, one must say that this vision of a non-murderously-anti-Jewish nihilism is in both Strauss and Heidegger - since Nietzsche is the basis of both and identifies Jews as responsible for the progression leading to the last men, this is not the same as non-anti-Jewish nihilism - and in Strauss’s repeated statements that Heidegger is the great philosopher of our time.  Among the German-Jewish proletarians in Paris whom Strauss deplores, he was scorned, he wrote to his friend Gerhard Krueger: “Here I count as a ‘Nazi’.” (Gesammelte Schriften, 3:432-33, as Altman also emphasizes, though he leaves out the telling scare quotes around Nazi – I suspect that Strauss could not quite say to Krueger how taken with Heidegger and hence National Socialism he was).  To elaborate Altman’s point, one might invoke the end of Strauss’s “Restatement” in On Tyranny, cited in the previous section of Minowitz’s book but not quite understood by him:

Warriors and workers of all countries unite, while there is still time, to prevent the coming of “the realm of freedom.” Defend with might and main, if it needs to be defended, “the realm of necessity.” (OT 224)

This is the nihilist image of the worker-soldier invoked by Juenger in his book entitled: Der Arbeiter (the worker) in the words of which Strauss celebrates the self-sacrifice  of the hard soldier in his speech on “German Nihilism.”  Moreover, it is the content of Heidegger’s rectoral address as the Rector-fuehrer (his name for it) of the University of Freiburg under Hitler: he calls for the unity of soldiers, workers and students. Whether Strauss read the speech or not (it is doubtful, I think), he could whistle the sentiments.   To ears familiar with the German or more broadly fascist context of Europe, which Kojeve knew well, the idea that blood and sweat must be united was a dead giveaway for the fascism (nihilism) of what Strauss was saying.  Even careful Americans at the time might have caught the drift.  Writing 60 years later, Peter understandably doesn’t, but it weakens his case that there was anything hypothetical about Strauss’s peroration.

          Strauss in America was repulsed by Heidegger at least on the surface – because of the genocide towards Jews – and told students like Catherine Zuckert never to read Heidegger (when Catherine told me this, I was amused: I thought philosophers were supposed to look at things that others did not or could not .  Consider  Socrates drifting down with Glaucon to the Athenians’ parade for Bendis, the Thracian moon-goddess, in the Piraeus in the first sentences of the Republic…).  Another way of putting this: Strauss imagined he was the strong and looked down on others, including his students, at least for a long time, because they were weak or at least not yet ready.  For many, the surface, including a bit of reactionary politics, was all they got.  But remember fairy tales or Jung: if the sorcerer tells you not to do something, you better do it, or you will not become…a sorcerer.

       In addition, Peter checks Altman’s remark that Strauss was in favor of a fascism that manipulated anti-Jewish thought (it is actually anti-semitism, and includes Orientalism, so Strauss rejected the term anti-semitism; I follow his usage here, but think it is a tragedy that recognizing humanity in philosophy, he furthered bigotry in political life).  The remark is from a different and much later talk: “Why we remain jews” and in context, Strauss speaks with hostility of Stalin adopting anti-semitism, the socialism of fools.  It might be doubted that Strauss is proposing himself to become a Condi Rice, in some esoteric way.  Still following Altman’s thought, Strauss might have worked for a fascism which made use of anti-semitism and hurt Jews – a  German Christian Socialism on the right to restore a Kaiser, perhaps the real hope in the 1933 letter to Loewith - but did not routinely murder them.  (Altman also recognizes this context, however, in his “The Alpine  Limits of Jewish Thought.”)

      On the other hand, Altman flies in the face, here, of powerful evidence which he does not quite acknowledge.  Strauss denounced Hitler and “the German right” which “does not tolerate us” in his powerful letter to Loewith in 1933.  He also sharply notes anti-Jewish ideology in his critique of Rauschning in his lecture on “German Nihilism. “ (p. 368) His revulsion against Hitler extended to telling students not to read Heidegger.  The reason he gave: Hitler’s was the one regime that had for its sole purpose the murder of Jews, and hence, I am not a German.  He was a Zionist (a form of national socialism against Palestinians) all his life, from his teenage years, and his 1957 letter to the National Review, beautifully turned about what he would have thought a conservative would admire  (speaking from beyond or outside conservatism, as a “conservative or reactionary would say,” as he used to put in his lectures at Chicago), helped defeat anti-Jewish racism on the American right (h/t to Mike Goldfield).  Here Peter is right and reveals a real weakness in Altman’s account. To make Altman’s argument as persuasive on this  point as it could be, all of this would have to be taken into account and underlined.  

      Further, as Dannhauser says in his initial comments on the 1933 letter, Strauss probably admired Mussolini who had to be bent by Hitler to anti-semitism in 1937.  Reactionary jews went to work for Mussolini before emigrating to Israel. Strauss is a follower of Juenger  and an admirer of the hardness and brutality of the Right, but “naturally” not a Nazi (in “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” he says that:  Nietzsche was in tendency a fascist, but  “naturally, not a Nazi” and differentiates him from Heidegger). Ironically, Altman has, it turns out in his 2009 essay on “The Alpine Limits of Jewish Thought,” a much darker interpretation of Strauss as a crypto-National Socialist (without the genocide against Jews), one closer to Heidegger than to Nietzsche; what he gave up in Nietzsche, again, is agreement for “good Europeans,” superseded by allegiance to the Germany of Heidegger. He even adds to this Michael Zank’s thought in the infamous 1933 letter about  “meskine Unwesen” that meskine is often a reference to Shylock, and that this monstrosity is actually the Jewishness of the modern world a la Nietzsche, and not Hitler as previous translators Eugene Shepphard and Scott Horton (and I) surmised.   That is a stunning reading and suggests at least a shocking ambiguity.  Altman relies on a careful reading of Strauss’s early writings and may well be right.  But I don’t think given the other facts about Strauss, including his immense love of Israel, his awestruck admiration for Scholem, whose book on Sabbatai Zevi is the last thing Strauss read, evoking memories of his childhood and adumbrating a kind of mysticism (intellectually kicking and screaming as it were, he agrees with Scholem’s wife that ‘the boss [God] can even make room in this world for unbelief – apiquorsiut – like mine’; here the heart triumphed over Strauss’s nihilist hardness), that the emphasis Altman has can quite be right or the alternative he gives – that Strauss has a form of thought that makes him an enemy of all cultural forms of Jewishness even though he is a Zionist quite works. Even Altman takes Strauss too seriously as a thinker; once again, Strauss is an outstanding cryptographer, but not a philosopher.  But Altman’s line of argument is carefully and even at times dazzlingly developed.

       Third, in this lecture, Strauss makes use of Hegel’s metaphor of the owl of Minerva taking flight at dusk about historic epochs.  This is interesting.  It suggests as Altman argues that Hitler achieves vulgar National Socialism but the new age will live on past Hitler.  Little could Strauss have imagined the America of Bush-Cheney, a true wasteland of tyrannical order.  Yes, it did not equal or exceed Hitler.  But no, as he once said of Heidegger in “What is Political Philosophy?,”  he who had denied ethics because human conduct is generally so wretched, then associated himself with a regime that made the Weimar Republic appear, morally speaking, like a golden age: Strauss’s and neo-conservative nihilism today (though whether any of the political Straussians get that they are “nihilists” in their love for unending war and authoritarianism might be a question) make the election of Obama a golden age.

      Altman thinks  however, that Strauss is some kind of Hegelian. Strauss had spoken with Kojeve.  But Strauss didn’t have a clue about Hegel.  And even Kojeve became a Nietzschean about the universal and homogeneous state (or a Straussian in Steven Smith’s amusing insight in a review in Political Theory of the later version of On Tyranny) and did not get Hegel. Hegel was not the defender with Nietzsche and Juenger of courage, as Strauss depicts him (p. 371).  Hegel did admire courage, but only in the setting of a regime of equal freedom, a regime that abolished slavery, that “outrage on the concept of a human being;” Hegel says one may rebel against slavery or serfdom (present in Germany)  in any way necessary to overthrow it. Kojeve wrote brilliantly on the Phenomenology, particularly master and slave, but never got the deeper point of the later Philosophy of Right which is in the three moments of the will in the introduction.  Humans have the capacity for sinking in servitude (Nietzsche’s vision of the last men), the capacity to negate everything (and here is the empty destructiveness of the young nihilists and their “courage” to destroy), and finally, the capacity to adopt a law which is good for themselves and everyone else, a regime of equal freedom.  Hegel’s is a dialectical and revolutionary view.  There is no more revolutionary thought than this third point about reality (it is Rawls’ original position raised to a higher and more vital power; Hegel follows Hobbes; one has but to examine oneself to discover these moments    (I will eventually post, perhaps later this year,  on how to teach the Philosophy of Right, the most significant and leftwing of Hegel’s works, one which he disguised slightly after 1819 because of the anti-Napoleonic, anti-French Revolution, Hardenburg persecution in Prussia, and one which in terms of understanding individuality and self-awareness, is much superior to Marx on class consciousness and social individuality).   Strauss never understood modern arguments for equal freedom or democracy at all.  He just hated “the last men.”  As a result, he never gets up to making a modern political argument – he is a reactionary anti-modernist.

     Strauss also has a silly statement linking Hegel and Nietzsche and Fichte (and Juenger) – these Germans all admire courage.  Catherine echoes it and I answer it in the APSA debate in 2007 here.  Altman unfortunately takes up this view in this essay.  But this view forecloses what is admirable and courageous in Hegel and Marx, their recognition that the slaves as in Saint-Domingue stand up, break their chains and create Haiti.  Human rights and democracy are now ideas and ideals because the oppressed have stood up.  Strauss has one, not central idea from Hegel, actually merely a metaphor from the Preface to the Philosophy of Right,  and to make Strauss sympathetic to Hegel, one must ignore the  human rebellion against despotisms in Hegel’s idea that institutions must ultimately  come into line with individual self-awareness about freedom.  There is no more radical a thought than that.  Strauss is an anti-Hegelian (as a Nazi leader said in 1933, “Hegel is dead”).

        Fourth, Altman also adopts another central philosophical error in this passage (Strauss, Interpretation, pp. 370-71), one which Catherine Zuckert echoes at the APSA.  As Strauss puts it,

      “If I am not greatly mistaken, one can define the tendency of the intellectual development which as it were exploded in the French Revolution, in the following terms” to lower the moral standards, the moral claims, which previously had been made by all responsible teachers, but to take better care than those earlier teachers had done, for the putting into practice, into political and legal practice of the rules of human conduct.  The way in which this was most effectually achieved, was the identification of morality with an attitude of claiming one’s rights, or with enlightened self-interest, or the reduction of honesty to the best policy, or the solution of the conflict between common interest and private interest by means of industry and trade…Against that debasement of morality, and against the concomitant decline of a truly philosophic spirit, the thought of Germany stood up to the last honor of Germany.”

Note that Strauss does not understand the notion of equal rights or liberties (the third moment of the will in Hegel).  For my interest may accord with the common interest in equal liberty. There is nothing controversial about this.  This is Kant; it is not “honesty is the best policy.” All the courage and dignity of rebellion against oppression is manifest here.  As I emphasize in the video with Catherine Zuckert, my friend Andrew Goodman went to Mississippi in 1964.  On his first day, he was arrested in Philadelphia and then murdered, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner, by the sheriff and a mob.  Andy Goodman had a courage for equality and a willingness to sacrifice himself which Strauss’s reactionary sneering evades; Strauss’s affectation of duty and disinterestedness, (say the duty of Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price to lynch these outsiders, the duty of a fascist warrior) ignores.  Andy saw his interests as linked with others; that there could be no real freedom in America while blacks were segregated.  At 21, he gave his life for this.

       Strauss continues:

       “Now, the difference between the noble and the useful, between duty and self-interest, ismost visible in the case of one virtue, courage, military virtue, the consummation of the actions of every other virtue is, or may be, rewarded; it actually pays to be just, temperate, urbane, munificent etc.; the consummation of the actions of courage, i.e. death on the field of honour, death for one’s country, is never rewarded: it is the flower of self-sacrifice.(p. 371)”

       It seems like Andrew Goodman and many others gave for democracy and for the oppressed everything, and with every bit of courage, that the soldiers of the fatherland do.  And they admirably have compassion, not the sadism of the “hard” man.  In fact, Hegel refers to the courage of such soldiers long before World War I as mechanical; those who gave their lives for abolition or unions or women’s suffrage or in the fight against unjust war or in today’s democratic heroism in Iran or in  many other examples have at least as deep a courage and, more importantly, a good cause.  Strauss’s military nihilism has no grasp of an alternative, equal liberty, that the modern fight for democracy and human rights has called into view.  His authoritarianism and Heideggerian or Platonic obsequiousness to a leader also, as a matter of self-deception, deliberately dishonors the courage of his opponents.  Strauss is no conservative, no Michael Oakeshott; he never got up to making an argument in modern political thought, his view has sometimes a surprising energy because it is so wildly unfamiliar and unlikely; as argument, however, Strauss’s view is mere prejudice, a Nietzschean or Juengerian cliché.

       Fifth, to his credit, Werner Dannhauser, in reviewing Strauss’s letters, speaks of the 1933 letter to Loewith. He praises the publication of the letters (and actually many of them especially Strauss’s last letters with Scholem when he is dying are beautiful and moving.  At least there is courage here amidst otherwise empty Straussian comments on German courage (four books were published defending Strauss in 2006 which omitted the 1933 letter).   Of Strauss’s “principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial,” he says “the reading of such a passage causes pain.” (Enlightening Revolutions, p. 239).  But sadly this  pain might just be on the truth being made public, not that Werner finds Reaction in itself painful.    For instance, Strauss also denounces the “childish and ridiculous imprescriptible rights of man.”  His later isolated and cursory praise of liberal democracy seems to contradict this.    Yet as I suggest in “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” the opening of Natural Right and History (delivered in 1949, published in 1953) seems to have affection for the individual rights of the Declaration of Independence in the first sentence but takes that back in the second sentence (such rights have just been instruments in America’s power and prosperity).  “Natural right” means, Strauss says explicitly at p. 119, natural inequality, the domination of the strong over the weak, not natural rights.   Know of nihilism and despite the fact that the surface seeming of these remarks might be allusion to the Bill of Rights, the reality as one reads more deeply is denunciation of and enmity toward individual rights.  Surely the exile from Hitler and a Jew, the man of careful late night readings,  cannot be…a nihilist.

       Natural right, the right of inequality, of the domination of the weak by the strong, is fascism (Nazism without the murder of Jews). As Himmler said about the Nazi Machtergreifung in 1933, “the year 1789 is hereby extinguished from history.”  Altman shows how Strauss’s point of view is rooted in the aim to destroy liberalism and communism of Ernst Juenger  who celebrates the cruel soldier, it is also, the meaning of Heidegger’s Being and Time– one should have authentic being-towards-death by recognizing one’s own mortality, and coming to heed the call of one’s generation, to sacrifice oneself in fighting for the Fatherland.  This was by the way Heidegger’s politics in the 1920s, organizing reactionary students to demonstrate on behalf of the hero Schlageter killed in the Ruhr by the French occupying forces – the aggressors.  Heidegger, however, took this decent meaning, and turned it, with Hitler’s “stab-in-the-back,” to the Right’s purposes of a new war for dominion at least of Europe and Russia, for an even more repulsive aggression.  In “What is Political Philosophy?” Strauss inadequately summarizes Heidegger’s fascism in the single phrase – “resoluteness” – part of the matter, but not the depth of it (Harvey Mansfield many years later, when I asked about the connection, repeated the word like a mantra.  Many of Strauss’s political followers hold, in different times and occasions, to exactly the word or words that the master once said).

      Altman cites Dannhauser here, however, as if he were certain that the pain inspired by  such passages were not just on the surface. Dannhauser speaks of himself and perhaps some others trying to deter Strauss from voting from Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

        Yet a central aspect  of the self-refuting quality of exotericism (one makes an argument on the surface, one points to its opposite as a hidden meaning) is that often the sound argument a thinker makes on the surface is superior to the hidden pointing without reasons and in any case, refutes it; one can’t hold both the positions at the same time.  Strauss was a great scholar and full of prophetic rumblings, but as for coherent argument, there isn’t much. Alternately, and this is Steve Holmes’s point in the video at NYU here,  much of what he gets is novel and strange to us  – a Heideggerian antipathy for liberalism and socialism, a reverence for the bloodiness and cruelty of the strong enacting “nature.”  It is very hard for a modern person, one who is not a European fascist, to take in what moves Strauss, what links the hidden to the more banal and contradicted open; it is as a position sort of sublime, as long as it is not put into action.  This is perhaps the amusement in decoding Strauss’s cryptography.

       A second point, however,  emphasized by a questioner at the APSA at the end of the tape, is that one never knows quite what argument any Straussian makes to take seriously. Catherine is a literalist (about what she understands).  It is all on the surface.  She passionately denounces the alleged snippets of critics of Strauss, no matter how vivid or extensive the passages they point to; she points to, as the questioner says, snippets about liberal democracy. Why is her version, the questioner asks, believable as opposed to its opposite? He finds Strauss “confusing” and she says, honorably, that she too is confused.  In analogy, recall my point above about the  Bill of Rights and “Natural Right.”  Even the most careful esotericism often leads to self-contradiction or lack of persuasiveness.  It may be a useful for a political movement particularly one from the Right, but it is intellectually feeble.

      Though Altman takes Werner’s stories seriously, perhaps none of them is quite true.   For instance, Strauss was perfectly happy to work with right-wing Democrats like Scoop Jackson and James Kilpatrick (a segregationist, in essence a Nazi from the American South, the practices and ideas directed at blacks). In 1963, Strauss had worked with Charles Percy who seemed a moderate Republican (certainly in comparison with Goldwater). He might well have voted for Adlai Stevenson previously as today’s New York Times-approved Straussian mantra has it (though these almost reverent scholars about the texts insist on…hearsay); unlike John Kennedy whom Strauss and his friends like Cropsey detested, as their correspondance in Ravenstein reveals, as being merely “for show,” Stevenson was totally unwilling to take on racism. Stevenson was a kind of Democrat Strauss could admire.   So Werner’s description is perhaps in American politics “to the right” of where Strauss actually was, though for moving things to the Right in emulation of the Athenian Stranger, it is hard to beat advocacy of segregation, sponsoring Kilpatrick at the Public Affairs Conference in Chicago, hating Brown v. Board of Education and its use of social science in footnote 11, and contradicting himself in every possible way on the Clarks’ doll studies – the Clarks were anti-racists, hence not advocates of the “value-free” social science Strauss rightly criticized;  they produced to this day a paradigm of really decent social science furthering a great public purpose as opposed to Strauss’s segregationism.

       But further, Dannhauser was very close to Strauss and knew perfectly well that Strauss was for a non-anti-Jewish fascism.  Michael Zuckert, as Catherine relates, in the APSA debate, may find it painful that Strauss had such views. Dannhauser, and Cropsey and Walter Berns and Goldwin, and perhaps Jaffa, and Bloom (a bit of an outlier, being gay) and Mansfield (who had only a year with Strauss but heard him), all knew or had hints that Strauss had such a view. And they were the nucleus of the political Straussians (Stanley Rosen or George Anastaplo or especially Charles Butterworth and Seth Benardete – with whom in correspondence Strauss had an admirable and completely lovely intellectual relationship and who, with great dedication, edited and published the most beautiful piece by Strauss, his lectures on the Symposium  – are  outside the machinery of the Right or “my business” as Strauss put it in organizing letters to Goldwin).  Some Straussians in Europe think of themselves as social-democrats and a number of American Straussians are critics of the Iraq war or oppose the Patriot Act; that Strauss was, slightly hiddenly, amazingly reactionary  and stirred aspects of this in students with a similar inclination does not mean that Straussians have to be on the authoritarian Right.  On the other hand, the political Straussians, the life blood of the neoconservatives, remain - if Obama falters – a dangerous and powerful force.   

     With time and occasion, Werner and I have become perhaps distantly friendly.  It is sad that Strauss had these politics, and sadder still that he set the political sect in motion.  Altman’s essay shines a  brilliant light on how and why this is true.


Realist said...

It is unfortunate that so few Straussians really try to understand their master. There should be no serious debate nowadays about whether Strauss supported liberal democracy, as his epigones shrill in chorus. From his earliest published writings onward, Strauss was a man of the Right. Any other reading of him is ultimately baseless.

He is a thinker who belongs to the Conservative Revolution, and it is largely, I think, ignorance of this tradition on the part of Strauss's students that accounts for their otherwise inexplicable failure to see what Strauss truly was. In his own way, Strauss is much more radical than people like Juenger. Strauss was opposed root and branch to political and moral modernity as such, and his recovery of the Greeks as he understood them is much more radical in its implications than the 'reactionary modernism' (Herf's label) of most of his fellow-travelers on the Right.

Idealist said...

"Is is unfortunate that so few Straussians really try to understand their master. There should be no serious debate nowadways about whether Strauss supported liberal democracy, as his epigones shrill in chorus."

Eh. See Christopher Bruell, "A Return to Classical Political Philosophy and the Understanding of the American Founding", Review of Politics 53, pp. 176-77:

"The bearing of Strauss's work on the Founding is ambigious for a second reason... The classical philosophers were not democrats, and still less liberal democrats. Strauss never sught to hide this fact: 'I do not believe that the premises - democracy is good and Aristotle is good - lead validly to the conclusion that Aristotle was a good democrat'. More than that, the acceptance of the premise that Aristotle is good calls into some question the premise that democracy is good."

The second paragraph of the comment seems to exhibit some confusion. Strauss "belongs to the Conservative Revolution", but is "much more radical than people like Juenger", and this is because of his "recovery of the Greeks as he understood them", which makes him "much more radical" than what were just said to be "his fellow-travelers on the Right". So: Strauss's radicality is attributed to his reading of the Greeks, which "oppposed [him] root and brach to political and moral modernity as such" - but not to "his fellow-travelers on the Right", the "Conservative Revolution", to which he "belongs", although he was nevertheless still somehow "much more radical" than them.

I think that the comment would point in a helpful direction if it was limited only to its conclusion: "his recovery of the Greeks as he understood them is somehow much mroe radical in its implications than the 'reactionary modernism' (Herf's label) of most of his fellow-travelers on the Right".

Post a Comment