Sunday, November 22, 2009

Where the road diverges - part 1


        My friend Bill Connolly wrote me a note about my posts on Liberalism Ancient and Modern here and here emphasizing the peculiar viciousness of Strauss’s indictment of the liberal classicist Eric Havelock in chapter 3. “You get it right as far as I am concerned, though you have read more Strauss than I have.  I think the time that he attacks Eric Havelock, a liberal, in the most ignoble ways in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, reveals a lot of what he is all about.  Great work.  Bill”

        In his insightful book Pluralism, Bill invokes Strauss’s chapter as an emblem of what is depraved in a neoconservative,  unitary or national surveillance view of the American regime (the latter term is also Jack Balkin’s).  Bill  makes a brilliant effort to hear Strauss, to detect whether Strauss actually believes what he says or whether it is mainly for gentlemen and the masses (Bill’s and Strauss’s stalking horse is Bill Bennett, a gambler who squanders millions but recites to others the virtues of virtue; Bennett is a bit like Crito or Phaedo, a lesser interlocutor who will repeat a story ostensibly beneficial to “the city” which “the philosopher” does not or, more aptly, only partly believes).. Connolly’s comments penetrate far more deeply into Strauss‘s cultivated obscurity than, for instance, many of Strauss’s defenders as a constitutional democrat allow themselves to go.  It is as good an effort as anyone is likely to make short of devoting themselves to reading carefully not just a book of Strauss, but trying to capture what he is saying in each book as a whole and across books and correspondence.  It is why Strauss’s sublime politics of reaction and hatred of the modern –  entertaining nuclear war as a hopeful thing, a return to the human “spring” see here and here  -  remain hidden to these advocates, even though he spells them out daringly and with much amusement, near the surface.  My commenter AZ, for example,  nominated a seeming surface endorsement of separation of church and state in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (here).  But Strauss himself rejects the  supposed virtue of toleration, claimed by Dore Schary,  in limiting conformity.   

          Bill takes up Strauss’s seemingly promising remark in chapter 3: roughly, the defenders of toleration cannot be tolerant of the Inquisition.  We might consider this remark to be the sharpest, most central nominee for a defense of toleration by Strauss so far proposed.  Bill makes it clear that he – and there is a universe of others – are militantly opposed to intolerance. So Strauss's sweeping indictment of all us moderns is foolish - or will play only with those who do not consider seriously or empathically the views of others.  Still,  on the surface, Strauss rails against “relativism” or “historicism” or “nihilism”: he means by this roughly the “modern age” or, as he puts in a Platonic joke, the third wave of modernity (the waves of modernity mirror Poseidon’s storms in the Odyssey and the waves of ridicule which confront the “city in speech” in book 5 of Plato’s Republic).  Strauss’s thought seems a touchstone for a version of true liberalism or toleration. 

       In Bill’s forceful words,

       “I find  Strauss’s effortless use of such phrases as ‘enemies of civilization, ‘squander,’ ‘perverted,’ ‘shallow and glib futurists, ‘rootless,’ ‘utmost’ ‘abandonment of all standards,’ and ‘ferocious hatred’ to express a degree of virulence outstripping the intellectual vices of the object of attack. (Pluralism, p. 40)

           For the sake of argument – I have not studied Havelock though I know something about Plato and the Greeks – I am willing to accept the accuracy of some of Strauss’s criticisms. Strauss speaks almost nowhere of contemporary writers.  He does not consider himself a comrade or colleague of this seemingly wayward classicist in seeking the truth.   Instead, as Bill stresses, his criticism is blistering.  For Strauss, Havelock’s projection of his own liberal views on to the ancients and foolishness are but the symbol of the age.  Strauss’s use of some of the terms Bill notes is in context revealing and Delphic. I will in this essay pull apart and comment sentence by sentence on a few passages of Strauss.  If you read them aloud to yourself (a useful thing to do with hidden writing, since it slows the reader down, allows other senses to let the meaning unfold, prevents, as Strauss puts it, imagining what is there rather than actually hearing it), the meaning will, rhetorically, jump out at you.  This whole following passage is at Liberalism Ancient and Modern pp. 40-41:

        “[Havelock’s] explanation rests on the untenable assumption that Plato believed in the age of Kronos.  Havelock also suggests, it seems, that Plato had to contradict himself because he could not contradict the Greek anthropologists ‘in open fight,’ for in doing so he would have been compelled to restate their doctrine and thus to contribute to the spreading of a dangerous doctrine (Havelock, 87-88).  This explanation rests on the assumption, proved untenable by the tenth book of the Laws, for instance, that Plato was afraid openly to set forth dangerous or subversive doctrines to which he was opposed [atheism is the surface target of book 10, but the Athenian Stranger – and Plato - seem to have wanted to protect a potential “Socrates” who gets to walk with members of the Nocturnal Council in discussion every night for 5 years instead of, as in Athens, being made to drink the hemlock after a day’s trial; both are, on Strauss's view, atheists;  Strauss’s elliptical surface invocation of book 10 here is puzzling]. 

       But then, in the single most dramatic sentence in the whole book, Strauss lets the cat out of the bag:

        “Havelock might retort that the extreme view openly set forth and openly attacked by Plato was less dangerous in his eyes than the view of the Greek liberals; but until we know that there were Greek liberals we must regard it as possible that Plato failed to set forth the liberal view because the liberal view did not exist.”

          Recall that the title of Strauss’s book is Liberalism Ancient and Modern.  This chapter on “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy” never says what modern liberalism is and ends by trashing the modern age.  But isn’t ancient liberality still  “the study of the greatest books” as in chapter one?  Shouldn’t one assume from the title that there is some classical “liberalism” (as I have emphasized here, Strauss plays the same exoteric trick in many of his titles). Listen again to the operative clause: 

       “until we know that there were Greek liberals we must regard it as possible that Plato failed to set forth the liberal view because the liberal view did not exist.”

         Just in case the "careful" reader might miss the point, Strauss steps out of his usual role as revealer through seeming commentary of  hidden meanings and underlines his own agreement with Plato.  He then explains hidden or exoteric writing in Plato (see Phaedrus discussed here) and by implication himself.

        We on our part support this explanation.  Plato knew that most men read more with their ‘imagination’ than with open-minded care and are therefore much more benefited by salutary myths than the naked truth.”

         Strauss’s concluding sentence to the essay  implies that he might be some sort of true or ancient liberal as opposed to “perverted liberalism” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern p 64); that, he says here for the careful reader, is but a “salutary myth.”  (The word “salutary” repeated mantra-like by Straussians with empty condescension - things that are good for others who are not "up to it” intellectually to believe – has been pretty well ruined for this period of time in English by Strauss; for those students of Strauss who exempt Strauss himself from exoteric writing, note: the condescension which Strauss and some of his followers display toward others boomerangs and is also directed at you). It is the one time in the book as opposed to many misleading phrases about ancient liberality in which he lets the “naked truth” flash past.

        He then invokes the fierce terms Bill cites as seemingly part of what a decent liberal might say.  The careless reader might let them go by.   But these words are part of a well-known – in Europe but not America - reactionary critique of modern “rootlessness”:

        “Precisely the liberals who hold that morality is historical or of merely human origin must go on to say, with the sophist Protagoras as paraphrased by Havelock, that this invaluable acquisition which for later men is a heritage ‘must never be lost’ or is ‘too precious to be gambled with’ (187): the greatest enemies of civilization in civilized countries are those who squander the heritage because they look down on it or on the past; civilization is much less endangered by narrow but loyal preservers than by the shallow and glib futurists who, being themselves rootless, try to destroy all roots and thus do everything in their power in order to bring back the initial chaos and promiscuity.”

       Amusingly if a bit bizarrely, his words are directed most obviously against the liberal classicist Havelock, who purports to defend the past, but instead misreads Greek arguments to try to locate a tradition which, Strauss avers, does not exist.  Havelock is a paradigm for those fake modern classicists and all moderns who “squander the past.” They are “rootless.”  They seek to restore  “the initial chaos and promiscuity.”  They are as, Strauss will say in the end of the essay “barbarians” or rather engage in “rebarbarization.”  These are liberals, on  Strauss’s view… 

       Ironically, in reality, classicists tend to be the least modern in orientation of scholars, to be most inclined to conservative or reactionary views (Donald Kagan and his sons, Bob and Fred, influential on the Iraq aggression and the "surge," leap to mind).  A liberal scholar like W. Robert Connor, whose study of Thucydides during Vietnam (published in 1984) is a counterexample.  But Connor's scholarship on Thucydides is incomparably superior to Kagan's, and on close study, I would say, plainly superior to Strauss's.  He illuminates Thucydides' profound critique of the corruption of Athenian democracy through empire, leading to its destruction (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 3).  In contrast, Strauss thinks that Alcibiades could have saved the empire, and that the citizens, the demos, who kicked him out are the problem.

         Strauss continues:

         “The first duty of civilized man is then to respect his past. This respect finds its exaggerated but effective expression in the belief that the ancestors – the Founding Fathers – were simply superior to the present generation and especially to the present youth and mere ‘logic’ leads from this to the belief in perfect beginnings of in the age of Kronos.” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, pp. 40-41).

         For Strauss, the proximate or first duty of “civilized man” is to respect the past: to be perhaps conservative (if the past has been revolutionary, one may not be conservative in respecting it).  But of course the beginning of the Republic is Socrates’ challenge to the father Kephalos who, although an immigrant or metic, worships old Athenian ways.  The Laws too is devoted to the Athenian Stranger’s sometimes dark challenges to and undercutting of the adoration of the past of the old men Klinias and Megillus, his Cretan and Spartan interlocutors.  By this remark, Strauss is indicating to the reader that he is not a conservative either.  He stands with Plato as a philosophical reactionary (a lover of the outstanding man, the philosopher-tyrant) or perhaps with Nietzsche and Heidegger (the modern rule of one, destroying secularization).  He concludes with a sentence affirming “the age of Kronos” which the first sentence of the citation above contradicts: “This explanation rests on the untenable assumption that Plato believed in the age of Kronos.”  In other words, he seems to say, don’t take the promixate view too seriously; but absorb the right words for the liberal age which his followers must make pass, historically, into the darkness. 

          This passage is one of the many peculiar and revealing examples of hidden writing in Strauss, but perhaps it is glaringly obvious that none of this has anything to do with argument.  I have just been decoding some of Strauss’s anti-liberal message to his careful readers.  Strauss is right that ancient and medieval philosophers often had hidden messages. That is a genuine discovery for which he deserves admiration (though not everything he offers as an example or a way of doing it is sensible).  But reading Strauss requires cryptography, not philosophy. Putting aside reaction, he is clever and amusing, but does not understand those he disagrees with (he reduces their arguments to snippets or weaker arguments by lesser figures against whom he fulminates) or provide serious argument.

           Bill, however, rightly stresses the awful force of “rootless” and “enemies of civilization” in Strauss’s lexicon.  Perhaps we Americans can’t quite hear these terms now.  But I have fought fascism all my life; even in Strauss’s elliptical usage, they take my breath away.  For these words in 1920s and 1930s Germany referred on the Right most obviously  to communists (let us reverse the medal: what should one make of these affected Reactionary intellectuals, dressed up with Heidegger in peasant garb before he donned a Nazi brown shirt, rooted in the soil? If affectation is "roots," then Heidegger was "rooted."  Heidegger had creative ideas, notably about mortality and "falling into the one," but aside from his betrayals of Jewish or ostensibly pro-American students like Baumgarten - as Rektor-Fuehrer of the University of  Freiburg in 1933-34, he wrote nasty letters preventing their employment - there is a base hypocrisy to Heidegger which is pretty sad and obvious).

         European reactionaries also named the supposedly restless, shifting and inconstant urban and modern as “rootless.”  In “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” Strauss fears the urbanization of the world, connecting it with Marxism; in a long essay on Socrates, he praises rural Athenian citizens who – against the masses of naval rowers in the Piraeus, the demos - knew how to size up horses and, with a Mel Brooks’ inspired sexism, women…Recall Strauss’s wish, which he reports and which is echoed by his daughter, to be a rural postman who reads Nietzsche and Plato.  He was born in rural Kirchhain.  There are many virtues in the wish – like growing and eating decent food, living with others you know, a neighborhood on  a human scale  - if and only if it is not connected to destroying everything else (or in the temptation to nuclear war, everything…). 

         Most importantly,  “rootless” is a common anti-semitic description of Jews. Rootless is the idea of the outsider.  As I have written about elsewhere, Carl Schmitt devoted himself to  Strauss’s interpretation of Spinoza.  The latter opened up, according to Strauss the crack in Hobbes  between outer obedience to Leviathan and inner belief.  For Hobbes clashes with the Platonic thought that in the best regime, each of the ordinary people until the age of 50 (Plato has a funny vision of how long it takes before the regime’s propaganda wears thin)  must have the “same thoughts, the same feelings, see and hear the same things.”  In Spinoza, Strauss said, this gap between obedience and what Spinoza renames inner freedom of thought had become a chasm.

        Strauss turned away from the implications of this theme about Spinoza.  Instead, against anti-semitism, he commendably emphasizes Machiavelli’s thought as a cause both of Spinoza and the last men.   But here too a road diverges.  Strauss’s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion opens the way to Schmitt who studied it closely.  In his 1938 book on Hobbes, Schmitt denounces the “outsider Jew Spinoza” who is the cause of the Satanism of the modern world, to be headed off by a katechon (he who delays the end). Ss Prussian State Councilor up to 1936, Schmitt called , in the legal literature, for naming every Jewish lawyer as the Jew so-and-so - putting a yellow star on each one; for him,  the catechon had been Adolf Hitler.  What Schmitt, an anti-Nietzschean Catholic calls Satanism, Nietzsche and Strauss see as the last men.  Different words, but the same murderous disgust. 

         My friend Rob Howse has rightly emphasized  important differences between Strauss and Schmitt and criticizes Heinrich Meier, the custodian of Schmitt’s legacy in Germany and editor of Strauss’s Gesammelte Schriften.  This argument about Strauss on Machiavelli, which I make in a not yet published essay – “Politics and the God”  reinforces Rob’s point.  But there are boxes hidden in boxes in Strauss.  I have now come to a subtler understanding of this.  Strauss came to see and hate murderous anti-semitism, but as a Nietzschean, he also believed a lot of occasionally more subtle anti-semitic ideas, as words like rootlessness show.  The Jewish prophets led to the Christians, democracy, socialism and communism which as Beyond Good and Evil puts it, unite and praise the terms “poor,” “holy” and “friend.”  These visions all lead to the last men.  As Strauss wrote in 1932 in the Religioese Lage der Gegenwart [the Religious Situation of the Present]:

          “The end of this struggle is the complete rejection of tradition neither merely of its answers, nor merely of its questions, but of its possibilities: the pillars on which our tradition rested; prophets and Socrates/Plato have been torn down since Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s partisanship for the kings and against the prophets, for the sophists and against Socrates – Jesus neither merely no God, nor a swindler, nor a genius, but an idiot.  Rejected are the theorein and “Good-Evil” – Nietzsche, as the last enlightener.”

           “Through Nietzsche, tradition has been shaken at its roots.  It has completely lost its self-evident truth.  We are left in this world without any authority, without any direction.” (Gesammelte Schriften2:389; trans. Michael Zank; h/t William Altman).”

           Strauss continues insistently: “and even so, the Bible: we can no longer assume that the Prophets are right; we must earnestly ask whether the kings are not right.” 

        In addition, that an ideology targets a people does not mean that many of the targeted individuals even those suffering from it, do not adopt it or large parts of it  – consider Strauss’s and Jacob Klein’s anonymity, studying in a coffee shop, pretending to be businessmen, and Strauss shouting suddenly, “Nietzsche!” at Klein, and watching his expression, and laughing; consider their august status as German Jews, looking down sneeringly on the Ostjuden, Eastern or Sephardic jews (see here).  Once again, this is common enough in all oppressed groups or, in Weber's idiom,  statuses (light skinned blacks often look down on dark skinned blacks, Chicanos on immigrants, etc.)  Malcolm X’s  therapy for himself and other black people was constantly naming and mocking the inner racism that paralyzes those harmed by genocide.  That Strauss, a German jew, was sympathetic, against secularism, to the National Revolution and much of its anti-semitism is hard to take in (see Shadings - they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here” here, particularly the 1934 letters, cited at length between Klein and Strauss).  But it is, as Hannah Arendt suggested in her bitter quip about Strauss (he wanted to join a party that would not have him because he was a jew) the case.

          For in invoking rootlessness and these other terms,  Bill is suggesting, perhaps not quite fully realizing it, that there is, for Strauss, a jewish quality – once again, a deteriorated voice of the Jewish prophets - in modern liberal culture which Strauss seeks to eradicate.  For us moderns,  there is a hunger for justice.  There is a search for mutual recognition for workers and blacks and women and, among them, lesbians and colonized peoples and…Human nature is to stand up, to demand to be treated with dignity as human being.  In contrast, for Nietzsche,  modern liberalism and democracy go back to the revolt of the poor and lead to “rootlessness” and the last men - “rebarbarization” in Strauss’s words about Havelock and modern scholars.  As I have emphasized in other posts, it is the whole of modern culture Strauss seeks to root out.

       In Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss suggests that a liberal education consists of reading and studying great men.  But he admires those books only that have a reactionary conclusion; despite the name, cautiously expressed (it is what the ancients meant by the term liberality, not a modern  political idea), he is no friend of liberalism.

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