This post continues a previous post here on Bill Connolly’s criticisms about Strauss’s virulent intolerance of modern scholarship, incarnated by the liberal classicist Havelock, in chapter 3 of Liberalism Ancient and Modern. On the surface, Strauss maintains that to defend toleration, one must stop the Inquisition. That is a plausible candidate for a correction of a badly stated liberalism – to make it more consistent and serious. But that is only an exoteric view. Antipathy toward the separation of church and state, that is, toleration, is a theme of Liberalism Ancient and Modern. This post will explore the preface and the exact wording of Strauss’s denunciation of the whole modern epoch.
Unsurprisingly, Liberalism Ancient and Modern is preoccupied with the destiny of the jews. In fact, the Preface to the volume makes it clear that non-orthodox jews and even quite “conservative” jews (Strauss is Delphic about what he means by these terms in the Preface and throughout the book) must be “liberal.” Listen to the concluding paragraph of the Preface, pp. viii-ix:
“Not much familiarity with political life is needed in order to see that it is particularly difficult for a non-orthodox Jew to adopt a critical posture toward liberalism. Even Jews who are politically conservative can be observed to defer to contemporary Jewish ‘opinion leaders’ who can in no sense be described as politically conservative. This state of things induces one to raise questions such as these. In what sense or to what extent is Judaism one of the roots of liberalism?”
Note the precise Nietzscheanism of the question. Strauss continues:
“Are Jews compelled by their heritage or their self-interest to be liberals?”
I should also note that the whole of Judaism is brought into confrontation with liberalism. Strauss does not think that the self-interest of Jews requires them to be “liberal” (but he also doesn’t think that it requires them to be Jewish in the sense of believers in the prophets, either). Recall that Strauss’s initial Zionism was power-political (aimed to bring into reality a Jewish state) and overtly sympathetic to what he names in 1923 “pagan-fascism” (in “Reply to Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle’” in Leo Strauss: The Early Writings, 1921-32, ed. and trans. Michael Zank, p. 65; Gesammelte Schriften 2:300). I will post on this next week.
Against the galut (the diaspora, the exile), Strauss sought to save the Jewish people in a state. But politically, Strauss favored an anti-prophetic stance, the restoration of kings justified by religiosity in Israel (an exoteric gesture at the prophets for an anti-prophetic, anti-egalitaritarian purpose), a kind of Jewish national socialism against the Palestinians, something about which, as a scholar who celebrated Arab Platonists, he might have – but tragically did not – stand against in Israel.
The questions Strauss asks in Liberalism Ancient and Modern are decisive. But he then – attractively because probingly – asks a couple of others:
“Is liberalism [read also: Judaism] necessarily friendly to Jews and Judaism? Can the liberal state claim to have solved the Jewish problem? Can any state claim to have solved it? To these questions I address myself in the two statements that conclude this volume.” (p. ix)
As his last letters to Scholem show, Strauss deeply loved Israel and may, in dying, even have achieved some mystical peace about it. But he thought that modern life would make the biblical temper of Israel fade (see the conclusion of Strauss’s 1957 letter to the National Review criticizing its anti-semitism, and his 1923 “Reply to Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle’"). Unfortunately, this brings up the dark alternative which I emphasized in my recent posts here and here: that the destructiveness of nuclear war – a secession from the modern age- is the only way out for a nihilist or a “serious Jew” (or “Christian”) who hates and fears modernity. He speaks of Havelock’s intellectual rebarbarization, perhaps a good point about his scholarship, but one he fails to apply to himself: Strauss was long fascinated by a much more mass murderous and suicidal kind.
Listen to his lengthy concluding indictment of Havelock whom he regards both as a barbarian assaulting civilization, and typical of “modern” i.e. liberal scholarship. Bill used the striking word virulent. It is too weak. Leo skins Havelock – and modern scholarship – alive:
“Some readers may blame us for having devoted so much time and space [pp. 26-64, the longest chapter in the book except ch. 5 on Lucretius] to the examination of an unusually poor book. We do not believe that their judgment of the book is fair. Books like Havelock’s are becoming ever more typical. Scholarship, which is meant to be a bulwark of civilization against barbarism, is ever more frequently turned into an instrument of rebarbarization. As history suggests, scholarship is, as such, exposed to that degradation. But this time the danger is greater than ever before. For this time the danger stems from the inspiration of scholarship by what is called a philosophy. Through that philosophy the humane desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards and hence of all discipline including philological discipline. But absolute tolerance is altogether impossible; the allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who had stated most clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things. In other words, the humane desire for making education accessible to everyone leads to an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education. No great harm is done, or at least there is no reason for alarm, if this happens in disciplines of recent origin but the situation is altogether different if the very discipline which is responsible for the transmission of the classical heritage is affected. True liberals today have no more pressing duty that to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ (Havelock, p 374) and which forgets quality, excellence or virtue. (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, pp. 63-64)
In his last book, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), following Plato's Athenian Stranger, Strauss celebrates Athenian civilization, but not its democracy, Athenians without Athens. Perhaps he does the same for the United States. Read again carefully - perhaps aloud - the first three sentences of Natural Right and History:
"It is proper for more reasons than the most obvious one that I should open this series of Charles R. Walgreen Lectures by quoting a passage from the Declaration of Independence. The passage has frequently been quoted, but, by its weight and its elevation, is made immune to the degrading defects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.' The nation dedicated to this proposition has now become, no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth."
Individual natural rights are, Strauss says, but an instrument to power and prosperity. Strauss's contempt for justification solely by instrumentality is visible early on, for instance, in his scathing critique in 1923 of the signers of a Frankfurt Zionist manifesto suggesting that belief in God is optional or a mere instrumentality (see "Reply to Frankfurt's 'Word of Principle'" in Leo Strauss, Early Writings, ed. Michael Zank). On p. 118, he cagily affirms the classical "rejection of egalitarain natural right" or supposed affirmation view or the rule of the stronger. Power and civilization (prosperity), for Strauss, are good. The rights of individuals and democracy are nothing.
In the passage cited above from Liberalism Ancient and Modern, note the danger of a philosophy, i.e. “value-free” social science, coupled with liberalism. In this view, Strauss says, a “human desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards.” Perhaps this is true of Havelock, though one might wonder. But it is not true of most modern liberals or radicals as the smashing of Nazism shows (some of us fought pretty hard against Nazism and other forms of fascism). Taking Strauss to be perhaps a would-be liberal who is excessively nasty toward others, Connolly underlines the way in which his modern pluralist view fights militantly against reactionary “unitarianisms” (such as that of Strauss and the neoconservatives): “A pluralist, by comparison, is one who prizes cultural diversity along several dimensions and is ready to join others in militant action, when necessary, to support pluralism against counter-drives to Unitarianism.” (Pluralism, p. 41).
At p. 43, concurring with Strauss’s insight, but speaking up. against him, for new discoveries and what I call, in Democratic Individuality, moral progress, Bill says:
“It is thus necessary to set limits, but pluralists are critical of the self-confidence with which many Unitarians endow already existing limits with eternal necessity. “ [Bill’s italics] He continues:
“It is necessary to set limits, partly because it is impossible to house every possible mode of diversity in the same regime at the same time. And it is necessary to organize militantly [Bill repeats this point; the students of Strauss might note here that Strauss’s and neoconservative belligerence and arrogance elicit fairly quickly a fierce response] when pluralism is under grave duress from Unitarian movements. You encourage a wide diversity of religious faiths, sensual habits, household organizations, ethnic traditions, gender practices, and so on, and you encourage the civic virtues of pluralism [for instance, toleration of, even respect for difference] to inform relations between these constituencies. But a democratic pluralist won’t willingly, for instance, allow the state to torture prisoners; murder to go unpunished; parents to deprive their children of an education; the public school system to deteriorate; wealthy citizens to evade taxes; orphaned children to be placed under the care of incompetent adults; adult citizens to be unemployed for too long; the gap between the real cost of living in a system and the income-earning ability of most citizens to grow large; the income hierarchy to become too extreme; or narrow Unitarians to take charge of the regime. Pluralists thus agree with Strauss that ‘absolute tolerance is altogether impossible,’ even as we set some of these limits at different points and places.” (Pluralism, p. 43)
Strauss plainly disagrees with Bill on perhaps every aspect of these politics (see Sotomayor, Brown V. Board of Education, the social science of Kenneth and Mamie Clarks and Leo Strauss here). Some might quibble abut torture - many acolytes of Strauss are critical of Bush-Cheney torture, and as with Michael Zuckert, the Patriot Act - but one cannot say that his political followers, often in or around the administration, raised any public objection.
As Bill drives home, however,in the abstract, Strauss could be making a liberal point about toleration. Tolerance for a vast diversity of points of view, as I underline in many places, requires defeating the intolerant. If it were up to the Nazis, the Inquisition, Sarah Palin, or sadly and increasingly, the Republican Party, there would be no other point of view. There would be no public debate, no resulting increase in insight, no advance of previously denied rights, and no (good or bad) majority rule. Liberalism requires standing up to enemies (this is Strauss’s Schmittian formulation, though it also has a surface straightforward meaning). But of course Strauss means to suggest that view to his followers who imagine but do not read “with open-minded care” as well as others. For sloppy and even fairly careful readers - just those who do not want to see the literal meaning of his sentences, the ambiguities or hidden meanings they often suggest - he means to be taken for a liberal. He is, of course, against the Soviet Union. But the road forks here. He is no liberal.
I have always thought that Strauss’s point about modern relativism is a) a good critique of value –free social science, as I argue in Democratic Individuality and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? and b) pretty stupid and dismissive as a general point against modern liberals, Marxists, communists, anarchists, conservatives (Michael Oakeshott) et al. But more strikingly, even though it is his often repeated and best thought, Strauss really doesn’t mean this argument except as a surface or exoteric gesture. For Strauss himself is an admirer of Nietzsche and Heidegger (and up to a point concurs perhaps Thrasymachus). He defends the advantage of the stronger, at least when the stronger is “civilized” and or “educated” (When he refers to classical “liberalism” in this regard, the term liberalism is empty; as he blurts out, there is no classical liberalism – see the last post here). He advocates reactionary values – those of the stronger - but no moral objectivity. The notion of “health,” “strength” and “civilization” are fascist. He differentiates between a doctor who seeks to cure and one who harms. But is this “health”? It does not take too much historical insight, with regard to Mussolini or the early Hitler or the American regime in Vietnam or Iraq to see that Strauss’s vision is, in substance, evil.
“Perverted liberalism” – Strauss’s term, one again sweeping in its range - is just a cover for an indictment of the modern age. The road forks sharply. Bill cautiously imagines – Strauss at least affects some sort of ancient liberalism, does he not? – that Strauss is for liberals who stand up for themselves. Strauss, we are told by his acolytes and other neo-cons, really admired Churchill (not to say Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus in the Civil War). As I have noted, though the leader of the genuinely admirable war effort against Hitler, Churchill was a tyrannical statesman (though unlike Strauss or Schmitt, he sought ultimately to restore the rule of the House of Commons and the law); in addition, he was a racist who ruled belligerently over an Empire. But as Will Altman has underlined, Strauss says how a nihilist would admire Churchill (see The courage to destroy here) and utters no word of friendship or affection for democracy or parliament.
Strauss’s next sentence: “But absolute tolerance is altogether impossible; the allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who had stated most clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things.” Bill names this difference about “unchangeable standards.” Again, we can see why someone might give Strauss the benefit of the doubt. Still, it is hard to see why a liberal would have “ferocious hatred” for example toward women (and men) who stood up against patriarchy or workers who organized or lesbians and gays (and heterosexuals) who fought homophobia or opponents of American aggression and perhaps genocide in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet in Aristotelian terms, these all arise from natural standards found in the nature of things (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). Women are not objects to be dominated by men. Vietnamese are not racial inferiors to be wiped out by a panoply of bizarre weapons like napalm. Arabs are human beings; to torture them is racist (Imagine if the pictures from Abu Ghraib were of Bush or Cheney or Rice or Powell being tortured by secret, shadowy and antiseptic Arab captors – accompanied by psychologists with the approval of the executive board of a purported Arab Psychological Association, to determine the “strictest,” “safest,” “most medically appropriate limits” to accord with local and “international law” - how most Americans would feel. Perhaps this exercise in applying Rawls’ original position will make it clear just how degraded the United States, under the influence of the neo-cons and a corrupt political establishment, Democrat as well as Republican, has become.
What Strauss means by “unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things” is nothing liberal. The point of “unchangeable standards” is to suggest that reactionary cant about the nature of things – women are to be dominated – is just the way it is. Recall the deceptiveness of his title Natural Right and History. One thinks again of “natural rights” (though as cited above the Declaration of Independence appears and then is denied in the first three sentences). What Strauss really means by natural right is the advantage of the stronger. There is no liberalism here.
In chapter one of Democratic Individuality, I emphasize moral progress. In a patriarchal and class culture, women, slaves and “barbarians” can, for some historical epochs, be taken as inferiors. Much of history has been the story of heroic rebellions against this barbarous point of view (just to, in a Nietzschean idiom, transvalue Strauss’s antidemocratic values). We can say some definite things about human nature. We have learned enough to recognize that every person has sufficient capacity for moral personality to understand and obey the law or to resist the law where it is unjust, and to participate in political life, for instance by voting, or perhaps by civil disobedience or rebellion. More deeply, every child, Palestinian, Jewish, Iraqi. American and Native American, your child and my child, is holy, or to put it in philosophical terms, of equal and infinite value. To murder children, as the US and the United Nations have done in the 1990s boycott of Iraq or Israel in its occupation of Gaza, is unnatural.
What is thus natural is not the reactionary patriarch’s impression of “unchangeable standards”; the latter are often brutal and unnatural.
Strauss’s next sentence: “In other words, the humane desire for making education accessible to everyone leads to an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education.” The beginning of the sentence suggests that the desire is “humane” – it reflects compassion toward those who are denied the delights of education (in Strauss’s late letters to Scholem, he speaks of his “hard heart” which had melted a little, but compassion for others is, sadly, absent from Strauss’s “virtues”). The point of the sentence is, however, that the modern project of education for everyone leads to “an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education.” It leads to “rebarbarization.” For Strauss, mass education, that is democratization and democracy, is the enemy. In listing the things he would be for, as we saw, Bill rightly takes on Strauss straight up.
Strauss then has a sentence about a debased philosophy which substitutes for the true one, the one of barely hidden, authoritarian whispers...As I have argued, that "true" philosophy proposes the tyranny of the wise ruler, using religion, to dominate the masses. See “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” Constellations, March 2009 here. No liberalism here.
Strauss’s final sentence: “True liberals today have no more pressing duty than to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ (Havelock, p 374) and which forgets quality, excellence or virtue.”
Havelock’s good society could be a version of Hobbes. Strauss’s hatred for Havelock is hatred for the modern era. Thus, for each individual to be alive and pursue her goals peacefully and happily (with whatever happiness – better, eudaimonia - a human life is permitted) is on Strauss’s view “perverted liberalism,” Democratic individuality for Strauss is “perverted liberalism.”
What then is “true liberalism’? It is remembering “quality, excellence or virtue.” But the rule of the best man, expressing in Aristotle or Plato, “quality, excellence or virtue,” is remarkably inegalitarian (Strauss amusingly and exoterically refers in Natural Right and History to the “equality” involved in this rule – but no one is equal to Zeus. The rule of the outstanding man incarnates inequality; Strauss’s argument here is belligerently bad or self-refuting). This theme is not simply anti-modern, since il Duce or Der Fuehrer or, in the words of William Kristol riffing on the Supreme leader in Iran for Fox News, “Supreme Commander Bush. I like the sound of that” are all “modern.” But this theme is anything but decent. There is nothing liberal in Strauss’s affectation of “true liberalism.”
Throughout the essay on Havelock, Strauss’s esoteric allusions to rule of the best man appear. For instance, in distinguishing Antiphon’s likely hidden view from Havelock’s emphasis of a surviving sentence, Strauss, rightly, a page before this final paragraph (p. 62, the last paragraph is 62-64), points out;
“Antiphon says that the law of the usages of the city stem from agreement as distinguished from nature. This does not necessarily mean that the law or usages are simply the product of ‘group opinion’; it does not exclude the possibility that the laws or usages are primarily the work of an outstanding man regarded as endowed with superhuman virtue whose proposals were accepted by human beings, and these human beings constituted themselves, by virtue of this acceptance, as members of one society.”
Strauss also says something of this sort in relation to liberal progress early in the essay. It is of course true that individuals invent wise things and that one is lucky to have, when one has them, wise leaders. But this is only a part of history. Trouble and rebellion from below, often characterized by considerable leaders like Spartacus, Jefferson, Robespierre, Mother Jones. Lenin or Gandhi, has led to insights into and an ultimate reduction of oppressions. Strauss sides with the traditional or reactionary – to find a leader who will suppress such movements, or destroy what he takes to be their consequences. Sublimely reactionary and in this sense, admirable, this is also a sad and murderous way of thinking. In Strauss’s exoteric words at p. 32, “Moreover, one may grant that progress is due entirely to man’s exertions and inventions and yet trace progress primarily to rare and discontinuous acts of a few outstanding men; ‘progressivism’ is not necessarily identical with that ‘gradualism’ which is apparently essential to liberalism.”
This last sentence is deceptive. Strauss attacks communism – surely revolutionary as communists see it, and not gradualist – and liberalism as leading to communism. But liberalism, too, came about through the Puritan Revolution in England, the French Revolution in France, and the American Revolution and Civil War in the United States. Locke famously is no “gradualist” (though in Natural Right and History, Strauss avoids Locke’s advocacy of revolution). But the outstanding men – they are not, for Strauss, Cromwell or Robespierre or Lincoln (Strauss himself never speaks of Lincoln) or Rousseau or Locke and the like – but mainly reactionaries: Nietzsche and Heidegger, and…Hitler (at least as late as 1934; Strauss does not quickly turn away from what he later calls in 1941 vulgar nihilism). He admires the great men who might undo modern liberalism and communism.
In response to Will Altman’s question – why did a man consumed with the theological-political problem never write about separation of church and state, AZ and Peter Minowitz (in an initial letter to me) were right to think that Liberalism Ancient and Modern was a place to look for toleration. And as we have seen in Connolly’s probing, Strauss does write about it here. Let us change Altman’s question: why does Strauss only write briefly and malevolently about toleration? For on p. vii of the Preface, Strauss makes it clear that toleration of other religions – the modern liberal standpoint – is the enemy in this book. He talks about how in America, even a very conservative organization calls itself “Daughters of the American Revolution”: “The conservatism of our age is identical with what originally was liberalism, more or less modified by changes in the direction of present-day liberalism. One could go even further and say that much of what goes now by the name of conservatism has in the last analysis a common root with present day liberalism and even with Communism. That this is the case would appear most clearly if one were to go back to the origin of modernity, to the break with the pre-modern tradition that took place in the seventeenth century, to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.”
Strauss goes back, again, to the origin of liberalism in Hobbes. All of his views are connected with his original anti-modern stance (this is not to say that the connections are made by arguments, however; the links are more by intimation or intuition). Strauss is thus not an Anglo-American conservative (one who like Oakeshott celebrates individuality). Proximately, however, he goes back to the clear meaning that arose in the struggle of authoritarianism against liberalism in Europe. “Then and there the conservatives stood for ‘throne and altar’ and the liberals stood for popular sovereignty and the strictly nonpublic (private) character of religion.” (vii) The theme that is repeated throughout the book is that the separation of church and state or toleration is characteristic of the deficient or “perverted” liberalism which slides into communism. It is liberalism that the philosophical rule of one – the philosopher-tyrant – means to destroy. That rule will be upheld by one religion. If you want to understand the dangers of “executive power” – and Obama in sustaining much of what Bush did needs to look at this or more aptly, to be helped by the rest of us, to look at this – here is an important root.
In response to Altman’s question, a scholarly conversation has now unfolded. But the imagined liberalism of Leo Strauss has yet to make an appearance.