Monday, July 24, 2006

More on Strauss (Josh C)

This started out as a comment on Sean’s post, immediately below; but it got too long, and I decided that nothing was gained or lost by having it a separate post instead.
It is a pretty remarkable letter -- though hardly the bombshell it seems to be presented as. It's been public knowledge (if not publicly acknowledged by many of his admirers) that Strauss was pretty sympathetic to far-Right politics in the '30s (though, obviously, the vehement scorn of his reference to liberalism is somewhat shocking to contemporary sensibilities). I'm not entirely sure what to make of the letter, since I haven't (and can't) read it in the original, and don't know enough about either the larger intellectual, or the immediate (The correspondence with Lowith) contexts. But I expect that it means what it seems to mean, and is interpreted to mean in the post.
The question, which I don't think the post decisively addresses, is whether Strauss's position remained unchanged after the War. (This seems to me a problem with Horton's argument -- it focuses entirely on Strauss before WWII, and doesn't really acknowledge the possibility that Strauss's views changed substantially, even dramatically -- as they seem to have done, at least, in his attitude towards Heidegger, which is significant and suggestive, though hardly demonstrative, of a larger change) On the one hand, you'd expect him -- like many others who had flirted with anti-liberal ideologies (Left as well as Right) -- to change his estimation of liberalism's and fascism's strengths and desirability after the horrors of Nazi rule and the victory of the Allies. On the other hand, as the letter shows, from the first Strauss disassociated Nazi policy from far-Right principles, so that it was possible that the Holocaust did not, for him, invalidate the 'principles of the right'. The explicit message of Strauss's later writings is certainly not in favour of fascist principles, but rather on behalf of some version of natural right (I can see the title for a dissertation now: 'From "the principles of the right" to the principle of Natural Right'. Or something similar but a bit sexier). Whether there remained some hidden advocacy of fascism I couldn't say; I haven't noticed it, but I also do think that Strauss retained an elitism, and a vision of politics, which while they stopped well short of fascism, or indeed general authoritarianism or imperialism, were also incompatible with liberalism as I, and most of us, understand it.
(By Strauss's 'vision of politics', I mean a 'realist' view of politics as unalterably governed by conflict and the possibility of violence, and not amenable to being governed by public reason and benevolence, so that a certain amount of political authority and communal loyalty [though only so much as was compatible with freedom of thought] were necessary to maintain order -- the maintenance of order, combined with the protection of the intellectual freedom and virtue that were necessary for philosophy, being the primary objectives of politics. This view of political authority and community, however, while very different from liberalism, was also very different from what one tends to find in fascism, and certainly Nazism).
All of that said, I think that Stephen Holmes overdoes his account of Strauss as an anti-liberal. I'm particularly dubious about items 3) and 4) of Holmes's indictment, as presented by Horton, which seems to me to conflate a concern with the limitations (and excesses) of legalism with contempt for the rule of law, and appreciation for 'non-liberal' personal virtues with contempt for liberal personalities. 2) is certainly part-right, though so far as I know Strauss doesn't conclude that the solution to the permanence of the 'theological-political problem' [Straussian lingo for the irruption of religious beliefs into politics] is an alliance of rationalist elites with theocrats (and, as I've said before and no doubt will have occassion to say again, I think it's a bad idea to equate Strauss's views with those of neo-cons who admire him, much less their strategic political action.) As for 1), it’s unclear to me what Strauss is here described as rejecting—either liberal belief in the desirability of free public debate, or the rationale here presented for it: the former seems to me a pretty universal contention of liberal political thought, while the latter is a particular claim about the desirability of public debate (as a way of ‘mobilizing decentralized knowledge’ etc.) which is specific to certain liberal thinkers (such as Hayek), but not accepted or adopted by many. Anyway, while as I’ve said I’m fairly confident that Strauss was both an elitist and had a view of political authority at variance with liberal democratic theory, I don’t think that he presents a picture of politics that is quite so Platonic-authoritarian. For one thing, his elitism tends to be with reference to philosophy and the ranks of ‘the philosophers’ – whom he’s pretty clear shouldn’t be those governing. That said, Strauss, and many of his followers, did/do seem to have an ideal of politics as dominated by wise statesmen who will know how to both inspire and control the people – a sort of crush on great men – which, while again very different from Fuhrer-worship or Platonic belief in philosopher-kings (which according to Strauss of course isn’t actually Platonic at all), is also very different from the more egalitarian view of political power characteristic of most democratic theory (or the suspicion of rulers common to many liberals).
Ok, I’ve gone on too long. I may have more to say on Strauss later (indeed, I’m afraid this is most probably so), but for now I’d just like to make one observation: much of the whole debate on Strauss that we’ve seen the past few years (and, really, going back to the 90s at least) strikes me as rather Schmittian – the argument seems to be whether Strauss was a ‘friend’ (as Steven Smith calls him) or an enemy of liberal democracy. But what if this Schmittian framework isn’t – as I tend to believe – the best way (and it certainly seems to me not the most liberal way) to approach political thought (even if you think it’s appropriate in approaching actual politics)? If Strauss had advanced a political programme, or even an explicit set of political principles, this sort of talk might make sense. But it’s not obvious to me that Strauss had any direct political agenda. I think he’s better read as discussing a number of often important (though sometimes very oddly formulated, it must be said) problems, many though not all of them political, many of which post problems for adherents of liberalism, and suggesting interesting perspectives on or responses to these problems -- none of which should be taken as final or definite. Embracing him as a friend – except when he insists on the value both of philosophy, and of intellectual freedom – or excoriating him as an enemy – except when he embraces fascism – doesn’t seem to me a very good response to what he’s doing.
Ok, now I’ll wait for Don to set right whatever I’ve got wrong...


Cheerful Hobbist said...

Hi Josh - there is a good thread on Strauss that pertains too to your posting, which is located down below, following Don's posting on Steven Smith's book on Strauss. My original posting - more or less, asking why it is of value (if it is) to determine whether Strauss was a friend or foe of liberal democracy - was prompted by your posting here, and Don's below, but I put it below - and Don and I now have a conversation going about it. Care to join? I'd love to hear what your thoughts are on Strauss but more generally, the (non-antiquarian) value, if any, of intellectual history.

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