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Many critics–some writing in Harper’s–have seen Leo Strauss as the thinker behind the modern neoconservative movement and have blamed him for the neocons’ sins. Now Peter Minowitz, a self-described Straussian and political scientist at Santa Clara University in California, strikes back, in a new book entitled Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians Against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers. I put six questions to Minowitz about the ongoing debate on Strauss and his legacy.
1. You present your book as a response to Shadia Drury, and at times it reads like a line-by-line rebuttal. But surely Drury is just one of the current wave of Strauss critics. Why the focus on her?
Drury wrote two weighty books about Strauss, her influence has been enormous, and her work embodies a wondrous mix of virtues and vices. She’s learned, creative, courageous, and very readable. In issuing her frenzied warnings about Strauss’s legacy, alas, she has also defiled the scholarly process via misquotations, exaggerations, contradictions, and factual errors. I hope that my book will provide a lesson to academics, journalists, and other authors about the dangers of haste, sensationalism, and ideological zeal. Drury stands out from the other critics, furthermore, because of the scurrilous generalizations she offers about Strauss’s students and followers. I had spent five years immersed in diversity studies, and I felt compelled to respond to what I regarded as an outbreak of heinous stereotyping. I criticize other sloppy slanderers, but Drury is Goliath—even if she started as David.
2. In an interview, the late Irving Kristol stated he was deeply indebted to Leo Strauss for an understanding of the “noble lie.” “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he said. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.” Many critics see this as a justification of a new kind of politics—which uses “hotbutton” issues to hold the attention of voters and justifies prevarications about particularly serious things, such as the case for war. Does Kristol understand Strauss correctly? When the Neocons set out to peddle the Iraq War to the American people, was this an example of “different truths for different people”? Doesn’t it do a great deal of harm to a democracy?
Here’s a truth that Strauss has helped many of his readers and students to appreciate: most people routinely adjust the complexity of their speech and writing to accommodate the differing capacities of their audience. In addition, Strauss did claim that certain “sad exigencies” should be veiled, and he consistently maintained that several exalted philosophers wrote energetically “between the lines.”
Kristol addresses the matter more subtly in print, but the above formulation suggests that he’s got a drawer full of truth files with labels that designate the targeted recipients. Perhaps Kristol here forgot that, for Strauss, philosophy is fundamentally a quest for “the truth” and that “the fundamental and comprehensive problems” may be insoluble. Unlike Strauss, Kristol regularly wrote polemically about “hotbutton” issues.
Although almost everyone agrees on the need for white lies, no one denies that lying can be ignoble and destructive. The “new kind of politics” you mention is ubiquitous and often repulsive. In promoting the Iraq War, various leaders and activists were dishonest, but they were sometimes just mistaken or ignorant. Propaganda, in any case, has long been a staple of war—and of electoral campaigns.
3. My own readings of Strauss’ early works suggest that in the twenties and thirties he embraced “Caesarist” views, namely the idea that the state would best be run by an individual who combined military and political authority with high religious office, just as Julius Caesar and his successors did. The American Republic was founded on a firm rejection of Caesarism: there was a desire to make military leaders accountable to civilian authority, for instance, and also a very strong view that church and state should be separated. Do you see any evidence for Strauss having embraced the secular state after he came to America?
You’re probably drawing upon early works that I haven’t seen. In a recently translated 1924 article, Strauss did commend the 17th-century “struggle for the independence of science and state from the church.” Turning to his postwar work, I’d stress the well-known “Restatement” on Xenophon, in which he characterizes Caesarism as a phenomenon that “belongs to a degraded society” and “thrives” upon the degradation. In his English-language publications, Strauss also condemns “pious cruelty,” the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the “Jacobin terror,” which punished intentions; he even touts the contributions that American religious diversity makes in warding off conformism and philistinism. As you know, however, he also tends to highlight religion’s role as a prop to social order, and I suspect that he’d have little problem with school prayer or with state aid to parochial schools. A final thought: America, compared to Western Europe, is a very religious country despite the First Amendment, and it’s difficult to imagine how we’d be better off with a religious “establishment.”
4. In Strauss’s letter to Karl Löwith of May 1933, he presents a political credo that refers to fascist, authoritarian, and imperial principles. Is it fair to say that Strauss is flirting with Mussolini-style fascism in this period, even as he despairs about the rise of the Nazis? If so, do you see evidence of his rejection of this perspective later?
It’s certainly fair to say that Strauss was flirting with fascism, but there’s also evidence that he changed his assessment. During his decades living in the United States, he offered numerous formulations that illuminate the blessings of American democracy. For example, he stated that “wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism,” he emphasized that “premodern thought” would elevate liberal democracy above fascism, and he faulted Nietzsche for having prepared a regime (Nazi Germany) that made democracy look like “the golden age.” As early as 1939, he disparaged Sparta in print, and two years later he faulted Hegel and Nietzsche for overemphasizing “the dignity of military virtue.” Scholars such as Alan Gilbert and William Altman are skillfully trying to work around such passages, but I think the burden of proof lies on them, and I hope I won’t have to write a sequel to Straussophobia.
The statement I quoted about “unhesitating loyalty,” by the way, is reinforced by Strauss’s reflections on the circumstances that spawn “esoteric writing.” If society is so fragile that philosophers should muzzle themselves in order to protect it, utopianism is a perennial danger and no one should blithely promote “regime change.”
5. In the early sixties, Strauss wrote a series of memos to then-Congressman Percy in which he advocates a posture of military engagement with the Soviet Union over their activities in Cuba. Do these memos give you any insight on Strauss’s political posture, particular as to its proximity to the very aggressive foreign policy views of the current neocons?
I think these letters are very revealing, and I commend you and Alan Gilbert for publicizing them. Even in his published writings, Strauss took a hard line on the Cold War. He described the Soviet Union as a “barbaric and cruel, narrow-minded and cunning foreign enemy,” and he speculated about the possibility that nuclear war would be preferable to surrender. In the 1961 letter to Percy, he takes a particularly strong stand against surrender. Later in the letter, however, he celebrates the prospect that sufficiently tough policies would bring about a modus vivendi whereby the Soviets would permanently abandon their campaign to communize the world. In the 1963 letter, Strauss seems to elaborate these policies by implying that the United States should invade Cuba.
Strauss was no dove, and I think he would have listened seriously to the arguments made by belligerent neocons, some of whom cut their teeth in criticizing détente and promoting Reagan’s defense build-up. Living in a post-Soviet world, however, we needn’t fear the scenario—“perpetual and universal” communist tyranny—that alarmed Strauss.
The 1963 letter exhorts the United States to defend its “legitimate interests,” but there were hawkish “realists” on both sides of the Iraq War debate, and we’ll need a lot more than toughness in confronting the diverse challenges posed by Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a variety of terrorist threats, not to mention environmental degradation and economic meltdowns. As Irving Kristol wisely observed, the international realm is “so radically affected by contingency, fortune, and fate” that there may be “little room for speculative enlightenment.” Empirical complexities also surface when we contemplate Strauss’s 1963 stance on Cuba. Was he worried about the return of Soviet missiles? The exporting of revolution to Central America? Humiliation from Castro’s blustering? I wish I knew.
6. One of the major disputes between the neocons and their critics concerns the role of the rule of law. The neocons work hard to imbue the executive (when they advise it) with extraordinary powers, making it effectively above the law; they rely heavily today on war powers and commander-in-chief authority. Some would say the roots of this can be found in Strauss and his writings about tyrants, perhaps derivatively from Nietzsche. They would suggest that laws are not for everybody, that there is a class of exceptional rulers who should be above the law. This certainly is Nietzsche. But is it the real Leo Strauss?
Nietzsche says little about institutional nuts and bolts. He does, however, disparage representative bodies and parliamentary “imbecility” (Blödsinn). And because he also insists that “Caesarian cultivators” are necessary to create the cultural and cosmic horizons within which the rest of us live, it’s hard to imagine him fretting about FISA violations or “the unitary executive.”
Strauss maintains that “good tyranny is possible under very favorable circumstances,” adding that Salazar’s Portugal might provide a twentieth-century example. Speaking more theoretically, he highlights the classical view that “the absolute rule of the wise,” were it feasible, would be the best regime; he likewise highlights Plato’s discussion of the efficiency with which a tyrant could implement sweeping reforms. But Strauss is still more attentive to the evils of tyranny, e.g., the “substitution of suspicion and terror for law,” and he acknowledges that unscrupulous leaders routinely abuse the crisis card. He also underscores the classical view that the best feasible regime is an aristocracy characterized by the rule of law (recall his praise for “the cause of constitutionalism”).
Gordon Wood and others complain that certain Straussians have made a fetish of the U.S. “Founders,” and Strauss-friendly periodicals (e.g., the Claremont Review of Books) have published vigorous defenses of the constitutional order against encroachments by Congress, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch. Harvey Mansfield, a Straussian who’s been widely criticized for defending executive prerogative, also conveys a delicate appreciation of constitutional “forms” and warns us powerfully against the Machiavellian temptation to exalt results. Various presidents, needless to say, have expanded their authority during wartime without any prodding from Strauss or his students.
More from Scott Horton:
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“Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.”