Leo Strauss, Meet John Stuart Mill
At my real job, Professor C. Bradley Thompson is discussing neoconservatism. Here’s a teaser:
What did Irving Kristol learn from Leo Strauss?
- There is an unbridgeable chasm between theory and practice, philosophy and the city, the wise few and the vulgar many. That is, there is a radical disjunction between the “realm of theoretical truth” (i.e., the realm inhabited by philosophers) and the “realm of practical moral guidance” (i.e., the realm inhabited by nonphilosophers). What this meant for Strauss is that Platonic idealism is compatible with Machiavellian realism.
- The West is in a state of intellectual and moral decline as seen by the rise of philosophic nihilism. Strauss identified the source of modern nihilism with Enlightenment liberalism—the liberalism of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Strauss was a trenchant critic of modern rationalism and science, natural-rights individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism, all of which, he argued, turned man away from a supranatural reality to nature, from faith to reason, from community to the individual, from duty to rights, from inequality to equality, from order to freedom, and from self-sacrifice to self-interest. The result is that man and society have come unhinged from the natural order and from the religious faith necessary to sustain moral and political unity.
- Platonic political philosophy is a necessary antidote to the maladies of modern society. Classical natural right was defined by four principles. First, the political community is the primary unit of moral value, which means the “common good” is the end of the regime and coerced “unity” is the means to that end; second, a truly just political order should mirror the “hierarchic order of man’s natural constitution,” which means that some men are more fit to rule than others; third, that which is naturally right for any given society is always changing depending on necessity and circumstances, which means that philosophic statesmen should not be hampered by conventional morality or the rule of law; and fourth, virtue and the public interest represent the end or purpose of the city, which means that wise statesmen must use “benevolent coercion” to make their citizens virtuous.
- Platonic statesmen should ground the regime on certain ancestral pieties and political myths. The cardinal virtue for the vulgar many is self-sacrifice.
On one foot: Plato for me; Machiavelli for thee. The one classical idea entirely lost on neoconservatives is hubris. Its absence startles. Or it would, if more people read the classics.
Now, a seminar on Plato may well be enlightening. But the idea that it prepares you to rule over others should have perished with Dionysius of Syracuse. Like many other drugs, doing philosophy — even bad philosophy — makes you feel like you’re the king of the world. Yet it supplies no particular reason to trust that feeling.
I’ve been reading Leo Strauss this month as well, and I’m struck at how blatant so much of his supposedly esoteric doctrine really is. Strauss repeats ad nauseam those terrible, terrible secrets that cannot be told to the common man: “Esoteric” here certainly doesn’t mean “well-hidden.” If the common man can make it to page six of Natural Right and History, he will find:
[T]he seriousness of the need of natural right does not prove that the need can be satisfied. A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth… Utility and truth are two entirely different things. The fact that reason compels us to go beyond the ideal of our society does not yet guarantee that in taking this step we shall not be confronted with a void…
Not much effort at all. (Although, when I pointed this out to my husband, he replied: “All the way to page six? You have a pretty high opinion of the common man, don’t you?”)
Joking aside, the idea isn’t even original. As John Stuart Mill wrote about a century earlier:
It is, in short, perfectly conceivable that religion may be morally useful without being intellectually sustainable: and it would be a proof of great prejudice in any unbeliever to deny, that there have been ages, and that there are still both nations and individuals, with regard to whom this is actually the case.
But Mill had a bit more courage than Strauss; he ends his essay in part:
History, so far as we know it, bears out the opinion, that mankind can perfectly well do without the belief in a heaven. The Greeks had anything but a tempting idea of a future state. Their Elysian fields held out very little attraction to their feelings and imagination. Achilles in the Odyssey expressed a very natural, and no doubt a very common sentiment, when he said that he would rather be on earth the serf of a needy master, than reign over the whole kingdom of the dead. And the pensive character so striking in the address of the dying emperor Hadrian to his soul, gives evidence that the popular conception had not undergone much variation during that long interval. Yet we neither find that the Greeks enjoyed life less, nor feared death more, than other people.
No existential, civilization-ending crisis of unbelief for him! Without it, no need for philosopher-kings to trick us into a belief in natural right. Also, no need for a war to revitalize our decadent, post-moral society in a rejuvenating bloodbath.