Stop the Straussians Before They Lie Again

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Mr. Leckie is an independent scholar.

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Back in the 1980s a conservative mantra was, "Ideas have consequences." It still is among the intellectual advisers to the administration of George W. Bush, for whom ancient history matters. They seem to want to take on what Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan calls a "warrior politics"-in a book of that title bearing an elegant, ancient Corinthian helmet on its cover--and assume the pagan ethic of Greece and Rome in our postmodern times, though most of them have never worn a helmet and packed a rifle themselves, and ancient politicians and philosophers like Socrates were authentic battle veterans.

At the core of their thinking is the idea of lying to achieve their goals. The ideas they maintain are those of a viciously repressive regime supported by an occupying foreign army that briefly dominated ancient Athens after it was defeated by Sparta 2,400 years ago, not those that reflect a prosperous, victorious democracy, but few seem to want to call them out on it. It's time all of us did, loudly.

For no group on the right are ideas more important than those who style themselves disciples of the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, whose admiration for the political philosophy of ancient Greece-and especially Socrates-has been a hallmark.

Emerging as an influential network during the Reagan Administration, the Straussians have drawn increasing attention in the aftermath of the war in Iraq because of their role in promoting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. Seymour Hersh, writing in the May 12 New Yorker magazine, links Straussians to the cooking of intelligence reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a major basis for justifying the administration's use of the doctrine of pre-emptive war.

Prominent among the Straussian advocates for vigorous military engagement abroad have been Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky, who heads the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans; Stephen Cambone, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence; Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board; and William Kristol, editor of the conservative journal the Weekly Standard.

Their role has also has gained attention because central to Straussian ideas about governance is contempt for democracy and the necessity for deception at home as well as in war and diplomacy abroad. Strauss, who died in 1973, taught dozens of students who formed almost a cult around the man at Chicago, and they and their followers can be found in universities, the law, and in government promoting his ideas.

Despite the attention paid to the Straussians as a group, and especially to their elitism, mainstream journalists have neglected examining the thought of Strauss himself to see where it came from and whether it really has any substance. It ought to concern us that men with such influence in our democracy follow a thinker who embraced a notion of "universal fascism." That's a slogan derived from Strauss's colleague in the late 1920s and 1930s, a quasi-revolutionary, neo-Hegelian Russian émigré in Paris, Alexandre Kojeve, who influenced the "end of history" idea fashionable on the right after 1989. It's currently touted by Straussian camp-follower Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute.

I agree with the conservatives that ideas matter, though I find it odd they should think so and embrace lying-whether to invade Iraq, or hype the president on the carrier Lincoln or in front of Mount Rushmore, or promoting tax policy, or changing the labels on boxes at a St. Louis courier company to mask "Made in China" ones when the president spoke there! It is vital we look at the thinking of an influential man whose career was aided by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and who found appealing such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and the Nazi thinker, Martin Heidegger. It amazes me that avowedly fascist intellectualism flourishes in our government and our press and public stand for it.

Maybe the neglect is because Strauss is almost impossibly dense reading (I find him more than occasionally incoherent, but then, I'm not one of the Straussian Elect or on a mystical ladder to Gnosis). However, since Straussian ideas shape our policies abroad and their stamp can also be seen on the domestic agenda of the administration as well, intellectual laziness is no excuse. In the case of the Straussians, ideas about ancient history matter if democracy is to survive in the 21st century United States.

In fact, in my view it's the Straussians who are intellectually lazy, too. And here's why: Strauss distorted the politics and history of ancient Greece, and of classical Athens specifically. He has interesting things to say about much later philosophers, especially Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, but he takes the anti-democratic ideas of conservatives who conspired with the enemies of classical Athens and even misrepresents them.

Maybe that's because one of his central tenets was that a true philosopher can't openly say what he means for fear of popular outrage, as Socrates found out when the Athenians executed him. But then, after telling us that, how can we believe any of his followers? And there's more than arrogance in telling us they're lying and expecting us to go along with those who really know that will-to-power is all that counts, and it's all over if the masses find out. A true Straussian philosopher is he who can bear the knowledge that comes with awareness of Truth: there is nothing but power and so the necessity for order to protect the rich and powerful. The philosopher's role is to whisper advice in the ears of gentlemen fit to rule the unwashed and unenlightened by deceiving them into believing in things like…."traditional values" and that an elite is always right, that we should be told things like the "Noble Lie" made famous by Plato's Republic in order to accept the status quo as the natural order of things. And-following the "political theology" of Schmitt--there's nothing like war to keep a society in line.

Far from following his alleged hero Socrates, the real model for Strauss's political philosophy should be a renegade pupil of the old philosopher, an aristocratic intellectual named Critias. Critias led a junta-the Thirty Tyrants, as they are known--that ruled Athens after its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Supported by a Spartan garrison, Critias and other Athenian oligarchs murdered their opponents and looted the city. Socrates defied them. His leading accusers were former supporters of the Athenian tyrants who were shifting the blame for Critias' actions from themselves to the ruthless oligarch's former teacher after Athenian democracy had been restored in 402 BCE.

When we hear voices in the administration and in conservative media attacking those who would question the Bush administration, we are hearing an echo of those who attacked Socrates for his irritating questions. Oddly these patriotic flacks, who resemble the demagogues scorned by authentic Athenian conservatives, are allied with an exclusive cult that draws on the surviving impressions we have of the political ideas of ancient, aristocratic men who in a time of war betrayed their city, democratic Athens, for oligarchic, militaristic Sparta. Lest we forget, it was Athenian ambition for empire--resembling the quest for an American imperium hailed by the Straussians with sympathy from classicists who should know better like Victor Davis Hansen and Donald Kagan (historian of the Peloponnesian War)--that led to her humiliation and the bloody regime of the Thirty.

Not much is left of Critias' writings, but as a philosopher and playwright, he'd have been convivial company in Strauss's University of Chicago circle. From the fragments that remain, it is clear he thought that without violence to enforce order, humans would live "at the level of beasts." There were no "truths" that could be maintained without force. Rather than having any reality to them, the gods and human values-nomoi, customs and laws--were invented "as punishers" and to support elite rule.

My hero Socrates went on a quest for knowledge of real justice, relentlessly questioning mostly wealthy Athenians whether they knew what virtue was. Though a conservative, he was not a ruthless cynic like the pupil who disappointed him. To incredulous and even threatening aristocratic interlocutors, he argued that to harm an evil man morally injured a retaliating victim even more, and made a bad man worse. Even during the long war with Sparta, the Athenian leader Pericles spoke of his city as "a school for Hellas," because it was the role of the city to give every citizen-not just an elite few--the chance to achieve their arête, or virtue. In one famous dialog, Meno, Socrates demonstrates that even a poor slave boy has the same knowledge of truth available to him as the most noble of Greeks. One of the common formulations of ancient Athenian citizenship was that every citizen should metechei tes poleos, "share in the polis." That included the right to step up to the bema, the speaker's platform before the Assembly, and participate in debate before all, in a common public sphere.

That is not the vision maintained by the Straussians and their ideology born in early 20th century European nihilism and reaction. Indeed, a corruption of the lessons of the classics and a fascination with ancient Greece was an aspect of that era's German authoritariansm, too. Intellectual fascism in ancient Athens was a product of defeat and occupation. It now presides over a nation at continuous war, deeply divided at home by increasing inequality of wealth and opportunity, declining voter participation and corruption by money of our political system, without a common arena for debate. The Athenian notion of free speech was not our liberal one. Parrhesia, as it was termed, required a speaker to take moral responsibility for the publicly spoken word. Ideas have consequences for us all, not just intellectuals, and classical ideals aren't just ancient history. How far will we let the Straussians take their irrational and irrationalist version of them, with its nihilism and "universal fascism," without holding them morally, as well as intellectually and politically, accountable?

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