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Nov 20, 2005 9:58 pm

Worth Reading

Writing on “A Fractured Anti-War Movement,” leftist activist John Walsh explains how

“[b]oth Paleoconservatives and Libertarians share the belief that empire is not compatible with a Republic and so their opposition to wars in the post-Cold War era has some rather deep roots.”

Later he writes,

“Lefties would do well to recognize that they share more with Libertarians than with the Democratic establishment. Go to the Libertarian web site and take the test telling you whether you are a libertarian. There are ten question[s] and most Lefties will give a Libertarian's answer to at least six of them. The Libertarians are staunchly against the war, much more so than the Democrats and about the same as the Greens and Naderites.”

There’s more to be said, of course, not least the recognition that many self-identified libertarians and neolibertarians supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and/or advocate continued U.S. military occupation. That said, Walsh’s article is welcome.

Later he speculates as to why (some) libertarians and (some) leftists can make common cause to oppose the war. He writes,

“There is in my mind a very deep reason why Libertarians and the Left have more in common than we suspect when compared with the neocons. The reason is that we have our roots in the Enlightenment and modernity. But Leo Strauss, philospher of the neocons rejects the Enlightenment and calls for a return to the tyran[n]ies found in antiquity.”

I suggest Walsh has a point although, of course, the reality is more complicated. The Enlightenment embraced a wide variety of thinkers and writers with a wide variety of ideologies and prescriptions. After all, Bolshevism, Maoism, and other variants of Marxist totalitarianism all claimed to be rooted in part in the Enlightenment. Which explains why some Trotskyists (like Irving Kristol) became neoconservatives and other Trotskyists (like Christopher Hitchens) have become supporters of the neoconservative agenda abroad.
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Jeanine Ring - 11/22/2005

I think it's an impoverished reading of Leo Strauss to look at him mainly as a father of neoconservatism or issuing a call to return to 'premodern tyrannies'.

Leo Strauss was primarily interested in the problematic relations of the philosopher to civil society. His argument, roughly, was that philosophy's interest in the truth is directly hostile to the social order (the "polis"), because the latter is sustained by some sort of irrational myth and an inherited sense of community that a philosopher's theories and practice of teaching tear to ribbbons. Therefore all premodern societies persecute philosophers.

He viewed modernity as an attempt to solve this problem by making philosophy useful to the polity, by means of founding a modern political science and economics where reason would produce a health, wealth, and security that the broad mass of humankind cares about, thus giving some objective interest in philosophy to society and large and wresting control of the social fabric from religion.

Strauss opposed modernity because in his estimate modern conditions ended up being more corruptive of the real kind of spirit that makes philosophy possible than did the ancient world. Establishing modernity requires disestablishing religion, which means shrinking the religious passions in peoples' souls. But in Strauss' view religious societies at least keep alive the kind of spiritual hunger for greatness which philosophy also requires but turns in the direction of reason. Modernity, in Strauss' view, reduced the persecution of philosophy only to create a spiritual desert where the philosophic soul finds no nourishment, with a corresponding exhaustion of the best in human faculties. Strauss saw modernity as requiring a polity trained not to take questions of value *seriously*, and whose interests were directed exclusively to economic, nonspiritual ends to avoid the danger of religious war and dogmatism.

Strauss supported conservatism for the most vividly nonconservative reasons- he thought that an inherently radical philosopher fared better dodging the incompetent persecution of premodern regimes than under the efficient banality of bourgeois modernity. He encouraged American conservatives because he viewed Christian civilization as the only feasible and plausable way to reinstill a conservative depth and pathos into American culture (I doubt he had much real love for Christianity).

I'm not sure if he would have supported Bush, but if he did it wouldn't be because of foreign policy reasons but for reasons of cultural policy- Strauss wanted to defeat a relativism and historicism he saw as peculiarly democratic. If Strauss did support it- and this is precisely what I personally fear is a large part of the motive for the current war- he would have seen the war as an opportunity to unify American society behind a nationalism conservatism which would foster religious fervor, civic virtue, and traditionalism on the home front. But Strauss wouldn't be doing this to spread American truths to the Middle East, since in his view societies are always founded upon either modern banalities or premodern lies. Indeed, Strauss thought it dangerous to try to base a society on philosophic truth, and he wouldn't have wanted the West to try to spread the truth but wanted the West itself to get over the delusion.

Now, I don't agree with Strauss on a lot of things- I think his denial of the simple practical benefits of modernity for everyone, including philosophers, is downright criminal. In premodern socieites, most potential philosophers died of cholera, war, or childbirth like everyone else, after all- and the res were mostly condemned to some form of drudgery by slave labour. Strauss seems to forget that if the excellence of the philosophic spirit is what he cared about, then just our partial overcoming of premodern conditions of pervasive physical nightmare would seem to overwhelmingly suggest favouring modernity on Strauss' terms.

More importantly I think he got something very wrong and in fact very illogical on his own premises in his account of high and low. Straus' theory of philosophic education clashes desperately with his theory of society- he presents education as the respectful cultivation of the faculties and passions towards a Socratic quest for truth, but socially he seems to support conservative discipline which will in factual practise strangle everything in duty and repression.

Strauss mirrors a similar confusion in Plato: he supports the notion that the heights arise from unmediated attraction in the human spirit and then kicks the middle rungs out of the ladder by supporting societies which will just terrorize conformity into the young. I can't help wondering if he's really thinking: "what society would be favourable to a philosopher like me as I am now?"- dropping the context of how many potential geniuses ever arrive to become philosophers under premodern social conditions.

Also, Strauss here frankly manages to be extraordinarily ignorant of the social context of the history he touches on, and from my undersanding of Strauss' life- and for that matter Allan Bloom's, Socrates', or Plato's, such selective silence amounts to an exploitively willful evasion. I get a sense Strauss thinks that the real philosopher can emotionally survive anything, and the same philosopher who is so tenderly vulnerable to the bad ventilation of democratic relativism can tough it out through the eternal bootcamp of the conservative walled city. There is something of an insecure masculinity cult involved in this precise turn of the Straussian ethos.

The same goes for the Platonic/Straussian public contempt for democratic hedonism and the actual ethic subtextually preached and practised by noted Straussians. Strauss seems to think that we've got to keep a tight grip and never let go or all Hell will break loose in the social order- but people like Strauss are different- he's careful and can handle a little hedonism. He can *handle it*. I can't avoid noticing this is what every patriarch preaching a society of self-control seems to think on their own time. It is not the foundation for a consistent and self-confident philosophy.

Personally, I would suggest the Straussian heresy that the conditions of "late" capitalism, where diminishing scarcity allows not security but pleasure to be a democratic public goal, might recreate the kind of atmosphere that really did cultivate conditions for the flourshing of the philosophy that Strauss' prizes. In that sense, Strauss' political heirs are moronically blocking progress towards the conditions that would really encourage precisely those excellences Strauss himself most prized. (that said, I think human flourishing is inherently antisocial; hence 'late capitalism' like other periods of decadence is unstable- history's due for another turn of the wheel into a premodern, repressive Hell, And Maybe with Strauss' help. But: enjoy it while it lasts.)

Nevertheless, I would defend Strauss *greatly* as the only recent philosopher to fully grasp the essential spirit of philosophy- that is to grasp the psychology of someone who wants to think for themselves as someone attached to the *act* of questioning, not to conclusive theories. Strauss faces squarely the problem that social order is built on conformity and stability that philosophy inherently challenges.

I don't agree with his coming diagnosis, and I personally throw in my lot with the modern world even though I think the ancient world can provide an illustrative basis for reflection on the essential social problems faced as a philosopher. But Strauss helped me very greatly to understand why philosophical truth is inherently unpopular and why most people aren't grateful for better ways of thinking but react instead with hatred to anyone who challenges the shaky collective irrationalisms on which they base their worldviews. Strauss may give lousy answers, but he asks the right *questions*- and above all he calls attention to the fact that philosophy is a way of life, a singular way of valuing, and a kind of friendship.

And I think Strauss' presentations on *why* modern society poses its own dangers to the philosophic life are worth anyone of the same mold's attention. I'm not at all convinced that modern society's triumph hasn't gotten some very important things wrong or that modern philosophy hasn't ruled out a great number of possibilities of humanity.

I think living the best possible life is the most important thing, and that a very minor part of this fighting for the just or unjust side in the life of a polity- and Strauss rightly lauded the ancients and not the moderns for remembering this. I think Strauss took the wrong side, but he understands the spiritual meaning of philosophy more deeply than most people with better political conclusions- and I think that ultimately matters much more in an individual life than who is on which right side in politics (which few of us can substantially alter or change). And Strauss recalls, like Rand, what happens to someone to the nonconformist who just doesn't share the same mind as the rest of the world. Understanding that is more crucial than any politics to human liberation.

My thoughts


William Marina - 11/21/2005

I also had read Walsh's piece with interest.
The problem with the present Antiwar position, from whatever political perspective, is that it does not go far enough, so that it is allways reacting, after the fact of war, has been manipulated upon us.
Thus, in the late 1960s, the bombing question with respect to Vietnam was debated for over three years, as if that was the real issue.
Not since 1898 have very many Americans addressed the Empire issue. That movement was
fractured also by the torture issue.
Hopefully we will do better this time, but we need to do so within the context of an opposition to Empire.
For Imperialists, war is always a last resort. They would always prefer a situation where economic imperialism is the norm for bringing "Democracy" to the world.
Fighting a war tends to upset that more pleasant equilibrium, and casue divisions within the Empire, especailly among the troops who do the fighting.
And, of course, the cost of Empire goes up!

David T. Beito - 11/20/2005

Another problem is that libertarians, even antiwar ones, don't seem too interested in participating in the antiwar movement.

For this reason, I encourage all antiwar libertarian historians to actively support the efforts of Historians Against the War (link on the left). While it is dominated by leftists, my experience HAW has been very open to conservatives and libertarians.

Ben Alpers, an official of that group, is guestblogging here this week.

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