Sunday, June 08, 2003

The phenomenon of Strauss-hating has already reached farcical proportions, so I thought I might as well put my two cents in. Enjoy:

Who Are the Straussians? by Benjamin Kerstein

The most hated intellectual in America today has, by singular twist of fate, been dead for nearly thirty years. Leo Strauss, a University of Chicago professor of philosophy whose singular interpretations of classic texts made him a cult figure in certain circles, has been fingered by Leftwing intellectuals across the spectrum as the founding intellectual father of today’s “neoconservative” movement, and thus the cause of the new American militarism, the new American imperialism and nearly everything else the Left considers wrong with the world today. Some intellectuals, such as Princeton’s resident academic charlatan Cornel West, have gone so far as to blame Strauss’s intellectual offspring, the “Straussians” of actively attempting to destroy American democracy. The situation has become so violent that Strauss, himself a refugee from Hitler, has been branded with the most vicious of opprobrium, finding himself labeled a “Jewish Nazi”.

The Left charges that Strauss argued for the empowerment of an intellectual superior and privileged elite which would rule society even while espousing liberal and egalitarian ideals. Only the elite itself would be aware of the deception, but they would conspire to keep the truth hidden from the unsuspecting masses, in order to perpetuate an ordered and civilized, even if unjust, society.

Strauss’s critics take this scenario from Strauss himself. In his many dense and esoteric works, Strauss often argued – using his own experience under Nazi Germany as a model – that intellectuals do not write in a vacuum. They tailor their writings to suit the society in which they live. However, Strauss claimed that these great philosophers often wrote for separate audiences simultaneously. While seeming to endorse conventional norms, they left hidden within their works, waiting for the enlightened elite to find, their true and often more radical conclusions. Strauss’s quintessential model for this theory was the 13th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Maimonides, Strauss claimed, while seeming to endorse traditional Jewish faith was, upon close reading, advocating an Aristotelian mode of philosophy that was, in fact, at odds with the Jewish faith he was claiming to affirm. Most extraordinarily, however, Strauss did not see Maimonides’ deception in a negative light. Maimonides, he claimed, was greatly concerned that his radical conclusions would not disrupt the Jewish society of which he was a leader. On the other hand, he felt the need to impart truths to those privileged and educated few who had reached his own level of philosophical enlightenment. Maimonides sense of social responsibility was, in Strauss’ eyes, a highly commendable trait.

This naturally puts Strauss very much at odds with current intellectual fashions, which fetishize the pursuit of truth and believe it is the duty of the intellectual to “speak truth to power”, even at the expense of societal cohesion or stability. Since the 1960s it has been nearly universally accepted in intellectual circles that the only truly worthy or admirable scholarship is that which shakes the very foundations of society itself, that tears at the social fabric and denounces it in the style of a Biblical prophet. The very idea of socially responsible philosophy, meaning philosophy that takes into account the inherent value of societal traditions and mores, is utterly alien to today’s intelligentsia.

None of this, however, explains why Strauss has become the target of such ferocious and violent condemnation over the past few months. Why an intellectual dead for some three decades should become the focus of so much Leftwing opprobrium is a mysterious question in any context. Clearly, part of the explanation is the fact that some of the major neoconservative intellectuals were students of Strauss or Straussian academics. There is also the need on the part of the Left to find some means of attacking the modern conservative movement from a position comprehensible to its constituency within the intelligentsia. In my opinion, however, the assault on Strauss is a classic case of projection. The Left sees its own evils in Strauss, and condemns in his followers – and those it believes are his followers – that which it cannot admit exists within itself.

Foremost among these is Strauss’s supposed advocacy of a secret overclass, one that will rule through conspiracy and deceit. Strauss’s theories are appealing to conspiracists, and for a Left which often waxes grandiloquent about the evils of corporate power and the military/industrial complex – vaguely defined conspiracies reputed to wield immense power – such a manner of thinking is all but irresistible. In Strauss, the Left has “discovered” the intellectual origins of its most cherished fantasies.

In many ways, however, the Left is imparting on to Strauss the uglier aspects of its own ideas. Left wing support for single party and totalitarian systems very much mirrors its accusations against Strauss. Most of modern day Leftist thought, while mouthing pieties about equality and democracy, essentially advocates a dictatorship of intellectuals. The submission to the intelligentsia advocated by the Left, in the name of greater societal good, in every way mirrors the enlightened elite they claim Strauss and his followers so coveted. Even the telegraphing of hidden conclusions and ideas to “enlightened” followers is mirrored in Leftist literature, forcing the reader to read between the lines in order to glean the intended interpretation. Philo-totalitarian ideologies have gained widespread currency in the intelligentsia through precisely the brand of double-speak of which Strauss was supposedly the apostle. The Left espouses peace and justice while giving aid and comfort to ideologies and regimes that advocate totalitarianism and brutal repressive violence. All while claiming moral purity by pronouncing that objective truth cannot exist.

And this is where the hatred of Strauss ultimately has its origins. Strauss refused to accept the post-modern idea of moral relativism. Strauss espoused morality as a living force; he feared the collapse of societal norms into decadence, a phenomenon he had witnessed in the Weimer Republic of the ‘20s and ‘30s, with terrible consequences. He was horrified by the lack of philosophical judgment and courage that he believed facilitated the rise of Hitler, if only through indifference and inaction. Strauss believed that philosophy not only could not be separated from the society in which it was espoused, but also was charged with a responsibility to that society. The ferocious violence with which the Left attacks Strauss – driving them to engage even in such debased and callow racism as accusing a Jewish refugee of Nazism – is a telling indication of just how much of a threat this concept is to the self-righteous pieties of the Leftist ethos, which rests all its excesses on the grounds of its philosophical and moral purity. Strauss was an advocate of a socially responsible philosophy that saw truth as a means to happiness for a society, and not simply an engine for revolution. No wonder the Left hates him with such a passion.

June, 2003