June 07, 2003

The Weaknesses and Foibles of Modernity

Department of Procrastination and Sad Waste of Time II: Andrew Sullivan defends Leo Strauss:

www.AndrewSullivan.com - Daily Dish: ...I too learned a huge amount from teachers who had imbibed Strauss' respect for classical thought and profound understanding of the weaknesses and foibles of modernity...

We all think of our favorite examples of the "foibles of modernity" and nod our heads. But then we think again: this is Leo Strauss whom Sullivan is talking about--the Strauss who firmly and fanatically believed that everything worth reading was written on two levels, with a simple wholesome exoteric message for the "gentlemen", and a different subtle--but dangerous to the philosophically-unprepared--message for the "philosophers." And then you realize that Sullivan is not talking about our understanding of the "foibles of modernity," but of what Strauss understood as the "foibles of modernity."

What did Strauss think were the "foibles of modernity"? He wasn't thinking of things like "political correctness" or unemployment insurance or the Americans for Disabilities Act or rock music. Strauss was thinking of things like the belief that political philosophy ought to start from the assumption that individuals had rights to liberty and autonomy (as opposed, say, to the right to live in a well-ordered city under the authority of philosophers or of gentlemen friendly to philosophy), and that the purpose of government was to protect these rights. Strauss was thinking of the claim that what made governments legitimate was the consent of the governed to their rule (as opposed to being legitimated by the excellence of the governors). Strauss was thinking of claims that peoples have a right to choose their own form of government (as opposed to having the best among them choose a philosopher-approved form).

In short, if you give a Straussian reading to Sullivan's claim to have learned much from teachers who had " imbibed Strauss' respect for classical thought and profound understanding of the weaknesses and foibles of modernity," you conclude that Sullivan believes that the second paragraph of America's Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness...

is nothing but a pious fraud--something that is useful for "gentlemen" and the hoi polloi to believe, but not principles to be taken seriously by anyone of mental substance.

Is this in fact what Sullivan believes? There is evidence for it. Sullivan's piece gives an approving cite to Bret Stephens, who writes that:

At the same time, Strauss believed that there were dangers.... The foundations of liberal democracy may... not be quite as solid as liberal democrats would... believe. The trick was to examine and strengthen the foundations without causing the edifice above it to collapse... prudence was required. If the result of unfettered philosophical inquiry in a liberal democracy was to bring the house down, neither philosophy nor democracy would be well served.... Even if liberal democracy was based on nothing but enabling fictions (and Strauss did not believe that... only that it was based on incomplete truths), these were fictions that today's academics have a duty to defend...

To give a Straussian reading to Stephens's paragraph is to delete the passage "Strauss did not believe that... only that it was based on incomplete truths" and to replace the passage "may... not be quite as solid" with "are completely rotten." For Strauss, it was never a question of examining and repairing not-completely-solid foundations, but it was always a question of dealing with the enormous and fundamental intellectual errors of the political philosophers of the Enlightenment. And those of Stephens's statements about Strauss that are plainly false are included to sooth the "gentlemen"--for, after all, as Stephens tells us flat-out, Stephens's first duty in writing about Strauss is not to tell the truth but to shore up "gentlemanly" belief in the enabling fictions of the modern political order.

Does Sullivan, in writing the phrase "Strauss's profound understanding of the... foibles of modernity" and in endorsing Bret Stephens's piece really intend to send a coded esoteric message that he--Andrew Sullivan--thinks that the Jeffersonian principles on which the United States is founded are complete nonsense?

I cannot tell. If Sullivan is writing as a normal guy, then no. If Sullivan is writing--as Stephens is--as a second-order disciple of Leo Strauss, then yes.

This is what is so poisonous about the whole Straussian circle: They are not talking to us. We are "gentlemen": to be propagandized, to be lied to, and to be blocked from understanding the esoteric message that is the true teaching of the inner party. We are not to be informed, or to be listened to, or to be argued with.

Posted by DeLong at June 7, 2003 08:42 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Wish we could all go back back back to the wonderful days of Athens and Sparta when men were men and women weren't. When Spartonians wandered about witrh spears and Athenians wandered about wondering whether Athena was hotter than Venus. the hell with modernity. Who needs aspirin?

Posted by: dahl on June 8, 2003 09:21 AM

It's not just the Straussians, though. Try going into a Pol Sci 101 class and ask what happened to "Of the people, by the people, for the people". All the Pol Sci I ever ran into was elitist (in the theoretical rather than the smear sense of the word) and regarded "engineering consent" as half of the leader's job. Much the same is true of practical politics.

The Straussians are deeply anti-democratic, but the things they talk about are things that democrats need to deal with, rather than just dismissing.

Posted by: zizka on June 8, 2003 10:03 AM

Straussians are anti-democratic. Further, they think politics calls not for open democratic argument, but for masking of intent for purposes they deem proper. Sure, I just never did get Greek worship. Love all that jazz.

Posted by: dahl on June 8, 2003 10:22 AM

Sullivan writes:

"The attempt of some who haven't even read Strauss (let alone read him as carefully as he deserves) to smear his legacy and denigrate those who learned from him is a pathetic display of paranoia and ignorance. No wonder it goes down so well among some on the academic left. Paranoia and ignorance are their strong suits."

Were you trying to prove his point?

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on June 8, 2003 03:57 PM

Brad says:

"...This is what is so poisonous about the whole Straussian circle: They are not talking to us. We are "gentlemen": to be propagandized, to be lied to, and to be blocked from understanding the esoteric message that is the true teaching of the inner party. We are not to be informed, or to be listened to, or to be argued with."


I REALLY don't think "Straussianism" (whatever THAT term might REALLY mean) is what's REALLY "ailing" us--OR that so-called "cabal" of so-called "Straussians"--

"The Real Leo Strauss

By JENNY STRAUSS CLAY

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.
Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a "cabal" (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles.

My father was not a politician. He taught political theory, primarily at the University of Chicago. He was a conservative insofar as he did not think that change is necessarily change for the better.

Leo Strauss believed in the intrinsic dignity of the political. He believed in and defended liberal democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best form of government that could be realized, "the last best hope." He was an enemy of any regime that aspired to global domination. He despised utopianism — in our time, Nazism and Communism — which is predicated on the denial of a fundamental and even noble feature of human nature: love of one's own. His heroes were Churchill and Lincoln. He was not an observant Jew, but he loved the Jewish people and he saw the establishment of Israel as essential to their survival...."*

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/07/opinion/07CLAY.html

*Interestingly--or perhaps not--Ms. Strauss neglected to include among that list of "despised utopianisms" of "our time"--"Communism and Nazism"--ONE relevant [if "reactionary"] (it seems to me) "kissing", co-dependent, compatriotic, AND contemporaneous "cousin" of them BOTH:

"ZIONISM": the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, advocated, from its inception, tangible as well as spiritual aims. Jews of all persuasions, left and right, religious and secular, joined to form the Zionist movement and worked together toward these goals. Disagreements led to rifts, but ultimately, the common goal of a Jewish state in its ancient homeland was attained. The term "Zionism" was coined in 1893 by Nathan Birnbaum..."

http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Zionism/zionism.html


By the way Brad, just how big IS that "whole Straussian circle", anyway? [Were YOU invited to the "conspiracy party" THIS year, Bubba] (?:[>

"Bilderberg Black Out

To witness the annual Bilderberg conference is to realize how the “Lords of the New World Order”—the self-chosen elite of international finance, business, and politics—are allowed to assemble in secret and conspire with the connivance of the mainstream media.

Exclusive to American Free Press

By Christopher Bollyn

Given the tumultuous events in the Middle East and the serious strains in U.S.-French relations, one would expect that an event near Paris, in which scores of key U.S. and European officials meet with the heads of international finance and business, would attract considerable media attention. However, while Bilderberg 2003 at the historic Trianon Palace at Versailles was an extraordinary gathering of the global elite, it passed with scarcely a word in the controlled press.

In the historic Trianon Palace Hotel, where the Versailles treaty was handed to the defeated Germans after World War I, the individuals who head the world’s largest oil companies and financial institutions convened during four days, in total seclusion, with selected political leaders and media owners..."

http://www.americanfreepress.net/05_24_03/Bilderberg_Black_Out/bilderberg_black_out.html


[Originally Posted by: Mike on June 8, 2003 01:11 PM Comments in brackets "[]" added in an effort to appease the censor.]

Posted by: Mike on June 8, 2003 04:15 PM

How am I supposed to be persuaded by Straussians whose fundamental tenet is that they may lie to you out of expedience? It sounds to me like: "I may be lying to you, but I want you to believe me." And we're surprized we don't find any WMD's in Iraq?

Posted by: Rob on June 8, 2003 05:51 PM

Outstanding post, Brad. very well done.

We need to run those crypto-Straussian fucks out of town on a rail.

Posted by: The Fool on June 9, 2003 08:19 AM

I can't comment authoritatively on Strauss's approach, as I haven't read most of his works. But I have read his most famous book: Natural Right and History. And it seems to me that Mr. DeLong is 180 degrees from the truth when he claims that Strauss did not believe that "individuals had rights to liberty and autonomy . . . and that the purpose of government was to protect these rights." The whole point of Natural Right and History was to argue FOR such rights.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on June 9, 2003 11:52 AM

I am at something of a loss to fathom the point of the Straussians and the point of the anti-Straussians.

Is the point of contention that Straussians believe that the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independece upon which transcendental theology of liberal democracy is traditionally based are myths or fictions? If that is so then I confess to being a Straussian. I mean, upon what possible evidence can one believe it to be true that "all men are created equal"? I like liberal democracy; I believe it to be very good for me and for enough other people in enough places to make it a viable system. All in all much better in its consequences than any alternative thus far conceived. Is that not enough? Must I subscribe to some mumble jumble about men being created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to avoid being branded a hypocrite?

Or is the point of contention that Straussians preach what they believe to be false? On this score I am not a Straussian. I would not enjoy such an activity at all and would not be any good at it. On the other hand I can't say that I'm especially hostile to it. It is not evidently a bad thing for people to believe that men are created equal and endowed with rights; to the extent that such a belief increases their support for liberal democracy, it is a positively good thing.

Yet another charge against the Straussians is that they want to do away with liberal democracy all together and install themselves as absolute rulers. That would indeed be a bad thing. But why should I worry about such an eventuality? Lots of people would arrogate absolute power to themselves if they could. I don't lie awake at night fearing that economists or Hegelians or medieval re-enactors will seize absolute power. Have the Straussians discovered some unique magic that should inspire special fear?

Posted by: Daniel Lam on June 9, 2003 12:09 PM

Nice Straussian reading. What is Strauss's opinion of barebacking with strangers when you are HIV-positive? Should the strangers be informed?

Posted by: John Isbell on June 10, 2003 09:03 AM

Dahl,

Try not to confuse Straussian views with all views of classicists.

Thank God I went to St. John's College and not Chicago. I can't imagine the corrosive effect of Professors telling students what all those authors "really" meant and imprinting them with their peculiar political views, including the validation of the false intellectual opposition of "modern" and "pre-modern".

Oh, wait, I *can* imagine this. It's what passes for education almost *everywhere*: indoctrination. And it's always so bloody political. Is this the teaching academic's hubris of changing the world through transforming his/her students?

At any rate, I have an enormous love for the Greeks. Please don't confuse my views with those of the Straussians or, for that matter, caricatured ideas about the Greeks borne primarily from ignorance.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on June 11, 2003 12:39 PM

Hi, I just came across your reading of my reading of Strauss. I don't know whether to be flattered or amused by the spin you put on it. You'd think I'm sending coded esoteric messages to my fellow deep thinkers. I wish I were half as clever.

The truth is, I was just trying to write my weekly column -- on short notice, too, sandwiched between a boozy lunch and a five o'clock editorial meeting. I don't know how much hidden meaning could have been extracted from my addled brain even if I really did intend to deceive the masses.

By the way, the column that followed was all about Hillary. I quote you at length. Appreciatively. Nothing "esoteric" in my purpose at all.

Rgds,
Bret Stephens

Posted by: Bret Stephens on June 14, 2003 06:16 AM

Hi, I just came across your reading of my reading of Strauss. I don't know whether to be flattered or amused by the spin you put on it. You'd think I'm sending coded esoteric messages to my fellow deep thinkers. I wish I were half as clever.

The truth is, I was just trying to write my weekly column -- on short notice, too, sandwiched between a boozy lunch and a five o'clock editorial meeting. I don't know how much hidden meaning could have been extracted from my addled brain even if I really did intend to deceive the masses.

By the way, the column that followed was all about Hillary. I quote you at length. Appreciatively. Nothing "esoteric" in my purpose at all.

Rgds,
Bret Stephens

Posted by: Bret Stephens on June 14, 2003 06:17 AM

Heh, " The American Free Press." Sent the below to, "Portside, " the list moderated by CCDS, the '91 split from the CPUSA, when they ran a silly piece from The American Free Press, "CIA Accused Of Iraq Bank Heist."
There is a quite amusing book by a UK journalist, w/ a chapter on the Bilderbergers and The American Free Press, previously, "The Spotlight." Book is in pb. now, "Them, " by Jon Ronson, if memory serves.
Michael Pugliese

Re: "The American Free Press, " and Gordon Thomas.
As one who has a sick hobby of reading the far-rightwingnut media ,
"The New American, " of the John Birch Society, and conspiracy theorists
like Gordon Thomas, I am more than familiar w/ The American Free Press,
published by the Liberty Lobby of Willis Carto. Carto is an acolyte of
the late neo-fascist intellectual, Francis Parker Yockey (see this review
of Kevin Coogan's biography of Yockey, by libertarian communist Loren
Goldner
http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/yockey.html ) and was a founder of
the Holocaust Denialialist, "Institute for Historical Review, " (on the
IHR see, "Denying History
Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, " by
Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, University of California Press, and the
documentary by Errol Morris, "Mr. Death, http://www.errolmorris.com/
films.php?film_id=1&info_id=6http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/8295/
8295.ch01.html
)
Gordon Thomas, is quite prolific. His latest to hit the bookstores,
"Seeds of Fire, " attempts to show that the People's Republic China is
going to take over the world by military aggression and cyberwarfare, (ad
for his book on the hard right-wing website, NewsMax, http://
www.newsmax.com/seedsoffire.shtml ,"Was China Involved in 9-11?...Is
China Planning a Nuclear War with the U.S.?" notice on Thomas, on E.
Zundel website
http://zgrams.zundelsite.org/pipermail/zgrams/2003-April/000441.html
[Zundel is a Canadian neo-nazi profiled in the Morris documentary] .
--
Michael Pugliese


Posted by: Michael Pugliese on August 30, 2003 01:39 PM
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