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Conservatism and Skepticism—Part 1
Making sense of Leo Strauss’ multifarious influence on the American right
Leo Strauss’ influence looms large on the American right—so large, in fact, that attempting to trace specific aspects of it back to Strauss’ complex and enigmatic writings can be a frustrating experience.
How could it be that this German-Jewish émigré from National Socialist Germany managed to decisively influence founding neoconservative Irving Kristol during the 1950s, when he was still a liberal; and to inspire Allan Bloom’s 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, which remains arguably the most intellectually formidable culturally conservative defense of liberal education ever written; and to impress foreign policy analyst Paul Wolfowitz, who became one of the most crucial intellectual champions of the Iraq War within the administration of George W. Bush; and to mentor to Harry Jaffa, the primary intellectual force behind the Claremont Institute and its many affiliated people and projects, most of which now strive to provide philosophical apologetics for Trumpian populism, including its most egregiously anti-democratic acts?
Add in the dozens of largely apolitical scholars at colleges and universities around the country who take off from themes and methods laid out in Strauss’ work, and we’re left with a bewilderingly diverse impact on American politics and culture.
That influence extends even to me. I studied with “Straussians” in graduate school nearly three decades ago while never entirely accepting their premises or conclusions. I’ve spent the intervening quarter century struggling on my own to get to the bottom of Strauss’ ideas, a process that has included stretches of time when I was frustrated with and even hostile to what I understood of his philosophical project. I feel like I grasp and appreciate that project better now. I’ve also come to realize the numerous ways my own skeptical and somewhat pessimistic liberalism has been shaped by his work. This is the case despite my growing disgust at the decision of so many in the Claremont faction of the Straussian world to embrace so many of the most sordid aspects of Trumpism.
I plan to take a long, hard look at the latter tendency in a series of posts over the coming months. In this one and another to follow a few days from now, I’m setting myself a more limited and preliminary goal: I’d like to try laying out for a non-specialist audience what Strauss was up to in his work, and especially how to make sense of how he managed to influence so many competing and even clashing factions of the conservative intellectual and political world in the United States. (Strauss’ influence in other countries has been growing over the past couple of decades, but his admirers abroad are usually found at a greater distance from practical politics than has become common here.)
The Two Strausses
First-time readers of Strauss often note a single tension or seeming contradiction in his work. On the one hand, Strauss was a master of polemical rhetoric, which he often deployed against various aspects of liberal modernity, above all historicism and relativism, and the nihilism he thought was the perhaps inevitable terminus of them both. In their place, Strauss sought to recover a trans-historical moral (and perhaps even religious) standard he called “natural right.” This is the aspect of Strauss’s thought that has made him a hero to conservatives anxious about the moral flux and egalitarian drift of modern life.
Yet there is another Strauss—the one who consistently championed philosophy, “not as a teaching or as a body of knowledge, but as a way of life.” This form of philosophy, which Strauss associated most closely with Socrates, was radically skeptical. It strove for and culminated in “knowledge of our ignorance regarding the most important things.” “Knowledge of ignorance,” Strauss added, “is not ignorance. It is knowledge of the elusive character of the truth, of the whole.” The philosopher in this sense views human beings “in the light of the mysterious character of the whole,” which is to say in the light “of the fundamental and permanent problems.” Questions, not answers. Problems, not solutions.
Many Strauss readers resolve this tension by emphasizing one side and explaining away the other—an approach rendered plausible by Strauss’ notorious contention that all philosophers prior to the late eighteenth century engaged in “esoteric writing,” intentionally concealing their deepest thoughts beneath layers of rhetorical misdirection.
Applying Strauss’ theory of esoteric writing to his own books and essays, some readers presume the “true” Strauss is the conservative moralist, with the skeptical Socrates either an early stop on the philosophic road to knowledge of moral absolutes or an option Strauss believes to have been decisively refuted and surpassed by the eternal moral truths revealed in the Hebrew Bible. (These positions are especially popular among Strauss’ admirers on the American right.)
Others, meanwhile, insist that Strauss’ moralism is a ruse covering over Nietzschean nihilism at the core of his thought. (This view has been advanced most powerfully by the scholar Laurence Lampert, as well as by one of Strauss’ harshest critics, author Shadia Drury.)
Strauss the Skeptic
I reject both of these one-sided alternatives. Strauss, in my view, was a profoundly skeptical thinker. But this skepticism is not synonymous with Nietzschean nihilism, though neither does it provide comfort for those seeking eternal moral verities to guide human action. Strauss’ skepticism, inspired by Socrates, is a distinctive way of comporting oneself in the world—one that takes as its touchstone an ever-present awareness that thinking invariably begins, and usually remains deeply mired in, dogmatic, unexamined opinions about morality, politics, justice, God, and even being (or “the whole” of things). Skeptical philosophizing is a way of life devoted to liberating oneself from these dogmatic, unexamined opinions and replacing them with knowledge—knowledge of our ignorance.
Strauss’ Socratic skepticism differs from many other styles of skepticism in not being primarily a consequence of the limitations of human reason or some other defect of the human mind—as if another, less imperfect mind could discover an underlying coherence or fuller knowledge that eludes us. On the contrary, as one scholar has written, Socratic skepticism is a response to “the character of the world” itself. Elusiveness, hiddenness, confounding riddles, the primacy of questions to answers and problems to solutions—all of this “is a property of being itself.”
Strauss the Conservative
But then why did Strauss deploy a rhetoric of conservative moralism at all? A good part of if it flowed from his rather unexceptional view, which was so widespread until recent times that it could be called the consensus position among political theorists from Aristotle through Alexis de Tocqueville, that good and decent politics (especially in a republic) depends on a citizenry possessing moral virtue.
In Strauss’s case, the emphasis on moral virtue is both complicated and intensified by his conviction that philosophical reflection is fundamentally skeptical, potentially eroding the traditional moral and religious views on which good and decent politics depends. Strauss thus ended up in the unusual position of simultaneously advocating skeptical philosophical inquiry and working to prop up the very moral and religious views that such inquiry typically corrodes and dissolves.
To champion moral virtue in a modern liberal democracy is to sound like a conservative. To champion it while also advocating a form of philosophy that undermines the foundations of moral virtue is to sound like a uniquely cynical form of conservative—one who deploys conservative rhetoric as a mere subterfuge or “noble lie” for popular consumption. This has become one of the most common accusations critics make against Strauss. But his position is actually more complicated than that—and more interesting.
Strauss’s moralism isn’t simply a deception. It serves a philosophically justifiable purpose in light of what he took to be the permanent relation of philosophy to pre-philosophical opinion on the one hand, and the distinctive obstacles to philosophical skepticism in the modern world on the other.
Strauss maintains that in the pre-modern world, philosophy emerged (both historically and continually with each person down through the centuries who ended up drawn to it as a way of life) as an imminent critique of received opinions about virtue, justice, nobility, honor, love, friendship, the divine, and a range of other moral, political, and religious views. The philosopher examines these opinions, notices contradictions within them, and ascends dialectically to truer, less dogmatic, more enigmatic positions, and finally to genuine knowledge of the elusive character of truth.
On Strauss’ reading, Plato’s allegory of the cave encapsulates in metaphorical terms this vision of philosophy’s genesis and relation to pre-philosophical life and experience. In the allegory, people live their lives unknowingly chained to the floor of a cave, which represents the political community (tribe, city-state, nation-state, or empire), along with its foundational laws and abiding customs. Within this cave, the people are forced to gaze at shadow-images (received opinions about morality, politics, and the gods) that they ignorantly mistake for reality. Philosophers are those rare individuals who come to doubt these received (false or at least badly distorted) opinions and seek to replace them with knowledge. In doing so, they liberate themselves from their confinement in the cave and ultimately ascend to the outside world of real objects bathed in the light of the sun.
Every political community, for Strauss, is a cave. That includes ancient Athens, the 20th-century United States in which he eventually made his home, and even the ideal or utopian city-in-speech elaborated by Socrates and his conversation partners in Plato’s Republic, which is ruled by a class of philosopher kings. That’s because Strauss was convinced that false and distorted political, moral, and religious opinions of one kind or another are, everywhere and always, the “very element of human or social or political life.”
Scholars regularly make such claims about traditional societies, but Strauss’ insistence on applying it to modern liberal democracies placed him at odds with the self-interpretation that often prevails within them. And that tension points to what Strauss considered to be an important shift in the relation of philosophical skepticism and political practice since the time of the 18th-century Enlightenment—a shift that helps to explain why Strauss frequently deployed conservative rhetoric in his writing and teaching.
The Ideology of Progress and the Cave Beneath the Cave
Across all of its national variations, the Enlightenment sought to spread philosophical and scientific knowledge throughout society for the sake of improving the human condition, materially, spiritually, and intellectually. In classical terms, it aimed to bring everyone (or at least as many people as possible) out of the cave. This goal would be made possible by instituting a self-perpetuating culture of publicity and criticism.
More than two centuries after the establishment of this culture, most educated, culturally literate people understand themselves to be part of a multi-generational, unilinear process of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, with none of them starting from scratch in their efforts to understand the world. They start their individual pursuits of knowledge mid-stream, picking up from the efforts of those who preceded them, contributing to the effort, and then passing on their discoveries to the next generation. We call this process “progress.”
The belief in progress has had profound implications for the relationship of philosophical skepticism to pre-philosophical opinion, according to Strauss, since most educated, culturally literate men and women consider themselves to a considerable extent already liberated from traditional moral prejudices. The seemingly undeniable evidence in support of this view is all around us. We live in a world radically altered by applied natural philosophy/science (technology, medicine) and in a culture transformed in countless ways by philosophical theories about the economy, society, government, and the natural world.
Yet Strauss never wavered in his view that our moral-political world is nonetheless a cave—albeit one with a crucially important difference from traditional (pre-Enlightenment) caves. Our cave explicitly denies it is a cave; one of its most distinctive dogmas is to believe it has left dogmatism behind—or perhaps that we’re in an ongoing collective process of ever-greater liberation from it. This makes the dogmatism of our cave uniquely difficult to detect and dislodge—and led Strauss to suggest that modern men and women reside in a second, deeper, artificially constructed “cave beneath the cave.”
This idea had extraordinary implications for how Strauss viewed philosophical reflection and its precise relation to moral conservatism under modern conditions….
Part 2 of this post on Leo Strauss and his influence on the American right will appear within the next week.
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