Thursday, December 15, 2005


The Wild, Wacky World of Leo Strauss

Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 09:14:52 PM PDT

This is cross-posted from ToRule.Us, my primary blog, where I've received a few off-blog requests for information about Leo Strauss and his merry band of neo-conservatives. Having composed a fairly long essay on the subject in response, it occurred to me I should probably make it available through the blog, as well. So here it is. It's a dark tale full of evil, wrongdoing, and college professors. Doesn't get much better than that, que no?

So Strauss was this nutjob from the University of Chicago. His core idea was that everyone since Aristotle has been chasing bad ideas, and that we thus need to restore a Platonic purity to our philosophical and political systems. Particularly, the twin evils of liberalism (in the Lockean sense, rather than the Wellstonian) and relativism really raised his hackles. Seems harmless enough at first blush - the sort of crap that spawns a lot of philosophy papers that no one reads. The trouble is, he found some pretty crazy stuff in Plato - and chose to work through the political bureaucracy instead of the academic press.

So here's the rub: Strauss argues that classical philosophical texts (roughly anyone before Kant) contained both exoteric (overt) and esoteric (covert) meanings. The exoteric portion of the text was a cover story (to keep philosophers from getting the Socrates belladona treatment), and the esoteric portion of the text was the "real" part. Indeed, the exoteric text was an example of what Plato termed a "noble lie" - a lie told by the ruling elite, to keep the governed masses away from the unpopular truths of the esoteric text.

Thus for example, in the "Republic," Strauss argued that Socrates' line of reasoning in the dialogue with Thrasymachus was an exoteric cover story: the REAL truth is actually the oratory of Thrasymachus. Ergo, the "Republic" doesn't REALLY demand that a good Philosopher King be limited by morality (as we poor fools learned in school); rather, it argues that truth and morality are tools in the hand of the powerful. Thrasymachus' theory of brutal power is really the way to go, and Socrates' nice-guy-king is just a pleasant cover story to keep non-elites from complaining.

So there's the real core of this philosophy. A tiny cadre of better, more-clear-thinking people are supposed to rule everything, and they should spread lies, willy-nilly, to the general population to keep the masses satiated. As Strauss himself put it, "some are fit to lead, and others to be led." Worse, "those who are fit to rule are those who realise there is no morality and that there is only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior." And since the Straussians are the elite, they get to decide who hears the lies, who hears the truth, and what the esoteric meanings of all those classical texts are. The rest of us peons, then, just have to sit here and take it. We're "inferior," and "fit to be led," you see.

On a side note, Strauss had a strong admiration for Machiavelli - and, indeed, helped to rehabilitate ol' Niccolo in the conservative academy. The most powerful lesson he draws from Machiavelli is that true power does not rest in the hands of the Prince; it rests in the hands of the Prince's advisors. Thus, he organized his students, and urged them to take up advisory roles to politicians. To found think tanks and journals. To fill the intellectual void at the center of most politicians with the easy lies and corrupt policies of an elitist, regressive cadre. Well, that and this gem: "...[O]ne ought not to say to someone whom one wants to kill, `Give me your gun, I want to kill you with it,' but merely, `Give me your gun,' for once you have the gun in your hand, you can satisfy your desire."

That's how he reads the core ideological lesson one should draw from Machiavelli.

Thus, we find the contemporary "neo-conservative": just a flashy name for "Straussian." Among Strauss' students one can find Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, Irving Kristol (William Kristol's dad) and Norman Podhoretz (John Podhoretz' dad). Among their students, one can find William Kristol (Weekly Standard editor), John Podhoretz (NY Times columnist), Max Boot (LA Times columnist), Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambrone, Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Elliot Abrams, Alan Keyes, William Bennett, and dozens of others you'd recognize immediately, as well.

Thinking for a moment about the Kristol and Podhoretz families, one is struck by how fast the "natural leaders" argument leads into a hereditary nobility, isn't one?

One last side-note: this is where the whole neo-con rejection of the "reality-based community" comes from. For them, anyone who is willing to speak the truth is a dupe of Socrate's exoteric text. "Truth" for them is whatever the powerful say it is - as Thrasymachus suggested. Real leaders, who understand the esoteric truths of the world, know that to rule is to lie. To be based in reality is to lose.

Anyhow, that's from whence I derive my strong distrust of anything the wingnuts say. I derive it from the fact that they openly proclaim themselves to be liars.

Here's some pretty good links for further reading:

PS: Strauss, Bloom, and Wolfowitz all show up in Saul Bellow's Ravelstein - it's a Roman a Clef about the Straussians at U Chicago. Ravelstien is Bloom, of course. Davarr is Strauss. Philip Gorman is Wolfowitz.

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