Friday, October 06, 2017

Leo Strauss: Inside Every Gook

Strauss's attempt to muscle out Christianity as a formative principle of Western Civilisation led him to posit an alternative.  For Strauss, that alternative was Athenian Philosophy.

Philosophy, as Strauss asserted, was categorically different to revealed faith and two could be considered as operating in separate domains: influential, but not binding on each other. While the faith could inspire or challenge, it was the role of philosophy to determine what was the correct way to live. Furthermore, Strauss asserted that there was difference between the philosophy of the "ancients" as opposed to the "moderns". The poisons of modern philosophy, according to Strauss,  found their origin in the radical reaction to the Christian synthesis of faith and reason, resulting in reason being taken  to the extremes.  Strauss saw modern philosophy--with all of its ills--as a sort of Hegelian "reactionary anti-Christianity" rather than an separate thing in itself. Ancient Greek philosophy, on the other hand,  was uncontaminated by the Christian faith and represented a purer and more universal philosophy that could stand alone outside the Hegelian Christian/Anti-Christian dialectic.

As I understand it, Strauss saw the classical world as being more moderate and prudent when it came to rationalisation and reason. The ancient world never made the mistake of the Christian West, of trying to harmonise faith and reason, nor did it make the mistake of the radical Enlightenment, in trying to eliminate the faith.  The "reasonableness' of the ancients was a sort of "check and balance" on rationality and helped stop philosophy/reason  from becoming too extreme. Strauss felt that by adopting this approach a moderate secularism could be achieved, and hence his call for a "return to the ancients."

However, if you think about this for a bit, the terms "excess", "prudence" and "radicalisation" are all relative terms which are subjectively contingent, and what Strauss was advocating in his depictions of Classical philosophy was a "moderate" or dispositionaly conservative, secularism,  i.e. "go slow secularism". Strauss may not have admired Burke but he was effectively advocating a secularism along Burkean lines; a prudent, cautious secularism which didn't push things too far. And I think that  his advocacy of a "moderate" secularism is what gave Strauss his appeal among the "feelz" based "Right" who found the radical secularism of the Left intuitively repugnant.

As mentioned in the previous post, Straussian conservatism's acknowledgement of the importance of religion, without any definite obligation to it, bought the allegiance of the cognitively-lite religious crowds. Taking Strauss at his word, it does seem that Strauss thought that religion was important, but its role seemed to be "influence' and "challenge" reason without reason having obligation to respond.  Straussian paeans to the faith reassure the relgious lambs who felt that they could lay next to the secular lions under the Straussian tent.

Perceptive readers who have suffered this blog will see that there is an automatic metaphysical tension built in the Straussian hermeneutic between it and the  Christian one. Gottfried lays it out;
Christians may appropriate for themselves bits and pieces of the Straussian method but they would be wrong to imagine that the corresponding belief system is congruent with Christian truths or with any other form of revealed religion. If devout Christians find nothing objectionable about the Straussian hermeneutic, then they should be willing to reconsider their position. They should recognize the fit between the the two worldviews is more problematic than they have been willing to admit. This reassessment may be all the more necessary give the still widespread appeal among Catholic traditionalists.

In the battle between Athenian philosophy and Christian revelation, Athens always wins. Furthermore, the practical application of Straussianism in the multi-faith environment that is America--or the Anglosphere--everyone's faith gets "respected" but no one's faith gets to put the brakes on Athenian philosophy. The end result is the relentless push of secularism, albeit at a pace slower than that advocated by the radical Left.

Furthermore, as Athenian philosophy was an exercise in abstract "reason" and "sound judgement", its cognitive operations were not really contigent upon local circumstances, tradition, or identity, something Strauss dismissed as Historicism. Being abstract and purely rational, "above" time and place, the conclusions of Athenian philosophy were transnational and trans-historical, in essence universal. Just as "one plus one equals two" is universally valid, according to Strauss, anyone, thinking like a "sound" Athenian philosopher, be they Arabic, Hindu or Japanese would come to the same conclusions as to what was the "philosophically" right way to live.  Implicit in Straussian conservatism is a universalism in its applicability. i.e. it was globalist in scope.

According to Strauss, when Greek philosophy was put to the task of politics, the "best possible" political system that resulted was Anglo-American democracy. Although I may be expressing it impolitely, it's not far off the mark to say that Straussians believe that within every Gook, Chink, Sand nigger, Wop, etc., there is an American waiting to get out.

There's a couple of important points here;

Firstly, As Strauss attempts to write out Christianity from the political history of the West, he redefines Western as being equivalent to its secular liberal manifestation. By this logic, countries like South Korea, Japan and Israel are Western. The West ceases to be a particular time, person, or place. Anyone can be part of the West provided they achieve "Athenian" illumination and embrace secular democracy.

Secondly, there is an implicit tension between the utopia of secular democracy and the forces which impede it. For the Straussian conservative,  a Christianity which imposed limits on secular democracy would be just as objectionable as a Confucianism or Islam which did the same. The uncoupling of religion, as expressed though culture, if not theocracy, means that Straussian "Conservatism" relentlessly  pushes Left, the limits only being what "reasonable" Athenian rationality deems reasonable.

Take "Gay Marriage" for instance. A Catholic, sound Protestant, or Orthodox religious culture would prohibit the political realisation of the concept, no matter how well argued a case in support of it.  The prohibition would be moral and binding. A Straussian, on the other hand,  would argue that religion is a "challenge" to our conceptions of marriage but for the good of the "polis" it may be necessary to be be flexible and magnanimous to those under the spell of the "Helenic Eros." They talk the religious talk but walk the secular walk.

Thirdly, Straussianism had its gestation in the Wiemar republic and the Cold war period, where there were real threats to the existence of secular liberal democracy. Straussian conservatism sees the aggressive defense and expansion of this type of democracy as an inherent good. The consequence being that there is an implicit expansionary dynamic in the ideology. War is a feature, and not a bug, of the system.  Making the world safe for democracy means getting rid of the threats to democracy, be they political, cultural or local. Anyone who is not with the program is a potential threat.

Fourthly, many of the factors which prevent a particular country from achieving the utopia of modern secular democracy are precisely local and historical. Straussian conservatism is inherently oppositional to them. Straussian conservatism therefore acts as a homogenising social force by hostility to the local insofar as it impedes the universal, implicitly pushing towards a global monoculture and is a facilitating factor of the current globalist agenda.


Jason said...

There's so much you lay out here, doctor, that I'm not sure how to respond. I do concur though that at least some neos and their fellow travelers seem to have trouble with limits, be they prudential or religious or historical. Just the other day I was reading an essay about civil religion, where the author was unable to even grapple with the idea that Americans might properly be sympathetic in some ways at least to Trump's America Firstism, or that there could be some real problems with Straussian universalism that justify reevaluations.

Still, I can't also help criticizing paleos like Gottfried as well, at least to a certain degree. At their worst they come off to me as relativists, seemingly condoning political systems that they would never dream of living in under themselves. One could pose to them this question, for instance, one especially pregnant with meaning for the 21st century: if China were somehow to make its Confucion culture compatible with democracy rather than authoritarianism, wouldn't that be a good thing?

The Social Pathologist said...


if China were somehow to make its Confucion culture compatible with democracy rather than authoritarianism, wouldn't that be a good thing?

Well I'm not sure you can reconcile Confucianism with democracy, at least in the long term.

Some of the Paleos do condone things which I find abhorrent. Buchanan's vitriol against Churchill being a case in point. The U.S. involvement in WW2, was in the main, just and righteous. Likewise, the Paleo defense of Serbia during the recent Balkan wars boggles my mind. There is definitely a case for isolationism and not being a busy body, but there is also a case--I'd say obligation--for intervention in the case of malignant evil. Paleo Isolationism is a weak spot in their ideology

But I think one of the really important points that comes from reading Gottfried and Havers is the idea that modern liberal democracy is a contingent consequence of a Christian culture, and therefore efforts to impose "democracy" or "human rights" on people who lack the cultural prerequisites are going to fail. Regrettably this puts quite real limits on the scope of foreign policy and intervention.

China may not have a good human rights record but an all out conflict to impose it on them has to be prudentially evaluated, and the real world costs and benefits measured. In politics sometimes we have to tolerate evils in order to avoid greater ones.

Still, the main point of my essays on Strauss is to show how a ostensibly "Right" ideology can be pushing a Left agenda.

Jason said...

Thanks for your response doctor. Yeah, you might be right that reconciling democracy and Confucianism is like trying to square a circle, considering the authoritative and hierarchic aspects of the latter. Still, Chinese Taiwan has managed to make the transition, as have South Korea and Japan - Asian countries which are, not coincidentally, quite homogenous and intelligent. (Other more diverse and lower-IQ countries like the Philippines and Thailand are sadly having a harder time of it.) I wonder if Asian traditions, while not as amenable to liberty and liberalism as Christianity is, might be second-best. There is after all something like the "mandate from heaven" in Chinese tradition, where rulers forfit their sovereignty if they are not doing right by the people.

You're definitely right though that liberalism is not something that can be imposed. Indeed, I think the U.S. would do quite well to go through a period of "benign neglect" over the next decade or so, where we just stay out of international troublespots that do not concretely infringe on American interests (e.g. Ukraine).

The Social Pathologist said...


You might find this article interesting.

I think that the Asian uptake on democracy was predicated more on copying the wealthy West rather than rather than accepting the "cultural values" that underpinned it. The individual matters far less in Asian societies than in Western ones and if democracy started to produce disorder I think a shift into traditional authoritarian mode would come quite quickly and with little opposition from the mainstream.

Jeffrey S. said...

I'm no Straussian, and have only read about his ideas, so I hold no particular brief for him or his defense of Athenian philosophy.

What strikes me about this discussion though, is how if it is accurate about Strauss, he seems to gloss over the marriage between faith and reason made possible by the natural law philosophers of the Catholic Church. So, when you say the following:

"Take "Gay Marriage" for instance. A Catholic, sound Protestant, or Orthodox religious culture would prohibit the political realisation of the concept, no matter how well argued a case in support of it."

This is true, but only correct in so far as a smart Catholic would never concede the argument! From a natural law perspective, using just reason, one can attack the idea of so-called 'gay marriage' as something that makes no sense and arguing from first principles, could bring the discussion back to questions about what marriage means and the purpose of marriage. Of course, in today's world, such a discussion is practically useless because the crazy left is all about feelings and emotion and is uninterested in smart, natural law arguments.

Jason said...

Thanks for the link doctor. I think the Wiki article was pretty good, although more needs to be said, perhaps, especially about 1989. Looking through Jonathon Spence's history of modern China, I discovered that 1 million - 1 million! - demonstrated against the government during the famous Tiananmen Square uprisings in 1989. Maybe there was a flash-in-the-pan aspect to that event, especially as it was contemporaneous with other democratization movements, particularly in Europe. Nonetheless, I think it was significant, and one can see echoes of it subsequently, notably the way many Chinese are getting tired of being slapped around whenever they challenge the party too much, even while maintaining otherwise a fairly conservative attitude. Anyway, as the author of the essay says at the end, things cannot go on the way they have been. Something will give, and I'm afraid that the Chi Cons will react by encouraging a militant nationalism that could have dangerous reprecusions.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Jeffrey S.

Sorry for the late reply.

Of course, in today's world, such a discussion is practically useless because the crazy left is all about feelings and emotion and is uninterested in smart, natural law arguments.

I've never really had the conviction that natural law arguments are as watertight as their proponents purport them to be. Sure, natural law arguments are reasonable but the question is, is the reasonable true? I mean does marriage primarily exist for the generation of children? Could marriage be an institution designed for companionship and children a secondary factor? Good, intuitively based arguments could be based on both propositions. I think we're on far safer ground by approaching ethics from a Divine Command point of view.


Something will give, and I'm afraid that the Chi Cons will react by encouraging a militant nationalism that could have dangerous reprecusions