Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Havers and Gottfried on Strauss

Strauss and the Straussians have succeeded in doing the opposite of German historian Ernst Nolte and, before him, Marxists credited the fascists with having produced in interwar Europe: "a counterrevolutionary imitation of the Left."  The Straussians have pulled of an equally enterprising feat by assuming a certain right-wing style without expressing a right-wing worldview.

Paul Gottfried, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.

While I was on holidays I had a chance to catch up with some reading and two books which I think are worth a mention are Paul Gottfried's, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, and Grant Havers's, Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique. Both are very good and I think it is safe to say that both try to be scrupulously fair to their subject.

For those of us trying to understand why the Right failed in the 20th Century, it's important to understand the various movements that were able to co-opt the Right and subvert it from the inside. In Europe, Fascism was an example of a superficially Right wing ideology that was built on a modernist ideology. However in America where because of cultural factors Fascism really couldn't get a grip, the pseudo Right ideology that subverted the native Right took the form of Neoconservatism.

One of the impressions I'm continually left with after reading Sam Francis and the other "Paleocons" is that while they recognised the malice of Neoconservatism, they really weren't able to pin down, philosophically, the source of its malignancy. These books help clarify the issue. Of the two, I was particularly fond of Havers' book, since I felt that Haver's approach to the subject more clearly raised the issue of what it means to be a conservative in the Anglo-American tradition.

In my opinion, it's important to know and understand Strauss since he was the main intellectual influence on the Neocon movement. As a consequence, the legacy of his ideas have also influenced the political Right in the U.S. and contemporary history through the application of U.S. economic and military power.

As both books attest, Strauss is unfairly blamed for a lot of things, and the slant that is given to his ideology more often than not reflects the intellectual weaknesses of his detractors rather than something Strauss is actually guilty of. In both books, the authors try to avoid this error and are scrupulously fair to Strauss, attributing to him only what he actually advocated. In their biographies, Strauss comes across as a highly intelligent man of conservative disposition,  but both authors recognise that his conservatism ends there.

Both authors do a good job describing the development of his ideas and for the purposes of this blog it is the ideas that matter. Strauss's big idea's can be summarised as follows:

1.  That there is an categorical incompatibility between reason and faith. Or as Strauss would say, "a conflict between Athens and Jerusalem"  This incompatibility arises from the fact that faith is not determined or validated by reason and therefore is not "reasonable", but something different to reason. Unlike modern Positivists, he does not actually denigrate religion for not being a product of reason, rather he sees Religion as belonging to a separate category  that is inspirational and socially utilitarian.

2.  Classical civilisation understood the world in this schema, as do Judaism and Islam to a certain degree.

3.  According to Strauss, Western Civilisation was the result of the tug of war between Athens (Reason) and Jerusalem(Faith).

4.  Christianity limited philosophy by subordinating it to faith.

5.  Modernism was a violent reaction to the Christian limitations of Reason--i.e. a reaction of reason being shackled to the faith.

6.  The solution to the crisis of Modernism was to go back to pre-Christian time, to Athenian Philosophy. Unlike the modern revolt of Reason which denied religion outright, Athenian reason was more "reasonable" and took consideration of Religion in its judgements.

7.  Philosophy helps us discern "timeless values" which while not being able to produce a perfect world may at least help us achieve the best possible one.

8.  The timeless nature of the ideals of philosophy makes philosophical insights applicable to everyone.

9.  The modern Anglo Liberal Democracy--particularly in its U.S. incarnation--is the best possible world. It is important to understand that best possible doesn't mean what Strauss would like or what would be a perfect world, it simply means the best possible given current contingencies.

Strauss's approach to the subject had enormous appeal, especially in Post WW2 America, where  a disunited Right, fearful of Communism, found an ideology which crossed sectarian divisions. By grounding Conservatism with the tradition of classical political rationalism, Straussian conservatism was open to anyone who would buy into it. Strauss's conservatism was very inclusive being global in its scope. Furthermore, Strauss's vigorous defence of liberal democracy--something which the Right was never particularly fond of-- came at at time when the free world was terrified by by the specter of Soviet totalitarianism. Strauss was literally, in the right place, at the right time, with the right product.

The problem with Strauss's approach, is that while it superficially appeared conservative, through the emphasis on the Greek Classics, Religion and Reason, anti-Communism, etc, it was anything but and a study of where Strauss goes wrong can serve as an important source of instruction or what it means to be Right and how to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Nevertheless, Strauss's unhappiness with the Left in the Cold War period is not tantamount to a categorical rejection of all leftist or modern thought per se. As I argue for the remainder of this chapter, Strauss and his students largely agree with the traditional leftist dismissal of Christianity as an irrational influence on the political philosophy of the West. This fundamental consensus between Strauss and the Left, which has been neglected in most of the literature on Strauss, gravely affects their understanding of Anglo-American political thought. For Strauss was compelled to read out of this tradition any signs of a serious indebtedness to Christianity. Unlike the anti-democratic Far Right which often faults Christianity for its universal morality (e.g. Charity) that made democracy possible, Strauss is ultimately critical of Christianity as a foundation of Anglo-American democracy because it is not sufficiently universalist. (that is, intelligible to all human beings): it is sheer historicism to hold up one faith as a principle foundation of the West. As a result of this hermeneutical rationale, that very tradition that Strauss and his students wish to preserve as a repository of rationally accessible "eternal principles" is reinvented as a secular liberal artifice whose main inspiration is Athens, not Jerusalem.

Grant Havers, Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique