Monday, June 26, 2006

'Reading Leo Strauss,' by Steven B. Smith - New York Times

If Robert Alter's review of Steven Smith's Reading Leo Strauss is accurate, I couldn't agree more with him about Strauss' real meaning. As Alter says:
"[Strauss] strenuously resisted the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence. Such thinking could scarcely be further from the vision of neoconservative policy intellectuals that the global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change. 'The idea,' Smith contends, 'that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss.'"

Strauss believed that politics would never be open and democratic in the way that we hope that it could. This belief is not an endorsement of that fact, but an acknowledgement of reality. It is the kind of anti-utopianism endorsed in the Federalist--a belief in the unperfectability of mankind. Thus the "secret" of Strauss' thought is that there is no secret--politics is not a science to be perfected but a skill or art that must simply be polished, practiced, and, occasionally, reinvented.

6 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

I agree with your assessment. As for Alter's basic argument (or so the review goes) that Strauss was just your basic (Jewish) liberal philosopher who struggled with the influences of the Enlightenment and of religion, I have not read enough to have an opinion. I do believe Strauss was a liberal, but what the review does not mention is that if Strauss thought of 'religion, with its assertion of a different source of truth, as a necessary counterweight to the certitudes of the 18th century,' he thought such a counterweight would apply to the masses only, or as he so fondly put it in "Persecution and the Art of Writing," 'the puppies of [the] race.'

5:23 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I also think that this basic elitism is what many "leftist academics" find fault with, not his "search for truth" or "adherence to classical texts" or "neo-conservative legacy." (These being the kind of interpretations given by Andrew Sullivan and his readers over at his blog.)

5:46 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Lastly, the doomsday scenario I discussed last week seems to be actually happening: we are experiencing a day without politicaltheory.info.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

For what it is worth, here is my evaluation of the Strauss-Neo-con connection:

The Joy of the Coup d'Etat

I used to think that the neo-con cabal that plunged us into the catastrophe of the Iraq War were simply American supremacists. Then I thought with Patrick J. Buchanan that they were Israeli supremacists. But now after having read about the Strauss-neo-con connection, I am inclined to think that they are all Nietzscheans, bent on creating a chaotic geopolitical situation that will give us perpetual strife simply to stave off the banality and contemptuous camplacency of the Last Man that economic globalization will bring. The neo-cons want to honor their great guru Leo Strauss by refuting Kojeve's Hegelianism once and for all, and they can only do this by making History a complete incomprehensible mess. Perhaps, that is why the Bush Adminstration is now considering using the nuclear option against Iran. But more on that later.

In his notorious debate with Kojeve, Strauss argues that Kojeve's universal, homogenous state is nothing other than that of Nietzsche's Last Man, a state that because all man's needs are "reasonably" satisfied is complacent and, hence, banal. There is no longer any strife or struggle which can test the mettle of man and consequently no opportunity for true heroism or nobility. The only thing man can be is a self-satified consumer, and that is pathetically contemptible. Strauss argues that should this state obtain, there is no way people will ever be fully satisfied with this kind of easy-going satisfaction. No, at least some will instead have the sort of nervous breakdown that John Stuart Mill famously had. Strauss writes, "They may be forced into a mere negation of the universal and homogenous state into a negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation. While perhaps doomed of failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man's humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogenous state has become inevitable [What is Political Philosophy, p. 130]."

Well, by the end of the last millenium, we had been told for a decade or more that the end of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism removed the last obstacle in the path of the juggernaut of globalization. Enter the neo-cons with their messianic puppet George W. Bush. Good students of Strauss that they are, they were deeply concerned that that globalization would destroy all noble activity, including the noblest of them all, philosophy. Nobility must have strife. If there is no real strife, then there is no nobility and, consequently, no philosophy. We can't have that! the neo-cons thundered. Our teacher Leo Strauss devoted his life to preservation of philosophy. We can't let Kojeve win. No! And so they came up with the War on Terrorism, a necessarily perpetual war for you can never defeat an ill-defined abstraction. But, of course, that was not enough. No, there had to be real, substantial global instability to match the theoretical instability in their heads. Hence, they planned the invasion of Iraq with no thought whatsoever about the aftermath. Let's just go in and smash things up and see what happens. Let's act like Blonde Beasts, boys. Won't that be fun?

And now, if Sy Hersh is to be believed, the neo-cons are considering going nuclear on Iran. I don't think we will launch a first strike on Iran. No, the neo-cons are too smart to know that they can invent another war so soon after the Iraq fiaso. What I think is happening is the attempt to trigger anarchy. After all, anarchy means more strife, and more strife means more philosophy (at least in a Heraclitean, Nietzschean sense). The neo-cons are trying to be as wreckless with our armed forces as possible in order to push the generals to the tipping point. Right now the retired generals are speaking out, hoping that they can goad the public and the spineless Democrats into action against these whackos. Should that fail, and the neo-cons (if I am right) will hope it does, the active generals may have to take recourse to a military coup d'etat just to prevent the messianic Bush from triggering nuclear Armageddon. A military coup d'etat in the most powerful country on earth would be immensely chaotic to the geopolitical situation and would, therefore, bring the neo-cons great joy.

Nietzsche wrote about a pale criminal who was so sickened by the bored nihilism of middle-class civilization that he had to resort to the joy of the knife. The neo-cons are pale criminals on a geopolitical scale.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Sebonde, if what you say is true, then the Iraq War would be pure philosophy's greatest attempt at politics since Plato (supposedly) went to Syracuse. (How "pure" Plato's thought was is another matter.) But since there are no other precedents for a truly philosophical political program, I'm inclined to say that Iraq happened for the same reasons most wars of American aggression have happened--expansion of power and economic investment. As for Strauss, just to weigh in on this debate later than never, I find his philosophy too anti-materialistic for a truly eager neoconservative audience, and his connection with current administration appointees is intriguing but ultimately a dead end in understanding the neoconservative agenda.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

But the military industrial complex needs ideological cover. The neo-con palavar about freedom supplies this. Also, the neo-cons are too smart not to realize that the maw of the military industrial complex is insatiable, and, thus, they must justify its insatiability to themselves. Ergo, they are probably telling themselves that perpetual strife is not very pleasant but at the very least it keeps history going and thereby perserves philosophy. Evil requires its own delusions to survive.

1:50 PM  

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