Straussians With Nukes

Sometimes I think that the right-wingers are competing to get weirder and weirder, like rock bands appealing for new teenagers by trying to top last year’s acts. But the stuff going on on the Right matters, because they are firmly in charge and have nukes. For an introduction to the kind of thinking the Right is engaged in, Matthew Yglesias writes about the Straussian influence on Bush’s Bioethics Council:

“Simply put, the view is that scientific research holds the promise of radically improving human health and therefore must be stopped.

To be clear, the view is not that scientific research holds the promise of radically improving human health and nevertheless must be stopped because of some other issue (this would be, I take it, the ‘pro-life’ thought on stem cell research). No. The view is that the problem with the research is that it might succeed in letting people live longer.

Now it’s been hypothesized to me that the really really real reason for Gulf War II is that Straussians believe it’s a good thing when lifespans are shorter (because this makes people more religious, which makes them more virtuous) and that therefore war is a good thing per se because it decreases life expectancy.”

This article confirms the above, discussing Bush’s appointments to the Council on Bioethics, headed by University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass. Please read or scan this article to get a sense of the kind of appointments being made by our government.

“A surprising number of the council members, including Kass, are closely associated with the neoconservative religious magazine First Things. [. . .] Leon Kass is a physician and philosopher with a decidedly anti-modernist bent. A disciple of University of Chicago anti-modernist philosopher Leo Strauss, Kass has long believed that the Enlightenment was something of a mistake. In his view, its focus on individual rights and individual conscience undermines the traditional bases for morality.”

So… Straussian philosophy. Before I start – I don’t claim to have particularly studied it, except to scratch the surface. Straussians are basically anti-modern — the Enlightenment brought with it a liberal ideology of social-political progress. Strauss felt this liberalism allowed (or inevitably created) a weak German government that would fall to evil — Nazism.

“The modern world is held to be the deliberate creation (with some unintended consequences) of the modern philosophers — namely, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress. The Enlighteners argued (though still covertly) that instead of hiding philosophy, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy: in particular, by undertaking the “project” of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications — safety, health and wealth — to common men, bribing them into acquiescence to philosophy. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of liberty and equality enabling men to pursue their self-interest. “

One of the points of Straussian philosophy is that there are a special few who are supposed to run the world. And this elite is also the group that will understand “straussian writings” – philosophy written by previous philosophers on two levels, one for the masses and one that the ruling elite will understand. There’s a sort of Calvinist idea here: Only a few people are Chosen to go to Heaven, and they will know who they are — only a few elite people are Chosen to understand the higher-level messages in Straussian writings — and therefore be rulers — and they will know who they are by understanding these messages. Here is a discussion of Straussian philosophy from a far-right viewpoint:

“The key Straussian concept is the Straussian text, which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one (“exoteric”) thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real (“esoteric”) meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men’s attachment to their societies. Ideally, it then offers an alternative based on reason, but understanding the reasoning is difficult and many people who read it will only understand the “calling into question” part and not the latter part that reconstructs ethics. Worse, it is unclear whether philosophy really can construct a rational basis for ethics. Therefore philosophy has a tendency to promote nihilism in mediocre minds, and they must be prevented from being exposed to it. The civil authorities are frequently aware of this, and therefore they persecute and seek to silence philosophers. Strauss shockingly admits, contrary to generations of liberal professors who have taught him as a martyr to the First Amendment, that the prosecution of Socrates was not entirely without point. This honesty about the dangers of philosophy gives Straussian thought a seriousness lacking in much contemporary philosophy; it is also a sign of the conviction that philosophy, contrary to the mythology of our “practical” (though sodden with ideology and quick to take offense at ideas) age, matters.

Strauss not only believed that the great thinkers of the past wrote Straussian texts, he approved of this. It is a kind of class system of the intellect, which mirrors the class systems of rulers and ruled, owners and workers, creators and audiences, which exist in politics, economics, and culture. He views the founding corruption of modern political philosophy, which hundreds of years later bears poisonous fruit in the form of liberal nihilism, to be the attempt to abolish this distinction. It is a kind of Bolshevism of the mind.

Some dispute whether Straussian texts exist. The great medieval Jewish Aristotelian Moses Maimonides admitted writing this way. I can only say that I have found the concept fruitful in my own readings in philosophy. On a more prosaic level, even a courageous editor like my own can’t print certain things, so I certainly write my column in code from time to time, and other writers have told me the same thing.

According to Strauss, Machiavelli is the key turning point that leads to modern political philosophy, and Machiavelli’s sin was to speak esoteric truths openly. He told all within hearing that there is no certain God who punishes wrongdoing; the essence of Machiavellianism is that one can get away with things. Because of this, he turned his back on the Christian virtue that the belief in a retributive God had upheld. Pre-Machiavellian philosophy, be in Greco-Roman or Christian, had taught that the good political order must be based upon human virtues. Machiavelli believed that sufficient virtue was not attainable and therefore taught that the good political order must be based on men as they are, i.e. upon their mediocrity and vices. This is not just realism, or mere cynicism. It amounts to a deliberate choice as to how society should be organized and a decided de-emphasis on personal virtue. It leads to the new discipline of political science, which is concerned with coldly describing men as they actually are, warts and all. It leads ultimately to Immanuel Kant’s statement that,

“We could devise a constitution for a race of devils, if only they were intelligent.”

The ancient view is that this will get you nowhere, because only men with civic virtue will obey a constitution. The modern view leads naturally to value-free social science and social policies that seek to solve social problems through technocratic manipulation that refrains from “imposing value judgments” on the objects of its concern.

The key hidden step in the Machiavellian view, a bold intellectual move that is made logically rigorous and then politically palatable by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, is to define man as outside nature. Strauss sees this as the key to modernity. Man exists in opposition to nature, conquering it to serve his comfort. Nature does not define what is good for man; man does. This view is the basis for the modern penchant to make freedom and comfort (read “prosperity”) the central concerns of political philosophy, whereas the ancients made virtue the center. Once man is outside nature, he has no natural teleology or purpose, and therefore no natural virtues. Since he has no natural purpose, anything that might give him one, like God, is suspect, and thus modernity tends towards atheism. Similarly, man’s duties, as opposed to his rights, drop away, as does his natural sociability. The philosophical price of freedom is purposelessness, which ultimately gives rise to the alienation, anomie, and nihilism of modern life.”

Please read on, and you’ll find:

“In a nutshell, Strauss would lead us back to the Aristotelian conception of man as naturally political. Politics implies natural goods that are prior to human thinking about them. If man is political by nature, the goods of politics also exist by nature. The goods of politics are the ways man must behave to make political community work. If there are natural goods, there is a natural hierarchy of goods, and therefore a natural hierarchy of men, as different men pursue different goods. Civic equality may be salutary for the functioning of society, but men are not truly equal in value. All these things and more follow. Following Strauss’s arguments, it is not hard to realize that much of what conservatives find attractive in society is ultimately premised on philosophy that is pre-modern and to some extent anti-modern. We realize that our America is a modern society but not only a modern society. This alone is worth the price of the Straussian ticket.”

I wonder where I fit in this hierarchy?

I don’t really think there has been an ongoing conspiracy of secret organizations of elites who control the world. I do, however, wonder if those in today’s right-wing movement listened to all the theories and decided, “That would be cool, as long as it’s US doing the controlling,” and got started setting it up.

A friend just said, “It’s a good thing we’re unable to actually do anything about all this stuff, because otherwise they’d shoot us for talking like this.”

More Strauss stuff: Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception, The long reach of Leo Strauss.